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History Lessons

by Mariah Whelan


I want to try and learn

the language my dad speaks.

Can you pass me the water please he says,

pulling his chair to the dining-room table.

I pick up each word, hold them to the light—

try to count all the meanings inside,

which one he wants me to see.

Tonight he doesn’t mean look at me

or don’t look at me but something new

and I am left to peer into him

the way I’d stare into the red beads

on my mum’s charm bracelet

watching clouds appear inside

like photographs of galaxies, nebulae

beamed back from the Hubble telescope,

holding each bead’s cracked glass

close as I could to my eye.


One night, after El Clásico, there’s crushed glass everywhere,

distress flares burning and I can’t see the palm trees

for the red smoke billowing across the square.

Someone is singing El Sagadors and I am speaking

perfect drunk Spanish to the old man beside me

who says Si! Si! Entiendo, si!

Saying I understand with all the I emptied out.


I come back from Spain when Grandad dies.

My dad inherits:

a photograph album

a bottle of champagne

a sizeable care bill

In the front room I hold the album out to him and say,

Look, the last three photographs are missing?

He says,

Look how this old glue still holds the fabric to the board.


History is things that have happened

he says, putting his hands

palm down on the dining-room table.

Ok, then. I say.

Because he won’t talk to me

I go out and buy water-colour paper,

write history is things that have happened in red ink.

Why do I need to take his muteness and fill it?

Why can’t I write this history like it is,

an old bottle of champagne he holds in his arms

like a quiet, green baby

giving away nothing but its own thick surface,

how do I wipe it clean of stories stuck

to its wet glass like sawdust, packing nuts?

MARIAH WHELAN is the author of the love i do to you (Eyewear, 2019) which won the AM Heath Prize and The Rafters Were Still Burning (Dancing Girl Press, 2020). She is currently finishing her PhD at the University of Manchester where she also lectures in Creative Writing.


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