One of my many favourite Tom Waits’ songs is ‘What’s He Building in There?’, about a very ‘private’ man, someone who keeps to himself. ‘He has subscriptions to those magazines. He never waves when he goes by. He’s hiding something from the rest of us He’s all to himself I think I know why.’ Waits says the song is the ‘rat theory’; as there are more and more of us, we turn on each other, with a kind of malevolent curiosity, especially if someone is ‘different’ to what we perceive is the norm. The song is very prescient given it was written in 1999, before the Internet took off.
Back home, we had a ‘strange’ man who lived on the corner. He was a recluse and lived in a big dark house with an overgrown garden that had a pond in it – the handed-down story was that he buried his wife underneath the pond. He was known as Wet Foot, because he once painted his front door and wrote Wet Paint on the glass, that he never took off and it faded away until it looked like the words ‘Wet Foot’. Lots of kids would ‘rat-a-tat ginger’ his door and run away, but sometimes he would come out and chase them. He was an archetype of Waits’ song with all the rumours of what people heard or saw, almost all of which are not true: ‘Now what’s that sound from under the door? He’s pounding nails into a hardwood floor and I swear to god I heard someone moaning low.’
Today’s dark poems ‘Myth Men’ and ‘Lone Man Stories’ by Sarah Sibley, are similar childhood tales of rumours, with fleeting sights and sounds of scary men. “Have you been down the cellar at The Dog?/ Seen the drayman covered in cobwebs,/ fading in and out of sight/ with the flickering light bulb;’ Such stories are drawn from the ‘outsiders’ of village life where Sarah grew up, which excited the imagination of children in an area full of country shadows. “Up at High Winds farm by the slurry pit/ we’d hide and seek in a thicket/ ripped every night by storms -/ the kind we don’t get in these parts anymore.’ And there always has to be a dark side in order for the stories to hold our curiosity. ‘For a time, stories of a lone man/ wiped us out from the copse.’ And it is always a glimpse, it can never be a clear sighting: ‘Shrimp’s sister saw him once in her rear-view mirror, disappearing down Baby Lane,/ feeling hunted again.’ Happy Samhain everyone – welcome to the darkness.
Sarah Sibley was born in 1985 and grew up in the Suffolk countryside where she currently lives and works. Her pamphlet The Withering Room was published in 2015 by Green Bottle Press and was the London Review Bookshop’s pamphlet of the year. Her work has featured in Agenda, Orbis, Iota, Obsessed with Pipework, Ink, Sweat & Tears, and And Other Poems. She is currently working on a first full collection.
Have you been down the cellar at The Dog?
Seen the drayman covered in cobwebs,
fading in and out of sight
with the flickering light bulb;
seen the man whose head
is as big as a car steering wheel,
driving fast out of Stowmarket.
Or the man whose hand is a pig’s trotter;
Shrimp’s sister saw him once in her rear-view mirror,
disappearing down Baby Lane,
feeling hunted again.
Lone Man Stories
Up at High Winds farm by the slurry pit
we’d hide and seek in a thicket
ripped every night by storms –
the kind we don’t get in these parts anymore.
For a time, stories of a lone man
wiped us out from the copse.
Rik Loader said he’d crossed back in,
showed us his souvenir – a knife,
its blade the width of my thigh.
At night I dreamt of the thicket;
in my hiding place a dead fox,
the lone man lost in a cloud of gnats.
Other times the startled pigs
and spooked horses tipped his mind
and he went staggering into the pit;
at the farm a single light kept vigil –
no stir from the brush,
a campfire burned to dust.