Stood in Assembly
Tension in the back of my neck
I thought everyone would notice
How my head
Trembled on its stem.
Someone told me I’d been
Left on the shelf.
Up there in the dust
I hardly knew myself.
Walked out of school on the last day
Disappeared from memory.
My sociology teacher
Once told me I was beautiful
I can’t remember
In what context
But it was during a group meal
On a college trip to Cambridge.
I left home
And went to sleep on my sister’s floor.
Sometimes she let me sleep in her bed
If she was bringing someone back
And needed time to decide
But then I had to move again
In the middle of the night.
Sitting in a crowded room,
The air thickened by a smoky haze
Dustmotes danced on rays
Music played, top volume.
There were endless cups of tea.
I never knew what to say.
My sister accompanied me
To the family planning clinic
Saying I should always be
It was on a blue and yellow day
When I met him.
We clashed eyes in a noon-time club.
My sister was there, we both knew his brother
I felt he and I
Recognised each other.
We fell out of the dim interior
Into sunlight, traffic noise
And Saturday shoppers.
I felt the hairs on his arm brush mine
As we walked side by side
On the busy street.
Sunshine forced my eyes into a squint
And tiny stones from the pavement
Got caught between my sandal soles
And my bare feet
But most of all I was aware
Of our electric arm hair.
I wore a belted shirt
With knees-ripped jeans
My hair henna-red.
His t-shirt sparkled white,
And he carried a leather jacket
The sun made a golden halo
Around his head.
We chatted, glanced shyly at each other
Weaving our way through crowds
On the summer Saturday streets.
When were young
And not quite holding hands.
With the radio she sings Sail Away
Rocking with her arms around herself,
Forgetting the damp laundry in the hallway but
Remembering his fingers on the keyboard
And later on her skin.
When the children are away
She’s a renewed maiden
She dances now like she danced with him
When he told her she was so tempting
Gripped her hand so tightly
She felt his fingers on her bones
Honey, sail away with me
But she was tied to family and home
The youngest of her children only three.
Clouds threaten the perfect sky
She lugs the basket onto the trodden grass,
Thinking of insects underfoot
Going about their daily business.
A wren flits from the birdhouse in a tree.
She lifts her arms to the washing line
Feels the first spots of rain
Too late now to get the laundry dry
But she hangs it out anyway
Takes the empty basket back inside.
A text pings from her mobile
Sorry, I won’t be there this weekend
He says there’ll be an email to follow
She steps over disappointment like the
Hugs herself again,
Thinks about tidying
But there’s too much crap to sort through.
She flops down on the sofa
Hands pressed into eyes, to stop the crying.
He burrowed into her shoulder
As they lay on this sofa
The last time her children were away
He’d said: You’re just so likeable
But it hadn’t been enough
To make him stay.
They’d all used similar terms: Soft as shit,
And: You’re just too nice
As if this was the crime for which she’d pay.
A woman sings on the radio
In a voice like liquid
Rain flicks on the windows and
She watches it stream down the glass.
Now men will want her, the words go,
‘Cause life don’t haunt her
But neither line is true.
And all the time she’s crying
The washing’s still out on the line,
Two years out of marriage, she’d
Made it back to maidenhood
To be reopened.
Older but no less naïve, if not more.
Four children, four!
Proved to be more of a barrier than she’d thought.
In the hot tub
He said he had to take the risk
Of never finding another like her
Whose children were too many. In the end
He chose a woman with only two
And twice her income.
That loss, of self-esteem, of hope,
Was the one that hurt the most.
Singing water, singing hands,
Hot water on the underside of her skin
The cold rain glancing from above,
Leaves trapped in a circle of light
Around the hot tub.
They sat there late into the night,
Are you all right there, honey? Sail away with me, honey.
But she was too late.
I most definitely do love you, he said
But I have chosen Kate.
The last things she saw of him
Were the buttons on his uniform
And when she later heard an aeroplane
She buried her face in her own hair,
Refusing to look into the air.
After a train journey home, for the first time
She took the grief into her family.
She resisted its rise into resentment,
Like yeast in dough.
She battled its attempt to subsume her
And she wrestled it to the ground.
MOTHER of the MAID
When she comes in the house
You shout Hi
But you hear the door slam
And it makes you want to cry
Because you know the confusion
Behind her face
You were once there
In a similar place.
She thinks she hates you
But you know you love her
And the one thing that’s sure
Is that you’re her mother
She’s so raw and tender
You try hard not to break her
But you still feel hurt
When she places cold remarks
Around your fragile motherwall
More than anything
You want to hear her laugh and sing
Like she did when she was small
But there’s no sticking plaster
Or magic kiss
Or tell-her-a-story that will fix
The broken world that makes her sad
And that makes you mad.
Then she sees your anger
And she thinks it’s against her
But it never was
It was always because
You were powerless
To help her.
All you could do
Was strengthen your motherwall
For her to beat her fists upon
And get stronger.
You’re proud of her
But nervous too
Because she’s a carbon copy of you
And you wouldn’t know what to do
If she did all the things you used to.
You wish she was stronger
Than you think you were
And you wish she could see
That she’s so lovely
Like you never felt.
You want her to embrace
All the things you couldn’t face
But most of all you hope
She stays safe.
You want her to be happy
Whatever she does
Everything’s her own choice
She has her own voice
The one fear you had
Was that she’d be taken advantage of
Mentally or physically.
You feared that she
Wouldn’t be accepted for
The person she is.
You hope you can teach her about relationships
But you want her to make decisions that are sage
And not take on the worries
You had at her age.
You wonder who she’ll choose
To partner her in life
And hope that it’s someone
Who walks alongside
Without an agenda of dominance
You picture the babies that she
And if so, hope she experiences the joy
Of maternal nourishment
Like you did.
You hope she remembers
You’ll always be there
For a reboot or some mothering care
And that it
Gives her the strength not to
Take any shit.
We carve water with our hands
We leave a trail of bubbles
In our wake.
We sculpt the silver element
Painting light on its surface
Drawing lines in it with our bodies
We stroke the waves.
Groom the water
That filters like silk
Through our fingers.
Our bodies feel weightless,
Slipping like seals
Through the foam.
Emerge on dry land
Like a new body
Has taken us over.
It works differently,
Giving more time
To our mind.
We can’t see clearly without our glasses on
Though clearer, in some ways
Than ever before.
We don’t mind the folds of flesh
As we undress.
We let our bodies fall
When fabric releases us.
We’re not here to people-please
In our nakedness.
We have dry skin,
Red patches appearing,
And hot flushes
Into the remade maiden.
In the changing room we once
Held a baby on the bench with our knee
Struggled to dress ourselves,
A toddler pulling at our clothes.
Now we shed our clothes
With hands free,
Thinking of how
Seem no more than a moment ago.
Wrapping our spectacles carefully
To avoid breakage
We close the locker.
Fumble our way to the pool-entrance
And slip into the water.
Poem (2018) and all artwork (c) Tracey Scott-Townsend. Images of performance captured from phone video-footage shot by Kirsten Luckins of Apples & Snakes. @applesNorth @arcstockton #Derangedpoetesses #maidens
Performance “MAIDENS” for Deranged Poetesses, an Apples & Snakes commission at Arc Stockton on 10th March 2018.