EXTERNAL AFFAIRS /
First Book

(For June, Deirdre & Roger)

 

Soon my mother will return with the promise of a comic
For her child confined to bed with a lit fire in the grate.

Lace curtains cast studs of light on rose-patterned wallpaper
As girls are summoned into a skipping rope’s arc at our gate.

Although told to remain in bed, curiosity tempts me to explore.
On top of the wardrobe I find the only two books in the house.

One is made of gold-sprayed metal, with a slot for coins and a lock:
Housewife’s Savings Book. Property of the Munster & Leinster Bank.

I shake the half-crowns inside, then take down a tattered hardback.
Feeling grown up, I open this present from an aunt to my sister.

Some pages are torn, childish squiggles disfigure the inside cover.
I struggle with turns of phrase, the otherness of each character:

Nurseries and governesses, proving yourself “a chum worth having”.
In retrospect, this may be the worst children’s book ever printed,

But I find myself outside the lit window of a house in Suffolk,
The curtain is drawn back to let me peer, with shy bewilderment,

Into another universe, incomprehensibly alien, but I am hooked:
I might be the stammering child, the soft prey, the class dunce;

But I have stumbled into a sphere where bullies cannot threaten,

Turing each mildewed page, I start to inhabit two worlds at once.

 

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