The first time I hear ‘knocking shop’, there is a wall
between us. My body bends origami-tight in the space
under the stairs. It is Friday, reserved for his visits
and fish; the skirting, the lino, the window ledges blanch
with Mum’s bleach. I finger a day-old biscuit in my blazer
pocket. Oh for Chrissakes, Dave. A cymbal-strike:
the rings of her left hand on the worktop. Tell me
they weren’t underage. I think, Knock: how my sister and I were
taught to ask for the paper – if the man isn’t there,
tap twice on the glass counter, smile without teeth,
take the right change; the Headmaster’s sign, knock to enter;
Mum’s quick knuckles at the doctor’s office.
I survive the stillness of Sundays in late August; ride
in shorts, one foot a rudder, on the trolley through aisles
at B&Q: Help me choose, love – a brass one for the front door?
Our street was still seven days more before he came; I crane
against the window in the box room at the front, to see.
A Lurcher-cross from two doors down, stretched in protest
from Mrs Var’s hand, hunts at a trot, grumbles into the hollow
of a packet of crisps. Next door’s baby crows until it is fed.
That’s why you didn’t turn up for weeks? I hear it first;
his rumble comes in throttled waves across the tarmac. I press
my nose into his leather jacket, slung across the stairs, bat-wing black.
She scrapes her acrylic nails in the steel basin, collects bacon rind,
slivers of onion; her other hand fills the kettle. I don’t know what
you expect me to tell the girls. I unfurl, from under-stairs,
cakey heat between the rolls under my shirt, rehearse a term
in one breath’s worth. Start with the As. I’ve been chosen
to play one of three witches, loads of lines. He snorts
a laugh that charms two grey snakes from his nose:
You’ll pick that up easy. His eyes on her hand, suspended
half of the way. He has to stand to reach the cup.
You’ll learn that from your Mother. How are your
others, she asks; his eldest, we’ve heard, is freshly-slit
from nine pounds seven ounces of her own. He laughs: You know
I never liked kids. Lights off, later, my sister meets me
on the tiles – two prawns in white nighties, slick with sweat.
Mum is there at once to hold back our long, black hair. With
ragged breath, we kneel at the bowl and curse his name.
‘Knocking Shop’ by Melanie Banim won first prize in the Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry Competition (October 2021) judged by Rachel Long.
Melanie grew up in Liverpool, granddaughter of a sprawling Irish Catholic family held together by steely matriarchs. She first published her poetry at university to spotlight the experience of her disabled sister, who is an enduring source of awe. Melanie has dedicated her career to improving education and mental health support for those facing barriers. In 2019, her poetry was selected for the City of Light exhibition. Melanie’s confidence to share her writing grew after a revelatory week of workshops guided by poets, Kate Clanchy and Luke Wright. In her work, she unpicks silences, magnifies marginalised voices, and explores how families can do – and undo – harm.