Suzi Clark is primarily a poet and secondarily an author. She is currently based in Manchester. Her poetry ranges in theme and style: from confessional, to exploratory of other’s predicaments; and from seemingly simple observational poems, to poems with seams of richly textured metaphor. She is also currently working on a character-driven fantasy epic called An Accidental Evil, and a satirical horror novella, Dark Tourism. The latter explores modern-daycolonialistic beliefs in contemporary Britain whilst the former is fuelled by the intrigue of messy interpersonal relationships among those upon whom society has ordained the most importance.
It’s About Chess
I was friends with the school chess champion back in sixth form. In Lithuania, Zilvinas had competed in national level chess tournaments. I challenged him to a game. I was seventeen and irrecoverably ill. Obsessive compulsive disorder had ripped through my brain like claws through a woollen jumper. All I did was worry and wash and hope not to wet myself and hope to die. Stop reading this poem and look at the back of your hands. If you’re old, your hands will be marred with crease-lines like roughly woven cloth. Every line of mine was red, all the time. And I applied hand sanitizer around 40 times a day. I’m sure you’ve got lemon juice or vinegar in a cut before. Anyway, I won the chess game.
And I was over the moon. I boasted to all our friends.
A month or so later there was an assembly. I’d never been to one before, because we’d had to sit on the floor. Sixth form afforded us the luxury of squeaky plastic chairs. So, there I was. Counting in my head. Checking the levels of contamination from sitting in a shared chair, checking the levels of contamination from my neighbour’s shoe brushing my leg, checking the levels of contamination from the rain that had fallen on me from a drain pipe earlier that morning. Using my numeric system. Deciding I’d have to disinfect my bag and the edges of my books again. And yes, of course, you shouldn’t get paper wet, especially not every day. All my exercise books were curled at the edges. No one ever commented.
Anyway, the assembly was about a chess tournament the school team had won, with Zilvinas at the helm.
Apparently, he’d won every game he played apart from one. The one he lost had been against a very keen year 7. The teacher didn’t say that Zilvinas had let the year 7 win. He didn’t need to, it was implicit. It’s funny, because I was a year 7 once. It’s funny, because I was dying, even then, and I’d never really had a childhood. It’s funny, because Zilvinas treated me like a child, and I knew death intimately, and I beat death at chess every day.
Toy-Thalia perches proudly.
She is cardboard, surprised at her luck:
or rather, she thinks she should be grateful,
and yet she remembers the proverb:
one shouldn’t praise the day
before the evening.
Toy-Thalia stands with tentative longevity,
a theatre play-thing built for posh children,
far from her heyday in a Hamburg home;
now she is tucked in the top room
of this small Midlands museum,
where passing old women comment,
“the kids here and now,
wouldn’t have the time of day for that.”
Her label dates her to way back,
“the 19th century” – she blushes,
red blossoms between her columns
and pink amongst her friezes –
embarrassment that her age is so displayed.
Toy-Thalia stands a metre tall
in her mahogany glass-fronted case.
Her room is carpeted in gloomy-shadow red,
an attempt to evoke the glory of her namesake,
but lit by a square of dim halogen bulbs
arranged on a grey ceiling
to the left of the damp patch;
perhaps she feels cheated?
She travelled nearly 800km to be displayed here.
Toy-Thalia perhaps thought emigration
to the arts and heritage sector
would bring her the admiration
and adoration she has missed over the years.
And now she is here, perhaps she feels naked?
Toy-Thalia, nevertheless, has staged for us a scene.
To begin is easy, to persist ist eine Kunst,
and so, her backscene is decorated
with oddly rigid drapes,
which look, to all the world,
(the few who happen to gaze this way)
like the stop-motion dancing limbs of an arachnid
trapped within a glass cage.
She is prepared for a performance,
audience optional at this Eastern stage.
Toy-Thalia, nevertheless, has staged for us a scene,
and so, two small girls, ballet dancer figurines,
flimsy children, clutching
thorned roses to their chests,
stand near her centre stage
but each is just slightly East or West.
Toy-Thalia, nevertheless, ist eine Künstlerin.
And so, in her decorative, sliding wings
a star-burst fountain stands
and represents her faded dreams,
distant from the action on stage
like a sunset: always out of reach,
her dreams of recognition forever recede.
She is out of the rain and into the eaves.
And the museum’s passing guests
do not linger long, just long enough
to laugh at her strange ways.
She is too old for “nowadays”.
She is far too East for West.
The following passage is an extract from a novella called Dark Tourism which follows white British couple Sandra and Charles Jones as they journey to Kerala, India to visit an ancient snake-infested tower. Charles has come with the intent of stealing an ancient relic from the top of the tower. Initially, Sandra just wanted to get a tan and impress her friends in Tunbridge Wells. Despite being warned repeatedly by locals not to go near the haunted tower Sandra and Charles both have their own private reasons for believing that they must. The contemptuous couple will soon find that the local superstitions regarding Bhoot tower are well founded…
Sandra contemplated which room to try next. What if her husband had moved aside one of the stones in an attempt to explore off the beaten track? That seemed like something he would do, and sure enough, one of the archways was only partially obscured by a slab pushed ajar. Weeds and dirt looked to have recently been moved aside too. Charles must be in this room.
As Sandra entered, the room remained dark, no faintly glowing walls, just a slight hissing sound.
‘Charles? Are you in here?’
‘Sandra? I’m here.’
‘Where’s here? I can’t see a bloody thing and my phone is dead.’
‘Me neither, but I’ve found something in a – compartment I guess? – in the wall. It feels like an ancient coin. Could be valuable.’ Charles replied excitedly. ‘Anyway, we should move on from here, I want to get to the top first. I shouldn’t really have let myself get distracted.’
‘I can’t see any light from the exit anymore. Can you put your phone torch on?’
There was a small click and white light flooded half of the room, illuminating five sets of onyx eyes shimmering in hessian-patterned heads. They were stationary in the corner of the room, but as time passed and Charles stood frozen in shock the light from his phone made the cobras more active. They began to writhe together.
‘TURN IT OFF!’ Sandra screamed at the top of her voice. ‘HELP!’
She rushed towards the archway in the darkness, but the way out was fully barred now. The stone slab had moved back into its original place, barricading the room from the rest of the tower. Sandra’s hands thumped repeatedly into the solid stone in front of her. Her knuckles cracked open on the rough granite and she could feel wetness blossoming there.
‘My foot! It’s touching my foot. There’s a snake on my foot!’ Charles’ voice lifted several octaves higher than usual.
‘I can’t die like this.’ Sandra whimpered.
Internally, something made her add I’ll do anything, and in that moment, Sandra Jones really was willing to do anything to survive.
She heard the viciously loud, low shriek of a bird of prey reverberate in her head like an answering battle-cry, then the stone walls glowed a soft red, growing incrementally brighter. Soon it was like the room was burning with cold fire, as the walls luminesced in deepest red. A whirlpool of shimmering claret steam span into flickering life in the centre of the room and sucked the warmth of the day into it. It spun quicker and quicker, like a telescopic image of a galaxy about to explode. The bird’s cry sounded over and over. It came in and out of aural focus as though the source of the sound was in violent motion too. The room was glowing so bright and red that Sandra had to stop watching and hold a hand over her eyes to shield her vision, when she cautiously removed the hand and opened her eyes she saw that an eagle had solidified from within the luminous gas. The last of the red light was fading back into the bird’s large breast. The smell of chrysanthemums, burning flesh and carbon mingled in Sandra’s nose as she watched dumbfounded. The cobras were now charred remains.
She stood stock still. The eagle stared into her soul.
Eventually she was released from her trance. She began to sob in terror and confusion. Charles started to scream and she swayed where she stood, wondering if she would faint.
ALLOW ME TO HELP YOU. I CAN BE YOUR GUIDE IN THIS TOWER. I KNOW WHAT YOU SEEK. BUT YOU MUST FOLLOW MY WORD. MY WORD WILL BE YOUR WORLD.
The eagle flexed the talons of its large clawed feet. Its massive wings fluttered in the non-existent breeze. Its eyes were the colour of blood.
Sandra steadied herself mentally. She would fight for what she wanted, as she always did. Don’t let me die here. Sandra demanded in her mind. I will do as you say.
End of extract.
Suzi can be reached at email@example.com