I’m the 135th plate along from the emperor’s.
We – he and his guests – are having coquilles St. Jacques
with a white wine sauce. Protocol dictates
he enters last, and his food is served the hottest.
I am a minor functionary in a department
you wouldn’t know existed, but logically has to:
once you think about it, somebody has to do that.
I can no longer remember which songs
were played at my wedding. The dish
is placed in front of me on a porcelain
of medium fineness. Wine towers over it.
I am not quite yet in the sunset of my years.
I’ve never owned forks this clean. It steams
and I wait. The bread looks exquisite, the butter,
and is not yet permitted.
While waiting for the emperor
I think: how corals are fussy, happy only to live
at the temperature and depth of their liking;
how some afternoons I want to yawn so hard my lips
snap back over my gums like a monkey’s; how I might die
before my time, as I heard growing up about a classmate’s uncle.
Every clock in the room has been precisely aligned. Fastidious
napkins. The cream clogging up in the cold, the white fish
shrinking like pucks, and if they aren’t fish, would the emperor
know what to call them? My daughter has started listening
to artists playing a fusion of two genres I hadn’t heard
of either of to begin with. Almost nobody whose photo
I saw on a mantelpiece while I was in Infants
is still alive.
My handwriting has started to resemble
my mother’s. I understand now that she wasn’t
cleaning for fun. A man wearing gold buttons and a sash
plays a trumpet fanfare, and I have friends
in their late thirties still renting basement apartments.
Here comes the man the food is hottest for,
and some of the 134 whose will be hotter than mine is.
Many of them aren’t even going to touch the butter.
This is, at least occasionally, my life. The time I’m spending.
Would I need to raise my hand to go to the bathroom?
The emperor sits, and his eyes don’t gleam like the cutlery.
He has the eyes of a tired sofa salesman. Even with this –
the coquilles perfectly warm in their foam of yellow,
all possibility cresting into his mouth.
Desolation of the sinking airbed
Desolation of the packing peanuts
Desolation of the archived folder
Desolation of the green online light
Desolation of the bachelor cutlery
Desolation of the admin email
Desolation of the bathroom selfie
Desolation of the Timpsons counter
Desolation of the standing order
Desolation of the Netflix access
Desolation of the haunted playlist
Desolation of the sons of Adam
Desolation of the handmade T-shirt
Desolation of the altered flight plans
Desolation of the squandered in-joke
Desolation of the empty schedule
Desolation of the displaced cushions
Desolation of the rehung poster
Desolation of the student carpet
Desolation of the needless kidswear
Saint Jude, Saint Anthony, pray for us all
Richard O’Brien's publications include A Bloody Mess (Valley Press, 2015) and The Dolphin House (Forthcoming from Broken Sleep, 2021), as well as work in a range of magazines and anthologies. He won an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors in 2017, and is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Northumbria University. He was the Birmingham Poet Laureate 2018-2020