Andrea Porter on trying not to be seen

Dementia Perpetua
(i.m  M.A.P)

If you keep looking down they can’t see you. I don’t want to catch their eye again. It’s like playing Peep-O with a baby, if they can’t see your face it’s as if you are gone. They can read your mind. I’ve seen them moving. The Virgin’s eyes have been following me ever since I came in. I can hear her blue skirts rustling. You could hear them coming down the corridor, that swish and some had squeaky shoes. We thought they oiled their shoes sometimes so they could creep up on you and catch you cheating in tests or talking.
Christ is shifting on the cross, cramps in his arms and blood that he can’t wipe from his eyes. The Virgin’s watching me and him. Must be hard on his feet, those nails. They are made out of plaster but they have a secret life, every object has a secret life but we don’t watch them hard enough to see it. They are just about to move, say something and we get distracted. I’ve been listening and looking harder these days. Those meerkats on the television know it. They stick up their heads and you can see every bit of them concentrating, listening and watching.
We’re all animals, we’ve just lost the knack of how to do it, watching for secret lives. These people are all watching me too quickly and muttering. I could be plaster and it would all be the same to them. One of them is grabbing my hand and pumping it. Peace be with you, she says. She has twitched and fidgeted for hours beside me, she wouldn’t know peace if it came up and bit her on the arse.

It’s dark outside and they’ve put the lights on. There are corners where it doesn’t reach and I’m trying not to look into the dark corners in case the figures have scrambled down. I’ll look up and Christ will suddenly stick his face right into mine, that big bleeding face, and he’ll know what I’ve been thinking. The Virgin will rattle her rosary and get out the cane. Sister Perpetua keeps hers in a bucket of water to make it bend more. It stings more that way. They are made out of willow, weeping willow, going back to the water. The canes have a secret life. They should have been baskets or bent to make picnic hampers for posh people. Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard should take them on picnics and sit on tartan rugs and drink champagne.
The wooden figures on the Stations of the Cross wanted to be tables and chairs or doors. Sister Perpetua wanted to be married to a farmer with eight strapping boys but they gave her another secret life. I should watch her more carefully. She could hitch up her plaster skirts, get down from up there and whisper in my ear. You’re heading right to hell, Joyce Bull because I never had a fat farmer husband and rosy cheeked babies. It will be out in the open then, her secret life, skinny and raw from lack of fresh air and sunlight. She’ll hand me a willow shopping basket to put my devil in. That cane is tucked behind her back, dripping fat tears on the tiles.

*Andrea Porter has a collection out with Salt Publishing (A Season of Small Insanities). She has made it into the Forward Book of Modern Poetry twice. She thinks she knows a few things but knows far fewer than she thinks.

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