Fast Fiction Friday
The vocalist has rhythm but, unlike her audience, she doesn’t have cancer. She has come here tonight with her band to the hospice to entertain those who do. The band donates their time. They don’t do this for money. Nobody does.
The vocalist looks round the almost empty room. She has been here before and knows that when she starts to sing, many more patients, attracted by the music, will come drifting in. She introduces the trio that accompanies her to the few who have arrived and the evening’s entertainment begins.
The music circulates round the hospice, and the inmates, secluded in their rooms, tap out the rhythm of the first song. They leave their rooms and descend the stairs. The low lights give the patients courage and they trickle shyly into the dining room, now turned into a dance floor. As they enter, they see some of the bravest patients out on the dance floor, moving in time to the music. The late-comers stand straighter, adjust their headscarves, lean less on their sticks, and forget for a moment their suffering. They settle in chairs towards the back of the room and leave the front rows empty. Then they exchange glances and nods of encouragement. Many of the men stand at the rear, leaning on the chair backs of the women who are seated in front of them.
Some dance, but not everyone does. Some join in the chorus, humming or mouthing the words. One takes a pair of plastic spoons from his pocket and follows the rhythm. Two ladies hold hands and encourage each other onto the dance floor where they join the growing numbers who are moving around. Those who are not yet brave enough to step out, clap loudly and one or two cheer.
The music volume increases and laughter and merriment grow. More and more patients join the dancers on the floor. The lights are lowered even further and people who scarcely knew each other a week or two ago now dance in close friendship.
As they move beneath dim lights, the dancers half-close their eyes and enter a dreamland of sound and music. Here the women’s hair grows lush and long again. The men stand straighter, throw away their sticks, and rely on their partners to keep them upright. One man touches the place where his partner’s amputated breast should be. She recoils immediately, but he holds her close, whispers in her ear, brushes her cheek with his lips, and gradually she relaxes. As the evening comes to an end and the lights dim further, the dancers move closer together dreaming on and on in time to the music.
When the vocalist announces that this will be the last dance, the music stops for a moment and the hospice’s oldest inhabitant, an elderly lady, cancer-stricken, hauls herself to her feet and walks to the center of the dance floor. When she gets there, she holds out her hands before her and nods at the vocalist. The other dancers make space for her and the last dance begins.
This elderly lady dances alone, clinging to the empty air as if she were dancing with a well-remembered partner. A muted spotlight highlights her as she moves. It could be midnight, in some sacred grove where shadows shift, and moonlight makes its own sweet music, and her, the spirit of the wood, moving in tune to a rhythm that promises, in spite of everything, joy and ever-lasting love.
To Be Welsh in Gower
To be Welsh in Gower is to spell it funny
and pronounce it worse: Gŵyr.
It’s to know how to say Pwll Ddu.
It’s meeting the cows in the lane to Brandy Cove
and knowing them all by name and reputation,
which one kicks, which one gores,
when to walk in the middle of the lane,
and when to jump for the safety of the hedge.
It’s to know the difference between the twin farmers
Upper Jones and Lower Jones.
It’s to recognize their sheepdogs, Floss and Jess,
and to call them with their different whistles.
It’s knowing the time of day by sun and shadow.
It’s knowing the tide is in or out
by the salt smell in the air
without ever needing to see the sea;
and now, in this far off land,
it’s hearing your stomach growl
for caws wedi pobi, crempog or teisen lap
whilst memory’s fish-hook tugs at your heart
like your father tugged at salmon bass,
fishing from the sand-pebbled beach
at Rhossili, Pennard, or Three Cliffs.
Wales is whales to my daughter
who has only been there once on holiday,
very young, to see her grandparents,
a grim old man and a wrinkled woman.
They wrapped her in a shawl and hugged her
till she cried herself to sleep
suffocating in a straitjacket of warm Welsh wool.
So how do I explain the sheep?
They are everywhere, I say, on lawns, in gardens.
I once knew a man
whose every prize tulip was devoured by a sheep,
a single sheep who sneaked into the garden
the day he left the gate ajar.
They get everywhere, I say, everywhere.
Why, I remember five sheep
riding in a coal truck leering like tourists
travelling God knows where
bleating fiercely as they went by.
In Wales, I say, sheep are magic.
When you travel to London on the train,
just before you leave Wales
at Severn Tunnel Junction,
you must lean out the window and say
“Good morning, Mister Sheep!”
And if he looks up,
your every wish will be granted.
And look at that poster on the wall:
a hillside of white on green,
and every sheep as still as a stone,
and each white stone a roche moutonnée.
To be Welsh in the Rhondda Valley
To be Welsh in the Rhondda Valley
is to change buses at the roundabout in Porth;
it’s to speak the language of steam and coal,
with an accent that grates like anthracite —
no plum in the mouth for us;
no polish, just spit and phlegm
that cut through dust and grit,
pit-head elocution lessons hacked from the coal-face
or purchased in the corner store at Tonypandy.
And we sing deep, rolling hymns
that surge from suffering and the eternal longing
for a light that never breaks underground
where we live out our lives and no owners roam.
Here flame and gas spell violent death.
The creaking of the pit-prop
warns of the song-bird soon to be silent in its cage …
… and hymn and heart are stopped in our throats,
when, after the explosion, the dust settles down,
and high above us the black crowds gather.
Cardboard boxes stand stacked against the wall.
The basement is already empty.
There is no spare time.
We must clean and polish and make things shipshape.
The latest owners will be soon here
claiming their keys and their rights of entry.
Empty bottles of old memories stand disordered:
quarrels, wild words, making friends again;
my mother’s body slumped at the bottom of the stairs,
or lying senseless in front of the television;
her bloodless face pale above the stretcher
as they carry her away.
We launch a last desperate hunt through the empty house.
How many memories must we leave behind
with that one last look through the closing door?
How much of our former lives can we capture?
Another Golden Oldie from the last century, the last millennium. This one appeared in The Antigonish Review. I dedicate it to all those who are about to sell their houses and move, and particularly to my friends David and Ana.
CAPELLA DOS OSSOS
(Chapel of Bones, Evora )
They drew blood from the bull’s body, stretching him,
broken, over golden sand: a playground for the gods.
His one horn, splintered, plowed into the arena,
his other horn pointed skywards: a finger of wrath.
Cannibal red and carnival yellow, his blood and urine
spilled for the drunken pleasure for which we had paid.
We had also paid for bands and martial music; a Mexican
wave swept rhythmically over the bullring to enliven us.
Later that day we gave warm coins to the tour guide.
She counted the whites of our astonished eyes and divided
the total by two as we stepped from the air-conditioned bus.
The chapel’s slaughterhouse stench overcame us.
Bone after human bone thrust out from the ossuary walls:
a generation of tarnished hands held out to greet us.
This poem is a golden oldie, published way back when, not only in the last century, but in the last millennium, courtesy of the Nashwaak Review. Sometimes, it’s fun to explore that past and see where it led us. This is from my Milton Acorn, almost about to rhyme, Jackpine Sonnet mode. The poem does have 14 lines.