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Fiction | The Mercedes by Anna Kavan

Anna Kavan, unknown portrait, and from The London Magazine, February 1970

Anna Kavan (née Helen Woods), perhaps most famous for the psychological, otherworldly fiction of Asylum Piece (1940) and Ice (1967), was described by science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss as “De Quincey’s heir and Kafka’s sister”. The following short story was originally published in The London Magazine in February 1970, just over a year after her death in 1968, and was accompanied by an essay on Kavan written by her close friend and fellow writer Rhys Davies, which is available to read online.

Anna Kavan

The Mercedes

For some reason taxis are always scarce in my district. Late on a wet night, the few there were would certainly be engaged, if their drivers weren’t already sitting comfortably at home in the warm. So I was worried about getting one for M, who’d looked in earlier in the evening on his way to visit a patient. He’d seemed quite happy talking about the wonderful big Mercedes he was going to buy as soon as he had enough money, and the wonderful time we were going to have driving about in it together—which was a semi-serious game we’d been playing for years. Then the clock had struck, and he had suddenly jumped up and said he must go at once, as if the patient couldn’t survive another half-hour without him.

At this point the telephone rang, and it was his wife, sounding annoyed and worried because the patient had rung up to say M hadn’t arrived, and she’d guessed he was with me. She said I ought not to have let him stay because he got tired so easily since his illness, and shouldn’t be out so late. In fact, on such a filthy night, he shouldn’t be out at all, and it would be my fault if he got ill again in consequence. When I asked if she wanted to speak to M, he shook his head violently at the other end of the room, refusing to be involved. I didn’t blame him. It was a relief when the receiver clicked down. The final orders were for him to go home at once, in a taxi, on no account must I let him walk.

‘No taxi,’ he said immediately, when I told him: and he went to the door for his overcoat. I only managed to stop him by getting there first. I knew how he hated being frustrated by practical things, and trying to get taxis from my house was always frustrating, but I said I must have one tonight. Holding on to him with one hand so that he couldn’t slip out, I pulled the curtain back with the other to show him the weather. I was surprised to see how much worse it had got while we’d been talking and taking no notice of it. Sleet was driving across the street, filling its whole width with a whitish blur, hiding the houses on the opposite side. The wind was booming and blowing a gale, exploding against the window as if it meant to burst into the room; the tree outside groaned and creaked and lashed the glass with its branches. It was evident, even to M, that walking was out of the question. He threw himself on to the sofa, and sat there limp, his legs stuck out straight in front of him, looking the picture of gloom, and muttering to himself:

‘Even the weather’s against me…. I can’t let the patient down….’

‘Yvonne says you’re not to worry about the patient but go straight home.’

Still he sat gloomily staring at his shoes, not answering me. After a while, he sighed and murmured, ‘It can’t be helped…’ which was one of his phrases. I always thought all his disaster and disappointments were in it, as well as his courage and everything else. He’d come to live in exile in this country after losing everything in his own, and had had a terrible time, one way and another.

I said, ‘Now I’m going to get you a taxi,’ trying to sound cheerful as if rows of cabs were waiting to be called into the house, although I knew it would be a near-miracle if I got one. Crouching on the floor, far too nervous to sit on a chair, I dialled the taxi rank and prayed for an answer. There wasn’t one, of course. So I kept on dialling different ranks and numbers, getting more and more anxious each time I heard the bell at the other end ringing vacantly in the dark distance.

Behind my back, M kept muttering sadly, ‘If only I had my Mercedes…’ Obviously he was ill and tired, and it struck me for the first time that he’d begun to look old. I could hardly bear it. It seemed so awful that he, who was such a brilliant doctor and so good to his patients, couldn’t afford even a cheap car to take him to them in this ghastly winter, while they were all racing round like maniacs on four wheels. There was nothing on earth I could do about it—except will a taxi to come. And still there was only that empty ringing, as remote and indifferent as if it was coming from outer space. I was concentrating so hard that I didn’t hear him move. But when I looked round he had gone, the door was wide open, his overcoat gone from the hook. I shouted, ‘Wait! Come back” dropped the telephone and dashed after him.

Struggling into his coat as he went down, he was already at the foot of the stairs, and before I could reach him vanished into the street. A great gust of icy wind came charging into the house when he opened the door, nearly blowing me backwards. The light swung round and round crazily, shadows went leaping in all directions, everything was distorted. I don’t know whether I jumped or fell down the last few steps, but somehow I got outside. The wind yelled back at me, tore violently at my hair and clothes, doing its best to force me back indoors. I couldn’t think with all that booming and tearing; and with sleet driving into my eyes I couldn’t see either. Yet I was dimly aware of a strange large shape looming in front of me, impervious to the weather.

The storm ended abruptly. Quite suddenly the wind dropped, the sleet turned to a gentle rain, through which the street lights appeared, quietly shining. M and I were on the pavement together, and the mysterious shape revealed itself as an enormous car standing right in front of my door, as if it belonged there. It looked like an electronic car, brand new and gleaming like ebony, with long, low, graceful lines and slender, thrusting, glittering fins.

M, who was always fascinated by expensive cars, went up to examine it closer. I stood looking on. Now there wasn’t a sound. After all the commotion of wind and sleet, the sudden stillness seemed queer to me, even slightly disturbing, though he didn’t appear to notice. Except for ourselves the short street was deserted, and all the windows were dark. There was traffic in the main road at the front of the hill, quite near us, but passing as if in a silent film. The rain had stopped altogether, leaving the street a black river, while the reflected lights swimming across to glitter much more brightly on the magnificent car.

‘It’s a Mercedes,’ M exclaimed suddenly in a voice of triumph, as if he’d known all along.

I wasn’t exactly surprised myself. But I was thinking more about him. He was smiling, his face was shining and gay in the light, he looked younger and happier than he had for years. How could I have imagined he was looked old? He called out, ‘Come and look,’ but I was too fascinated to move. It was so long since I’d seen that mischievous, gay, twinkling smile of his that I’d almost forgotten it. All at once, I saw that he’d opened the door of the car; or else the car itself had opened it. ‘Come and look’, he repeated, smiling over his shoulder at me. So I went and looked inside the Mercedes with him. The ignition key was there in its place.

It certainly was a marvellous car, a real beauty. I touched the seat, which was covered in some soft precious stuff, mink perhaps, warm, luxurious, smooth as velvet. The instruments on the dashboard sparkled like jewels.

‘Shall I get in?’ M asked, glancing sideways at me with a brilliant smile. His face wore a look I’d forgotten entirely: an adventurous, young, sly, delighted, audacious look which seemed to belong to the dim past when I’d first known him. At this moment, its reappearance was bewildering, startling, it gave me a little shock; which I suppose was why I didn’t see him actually get into the car. But there he was, sitting behind the wheel.

The door was still open. I could have followed him. There was nothing to stop me getting in and sitting beside him. Why did I hesitate? Why was I so terribly nervous? I thought, suppose the owner suddenly comes and finds us? but knew this wasn’t the real reason.

‘He won’t,’ M said, reading my thought. ‘He’s already here. I’m the owner.’ I didn’t feel like smiling, but smiled because he was joking. But was it a joke? Somehow it hardly seemed so. He looked so right, so at home, in the driver’s seat, as if that was his proper place. Still without quite knowing why, I was starting to feel really frightened. If only he’d ever get out of his car and stand on the pavement with me… if only I could just touch him…

He didn’t move. Everything was so quiet, as if the silence was listening. Down in the main road, light traffic kept passing as usual, in full view, but without a sound. My little street held its breath, the house stood watching, attentive to us. I turned my head quickly, and caught the one opposite which has a cross on the roof in the act of moving forward to see us better.

I’d only looked away for a second, but when I turned back to the car the door was shut and I couldn’t see M properly any more. At once I felt terrified, seized the handle, tugged and wrenched it with all my strength, twisted it frantically from side to side. Nothing happened.

‘Open the door! Do get out… please… Don’t sit there any longer, for heaven’s sake! It’s not our Mercedes… You simply must get out!’ Pounding the door with my fists in a panic, I hardly knew what I was saying.

The door didn’t open. But now I could see M again quite clearly. He was looking at me through the windows and smiling. The glass must have shut off his voice, I only heard him say, ‘It can’t be helped…’ The words seemed to come from somewhere a long way off.

Suddenly, to my horror, the car started to move. I sprang to the door again wildly, determined to open it and get in, or else drag him out. Too late. The Mercedes was far out of reach already, my hands only grasped the air. ‘Stop!’ I shouted in desperation. ‘You can’t leave me behind!’ All these years he’d been saying we’d drive off together, I simply couldn’t believe he would go without me. Like a lunatic, I started running faster, while all the time the car was gliding away from me faster and faster as smoothly and silently as water flowing downhill, and just as inevitably. Nothing I could do could possibly stop it; but still I rushed on in pursuit. There wasn’t a sign or a sound from inside it. The street lights fled past like small moons, the houses swung round to watch. Tripping over uneven paving, splashing through puddles, I didn’t look where I was putting my feet, but kept my eyes fixed on the back of the receding car until it reached the main road, where it disappeared instantly among all the others.

I stopped then. What could be more futile than chasing a high-powered car in a street full of speeding traffic? I couldn’t have gone on running, in any case—I had no more breath. Besides, by now I knew it was useless. All my efforts, all my telephoning for taxis, had been for nothing, since M had abandoned me in the end. I knew there was no hope of ever seeing him again. Hadn’t we always said we would never come back?

Words by Anna Kavan.
Originally published February 1970


                                                            Anna Kavan was born in 1901, the only child of a wealthy British family. She began publishing under her married name, Helen Ferguson. During this time, she was introduced to heroin by her tennis coach in order to improve her game. She suffered a breakdown after the end of her second marriage, and was committed to an institution to treat both her depression and her addiction. She published her two best-known novels after this experience, Asylum Piece and Ice, under ‘Anna Kavan’, the name of a character in an earlier novel. She died of heart failure at her home in London in 1968. — Biography from Penguin.

For more information on Anna Kavan, visit the Anna Kavan Society.

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Archive | Poetry | The Wiper by Louis MacNeice


Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) was an Irish poet and playwright, part of WH Auden’s circle, which also included Stephen Spender and Cecil Day-Lewis. He didn’t share the ideological commitments of the group’s other members and his poetry is more detached, favouring understatement over hyperbole, with strong rhythms rather than sharp images rendering it memorable. “The Wiper” was published in The London Magazine in May 1960 along with “Restaurant Car” and “Reflections” and as an effort of his later years shows a mastery of the form, combining mystic elements with references to modern life, in this instance a car journey, to give us a moving meditation on past and future.

First published in the May 1960 issue of The London Magazine (Volume 7, No. 5).

Through purblind night the wiper
Reaps a swathe of water
On the screen; we shudder on
And hardly hold the road,
All we can see a segment
Of blackly shining asphalt
With the wiper moving across it
Clearing, blurring, clearing.

But what to say of the road?
The monotony of its hardly
Visible camber, the mystery
Of its invisible margins,
Will these be always with us,
The night being broken only
By lights that pass or meet us
From others in moving boxes?

Boxes of glass and water,
Upholstered, equipped with dials
Professing to tell the distance
We have gone, the speed we are going,
But not a gauge nor needle
To tell us where we are going
Or when day will come, supposing
This road exists in daytime.

For now we cannot remember
Where we were when it was not
Night, when it was not raining,
Before this car moved forward
And the wiper backward and forward
Lighting so little before us
Of a road that, crouching forward,
We watch move always towards us,

Which through the tiny segment
Cleared and blurred by the wiper
Is sucked in under our wheels
To be spewed behind us and lost
While we, dazzled by darkness,
Haul the black future towards us
Peeling the skin from our hands;
And yet we hold the road.

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Archive | Poetry | Peter Bland


Peter Bland, the New Zealand writer and actor, has written extensively over his long career, and has been lauded with many accolades, among them the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in 2011. He wrote two poems for The London Magazine in 1978, here transcribed in full from our archive for the first time.

First published in the February 1978 edition of The London Magazine (Vol. 17, No. 8)


I’m tired of living in old houses
with their sense of left-over lives.
I’m allergic to their dust. The stuff
suffocates me, gets in my eyes,
drifts through the open pores
of my skin. ‘It’s been
well lived in,’ 
the man said. At that

we should have turned away. Instead
we’re choking… on what?…
of what must have happened here
a thousand times before? We cough
up our own dust with this older muck. It
bloats the vacuum bag and brings us wheezing
down to our married knees. All this
from simple day to day living
ground down finer than air. Time
to be moving on. I want
what’s left of our lives to have
a planetary feel; an earth-
sway where dust won’t settle;
an undertow to every passing sneeze.



You stumble on them looking for the gents
in Stately Homes or old hotels
and it’s always the same tired faces
that look up, mildly surprised
to see you again. Only
the decor changes – an Edwardian
railway carriage, a Ruritanian lodge,
or a long Ops Room from the last war
still smelling of cigars and TNT. It’s
best to get out quick before
the gathering crowds of plainclothes men
identify themselves. (Later, at home,
the phone will ring. Refuse all calls.)
What’s worrying is when, after many years,
your own rooms begin to look like these.


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Fiction | On His Own Ground by Vis Nathan



First published in the December 1976/January 1977 of The London Magazine (Volume 16, No.5)

Gopal entered his cubby-hole surrounded by huge racks bulging with musty files. He removed his cycle clips with a practised flourish and placed them carefully by the inkstand on his table. Then he sat down on his chair, pulling it into a comfortable position. He opened the bottom drawer and pushed into it his lunch box and his flask. He began to hum a few bars of a well-known song from South Indian classical music as he sharpened his pencils, filled his pens and gathered all the implements required for that day’s war with the files. Six puled of them on the table awaited his attention, almost hiding him from anyone who might care to enter his territory. There were three others working beyond the racks in the same room, but they occupied only a quarter of the space he did. Anyone who wanted to see Gopal had to pass four rows of racks on either side and then turn left into his cubby-hole. Gopal was in charge of the revenue files of the past years for the whole district, a Chief Clerical Officer, Grade Three.

He had to work under a light, the windows at his back were blocked by a rack so he could not open them. It would be quite dark if there had not been a light, too hot if there had not been a table-fan perched on a stool beside the table. He worked from the depths of a womb, oblivious of anything that might be outside. Other clerks came to see him occasionally, either for ‘business manoeuvres’ or to hear him hold forth on something. Gopal ventured out sometimes, to go to the lavatory, to smoke a cigarette, sitting on the bench near the pan shop, or to see his immediate boss, Executive Officer (Revenue Section), Grade Two, when he was called, but on the whole he preferred to conduct his business through the messenger. He liked to be in his own territory.

He picked up a file and had begun to study the ramifications of a land dispute when Ponnan, the messenger, loomed over the files on his table.

‘Sir, the egg-eyed one wants the file on the land-tax returns for Tirur Taluk for the whole of this year.’

He handed a note to Gopal. He always read the notes before delivering them. For some reason he found it an amusing diversion and it also made him feel that he too was responsible for what was going on.

‘Ponnan, how many times have I told you not to read my notes!’

Ponnan grinned. He knew Gopal wasn’t angry.

‘So, the egg-eyed one wants the file, eh? Who is he to order me around? Doesn’t he know the procedure? If we wants a file, he should ask Exec. Two. Not me directly. As though I should jump to attention the moment he sneezes! Oh, these new young Assistant Collectors! What sort of training do they give them these days?’

He flipped through the pages of his file, unable to contain his emotion. It seemed like a barrage from a distance, threatening but not yet damaging; it could be though, years of mole-like existence had given him an acute sense of danger.

‘What’s the matter, sir? You look worried.’ Ponnan was always disturbingly direct.

‘I am not!’ Gopal shouted with vehemence.

‘Aren’t you?’ Ponnan grinned again. He was amused by suffering. With one meal a day, hunger nagging him all the time, living in a ramshackle tin-topped hut, he had gone past caring about suffering.

‘I’ll show that brat,’ Gopal gloated over his illusory revenge.

‘What shall I tell him, sir?’

‘Tell him! Here, take this note. The file is tied up with the estimates for next year.’

He scribbled a note to that effect and added as an afterthought, would the Asst. Collector please ask the Exec. Two in future, should he need a file. He chuckled at his own pompous politeness; so there, let him teach the green one a thing or two!

It was difficult to concentrate on his work after this ominous move. It disturbed him. Gopal could not understand why. He had been a clerk for eighteen years, but never once had he felt so threatened. What was the matter with him? For the past month or so, he had seemed to be getting jittery, sometimes he even stared at the files for minutes on end. He was thirty-nine years old, would be forty in three months. Was that it? He was getting old. He would never escape the files now. He glanced over the racks with a feeling that he was trapped; the files, fusty and dog-eared, watched him with malevolent satisfaction. ‘Give in’, they seemed to hiss, ‘it’s no use struggling any more. We’ve almost got you.’

He felt a chill in his heart. Where was the Gopal of college days? He could still hear the burst of applause when he won the 200 metres. He was cheerful, happy-go-lucky and did things with a flourish. Did he not snatch a smile from that black-eyed beauty, to the admiration of his friends when they were girl-watching near the temple? He had felt that surging sensation which washed over everything you saw or did when you were young. The world had seemed a promise and a delight. What went wrong?

Gopal graduated, but he had always been an average student. His enthusiasm for many things could not be trapped for any single-minded purpose. Like all graduates, he had tried many competitive examinations and finally had to hang on to the clerk’s job he had taken while he was doing the exams. Then he married, that was the second stage in the closing circle. You did it because you got bored with disappointments and you needed an outlet for all your pent-up emotions. He really liked his wife; in the early years of marriage he and his wife related to each other so well that everything they felt was tender and spontaneous. But centuries of custom dictating what marriage should be weighed down their relationship. It became such a strain to assert what they felt that they gave in to the demands of custom. Gone was the feeling of love, but there was an immutable bond – wasn’t that what society expected of them? They had three children; as they grew, the circle narrowed.

Still, Gopal was immensely optimistic. He applied for various jobs in the hope that something would turn up. In spite of rejections, he continued it as a habit. He stopped applying only when he had to do so through his own department and his job was threatened. Even this did not dampen his spirits. He entered innumberable lotteries and competitions, hoping he might win. A couple of promotions came his way, for a while he even thought he might escape the files, but his perverseness and his independent spirit did not endear him to his superiors. He got a promotion and was shoved into a cubby-hole to be in charge of the files. Only after he turned thirty-nine did he begin to be afraid.

‘Hello, Gopal.’ Venkat, a clerk from the other side of the racks, came and sat down.

‘What is it?’ Gopal asked petulantly. Venkat was aggrieved.

‘Sorry, did I disturb you?’

‘Go on. Everybody does it anyway.’

‘I came to ask about a problem in this file.’

‘File! File! Why can’t they burn them all? Look at all these! They are growing and growing until one day the whole town will be full of files. The trouble is that nobody throws anything away.’

‘How could you work without the files?’

‘Yes, how could you?’ Gopal mimicked sneeringly.

Venkat didn’t know what had happened to Gopal. He was very generous, usually, in helping others with their problems. He enjoyed solving them, dipping into the bowels of every rack for information. The racks yielded to his deft search while others were easily beaten off. Venkat wondered whether he should stay or go away.

‘What’s the matter, Gopal? You don’t look well.’

‘It is nothing. Just the pressure of work. This egg-eyed one bothers me.’

‘Who? The new Assistant Collector? They say he is strict and very thorough in his work, but he is really a nice man.’

‘Is he? Very thorough, indeed! A man who doesn’t even know the procedure! He asks me for a file!’
‘Perhaps he wanted to save time.’

‘Time! Look at the racks. They go back fifty years, some even to a hundred. Most of them, older than me. Time! If you want to save time, burn them all.’

Venkat couldn’t understand the outburst. He decided to go.

‘Anyway, Gopal, I must go. I’ll come back later. Be careful about that new Assistant Collector. He knows the job, they say.’

‘Does he?’ Venkat left hurriedly.

Gopal had no heart to work at all. He had a presentiment that something was going to happen. He waited there in his womb-like cell for something from outside to come and attack him. For so long he had been immune, no one violated his territory. In the past, all his manoeuvres worked, there was a tacit understanding that he was invulnerable on his own ground; at least, his colleagues had played it that way, but now the unknown might do something. ‘Be careful!’, ‘he knows the job, they say’. He felt weak even before anything happened. What was the matter with him? He writhed in agonised expectation.

He rushed out to the pan shop to smoke a cigarette. That might calm his nerves.

‘What’s the matter, Gopal sir? You seem to be running away from something. Seen a ghost or something?’

The hearty pan shop keeper roared with laughter. He always laughed, tears running down from his eyes.

‘Give me a cigarette,’ Gopal almost gasped, his hand shaking as he held it out to receive the cigarette.

‘Hey, don’t die here! I shall be in the newspapers,’ the pan shop keeper guffawed.

‘Leave me alone.’

‘Ah, something must have happened.’

The pan seller didn’t want to tease Gopal any more.

Gopal lit his cigarette from the burning rope and puffed it nervously. What if the Assistant Collector came down to Gopal’s cubby-hole? He wouldn’t do that. A spasm of defiant feeling almost choked Gopal. He coughed violently, the pan shop keeper watched him now with anxiety, but didn’t say anything. I have my dignity too, haven’t I? Gopal thought. He might be an Assistant Collector, so what? Gopal’s independent spirit soared high for a moment. The sound of an answering salvo, trouncing the enemy, rang in his ears. But the afterthought in his note to the Assistant Collector nagged him. It was leaving a flank open. The cigarette burned the tip of his finger and he shook it off quickly, stamping it out with vehemence.

‘See you later, sir.’ Gopal scuttled away without answering.

Back in his cubby-hole, he picked up the file again and tried to concentrate. He read again and again the same sentence. The land-tax collided with each other, lulling his mind to stillness.

‘Come to us, be one of us!’

He looked around, startled. There was no one there, yet he had clearly heard the words spoken. One of the files loosened itself from a top rack and fell on the table in front of him. Gopal stared at the file in dumb fear. He dared not touch it. The file seemed to quiver with his life, he watched it in horrible fascination. It was the land-tax returns for the year in which he was born. He was sure it moved a little. He pinched himself to see if it was all real and felt the numbness of his skin. The file moved again – he could see it coming towards him. Again. He let out a shriek.

‘Sir, sir, what happened?’

Ponnan hurried in, he was coming to him anyway. Behind him rushed the clerks who worked beyond the racks. Gopal stared at them and nearly choked, trying to bring the words out.

‘You…you…see that file there. It jumped.’

‘Calm down, calm down, Gopal. You look very frightened.’

‘I’m telling the truth!’ Gopal shouted.

‘What is it?’

‘You see that file. It jumped from the rack.’

‘Oh, the file. It must have fallen down.’

‘No, it jumped! Suddenly it came alive and started to move towards me.’

‘Rubbish, Gopal. How can a file move? You are imagining things. Perhaps you are tired.’

‘I’m not tired. I saw it move.’

They stared at the file.

‘It’s not moving now.’

Gopal watched it too, it didn’t move.

‘It didn’t now.’

‘You see, you are imagining things.’


‘Why don’t you go home and have a rest?’

Gopal was less tense now, he even felt somewhat silly.

‘Oh, it’s all right. I didn’t sleep well last night. Perhaps I’m tired. A little coffee will perk me up.’

The clerks went away. Gopal pulled out his flask from the drawer and poured himself a cup of coffee.

‘What is it, Ponnan?’ The coffee gave Gopal a new lease of life. He felt expansive.

‘Here’s a note for you, sir.’ Ponnan handed him the note with unusual solemnity.

Gopal read the note and tapped it reflectively with a pencil. The egg-eyed one wanted the file immediately. Aha, surrender order. Oh no, he wasn’t going to show the white flag. Eighteen years of service, he should be given a little more consideration. The coffee had quickened his nerves. He shouldn’t give in so easily. After all, he was Gopal. He would show him, if he hadn’t bothered to sense it already. How many Assistant Collectors he had seen through! The note clamoured its challenge every time he glanced at it. Hell, he would not take it up. He must preserve his dignity at all costs. He was not yet forty. A sudden surge of emotion flowed through him. He was young again, bristling against a challenge. He looked around the racks for a sign, but the files were mute; their mouldiness announced their very death.

He wrote on a piece of paper that the file was not with him. Perhaps it might be with Exec. Two. If the Asst. Collector so desired, Gopal would get it from Exec. Two as soon as he had finished the work in hand.

‘Here, Ponnan, take it.’

Ponnan received it in stunned silence. He had seen the face of the Assistant Collector when he wrote the note. ‘What, no file?’ he had asked Ponnan. Now Ponnan was going back without the file. It couldn’t be good.

‘Is that all, sir?’ he asked.

‘That is all,’ Gopal answered with a flourish. Ponnan walked away.

In his triumph, Gopal hummed a song softly. He pushed aside the file which had fallen from the rack and began to work, singing lustily. He felt cheerful, his spirits soared. Suddenly he heard rapid footsteps coming between the racks. The young Assistant Collector stood before him, looking angry.

‘Mr Gopal, where is the file?’ he asked quietly, suppressing his anger.

‘Did you see my note?’

‘Of course I did.’

‘I was going to check , as soon as I finished this file.’

‘Don’t bother. I checked just now. It is not with Exec. Two.’

‘Oh, I see.’

‘You knew it wasn’t with him.’

‘I thought so. You needn’t have bothered, sir. I could have checked for you.’

‘Bothered? Why did you tell me the file was with him when you knew it wasn’t?’

‘Just a slip, sir.’

‘Look here, Mr Gopal, I asked for a specific file. You lied to me.’

‘Oh no, sir.’

‘Don’t be stupid, Mr Gopal. I wanted the file urgently. The Collector is waiting for a discussion on it.’

‘I didn’t know that, sir.’

‘Why should you? Produce the file now.’

‘All right, sir. I shall bring it to you.’

‘No, I want it now!’

Gopal winced.

‘I have to search for it, sir. You see, there are so many files here.’

‘Are you so incompetent that you can’t keep the files in order? Why should you be in charge of the files?’

Gopal was stunned, as though he had been hit in the ribs.

‘Come on, get it out for me.’

‘Sir, it was taken out a few days ago. That’s why it wasn’t in the rack.

Gopal smothered his wounded feelings.

‘Where is it, here?’ The Assistant Collector rummaged through piles on the floor, throwing aside the unwanted files.

‘Sir, you’ll mix them all up!’ Gopal cried.

‘They’re in disorder, anyway.’ The Assistant Collector went on scattering the files around.

Gopal, choking on his indignity, pulled out the file from the rack behind his chair and gave it to the Assistant Collector.

‘Here it is, sir!’

‘You were hiding it, were you?’

‘No, sir, I just forgot where it was.’

‘Mr Gopal, this is a serious matter. When I want a file, I want it, do you hear?’

‘Yes, sir.’ His territory was overrun.

‘I don’t like insubordination.’ Insulted on his own ground.

‘You’d better come and see me later. I’m in a hurry now.’

Gopal sat there quivering as a mixture of feelings assaulted him. His wounded dignity was the most painful to bear. The Assistant Collector had come into his lair and attacked him without mercy. Gopal felt as though he had no face, his body felt numb and he seemed about to float away. He stared at the scattered files, they lay there as though the guts of the racks had spilled out. He again felt the presence of life in them. The files seemed to quiver as though they were struggling to become mobile. Suddenly the cubby-hole began to grow warm – a kind of warmth which generated life, a pleasant cloying warmth. The files began to move back and forth, lifting and falling, and soon they started to fly around. One by one at first, then more and more, the files jumped from their racks and flew about. Falling with a thud, rising now, they danced, flew and crawled around. Gopal became lighter and lighter, luxuriating in the warmth of his womb-like room. Then he felt a subtle twinge in his heart. He too began to float and fly around.


Vis Nathan

Two more from ‘Mother Goose’ by Bernard Gutteridge


Two fairytale poems from ‘Mother Goose’ by Bernard Gutteridge with a little twist, first published in The London Magazine in 1971.


She is like the Grimms
And all that evergreen black forest
Of all our childhoods
Warned. The hair drawn back.

The small black ribbon. The small
Black smile
(I can eat them better than
Their mother could’).

And she does.
And eats their



His hands blubbering away
In the empty oak chest.
Victim of a fairy tale,
Wags each cropped wrist.

He can’t even have his
Fingerprints back,
The sucked wart on that thumb
Or his heartline back.

But tomorrow they’ll
Prop up his glass of gin,
The weepy hands. They’ll gristle
Back again.

Do quite remember
He believed the story,
Turned the key quickly,
Dipped in his hands.

sken-1-kopia‘Mother Goose’ poems from the June/July issue from 1971

Transcribed by Anna Červenková


The Mother of the Child in Question by Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing in 1962. Photograph: Stuart Heydinger for the Observer

When Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007 she was the eleventh woman and the oldest person to ever receive the award. The judges marked her out as ‘that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny’. A prelude to these qualities could well be said to appear within the short story ‘The Mother of the Child in Question’ published by The London Magazine in September 1988.

The story follows a social worker who tries to convince a poor Pakistani family to send their disabled daughter to a special school, and acts as an acute illustration of the clash of home and state as both are brought into the confines of a working class sitting room. What Lessing artfully shows in the tale is the conflicted attitude of the social worker towards the maternal love he encounters, a love that is at once unnerving and admirable in its ferocity. Mrs Khan, unable to speak English, gives orders ‘with her eyes’ and mutters in Urdu to her son Hassan who acts as a translator throughout. Both mother and social worker fight with love, reason and conviction. The arguments within the tale are not clear-cut, the answers – and the characters who desire them – are not simple, and it is precisely this ambiguity that makes Lessing’s fiction so intriguing.


High on a walkway connecting two tower blocks Stephen Bentley, social worker, stopped to survey the view. Cement, everywhere he looked. Stained grey piles went up into the sky, and down below lay grey acres where only one person moved among puddles, soft drink cans and bits of damp paper. This was an old man with a stick and a shopping bag. In front of Stephen, horizontally dividing the heavy building from pavement to low cloud, were rows of many-coloured curtains where people kept out of sight. They were probably watching him, but he had his credentials, the file under his arm. The end of this walkway was on the fourth floor. The lift smelled bad: someone had been sick in it. He walked up grey urine-smelling stairs to the eighth floor. Number 15. The very moment he rang, the door was opened by a smiling brown boy. This must be Hassan, the twelve-year-old. His white teeth, his bright blue jersey, the white collar of his shirt, all dazzled, and behind him the small room crammed with furniture was too tidy for a family room, everything just so, polished, shining. Thorough preparations had been made for this visit. In front of a red plush sofa was the oblong of a low table, and on it waited cups, saucers and a sugar bowl full to the brim with a glinting spoon standing upright in it. Hassan sat down on the sofa, smiling hard. Apart from the sofa, there were three chairs, full of shiny cushions. In one of them sat Mrs Khan, a plump pretty lady wearing the outfit Stephen though of as ‘pyjamas’ — trousers and tunic in flowered pink silk. They looked like best clothes, and the ten-year-old girl in the other chair wore blue tunic and trousers, with earrings, bangles and rings. Mother wore a pink gauzy scarf, the child a blue one. These, in Pakistan, would be there ready to be pulled modestly up at the sight of a man, but here they added to the festive atmosphere. Stephen sat down in the empty chair at Mrs Khan’s (Stephen particularly noted) peremp­tory gesture. But she smiled. Hassan smiled and smiled. The little girl had not, it seemed, noticed the visitor, but she smiled too. She was pretty, like a kitten.

‘Where is Mr Khan?’ asked Stephen of Mrs Khan, who nodded commandingly at her son. Hassan at once said, ‘No, he cannot come, he is at work.’

‘But he told me he would be here. I spoke to him on the telephone yesterday.’

Again the mother gave Hassan an order with her eyes, and he said, smiling with all his white teeth, ‘No, he is not here.’

In the file that had the name Shireen Khan on the front, the last note, dated nine months before, said, ‘Father did not keep appoint­ment. His presence essential.’

Mrs Khan said something in a low voice to her son, who allowed the smile to have a rest just as long as it took to fetch a tray with a pot of tea on it, and biscuits, from the sideboard. They must have been watching from the windows and made the tea when they saw him down there, file under his arm. Hassan put the smile back on his face when he sat down again. Mrs Khan poured strong tea. The boy handed Stephen a cup, and the plate of biscuits. Mrs Khan set a cup before her daughter, and counted five biscuits on to a separate plate and put this near the cup. The little girl was smiling at — it seemed — attractive private fancies. Mrs Khan clicked her tongue with annoy­ance and said something to her in Urdu. But Shireen took no notice. She was bursting with some internal merriment, and the result of her mother’s prompting was that she tried to share this with her brother, reaching out to poke him mischievously, and laughing. Hassan could not prevent a real smile at her, tender, warm, charmed. He instantly removed his smile and put back the polite false one.

‘Five,’ said Mrs Khan in English. ‘She can count. Say five, Shireen.’ It was poor English, and she repeated the command in Urdu.

The little girl smiled delightfully and began breaking up the biscuits and eating them.

‘If your husband would agree to it, Shireen could go to the school

we discussed — my colleague William Smith discussed with you —when he came last year. It is a good school. It would cost a little but not much. It is Government-funded but there is a small charge this year. Unfortunately.’

Mrs Khan said something sharp and the boy translated. (His English was fluent.) ‘It is not money. My father has the money.’

‘Then I am sorry but I don’t understand. The school would be good for Shireen.’

Well, within limits. In the file was a medical report, part of which read, ‘The child in question would possibly benefit to a limited extent from special tuition.’

Mrs Khan said something loud and angry. Her aimable face was twisted with anger. Anxiety and anger had become the air in this small overfilled overclean room, and now the little girl’s face was woeful and her lips quivered. Hassan at once put out his hand to her and made soothing noises. Mrs Khan tried simultaneously to smile at the child and show a formal cold face to the intrusive visitor.

Hassan said, ‘My mother says Shireen must go to the big school, Beavertree School.’

‘Is that where you go, Hassan?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘My name is Stephen, Stephen Bentley.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Your father should be here,’ said Stephen, trying not to sound peevish. There was something going on, but he could not make out what. If it wasn’t that two daughters were doing well at school Stephen would have thought perhaps Mr Khan was old-fashioned and didn’t want Shireen educated. (The two girls were both older than Hassan, but being girls did not count. It was the oldest son who had to be here representing the father.) Not that there was any question of ‘educating’ Shireen. So what was it? Certainly he had sounded per-functory yesterday on the telephone, agreeing to be here today.

Mrs Khan now took out a child’s picture book she had put down the side of the armchair for this very moment, and held it in front of Shireen. It was a brightly-coloured hook, for a three-year-old perhaps. Shireen smiled at it in a vacant willing way. Mrs Khan turned the big pages, frowning and nodding encouragingly at Shireen. Then she made herself smile. The boy was smiling away like anything. Shireen was happy and smiling away like anything. Shireen was happy and smiling.

‘Look,’ said Stephen, smiling but desperate, ‘I’m not saying that Shireen will learn to read well, or anything like that, but . . .’

At this Mrs Khan slammed the book shut and faced him. No smiles. A proud, cold, stubborn woman, eyes flashing, she demolished him in Urdu.

Hassan translated the long tirade thus, ‘My mother says Shireen must go to the big school with the rest of us.’

‘But Mrs Khan, she can’t go to the big school. How can she?’ As Mrs Khan did not seem to have taken this in, he addressed the question again to Hassan. ‘How can she go to the big school? It’s not possible!’

Hassan’s smile was wan, and Stephen could swear there were tears in his eyes. But he turned his face away.

Another angry flood from Mrs Khan, but Hassan did not interpret. He sat silent and looked sombrely at the chuckling and delighted little girl who was stirring biscuit crumbs around her plate with her finger. Mrs Khan got up, full of imperious anger, pulled Shireen up from her chair, and went stormily out of the room, tugging the child after her by the hand. Stephen could hear her exclaiming and sighing and moving around the next room, and addressing alternately admonishing and tender remarks to the child. Then she wept loudly.    Hassan said, ‘Excuse me, sir, but I must go to my school. I asked permission to be here, and my teacher said yes, but I must go back quickly.’

‘Did your father tell you to be here?’

Hassan hesitated. ‘No, sir. My mother said I must be here.’ For the first time Hassan was really looking at him. It even seemed that he might say something, explain . . . His eyes were full of a plea. For understanding? There was pride there, hurt. ‘Thank you for staying to interpret, Hassan,’ said the social worker. ‘I wish I could speak to your father . . .’

‘Excuse me, excuse me,’ said Hassan, and went running out. Stephen called, ‘Goodbye Mrs Khan,’ got no reply, and followed the boy. Along the dismal, stained and smelly corridors. Down the grey cement stairs. On to the walkway. A wind was blowing, fresh and strong. He looked down and saw Hassan four stories below, a small urgent figure racing across the cement, leaping puddles, kicking bits of paper. He reached the street and vanished. He was running from a situation he hated: his whole body shouted it. What on earth . . . Just what was all that about?

And then Stephen understood. Suddenly. Just like that. But he couldn’t believe it. But yes, he had to believe it. No, it wasn’t possible . . .

Not impossible. It was true.

Mrs Khan did not know that Shireen was ‘subnormal’ as the medi­cal record put it. She was not going to admit it. Although she had two normal sons and two normal daughters, all doing well at school, and she knew what normal bright children were like, she was not going to make the comparison. For her, Shireen was normal. No good saying this was impossible. (For Stephen was muttering, ‘No, it simply isn’t on, it’s crazy.’) Anyway, he found these ‘impossibilities’ in his work every day. A rich and various lunacy inspired the human race and you could almost say the greater part of his work was dealing with this lunacy.

Stephen stood clutching the balustrade and gripping the file, because the wind was swirling noisily around the high walkway. His eyes were shut because he was examining in his mind’s eye the picture of Mrs Khan’s face, that proud, cold, refusing look. So would a woman look while her husband shouted at her, ‘You stupid woman, she can’t go to the big school with the others, why are you so stubborn? Do I have to explain it to you again?’ She must have confronted her husband with this look and her silence a hundred times! And so he had not turned up for the appointment, or for the other appointment, because he knew it was no good. And he didn’t want to have to say to some social worker, ‘My wife’s a fine woman, but she has this little peculiarity!’ And Hassan wasn’t going to say, ‘You see, sir, there’s a little problem with my mother.’

Stephen, eyes still shut, went on replaying what he had seen in that room: the tenderness on Mrs Khan’s face for her afflicted child, the smile on the boy’s face, the real, warm, affectionate smile, at his sister. The little girl was swaddled in their tenderness, the family adored her; what was she going to learn at the special school better than she was getting from her family?

Stephen found he was filling with emotions that threatened to lift him off the walkway with the wind and float him off into the sky like a balloon. He wanted to laugh, or clap his hands, or sing with exhilara­tion. That woman, that mother, would not admit her little girl was simple. She just wouldn’t agree to it! Why, it was a wonderful thing, a miracle! ‘Good for you, Mrs Khan,’ said Stephen Bentley opening his eyes, looking at the curtained windows four floors above him where he had no doubt Mrs Khan was watching him, proud she had won yet another victory against those busybodies who would class her Shireen as stupid.

‘Bloody marvellous,’ shouted the social worker into the wind. He opened his file against his knee then and there and wrote, ‘Father did not turn up as arranged. His presence essential.’ The date. His name.

AugSept 1988 cover



This story first appeared in The London Magazine in September 1988 alongside poetry by Sean O’Brien and Simon Armitage among others.

It is reproduced here with an introduction by Thea Hawlin.

The Wheelbarrow by V. S. Pritchett


In August 1960 The London Magazine published V. S. Pritchett’s short story ‘The Wheelbarrow’ alongside four poems by Derek Walcott and reviews by Louis MacNeice, Roy Fuller and Frank Kermode. Pritchett, himself an avid short story writer, professed that to write a short story ‘is exquisitely difficult’ yet – as his word choice suggests – it was also one of his favourite forms to practice. In fact, when interviewed by The Paris Review Pritchett spoke openly of his preference for short fiction:

The short story appealed to me straight away because of its shortness, and I preferred it to the novel. It represents a certain vision of reality that consists of isolating the incident. The great thing about the short story is the detail, not the plot. The plot is useful, but only for supplying the sort of detail that is not descriptive but which pushes the action forward. Many critics have noticed this about my stories.

At the start of the new millennium the Royal Society of Literature founded The V.S. Pritchett Memorial Prize to commemorate the centenary of the author who was widely regarded as one of the finest English short-story writers of the 20th century. The prize is awarded to the best unpublished short story of the year.

The Wheelbarrow by V. S. Pritchett in The London Magazine.
The Wheelbarrow by V. S. Pritchett in The London Magazine.

Tonight the RSL celebrate the presentation of the annual prize with the judges who will discuss the complexities, the wonders, the highs and the lows of writing short fiction. This year’s judges include Somerset Maugham Award winner Adam Mars-Jones, Dylan Thomas Award winner Rose Tremain as well as editor Philip Hensher who has spent the last two years surrounded by short fiction in his quest to curate The Penguin Book of the British Short Story, published just last month.

Eudora Welty went as far to say that ‘Any Pritchett story is all of it alight and busy at once, like a well-going fire. Wasteless and at the same time well-fed, it shoots up in flame from its own spark like a poem or a magic trick, self-consuming, with nothing left over. He is one of the great pleasure-givers in our language’. Read an exclusive extract from ‘The Wheelbarrow’ as it first appeared in The London Magazine below:

She did not hear him. Her face had drained of waking light. She had entered blindly into a dream in which she could hardly drag herself along. She was looking painfully through the album, rocking her head slowly from side to side, her mouth opening a little and closing on the point of speech, a shoulder rising as if she had been hurt, and her back moving and saying as she felt the clasp of the past like hands on her. She was looking at ten forgotten years of her life, her own life, not her family’s, and she did not laugh when she saw the skirts too long, the top-heavy hats hiding the eyes, her face too full and fat, her plainness so sullen, her prettiness too open-mouthed and loud, her look too grossly shy. In this one, sitting at the cafe table by the lake when she was nineteen, she looked masterful and at least forty. In this garden picture she was theatrically fancying herself as an ancient Greek in what looked like a night-gown! One of her big toes, she noticed, turned up comically in the sandal she was wearing. Here on a rock by the sea, in a bathing dress, she had got so thin again — that was her marriage — and look at her hair! This picture of the girl on skis, sharp-faced, the eyes narrowed —who was that? Herself — yet how could she have looked like that! But she smiled a little at last at the people she had forgotten. This man with the crinkled fair hair, a German — how mad she had been about him. But what pierced her was that in each picture of herself she was just out of reach, flashing and yet dead; and that really it was the things that burned in the light of permanence — the chairs, the tables, the trees, the car outside the cafe, the motor launch on the lake. These blinked and glittered. They had lasted and were ageless, untouched by time, and she was not.

For more information about the event visit The Royal Society of Literature website here

By Thea Hawlin

Two Wives and a Widow by Angela Carter


From The London Magazine March 1966

Two Wives and a Widow
A modern version from the Middle Scots of William Dunbar

If one night in the year is romantic,
that night is Midsummer’s Eve. Such a night, it was…
about midnight, I went out by myself and came
to a flower garden behind a hawthorn hedge. On a bough,
this crazy bird was splitting its sides,
singing. And such a scent of flowers.
The grass wet with dew, the nightingales shouting.
A night for lovers. Alone as I was,
lonely, I was. Then I heard voices,
loud, laughing voices talking in the garden.
It was a party. Whose party? So I climbed into the hedge
(though the thorns hurt dreadfully) and peered
through the branches.
—————- I saw three women
with flowers in their long, yellow hair, loose hair
hanging over their shoulders. They smoothed their green dresses
with long, white fingers—such beautiful women,
such sweet and gentle faces. Three human flowers
among the roses, the lilies. Two were married, I knew them—
respectable, fashionable. The other a widow.
They had a table in front of them,
with bottles and glasses,
they sat talking and drinking. And the more they drank,
the more they talked.
They talked freely.
—————- Yes, freely.

‘Now,’ said the widow, ‘we’re all girls together.
Let’s play the truth game, nothing
but the truth. About husbands, our husbands,
and marriage.
—————- Both of you
married out of the schoolroom; any regrets?
Or did you put away pleasure
with your wedding dresses, find you’d eaten it up
with the wedding cake and not a crumb left?
What about other men?
Would you choose different if you had the chance?
And how about
the ” ’til death do us part” bit?’

One woman, elegant, she was, refined, said :
`Marriage !’ and she spat.
`They call it blessed but I say it’s hell!
I’d leave him tomorrow, if I had the chance!
A change is as good as a rest, they say;
you certainly need a rest from marriage.
—————- Why should it
last more than a year?
Why should two people stay
tied together when all the time they pull
—————- in different ways?
You know the old story—how the birds
pick a new friend each year.
The birds know the score !
—————- Us girls
would be in clover if we could have
a nice new boyfriend any time we liked
—————- and send the ones
who didn’t come up to scratch packing
wit h a kick in the backside!
Oh, how I’d dress tip
and go alit and about, theatres, concerts, parties,

peacocking about, showing myself off
where all die young men were. I’d shop around
for someone to keep me warm at nights
—————- and then go window-shopping
for next year’s boy. And he could stand in
on the current one’s off-nights, when he couldn’t
make it. I’d go for young boys, pretty boys,
but—you understand—capable. I’d gobble them all up,
bones and all.

I’m tied to a shadow, a worm, a blind old man
so shagged out he can’t do anything but talk. He’s nothing
but a bagful’ of snot.
He can’t even keep his trousers clean. He’s always
scratching himself, scratching everywhere, no shame –
it’s disgusting.
I could burst into tears when he kisses me.
His five o’clock shadow bristles like pig-hide (but its
the only thing about him that can stand up to attention—
if you get my meaning.)
—————- He’s always talking-
oh, he can jabber away all night. But when we get down to it,
it’s a fiasco. When he gets hold of me, it’s as bad
as if some nigger bastard were jumping on me.
But I can’t get away from him.
—————- Christ!
He’s got some horrible habits,
the dirty old devil.
When he starts smirking with the love-light in his eyes
(he’s got big sores all round his eyes,
they weep with pus) I could vomit all over him.
He grins and fidgets away
like a poxed old cart-horse sniffing after the mares.
But when that doddering old fool fancies a bit,
then I really get on my high horse, I do.
He can never get one hand fumbling up between my legs without putting the other in his pocket.
Though he’s never a bit of good to me in bed, I get what satisfaction I can from his cheque-book,
—————- the morning after.
Even if he’s mad for it,
I won’t let him near me until he promises me a present—
a nice silk scarf, or a pretty new dress, or maybe a ring.
Or else he’s got to go and whistle for it.
But in spite of it all, he’s a bad bargain;
he always botches the job.

He’s jealous, too, and spiteful. He’s always on the watch
in case I’m getting up to mischief on the sly.
He’s been randy enough in his time, he knows all the tricks.
And he’s dying to catch me out in one of them.
He knows all right
that youth calls to youth (as they say)—
and I could rub up against him for a year and a day
and never come.

Pray God you girls don’t get a husband like mine!’

How they all laughed when she finished,
and had another round of drinks.
The widow wiped her mouth and said to the other woman,
`How about you? How do you get on? Don’t
spare us the gory details!
And I’ll into the witness box after you
and tell all.’

`Now you just keep quiet about my affairs,’ said the second,
`not a word to a soul ! Thank God, no eavesdroppers.
Out with all the poison, it’ll do me good.
He’s a drag, a slag, a nothing, my husband.
I hate him. Yes, truly hate him.
Oh, he’s young, yes, and handsome, yes—
and he used to be a great one for women, always
rolling about in some tart’s bed. But that was
before I knew him.
—————- And the consequence was,
he’s sucked dry!
His thing is useless, worn out,
like an old boot that’s been walked to death.
Oh, we’ve been to all the doctors, massage, pills, hormones,
psychoanalysis, even—but no joy.
And would you believe it, he still tries it on!
I’ve even found him trying to screw some pick-up
in my own bed.

Not that he’s got a chance. But he dresses so nicely, he’s
got such a way with him, a real ladies’ man—you’d think
he’d be at it all the time. He’s always bragging
how he can make a girl come ten times without stopping.
Words, all words.
—————- He’s like a dog
who can’t stop sniffing the bushes, cocking
his leg though he doesn’t want a pee.
But, as I said, he’s handsome. Tall, dark and handsome—
dreamy. To look at.
When we got married and me so young, I thought
I’d got a gem, a jewel—but he turned out
just so much shining rubbish.

—————- Yes, I remember
what they say about the birds choosing new mates
every year, on Valentine’s day, isn’t it pretty.
If I could do like them, I wouldn’t wait
until February—I’d have my legs round a new man’s waist
and who cares what the neighbours say?

It was my family pushed me into it, damn them all—
and me so innocent, eager
for my pleasure (who isn’t? that’s
human nature !) I can’t sleep
for brooding. Sometimes I cry.
Then he takes me in his arms (and, oh God, I can’t help but feel
his flabby prick !) and he says: “Poor little love!
Can’t she sleep?” I’m scared he’ll try
something—you know—unnatural if all else fails
so I say, “No, darling, don’t touch,
I’ve got the heartburn.”
—————- Too true.
There’s a fire in my heart.
But I’ve got to grin and bear it although I can’t stand him.

The girl who’d suit him is one of the flinching kind
who’s scared of it, thinks it hurts
like Mummy told her. She’d never have a moment’s worry!
Well, I wish he’d married a girl like that,
who’d fancy no more than a bit of touching up now and then,
and I could climb into bed with some husky brute!’

And when she finished, once more the women laughed,
drowning their sorrows among the green leaves.
‘My turn for true confessions,’ said the widow.
‘Now you girls listen to me
and I’ll tell you how to handle a man.
—————- I must say,
I was always a bit of a one. But I knew how to hide it!
They always thought I was the sort of girl you’d marry,
you know what I mean ! A nice girl, homely.
The fools!
—————- You take my advice.
Keep your noses clean. Play the “little woman”.
Do what you’re told, don’t raise your voice, keep
your thoughts to yourself and you can rule your man
with a rod of iron! You can make his life misery
and he’ll love you all the more.
And keep up appearances, dress well—it doesn’t cost anything,
your husband’ll foot the bill.

I’ve had two husbands and they both loved me.
Though I despised them, they never knew it.

The first had one foot in the grave. Old Father Time I called him.
Senile decay personified. He’d hawk and spit everywhere,
no control. But he never knew what I was thinking.
I was always kissing him, cuddling him, rubbing
ointment into his rheumatics, combing his hair (what was left
of it) and all the time
I’d be taking the piss out of him on the quiet.
I used to have a good laugh about it
behind his back. No fool
like an old fool. He thought I stroked his wrinkles
out of love.

—————- Well, I had my bit of love.
He knew how to keep his mouth shut, too.
And when things got too rough with the old man,
there was always my bit of comfort, on the side.
I was clever. I had my cake and ate it too.
And my husband even thought he’d fathered
—————- my little boy.

After him, I married into trade.
He was middle-aged, middling height—everything middling.
Nothing exceptional about him except his money and I soon got my hands on
I threw myself away on him, really; and never let him
forget it.
—————- I pounced on every dropped ‘h’;
he had a good talking to every time
he said ‘serviette’ or belched in company. Common, he was.
I used to say : “What else can you expect
from a counter-jumper?”

—————- I’d buried my nice ways
with my first husband. I’d talk a lot about my first—
that used to get him down. I told him straight out
what a favour I’d done him by marrying him,
only taken him on
—————- out of the kindness of my heart.
I had a new line, you see, and he fell for it.
He was right under my thumb.
He’d do anything to please me, fetching and carrying—
but he did nothing right.
—————- It’s a funny thing, though,
I’d been quite fond of him when we were courting.
I was the lord and master; I ran the show.
And I despised him for letting me—fancy
being under a woman’s thumb like that!
How could I respect him?
But I never let go at him completely till I’d got my children
named as his heirs, legally, in writing,
and his own kids by his other wife heirs
to damn all.

—————- After that, I ran him a race!
I even made him stay at home and keep house
and I took over his business.
He was a laughing stock.
He thought he’d try and buy me off
with all sorts of presents, Paris frocks,
scent, jewellery—nothing but the best.
I never said no. “Tak’ all, gie nowt” as they say up North;
I’d get geared up like a model in the clothes he paid for
and go out looking for new lovers—
—————- and I found them.

When I was in bed with him, I’d
pretend it was some other man thrusting away inside.
what fun could it have been? with him?
He was never much cop.

Well, he’s dead and rotten now
and I can enjoy myself quietly, in my own way.
—————- The world thinks
I’m grieving, still. All in black, pale but interesting,
men find me . . . disturbing. I’m giving piety a whirl.
I go to church. I hide behind my prayerbook
and peck over the top at all the nice young men
—————- and they get the message
as often as not.
If a friend of my husband’s sees me, I squeeze out a tear or two.
How sorry they are for me! “You can see
how much she feels it.” I like
to keep things looking proper.

That’s the secret—keep things looking proper.
Keep our own council, be circumspect.

—————- I’ve a boyfriend on the quiet
to cheer up a poor widow, yet all the county
thinks I’m a good woman, isn’t it marvellous?
—————- But the best of all
is at parties.
—————- They come flocking round me,
I’m a prize, a fine catch.
They talk so well, bring me little gifts,
make speeches, flatter me, here a kiss, there—
some of them even have the nerve,
the wicked things,
to shove themselves, stiff as a board, into my hand!
or maybe I feel it pressing against my back …
I’m a merciful woman, I’m kind; I don’t like to cause pain.
I pinch the ones next to me, just in fun,
lean hard on the one behind, play
footsy with another
and smile at the ones too far away for anything else.
—————- A bit of encouragement
doesn’t do any harm.
Take one, take all—why not? I’m my own mistress.
I’d be rude to say no.

So that’s the story of my life and you pay heed to the moral!’

The women said she was such a good teacher; they would
do as she said, in future. Sweetly, prudently,
they’d betray their husbands, Judas-like kissing, caressing,
waiting for widowhood.
Meanwhile, how dry their throats were! So they drank up.

Day dawned after their pleasant night. A lark singing,
a soft, fresh, melting morning, the mist dissolving.
The fields breathed clover, a skyfull of birds chorussing
for joy. The scent of grass, the sound
of the streams running. Clear, lovely morning—
it brings back hope, even to the saddest.

Bedtime for the elegant ladies. Home, they went,
through the flowers, yawning, and I
sat down to report their talking, as you have heard it.
Dear reader, let me put it to you.
Which of these women would you choose for your woman
if you should marry one of them?


In a burst of creativity between the years of 1963 and 1966, Angela Carter, more usually known as a novelist, essayist and short story writer, composed much of the poetry which appears in the new volume Unicorn. Collected for the first time by Rosemary Hill, these five poems contain the seeds of what would characterise her later work; a subversive use of folk and fairy tale coloured by a wickedly funny sense of humour. The London Magazine originally published ‘Two Wives and a Widow’, which appears in Unicorn, in March 1966, during the most prolific period of Carter’s poetic inspiration.

Unicorn: the poetry of Angel Carter is published on the 5th November by Profile Books


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