A week and a half ago I read some new work at the British Museum (see Chaucer and the Medieval Pilgrimage post). I deliberately chose to read four tales predominantly told by religious characters: the Pardoner, The Prioress, the Canon’s Yeoman and the Second Nun. It was a great night, especially following Professor Helen Cooper who spoke about Chaucer’s range of poetic styles and registers. I was reminded of the phrase ‘of sondry folk’, that it was essential, as a writer, to take on a full range of characters rather than stick with the tried and tested.
An unexpected pleasure of this process has been the challenge of creating versions of Chaucer’s religious tales in a predominantly secular age. When I committed myself to do versions of every tale, I’d read the Pardoner’s Tale (for A level) but not the Prioress’s, the Second Nun’s or the Tale of Melibee. Let alone the Parson’s! No-one had recommended them so I hadn’t given them more than a cursory glance. I did a special paper on Chaucer for my degree which meant studying Troilus and Criseyde, The Legend of Good Women, The House of Fame, not less popular Canterbury Tales. Yet here I am, loving the intensity and depth these religious tales offer to a contemporary audience.
It’s not simply that these tales offer a very clear moral message, a framework within which I can operate; it’s also liberating because they’re not well known. Everyone knows the Miller’s Tale but only academics read the Second Nun’s Tale. It’s the life of Saint Cecilia. No-one has adapted it for the big or small screen. No poet, as far as I know, has done a version of it. So there’s less artistic bagage attached to it. Of course, my version may well offend some Christians, but I hope it will attract some readers to the original text to see just how irreverant I’ve been (not very, considering the speaker is a contract killer). Apologies for the double-spaced formatting and inexplicable bold line which will be rectified. Here it is, currently untitled:
Worst job I ever handled, bruv? A woman.
So plain, you’d scan her face for flaws, an find none.
Not a mark on her till the bullets spat.
They fucked up good, should be in here for that
not shelling Jupiter. Call this a prison!
Finishing school. He was never christened
Jupiter, but larged it, full of gas.
Jupiter Jones. One of his moons, I was.
He paid with interest, bruv, an when you got
a past, a job’s a job. One thing I’m not
is lazy… She was sitting in the bath,
no bubbles, an so hot, I held my breath,
felt overdressed in t-shirt an tattoos.
He wanted me to top myself, she goes,
but where’s the fun in that. Lilies, she smelt of,
so strong it made me gag. She eyed me, bruv,
the way all virgins eagle me but scanned
my lids too long, as if I killed her husband.
I never. Nor his brother. Not my business.
You never get a babe like that to kiss
Jupiter’s arse: she laughed, gave him what for.
Not that he wanted her, he wanted her
to want him. But she fucked him with religion.
If there’s one thing Jupiter hates, it’s Christians.
He’s killed more Christians than his wife’s been headfucked.
I aim – and Lilly-May’s no longer perfect.
She doesn’t flinch. Asks me to light her gold-
tipped cigarette. Do you believe in God?
I fire again, fuck the analysis.
Again! Who the fuck does she think she is?
And yet I’m answering: No. I don’t know.
She blows smoke in my face. I do, she goes,
like nothing happened. Blood, fresh as graffiti,
the bath, the lino, deep in red confetti
and sister’s singing Greatest Hits. I leave.
Took her three days to die. You don’t believe
me, bruv? I shelled the boss and jacked it in,
buried the bullet, washed away the sin.
Only babe I ever killed, that kid,
I swear to God, worst job I ever did.
I do, she said, like we were hitched. I breathed
red roses, blubbered like a girl: believed.