I was eight when I set out into the world
wearing a grey flannel suit.
I had my own suitcase.
I thought it was going to be fun.
I wasn’t listening.
when everything was explained to us in the Library,
so the first night I didn’t have any sheets.
The headmaster’s wife told me
to think of the timetable as a game of ‘Battleships’.
She found me wandering about upstairs
wearing the wrong shoes.
I liked all the waiting we had to do at school,
but I didn’t like the work.
I could only read certain things
which I’d read before, like the Billy Goat Gruff books,
but they didn’t have them there.
They had the Beacon Series.
I said ‘I don’t know,’
then I started saying nothing.
Every day my name was read out
because I’d forgotten to hang something up.
I was so far away from home I used to forget things.
I forgot how to get undressed.
You’re supposed to take off your shirt and vest
after you’ve put on your pyjama bottoms.
When the headmaster’s wife came round for Inspection
I was fully dressed again, feeling tired.
She had my toothbrush in her hand
and she wanted to know why it was dry.
I was miles away. I said I didn’t know.
Mr Ray stood behind me in History,
waiting for me to make a slip.
I had to write out the Kings and Queens
of England, in reverse order, with dates. I put,
‘William I, 1087-1066’. I could smell the aeroplane glue
on his fingers as he took hold of my ear.
I stood in the corner near the insect case,
remembering my bike. I had the John Bull
Puncture Repair Kit in my pocket: glass paper,
rubber solution, patches, chalk and grater,
spare valves. I was ‘riding dead’ –
freewheeling downhill with my arms folded
and my eyes shut, looking Mr Ray in the eye.
Every time I looked round he added a minute to my sentence.
Mr Ray held his red Biro Minor like a modelling knife
to write reports. He drew a wooden spoon.
‘I found it hard to keep my temper
with this feeble and incompetent creature.
He was always last to find his place
and most of his questions had been answered
five minutes before ...’ I called my father ‘sir’
when he opened the envelope and shouted.
I was practising stage-falls from my bike
in the fading spotlight of summer lawns,
remembering the smell of aeroplane glue and bad breath
with a shiver down my spine. The beginning of term
was creeping up on me again. Every time I looked round
Mr Ray was standing there, stockstill.
I wasn’t happy with aspects of my case.
I shut myself in the bathroom, a three-sided looking-glass
open like a book. I couldn’t understand my face.
My nose stuck out. I combed my hair down over my eyes
in search of a parting that would change all this.
I opened the mirror slowly, turning my head
from full to three-quarter face. I wanted to stand
three-quarters on to the world, in a slow, blind place,
out of reach. I sat in front of the sunray lamp
with pennies in my eyes. I dyed my skin
a streaky, yellowish brown with permanganate of potash.
I must have grown up slowly in that looking-glass bathroom,
combing my hair straight down and pretending to wash.
I made myself dizzy raising my arms above my head
in a kind of surrender. No one else could get in.
When I came downstairs my hair looked extraordinary –
a turmoil of popular styles and prejudices
stiff with unreality and fear.
My scalp stung from onsets of a steel flick-comb.
My parting was raw from realignment.
I’d reintroduced the casual look so many times
I’d forgotten what it was. The whole thing
looked like an instrument of self-torture
with a handle and a zip.
I made my entrance and everyone wanted to know
where I was off to looking like that.
My brother did a comb mime with his knife,
tongue hanging out, jacket pushed back like a Ted.
My father made me go upstairs and start again.
I’d been working on my hair for so long
I thought it was natural to have a whirlpool
on your head, or a ship. I couldn’t grasp the fact
that my hair was my hair, nothing more.
As soon as they went out, I stood still
with the stuffed crocodile, wondering what to do.
Have a shot of crème de menthe?
Or go upstairs and look for evidence of myself?
I’d seen it all before: the toilet case
of film-star cigarette cards, the bundles
of old theatre programmes, unfinished albums
from Eden Roc and Monkey Island Hotel.
I turned the pages slowly, listening for the car,
till my father was young again, a soldier,
or throwing back his head
on slicked-back Derby Days before the war.
I stared at all that fame and handsomeness
and thought they were the same.
Good looks were everything where I came from.
They made you laugh. They made you have a tan.
They made you speak with conviction.
‘Such a nice young man!’ my mother used to say.
‘So good looking!’ I didn’t think they were,
but I searched my face for signs of excellence,
turning up my collar in the long mirror
and flourishing a dress sword at myself. I could see
I’d have to do more than that to satisfy my honour.
Raids on Lunch
Every lunchtime I came under threat
from my father’s parting,
a venomous vapour trail
set at right-angles to his profile.
I was the enemy,
po-faced and pale
and armed with a sort of quiff.
I had to make him laugh.
‘Ett, ett,’ he snapped,
shooting down a joke,
when I made the mistake
of pronouncing ‘ate’
as if it rhymed with ‘late’.
I hated the way his jaw went slack
as he calmly demolished me.
I couldn’t resist
saying something tasteless
about the Royal Air Force,
having seen him disguised as a nun
in ‘One of Our Aircraft is Missing’.
I should have run for cover.
Hooking a forefinger
over his much-admired nose
was the remains of my father’s
It meant he was critical:
the moment of sloth
before the nun takes off her head-dress
and opens fire on the Nazis.
My mother scratched the soles of my shoes
to stop me slipping
when I went away to school.
I didn’t think a few scratches
with a pair of scissors
was going to be enough.
I was walking on ice,
my arms stretched out.
I didn’t know where I was going.
Her scratches soon disappeared
when I started sliding
down those polished corridors.
I slid into class.
I slid across the hall into the changing-room.
I never slipped up.
I learnt how to skate along with an aeroplane
or a car, looking ordinary,
pretending to have fun.
I learnt how long a run I needed
to carry me as far as the gym
in time for Absences.
I turned as I went,
my arms stretched out to catch the door jamb
as I went flying past.