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Marilyn Monroe and W H Auden

by Ian Tallach



“You don’t mind me calling you that, Wystan? You did say on the phone … I’m … I’m so thrilled to meet you. I – I feared I wouldn’t recoginise you in … in here.” With a sweep of her left hand, she seemed to encompass everything – the vaulted ceiling, gothic arches, the dome above their heads. “But it’s just us … and your face is so ... so distinctive. Pardon me…” She blushed, looked down awkwardly and clasped her hands. 

“Distinctive?! That’s a very charitable way of describing an unmade bed! Your face, on the other hand, is more beguiling than …” he paused, and ran a finger-nail along a groove above his nose, as if carving yet another crease into that careworn forehead.

She let out a nervous trill “Thank you - that is a complement. W H Auden can’t find words to describe my face!”

“Sit down, Norma. Those words will take their time.” He smiled.

She gathered up her dress and slid along the pew. Wystan took another draw on his cigarette and let out a gust of blue-grey smoke which made the flames above the votive candles quiver.

“Wystan, you can’t smoke in here, can you? Folks … not me, of course … I hate religion … might see that as some kind of desecration.” She averted her eyes again, but this time her gaze took in the massive wooden ribs of the cathedral roof.

“Norma. I expect that you and I would desecrate a place by looking at it.”

She laughed again. “Speak for yourself! So … I hope you don’t mind that I contacted you ….”

“Not at all ...” his face realigned itself to reassure her further.

She blushed. “When I phoned, after your poetry reading on Thursday night, you suggested we meet here … in a church. Why?”

“I thought it a fitting place for an icon such as you!” The humour in his eyes told her there was another reason.

“No. Seriously” she made to pick out dust-motes from a narrow beam of light that rested on the pew in front. “Why the hell did you chose here?

He hung his massive head and there was silence for a while. Silence that sounded right, somehow.

A smile played at the corners of his mouth. “Three reasons, I suppose. I couldn’t resist the shock-value. The perversity of it. And I’m delighted to see that you are not a prude.”

“A prude? I thought a prude was someone who came to a place like this.”

“Perhaps, Norma. But that is not prudery so much as that of cultured people who think of religious belief as the last remaining shameful thing.”

“B … but you’re a poet. Truman says no-one can speak the truth like you. He says you have precision. You define things.”

Wystan put a warm hand on her shoulder. “Thank you. That is very important to me. That is a poet’s duty, to define. To disenchant and disentoxicate. But there is also that which defines us. We cannot find ourselves unless we lose ourselves. And I can lose my ego here.”

“Wystan, I like your hand – on my shoulder. I feel safe. Your eyes don’t look me up and down. And you don’t patronize me … treat me like what they’ve turned me into – a ditty, dumb blonde that exists for the pleasure of mankind … a girl who never thinks.”

“On the contrary, you’re sharp … very sharp. And Norma, there’s perhaps a reason my hand’s perfectly still.”

“Yes, I know. You’re queer, aren’t you.”

“Crooked as the age we live in.” The echoes of their giggling came back at them from the altar. She edged a little closer and leaned against him.

“Truman is like you … that way. He says religious people want to stone him.”

“Well, I wouldn’t be alone in challenging the first of them.”

“Are you seriously religious? I’ve seen you drunk. I ... I didn’t think. How can you, when the Nazis …”

She tailed off turning her face to his, knowing that she’d already said enough for him to understand.

“Well, in some ways, the Nazis are the second reason.”

“Second? Oh! Yes … you said there were three reasons you’d suggested we meet here.”

“Yes. The novelty and shock of the Nazis was that they attacked Christianity because they thought that, the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself was fit only for effeminate weaklings.” He smiled shyly and carved with his fingernail a groove along the back of the pew in front. “The chaos and tyranny of this world, we must try to hold at arm’s length.” 

“But I’ve been made so sick of Christianity. My mother was obsessed. She was a Christian scientist. It drove her mad. And then, my luck, I got fostered by some Southern Baptists. That was before the orphanage. They thought everything to do with the body was vile.” She noticed the acoustics, the amplification of her voice.

His rheumy eyes looked down at her. In them she saw a sadness and the ebb and flow of tides. “I hate that.” He said, with venom. “I too, hate that. T S Eliot may be comfortable with a Christianity of disembodied spirits. But not me - can there be anywhere a philosophy that endorses the flesh more than this one” He inhaled deeply. “– the word became flesh and dwelt among us … mud on the eyes of a blind man, words in the dust, the body and the blood.” He seemed to seethe with rage and large tears welled up behind his lower lids.   

She took a handkerchief from her breast pocket and passed it to him.

“Thanks, Norma.”

“Aw. That’s nothing. I got a hankie collection …. One from every place I’ve been. And that’s a lot.”

He snorted in mid-blow. They laughed together.

“Wystan, I’m jealous. You got something to believe in. Someone, maybe. A certain … peace.”

Wystan guffawed. “No, Norma, peace is something that I’ll never have.” He frowned as few on earth could frown.

She changed the subject. “What was your third reason?”

“For suggesting the cathedral?”


“My hotel is right across the street.” He chuckled.

“PUT OUT THAT CIGARETTE RIGHT NOW!!!” The voice of the priest, forgetting reverence, rang out across the nave.

“Oh!” was all the poet said before grinding the stub against the marble floor. He wasn’t sorry, so he couldn’t say the word. That would not have been his way. “Can we meet again, Norma?”

“Please, Wystan. I’d like that.“

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