'In my swimming togs, toenails like a neglected donkey'
Michael Harding: Magda arrived in a shining black costume, sat down and asked had I been talking to myself
Michael Harding: “I became Prufrock in my swimming togs, as Magda listened with what seemed to be compassion.” Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
I was in my swimming togs reciting a poem entitled The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. The steam room was, of course, empty. I wouldn’t dare mumble poetry under my breath when I’m sitting next to strangers in swimwear. But suddenly Magda arrived in a shining black single-piece costume and as she sat on the opposite bench in the steam she asked me had I been talking to myself.
“Yes,” I admitted. “I was reciting a poem.”
“You’re not looking very happy,” she observed. I explained that an overweight man of my years, with white skin, and flesh falling off the bones and toe nails like a neglected donkey, which I forgot to cut before putting on my clothes that morning, was not likely to look happy.
Kittens, when they are born, look like little snowflakes from heaven sent by God
I was crouched in the corner, with my feet up on the bench, like an insect newly emerged from a cocoon.
“It’s the same with cats,” I continued. “They deteriorate with age. Kittens, when they are born, look like little snowflakes from heaven sent by God to cheer up the universe, but an old cat with a bloated belly, lying on the vet’s table is not a pretty sight. Believe me, I’ve been there.”
“You have been on the vet’s table?” she exclaimed, clearly confused.
“No,” I replied, “but I’ve seen cats growing old.”
I always feel bereft in the steam room when someone leaves
Magda seemed nervous but I continued talking. I can’t keep my mouth shut when I’m agitated, especially in the mornings. I think that’s why the Beloved gets up early and heads to places like Poland or SuperValu before I wake.
Magda closed her eyes and smiled like she does when she is behind the counter at the filling station dealing with some awkward customer.
And I was chattering away about the leisure centre because I didn’t want her to leave. I always feel bereft in the steam room when someone leaves.
“I didn’t join the leisure centre last year because I thought full membership was too expensive. But in December they reduced the fee to €100 for three months as a special winter offer, and I thought – that’s only €1 a day – and so I joined up. But I haven’t been back since. So this morning, as my three months were almost ended, I was determined to have at least one single swim. Even though it’s effectively costing me €100.”
“That’s a lot of money for a swim,” she said.
“It is,” I agreed. “And I even tanked up on coffee at Esquires before I came in, because I find that a pain au raisin and a coffee puts a bit of jizz in my breast stroke.”
All I could do was sit in here and comfort myself by reciting poetry
“So what’s the problem?”
“When I got here,” I explained, “the lanes were clogged up with school children on their mid-term break and all I could do was sit in here and comfort myself by reciting poetry.”
“And why didn’t you come more often during the winter?” Magda wondered.
“I was on tour,” I said. “I have been doing readings from my book up and down the country. I’m rarely at home.”
In fact, the previous night I had been in the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray and I went walking on the promenade that morning, which is what reminded me of J Alfred Prufrock.
Magda didn’t know who Alfred J Prufrock was, so I explained that he was a character in the poem I was reciting as she came into the steam.
“Prufrock was a man who suffered from isolation,” I explained. “He was melancholic, and he lacked spiritual depth, and he was haunted by memories of sexual love.”
“He sound’s like you,” Magda said.
For a moment I feared I had offered her too much information
“Exactly,” I agreed, astonished at her insight. “He was a shallow and regretful creature and sexually frustrated.”
For a moment I feared I had offered her too much information.
“I would like to hear the poem,” Magda said. And so I began reciting the beautiful poem by TS Eliot. Mumbling the lines in the cloudy womb of the leisure centre, as if Magda and me were twins on the cusp of birth.
I spoke not as me, but as an actor possessed, transforming myself into a neurotic middle-old man who frets about whether he should wear flannel trousers on a beach. All this, in a steam room!
I became Prufrock in my swimming togs, as Magda listened with what seemed to be compassion until suddenly the door opened and two young men as beautiful as stags after a great leap, entered, and the spell was broken.