Dear Miss Bane, I’m not yet quite four years old, and I’m standing in the yard of your school. I’m saying your school, but of course I know it isn’t really yours, but I’m sure you’ll know what I’m meaning. Anyway, the yard of somebody’s school, anybody’s school, everybody’s school or nobody’s school maybe, nobody’s that is, but we must all go there. So isn’t it our school? No?
Well, here I am standing quite still, waiting for life to strike. It’s happening to me; it’s a must, compulsory, some kind of service like the navy, but not war. Or is everything war?
And Miss, these boys in their boots, galloping, so big and loud, and so certain, of what I can’t say; but certain. It must be easier for them, being certain, far, far easier. I’m not certain, not of anything at all, or only that the frost is in white crystals like soap flakes. I’m not even certain if I’m cold. It must be so much easier for them knowing all they want is to make a slide of black ice, and slide on it.
It’s a town house with bay window hanging above a busy sidewalk,
shop front beneath,
and I’m born there, or nearly so –
just across the road in fact, at the cottage clinic.
She and he, Harry and Winny,
proprietors in tobacco, confection and news,
paying as comfort to my mother, her sister, my mother being forty-five,
and naturally unexpectedly expecting.
I, Michael, so very post-menopausal,
and not gone from a childless land so much as come to one,
on a January Sunday about tea time,
on the Cardiff Road, Newport,
with everyone, just everyone to greet, so very old.
Something bodily to hatch in fresh-scented child flesh; to put matters plainly, living at the conjoined house another child, girl of my own birth season, someone with whom to share the crawling grounds of early age, someone with whom to somehow become bodily together, accepting difference, yet finding in gender only a matter of directionality, urine being only urine however delivered. Glenys her name, green-eyed, freckle-faced, she’s pronouncing as I’m believing, she’s exploring as I’m coming after.
Miss Bane takes me inside, through doors that say above in sanded relief: BOYS, steers me to a shadowy hall, where lots of children are acting a foolish game of building towers with clenched fists. I see I’m supposed to join. She’s brisk this Miss Bane, matter of fact and no nonsense, such as why or shy or cry, or name, or tell me.
After the game’s ended she walks me to a classroom right at the furthest end of a long, light corridor, a room already filled with silent, watchful children, a space smelling, strongly, sharply of ammonia.
The teacher that’s standing there is tall and unsmiling, and I think I’m seeing immediately how her words are going to pass right high over me, like the wind. Over everyone, the boys and the girls, right on to the walls, out to the school field, the huge elm trees beyond. Miss Delmage is her name, Miss Bane says, Miss Delmage.
So why is said not spelled: ‘S E D’? I’m five and know it’s not. Yet, why? And why do I need explain it to the others? S e d, s e d. What’s been left un-s e d?
They make Barbara stand on the desk for asking to go out again. And the pee runs gold down her legs and over the wood to the floor, so she cries bitterly for the shame of it. She next to me, so cleanly dressed, and with coppery hair in long plaits, and I knowing her father is in prison; but still she being for me, the princess.
Perhaps there should be a childish revolution. We should all stand on the desks and pee and shout the wrong spellings, throw the modelling clay so it sticks to the walls like you-know-what. S E D !
I make the whole alphabet in crimson clay, long before anyone else, then they give me the beads, tiny like rice, and say: now Michael, you must thread them till the long wire is full, right up to the top, because it will be good for your aching, sweating little fingers, which else might do quite disgusting things.
Linocut illustration by Pat Homewood.