Phlegmatic, I’m not one to plotz or wax
nostalgic for a life that could’ve been.
I bumble forward, shuffling in my tracks
to work and back again. The kitchen’s clean.
I use Excel to calculate Kate’s tax.
I had once dreamt I’d be a libertine,
admired for simile and malaprop.
The 90s raised me up then let me drop.
Back then, each anecdote would cost you corkage,
my poems swigged on flasks, were furious
and hot with psychedelic flash and squawkage.
I blazed, affectedly bi-curious.
These days I just complain about the mortgage,
all other matters somehow spurious
and flat. I spend the evening sudsing plates
and pots, in fear of rising interest rates.
Not one to plotz, I’m private, careful, flaccid.
How did I change? One moment I wear blouses,
vinyl shoes, I’m pulverised on acid,
the next I’m at the bank discussing houses
or circling with a whiteboard marker ‘hazard
class’, a tucked-in shirt with belted trousers.
I want to understand, to tweeze this tuft.
Did I grow up? Or was my brightness snuffed?
Before I went under a nom de plume,
before the bank had made a covenant
with me to slavishly add commas to
abhorrent documents for subsequent
emolument, I lived in Oamaru.
(I still took money from the government,
the dole.) And from that opposite of Eden,
I drag the band with me down to Dunedin.
I trip the halls like velvet under
my beret, a lip-stuck elf with pointed toes.
I study language, thought, but wonder
why, in chief, so few enjoy my gigs, or prose.
A typically blind-spotted blunder:
I’m unchanged it seems. Less fresh of gill, less rosy
eyed, perhaps, but so alike in fact
of taste and dreams. My foibles are intact
at least. The years gallumph like this. I shake
songwriting off and go for verse. They’re kinder,
literary types. I’d tried to break
our demo to a label not inclined to
it. Pete from Snapper said we’re a mistake.
I graduate, am single (dumped), and find a
bookshop gig. It’s 1998.
I chase a girl, and demonstrate I’m straight
by kissing boys just to ensure we will
avoid the sin of overegging hetero.
My gender freedom is sartorial.
Free too from time, I dress embracing retro.
London is more dictatorial.
It frowns. And though years pass before I let go,
it schools me how to look more apropos,
to come across more man than man-mango.
The movie I’d self-finance of my life
(the casting option either Aquaman
or Jesse Eisenberg – and here my wife
can roll her eyeballs) would compact a span
of years into a weekend on a knife-
edge. Sleeping at a bus stop backward, fanned
around my bag, cold in PVC,
I doze, am homeless, terrified, but free.
Above, the stars are smothered by the smog.
I’m outside Heathrow, stuck until the Tubes
resume. They treat a person like a dog.
To bed, they say, till six. Go to your rooms,
you Londoners. The pubs lock up the grog.
But airports, they’re all hours, one presumes?
Two coppers sweeping shake their heads, say no.
I make it through the night outside, then go.
I stay with Andy’s friends near Glastonbury.
I have no job and live on money sponged
from Kim, back home, who’d said if drastically
required I could use her card – I lunged –
and cash from Mum as well, left spastically
behind in Wimbledon. Their flat’s implunged
in odour, but they offer me a niche
to kip in, and tobacco with hashish.
The two are always smoked together, all
day long and every day by him in whom
I see a British doppelgänger, tall
and slim, long hair. It’s not the constant fume
emitted from his lips that splits us, or will
once I partake. It’s that he bears a gloom.
That’s Britain, and its thrashing underclass.
He takes a kicking in an underpass.
The nights unfold with dramas of the poor.
A day’s work picking peas from yellow turf.
We mark the solstice drumming on the Tor.
At Argos, blag a tent, intending to return
it after camping in the mud before
the policy – ‘no questions’ – comes to term.
The festival itself is glad, we’re gladder
still we stole in with a home-made ladder.
Returning back to Wimbledon, I claw
my horde of traveller’s cheques in glee
then crash out in the sticks, a room, well, floor
some kid – the dealer of whose ecstasy
I’d met – extends an open offer for.
This stranger’s kind. I rest my neck rent-free.
One sleeps more, if turns less, when in a bed,
but cushions brace my hip and ease my head.
The weeks rotate. I get a ten-hour job,
but till I’m paid, possessing no per diem,
I can’t examine ethics like a snob.
I think, ‘They’re not as hungry’, when I see them.
‘These tourists shouldn’t miss a couple bob,’
and fleece them as they ramble the museum.
That is, the cashier does, when she miscounts
their change. I simply balance the amounts.
Asleep, the kid I stay with moans and keens.
Still dossing every evening in the sticks,
the tube and bus is just within my means
but only once perfecting certain tricks
to keep the Travelcard inside my jeans.
I search under his bed, there’s porn, the pix
are strange to me: in each the women flick
their eyes to where above there hangs a dick.
Two times I sleep at Jon’s. His place is bleaker:
Paddington, guests not allowed, and stinking.
My presence irks his girlfriend, one Tameka.
I was naive to leave New Zealand thinking
that I’d just stay with Jon, the pleasure seeker.
The cops raid our speakeasy. But a winking
dealer passing sells us . . . oregano!?
‘Race traitor!’ chirrups T like a soprano.
The lowest point before I get a proper
bedsit of my own in Saint John’s Wood,
is when I beg Tameka for a Whopper,
and she assents, annoyed to feel she should.
This is the seed. I never want to cop the
look again. And so ends childhood.
The film returns. I’m at the bus stop, cold,
inhaling in short draughts. The credits roll.
I grow I think from this. I learn the scaled
threat of non-conformance. It’s no shame
and easier to navigate regaled
as others, smart, domesticated, tame.
Another view is that in fact I’ve failed
to change a jot. That I remain the same
pretentious fool and cautious pragmatist,
and always was a dry protagonist.
Nick Ascroft, from Moral Sloth, Victoria University Press, 2019
Nick Ascroft has released four collections of poetry through Victoria University Press. The latest, Moral Sloth, appeared in November. Kapka Kassabova once said of his face that ‘it shines through the obscurity of life like / fake gold’. Burn.
Victoria University Press author page