The poem is a version of Chaucer’s ‘Man of Law’s Tale’. I focus on the section of the tale that works well as a self-contained narrative. As the original plot pivots on a misunderstanding arising from the substitution of a letter, I made writing the central theme in my version. I recast the character of the son as a fiction writer. As I typed the poem directly onto my computer, I was acutely aware of what I wasn’t doing: writing longhand. I set the poem in the late 80s, pre-email, when people still wrote letters. The original tale was set in Northumberland. I pitched mine a bit further south, and took on the challenge of creating an elderly Geordie voice. It was tempting to go broader and use sentences like ‘this twenty year’, words like ‘larnt’ instead of ‘taught’. But I envisaged the character as lower middle-class, with high aspirations for her son, and therefore she might speak Standard English with a few local phrases mixed in. The form came from the title: I wanted each stanza to link the way letters link in joined-up writing. The corona, where the last line of one stanza becomes the first line of the next, is one of my favourite forms. I’m inspired by the Hungarian coronas of George Szirtes, where he allows some flexibility in the repetitions, as if the words at the end of one stanza have been translated by the time they reappear at the beginning of the next.
My son’s a writer, aye, but he’ll not write
to me, his poor old mam. I could be dead
these twenty years, sat in this chair, bone white.
Detective novels. Crime pays, mam, he said.
Only in books. In life, you pay twice over,
you cannot close a chapter, purge a sin.
I wronged my laddie, Ollie, Oliver.
Oliver Robson. Have you heard of him?
You’ve not? You’re not from Tyneside are you, pet?
Milk, two sugars, boil the kettle mind!
Ollie wrote seven books for Coronet,
his last one’s autographed, see here, it’s signed
Oliver Robson. Every paragraph
pure gold, a fortune in that autograph.
She read her fortune in his autograph,
that Constance, but he’d not believe it, Ollie.
He got a grand advance for Epitaph
and bought this foisty townhouse to console me
after he married her, out of the blue.
Wouldn’t let me arrange it, his own mother,
church wedding and all. He said ‘I do’
knowing I disapproved. How could he love her?
She wasn’t bonny, always overdressed,
I’d never understand her when she spoke.
Not that I’m prejudiced, some of my best
friends are foreign. These days folk are folk
but then was different: Constance was coloured, brown,
a name so long you’d sweat to break it down.
Didn’t belong, nigh verging on a breakdown
and Ollie such a softy. African.
She’d not talk much, her face a constant frown,
must have been pity made him take her hand –
raped, or so she said. We were dead close,
Ollie and me, until she came, from nowhere:
whole house smelt of sadza; all his clothes
designer labels; cut his bonny hair
and marched him off to church twice on a Sunday!
Ollie, the atheist, who had no shame.
She must have used Black Magic that dark day
to make him say I do and sign his name.
We all lived here, I had no choice, she’d won.
Aye, Constance gained, and me, I lost my son.
That year, she gained three stone, gave birth: a son.
Maurice: the image of his da, abroad
plugging his latest book, but back home soon.
Only said three words, Constance: Praise the Lord.
The flowers arrived first. Chrysanthemums,
delphiniums. I treated them as mine,
pretended that his note had said, To Mam,
and saw her eyes well up, dark as the Tyne.
Next day, that slim blue envelope, first post.
I steamed it open, read his spiky hand:
My darling wife, Bless you! Now I’m the most
happy soul alive since God made man…
To see it written down, his love, his faith,
stabbed by his pen, I felt. Stabbed in the face.
A stabbing pain the left side of my face,
I took a fresh white sheet and scrawled the line:
Dear Constance, Whore of Babylon, unchaste,
you lied about the rape, the child’s not mine…
I knew his hand, his long flamboyant ‘I’,
the exact angle, leaning to the right,
the mild slope of his ‘s’, his loopless ‘y’.
How could I not? I taught my son to write
his name when he was four. I trained his hand
to copy mine, letters with tiny tails
dying to be joined-up – You must leave England
and take your bastard with you – cut his nails
to help his grip. Raised him for literature.
That fateful day I signed his signature.
She fainted when she saw his signature…
I helped her pack her suitcase, paid the fare –
it cost a fortune, flight to Africa.
I would have topped myself. What saved her? Prayer.
Poured myself a Scotch, if truth be telt,
when I got back, sat in this armchair, pet,
the chair she fed the laddie in that smelt
of milk and sadza. I still smell it yet.
I let it ring when Ollie phoned that night,
headache so bad I couldn’t take to bed.
He rang to say he’d just got off his flight –
each ring was like a stab wound in my head.
I heard the key, stood up, I don’t know how.
If there’s a God, I thought, God help me now!
There is no God. Only you home helps now
who make weak tea and ask about my son.
There’s dust on the computer screen. God knows,
I’m fast forgetting how to switch it on.
It hurts my hands to use a mobile phone,
he’ll never ring it anyway, no doubt,
they’ll not have phones in Africa. Alone,
I’m dying a slow death since he walked out.
I trawl the bookshops searching for his name,
gold embossed letters lighting up a spine,
five hundred pages full of guilt and shame.
But naught in there comes equal to my crime:
I signed his name, betrayed, in black and white,
my son, the writer. No, pet, he’ll not write.