So there in Number Eighteen Rugby Street’s
Victorian torpor and squalor I waited for you.
I think of that house as a stage-set –
Four floors exposed to the auditoriums.
On all four floors, in, out, the love-struggle
In all its acts and scenes, a snakes and ladders
Of intertangling and of disentangling
Limbs and loves and lives. Nobody was old.
An unmysterious laboratory of amours.
Perpetual performance – names of the actors altered.
But never the parts. They told me: ‘You
Should write a book about this house. It’s possessed!
Whoever comes into it never gets properly out!
Whoever enters it enters a labyrinth –
A Knossos of coincidence. And now you’re in it.’
The legends were amazing. I listened, amazed.
I lived there alone. Sat alone
At the hacked, archaic, joiner’s bench
That did for desk and table,
And waited for you and Lucas.
Whatever I was thinking I was not thinking
Of that Belgian girl in the ground-floor flat,
Plump as a mushroom, hair black as boot polish:
The caged bird and extra-marital cuddle
Of the second-hand-car dealer who kept
The catacomb basement heaped with exhaust mufflers,
Assorted jagged shafts of cars, shin-rippers
On the way to the unlit and unlovely
Lavatory beneath the street’s pavement.
That girl had nothing to do with the rest of the house
But play her part in the drama. Her house-jailor
Who kept her in solitary was a demon
High-explosive, black, insane Alsatian
That challenged through the chained crack of the door
Every entrance and exit. He guarded her,
For the car dealer, from all, too well finally.
Not, seven years in the future, from her gas-oven.
She was nothing to do with me. Nor was Susan
Who still had to be caught in the labyrinth,
And who would meet the Minotaur there,
And would be holding me from my telephone
Those nights you would most need me. On this evening
Nothing could make me think I would ever be needed
By anybody. Ten years had to darken,
Three of them in your grave, before Susan
Could pace that floor above night after night
(Where you and I, the new rings on our fingers,
Had warmed our wedding night in the single bed)
Crying alone and dying of leukaemia.
Lucas was bringing you. You were pausing
A night in London on your escape to Paris.
April 13th, your father’s birthday. A Friday.
I guessed you were off to whirl through some euphoric
American Europe. Years after your death
I learned through desperation of that search
Through those following days, scattering your tears
Around the cobbles of Paris. I deferred for a night
Your panics, your fevers, your worst fear –
The toad-stone in the head of your desolation.
The dream you hunted for, the life you begged
To be given again, you would never recover, ever.
Your journal told me the story of your torture.
I guess how you visited each of your sacred shrines
In raging faith you’d catch him there, somehow,
By clairvoyance, by coincidence –
Normally child’s play to a serious passion.
This was not the last time it would fail you.
Meanwhile there was me, for a few hours –
A few pence on the fare, for insurance.
Happy to be martyred for folly
I invoked you, bribing Fate to produce you.
Were you conjuring me? I had no idea
How I was becoming necessary.
Or what emergency Fate would make
Of my casual self-service. I can hear you
Climbing the bare stairs, alive and close,
Babbling to be overheard, breathless.
That was your artillery, to confuse me:
Before coming over the top in your panoply
You wanted me to hear you panting. Then –
Blank. How did you enter? What came next?
How did Lucas delete himself, for instance?
Did we even sit? A great bird, you
Surged in the plumage of your excitement,
Raving exhilaration. A blueish voltage –
Fluorescent cobalt, a flare of aura
That I later learned was yours uniquely.
And your eyes’ peculiar brightness, their oddness,
Two little brown people, hooded, Prussian,
But elvish, and girlish, and sparkling
With the pressure of your effervescence.
Were they family heirlooms, as in your son?
For me yours were the novel originals.
And now at last I got a good look at you.
Your roundy face, that your friends, being objective,
Called ‘rubbery’ and you, crueller, ‘boneless’:
A device for elastic extremes,
A spirit mask transfigured every moment
It its own séance, its own ether.
And I became aware of the mystery
Of your lips, like nothing before in my life,
Their aboriginal thickness. And of your nose,
Broad and Apache, nearly a boxer’s nose,
Scorpio’s obverse to the Semitic eagle
That made every camera your enemy,
The jailor of your vanity, the traitor
In your Sexual Dreams Incorporated,
Nose from Attila’s horde: a prototype face
That could have looked up at me through the smoke
Of a Navajo campfire. And your small temples
Into which your hair-roots crowded, upstaged
By that glamorous, fashionable bang.
And your little chin, your Pisces chin.
It was never a face in itself. Never the same.
It was like the sea’s face – a stage
For weathers and currents, the sun’s play and the moon’s.
Never a face until that final morning
When it became the face of a child – its scar
Like a maker’s flaw. But now you declaimed
A long poem about a black panther
While I held you and kissed you and tried to keep you
From flying me about the room. For all that,
You would not stay.
We walked south across London to Fetter Lane
And your hotel. Opposite the entrance
On a bombsite becoming a building site
We clutched each other giddily
For safety and went in a barrel together
Over some Niagara. Falling
In the roar of your soul your scar told me –
Like its secret name or its password –
How you had tried to kill yourself. And I heard
Without ceasing for a moment to kiss you
As if a sober star had whispered it
Above the revolving, rumbling city: stay clear.
A poltroon of a star. I cannot remember
How I smuggled myself, wrapped in you,
Into the hotel. There we were.
You were slim and lithe and smooth as a fish.
You were a new world. My new world.
So this is America, I marvelled.
Beautiful, beautiful America!
Ted Hughes, 18 Rugby Street [In:] Birthday Letters