The Ballad of Mabel

by Sasha Dugdale

The Ballad of Mabel

‘…her eyes filled with tears again as she went on, 'I must be Mabel after all’

Mabel. Brown-eyed, unruly curls 
She knows such a little!
An empty vessel, a swine amongst pearls 
A stain from the inkbottle.

Her boots are old and the leather is worn
(The scuffs are just spat on)
Her dress is thin and her pinny torn,
And a sign round her neck reads: slattern.

She rubs her eyes with her fist till they’re sore 
And dozes with her cheek in a palm:
A sister that died, a father at war
Nights jigging babies to calm.

So many lessons to learn every night
She nurses, reads in the lull –
She must be a dunce, she can’t get it right:
Dates just dance in her skull.

Mabel knows nothing, her house is poky
Her bed’s as narrow as a coffin
And once she woke and her sister was choking
And the doctor – he couldn’t do nothing.

Mabel’s brother says he saw the Crimea
But came home for his chest
Once he told Mabel she had nothing to fear
And felt under her dress

Mabel knows nothing, nothing at all,
And her face is aflame
When she’s cuffed by the teacher and turned to the wall
Her ears go pink with shame. 
Mabel’s hoop is at home, she says
She left her doll in bed
Mabel is standing alone – she says
She’s playmates enough in her head.

Alice has a hoop and a man takes her boating
And her tea is ready on the table
Alice once had a dream she was floating
In tears, and feared she was Mabel.

The river is quiet, it’s late and dusk
Mabel is wetting her toes
And watching the fish swallow her crust
In gold little O’s. 

She’ll catch it, she thinks, if the splashes are heard
Or if she’s seen –
But here she can lie in her spreading skirt 
And dream her own dream.