Eighteenth

by Kate Bingham

There was a craze for fountain pens.

Fat lacquered ones, walnut-effect, gold-nibbed,

unlocked and lifted, two-handed,

from spot-lit glass cabinets and carried over plush

by silent nail-varnished assistants

to the desk where you and your mum or dad

would have been waiting almost eighteen years,

not talking much, you worrying because the pen

you liked best was also the most expensive.

We kept their pass-the-parcel packaging,

treasured for months the slippery, important plastic bag,

the velvety plump moulded to fit our pen alone,

room underneath for two free cartridges

and an instruction manual in 14 languages, ours first,

the 12-month guarantee, as if a pen could break down,

when what we liked best was its low-tech simplicity,

that we could want a thing invented centuries before,

that it could symbolise our coming of age.

We scribbled in sepia, wrote everyone cheques

for a million hazelnuts. On birthdays

we’d crowd into the library at lunch

and watch the tip of a new pen touch its first white sheet,

the hand behind solemn and quivering, unsure

whether to doodle or draw or let the nib

try for itself, licking the page in thirsty blue-black stripes

as if it knew this was the end of freedom

and that soon it would have twisted to accommodate

each hesitation, dot and loop, its every molecule

straining with something like love as I leaned in,

imagining a future shaped by neat italics

where whatever I wanted I need only write it down.