Neddy and the Night Noises
Neddy Bumwhistle jolts awake in the dark.
Insomnia’s big comic-strip exclamation mark
twitches like defective neon above his head.
At least he’s in the familiar slum of his own bed:
no body beside him; nobody, perhaps, for miles around . . .
But hang about, what’s that weird, squeaky-bedspring sound?
He’s heard it before. Don’t tell him. Ah, yes –
it’s the dawn chorus (so-called), that murk, that mess
of repetitive, uppity fanfare and squabbling fuss
by which the birds of the city announce: ‘Hi, it’s us!
Three in the morning! Rise and shine!’ The din
swells, as several car alarms join in,
some cats either start a fight or engage in sex
(hard to tell which), and the whole complex
fugue of the small hours – over a bass line of A-road rumble –
gets into full swing. Neddy’s own mumble
of shock and disgust is a mere grace note;
the same, when he dislodges a plug of catarrh from his throat.
There’s no noise he can make that will not be in tune
with this all-embracing symphony, composed by the man in the moon.
He tries a fart, a tad louder than intended,
and it’s answered at once by an ambulance siren and thereby blended
into the general texture. The music of the spheres
(which everybody has heard of, but nobody hears)
must, thinks poetic Neddy, sound like this.
Sod it! Grunting, he grapples out of bed in search of a piss,
sharply needed after the previous evening’s nine
(or was it ten?) pints. Minutes later, bladder’s fine,
but brain’s still rattling like a high-street charity extortion box.
Sleep’s off the agenda now. On with socks
and knitted muffler. Time for a brew-up and toast.
The flame on the gas-ring jump-flutters as if it has seen a ghost,
but soon everything’s steaming and singeing sweetly
in the dug-out, the nightwatchman’s cabin, the none-too-neatly
ordered alchemist’s den of Neddy’s kitchen.
Thank God for such simple comforts, when life’s a bitch in
so many ways (too many to count right now)!
Stir the sludge in your mug, Neddy, unfrazzle yon brow,
and let the night out there with its meaningless clatter
barrel past unheeded. Nothing can matter
to a man with a mouthful of perfectly charred
sliced white chomping in his head. Nothing’s too hard
for the soul that’s sluiced with slurps of strong, sugary tea.
Unless . . . What luck (and does anyone suffer worse luck than he?)
that his idle eye should at that moment light
on the very thing from which his conscious mind has been in flight
since yesterday morning, when, in a rage
ignited by the reading (and rereading) of a certain page
in a certain magazine, he flung it across the room
with a spattering of curses to lend it speed. A sour gloom
curdled his spirits the rest of the day:
from lunchtime breakfast at the reeking café
along the road, through an ugly ten minutes on the phone
to his live-out (now ex) lover, Jan, back home alone
(and twice as bothered) for an hour or two,
then out again to the educational zoo
where he runs the weekly poetry workshop (rude
to everyone in turn), all the way to getting grimly slewed
in some of the more blighted pubs in town.
Bed caught him, by a miracle, as he spiralled down, down, down . . .
But sleep offered only the briefest reprieve from feeling.
Now as rawly awake as the bare bulb hanging from the ceiling,
Neddy in his kitchen must return to consider the problem
of why the Poetry Gazette has set out to nobble him.
Picking the rag up from where it crash-landed
on a scree of beer cans and pizza boxes, he scans it
and in seconds is finger-tapping his own name,
next to a three-figure number. Oh, the shame!
Scandal, more like it – passing off as a ‘survey’
a piece of the most malign, craven, deceitful, scurvy
reputation-rigging he has ever seen.
A poetry popularity poll? I mean!
And himself (allegedly) at two hundred and ninety-six?
Do me a favour! Less popular than all these hicks?
He strums his finger close to the very top.
Then closer. Closer still. Then he has to stop,
or enter the negative space of the minus numbers –
and he’s not yet ready to play the Christopher Columbus
of black-hole exploration. Top is fine, thanks.
Divinely appointed to the highest ranks,
however, and the Muse’s most trusted amanuensis,
he knows to his personal cost that eminence is
no doddle. With T for talent engraved on his forehead,
back-cover mugshots show him perpetually worried,
as well he might be, given the grave risks and paltry rewards
that the life of a beer-fuelled Baudelaire affords.
Envied and hated by the gang of charlatans and hacks
who use the reviews to scratch each other’s backs
but couldn’t tell genuine genius if it grabbed them by the nuts,
he’s taken more than his share of snubs, cuts,
sneers, maulings and impudent condescension
from them, while never once catching the attention
of the dolts and dodos who dosh out the big money.
Five slim and widely slighted volumes wiser, the funny
thing is he hasn’t packed the whole caper in. What keeps
him going, in a world so rotten it’s strictly the creeps
who collect the cash and cachet (crumpet, as well,
he’s started to notice)? Some nook of Dante’s Hell
waits toasty-warm for them, no doubt, but meanwhile
for the unknown hero it’s a case of ‘smile, boys, that’s the style!’
Ever thus . . . Neddy lets his Poetry Gazette
flop to the floor. Flashing teeth, he’ll show them yet.
One last swig, and he rests his mug with an untidy clunk
and teaspoon jitter. The clock on the wall bites chunk after chunk
off time. His fridge hums its simple song.
A rat on a top-secret errand skitters along
the trench behind the skirting-board. Pipes gurgle. Neddy
burps antiphonally. A new, heady
sense of purpose stirs him and, by chance, pencil and paper stand ready.
Fly of ill omen,
he steered like a dodgem
round the room.
I said, then dealt him
a lethal swat.
Now the newspaper
I happened to use
being all bespattered
with his jam, with his juice,
I had to bin it
that very minute.