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The Receipt

Reading Patti Smith. M Train. In a cafe. Wearing a suit jacket, jeans and a beanie. Channelling, in a semi-ironic way, the image of Patti from the cover. 

Hardback cover image, M Train pic by Claire Alexandra Hatfield

Dark light, panelling, window light. I choose the seat by the window, triangulated with glass and plaster, softened by cushions, soft feather, rough fabric behind me. Panelling, channeling, there’s poetry hiding in strange places and emotions to tunnel, tunnelling though the cracks. In armour, in walls, in defences of solitude, behind a hard back book.

Patti reads and roams, into the images, creating new paths, melding the imagined with the real imagined. The voices of departed friends, William Burroughs being the flea, drawing blood, mining for words and meaning. The image of her lost Fred, hovering in shadows, light beams, objects in daily crypts, inside the desk drawer, a guitar pick, an old photo.

I leave the cafe and make my way to the butcher shop, Gruner’s. The only person there this morning is old Mr Gruner, Peter. Give a little whistle, he used to sing at my girl. He moves slowly now, so frail and shrunken. Always working, doing paperwork, cutting ribs, grinding mince. I need mince, and he will have to grind some extra meat for me. I want to make meatballs. He doesn’t mind, but the task is done slowly, the mince transferred from tray into bag, measured and weighed, small, stray bits picked at with fingers that no longer grasp. I ask for lamb backstraps, but they are too far into the cabinet. I wince, as he leans, stretches, his knobbled fingers pressing that further millimetre. He can’t do it, grabs the tray and slides it back towards him, and when it gets stuck, again I wince at the small injustices of old age and its physical limitations. He is so thankful today, for each product I order, he gives me a gracious ‘thank you, thank you very much’.

His stubble is white grey and sparse and I have to turn away and look out the window at the sight of the unshaven cheeks. The old man skin, the fear of life’s passing, the thoughts of my father. My eyes are wet as I stare from the plate glass windows, the frame over Blessington St. It’s the visage, holding it together yet going to ruin, skin slackened, pale, thin. I weep for the butcher’s passing. For the meat laid out on trays. His life of hard work, his old ways being overtaken. Here he hand makes all his sausages and his pressed meats, his shelves are lined with pickles and crackers, with biscuits from Eastern Europe.

I tell him we have a dog now, and how she has changed our family. I order two chicken wings. For the puppy, he says. Yes, and I show him a picture. What do you do? he asks me, and I tell him, as a shortcut, that I work at a newspaper, and that I sometimes write. He tallies the cost of the meat on a piece of paper, butcher’s paper torn from an edge. A handmade receipt, to go with his handmade smallgoods. I decide to keep it, as a memento and a marker. There is a small piece of mince ground into the paper. I try to flick it off, but instead it smears the pinkness into the fine grain. I had thought of taking a photo of his meat display, as my eyes had started to tingle, but it seemed a little intrusive, all those meats laid out bare under cling wrap. The piece of paper works better anyway-product of his hands, his head, his trade, his stock, his legacy.

Mince beef, lamb backstraps, chicken wings (for the puppy), at Gruner's Butchers

I take the bags from him as he processes the payment. What are you doing now? he asks, more chatty than usual. I’ll go home, see the puppy, I say and he says ‘your eyes go all sparkly and bright when you talk about the puppy.’ He lets it sink in. He’s right. I say, yes she brings a lot of love to our lives.

And when I walk from there, I can hardly see the road through the tears, framed by autumn branches and asphalt. 

But like Patti, I feel like I have carved something out of a morning. Coming home to a house of family, dog and maybe some slow cooking, thinking of the unshaved faces of old men. And feeling the love.

Read an excerpt of M Train at Penguin Random House "In 1965 I had come to New York City from South Jersey just to roam around, and nothing seemed more romantic than to write poetry in a Greenwich Village cafĂ©."


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