'A Birthday'

On the theme of 'back to school,' this poem tells the intermittent story of a turbulent time at boarding school as the speaker discusses his life on three consecutive birthdays, detailing the fraught relationship he has with his parents, his sexuality, the pressures of schoolwork, exams, and maintaining friendships.

We celebrate birthdays and cut ribbons, we moisturise and socialise and feud and fight and graze, and yet we are still capable of 'going astray,' leading a life merely going through the motions and keeping up appearances, trapped, almost, behind fences beyond which we no longer care to venture. We can part ways with our parents, our friends, our ambition, but when we part ways with hope, we are, in turn, doomed to lose what makes us human.

I wrote this poem in late 2017 and edited specifically for The Rattlecap. More poetry at georgetomsett.com.


I

I am formed today, smiling at nothing

in the hallway, treading the waters

of indecision. They want us to choose

our subjects for next year, they’re laid out

before me like playing cards

in a magic trick. Pick four, they implore,

pick four. But I am uninformed.

I am uninformed.

Mum called earlier, Dad sent a letter,

the bleating of well-timed affection

whines on and the well of empty

congratulations is brimming full. I stroke

the lambs of fair weather friendships

and feed them their cheap milk,

I sheer their wool when I’m in need

of warmth, slaughter them high and dry

when I feel at all slighted.

The judicial systems of my mind

are ill-prepared to extend such practices

to the caller, the writer of the letter,

the payers of the fees. Days like these

are numbered, I’m counting sheep

to fall asleep. From the classroom

window I see all the trees to be severed

to stumps next year when big builders

arrive. And what of me?

Where will I be? What subjects

will I have chosen? Who will the subjects

of my yearly writing be?


II

They knocked down the room with

the posters of Virginia Woolf

and J.K. Rowling, in its place stands

a fountain where we sometimes smoke

before bed. The trees are taped off,

ready to be stifled by a redbrick,

royal blue centre for careers

or something and, yes, what I alluded to

has become at once more vivid and

true, Mum and Dad aren’t best pleased

with the version of myself at once

old and at once new.

You were influenced, they told me,

but by who? By who? I wonder.

Was it the TV? Video games? Was it

the ads of golden men with perfect,

shining abs that had me skewed

and springing? So comical

was my realisation, it’s hardly worth

detailing. But today the calls were fewer.

Still, Dad sent a text and Mum

sent silence tied up with a little ribbon.

And I received it well.

On my way to English I’m met by this

barrage of well-wishers who smear

cement over the fissures and fustiness,

mute the slow burning soliloquy

of whys and when are they going to

come arounds. For a second, I iterate,

for it drones on and on unimpeded

for the rest of the day,

until a quiet evening unravels

and the unworn actor takes centre stage

to fill his lungs with a red rage that

spews and spews till the cows

come home.


III

I revisit the plot to see what

has become of it since I left, and since

I lost the plot it seemed a good thing

to do. A ceremony to open

a bronze statue of a man who did

a thing. Teaspoons and gazebos and

things. To think twelve subjects

became four and four became three

and three became one.

I read Nordic texts and Woolf among

other things, I guess that’s what

it all came down to. So much of life

becomes smaller but this school

is the flaring exception.

The felted mothers make their way from

reception, all moisturised and wealthy,

clad in scarves to see the ribbon cut,

the fathers herd beside them in Barbour

coats and Hunter boots.

What a glorious day, they all say.

My birthday, I tell a kind and familiar

face. Your birthday! He cries.

Where are your parents? I ought to

catch up with them. The ribbon

is cut. My birthday.

Sheep mill around in the surrounding

fields, waiting idly for the rain,

some pregnant, some tagged, some

muddied from years and years

weathering the wind and all kinds

of strange hardships. Some so together

and some so irrevocably

gone astray.



*Illustration by Claire Sandford*

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