The story in “The Contract” is told from the perspective of a contract killer who is in prison. This man was a hitman for the crime boss Jupiter and was sent to kill an unnamed woman, an experience that turned out to be the worst job he’s ever handled (Agbabi, line 1). Jupiter has already had this woman’s husband and brother-in-law killed, and now he wants her dead too. The killer encounters the woman, a femme fatale, when she is in her bath tub, and shoots her three times. He ruins her physical perfection with his bullets but she seems unaffected by them. In fact, she lives another three days. The experience leaves the killer transformed and he tells us that he believes.
“The Contract” is Agbabi’s engagement with the story of St. Cecilia. Chaucer also tells the story of St. Cecilia in his Second Nun’s Tale. Cecilia retains her virginity, despite being married to a pagan man named Valerian. Her marriage fruitfully produces more Christians as she works to convert the pagans around her. Cecilia converts her husband, brother-in-law Tiburce, and other Romans to Christianity, multiplying the Christian population. She does this in defiance of the Roman ruler Almachius. When Cecilia converts her husband to Christianity, they are both presented with a crown of flowers from angels who watch over them. The crowns, one made of lilies and the other of roses, are not visible to non-believers. However, the scent of the flowers is discernible to Tiburce, Valerian’s brother. Sensing the fragrance of the flowers changes Tiburce and readies him for the possibility of conversion. Faith, like the sense of smell, is something that is perceived and not seen (Chaucer and Benson, VIII.G.120-553).
In “The Contract,” the unnamed woman is not depicted as a saintly Christian martyr, but a sensual woman who in conflict with the crime boss. Named for the supreme god of the Romans, Jupiter is analogous with the Almachius character, and is part of the criminal underworld. Agbabi retains the powerful sense of smell in her poem. The killer smells lilies when he first enters the woman’s apartment, but they don’t inspire him, they make him want to gag (Agbabi, line 15). And just before he admits that he believes, he breathes in the smell of red roses (Agbabi, lines 41-42). Like Tiburce, the killer can smell the flowers, but he can’t see them. However, his conversion doesn’t seem to be Christian in nature. It further incites violence rather than ending it, since the killer responds to his job and conversion by killing Jupiter. If the story of St. Cecilia that Chaucer tells centers on the way Christian belief prevails over Roman tyrannical rule, through the use of language and conversion, “The Contract” is more ambivalent about what it means to act on faith.
“The Contract” is another example of Agbabi bestowing power to a character through their language choice. In The Second Nun’s Tale, Cecilia converts Romans to Christianity through her words. She survives torture and continues to preach for three days after a failed attempt at beheading. Her speech is miraculous and inspires those who witness it to conversion. Like St. Cecilia, the woman in “The Contract” has a power that lies in her words. Although they are few, they show her ability to withstand violence and physical harm and they also have the power to inspire.
Femme Fatale Femme Fatale is a French term that means an attractive or seductive woman. She is likely to cause the harm or downfall of those who cross paths with her. This character owns a second hand clothing shop named Second to None, a pun on the original version of this tale, Chaucer’s Second Nun’s Tale.
1 bruv Short for “bruvver”, or brother. An informal term used to address another man, usually between friends or people of similar age.
5 shelling Relating to ammunition, as in using bullets containing shells.
5 Jupiter Supreme deity of the ancient Romans, identified with the Greek god Zeus, he was a sky god, identifying with light, lightening, rain. The protector of Rome, he also embodied morality and was concerned with oaths, treaties and the sanctity of marriage.
6 christened To initiate or convert into the Christian Church through the sacrament of baptism
7 larged it Colloquial language for celebrating or living in an extravagant way
7 full of gas A pun, as the planet Jupiter is a large gas giant.
8 moons Continuing the planetary theme, this is implying that the speaker had connections to Jupiter, that their respective “orbits” are connected.
11-12 She was sitting…so hot A reference to the legend of St. Cecelia. Cecelia was condemned to death, put in a bath (a cauldron or pot), and boiled alive. Because of her holiness, the physical fire could not harm her. (Chaucer and Benson, VIII.G.517-521). Instead, they tried to behead her, with three strokes to the neck, replicated in this tale later with the three shots fired at her in the bath.
14 top myself To commit suicide
15 Lilies, she smelt of Lilies are historically a symbol of purity and chastity. Here, used as a reference to Chaucer’s The Second Nun’s Tale, in which there are two crowns of flowers, one of lilies and one of roses. The crown of lilies represents virginity. It is the smell of these flowers that later leads Tiburce to convert to Christianity (Chaucer and Benson, VIII.G.243-252)
17 eagle Possibly a play on the words eagle and ogle, in reference to the scanning of the lids and looking too long. Also possible, a reference to the phrase spread eagle, adding a sexual connotation to the speaker’s interpretation of the woman’s gaze.
18-19 as if I killed … nor his brother. The executioner telling this tale is reiterating that he is not the executioner who killed Cecilia’s husband and brother-in-law, Valerian and Tiburce
25 headfucked Emotionally or psychologically manipulated, disoriented.
34 lino Linoleum, a type of flooring
34-35 red confetti… Greatest Hits Evocative of a party atmosphere, not an execution
37 shelled the boss See earlier reference to shelling. Here, means shot the boss and killed him
41 hitched Married
42 red roses Reference to the second crown of flowers in Chaucer’s The Second Nun’s Tale, with the red roses representing martyrdom.
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