Trains

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Trains

     You took me on holiday to the continent. Railway trains to Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. You loved those trains. I hated them. We stopped in the dark at unknown stations. I’m thirsty, you said. Get me some tea. I left the train, climbed down to the platform, went to the restaurant. I had a fistful of money, but didn’t know what it was worth. Tea? I begged the man behind the bar. My mother wants tea. They all shook their heads and offered me beer. My turn to say no. Coffee?  A pause. Uh-uh. They offered me orange juice, lemon juice, wine, and I finally water. A whistle shrilled. It’s the train, they said waving their hands in the direction of the door. I let them choose the money they wanted.  And something to eat. They gave me a sandwich, a slice of cheese in a baguette, then seized some more coins. The engine hooted, a lonely owl, calling for its lost chick.  I ran out of the restaurant, on to the platform. Carriages moved past, slow at first, gathering speed. The last passengers climbing aboard, the doors closing. I ran. The guard, at the end of the train, blew his whistle, waved a green flag, held the last door open, until I caught up. He helped me onto the train, gifting me with a storm of words in a language I could not understand. The doors between the wagons remained locked. My compartment lay to the front of the train. I couldn’t remember the number of my carriage or my seat. Wagons-Lits? I shook my head. Première classe? I shrugged. Touristique? I nodded. The guard grimaced, led me down the train, unlocked doors in the sleepers, led me on and on, until we arrived at my compartment. Restrained by another guard, you yelled and shed tears as you tried to pull the emergency cord that would stop the train. Ah, there you are. What the hell do you think you’re doing? I was worried sick. You slapped me. Now I stand on a different kind of platform, watching another train pull away. I stand here, abandoned, and watch you slide slowly into an unreachable distance.

Poinsettia

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Poinsettia

     You can sense it, you can feel it, the alert spirit that guards this room. Walk in there at your peril. No, don’t. Just stand at the door and observe the poinsettia. You bought her a real one, a year ago, but she forgot to water it and when you visited, leaves and flowers, had crisped and dried, withered and perished. You even found cigarette butts stubbed into the pot’s powdery earth. You bought her another one, this time an ever-lasting, artificial flower, scarlet blossoms of silk with yellow-dotted plastic beads. Today a feather-duster breeze cleanses and enriches the leaves, replenishing their faded splendor. Motes rise, their dancing angels of dust hovering, suspended in a sunbeam that picks out their supple luxury. Their fiery tongues cry out to you from their green plastic pot in this empty room. The plant throbs with a startling vibrancy in this early morning light that enlivens piano keys, table top, and the polished, wooden chair arms you cleaned yesterday.  The poinsettias seem to wring butterfly hands as they gently flap in the breeze from the open window where thin lace curtains twitch, shaping the sunlight into light and shade. Her ash tray sits by the radiogram and awaits her return. That last cigarette, lipstick staining the filter, stubbed out and cold, waits for a companion. Later today, you will go to the hospital and visit her. You do not want to enter this room for its guardian spirit demands solitude and silence. You do not wish to create a disturbance, yet something moves you, and you walk over to her flower. A film of grey cigarette dust rises once more from the silk poinsettia, disintegrates, and dances before you. You bend your head to the silken surface and feel dry leaves brush their butterfly kiss across your cheek as you breathe in the ashen smell of stale tobacco.

Whisky

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Whisky

     Dry energy bristles through your body, tangible electricity, I dare not touch you. Sparks fly through your hair and light up pillows and sheets. Plugged into your flesh and blood, those instruments of life and death and in-between flicker and will not stand still, will not take appropriate measurements in the way doctors and nurses predict or want. Stranded on your beach of bleached white sheets, you are smaller than a seal, an otter, perhaps, a sea-urchin, or a star-fish, struggling in the high-tide mark, not with the sun and wind that dry you out, but with the sands of a time that is ticking away from you, filtering through your fingers, fleeing from your grasp. Your hair ruffles. Your forehead wrinkles. Your gaze sharpens. You have the hunting eyes of the unhooded hawk, or those of a peregrine falcon fixed on its prey, yet you cower like the land-bound beach-bird that he hunts. You are burning up, devoured in your own interior inferno. You slap at my hand as I take a risk and try to place it on your forehead to offer you consolation. What is it? I ask. What do you want? Shall I go and get the nurse? The doctor? You shake your head, your eyes flash, the air sizzles, and you whisper something, too low for me to hear. I put my ear closer to your lips. Your voice: coarse sandpaper over the soft balsa wood frame of a plane that will strive, one day, to grow wings, to take flight, to be a bird. Whisky, you whisper. I just want whisky.

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Swansea Bay

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 Swansea Bay

            My childhood in Swansea: a mixture of seaside and sand. Walking over the bridge at the Slip to reach the dunes at high tide, the fish nets at low tide, the dog ever before me, running fancy-free, chasing yellow-beaked gulls that swoop low, mewl, and lead him on and on, past bundles of bathers’ clothes in summer, and the dog lifting his hind leg, visiting each pile, marking them, one by one, a squirt at a time, and us denying we know the dog, not ours, we say, then beg for the empty pop bottles, taking them back to the vendors, pocketing the cash back on the bottles until we have enough for an ice-cream, a grown-up wafer, not a childish cornet, or a go on the swing boats, and the dog comes with us, gets sea-sick, air-sick, hangs his head over the wooden sides drooling thick saliva as we wait for the bump and grind of the wooden bar that will slow us down in spite of us pulling on the ropes, harder and harder, until we swing higher and higher into the heavens, and the sands dwindle into nothing, and the dog throws up, and the man who handles the swing boats calls us bad names, as we run away, across the sands, ‘I’ll tell your dad,’ he shouts after us, but he never does, and the dog wanders loose across the sands to drink salt water and throw up again, and yes, I remember the starfish, their golden triangles winking wet in the sunlight as they hang from their netted firmaments, and we walk out along the concrete sewer pipes that pour the town’s waste, the town, and not the city, never for me a city, and how could it be a city when so many uncles and aunts lived on Town Hill and my father worked in Town Hall, and Swansea Town were the Swans, and they played soccer on the Vetch Field, the old hanging ground for the town jail, never the city jail, and the Mumbles Railway ran its electric trams out from Swansea Docks to the quarries by the Mumbles Pier, and we took that train, sat on the top deck, The Slip, Singleton Park, Blackpill, the Mayals, West Cross, Oystermouth, where last year, after a hundred years of absence, wild oysters finally returned, the pollution from Copperopolis, the largest copper mining and smelting town in the world, finally drained from Swansea Bay and the waters now clean enough to keep those oysters alive in their cultured oysters beds at Oystermouth, on Swansea Sands, below Oystermouth Castle with its ruined walls where we went once, but I remember nothing about it, nor Swansea Castle, in the old town centre by Castle Street, its ruined walls banned with their Keep Out signs and Danger, but the warnings themselves enough to invite us in, except we knew we’d be beaten if anything happened and we were caught and everyone knew everyone in Swansea Town then,  and somebody would surely bear the tale to our parents or grandparents,  but that’s enough of that, and its’ out of the tram and across the wooden planks of the Mumbles Pier, out to the end where the old men throw their lines into the sea and sit and wait and hope, pulling on cigarettes, Players Nay Cut for preference, as they watch swirling waters, taking sips, like old men everywhere, from secret bottles in brown paper bags that cause them to wipe their lips with the back of theirs hands and cough with pleasure, waiting for God knows what to come along and tickle the end of their line, and out there, at the end of the world, the lifeboat house with its slipway and the lifeboat, launched only in the roughest weather when the tall ships founder or the small boats are blown away, out into the sea, that twinkles now with its wrinkled old man’s face as it moves back and forth beneath wind and sun, and everyone is smiling in the summer warmth, though it’s cold where the wind blows off the sea, and it’s into the corners away from the wind, or into the pavilion where the arcade games wait for our money, and it’s ‘please, please, one more go’, as the small metal arms armed with their claws, clutch at toys and dolls, and furry animals, and the fighter planes come swooping down in their practice arcs and yes, I am a gunner again, fighting my Battle of Britain in a spinning turret with a mobile gun-sight, and time and my money run out and it’s ‘ please, please, one more go’, and my head is spinning, as the turret is spinning, and the world is spinning on its axis as memory’s spider spins its web of illusion, delusion, and time rolls backward on the station clock, as the tram rolls up and we track our tired way back home, past Oystermouth, West Cross, Blackpill with its little Roman Bridge, Singleton Park, the Recreation Ground, St. Helen’s, to the Slip, where we boarded in he first place, and home we go via the fish-and-chip shop in the road at the bottom of our street, and all adventures end as we open the front door, calling out ‘we’re home’, and the smell of warm salt and vinegar soaks through the newspaper binding the delicacies we have brought to placate the gods who wait in silence for our return.

Kite

 

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Kite

Half-light, dim shadows, grim grey ghosts floating, drawn along by curtains shape-shifting in an early breeze. Sun rises, drops light down, filling the room with yellows and pinks. An empty, shell this house, yet the sun brings a morning bouquet, its golden egg-yolk, filtering into cracks in white plaster walls. Barren and bare, today, our world, our words. Sun-dried Roman aqueducts, built two thousand years ago, dry now, carrying no water, desiccated mouths channeling no sound. Lifeless kites, our painted faces, our twisted lips. What is this burden you will bear, so silent, to the skies? Not yet: for you are still earthbound, helpless, too heavy to rise, to surge skywards, to ascend in that one last kick for freedom. Frail your face, your frame. Your skin, mottled-brown sacking lagged around clogged and pitiful pipes. Barriers daily grow between us. They sandbag our lips, string barbed wire so our worlds, our words will never meet. Dead soldiers, forced over the top in a moment of glory, our thoughts hang in the air, wet washing hanging there beneath a casual flap of magpie and crow. A star-shell, kindling my mind, your kite-face, drifting away.

Dog

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Dog

Dog buries under the bedclothes, snuggles up close, frightened by nurses and cold medical smells. Dog knows the meaning of needles, long thin silver teeth that sink into the flesh and make Dog feel woozy. Dog rolls its eyes and growls as doctors wearing long white coats walk around the ward talking to those patients who are still capable of responding. Long stethoscopes twist around the doctor’s necks like tentacles. Dog knows them well and doesn’t trust them. Dog shows its teeth, growls deep and low, draws itself in, even closer, shivers beside its mistress, in spite of the in-bed warmth. Mistress shivers too. She doesn’t understand how Dog got there, but she loves Dog’s warmth and companionship, and trembles at the thought of its absence. Nurse holds that threatening needle, the magic wand, as nurse and doctor call it, but Dog doesn’t believe in them nor in their magic. Dog’s cold, wet, wrinkled nose is out and its soft brown eyes. It sees and smells and senses and is ready to defend or befriend. The patient puts her hand on Dog’s head, smooths it, soothes it, ‘Good dog’, she says. Dog wags, a small jerky motion of a short, stubby tail. Nurse slides the needle into patient’s arm. “There,” she says. “You can sleep now.” Dog whines, gets out from beneath the blankets, lies beside the patient as she lies in her hospital bed. Dog licks the salt tears from her face. When she stops breathing, Dog howls. But nobody sees it, nobody hears it, nobody pays any attention, nobody comes.

Cardiff Arms Park

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Cardiff Arms Park

I have the match program from 1938, Wales vs New Zealand. My father was at the game, alongside my grandfather. Both had played upon the sacred turf at Cardiff, for Swansea, believe it or not. I also have the program from the New Zealand game in 1953, both Welsh wins. I often visited the Arms Park and I saw the Springboks play there in the rain (1961) and Zeland Newydd in 1963.

“A rose by any name would smell as sweet,” wrote William Shakespeare. But would my grandfather have seen and smelled that rose, or my father, or me?

My grandfather played amateur rugby, as did my father. I, too, played amateur rugby and coached as an amateur as well. Money never changed hands. I never sold my name, nor my status. I was, and still am, convinced by the amateur code. Born in Swansea, play for Swansea, the All Whites. Born in Cardiff, play for Cardiff, at the Arms Park. Sure, players sometimes came down from the Rhondda on the local bus. Cliff Morgan did, from Porth, a mere 15 miles away. So did so many others. But Cas Newydd boyos rarely played for Cardiff and were never really welcome in Caer Dydd.

Whoever they were, wherever they came from, they travelled to Cardiff Arms Park. Not to the Millennial. Not to the Principality.

Sorry, William. Or should I call you Willy, or Bill? A rose by any other name does not necessarily smell as sweet. And Cardiff Arms Park is not the Millennium, nor is it the Principality. The Queen’s is not the King’s. Nor is the Angel the Woodville, or the Angel, Islington.

The world goes on, and on. Things change. We shouldn’t regret past things. Things that are in the past are in the past and in the past they must remain, as the words remind us in the Flower of Scotland. But there are traditions. And memories. And some old memories and battles are never forgotten. Nor should they ever be. Y Ddraig Coch Cymreig, the golden daffodil, the Red Rose, Twickenham or, as some call it, Twickers or HQ. And don’t forget the Load of Hay outside Paddington Station: some things will never change.

As for Saturday’s rugby international (Wales at home to England), I will put my heart firmly on Wales, but I will put my money on England. That way, if Wales win I will be ecstatic, and if England win, I will earn enough money from my bet to drown my sorrows. Either way, I will imagine my grandfather, and my father, watching with me, together again at the old Arms Park, and I know that, whatever the result, we will all be happy, all three of us, just to be back together, and to be watching the game in spirit.