‘All Ten Marilyns’ Short Fiction By Stuart Henson

Stuart Henson’s most recent book is The Way You Know It, New & Selected Poems (Shoestring 2018). His stories have appeared in (or have been accepted for) a number of magazines including The Interpreter’s House, Iota New Fiction 1, The New Welsh Review, The Reader and Under the Radar.

Frobisher is a bastard. You can ask anyone. You can ask Frobisher. He enjoys it. It makes him feel… Well, I don’t know how it makes him feel, but he’s turned being a bastard into a life’s work. As he sits there next to the Master he oozes a kind of sanctimoniousness. And he’s growing a belly—with good capon lined—and he can’t be any more than twenty-six. Unfortunately, when I arrived at Darwin he decided to take me under his wing. I don’t know why. We don’t have much in common. Unless it’s some nascent bastardy he detected in the way I seemed to be looking at the world. In fact, I was panicking—about not having a gown for my first Formal Hall.

‘Just nick one,’ he says. ‘There’s plenty on the pegs outside the Common Room.’ So I do. And I follow him up the glassy stairs to the Fellows Dining Room. The FDR’s a long room, overlooking the gardens and one of the residence blocks. The table runs down the middle, and the décor, as befits a new college like Darwin, speaks a proud stylishness. The farthest of the oak-clad walls is hung with a pale abstract in the style of Miro and the curtains glide across the full-length windows on invisible rails.

‘Not there!’ hisses Frobisher as I head for a place away from the high end, and clutching the gown’s sleeve surreptitiously, propels me to within a few feet of the Master’s chair.

‘Have you met Dickinson?’ he asks—loudly—‘He’s doing a Post-Doctoral on particle physics and he’s on the up-and-up.’  The old man nods and at that moment the gong bombilates and the grumble of conversation subsides to silence.

Benedic, Domine, nos et dona tua, quae de largitate tua sumus sumpturi, et concede, ut illis salubriter nutriti tibi debitum obsequium praestare valeamus, per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen’ 

The ‘Amen’ repeated as a universal grunt.

Afterwards in the Buttery it’s me who buys the round.

‘Least you can do,’ says Frobisher, unctuously.

I want to ask him two things. The first is how he knew my specialism before he’d met me. (‘I make that kind of thing, my business, dear boy.’)   Dear boy!  What does he think—we’re all in some kind of Sunday night period drama?  The other question is why the Fellows all line up on one side of the table only, despite the abundance of chairs and place-settings opposite.

 ‘Oh,’ he says, with apparent lack of interest. ‘It’s been going on for the best part of a year—as a protest.’

‘Against the food?  ’

‘Against the fucking artwork.’

I must be looking quizzical.

‘Didn’t you see them—on the wall behind us?  Bloody childish screen-print things of Marilyn Monroe, like a fucking chorus-line from a nightmare. By some American tosser. If you’ve got your back to them, you don’t have to look.’

The dispute, it transpires, is between the Fellows and Ramson the Domestic Bursar who has invested a considerable amount of the college’s funds in the acquisition of an original Warhol series, one of which is signed by the artist, as a demonstration, perhaps, of the College’s forward-thinking and liberal cultural values.

‘Cartwright and Clutton-Brock are particularly agin ’em: they don’t think they’re “proper art”, and the rest follow like sheep. Couldn’t give a monkey’s myself, but there’s no sense in getting on the wrong side of the table.’

‘For God’s sake, Frobisher, what the hell’s the matter with them?  This is 1972 not 1792!’

‘Lack of class; lack of gravitas, I’d say. But the point is, Cartwright and old Mutton-Chop have the ear of the Master. Huge influence when it comes to Senior Fellowships.’

I do my best in the following weeks to keep out of Frobisher’s clutches but while I’m ‘on the up and up’ it’s never going to be easy. For one thing, I’m anxious to cultivate my acquaintance with a pretty undergraduate who’s working in the department, and I’ve a strong suspicions that in Frobisher’s eyes she’ll have neither the class nor the gravitas required for upward mobility. Relations between Fellows and undergraduates are not forbidden, strictly, but they are, I know, “frowned upon”.

It’s as I’m stumbling home on that early evening that I experience the first encounter. The route to my digs in Bermuda Terrace takes me past The Haycock and there’s noise outside. A circle of young men are joshing under a streetlight so I begin to cross the road to avoid the need to pass through them. At the same time a girl seems to break free of the group and push towards me, greeting me effusively, like a long-lost friend:

‘Ah, Johnny!  Where you been?  I thought you were never coming. I was waiting and waiting!’

She kisses me charmingly on one ear and links her arm through mine and steers me on up the road, away from the pub, chattering ten-to-the-dozen about people and places I’ve never heard of—until we round the corner and she falls silent, walking in step, clinging to my arm. When I turn to her, about to speak, she raises a finger to her lips.

‘Don’t ask. Just take me along another block.’  Her sky-blue eyes are a little puffy, her lipstick smudged. ‘They don’t mean any harm. They’re just boys,’ she says.

Still, it takes a week or more for the penny to drop. That’s after I think I’ve seen her again—in town—though I can’t be sure it’s the same person. This time I’m cycling back down Garret Hostel Lane and across the bridge when for some reason my eye is caught by one of the punters, poling a boat between the backs of King’s and Clare. . It’s odd to see a woman steering a punt I suppose, and there’s something striking about her—the Capri-pants, her hooped top, the band through her hair…  The punt is slipping into the shadows below the bridge so I slew my bike to the railings to watch them emerge on the other side. When they come out, the girl turns and looks up, directly. She raises her dark glasses and smiles and waves. I don’t wave back. I’m mesmerised. I just stand there gawping as she raises the pole, dripping, and plunges it again in the murky stream.

Before dinner I confess to Frobisher (of all people!) that I’m worried.

‘I think I’ve been hallucinating. I’ve seen this young woman—twice. I know it sounds stupid but I think it’s her. I think it’s Marilyn Monroe.’

Frobisher considers it amusing, and not serious. ‘Hormones, dear boy. Simple as that. What you need is to find a nice little tart and give her a good rogering. That’ll calm you down. There’s a place off Mill Road. I can take you there after dinner if you like but they’ll expect you to bring your own protection.’

I don’t like. And once again Frobisher is amused, this time by my squeamishness.

                                                                  *

Fortunately, I’ve plenty of lab business to keep me busy and for a couple of weeks I manage to survive without further visitations. This has the additional advantage of bringing me into closer proximity with Emily, who’s the opposite of Marilyn in so many ways. Emily is dark and—she doesn’t worry about what people think. She certainly doesn’t take me seriously, which is an advantage for a start. At work she ties her hair back and often wears the safety specs the rest of us don’t bother with. I tell her she reminds me of Brains from Thunderbirds. To which she replies, looking over the specs, that I remind her of Dino from The Flintstones.

I make a point of taking an interest in what she’s doing, and offer advice on how the research might progress. On Bonfire Night I screw my courage to the sticking place and ask her out. We go to the Greek place on Free School Lane and then to watch the fireworks on Midsummer Common.  She has a room in the halls at Darwin and that’s where we end up.

‘I’ve got a nice little bit of hash we can share,’ she says. ‘Colombian. I got it from a friend of mine at Jesus. It’s good stuff—from the centre of the block.’

The notion of my being rusticated for smoking cannabis with a female undergraduate in a College residence would amuse Frobisher, no doubt, but at this stage it doesn’t look as if I have a great deal of choice.

‘Well,’ I say, with a wan smile. ‘If it comes from Jesus…’

She slips an LP from the pile by her desk and sets it on her stereo. It’s Jimi Hendrix—Are You Experienced?  It crosses my mind that this is all an elaborate tease, since needless to say I’m sadly lacking in experience. So I watch carefully as she unfolds a sweet embroidered handkerchief—the kind your granny might have—cuts off a chunk and crumbles it OXO-style in the bowl of her pipe.  I watch her take a toke and close her eyes and I try to do exactly the same when she passes it to me.

In due course, the posters on Emily’s walls become radiant. I tell her so, and examine the borders in all their wonderful detail. Indeed, Emily herself becomes extraordinarily beautiful. As she sits there dreaming in the one easy chair she seems to possess the complete calm loveliness of a Botticelli Madonna. For the life of me, I can’t understand why I haven’t seen this before. It occurs to me that even breathing is a spiritual thing. When you inhale you inhale the Universe. 

In a while—at least I think it’s a while—I crawl over to her and put my head on her knees. Her sexual presence is overwhelming. 

‘I want you, Emily,’ I moan.

She smiles at me benignly, her eyes half-closed like a cat’s, and she strokes my hair. ‘Ah, no,’ she murmurs. ‘I don’t…’

And she falls asleep.

I can’t deny that this is a disappointment, but when I turn round there are the twin Marilyns, large as life, holding hands on the bed. I’m not in the least surprised, though I do find it a little odd when the two merge into one at times in the course of the next elastic hour or so. They’re exactly the same, except they’re wearing different coloured shirts and have different coloured lipstick—and even different hair at times. It does seem to me, though, that one is happier, one is sad. They tell me a whole lot about themselves and they laugh frequently—at least, one of them does.

‘You know what the trouble with men is, Johnny?  Huh?  (I shake my head, helpfully)  Well, the trouble with men is…  (She stops to share a toke on the pipe). Their problem is—they don’t see you. They can’t see past their dicks. Or the picture they had on a calendar when they were a kid. Just easier, most of the time to give them what they want.  Talk to them. Listen to ’em. Take off your clothes so you’d think they’d see you, but somehow you just get to be—less and less there. And the women are worse. I never knew one my whole life I could really trust. You wanna see what they did to me once, Johnny, the bitches?’

At this point they flick back their sweeps of blonde hair and there right in the middle of both their foreheads—a bullet-hole, simple, unfussy, as from a pistol shot.

When they merge again and she puts her sparkling hands on my shoulders, she looks me straight in the eye.

‘I never had a true friend, Johnny—though I thought so sometimes. So you know what I learned?  Like when the bastards at Fox kept on screwing me over?  You just gotta step up and do it yourself in the end. You tell ’em:  If you can’t do better than that I aint comin’ to work today, or next week, or next year neither. They start wonderin’ then.’

                                                                   *

From that night on, I don’t see so much of Emily. I get the impression she might be avoiding me. I notice her several times with a boy with bird’s-nest hair and always the same blue cheesecloth shirt. Once, through the glass of the Union building, I see him trailing a guitar in one hand, the other snaked round Emily’s waist. I reconcile myself to the idea that Emily was really no more than a fantasy, and I don’t see any more Marilyns either.

Yet something that won’t go away keeps nagging at my conscience. ‘You just gotta step up and do it yourself in the end.’ I guess it was that advice that’s pushed me to this: to making my stand in the Dining Room in the last week of the Michaelmas Term. I’ve tried to get some of the other Junior Fellows on side but they all seem to go cloudy when you explain the idea. I tried it on Frobisher and he was appalled.

‘Come off it, old man. This isn’t Dagenham. You haven’t been listening. It’s never worked like that, and it never will. Why on earth give up a promising career for a fling with a painting?’

‘A screen-print.’

‘All the same thing! You’re smarter than that. Mutton-Chop has got his eye on Beveridge, but Cartwright and I can still fix it for you. I’m up for the Selection Board. It’s a shoo-in if you cultivate the right people. A Nobel in ten years—or a No-one.  Your choice.’

‘I’ve been thinking about a change of tack,’ I say. ‘I’ve been thinking about market-gardening.’

                                                                   *

I make a point of arriving at the last minute. I have my own gown now: fifth-hand, via the bulletin-board. No doubt I’ll be able to use it to keep warm while I’m thinning asparagus.  

The silence falls a fraction early—when I take up a place south of the table. It feels good, curiously. The space around me. The eyes opposite are a mix of puzzlement and outright hostility. Forty eyes. Twenty vultures. Twenty skeletons from Halloween…

The gong bombilates.

Benedic, Domine, nos et dona tua…’

The skulls are bowed, but I look up. And all ten Marilyns wink at me, in their different ways.

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