After a reading in a Derbyshire school, the fifteens and the sixteen-year-olds are clustering round me (no fool like an old fool), the clevers, the athletics, the shys, the bolds, for me to sign their poem-photostats; I write ‘Best wishes to Clare; John; Clive; Maureen.’ These are their souvenirs – Bard Rock, Hippocrene beer mats – xeroxed to help them sort out what I mean, like worksheets. I’m the only worksheet on the scene!

Behind me I feel pressure from the girls, the gentle touch of blouses, sweaters, blazers; felt but not seen. But something feminine swirls into my brain. Young eyes cut clear as lasers. It’s like the scent of roses from a bed where, still unpruned, the roses, jostling, cluster and of the senses only one is fed but that’s enough to soothe the sensual luster – sex is that killing air, I tell you, buster!

But this is calm. I’m old. To jump about in goat-like joy is something long gone by. Yet we have much in common, there’s no doubt, if you consider it – Dickens and I. He came on Ellen Ternan crying backstage, a teenage girl ashamed of wearing tights; he loved young women less than half his age, he went round reading, liked his name in lights. We’d be called tender, if we had our rights.

* The prose of Dickens often contains iambic pentameters, unconsciously admitted. In these instances it should be renamed: prerse or vose. This poem, consciously, is made up of rhyming lines printed as prose. Ellen Ternan became Dickens’ mistress.

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