Five Prose Poems
I don't know why but before I returned to my room it hit me that at some point during the previous evening I had rashly agreed to audition for my friend Yasmina's new production of King Lear. I'm no leading man, and neither am I as young as I once was, so the Fool is the perfect role for me. At least, that's how I convinced myself to accept it when she offered it to me. 'We'll be in touch,' she said after the audition. 'That's great,' I said, 'when do rehearsals start?' But she had already left the room. Now I come to think of it, I haven't been on stage for more than thirty years, and I'm petrified that I won't be able to learn the lines. I'm so worried that, as I passed a large pot in the lobby, I had to let go a small amount of vomit into the compost surrounding the base of a lovely variegated snake plant. I straightened myself up. 'I don't think anybody saw you.' I looked behind me. Two young boys wearing the uniforms of Scouts were crouching down. 'I think you got away with it,' the second boy said. 'We have dreams like that, too,' the first boy said. 'You do?' I asked rather too plaintively. They looked at each other with a creeping contempt for me. 'How do they end?' I said. 'They never end, you fool,' the first said. They both began to giggle. 'Except in death,' the second said, as if completing an old Music Hall routine. 'Will I survive?' I said. 'How long is the run?' the first said. 'We open in Swindon for a week, and then go out on tour for two months.' 'You won't make the opening night,' the second said. 'Would you like us to clean your car?' the first said. They had been so helpful that I didn't want to tell them I had no car. 'Yes, please' I said. 'Which one is it?' the second said. 'It's the red Ford Fiesta,' I said. They picked up their buckets and sponges and zigzagged out through the lobby, being careful to keep behind each plant pot and comfy chair that lined the route.
I must have dropped off after brushing my teeth because my mouth and chin were covered in a dry white film. The bed hadn't yet been made, so I figured the rustling sound in the bathroom was the chambermaid. I didn't want to disturb her, so I poured a little water from a plastic bottle of Evian into my hand and wiped my face clean. 'In here, Mark,' a man's voice called. 'Now you're awake, can you bring me a towel?' he said. There were three towels of differing sizes on the chair. He sounded like a big man, so I picked up the largest, pushed the door open ajar staying well to the side so that I couldn't see him or what he was doing, and held the towel out as far as I could. 'What's wrong? You've seen it all before,' he laughed, taking the towel from me. I looked around the room and could see none of my own clothes or possessions, nor my travelling bag. There was, however, a pile of name tags on the desk. I flicked through them quickly: Elias, Changying, Wendy, Sasha, du Plessis, Concordia, Bob Jennings, Graeme, von Himmel, Kingsley, Adedayo, Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, Steve from Accounts, Jenny…There were dozens. I stuffed five or six into my pocket and left the room as quickly as possible, though I had somehow picked up a slight hamstring strain which impeded my progress. It felt good to be in the corridor. It felt like a new start.
I wasn't quite sure where I was going, but two young men in blue suits waved me into a room marked 'Conference 3'. The lights were off and a grainy black-and-white film played on a screen made from two professional spinning poles and a slightly soiled bedsheet strung between them, fixed with Sellotape. It wasn't very professional. There were plenty of seats available. 'The Taiwanese delegation are here this morning, so the Chinese have refused their invitation,' one of the young men in a blue suit whispered to me. I made my way to an aisle seat about three-quarters of the way from the front and sat next to a man who smelled of tobacco and whisky. He looked very happy. In fact, as I surveyed the room in the half-light, he looked like the happiest man alive. He offered me a stick of chewing gum. 'You're going to need this,' he said. I wondered what he meant, but then I looked at the screen. Somebody was throwing an object about the size of a cat into a river. A jump cut took us to two people who sat at a picnic table talking without much purpose. A dirty little vagabond appeared and indulged in feeble hoodwinkery. One of the two characters left for a computer programming class. 'Here, this is the bit you'll not be happy about,' the man said. The camera switched to the lobby. 'You better give me that gum,' I said. 'I could offer you a little word of warning, if you want it,' he said. 'Go ahead,' I said.' 'The camera adds ten pounds.' I left before the end. There's nothing to be gained by watching an inflated version of yourself throwing up in a plant pot.
It was barely an hour since breakfast and already I'd seen enough to know that love was a missing delegate, lost somewhere out there on the motorway. Lost love has neither a map nor a mobile phone. There's no way of knowing when they will arrive, nor if we'll recognise them when they do. We could both check-in at the same time, take adjoining rooms on the eighth floor, ring Reception to order special services after midnight, take our dogs for a walk in the same city centre park, and never so much as nod a silent 'Good Morning' to each other. The lack of such Dickensian coincidences would have tickled us, for sure, during our undergraduate years when reading was never pleasurable, merely a means of displaying our skill at citing literary sources with an accurate bibliographical reference. I was exhausted. Luckily, I overheard a small group of people who had just flown in from Qatar say there were six break out rooms in the south wing of the Ground Floor. I asked one of them which way was south. He looked at my name tag. 'Well, Tom, that all depends on which way is north, doesn't it?' Such binary choices are how I got into this mess in the first place, but I decided not to share this with him. 'Search for lichen, Tom. Search for lichen.' I knew at that moment I would never find the break out rooms.
Helpless and Afraid
There was nobody on the desk. A distressed young woman was trying to get somebody's attention. 'I want to check-in', she said quietly and repeatedly to herself. She began to sway backwards and forwards, then from side to side. Her rocking began to make me a little giddy. 'Why don't you help her?' the man beside me said. He had a silk handkerchief in the top pocket of his suit jacket. 'Why don't you?' I said. We both stood as still as can be while this unnerving spectacle unfolded before us. We were so still, that when the young woman turned to us for support, she couldn't see us. We had become invisible.
Mark Russell's publications include Shopping for Punks (Hesterglock), Spearmint & Rescue (Pindrop), and ا (the book of seals) (Red Ceilings). Other poems have appeared in Shearsman, Tears in the Fence, Molly Bloom, The Scores, Gutter, and elsewhere.