Fifteen

I've been thinking a lot about being fifteen recently. Partly because I'm writing a show about my relationship with my dad at that age - histrionic and full of Dire Straits singalongs - and partly because it's nearly summer. This time of year will never not remind me of  sandwich bag pencil cases, chronic wrist ache and anxious Marlboro Lights smoked too quickly. It will always conjure the smell of the school hall. The white board simply reading START: and END:. It will also remind me of laughing so much I couldn't form words because Emma burped a ball of smoke when three of us were locked in the bathroom of a house party.  It was a time of extremis - I either felt totally connected or entirely bereft, rarely anything in-between. It was painful and brutal and gorgeous. 

Last year, I was working with some fifteen year old students as part of a local poetry festival. I performed a piece about my brother and our distant relationship and how it was deeply affected by my dad, who was having an affair throughout our teenage years unbeknownst to us. It's not the most comic poem I've ever written, but it isn't the most depressing either. It's ultimately positive and about love and the power and emptiness of family obligation. It's also just about this time when my brother got pissed off and hit the paddling pool really hard so it split and we floated down the garden on the wave of water that spilled out of it. Jokes. 

Anyway, I performed this poem and a student was affected by it.  She cried. The teacher told us afterwards that her father had left her mother recently, these were fresh wounds that I'd made contact with. I saw it as a positive response, though: I spoke to her afterwards and she was smiling, she held eye contact with me throughout - she was with me. The person I was employed by didn't agree with me, though, and banned me from performing all my family poetry from thereon in - because it was too 'upsetting'.

I was not very happy about that. I didn't agree with that decision. I wrote this.

Fifteen

I’m fifteen

Sitting opposite a boy

Who means nothing to me

We are smoking,

Me Marlboro Lights

Him B&H –

We have assumed the clearly defined

Nicotine gender roles

Of the 90s.

We have just had sex,

Two of us in my single bed

Unable to lie next to each other easily,

So there hasn’t been

Much cuddling.

I’m pretending it’s a thing I’ve done before

So is he

We pretend we liked it, at least.

He is saying

“I love a cigarette after sex”

I nod. Emphatically.

I am happy,

Finally – I think –

I can tell the girls at school I’m not a hymen hoarder anymore.

 

She is fifteen,

Sitting opposite me,

I mean nothing to her

And in that moment

She doesn’t need me to be

Anything other than what I am –

A name in her school’s

Visitor diary,

A face she’s unlikely to run into in Sainsbury’s,

An afternoon off Maths.

 

Her eyes hold my eyes

As I describe a father

Leaving behind a fractured family.

I can see

She knows the feeling

Of a lone palm patting a daughter’s knee

Whilst fingers cross behind a back,

That she knows what wading through a house flooded with

A mother’s lost sleep feels like

In the morning,

She knows the emptiness of breakfast,

And the pointlessness of socks.

 

Her arms are marked,

Human silver birch bark,

Tiny lines

Joint to wrist

She wears her sleeves rolled up

To display it

Her temporary tattoos of grief

And here,

Her eyes holding mine

She cries.

Maybe this is the first time she’s shown anything beneath the pork crackling sliced skin to friends.

 

We all pretend not to tense.

 

But you,

Blundering overseer,

Grand high worrier,

Drape your anxiety around her like a pink feather boa

You make her seem ridiculous

Draw attention to the fancy dress that no one else has worn.

You huff shuffle behind me

As if she’s taken out a razor

And is hovering over skin.

But her eyes are on mine.

And she’s smiling.

 

Fifteen.

When I gave my virginity away so that I wouldn’t feel different

And pretended I had a post-coital ritual in mum’s kitchen.

When I lived fist in throat

But scared of fighting,

Behind thick sheets of two way mirror

Observing accentuated perfection

In Emma’s eyelashes or Jo’s rack

And only had an Italian nose

And thighs that could suffocate puppies reflected back.

When my fingers knew the contours of my throat as well as my walk home from school

When I was always catching-up

And never leading,

When all I wanted was to lead

And I didn’t understand how powerful standing still could be.

Fifteen.

 

Later you tell me I can’t talk about these things to these young people because they’re upsetting.

Because it’s too much.

 

I remember every song lyric

I ever wanted to brand into my flesh

Because someone

Somewhere was admitting to the mess that everyone else was pretending wasn’t there.

 

You, scared of rocking the school portacabin,

Of raising choppy sea swell on this island we’re visiting

Scared it won’t be ‘fun’ or ‘nice’ if they cry

Of anything students write which isn’t about friendship or football or sunshine

Terrified of feelings sewn inside words

Don’t expect the same from her.

For her they could be Sudocreme

Or Burneze

Might bring a little comfort to the scabs she isn’t letting us see

And they might just as easily drop unwanted onto

Performing Art block carpet

But if even three of them land

A kiss of comfort on her cheek

I’m happy.

Me who never valued myself at fifteen

She is braver than me.

At least she’s saying:

‘This is hard –

This is not how I wanted it to be’

And you, 

So scared of losing next year’s slot

You’ve forgotten

Where you come from.

Towns and cities aside

We all rise from youth

Into maturity

We shouldn’t be scared of where we’ve been

And if we feel fear let’s look back and learn from them

Because they are in the midst of battling

They are at the crossroads of burial or growth

They are our spirit guides in passion and experimentation.

We

Numbed cowards,

Full of fear,

We know almost nothing.