Once a month, they used to stick a needle in my arm and check my PSA, cholesterol, and testosterone: blood pressure rising, cholesterol high.
The doctors kept telling me it was a level playing field but every week they changed the rules and twice a year they moved the goal-posts.
Monday Night Football: a man in a black-and-white zebra shirt held a whistle to his lips while another threw a penalty flag. It came out of the tv and fell flapping at my feet. Someone on the field called a time out.
I haven’t seen my doctor for three years. My urologist has been silent for more than eighteen months. It’s been two years since I last spoke with my oncologist.
I have become collateral damage. My body clock is ticking down. I know I’m running out of time.
Comment: I know I am not the only one to have fallen between the cracks in the medical service. Nor will I be the last. I don’t want to cry ‘wolf!’ and yet I feel as though I have been completely rejected. A year after I recovered from my cancer, I received a survey asking me to assess my post-cancer treatment and services. I read it and cried. I did not even know that the services I was being asked to assess were even being offered. I had certainly received none of the follow-up services. “A law for the rich and a law for the poor” indeed. And so many cracks between so many floorboards with so many people falling through. This is not a rant: it is a warning that all of us must look out for ourselves. I can assure you that if you don’t care for yourself, nobody, but nobody, except for your nearest and dearest, will give a damn for you either.
In the mud nest jammed tight against the garage roof, tiny yellow beaks flap ceaselessly open.
The parents sit on a vantage point of electric cable, mouths moving in silent encouragement.
A sudden rush, a clamour of wing and claw, a small body thudding down a ladder of air to crash beak first on the concrete. “Why?”
“Wye is a river. It flows through Ross-on-Wye and marks the boundary between England and Wales.”
And the swallows perch on the rafters watching their fledgling as it struggles on the floor: the weakening wings, the last slow kicks of the twitching legs. “Why?”
“Y is a crooked letter invented by the Green Man of Wye.”
Comment: This is the original poem, written back in the eighties, wow, that’s forty years ago. I included it in my first poetry chapbook, Idlewood (published, 1991). It was a slim volume, dark green color, typed and photocopied, very humble, but MINE! A couple of years ago I wrote a prose poem, sort of flash fiction, in one of my Welsh sequences and included the story as part of the text. It came to me as a memory yesterday morning, and I posted it on Facebook. Here now is the story. Hopefully, you have just read the poem: I hope you liked it but, as I know all too well, de gustibus non est disputandum. I would like to know if you prefer the poetry to the prose. Please let me know, pretty please?
“Where are you going?” I ask. “To see a man about a dog,” my father replies. “Why?” I ask. “Hair of the dog,” his voice ghosts through the rapidly closing crack as the front door shuts behind him. “Why?” I cry out. I recall the mud nest jammed tight against our garage roof. Tiny yellow beaks flap ceaselessly open. Parent birds sit on a vantage point of electric cable, their beaks moving in silent encouragement. A sudden rush, a clamour of wing and claw, a small body thudding down a ladder of air to crash beak first on the concrete. “Why?” I ask. The age-old answer comes back to me. “Wye is a river. It flows through Ross-on-Wye and marks the boundary between England and Wales.” The swallows perch on the rafters watching their fledgling as it struggles on the floor, the weakening wing flaps, the last slow kicks of the twitching legs. “Y is a crooked letter invented by the Green Man of Wye,” my grandfather says. “Why?” I repeat. “I want to know why.” Silence hangs a question mark over the unsatisfied spaces of my questioning mind.
Openings are so important. They should be magnets drawing you in, but sometimes they’re whirl-pools dragging you down.
You try to hold your breath, but you must breathe and let go, you must go with the flow and sink to whatever awaits you in the deep.
Down there, it’s a different world. Light breaks its alternate shadow, and you are the light in the darkness, down there, where no sun shines.
You are the glow-worm, glowing where no stars glow. You are the line, the sinker, the hook, the bait, the temptation that encourages your opponents to sacrifice their own peace, to join you, to swim, or to drown.
Comment: To take or not to take, that is the question. It’s a long time since I read Hamlet or played competitive chess. I have forgotten many of the ins and the outs, the traps and the snares, the devils that hide in the details of ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Sometimes we must just take a chance and play by the seat of our pants. Sometimes we must try to recall all the nuances and shades of meaning. And we all know how one step leads to another and how a misstep leads to one disaster after another. Not to win or lose, but to play up, play up, and play the game. Says who? I don’t find those words in my favorite chess book: Chess for Money and Chess for Blood. The poisoned pawn, indeed: and a throw of the dice never eliminates chance / un coup de dès n’abolira jamais le hasard. Go on, take the pawn, throw the dice, I dare you.
I wander a vacant, black and white wonderland of empty, accusing, crossword puzzle squares. Most mornings, I sit at the kitchen table, head in hands, puzzled by the news and the crossword puzzle’s clues.
Outside my window, crossbills squat on the feeder, squabbling, heads turned sideways, blinking,
and winking sly eyes. A yellow-bellied sapsucker hops over syrup-sticky squares. His hand-carved chess board
glistens as feasting flies swarm beneath the sun.
My own thoughts are rooted in a stark, new reality. They walk wordless through threatening spaces where unmasked people wander grey, concrete streets or walk in shops, in the opposite direction to arrows, painted on the floor to guide them.
Cross-words, cross-purposes: why do some people obey the current laws while others ignore them and risk their health as well as the health of others by doing what they damn well please, in spite of the scientists who beg them to do otherwise? Like the puzzle’s clues: I just don’t know.
Comment: Well, last year was a year like no other that I can remember. It is so easy to dismiss it as an aberration, but we shouldn’t do that. Hopefully next year will be better. But it might get worse. Let’s look on the bright side and hum along with the song the humming birds are humming: “Yesterday is history, today is still a mystery, but what a day it’s going to be tomorrow.” I still can’t workout how or why some shoppers just head up the shopping aisles, walking or pushing their carts in the wrong direction. Nor how they can stand for five minutes at a time choosing a breakfast cereal, one hand on the handle of their angled carts, another poking at the cereal boxes, and the aisle totally blocked. I also love the people who still handle every apple in the box before choosing just one of them. For apple you may substitute grapes, pears, avocadoes, tomatoes. Oh the joys of ageing in an age of skepticism and pandemic. Mind you: if life is, as Albert Camus always insisted, absurd, or if it is, as Calderon told us, nothing but a dream, I guess none of it matters anyway. Il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux / we must believe that Sisyphus is happy!
“Sábete, Sancho, … Todas estas borrascas que nos suceden son señales de que presto ha de serenar el tiempo y han de sucedernos bien las cosas, porque no es posible que el mal ni el bien sean durables, y de aquí se sigue que, habiendo durado mucho el mal, el bien está ya cerca.” Miguel de Cervantes : Don Quixote de la Mancha.
“Know this, Sancho, … All these squalls that beset us are signs that the weather will soon clear up and better things will come to us, because it isn’t possible for good or ill to endure, and from here it follows that, these ills having lasted so long, good times are now close.” My translation.
Comment: This quote was sent to me by Marina, my close friend from Avila, with whom I have maintained contact, even though it is now twelve full years (2008-2020) since we last saw each other and talked, except on Messenger. Break ups and lost and absent friends and families: it seems to be the story of my life. And how could it be otherwise when one is a migrant who emigrates and immigrates and passes on and through, rarely resting in the same place for long? I guess it is also the story of the Intelligentsia: those whose learning and understanding and life experience moves them out from one place and into many others. Cualquier tiempo pasado fue mejor / any time from the past was better. Hiraeth: the knowledge that the past is lost, save in our minds, and can never be recovered, even though sometimes we wish so badly to do so. The Intelligentsia: always dissatisfied, both with the past which they can never recreate and which they view through the pink lens of nostalgia and with the present which is never as beautiful as that pastel pink past, that in reality probably never existed. Toda la vida es un sueño y los sueños sueños son / The whole of life is a dream and dreams are just dreams, and nothing more (Calderon de la Barca).
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.