The school bell shrieks its chalk
down the daylight’s spine.
Is this a drill, can you smell smoke?
No need to.
It already clouds the teachers’ faces.
The silence around the alarm’s
frantic hammer and anvil
says this is no rehearsal.
The staff are a paradox,
gentle riot squad
barely exchanging glances.
‘Move, girls. Now. Move.’
We’re quick; we’re orderly,
we ditch our bags and books,
soon gather in the quadrangle,
fish for shooting in a barrel.
The sunshine knows how to do surreal.
It touches each one of us on the crown:
black and blonde and red and brown
all gilded. It lifts a blue blur like aura
around even the bitches’ shoulders;
gives their white school shirts
the Persil elegance of swans.
Every one of us is illuminated
into something brighter
more urgent than beautiful:
for now we catch the acrid rumor
that spurts like flame along fuse-wire
we swallow with tongues like flour
we breathe through throats like paper
we shift on our cattle-truck haunches
as like jet fighters in formation
all the dread and sadness roar over;
someone mentions Libya,
someone mentions their father
who thins with terminal cancer,
another mentions their mother
who night-walks too young in dementia,
another says a boy has molested her
so now she can’t keep down what she eats
another’s dreams of nuclear fallout
mean she hardly ever sleeps.
As we stand there the winch
of patience winds higher
tense with expectation
yet there is no bomb
and still we could never call this hoax:
for even now we carry
the solid strop of time
the knife that whets and whets;
and gripped inside our chests
a red grenade of fear.
Emma Neale, a Dunedin based writer and editor, is the author of six novels and six collections of poetry. Her most recent collection is To the Occupant (Otago University Press). In 2020 she received the Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for a Distinguished Contribution to New Zealand Poetry.