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‘Form Up’ by Sally Davis – Primers Shortlist 2018

Form Up

One day you wake up and you’re fighting a different war.
It’s like every day is drill on the rain-slick barrack square
and you’re parading past the brass and every head is turned
and every boot comes down, and everything
is in its place
except your heart.

The Padre offers you a ciggie on a frost-hard morning
and you take it, his cupped hands around the Zippo in a prayer
that makes the words too big for your throat
so you bow your head and smoke
and grind the butt into the floor

and trade combats and parade-ground for the playground
because it feels like teaching is the one thing you are qualified to do
and standing tall at the whiteboard
undaunted under fire is nothing
after heat and dust, bone and muscle, meat
that a heartbeat before was a friend.

One day you wake up and you’re fighting in a different war
and there’s no whip of bullets puffing the dirt to let you know.
It’s timetables, homework. Tuck your shirt in. Where’s your tie?
A new insurgency.
Kids swearing like the Sergeant Major, makeup like the Sistine Chapel.
Saying no is easy for them.

And I’m thinking of the Afghan girl
making bricks to pay her father’s debt
instead of going off to school.
I’m thinking of the houses that her bricks built,
the almost-straight lines, the clay dust smell, grit air,
sky bluer than her headscarf.

One day you wake up and they’ve found out who you were.
It’s like Rorke’s Drift: Sir
did you fire your gun? Sir did you shoot someone? Sir?
Did you kill a terrorist? Sir does it hurt sir? Sir what’s it like sir?
And I could murder a smoke but it’s not allowed within sight of the school
and all I want to do
is grind the butt out, end this class, today.
Because here it comes, all eyes turned
to the paper-thin kid on the back row:
dark hair, almond eyes. Hazara.

Sir his brother got blown up sir
did you know him sir
did you see that?
The class they promised I would never cover,
thinking all day long in the baking heat
of the Afghan girl:

how the boys throw clay at the mould
turn out naked bricks to dry,
and she follows, rows behind
tipping them to air each side.
And I’m fighting in a different war:
to wake up every morning. To follow, rows behind.
To keep from biting people’s heads off, keep it all tamped down, inside.
Thrown clay turned out of the mould, baked hard
in the unforgiving sun.
Too big for my throat so I swallow it. Brick after brick.


Sally Davis is on the ten-person shortlist for Primers Volume Four. ‘Form Up’ is taken from her shortlisted manuscript, Padre. We’ll be showcasing the work of all the shortlisted writers over the next week, so check back to read more poems.

Sally Davis is a writer and rocket scientist, currently working for the Ministry of Defence. She’s been paid to blow stuff up, play wargames, and test teeny-tiny parts of Rosetta (the spacecraft that rendezvoused with a comet).

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