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The American Virus

Eliot Weinberger

The Home Life of Inspector Maigret

John Lanchester

Story: ‘Have a Seat in the Big Black Chair’

Diane Williams

The Last Whale

Colin Burrow

In Beijing

Long Ling

Princess Margaret and Lady Anne

Rosemary Hill

At the Movies: ‘Arkansas’

Michael Wood

Ruin it your own way

Susan Pedersen

At Home

Jane Miller

The Ottoman Conundrum

Helen Pfeifer

Poem: ‘Muntjac’

Blake Morrison

Piketty’s Revolution

Geoff Mann

Short Cuts: In Tripoli

Jérôme Tubiana

Coetzee Makes a Leap

Christopher Tayler

At Auckland Castle: Francisco de Zurbarán

Nicola Jennings

Drain the Swamps

Steven Shapin

Diary: In the Isolation Room

Nicholas Spice

Designer SexFiona Pitt-Kethley
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(For D.)

You’ve made yourself a master of the art
of touch. You play me like an instrument.
While I lie passively, as you prefer –
eyes closed, you’d rather that I didn’t watch –
your fingers (unobserved) combine to seem
like other things. Your subtlety deceives.

This time I’m on my front and sneak a look ...
I see your hands, then the illusion breaks.
Condoms are not secure enough for you.
You’ve given up full sex for fear of Aids.
Your argument is this – why risk disease
when pleasure can be had in different ways?

Of course, I can’t pretend I don’t enjoy
the mini ecstasies that you create.
You’re good at what you do. And yet I feel
a deep frustration every time I come.

Outside upon the street we make a pair –
you in your leather jacket, me in silk –
both tall, we naturally fall into step.
Only within, I feel a certain hollowness.
My womb aches tangibly for something else.

I’ve journeyed to the limits on my own,
and walked the cities of the world at night.
By Lake Avernus, several years ago,
I drank the waters of the underworld.
This year, I climbed to Mount Lykaion’s peaks
where the first Greeks made human sacrifice.
One summit is a mound of ash and bone.
There is a curse, it’s said, on men and beasts
who trespass in the Sanctuary of Zeus.
They lose their shadows, die within the year.
(I figure women though, must be immune –
my shadow’s still as healthy as it was.)
I’ve slept high up on Mount Taÿgetus,
wedged in between a boulder and a pine,
in summer clothes – the mountain hut was closed.
(You tell me that you walked there as a boy
with several friends – it’s near your childhood home.)

In all these places I saw nothing of death.
Avernus now has birds again – and fish.
The stream of Acheron tastes cool and sweet.
Lykaion teems with life – gold butterflies
alighted on my shirt. Taÿgetus
was cold, that’s true – but I did not catch cold.
The shepherds gave me hot sheep’s milk at dawn.
And as for sex? I’ve risked it many times –
a thing that nobody can do alone.

In all, I find it hard to understand your fear.
Spartans are brave we know from history books –
always in training, athletes, super-fit –
both girls and boys worked out without their clothes.

Sex is the centre and the cause of life.
Foreplay is only foreplay, nothing more –
this holding back – I call it cowardice.
Germs are a part of life – our lottery –
and like fierce dogs, they’re most inclined to bite
the timid souls who shrink away from them.
Use some protection till we’ve found a cure
for AIDS – that’s wise – but don’t give up on sex.

The end of sex implies a greater death –
all Nature petering out – mankind and beasts
tottering into a fearful old age,
childless – with no hope of posterity.

Choose wisely – caution’s best, I’ll give you that.
But fearing death too much is fearing life.

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