A Pillow Book

Hugo Williams

1.
I lie in bed, watching you
dress yourself in nudity
for your part in a story
you are about to tell me.

Once upon a time, you seem to say,
there was a woman who took off all her clothes
and stood for a moment
with one hand on her hip.

You have my full attention
as you pile your hair on top of your head
and let it fall down again.
Up to this point I am familiar with the story.

Your movements suggest a possible outline,
but nothing is certain yet.
You lift your arms above your head
in a gesture of boredom or surrender.

Your hands touch in mid-air
and you turn them palm-side-out
in a kind of question mark,
as you ask for help with the ending.

2.
The story sets out along your limbs,
feeling its way forward
round the crook of a knee,
the angle of an elbow,

getting tangled in your hair.
It follows the line of your arms
as they cross one another
taking off your pullover,

or disappear behind your back.
It hovers round your shoulders,
touches on your breasts,
moves on to the whiteness

of your skin, the long flow
of your waist where it turns into
your hips. It has stripped you down
to the merest outline,

where everything makes sense.
I turn the pages more quickly now,
wanting and not wanting
the story’s resolution.

3.
This is the only kind of work
I’m any good at –
watching you take off your make-up
and put on moisturiser.

From toner to night cream
I check the progress
of these preparations
for shades of meaning and mood.

I can’t be sure of anything
in our silent collaboration,
till you undress completely
and don’t put on your nightdress.

I let the scene go on
for as long as it wants to,
knowing that soon you will be joining me
in the complications of the plot.

I open the book for you
and you slip between its pages –
the perfect illustration
to whatever happens next.

4.
You can’t find your hairbrush
or your hairband. It’s too cold
to get undressed completely
tonight, do I mind?

You look at me suspiciously,
as if I might be
wearing pyjamas myself
under the covers.

I’m not saying anything
until I see everything
you are wearing
lying in a heap on the floor.

Oh dear, that was your last
pair of pants.
What are you going to do?
You might have to go home tomorrow.

I lie here as usual,
in thrall to the ritual,
knowing that all I have to do
is warm the bed for you.

5.
Your top goes up,
your jeans come down,
your bra goes round to the side
while you undo the clasp.

What’s left is a wisp
of something flowery,
slung between your hips
like a cocktail glass.

You tilt it this way and that,
till your movements displace
a ripple of soft porn
over the brim of the room.

I can’t help noticing
the way you push your pants down
without bending your knees,
then kick them into a corner.

Of course, I could be wrong about this
and all that is really going on
is you undressing,
getting ready for bed.

6.
You throw your things on a chair
and move about the room
with nothing on,
opening and closing drawers,

looking for something you’ve lost
among the bottles and jars
on your dressing-table.
When you find it at last

you pour something in your hand
and rub it on your body,
as if you were
conjuring yourself from a lamp.

A blue flame springs up
where you were standing
and a chain reaction
sets out round the room.

I feel the heat of you on my face
as you pass in front of me.
Now your perfume takes over
the telling of our story.

7.
I’ve heard it before of course,
this bedtime story of ours
about two people in a room
and what happens next

in the pastoral scene
in the pattern of the wallpaper,
but every time it is new.
Every time it is the same:

a woman undressing,
a man lying at her feet,
till there comes a point in the story
when you turn down the light.

I lie here watching you
move about the room,
hoping you will go over the action
one more time, to jog my memory.

How the plot twists and turns
on its toes, before revealing itself.
How the various storylines
come together finally.

8.
And always the secret music
of your perfume
accompanying your entrance
on a stage at the foot of the bed.

Its sunflower colours
of pepper and honey
echo themes of resistance
and surrender

in a play you are putting on
for my improvement.
You stand on one leg,
tugging at one striped sock

that doesn’t want to come off.
Opposing pieces of action
flow into one another,
then draw apart again.

I should understand by now
what you are saying or not saying,
but pepper and honey
have clouded my judgment.

9.
One of our characters lacks
motivation tonight.
He’s sulking slightly.
It’s been a long day.

He gets into bed first
and pulls the covers up to his chin.
He might be asleep,
or he might only be pretending.

She might be undressing,
or she might be putting on her
nightdress, hoping for
a night’s sleep herself.

The action slows
to a period of reflection,
sitting on the arm of a chair.
Her feet are killing her.

She can’t make up her mind
what she feels about all this.
She glances round the room,
looking for a place to lie down.

10.
Words reach out like hands
to hold you still,
as pictures of you undressing
fan out round the room.

You might be hanging up a shirt
behind the bedroom door,
treading your jeans underfoot
with a sulky look on your face,

or bending over
to put something away in a drawer.
You might be lifting up your arms
to put up your hair,

or looking in the bedside cupboard
for the moisturiser.
I should collect these images
to remember you by.

Each one pauses for a moment
to imprint itself on the air,
before slowly detaching itself
and disappearing forever.

11.
All I have to do
is describe the scene to myself
and I am back there,
peering into the shadows.

It is a darkened room
where a sodium glow from the street
wanders under a blind
that won’t pull all the way down.

You enter through a door on the right,
drying your hair,
laughing at one of your own jokes.
All I have to do

is watch while you explain
what is happening between us
in the language of undressing.
Are we naked tonight?

Or are we holding something back?
I don’t mind, really I don’t.
Nothing matters any more,
so long as we’re together

12.
Is that you over there
in your nightdress,
standing on one leg,
looking at the sole of your foot?

It must be you
because all your things are still here –
face creams and cotton buds,
cleanser and eyeliner,

scattered across the table
where you put on make-up
and do your hair.
I know it is you

because you don’t put the tops back
on the bottles. I do that.
I see you clearly now,
laughing at my fussiness,

or is that the ghost of you laughing?
You lean towards me,
holding your hands behind your back,
as if you are asking me to choose.