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.
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
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
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,
Joint to wrist
She wears her sleeves rolled up
To display it
Her temporary tattoos of grief
Her eyes holding mine
Maybe this is the first time she’s shown anything beneath the pork crackling sliced skin to friends.
We all pretend not to tense.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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’
So scared of losing next year’s slot
Where you come from.
Towns and cities aside
We all rise from youth
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.
Full of fear,
We know almost nothing.