Shelf Life

Hugo Williams

1

Above our beds
the little wooden shelf
with one support
was like a crucifix
offering up
its hairbrush, Bible,
family photograph
for trial by mockery.

We lay in its shadow
on summer nights,
denying everything,
hearing only
the impossible high catches
for the older boys,
their famous surnames
calling them to glory.

2

Why did we take
the bed-making competition
so seriously?
We were only nine.
We measured our turndowns
with a ruler.
We used a protractor
to fix the angle of our
hospital corners
at forty-five degrees.

Our shelves were identical.
Our Bibles lay
on their sides, facing in.
Our hairbrushes lay on their backs
with a comb stuck in them.
If anyone’s hairbrush had a handle
they had to hide it
in their dressing-gown
and borrow an ordinary one
for the competition.

In the centre of our shelves
stood our photo-frame,
a difficult area
that couldn’t be
tidied away or
forgiven. With opposing
views on the subject,
our parents were looking
straight past one another
into opposite corners of the room.

3

We said out loud,
‘Brothers and sisters
have I none,
but this man’s father
is my father’s son.
Who am I?’ –
holding our fingers
on our father’s
encouraging smile
and repeating it
over to ourselves
till we started
to lose our place.

4

I knew it wasn’t my father
who was bankrupt and poor.
He had a war.
He had a scar.
He was on Famous Film Star
Cigarette Cards
with Janet Gaynor.
It couldn’t be my father
who hit the registrar
and had to be bound over for a year
to keep the peace,
so who were they talking about
in the newspaper?
If he was famous,
why hadn’t I heard of him?

He looked uncertain
in the signed
photograph on my shelf
that was attracting
too much attention
for my own good.
His hair was perfection.
His eyes were fixed on the horizon
where something vaguely
troublesome was going on
behind my back.
The smoke from his cigarette
had been touched in
against a background
of pleated satin.

5

I found his name
in the Library Who’s Who
and tore the page out
hoping it would say.
I memorised dozens
of forgotten films and plays
to prove my father
innocent of bankruptcy.
His brief biography
was followed by a personal note:
‘Clubs: none, Sports: none,
Hobbies: none.
Address: c/o Spotlight.’

6

I tried to explain
that the German
bubble-car
in the photograph
of our house
was part of
a Spitfire
my father had flown
in the war.
The swastikas
on my blanket
were ancient
symbols of fortune
the other way round.

I sat in bed
tracing the faces
of my parents
on lavatory paper.
Riddles and smut
poured from their lips
in my defence,
but the evidence
was attached to
a blind-cord.
Up it flew,
hoisting my shit-
stained underpants
into full view.