Abigail Elizabeth Ottley (formerly Wyatt) writes poetry – and some short fiction – from her home in Penzance in Cornwall. Since 2009, her work has appeared in more than 150 journals, magazines and anthologies including The Blue Nib, Ink, Sweat & Tears, Atrium Poetry and Words With Jam. She was also one of the poets featured in Wave Hub: new poetry from Cornwall (2014) edited by Dr Alan M Kent and published by Francis Boutle. In 2019, 12 of her poems were translated into Romanian for Pro Saeculum and Banchetul. For this, much gratitude to translator and bilingual poet, Mariana Gardner. In the same year, Abigail’s poem ‘Bull Male, Sleeping’ was chosen for ‘Poems on the Move’ at the Guernsey Literary Festival. (formerly Wyatt) writes poetry – and some short fiction – from her home in Penzance in Cornwall. Since 2009, her work has appeared in more than 150 journals, magazines and anthologies including The Blue Nib, Ink, Sweat & Tears, Atrium Poetry and Words With Jam. She was also one of the poets featured in Wave Hub: new poetry from Cornwall (2014) edited by Dr Alan M Kent and published by Francis Boutle. In 2019, 12 of her poems were translated into Romanian for Pro Saeculum and Banchetul. For this, much gratitude to translator and bilingual poet, Mariana Gardner. In the same year, Abigail’s poem ‘Bull Male, Sleeping’ was chosen for ‘Poems on the Move’ at the Guernsey Literary Festival.
BULL MALE, SLEEPING
Despite my glazed, black eye, not dead, not I. A whaling man would know better. A kittiwake spoke and by the power of my flukes I heaved my scarred bulk at the sky. Now blow-hole to the surface I am perpendicular, at peace with my own slap and wallow. Between the music that lulls me and the tide’s sharp tug slides the shadow of the she-whale that suckled me. How perfectly we swam, my smaller belly nudging hers. I learned worship at the altar of her mouth. Now time makes me master of this brooding estate. Only man and the orca oppose me. My desire is to swim. I will father many children. My purpose is to breech and blow.
ON BEING ASKED TO IMAGINE A GORILLA
Slate-blue eyes less easy to read than scratches weathered in stone blue shadow the colour of three day old bruises mouth hard like a line seldom crossed. My imaginings incline to lemon groves and wine vines heavy with spider-stalk tomatoes but you would prefer to hang with the guys in some pool hall or sleazy downtown bar. Lantern jawed with a crumpled shirt-front mornings find you tight-lipped and sprawling. The closing of a deal speaks some deadly purpose. Your black tie’s undone and askew.
I know there is going to be trouble from the minute Raif arrives. He doesn’t enter right away but pauses on the threshold. A silence settles like a first fall of snow. Raif throws his weight onto one fluid hip and lounges with one arm against the door frame. He glowers at Azza who is slumped across a table on the opposite side of the room.
Everybody else, and it’s late in the day so there are only a handful of us present, everybody looks from Raif to Azza then back again to Raif. We are waiting for the fireworks but
seconds tick away and still nothing happens. Azza doesn’t even look up. He is stubbornly unmoved.
For a creature of his bulk and weight Azza looks oddly pathetic. His powerful shoulders are hunched up close, rising like a small range of mountains, while his big, beautiful head with its magnificent curls is cradled in the circle of his arms. He has the look of a lost or abandoned child who has hunkered down to sleep in a doorway. He seems to have thrown off all shame and self-consciousness in the face of his need for proper rest.
That Raif is not impressed is easy to see. He drums his slender fingers on the door frame. His mouth is set in a grim line and his eyes are flinty cold.
‘What do you think you are doing?’ he says. ‘You should have been on the job three hours ago. I told you before you can’t just do this. It isn’t fair on the rest.’
Raif is trying not to shout but he cannot conceal his frustration. We all know this isn’t the first time that Azza has ducked out of work. Not that he’s lazy or incompetent. On the contrary, he’s always been keen and conscientious. Lately, though, and everyone knows it, Azza has not been himself.
Just then Azza sighs and the whole of the room seems to shudder. Those great globed shoulders rise and fall in a series of agonised sobs. Raif is first startled and then disconcerted. His face loses some of its flintiness. In three or four balletic strides he is by Azza’s side.
‘Look,’ he says, ‘this won’t do. We just can’t manage without you. You’ve got to go back. It’s chaos down there.’
Raif’s hand hovers in the air before coming to rest on Azza’s curls. The gesture is so gentle and at the same time so intimate that it is almost maternal. Azza, finding he is unable to ignore it, raises his head.
‘It’s no good,’ he says between a series of sobs and strangulated gulps. ‘You have to understand I can’t keep doing it. He has to understand. I can’t go back to work.’
‘What do you mean cant go back?’ Raif’s bewilderment is genuine. ‘That’s just nonsensical. That’s totally absurd. The whole set-up depends on your input and that was made clear from the outset. It’s there in your contract. You have to go back to work.’
‘But I don’t believe in it. I feel like a liar and a fraud.
‘Azza,’ says Raif, ‘that’s simply not true. You have always done an excellent job.’ He’s wheedling now and it’s obvious to everyone that he will say pretty much anything to get Azza back in line.
‘Have I? Have I?’ Azza is angry. ‘So your guys have been appraising my performance? Has ‘Efficiency and Professional Development’ been written into your brief? Have you been watching me day after day, century after century? The truth is, Raif, you know nothing about it. And we both know you care even less.’
Azza’s voice is thick with contempt but he sounds more sad than angry. It’s as if he’s got too down-in-the-mouth to be bothered to get off his rear. Raif, on the other hand, normally so composed, seems to have been pushed to his limits.
What exactly is your problem?’ he snaps. ‘I’ll see what I can do.’
Azza smiles a wan little smile. He slowly shakes his head. That wild, wonderful hair of his falls down over his eyes.
‘My problem is that I hate what I’m doing and it’s killing me to go on doing it. My problem is that I need another job. But I’ll settle for a good long break.’
And then Azza goes on and on about how he has never had a holiday and how he works day and night and is always left on his own. He has no one to talk to and no one to help him, not even when the job gets really busy. He just can’t hack it a minute longer. He thinks he might be losing his mind.
While Azza lets rip Raif stands by. He looks a little awkward. Then he pulls up a chair and crouches down low, settling himself at Azza’s side. Azza doesn’t stop, though. It’s as if he can’t. A torrent of words pours out of him. The rest of us are left feeling uncomfortable, even ashamed.
Azza, we realise, is on the edge of a breakdown. He is not just unhappy. He isn’t at all the highly-motivated dude we all thought he was. He wants to wear orange and purple and pink. He wants to turn cartwheels in the sunshine. What he doesn’t want is to be dark and dreadful and stalk the earth unseen.
Finally Azza stops talking and opts for silent tears. They roll down his sculpted cheeks, snot streams from his nose. Raif wriggles in his seat and looks about the room as though in search of absolution.
‘I’m sorry, Azza,’he says at last. ‘I really had no idea.’
At this Azza snorts loudly and begins to clean up his face. He uses the broad sleeve of his tunic. He doesn’t care who sees.
‘Well now you do,’ he says to Raif. ‘Do you still want me to go back down there?’
There is a pause. Raif raises his eyebrows. Azza looks thoughtful.
‘Okay,’ he says. ‘I’m on the case. You’ve got what you wanted. Just don’t go telling me once I get started that Management wants me to stop.’
Azza stands. He is one tall son-of-a-bitch. He steps away from the table. He tosses back his fiery curls and unfurls his wings. As he makes for the door we avert our gaze but Raif, well, Raif looks worried.
‘Azza,’ he says in exasperation.
Azza’s head swivels to face him, blue eyes narrow and blazing. An smile plays about his lips.
’My name is Azrael.’