Black Rot and Mildew | Leontia Flynn | Granta Magazine

Black Rot and Mildew

Leontia Flynn

‘a look I’d managed to accessorize / with raw dermatological distress.’

Obsessive Compulsive Poem for Lawrence


You’d propped an apologetic-bossy note
like a greeting card on a florist-shop bouquet –
‘Don’t touch this. Sorry’ – under the pilot light
of the kitchen boiler. Around it, disarray
decay in fact, blooming confusion
in that leased flat I could hardly call my own.

How did it come to this: black rot and damp?
A private life that teetered on the brink,
like Belfast, of devolving back to swamp?
Here was the drama – of the kitchen sink
variety – in which I played my role
these twelve years since – gothic, millennial.

Blue-mould and mildew; how did it come to this?
As the suicide year of 1999
plunged to its end, my mind was a bit of chipped glass
whittling down to seven improbable stone
a look I’d managed to accessorize
with raw dermatological distress.

Which fretful flaying came on the coat-tail
of whatever thing it was at once got loose
to rear and buck, like a live electric cable
with me in tow, later in adolescence –
though about whose ups and downs I was super-discreet
so as not to alarm. Set on my feet

another time, in Edinburgh, worn out,
my candle was so scorched at either end
I was half smoky air – though not in doubt,
when you called to the flat to see a friend,
of what you tried to keep under the radar:
some sort of love affair with soap and water,

a laundry-list of purging ritual
round whose imperative, I learned, you fit
your university lab-work up the hill
and the psychology post-doctorate
which gave you some little insight on your plight.
You were afraid of chewing gum and snot

and for this I’d blame your absent Commodore father
(his inside information on Faslane
and HMNB Clyde let him know as blether
our mutually-cherished Four Minute Nuclear Warning
and comfort you – at six – that, truly, instead
you’d be exterminated in your bed).

Cue comic dysfunction. Pills. Sunshine on Leith.
Whiskey with breakfast – and that species of de-mob
happiness, like Snow Days, that comes with
blithely temporarily giving up
on the whole debilitating masquerade
of early and unscripted adulthood.

And as our sybaritic one-night stand
spilled into months – you swabbing down the deck,
me, steering my storm-tossed ship to harbour – and
stricken, I bolted, and you followed back
to gritty and less picturesque Belfast
each night’s performance should have been our last,

but each day we once again resumed the steps –
you, like some antic, bearded Fred Astair
twirling your sponge and rinsing round the taps;
me on the upswing, poised between despair
and vast amusement – in the vivid dance:
of our semi-ironic co-dependence.

What we required in these days was no less
than an eternal, stereophonic present
immured from time: replete and frictionless
with all the outside’s sturm und drang – that wasn’t
yet streaming and all-pervasive – kept at bay
obsessively, for love and poetry;

for love and terror and . . . computer code.
You in your geeky thrall to quaint A.I.
wrote software, open-sourced and modified –
all one-point-O, now, hopelessly passé
your Red Hat Linux days, like the MP3-
player a friend called ‘revolutionary’

but cutting-edge back then. Each afternoon,
working at separate desks, a pale, calm light
– after the sun tipped past the attics ­– shone
onto the freaky guest house up the street
(swingers perhaps?, we thought) . . . but at my back
I’d hear the floorboards strain and plaster crack

with blue mould and mildew, rising damp and rot . . .
‘Don’t TOUCH THIS’. When, with slow indifference,
the world crept in, we’d both disintegrate
under a wave – as bin-bags, bottles, cans
clothing and cash all seethed with ‘contamination’,
for not all the water in the wide, green ocean

. . . is water under the bridge of course.  This crazy
quasi-confessional, in black and white
(coded my way now), seem kamikaze
nose-dive, in part, part gap year anecdote
and I wish you well. We were half out of our minds
and young and smart. We should have been better friends.



Photograph © Riccardo Meneghini

Leontia Flynn

Leontia Flynn is the author of three poetry collections, the most recent being Profit and Loss, which was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize. She lives in Belfast and teaches at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry.

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