In 2008 Arts Council England invited poets to commemorate the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act by writing a poem on the theme of enslavement. The Boy-Call by Hugo Williams.
The long drawn-out cry
of "Boy!" echoes from the stairwell,
travels down two flights
and bursts like a blow to the head
through the last door on the left,
where I am sitting struggling with my essay
on the American civil war.
Only Briggs is behind me in the scrum
of tailcoats and bumfreezers
jockeying for position in the corridor.
He gets hold of my tails
and whips me against the wall.
Church is standing at the top of the stairs,
looking down at me. He's wearing
a blue silk waistcoat with silver stars,
a clove carnation, braided tailcoat,
spongebag trousers with sixteen inch bottoms.
He scribbles a note,
twists it into the usual flat knot
and chucks it down to me.
"Take this to Howe in Chamier's
and bring me the answer."
As soon as I am out of sight
I duck into an alley and unfold the note.
"What do you think of this one?
See you in Tap after school."
Howe isn't in, so I leave the note in Chamier's
and head for the record shop -
out of bounds to Lower Boys.
There is a knock on my door
and Church is standing there,
holding up a ten shilling note.
"Do you want to know what this is for, H.Williams?"
He wants me to go to Thomas's the hairdresser,
to buy a suitable cane
with which to be beaten. He gives me the money
and I take off once more
in the direction of the High Street.
At Thomas's I ask to see a selection
and the old gentleman takes down
various items for my approval:
the knobbly "School" cane,
the curve-handled "Pop" cane,
the straight but bendy "House" cane.
I can't make up my mind!
After supper I am called to the "Library",
a book-free zone,
plastered with nude pin-ups.
The House Debating Society
is sitting round on sofas,
pretending to read newspapers
with holes cut in them.
"Stop ogling the women, Williams.
You aren't here to enjoy yourself."
Church conducts the proceedings,
flexing the cane I bought for him earlier.
"You were seen in O'Sullivan's Record Shop
dancing the Charleston.
Perhaps you'd care to demonstrate?"
He puts on "Good Golly Miss Molly" by Little Richard
and I kick up my heels.
"All right, you can stop doing that.
Put your head under the table."
He flicks up my tails with his cane,
takes aim with a little tap.
The whirr of air, the sudden punctuation mark.
And then the absorption, the storing away
of anything like tears or cries,
as if for later use.