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Watch: Shoulder SeasonJoe Dunthorne

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Shoulder Season


The creature lies still in the villa’s pool,

waiting for the day the caretaker rolls back the tarp

and the first wasps of the year thrash themselves

to stillness. Then they come, writhing on their inflatables,

the holidaymakers. It’s not until midweek

that the family’s youngest, grown sufficiently bored

and appalled, takes a rock in each hand, sinks cross-legged

down to the cool blue tiles, relieved to meet this speaking eel,

talk business, stroke its flex of tangle-proof neck.


As the child’s bubbles shrink to little pills

the creature offers her a scale from its back,

an oiled disc, indisputable proof to take up there

where, of course, her parents just adore her story

of the unamused eel-thing – and how clever

of you to find… what is that? A foreign coin? –

so even when she insists they meet the beast firsthand,

still they come up grinning – oh, yes – very fearsome.

Bet it would taste delicious on the grill.


All through lunch the child keeps the sharp-edged

eel-scale secreted beneath her tongue

(Are you feeling okay, sweetpea? Not hungry?)

an almost-pleasant numbness in her gums,

the certainty that behind this yellow sun

a blue one is waiting and while her parents

won’t listen, she sees it in their afternoon headaches,

in how they loll, woozy-necked in deckchairs, mouths slack,

bobbing for air – another world they refuse to believe in


and soon it will slide dripping

from the water – slip down their throats

like wine.


Joe Dunthorne was born and grew up in Swansea. His debut novel, Submarine, was translated into twenty languages and adapted for film. His second, Wild Abandon, won the 2012 Encore Award. His latest is The Adulterants. His first collection of poems, O Positive, was published by Faber in 2019.

(Photo credit: Tom Medwell)