Title: Ophelia

Author: Cliff Fell

In: Sport 29: Spring 2002

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, October 2002

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Verse Literature

Conditions of use



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Sport 29: Spring 2002

Cliff Fell — Ophelia

page 20

Cliff Fell


1. That moment
There comes a moment when you don't know where you end
and the creature in your arms begins.

The long rains. Two years on from the accident and the day after
my sister left—
that day we knew we could be lovers no more
than sun and moon embrace the cradled earth.

I almost missed it in the market, the monsoon slapping down,
but turned to see what I'd ignored:
wrapped in a faded, torn kikoy, a wriggle
and her hopeless eyes staring into me:

and all of Africa's anger and sex and wildness
were riding in there.

2. The price
And there she was—
a baboon,
I said—
and not one of the blue baboons
you find upcountry
but a golden baboon from the coast,
a six-week-old Monroe blonde
page 21 who was already in my arms,
her little hands fast around the buttons of my shirt.

Notoka wapi, iko?
(Where d'you get her?)
I asked the Giriama—
one of the untouchable bushmen
of the coast—
he'd shot her mother,
drugged her with arrows to feed alive
to his pet python

and I bought her there and then,
for a ten bob cheque
written in pencil
which bounced.

3. Her name
Why did I give her such a tragic name?
Perhaps it was the Hamlet I'd just done
but more to the point—at only fifteen
I guess I'd guessed what was to come;

and she as motherless as me
that when I stared into her eyes—
and it's this that I want to remember—
that look when you look into an animal

and see your own soul's country
deep in there, beyond the dark horizon.
And she brought me flowers, petals from the garden,
and her moon-coloured cries at night.

page 22

4. Food
Whatever I ate, she ate—and from my bowl:
stone-sized chunks of aloneness
and whatever else my father's allowance allowed.
Sometimes an arm of grass, poured on a silver plate
from which her shining black fingers deftly sorted
all the seeds, which she ate
like a queen, buzzing away to herself,
while I lay on the sofa

5. Tricks
Tricks? Yes, she could do tricks:
she could outdrink anyone in the New Stanley,
pints of Elephant beer, though once
so drunk she jumped on Jack Block's head—
the owner deep in concentrated talk
trying to sell the place again.
Why him?
He banned us for ever then.

And her noise a wonder in my bed at night.

But it wasn't her tricks so much
as just her being there:
at the chai kiosks and foodcarts of River Rd.
We ate African for free
sikuma wiki, posho, mukate maiyai
for the punters we brought in.

And once, her first time on heat,
I woke in the dark to find her
page 23 sweetly
wanking us off—
both of us together.

6. Inner Child
Stare into her eyes—the fires and shining greens, the night's
bright gems.
Do we reflect each other? Yes, we reflect each other—
but I want to enter that look and live in there forever
to know what the child inside her thinks of me
and this other country, this dream I've brought her to.

And we stared into each other's eyes—
careless because we didn't care
fearless because there was nothing to fear
but the death we both inhabited

laughing as we waited for the final act—
like I was her Player King
and she my Player Queen.

7. Abuse
But it wasn't all roses.
Have you ever tried
to house-train a baboon?

Shit everywhere. In our bed
at night, in the kitchen:
the houseboy fled after two days.
The old soliloquies of abuse:
I cursed her, I wished her gone—
away into the prayers and habits of
white silence.

page 24

And was it physical abuse?
Yes, it was physical abuse:
I rubbed her face in it.
I beat her.
I locked her in the toilet

where Africa's tongue accused me,
screaming her wonderful noise.

8. A story
My little put-put, my 50cc Yamaha—
that's how she travelled, riding pillion,
clinging to my waist, slipped inside my shirt.

Langata Rd, 4 a.m.—army roadblock:
spikes and chains, and cavalettis on the road
like a riding school.

The soldiers relax around me, smiling:
Habari aku, bwana? Pleasantries of the black night—
no matter this mzungu on a bike.

Then, her tail twitches and stands up
on the seat behind me—like a rod: Shaitani!
Shaitani! Devil! and their guns all cocked at me.

‘Hey, whoa …’ holding to the softness in my voice.
‘It's only my baboon’—and as always in Africa
the childlike roar of laughter at ourselves

and friends for life, forever.

page 25

9. What was to come
The Ministry of Wildlife was on to me.
My friends were on to me. My sister
was on to me, and the houseboys.

Through it all, Ophelia muttered at nothing.
She picked the lice from my hair.
She brought me avocados from high up the tree—
their dark jade glowing in her shiny black palms,
in the creases of her fingers.

10. Forever
What is time to a baboon?

What did it mean to those eyes
that followed me from room to room,
or through the shantytowns
and Arab Quarter alleys
where children play soccer in the dust
and call for her, and follow her,
who followed me.

And even when she wasn't there,
when I locked her in the bathroom,
I could feel her gargoyle eyes on me,
the scrutiny that wildness grants—
to have this second sight with me.

But I don't know what time meant to her,
though if I had to guess
I'd say it meant simply this:
that we were there, together in that moment
page 26 and that the passing of each moment
was forever, or is forever
in the present simple tense to her.

11. Husband
I had to do something.
A ‘husband’ must be found for her.
A born-free solution. After all,
this was Adamson Land.

I took her to a farm in Macharkos—
Eden Hill. For three weeks I climbed
through trees with her,
teaching her to swing through them—
to teach her to survive.

And then I betrayed her twice on paper:
I divorced her with my signature.
I gave up such rights as I was said to have
and read again my traitor's name—
printed in carbon on a BOAC ticket,
bound for England.

12. Bees
Under the flyover, a council flat in Hammersmith,
where the letter came, falling like an autumn leaf,
wrapped in someone's white bandages.

It said that she'd been killed by bees, stung to death,
trying to rob their honey. I wept. I didn't want to believe.
I couldn't weep her out of me.

I wept her out of me.

page 27

13. Baboonery
Time knows many ways of passing.

A yew tree in the graveyard at Stoke Gabriel—
green smoke of its branches
hangs above the tombs.
Its roots are said to feed in every grave.

Carvings on the church door.
The gargoyle style
they call baboonery—
how is it I forget you,
for all of thirty years?

I look up at the stone faces:
a worn-out Herne the Hunter,
the wild hunt searching for souls—

and hold you as I come into myself,
feeding on that moment

where I don't know where I end
and the baboon in my arms begins.