IN MY LAST LIFE I WAS A WOMAN (by James Munro)

“that little yard where I squatted in the dust”

In my last life I was a woman.
I lived in India. Uttar Pradesh.

Sometimes I still feel like
a woman who lives in Uttar Pradesh

speaks Hindi, worships Siva
and the local goddess, Lalita as Candika.

Her man went to the city, never came back.
My man. He died. No one told her but she knew.

Her two sons followed him. My sons. Me,
I never left the village. Hardly ever left

that little yard where I squatted in the dust
and ground the meal, thrusting away the hen –

The lurki – the name comes back –
that I would never kill. I never saw traffic, not like now, here,

crowded streets, traffic lights, people thrusting and swirling,
clucking like a thousand greedy hens

pouring down into the underground and onto the train
locked in and rocketing beneath the city like in a submarine.

I want to get out. I want to get back to
my Indian roots. Or my submarine roots.

I never saw the sea then, either,
except in my dreams. In my dreams

I was a fish.

THE LILY-POND (by James Munro)

There were goldfish in the pond where I grew up,
shubunkins and huge golden carp, newts
of course, and tadpoles, and in spring great skeins
of frogspawn. Concealed among the water lilies,
I would watch as dry, clothed people
strolled past or sat upon the wooden bench
and chatted or kissed or simply rested awhile
and gazed at the pond, the water lilies, me,
without seeing.

But time goes by and life,
and the world we knew goes with it:
one day, the officers of the law –
a social worker, a teacher,
a policeman – came and fished me out
and sent me away to school.

Now I sit on that bench and gaze and dream
and see great golden carp glide into
the sunlight then with a silent flick of a fin
slip back under the lily leaves and out of sight.
Watch a frog swim up to breathe, climb out,
look round. Put out my hand. It hops away.

Tadpoles have gills, frogs don’t.
Which is unfair. Children too,
though most don’t care, don’t
understand that for them there’s still
an option to living on land.

A fly on my arm crawls and tickles. Another
joins it. I move, they buzz, zip, return.
I lower my hand into the water, close
my eyes and dream I never went to school,
never learnt to be a person, clothed and dry.

WRONG WAY ROUND THE CHURCH by J. M. Munro (Review)

The title drew me to this novel immediately. It is from one of my very favourite poets, Dorothy Nimmo, and the whole stanza runs:

So go as the sun goes, wise daughter, go clockwise;
wrong way round the church is another kingdom, the price
of walking alone is a sword-blade slashing the instep.

In 1374, in the still very Moorish south of Spain, a girl is sold into slavery. After various adventures including a shipwreck, two years in a bordel in Cuenca and an encounter with a lamia, she is freed by her new master, a rich Moor whose life she has saved – but on condition that she takes with her the mysterious young slave-girl Malika and returns her to her home which (from what Malika tells them) seems to have been somewhere in the north of Spain or the south of France.

First, though, they make their way back across Andalucia to the village near Cartagena where Maryam grew up, and there she meets an elderly Scottish knight, Sir Farquhar de Dyngvale, come in search of her late father, who was himself a Scot in exile. He takes her under his wing and they head north together, first in search of Malika’s family, then, she hopes and dreams, to Paris.

My own favourite parts of the book are, first, Maryam’s recollections of her childhood by the Mar Menor, a ‘little sea’ in the south-east of Spain, where her Moorish grandmother, Sebah, taught her to dance and she studied all kinds of arcane subjects with her ‘uncle’ Rabbi Yacoub, while the rest of the time she spent swimming in the sea, all alone.

Secondly, the period they spent in Avignon, when they had left Spain behind, and Maryam found herself for the first time on the run from the powers that be, which in Avignon, then the seat of the Popes, meant the Church, and the Church meant the Inquisition. Going “wrong way round the church” indeed!

There are scenes of sex and violence, but no more so than in most books set in that period. Life was like that. (When wasn’t it?!) But there are also scenes such as those where we meet secret Cathars in the north of Spain and Blanche, the anything-but-orthodox ex-Queen of France, in Avignon, which bring home to us some of the most mysterious and tantalising aspects of the late Middle Ages.

Wrong Way Round the Church is one of those stories you read fast the first time, then later, at home now in this very different world, you read it again and this time you savour it to the full.

Wrong Way Round the Church is available FREE from OBOOKO – just click on the cover image above.