she went on ahead,
her stoic walk
so matter of fact,
the precise pattern
of her personality.
to her breast
and eyes fixed
the way ahead.
she was not one
to be diverted
from her goal.
she went on ahead,
her stoic walk
so matter of fact,
the precise pattern
of her personality.
to her breast
and eyes fixed
the way ahead.
she was not one
to be diverted
from her goal.
he loved her with a ferocious
she entirely failed
sometimes her insensitivity,
the sheer totality of her disregard,
is enough to make him flinch inside,
a whiplash to his unprotected heart,
a hammer blow to a self-esteem
that already dragged hangdog,
half in the gutter.
he would die for her
and she might never notice
or realise the depth of his devotion.
his loyalty is absolute,
without expectation of reward,
though she can render him
incandescent with a rage
that consumes his leftover
shards of pride like kindling.
Other poems inspired by My So-called Life.
under a sycamore in the school field
crosslegged brown kneed girls,
grime-edged plasters peeling
from gravel grazes,
blue-black hair in raggedy bunches,
solemnly daisychain the lunch hour away,
as if engaged in some crucial
ceremony of passage.
heads bowed to the close task,
absorbed and content
as sheep cropping grass on a hillside,
placid and self-contained.
confederates at least
until the end of break,
by taking each other seriously.
they unwind their pliant limbs
to stretch under branches,
the shade a sacrament
the girls are cool and pure, an oasis,
their spirits like chill glasses of milk,
aloof from boisterous games,
while the boys buzz and fizz and hover,
a cloud of insects round a picnic.
savages that whoop around them,
rough and energetic,
mystified by stillness,
defeated by indifference,
wild with their brief freedom
from the classroom’s clock face.
as a chocolate biscuit left on a plate.
constantly at odds with the landscape,
scaling trees and kicking stones,
stamping on ants,
killing for the sake of it.
they abide by time-honoured
bragging rights on bloodshed,
protocols of play, merciless and cruel.
but a handclap can release
them all from bondage
and the whole drama’s
circumlocuted by a bell.
Photo by Belinda Latchford
you deliver minor bad news;
and are momentarily a child,
administering chinese burns
to your best friend’s wrist
in the morning break at primary,
that mild form of mutual torture,
designed not to really hurt,
a fleeting frisson, a dress
rehearsal for grownup cruelty.
in thrall to the notion
of a boy at school,
whose languid unfocused gaze
as he leans back against a wall
and releases a long extended sigh,
indicative of wasted days and nights
and boredom unenhanced by intellect,
can electrify her with desire,
and freeze her with terror
at one and the same time.
suddenly she is fraught and tense
her hands tingle and sweat
and her thoughts seem to halt abruptly
without warning, then resume
so that they crash into each other,
like items held up on a conveyor.
About Angela/Jordan/Rickie/Rayanne/Brian from My So-called Life, so brilliantly played by Claire Danes, Jared Leto/Wilson Cruz/A J Langer/Devon Gummersall. Song is ‘Late at Night’ by Buffalo Tom.
Thanks to all for reading this month’s poems. Phew, another napowrimo over.
the boy who kissed her
for hours on end
so that their lips
were bruised and swollen
passes her in the hall
like she no longer exists.
she has to pinch herself
to check she’s still real.
she has, tragically,
all the time in the world to wonder
if the whole involved drama
took place inside the crazy
confines of her own head.
her hand in the soft
lushness of his hair,
his hot rapid panting
on the back of her neck,
moments when it seemed
nothing could separate them.
when their breathing
fell into rhythm
and their hearts beat as one,
when they were molten,
flowing into each other,
now he turns his back
decisively, to make a point,
cold and hard and done,
stranding her on the tide
of his brusque dismissal,
random flotsam in his wake.
her face registers the hurt,
her eyes that can’t tell lies.
it hits her like a knife twisting
in the back of the throat.
her heart knew no compromise.
A previous poem about Angela (Claire Danes) and Jordan (Jared Leto) from My So-called Life can be found here.
21 Life’s what you make it
Sometimes it was like nothing happened for weeks and everything was slow and boring. You could be yawning by mid-morning and wondering what you could do to fill the day. Then other times, things kept happening all the time so that you never had a chance to stop and think about them properly.
This is what it felt like at the moment. Elisha didn’t get time to pause in her bedroom that night to make a wish, not one that she could deliberate on logically anyway. She could have just grabbed the well and dropped a coin in and said something – but she was learning to be more careful, to word things so that they couldn’t end up meaning something else altogether.
Whenever she used to complain, especially in the holidays, about being bored, her mum always told her that she should make the most of this time in her life. Once she got a job, apparently, she’d find she’d never have enough time again, certainly not time enough to be bored in.
It was partly because she remembered Aunt Jessie, before she lived in the home, and something she’d told Elisha once when she was sad. Her aunt had owned a cottage at the time, in a seaside town but not near the sea, though you could still smell salty water and seaweed in the air. All the streets had that open aspect, bungalows set far apart, inclines you could imagine went down towards a shoreline that Elisha associated with trips to the seaside. Roads seemed different from how they were in inland towns. They had the potential to lead somewhere exciting somehow and fit better with the landscape and tangy air.
But even by the sea, Aunt Jessie wasn’t happy. She was lonely because all her family lived far away and rarely visited. The Goodmans really only used to go once a year, for instance, in the summer. And that was when everyone wanted to be in the cottage so her aunt would have loads of visitors for a few weeks in summer, only to be forgotten about till the next year.
They’d been making some tea in the small, narrow kitchen of the cottage, she and her aunt, when the latter had paused and sighed deeply, looking out of the leaded window over the sink, past the pot of red geraniums on the windowsill. Elisha looked across at her, while filling a blue-and-white striped bowl from a sugar packet. ‘What’s the matter?’ she asked but then had to turn her attention back to her task as she struggled to stop the sugar pouring before the bowl overflowed, and tried to get it all to run back into the packet without scattering it on the counter, not altogether successfully. She licked an index finger and smeared up the granules she’d dropped before sucking them off.
‘Darling, you wouldn’t understand.’ Aunt Jessie turned towards her and smiled, her face crinkling up, but her eyes still sad. ‘It’s just so nice to have you all here.’
She was right – Elisha didn’t understand. Why be sad because you thought something was nice? She took a blue-and-white striped jug of milk out of the fridge and put it on the tray next to the sugar bowl, frowning a little.
‘When you’ve gone though, I’ll be lonely again. I have my little cottage and my garden and everything. But sometimes I don’t see anyone I can talk to for two to three days at a time. I can go to bingo or to the pop-in parlour, but I miss having my family around me.’
‘Kettle’s boiled,’ Elisha pointed out, not happy with the way the conversation was going. She was on holiday and she didn’t want to feel sad, more anxious about getting back to the others before they ate the whole of the Caramac bar she’d spied on the table.
‘You know, sometimes I find it hard to fill the days. I get so bored and I wish they were shorter and I could go back to bed again. But I know that’s terrible – because time is precious.’
‘Where’s that tea got to?’ growled her father, laughing, as he came into the kitchen and tickled Elisha round her ribs so that she shrieked and giggled and tried to get away. She didn’t notice her great-aunt sigh again as she poured boiling water into the teapot.
20 Crash, bang, wallop
As they were entering the new block (everybody called it that, although it had been there since Elisha started at the school), they met Mrs Goodman in the corridor, still in her dinner lady uniform, evidently on an errand for a teacher, arms laden with paint pots and brushes, struggling to wedge a door open with her foot.
It was weird – Elisha had thought she’d been all right until she saw her mum. She’d actually felt calm, almost like everything was happening to someone else. But once she saw her, it was like a dam burst inside her. Something in her chest gave way as she ran crashing into her mother, as Jasmine had done to her earlier, knocking paint pots and brushes and everything flying, throwing her arms around her as if her mum were the only secured item she could hold on to on the deck of the Titanic. Not saying anything, just clinging on tight, her face pressed into the folds of the print blouse her mum was wearing, inhaling the Avon honeysuckle perfume she’d put on that morning. Her mum smelt fresh, like a bouquet of flowers, and Elisha inhaled her like a drug, maybe some kind of tranquilliser.
Behind them, Miss Clements was dispatching Jasmine and Luke to their classroom, saying a few words to the teacher inside. Over Elisha’s head, she and Mrs Goodman nodded to each other before Miss Clements continued to the school office.
‘Now, Elisha, baby, what on earth has happened?’ Her mum stroked her hair and said, ‘Sh, sh, it’s okay.’
Choked up, Elisha couldn’t get any words out. She just felt so much better being with her mum. Gradually, she relinquished her hold, relaxed a little. ‘Jasmine says Steph got stung by a wasp … She, she got an afillact … an afilly whatsit … she had an allergic reaction!’
‘Oh, I heard about that; I’d no idea it was Stephanie. Don’t worry, darling. I was just in the office and Mr Saunders called to say she was going to be fine.’
‘Really?’ Elisha’s voice came out weak and reedy.
‘Really. She’s fine. Now …’
Elisha followed her mum’s gaze around the corridor, where the plastic pots lay everywhere, on their sides, on their tops, some standing casually upright. A couple of lids had come off, one pot on its side was oozing a puddle of thick ochre paint. Another one was open and upright and a paintbrush had landed in it, handle upwards out of the viscous emerald liquid, like it was all ready to go.
A little redheaded girl put her head out of the classroom. ‘Miss,’ she whispered, ‘I’m meant to find out what’s happening to the painting stuff.’ Her head swivelled round to take in the mess in the corridor and her mouth opened wide. ‘Oh my!’ She stuck her right thumb in the corner of her mouth.
‘Um,’ Elisha’s mum whispered back, ‘We had a little accident, I’m afraid, Lucy. Do you think you could help us clear it up?’
Lucy nodded rather solemnly. ‘Yes.’ She began picking up the scattered brushes, only using one hand as she didn’t take the thumb out of her mouth.
‘Elisha, run and get some paper towels from the girls’ loos.’
‘Yes, Mum.’ Elisha felt suddenly useful and normal again. She ran down the corridor gladly as they were never allowed to run usually. As she was hurtling round the corner she nearly knocked right into Mr Wicks, one of the sterner teachers. ‘What do we think we’re doing, young lady?’ His face had that mock stern expression that Elisha’s father sometimes adopted so she knew she wasn’t really in trouble.
‘There’s been an accident. Not a serious one,’ she added as she saw his face register alarm. ‘Just paint and stuff.’ She took his hand and pulled him round the corner. ‘See.’
‘Oh, yes, I see. Well, carry on then. But try not to run. And I’ll get Mr Choate. He can help clear it up.’ He started walking in the other direction.
‘Mr Wicks, is it true Stephanie’s all right now? Did Mr Saunders call from the hospital?’
‘Yes, she’s fine. They’re going to keep her in a couple of days, for tests. In fact, that reminds me, I’m looking for Jasmine Richards to let her know.’
‘She’ll be in Room 5.’
By the time she got back with handfuls of paper towels, her mum and Lucy had got all the paint tubs back vertical again and replaced all their lids. Lucy had taken her thumb out of her mouth and was chattering about paint or something – ‘Purple’s my favourite colour’ she was confiding in Elisha’s mum – while picking up two pots at a time and carefully taking them into the classroom. Once she had charge of the tubs, she abruptly clammed up and looked like she was holding her breath until she could put them down again. Elisha gave her mum a wadge of olive-green paper towels, then started wiping up the ochre paint from the creamy-brown caramelly colour corridor floor.
She ended up missing all her next lesson, which was Maths, so that was good. Her mum said that they could visit Steph that evening; and take Jasmine as well if she wanted to come.
At lunch break, she talked to Jasmine about what had happened. She didn’t want to leave her friend alone. And there was no sign of Luke. Sometimes, since he got cancer, he would just disappear at breaks – she didn’t know where he went, some secret place where he could be away from everyone else, the kids that had stared at his hair and stuff.
But at story time she made sure she sat next to him as they’d arranged. Before Miss Quigley began, while she was waiting for all the children to pick places and settle and stop talking, stop arguing and vying for position, they leant their heads close together and talked in low, secret voices like they were spies evading detection.
‘You know you have to change what you were going to wish for, don’t you?’ Luke muttered, their foreheads almost touching as they bent forward over their crossed legs.
‘You think I should wish for Steph to get better, don’t you?’
‘Not only that.’ He looked around suspiciously as if someone might be trying to hear them. ‘You have to wish that she never gets stung by a wasp again – because a second sting could kill her.’
Elisha’s eyes widened. ‘But won’t they give her drugs to stop the allergy, like with hay fever?’
‘Elisha, it’s much more serious than that. They might give her a syringey-thing and she’ll have to carry it with her for ever, just in case she gets stung.’ He thought about this. ‘Probably not in the winter though but only when there are wasps around.’ His voice was actually getting louder and more urgent as he got excited. ‘Then, if she does get stung, she has to inject the antidote! I saw it in a movie!’
The children near them laughed as Miss Quigley cleared her throat pointedly to get their attention. They both glanced up at her apologetically. ‘If you’re quite finished, Luke, I’ll start the story?’
‘Yes, Miss, sorry, Miss.’ He looked penitently down until she started then flashed a conspiratorial grin at Elisha. She grinned back. He’d worried her about Steph but she guessed she’d probably find out the truth at the hospital that night.
The next day they met on the wall again. This time Luke was crunching on a crisp red apple as she sat down beside him. It was good to see he’d got his appetite back.
She’d copied the rules down inside the back page of one of her exercise books and left the original version back in her bedroom, carefully folded and slotted into a letter her aunt had once sent her on special perfumed stationery. Sniffing it closely, she’d still been able to detect the faint fragrance of roses.
Strangely, when she’d copied the verse, her writing had taken on some of the qualities of the original writer’s – it was more controlled, loopy and decorative than usual, almost as if she’d been possessed by someone else. It had felt sort of spooky and a chill had run down her spine as she’d been writing.
‘Your handwriting’s neat,’ Luke commented, nodding appreciatively. ‘Mine’s so bad I often can’t read it myself.’
‘Yeah, it’s weird,’ – she had to stop talking as some sirens drowned out her words – ‘it is neater than normal,’ she conceded, feeling slightly uncomfortable as she remembered the sensation she’d had when writing it the night before. There was a tickly kind of prickling on the back of her neck.
‘Right. So we need your dad to get a better job.’
‘Without it backfiring somehow.’ She thought this point could not be stressed enough. Things often seemed to go wrong if you weren’t careful what you wished for or maybe how you wished for it.
‘Uh-huh. So you’re not wishing ill upon anyone, in fact, you’re wishing for plenty, in a way.’ His brow furrowed as he ran his index finger down the list of dos and don’ts. ‘That’s not relevant. Neither is that.’
Elisha felt comforted by his logical analysis. She bent down to pull up the unelasticated socks that had congregated in untidy crinkles round her ankles and scratched at an insect bite just under her knee, making the area red and inflamed. Her Mum always told her not to scratch them but she just couldn’t help it. To stop herself, she sat on her hands and turned her attention back to Luke.
‘Wish forward. Never back. Mmm. Maybe it could be said to be wishing back because he did have a good job before …’ He took another bite of the apple. She couldn’t help thinking that Luke tended to consider everything a bit more carefully than she did. She wondered if it was a skill he’d learnt while poorly.
‘Yes, but I don’t want him to get the same job again. I want him to have a different one, where he doesn’t have to work so hard.’
‘Well then, that’s probably okay, I guess.’
The bell went for the start of class and they both jumped like someone had poked them in the back. Luke just laughed but Elisha had immediately thought ‘heed the bell’ and started to worry about time being up and the hell demons bit.
‘Sit next to me for the story this afternoon,’ Luke urged, as they got up and started heading back to the school building. Elisha nodded quickly and smiled, watching him chuck the apple core into a big yellow cylindrical bin, almost hitting a wasp that was buzzing round it.
Suddenly from across the asphalt, Jasmine ran up to her, yelling – well, screeching really – ‘Where have you been? I’ve been looking for you all over all break!’ She sounded really angry and very upset.
Elisha realised that they had sat in a rather out-of-the-way corner to puzzle over the rhyme. It had seemed natural enough because they hadn’t wanted to be disturbed.
‘Why? What’s wrong?’ she asked, for immediately she could see that something was definitely wrong. Jasmine’s face was streaked and wet with tears; her eyes were red; and she looked distressed to the point of anguish.
It had to be something to do with Steph because she wasn’t there and the two girls were nearly always together. ‘What’s happened?’ Her voice came out as a kind of shriek as the panic infected her. ‘Has something happened to Steph? Where is she? Hrmph!’ she went as Jasmine barrelled into her, holding her in a tight, desperate embrace, sobbing and gasping for breath at the same time.
Elisha felt guilty for not being with her friends when they needed her. She wasn’t doing any good turns for anybody else, just worrying about her own problems. As usual. Even though her aunt had warned her not to be selfish.
Jasmine started to stutter out a breathless explanation as Elisha patted her rhythmically on the back as she’d seen people do in movies. Luke looked at her over her friend’s head, his expression bewildered and troubled, like he’d just been assigned some really unpronounceable word in a spelling test.
‘It was a wasp.’ Jasmine took in a big breath. ‘She started to scream and I told her not to hit out at it. I tried to get her to calm down but you know what she’s like with wasps.’
Elisha nodded. ‘Yes, I know. So did it sting her?’
‘It stung her on the arm, just here,’ Jasmine indicated a place on top of her forearm.
Feeling a bit relieved that it was only a wasp sting, Elisha held Jasmine away from her with one arm and rummaged for a tissue in her satchel with the other. ‘Here,’ she handed it to her friend, who wiped her face roughly before blowing her nose noisily. Her beaded braids swung over her face.
Luke looked impatiently at them. ‘The bell’s gone already, you know,’ he prompted, evidently thinking this was a lot of fuss over a wasp sting.
Elisha made a face at him and asked Jasmine: ‘But she’s okay now? Is she in the nurse’s office?’
Elisha had only been there once herself – it was a small clinical room that smelt a bit like a hospital, only mixed with pee, and boasted an iron bed with a mattress covered in plastic, a green first-aid box with a white cross on it mounted on the wall, a sink and a desk and chair where the nurse sat when she was in there. There was a small toilet next to it. It was the kind of place where you instantly felt ill, even if you’d been all right before. She’d been feeling dizzy and lay down on the bed but the plastic cover had made so much noise each time she moved and had smelt so funny and rubbery that she couldn’t wait to get up again.
‘She’s been taken to hospital. Mr Saunders took her in his car because they said the ambulance would take twenty minutes. Elisha, she’s allergic to wasp stings. She nearly died. I couldn’t do anything to help her. She couldn’t breathe; she started to have convulsions or something. I was so scared!
‘Veronica ran into the office to get them to call 999 and Josie went to get the nurse but she couldn’t find her. Just as well Ronnie was there …’ Jasmine stopped to gulp in air, ‘I don’t know what would have happened.’
Even in the middle of her anxiety for her friend, Elisha felt annoyed that Veronica Atkins, of all people, should have come to the rescue. And a little jealous as well.
‘The bell went ages ago. What are you lot doing out here?’ Miss Clements folded her arms and stood over them, looking stern. ‘As if it’s not bad enough falling asleep during assemblies …’
‘Their friend went into anaphylactic shock,’ Luke explained, a little contritely now that he realised it was more serious. Both girls turned their heads to him in astonishment at the word he’d used. ‘She got stung by a wasp.’ He’d spent so much time in hospital that he knew pretty much everything other kids came in with.
Miss Clements frowned and nodded sympathetically. ‘Oh, yes, Stephanie. Well, she’s at the hospital by now. I’m sure she’ll be all right.’ She put an arm round each of the girls’ shoulders. ‘Come on now. Let’s go inside and get to class. Mr Saunders will let us know what’s happening as soon as he can.’ They started walking together. Glancing back at Luke, the teacher said, ‘You too, Luke. There’s nothing we can do about it at the moment.’