'The Visitors' - this poem stems from working in a surgery - I was always opening letters from consultants and this one seemed more painful than most of them. And the consultant's note was, 'This patient was obviously hallucinating as I spoke to her.'

The Visitors


There was one in the room, thinking of the sherry
he would have before lunch, rocking slightly in his chair.

There was another opposite him, grey hair falling
across a face like a coy but ravaged schoolgirl.

There were others present to whom she would have talked
had he not asked her tedious questions, eyeing her.

They were invisible to him, his ego balanced well,
his libido functioning perfectly, his accountant satisfied.

Sometimes their faces got between her and the desk,
mocking and bony, whispering foul insinuations.

When they advanced too far across the carpet
she wanted to get up and tell them to go away,

but his tight clinical voice held her poised
between the overt grins and the beckoning hands.

In the end, he won, and the others bobbed like balloons
in a corner, unmistakably there, but further away.

At last she was compelled to tell them to go away from her,
though she could see them reflected in his glasses, waiting.

He asked her questions, and noted down her hesitant answers
in a precise hand on a long yellow form.

In the end, he formally ushered her out into the corridor,
the faces, mouthing obscenities, followed in a muddled bunch,

crowding with her through the narrow door, escorting
her back to the ward where they settled in like squatters,

one on the end of the bed, some by the locker,
and one who laid his head on her pillow, talking softly

until she fell asleep abruptly, and for a while
the visitors crept away silently or floated gently out,

leaving only the faintest trace of their presence,
like a perfume or a discarded cigarette burning away.

from Two Women Dancing: New and Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, 1995), © Elizabeth Bartlett 1995, used by permission of the author and Bloodaxe Books Ltd.

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