Leaving the First State Home I was Placed In

It isn’t Visitors’ Day, but my mother visits.
The matron takes me to her
in the room called Hatchlings, tells me
to make her be quiet or they’ll throw her out.
She’s standing among the rows of cots, rocking
herself and her baby, while a nurse sits smoking
by French windows, staring out at children playing.

My mother is holding my sister too tightly
and making noises that aren’t like talking.

She asks permission to walk in the grounds:
her voice a gravely croak, her cardigan snot-streaked
by my sister. In the sunshine, there are swings
to play on but we stay close, pretending to be happy
because the nurse is watching. Mum says
I abandoned my sister, but there were rules
about separating siblings and I am crying.

I tell her, if she stays, there will be fruitcake
because it’s Wednesday.

Holding my sister, my mother walks away
up the sloping drive towards the gate,
and I follow. Nobody sees us. Nobody stops her.
Behind me, children play on the climbing frame
where last week a boy broke his arm.
Girls are swinging across the suspended ladder,
their voices like bird calls filling the sky.

I don’t wave or shout goodbye; if I don’t hurry,
Mum will leave me behind.

Karen Downs-Barton

Listen to Karen reading ‘Leaving the First State Home I was Placed In’ (1:46).


Karen Downs-Barton is a neurodiverse poet from the Roma community. She is a Creative Writing Masters candidate at Bath Spa University, her manuscript exploring her experiences growing up in the state childcare system. Her work is forthcoming or published in Ink, Sweat and Tears and Tears in the Fence amongst others.

© text and audio 2020