The dark boarding school broods
behind a wrought iron fence
next to a field of white horses.
Miss stands at the gate and utters
the word overnight. Fragile breaths
puff like something started
then abandoned from my mouth,
tiny aghast mushroom clouds
shunted from the source.
I can sense her morbid fascination
like a wildflower craning its neck.
Moon rises from the sky’s torn cuticle.
The streetlamps wrap themselves
more tightly into their auras
as she admits me into the fabled hall,
orders Matron to plait my hair
then help me into my finery –
Little Shits, Whorehouse on the Hill…
Buckled into impeccable coats,
sleek, beribboned and shining,
the horses trail each other
nose to haunch around the perimeter.
They don’t flinch when the wind
opens its mouth and spits flies.
I can hear the caretaker whistling
as he dead-heads the roses,
the lesson bells ordaining,
but Sally is winking from the air-raid shelter,
masquerading as a plastic doll
that has laid out all the china cups for tea.
Torchlight falls on the hairless lid
clicking in Sally’s dog-chewed skull,
glints on the chipped berried lips
that goad me to pour miraculous
concoctions into the make-believe,
nibble on mud-cakes ‘til it’s almost dark.
I wouldn’t blame Cecily if she refuses
to open her jaws. Shoals of nasty words
are flicking about spittle-slick in the bowl
of her throat, flashing cutting yet eloquent
through the gaps between her teeth
which incidentally are so dark with neglect
they could actually be plastic rocks covered
in algae. Of course there’s only so long
Cecily can keep this up. Sooner or later
she’ll have to breathe or eat and the words
will come gushing out in a shower of bile
and barbs from some kind of horrific
piñata, or one of those lucky-dip toys
where you squeeze the body of a rubber frog
and it belches a bubble of saline and flies.
By the time she’s inhaled enough air
to slip back into her silent aquarium,
the hooks of Cecily’s words will be lodged
in the flesh of her nearest and dearest
like cloves jabbed into a beribboned orange.
On sleepovers in Nancy’s attic room
we smoked our first joints listening to Nirvana,
drank Malibu mixed with milk and rubbed
each other’s shoulders until we were sore.
Too stoned to contemplate stumbling
down the spiral stairs to the toilet,
we accepted Nancy’s dare to piss
in the mugs we’d been using as ashtrays
then lob them from the dormer window,
briefly soaking the night with liquid charmed
from unloved bodies. We scratched
the backs of our hands to sticky maps
while Nancy carved words like misanthropy
into our forearms, made us print
the red correcting ink along wallpaper
she’d left unchanged since we were kids:
a spectrum of butterflies alighting
floor to ceiling on bright blossomy branches.
She’d insist the insects peeled themselves
from their nectar-troves when we weren’t looking,
swarmed in fractured visuals round the room –
but it always turned out to be Nancy
pressing her thumbs into our eyelids,
fingering between the frets of our thoughts.
Miss looks on in adoration
as her girls lick milk-lollies
out on the quad, suck
suggestively on wham bars.
Sherbet fizz makes their tongues
tingle as they compare
how far they’ve gone
and who with. They giggle
and swish high pony-tails,
unfurl pale shapely legs –
displaying with such ease
behaviours whose implications
terrify Constance, who scuttled
to the library hood-up-head-down
as soon as the lunch-bell rang.
Forbidden to do the things
she doesn’t want to do
like eat and talk, she’s cradled
by a carrel compass-etched
with which teacher’s a slag
and which needs a good fuck,
having wound herself
in swaddling-cloths woven
from paper, mildew and dust.
Unnamed – I
Because the dress handed down
was too big, because it tore
on blackboards and gravestones,
bound her ankles and billowed
over her face in sudden gusts
because the fabric was conspicuous
in forests, because fountains
in public never felt deep enough,
because in liquid dream-cities
she saw it clinging like monstrous
jelly-fish to strangers as she moved,
because wearing it felt like
borrowing someone else’s clothes,
because children pointed and stared –
she slipped into a fish-skin
that had taken years to perfect:
imagine the intricate night-craft needed
to splice those rainbow scales,
stitch black eyes, the gloomy jaw.
Fins quivered from her ribs, her coccyx
forked to a tail and she vanished
beneath the surface of the river
flowing through the old town –
water she’d cupped as a child
where now ghosts turned
from the folds of their reflections.
How could she have known
where the current would take her?
How could she have known
the scales would slide off so easily:
washed from the stone floor
or gleaming in the monger’s hands?
Tess Jolly works as a library assistant and facilitates creative writing workshops for children and young people. Her work has been published widely in UK magazines and webzines and she has been commended or placed in several competitions. She has won the Hamish Canham Prize and the Anne Born Prize and has published two pamphlets – Touchpapers with Eyewear Publishing and Thus the Blue Hour Comes with Indigo Dreams.