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The Poppies in St Martin’s Field
Stephen Dawson (University of Canberra, Australia)



“I wish I were a gay man.”

She’d said it just like that. Not gay, not a woman who loves women. A gay man. We were sitting in the biergarten of St Martins, an old priory turned bar, watching the poppies in the field opposite as they caught the wind. I hadn’t known her for long at that point, just enough to know that I liked her company and wanted to spend time in it; she came across as fun and sexy, uninhibited, with a vivacious way of describing herself and the world. Everything came with its own adjective, her conversations were lush and dense, and if occasionally she seemed like she was trying too hard to show what she knew, you let it go, just to hear her talk. Time with her felt like you were wrapped up in sweat and cigarette smoke, perfume and stale incense. They were the smells of my first love, though I didn’t know it at the time, not her though, another body who captured something of the essence of her. Just like everyone else back in the day, the things said out loud were always wilder, more exaggerated than the things she would say to you in private, when her audience had gone. And I thought that was fine, that was ok, I appreciated the glimpse of the person behind the bravado, until those public opinions began to align with the private lifestyle; the drinking, the sadness, the determination to obliterate the flesh. All of it, full tilt boogie, watching her found family shrink and shrink as she pushed them away, or they ran.

And with that way of living came the attention of men, men who had seen the photos of her circulating, men who had heard rumours about her past, men who listened to what she said once, a long time ago – a different time, a different person, men who nodded along to what she said, then superimposed a made-up version of her over the top. Men who spoke of her in terms of soft thighs and full lips. All of that going on in the background and all of the time I would listen to her talk, about food, about drinking, about friends and lovers, and those relationships she’d hold up and talk to you about in the filthiest possible ways, like the bastard love child of Bill Burroughs and John Waters. These relationships were simple, romantic love, between men usually, a love that held on, no matter the circumstance. And we’d be having these conversations, drinks in, watching those poppies drop their heads as the day closed, and these tangential men would still flirt with her, directly or indirectly, focused on her body, not what was being said.

She didn’t seem to care, none of it seemed to matter to her outwardly – her sexuality, her body, her flesh, like it was hers, but not hers, lost control of both, or ceded them to feelings and drink, it didn’t matter at all, until the mask fell.

And then it did matter.

“You never understood.” Parting words, a shot across the bow. Call it a falling out, or a falling away, an absence of a few years until we were reintroduced by a mutual friend. Tentative at first, the conversation went as well as it always had, but she hadn’t mellowed, still confrontational and convivial, but less prone to telling you what she knew, assured in who she was. If anything, she seemed more fun than before, though that could have been where I was in my life, sitting in the same chairs at the same pub, watching those poppies in the field, the same but the flowers different, refurbished now, updated and modern, no longer dank and reminiscent of the mendicants that inhabited it before. Certainly funnier, not ha ha jokes, but her wit shone through, even if she was less florid in her turn of phrase, like she didn’t need to dress up her stories anymore than she needed to dress herself up. There was an absence of earnestness to her, like she was no longer trying to convince you who she was, convincing herself, possibly.

There were people she no longer spoke to, there always are when you move on, disavow the person you were, people move along in different ways, and sometimes people remain stuck, but it was always a pleasure to be in her company again – I cherished that time together, getting to know a version of her she seemed to have been looking for the whole time, the version that had finally appeared through her old persona. The conversation turned too, more exploratory, like she was finding her place in the world, in her relationships, rather than trying to find herself. These conversations were the most fulfilling, this lack of guardedness, the revelations about the things that actually meant something to her; religion, sports. For those of us who thought they knew her as a godless heathen, it was a moment to take pause, but it didn’t seem to affect her the way it was an affectation in others, it was simply a matter of faith, not something to be weaponised against others.

We dropped off again eventually, life catching up with us in one way or another. Snippets got back to me, or sometimes I’d ask after them. I heard they’d opened up a shop somewhere, were scraping by. They’d said once that labels didn’t matter to them, as befits someone who had gone by a nom de guerre for most of their life.

But that was before, when they were them but not them, when the flesh they had didn’t reflect who they were. Halfway through their journey, but before they started their journey.

Now, he has a new name. Not a birth name, but his real name, nonetheless.

I think about him sometimes, sitting here, drinking by myself. Wondering where he is, how he’s doing. I doubt he thinks of me at all, which is fine. Lord knows he has enough going on. Married, I’d heard, to a man who loved him for him, not the body he was born into. But sometimes, as I sip the last of my flat beer and watch the poppies nod in the field, I hope he has a flash of conversation from back in the day, and for that brief moment he considers grabbing a jacket and heading for the door. On those days, I head to the bar for another drink, just a small one perhaps, just to sit and wait for a little longer.

Just in case he comes back.



Stephen Dawson is a PhD candidate at the University of Canberra. He has published several short stories and a novel, and is desperately looking forward to reading for leisure without the attendant guilt

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