July Birthday

Frank and Paddy sit at the table
covered with cards and presents,
Happy Sixteenth Birthday
in glitter letters hangs across the kitchen.
There’s orange juice and mugs of tea
plates of egg and bacon, lots of fried bread.
Sixteen! says Mam and ruffles them both
on the head, they smile at each other.
Dad leans against the cooker
Well, open them then!
Paddy’s card has a Racing Driver on the front
Frankie’s has a man about to dive –
they show each other and laugh.
Paddy opens his big present:
a red toolbox full of wrenches
socket sets and Allen keys.
Mint, he glows and handles each
with care, turns them in his hand
pretends to unscrew Frankie’s ear
as Mam takes a photo.

Frankie has a smaller box,
wrapped in gold paper,
they’re all silent as he opens it:
a writing set – a fountain pen,
a biro and propelling pencil
silver plated with Francis Donnelly
engraved on the side.
He looks up, eyes shining as Mam
takes his photo.

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He walks out

of the school hall
into the bright sunshine.
It’s lunchtime: traffic
buses, bikes and cars
grumbling up and down
the West Road, people
buying sandwiches,
mothers pushing buggies,
women in bright saris
buying vegetables
he doesn’t know the name of.
All the world going on
just like normal.
He wants to shout:
It’s Over! Whoopee!
Instead he drinks a can of Irn Bru
and doesn’t know what to do;
aimless, he goes to sit in the park
under a tree, and watches dogs
roam. He expected to feel elation
instead he feels empty
like the can he chucks in the bin.

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He’s focused
his timetable pinned
on his wall – a planner
marked in colours
for the different subjects:
Maths, English, History, RE.
Revision days and each exam
circled in black. His stomach
squeezing tight as he walks
to school with Corinne
testing each other on the way.
At night he takes the valium
he got off Mac to relax him
help unwind and get to sleep.

Once he sits down in the hot school hall
Frankie knows it’s his one chance
to make up for all he’s missed
to prove what he can do.
Day after day he sits
and lays down pencil, rubber, pen
waits for the teacher’s signal:
You may begin,
then turns over his question sheet.
A bottle of water’s all he’s allowed;
he sweats it out – scribbling
words, ticking boxes
chewing the end of his thumb
frowning, then scribbling again.
Time’s Up!
The words drag him back to the real world.
He looks about in mild surprise
as another three hours
have disappeared in front
of his very eyes

Then suddenly they’re all over, and he can let go.


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What Frankie tries to explain

It’s like a high wire
stretched above the Tyne
he knows he must cross:
he’s started out, determined
he’s got so far
when suddenly he feels the wind
the subtle sway, the open space
surrounding him. He daren’t
look down, the drop
the brown river sliding below.
His eye is fixed on the other side
but he has frozen. One foot
wrong and he’s spiralling
into disaster.
What Julia Johnson says
is One Step at a Time.

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Frankie goes back

to see the counsellor again;
he’s not sure why he’s there.
He’s hot in her small room
and loosens his school tie.
Julia smiles:
How are things?
I’ve bin ter the Youth group,
it’s canny, like,
I met a friend..
he stops; she prompts him gently:
And how is it at home?
Everyone’s up a height.
I divvent kna if it’s me or what..
In what way?
Well, it’s all bin different
since me Nana passed away.
I got beaten up a few weeks ago –
I’ve never seen me Ma
cry like that. Me Dad
blamed me as usual; they sorta
had a row about that.
And for smokin.
Julia nods:
Death throws even tiny problems
into sharp relief. People
reassess their roles in families –
a lot of shifting and adjusting –
it’s not an easy time.
Frankie stares at his hands, she adds:
Do you feel ok about exams?
We can always write a letter,
medical evidence to explain
your family circumstances.

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Frankie’s on The Revision Train

Every day the same routine:
get up, get off,
sit down, books out
bell goes, a break,
get up, get off,
sit down, books out.
His head is full of facts
and figures, lines of poems
buzz round and round.
The Saturday before exams begin
Corinne sends a text:
Up 4 a swim?

Frank’s still nervous
after the incident at Elswick
he says:
Saturday, the pool will be full
of floating bouncy castles
screaming kids.
They agree to go into town,
it’s quiet in the City Pool.
The high blue arches echo
as Corinne and Frank slip in.
Haway – do lengths.
I’ll race yer. And Corinne’s
away; Frank kicks off the tiled wall
and slices into front crawl, head down
three strokes, face up, breathe,
head down, three strokes,
like remembering a pattern
that’s inborn, he glides
along, swift and strong,
forgets the knots inside
his head – his body
doing what it knows best.

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Frankie is fretting, sweating over
his books:
I want ter be the best I can.
Paddy says:
Divvent worry bout exams.
Long as we pass. School’s
got nowt ter de with real life.
Mam says:
Stick at yer education,
Dad says: Hard work
and practical skills
that’s what really matters.
Paddy and Frank both agree
that Dad and Mam
know nowt about the world
they live in – drugs and drinking.
Paddy says: A spliff
makes nee difference ter me mental abilities,
Frankie says: It calms me down.
But both are extra careful
where and when they smoke
since Dad was on a radge.

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There’s tension in the air

Dad’s angry, accuses both
the lads of smoking weed:
I’m not daft – I can smell it
like a bloody bonfire in yer bedroom.
We told the both of yer. Grounded.
Forra week!
Aw, Dad, complains Paddy
But Dad.. says Frankie,
I have ter go to extra revision,
every Tuesday, er, evening.
When Dad looks to Mam
she says nowt, but shrugs
and lights another tab
and turns away.
Well if Frankie can go out
so can I, Paddy’s rebellious,
I’ve got important things too.
THAT’S IT roars Dad
I divvent believe either of yer
lying little shites.
Yer stayin in tonight
and every night this week.
Ye can work at home.
They sit and Mam serves out a meal
in silence. Dad takes his plate
into the sitting room, Frank takes his upstairs
Mam sits at the kitchen table,
Paddy says
I’m not hungry and slams into the back yard
to tinker with a buckled wheel.

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