Boxing Day By the time I get up, the gloves are really off and the sparring has begun in earnest. I hear voices, walk downstairs to the kitchen, and a hush falls on the room. Knife-edge glances slice their menacing ways through the thick fog of war. Time for boxing: on my left, in the blue corner, my mother, smoking what is probably her second packet of the day. A thin haze of grey smoke escapes from her bruised lips and a cloud of exhaled fumes crowns her head with a murky halo. On my right, in the red corner, my father. White-faced, hungover yet again, truly into the spirits of Christmas. He breathes heavily, like a Boxer Dog in the mid-summer dog-days, snoring and snorting at a bitch in heat. In the middle, my grandfather, the referee. He is keeping the combatants apart, creating a tiny breathing space so the true Spirit of Christmas can disentangle itself from those false Christmas Spirits and bring peace to earth again for at least sixty seconds between each round. I look around the heaving, seething, threshing silence of a room where conversation has suddenly ceased. The fire is burning merrily. Beside it, tongs, poker, and small shovel stand to attention. On the hearthstone, the little red brush, with its long handle lies in ambush. This is what my father uses to beat me when he can’t be bothered to take off his leather belt. Scorch marks from the hot coal fire sear the handle and back of the little red brush. I threw it on the fire one day, hoping to see the end of it. Of course, it was rescued from the flames, resurrected, and I got beaten for that act of rebellion too. “It’s all your fault!” My father breaks the silence, pointing at me. His red-rimmed eyes blazing with a sudden and renewed anger. He starts to rise, but my grandfather steps between us. “Go and see your granny,” grandpa tells me. “She’s in the kitchen. Go now!” He points to the kitchen door. I run a gauntlet of staring eyes and go to my gran. As I shut the door behind me, voices rise higher in the room I have just left. Boxing Day, indeed. The gloves are off. The battle has begun again. My grandfather has evacuated me from no-boy’s-land and, for a moment, I am no longer trapped in the mud-filled, cratered, shell-holes between the trenches, the uncut barbed-wire barriers, the poached-egg eyes peering through periscopes and spying on me from the parental and priestly parapets. Here in the kitchen, for a while, I walk on the wooden duck-boards that keep my feet dry and clear of mud and water.
Comment: This is, of course, the true origin of the term Boxing Day. A genuine Boxing Day has nothing to do with the myth that it was the day on which the servants, who worked Christmas Day on the Lord’s estate, received their Christmas Boxes. Peace on earth and mercy mild has got nothing to do with alcohol-fueled quarrels, raging hangovers, and little children who should be seen and not heard. Sometimes, when all the elders are down at the pub on the corner, the night may, for a little while, actually be silent. But the noise when the drunks roll raucously home is most unholy. Then little children should be wise like the wise men, run quickly into bed, and lie there, neither seen nor heard.
As I walked home, it started to snow. Not the pure white fluffy snow of a pretty Merry Christmas card, but the dodgy, slippery mixture of rain, snow, and ice pellets that turned the steep streets of Swansea into ice slides and traps for the elderly. I turned up the collar of my coat, bowed my head, and stuffed my hands into my pockets. Two houses before my own, I stopped in front of our neighbor’s house. The window shone, a beacon in the gathering dark. I drew closer, pressed my nose against that window and looked in. A Christmas tree, decorated with lights, candles, more decorations, a fire burning on the hearth, two cats curled up warm before the fire, presents beneath the tree, stockings hanging from the mantelpiece. For a moment, my heart unfroze and I felt the spirit of Christmas. Then I thought of my own house. Cold and drafty. No lights, no decorations. No fire. The snowball snuggled back into my chest and refused to melt. When I got home, our house stood chill and empty. My parents were out at work and the fire had died. Nothing was ready for Christmas. I sat at the kitchen table, took out my sketch book and began to draw, then color. When my mother came home, I showed her my picture. “Very nice,” she said without looking up. “But mum, you haven’t really seen it.” She stared at the picture again. This time, she saw the Christmas tree and the lights, the cats before the fire, the candles burning on the mantelpiece, the decorations and the presents wrapped and waiting beneath the tree. But she never noticed the little boy standing outside the house in the falling sleet, cold and shivering, peering in through the window.
Comment: Everyone remembers Dylan Thomas’s story A Child’s Christmas in Wales, but not all Welsh Christmases are like that. This is the story of a forgotten child’s Christmas in Wales. It is a story about a latch-key kid, left alone at Christmas to fend for himself. I enclose the drawing he did and I dedicate the story to anyone who is alone this Covid-19 Christmas. Christmas spent on your own is not much fun. Looking through another’s window, from the cold street outside, is not much fun either. So, at this time of year, let us remember those who are lost and lonely, those who need a kindly smile and a helping hand, those who do not have the comfort of family and friends, a warm wood fire, or a cat or a dog to snuggle up to them, to lick them, and to wish them ‘all the best’ in the languages that all animals speak on Christmas Eve, and sometimes into Christmas Day. Phone a friend, nod to a neighbor, and may your Christmas season be filled with joy.
Yours are the hands that raise me up, that rescue me from dark depression, that haul me from life’s whirlpool, that clench around the jaws that bite, that save me from the claws that snatch.
Yours are the hands that move the pieces on the chess board of my days and nights, that break my breakfast eggs and bread, that bake my birthday cake and count the candles that you place and light.
You are the icing on that cake, and yours is the beauty that strips the scales from my eyes, then blinds me with light.
Comment: what excellent timing: thank you for publishing three of my poems to Clare and on our 54th wedding anniversary too (24 December 2020). An incredible gift and Clare and I both thank you for it, Brian. How to make a memorable day even more memorable. Tonight, when we open the champagne, we will have a glass for you on the table. Much as we would appreciate your presence, the two week quarantine on entering New Brunswick places a blanket over so many invitations and celebrations. That’s why every little helps, and this is so much more than a ‘little’, it is a lot, a very thoughtful lot. So, for Brian, his family, and all my family and friends: tonight we will be alone in our home. But we will raise a glass to absent friends, and we will be together in our hearts. “To absent friends”!!! Here’s the link to Brian’s page.
Silence in the garden. A hawk perched nearby. There are so many ways to die.
A cerebral bleed, minor, but enough to send him to hospital and keep him there.
Cured, ready for release, he would need extra care and added attention.
The devil lived in the small print. Too much attention needed now: his care home wouldn’t care for him.
Back to the old folks ward he went. There he lay, waiting for a vacancy in a home that would really care.
One day, Covid came a-visiting, stalked the ward that night, choosing its victims: you, you, and her, and him.
What killed him? A cerebral bleed, a minor stroke? Or a major stroke from the devil’s pen?
Bold words, bare words, a barren ward, another vacant place around a Christmas table.
Comment: Sitting at the breakfast table, with an empty space before me, I penned these words. So tragic, so avoidable. Yet how many families have gone through something similar in the past twelve months? How many empty spaces are there, vacancies that will never again be filled? I look at today’s figures from the USA: 18,466,231 infected and 326,232 already perished, an increase of 227,998 and 3,338 since yesterday. I am reminded of the words of Pink Floyd: “Is there anybody out there?” Blas de Otero also echoes through my mind: “levanto las manos: tu me las cercenas” / I hold up my hands: you cut them off. And yet it is Christmas Eve and there is still the Christmas promise of joy, and hope, and a new year entering. Let us raise our hands in prayer: and let us pray they are not hacked off.
He was a good man, and a better friend. He came over to mow the lawn and stayed for a beer. “This is gonna sizzle!”
Some called him uneducated, no BA, no MA, no LLB, but he had a golden heart and a PhD in the school of life and hard knocks.
I met men like him in Wales, coal miners in bars, steel workers on rugby teams, sheep farmers from the hills in the big city for the game.
Humble, they were, honest, hard men, hard working, intolerant of pretension and fools. When I went to university, nineteen and full of ideals, they pulled me on one side.
“You’re one of us,” they said. “However high you rise, don’t lose the common touch.”
I met men like him in Spain, foot-soldiers from the Civil War, riflemen, dynamite throwers with their skills learned at coal face and quarry.
Machado wrote poems about them: “Donde hay vino, beben vino; donde no hay vino, beben agua de las fuentes.” Where there is wine, they drink wine. Where there is no wine, they drink water from the fountains.
A good man, an honest man, an uneducated man, some say, who taught me more about life and how to live it than any university professor.
Comment: I read the obituary of one of my best friends in the newspaper today. He moved away from the neighborhood and we lost touch. But I never forgot him. As I have never forgotten those who shaped me in Wales and Spain. I have forgotten many of their names. But I have never forgotten their faces, nor their words of wisdom.At first, his passing brought a shadow to my life. Then I realized that no, he would not have wanted that. I think now of the good times, the laughter, the joy and, instead of mourning for him, I rejoice in all the goodness he gave me. Rest in peace, my friend. I will forget-you-not.
Time, like water, like these people marching, constantly flows, trickling through my fingers, uncatchable, unstoppable, sand filtering through the hour glass’ waist.
Water flows, currents shift, rocks wear down, banks slide and fall.
“You cannot walk in the same river twice nor ever attend the same demonstration.”
Nor can you recapture that first, fine, careless rapture, the touch of that first drop of river water.
Kneeling by the river bank, like St. Kevin and his Blackbird, I cannot recall the river’s name.
Comment: I love the reality of the river, its impressionist style of flowing water, impossible without the enormous presence of Claude Monet and his portraits of the Seine. However, what makes the mural, for me, is the brutal reality that breaks into the painting’s unreality. The boards covering the interior wall, the hand rail blended into the painting, the skirting board, the electric socket. I also like the intertextuality: art speaking to poetry, poetry replying to art, the links to Heraclitus, poetry speaking to poetry, the anonymity of the river, and the further poetic links to Robert Browning and Seamus Heaney. I often wonder if readers and viewers pick these things up. Or do they just speed-read, link to their own experiences, and move on with no further thought? You tell me. But what I will tell you is that artists reaches out to art, poets extend their hands to poetry, and our world is an inter-connected maze of thoughts and ideas, linking and unlinking, occurring and re-occurring, lapping like an incoming tide at the fingers and toes we immerse in those amniotic waters, often so long-forgotten, in which our creativity is berthed and from which it is born.
Searching for le mot juste, the exact word that sums it all up, catches the essence of the thing and holds it in the mind forever.
Think flowers. Think scent. Think of the limited ways we describe how daffodils lift and clematis clings.
I look across the breakfast table and see my wife of fifty years, a teenager reborn, walking into that café where we had our first date.
I search my memory and my mind for the words to describe that beauty, that surge of excitement, I still feel when she enters the room:
but find I cannot find le mot juste.
Comment: I shortened this poem from its earlier version. You can click on this link to compare the two versions. I am always puzzled by the dilemma of lengthening or shortening. My thoughts center on the longer and shorter versions of some Raymond Carver stories. Follow the editor’s advice and cut all material down to its essential bones or fill out the skeleton with flesh and blood and expand the creative process further. I also think of the exhortation to ‘stay in the moment’. Anything that takes the reader away from the central experience is superfluous. Experienced writers are aware of that moment and its importance. Writers at my stage are often baffled by it and need to be told yes, this is the moment or no, that is not the moment. I guess the more we write, the more we understand the process. Understand: do we work this out consciously or does it develop in unconscious fashion? Are some people just born with those skills or we must work hard to develop them? Sunt rerum lachrimae: tears are in all things and I guess hard work is all part of the process. As I was told a long time ago: genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. You have to put in the hard work for that little light bulb to go ‘pop’!
Warm in Bed. Cozy. I roll over and the flashlight clipped to my Teddy Bear’s ear drives its hard, metal lump into my face. “Are you awake?” Teddy’s soft voice lilts across the pillow. “I am now.” “Look!” Teddy points with his little leather paw. “The moon: it’s climbing the fir tree.” Sure enough, a thin fingernail of gold is perched on a branch. It hides its face among the fir’s darkness and vanishes for a moment. “The maple tree has a garland of tiny Christmas lights,” says Teddy, pointing again. “Those aren’t Christmas lights, they’re stars.” “Spoilsport. Look, that one’s moving. I think it’s an angel.” “What time is it, Teddy?” “I don’t know.” “Here, lend me your flashlight.” I pull him towards me, switch on the torch, and focus its light on my wristwatch. “4:55 AM. That’s the early morning flight from Toronto. It’s a plane.” “I’d much rather it was an angel.” “Me too.” “Can we pretend it’s an angel, a Christmas angel?” “Of course we can. But it’s gone now.” “Perhaps angels don’t live long when they come to earth.” “I think they live for ever. Especially if we believe in them.” “Do you believe in angels?” “I was taught to believe in my guardian angel.” “What’s a guardian angel?” “He’s the one who looks after you when you sleep at night.” “But you don’t need a guardian angel. You’ve got me.” “But you’re a teddy bear, not a guardian bear.” “That’s true, but you’ve got Blueberry. He’s your guardian bear. Look at him standing there, on guard, all night long to protect you from the Night-Bumps.” “Ah yes, good old Blueberry. I’ve got a busy day today. I need some more sleep.” “Okay. Blueberry and I will watch over you. I’ll watch over you. I’ll let you know if any more angels climb the tree.” “That would be nice. Now I’m going back to sleep.” “Good night. Or should that be ‘good morning’.” Some days, when I wake up, I think I have dreamed all of this. Other days, I believe in talking teddy bears and angels. Today, I’m not so sure.
Our minds absorb words as blotting-paper soaks up ink. Phrases carve beehives deep in our inner circuits. No te preocupes / don’t worry. Yet tone and carry are different in each language and the comfort-blanket serenity of note preocupes does not translate easily from Spanish to English. The verbal vibes are just not the same. Nor do the catcalls from the soccer, aimed equally at opponent and referee, and tumbling raucous from the stands where people sit. Shrill whistles sound in the bull ring: a matador who seems afraid to approach this particular bull for reasons only known to him, yet his shakiness visible to all who watch and understand what they are seeing. The Cordobés answers the telephone he places on the bull’s nose, yet fails to approach between the horns and his sword rebounds off bull bone: pincha hueso. Each one wounds, the last one kills. El Viti, stately, graceful, an elderly churchman proud of his vocation and always willing to perform to perfection the weekly ceremony of the sacrifice. The boos when the bull enters the ring, stumbles, and comes up lame and limping. The cheers that accompany the arrival of the seventh bull. The refusal to eat meat that has been slaughtered in the bullring, even though it is advertised outside the butcher’s: tenemos solomillo de toro de lidia / we have tenderloin steaks from fighting bulls. Bulls who have led the best of lives, fed on the tenderest pastures, watered by flowing streams. Bulls grown for slaughter and public sacrifice.
Guernica. The bull fight in the sand-filled square. Except it wasn’t a fight, it was more a circus. The slippery pig. The hens and chickens. The rabbits and hares. All the animals running scared. The animals released, one by one, and the spectators jumping into the ring, really a sand-filled square, one by one, and chasing down the animals, taking them home for dinner, if they could catch them. Then the bigger beasts. The mule, ferocious, jumping into the air, kicking four tormentors, one with each leg, and biting a fifth with his teeth. No fearful, clucking chicken this, nor the cow who came after with her padded horns. Participants moved more carefully now. She watched them from her querencia, the where she chose to fight, not die. She knelt, scraped off the rubber balls that covered her horns. Re-armed, she charged and the crowd scattered, all but one young kid, caught, falling to the ground, the cow standing over him, ready to gore again. Sixteen years old, an outsider, I jumped with others over the barrier, twisted this away and that, thumped the cow’s side, smelled her fury, her fear, the whole soured being that emanated from her. Together, we hustled her, bustled her, dragged her kicking, butting, from the ring, backwards, pulled by the tail. Visible scars of damaged animals. Scars of the participants. That young man who broke his leg. That old man, inebriated, stuffed with food and drink, who loosened his belt to move more freely. We watched as his pants slipped from his waist to fall around his knees and trap him, just as the cow charged. He survived but will bear the scars forever, some visible, many not. Long summer days, on the Sardinero, the Segunda Playa, playing soccer. Different rules, different skills, different swear words: I carry a dictionary tucked into my bathing trunks and refuse to play while I look up the words spat at me by my opponent. Good heavens, I think, is that anatomically possible? The ball bounces away on the hard, sand ridges. I chase it and steadily dehydrate under the hot sun. A sea-salt wind desiccates my body. My mouth fills with salt water when I swim out to retrieve the ball from the sparkling sea. My tongue sticks to the inside of my mouth. When I spit, I spit dry and everyone laughs. Now I am totally dry, shiver, and no longer sweat. On the way home, we get off the trolleybus early, at Jesús del Monasterio and enter the long string of bars that lead past Numancia towards Perines. Red wine in glasses, in porrones, with tapas and raciones to soak up the alcohol, morcilla, mariscos, callos, patatas bravas, wine consumed until our blotting-paper bodies are ready once more to sweat. Bread soaks up the wine that relieves the oil that now filters through our skins and who needs suntan lotion when the oil is inside us and bodies are oiled, well-oiled, from the inside out? These excursions are all male, just like the soccer teams. I have four friends and I know them by their nicknames and the way they play soccer. I also know them from the way they try to trick me and laugh at my mistakes, or the way they treat me as a human being and help me to understand this new world into which, sink or swim, I have been thrust. Total immersion in another culture does not come with a set of instructions and the rules of soccer change from grass field to beach sand. Pedro plays centre-half, loves heading the ball, even when it’s laden with sand. I watch him playing field hockey one day, out at La Albericia, and when a low shot heads for the corner of the goal, he dives and heads it away. They carry him off on a stretcher, blood everywhere, and you wonder if his scars will ever heal. Tennis on the clay courts, also at La Albericia. I play so slow but they play so fast. I learn top spin, side spin, back spin, cutting the racket beneath the ball and learning to bend it sideways off the clay that is not clay really, but a fine-packed Italian sand on which I can slide and glide, and commit to a shot running one way then turn and commit to another in the opposite direction. I try it on a hard court, after the immersion period ends, when I get home, and my foot sticks on the tarmac (or whatever that hard, non-slip surface is) and over I go, skinning my knees, creating more scars.
Comment: Another Golden Oldie reclaimed from the reject file. I remember the scenes so well, even though I have moved deliberately in the piece from Elanchove and Guernica (Basque Country) to Santander (now Cantabria). I got lucky and was able to attend a series of workshops on memoirs run by Brian Henry of Quick Brown Fox. Taking his workshops, I realized that most of what I write is more akin to Creative Non-Fiction (CNF), rather then memoir, though much of what I write is rooted in memory. What thrills me in this style of writing is the rhythm that emerges, the word patterns I knit with my pen and a skein of ink, the remembered brightness of the Spanish sun, the sparkle of the waves, the warmth of a people, still grieving after their losses in a bitter civil war, their willingness to accept me, a foreigner, and take me to their hearts. The Other: we talk so much about The Other. But when we ourselves have been That Other, have been dependent on Other Others for food, drink, warmth, care, and love it is so much easier to understand what The Other is lacking and what we can give. Warmth, not scars; a hug, not a punch; open arms, not a fist… so easy to say. I have been there. I know. But can we, deep in our hearts, find it in ourselves to make the sacrifices for The Other that other others have made for us? Only time will tell.