Saturday, November 18, 2006

To the women of the Merrie England coffee houses, Huddersfield

O women of the Merrie England Coffee Houses, Huddersfield,
when I break sweat just thinking about hard work, I think about you.
Nowhere to hide behind that counter, nowhere to shirk.
I’m watching you right now bumping and grinding hip to hip,
I’m noting your scrubbed, pink hands in the cabinet of fancy cakes,
loose and quick among the lemon meringues and cream puffs
and custard tarts, darting and brushing like carp in a glass tank.

O women, the soles of your feet on fire in your sensible shoes,
your fingers aflame, spitting and hissing under the grill.
You, madam, by the cauldron of soup – you didn’t hassle us,
just wiped the crumbs from under our genius poems,
me and the boy Smith, one toasted teacake between us,
eking it out though the cold afternoons, our early drafts
hallmarked and franked with rings of coffee and tea.

Women of the Merrie England, under those scarlet aprons are you
naked? Are you nude? Miss July traps a swarm of steam in a jug
as a pearl of sweat rolls from the upper delta of her open neck
to where Christ crucified bobs and twists on a gold chain.
Miss November gives the kiss of life to a Silk Cut by the fire escape.
Miss April, pass me the key to the toilets, please,
I won’t violate your paintwork, desecrate the back of the door

with crude anatomical shapes or the names of speedway stars.
I’m no closet queen in search of a glory hole for gay sex,
no smack-head needing a cubby hole to shoot up –
one glass of your phosphorescing, radio-active orange crush
was always enough for me and the boy Smith, his mother
asleep at the wheel on the long drive back from Wales,
the air-bag not invented yet – just a bubble in somebody’s dream.

Does he pay you a pittance in groats, King Henry, stuffing his face
with hare and swan, his beard died red with venison blood
and pinned with the fiddling bones of partridge and quail,
while you, O women of the Merrie England, his maids,
swab the greasy tiles with a bucket of rain and a bald mop
or check for counterfeit tenners under the ultra violet light –
A tenner! – still two hours hard graft at the minimum wage.

Don’t let catering margarine ease off your eternity rings.
Don’t lose your marriages down the waste-disposal pipe.
Hang on to your husbands and friends – no sugar daddies or lovers
or cafetières for you, O women of the Merrie England,
no camomile or Earl Grey, just take-it-or-leave-it ground or char
served in the time-bitten cups my grandmother sipped from,
hooking the milky membrane aside with a spoon, watching it reform.

I’ve seen you nudging and winking. Look who just dropped in, you
The Man Who Fell To Earth, wanting tea for one and the soup of
the day.
I take the window seat and gawp at the steeplejacks: all gone –
Kendall’s, the Coach House, Leeds Road, The White Lion and the
But you, under the mock Tudor beams, under the fake shields,
under the falsified coats of arms, you go on, you go on,
O women of the Merrie England, O mothers of Huddersfield, O

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