The Wife’s Lament

As part of a module I’m teaching this term I’m getting the students to write creative pieces prompted by Old English texts. I thought I’d have a try at doing one myself, so here’s something based (loosely) on the Old English poem ‘The Wife’s Lament’. The length limit for the exercise was 1500 words and I’ve come in just under.

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Today she’s sad. I find her easier to cope with when she’s angry, to be honest. Then I rise up on the boil of her rage, up the dark steps like a messenger from the netherworld.

“Why did you pick this horrible basement flat?” I ask her.

“He told me to piss off back to Grove Road,” she says, “So I did. It’s all I can afford now anyway.” She’s sad today.

She misses him, after all these years, and I suppose I have to respect that, though I find it hard to understand. He was such an utter prick to her.

“We were soul mates,” she tells me. “Everybody saw the talent, the outrageousness, the way he could dominate a room, but I saw the sadness in him. The need. He was just a little boy really, always needing a woman to care for him.”

Of course this need for a woman’s care extended to sleeping with someone else the night she gave birth to his baby. But one has to try to understand the human psyche in all its rich complexity.

 

“I’m not sure I can do this,” I say to Matt, my editor, later, as we drink coffee in a Starbucks near the Tube Station. “She’s not giving me what I want and I feel I’m turning into her personal misery sponge for mopping up every bit of everything bad that’s ever happened to her. Her on-call face-to-face Samaritans line, only she’s already dead. Do you know what she said to me today? ‘This is my living tomb’. She really said that. It certainly has a mouldy smell in the toilet.”

“Well, write what she is giving you. Write the tell-all. Everybody loves an exposé, especially of something they know already. Write about him and the heroic age of metal, complete with all the drugs and sex and betrayal. I promise you it’ll sell.”

“Ugh, no,” I say. “Did you listen to that album I sent you? She was an artist in her own right. She had something really interesting to offer. Her voice was so distinctive, and the style is so different to anything anyone else was doing at the time. And yes, it all comes out of the break-up with him and being forced out of the inner circle, but it’s worth hearing for itself. That’s what I want to write about.”

“Nobody bought that album, did they,” says Matt.

“They should have done. But there’s a market for this, surely? Books reclaiming women’s place in rock. Think of Viv Albertine.”

“Mmm. Must admit I couldn’t read past the bit about her period.”

“Which bit about her period?”

“Was there more than one? Look, give in. Do the mayhem nostalgia thing. The old acts are all drinking tea and getting hearing aids, and the young ones have no money, apart from Ed Sheeran and he’s as rock’n’roll as a chip shop. It’s all so moral and boring. People miss the bad old days.”

“If you say so.”

“Argh, you know what I mean. But I’ll look at whatever you come up with. I have a lot of confidence in you. Send me a draft chapter next week, yeah?”

And off he goes, sunny, supportive, and always there for me. The bastard.

 

“…and then the fucker, the absolute fucker, you know what the pull-out line was – ‘in their divorce settlement he kept all the ideas’. Pure spite, especially when he’d even been encouraging me to do my own thing just a few months earlier.”

“Who was this again?”

“Rogers, Alan Rogers I think it was. Wrote for Kerrang! and a few other rags. I’d always been nice to him when he was hanging around the band. But Dave said to me one day, he’s just a ligger, he’s only here for whatever he can hoover up, booze, you name it, he didn’t even write up that last gig he was backstage for, and we’ve got better contacts, so get rid of him. So I got rid of him. And that made me enemy number one and when my album came out he saw his chance to put the boot in.”

I make suitably outraged noises.

“Anyway, I got my revenge that time, for the review. Rang up Brian Aston – you know, he was the second guitarist for a bit, got chucked out about the same time I did. Brian was a dark one. Sweet on the outside but a murderous streak underneath. Dead now, poor sod. Well, Brian knew where this Rogers bloke lived. So we went round there and found he’d bought himself a shiny new car. A real Bond film car with one of those pointy noses. Brian broke into it. No car alarms in those days. And then I left a beautiful gift box on the back seat with a smelly present I’d produced myself and a nice card on top, so he’d know it was me.” She cackles chestily. “A day later Dave rings me up and tells me to stop causing trouble for him or he’ll take me to court and get custody of Sean off me.”

“And did he?” I knew Sean had gone back and forth between the two of them over the years, before eventually escaping and getting a job in IT.

“Not that time. But I soon lost my recording contract, and it wasn’t just the reviews. I was out in the cold… It gets very cold in this flat, you know. It wakes me up, early in the mornings when it’s still dark, and then I get up and I remember things. I hope wherever Dave is right now, his boiler breaks. Doesn’t matter how big your place is, it’s bloody miserable to be cold.”

 

I don’t like her, but I like her music. Having got this straight in my head, I bang out the draft chapter. It’s more of a précis, really, of the book I’m planning; it sketches her time as a band girlfriend and wife and describes how it feeds into her own album. It finishes with the mixed reviews, and how Dave and his feuds were responsible both for giving her the opportunity and for making sure it never went any further. It’s a story of lost talent and the crap women have suffered in the music business. I email the whole thing to Matt and go for a walk in the park in the struggling March sunshine.

 

When Matt arrives for our next meeting he has a shifty air; there’s something sidling about how he slides in to the bench seat with his americano.

“Hi!” he exclaims heartily. “How’s it going? Listen, I loved the piece! Loved it.”

“Oh good,” I say, as there’s obviously more to come.

“Yeah, and I have a proposition to put to you. An opportunity, in fact. I showed it to Tim and he thinks they’d be interested in taking it for Rolling Stone.”

“What, as a serial?”

“No, as a one-off piece. I did some work on it and it comes across very well with some editing down.”

 

Sure enough, he’s gutted it. Gone is my whole analysis of her album and, in fact, almost everything I wrote about the period after the split, though the anecdote about the journalist’s car is still there – minus the nasty coda of the custody threat. It’s all sweat, hedonism, and picturesque chaos. And yes, it’s very entertaining, if I let myself admit it. The question is whether I have the energy to fight for her story, or whether I’m prepared to settle for this enjoyable coach tour through the outskirts of the disaster zone. I decide to show it to her. This is one time I can make use of her rage.

 

Only there is no rage. I wait while she reads it; the furrow between her brow is one of concentration and doesn’t deepen, and occasionally there’s a half snort of laughter or a tiny sigh. At the end she puts it down and vanishes into her bedroom. When she comes back she’s carrying a box.

“You could use these,” she says, “for the pictures. They’re my own. I haven’t ever shared them before.”

She riffles through the old prints and hands one to me. It shows her and Dave in, I’d guess, about 1981, his arm round her shoulder, both impossibly young. He’s all swagger and lankiness. She’s got that heavy-topped, slightly tousled hairstyle of the time, the barest smudge of dark eye makeup, a black leather jacket over a short white t-shirt. She’s trying for a rocker sneer but it’s halfway to a smile.

“Wasn’t I pretty,” she says, touching the photo softly with one finger. “So long ago now. But we were so happy. We kicked everyone’s arse, just for a while. There’s never been anyone quite like him.”

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