The valley was filled with things that should have frightened us:
leeches in the Bowmont, ticks clinging in the grass.
Combines dipping like warships through the ripe wheat,
green clouds over Kelsocleuch, their guyropes of lightning.
Nothing was forbidden but the ruined
shepherd’s cottage on the Law,
the gubbed skull of its walls
like a smudge in the high trees.
It felt like miles from the village, dragging our pre-teen boredom
past the roofless barn with crossbeams like a warning,
stink of rotted hay inside. Autumn, and that track ran like a beck.
Summer whacked our legs with goosegrass stalks.
We called it the haunted house, as though its family
of imagined ghosts were why we weren’t allowed.
Every winter ripped more slates out of the roof
to stand up in the dirt like little graves.
Did we ever go inside? My memories
are of waiting at the nettled fringe beyond the fence,
and looking in at peeling tiles, a fireplace,
doorjambs hanging sagged and wrong.
We knew nothing. Too young to read the paper, doing homework
through the TV news. The worst things that happened
to children we knew involved bruises, or tattoos made with biros
and a tailor’s pin. We laughed in the face of a fucked world run by men.
But we felt it there, a click or so away from home,
each egging all the others on to go inside.
Fear: real and glassy as a lake,
though reassuring sunlight zazzed on everything.
We were the lucky little girls, I know that now. We’d find
a reason to turn back – the sound of thunder up at Kelsocleuch –
a thing we could outrun. Lucky to grow, and learn to be afraid,
before that house became the famous site of something bad.
(previously published in This changes things, Bloodaxe, 2016)
Claire Askew’s poems have appeared in numerous places, including The Guardian, The Edinburgh Review, PANK, and on Radio 3’s The Verb. Her debut collection, This changes things, was published by Bloodaxe in 2016, and shortlisted for the Edwin Morgan Poetry Award and the Saltire Society First Book of the Year Award. Claire is also a novelist, and her debut novel in progress won the 2016 Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize. She is currently at work as the 2017 Jessie Kesson Fellow, lives in Edinburgh, and can be found on Twitter @onenightstanzas.