Basil decided he liked beer, especially in small tins. The news says that many teddy bears have become addicted to alcohol in the course of the pandemic. What the Strolling Roans call Teddy’s little helper, or Basil’s in this case. I do hope he’s all right.
Basil swears he likes cats. “Look,” he says. “She’s reaching out to me.” I am worried that she’s coming to give him a nasty scratch. Am I worried? Of course I am. I thought Basil was a tee-tee-tee-total bear. I think he’s trying to break in.
Suddenly, I am not so sure. I think he has been talking, in secret, with one of my friends, whose name we will not mention. Couldn’t be him. How could he talk when … (comment removed by MI6, or equivalent).
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Nochebuena / Christmas Eve: last year, a star fell down the chimney and landed on the poinsettia. The cat and the dog stood up to deliver new versions of their Christmas vision. Birch bark: ghosts on the snow bank turned white in the moonlight as they danced, so slender and so bright.
This year an obsidian knife hacks through my mind slicing it into two uneven pieces. Snowflakes invade its split personality. Thin ice spreads across glacial fires. Incarcerated birds sing deep in my rib cage. A child’s world: with its lost toys lies buried beneath fresh snow.
Tears freeze in my eyes, drip from my eyelashes, and fall to the earth as stars. Soon I will be an enormous sunflower, trapped in this wet clay rag of a body.
If I sit here in silence will the world, like a garden growing wild, go on without me? The flowers in my yard close their mouths and refuse to answer.
Babs held the cat in her arms. The vet slipped the needle into the shunt he had inserted into the animal’s paw and the tiny wind of life gusted from the cat’s fragile body. The struggle ceased. The cat’s head settled and her tongue protruded, just a little, in that beloved and well-known gesture. It was all over.
Babs had found that lump, hard, but smaller than a pea, on New Year’s Day. The next day, she carried the cat to the vet where they took blood samples and ran tests. The vet’s assistant called later that afternoon. A lymphoma, she said, small but deadly. Steroids might help. They would give the cat a 40% chance at a life that would get more difficult, in spite of any known treatment. The alternative was to bring her back in and put her down now, that very afternoon. Babs looked at the cat: highlights strayed through her fur and her bright eyes sparkled like sunshine on a lake.
Throughout January the steroids went in and the cat glistened and grew fat. At first, Babs saw no sign of the lump but by Robbie Burn’s Day it was back. Babs started to count the days: January 31, February 2. The lump grew larger.
Three years before, on Valentine’s day, Babs had salvaged the cat from the SPCA where she languished, abandoned in a cage. The cat was a stray, half feral, taken in from the streets and subject to who knows what sort of treatment and feeding in its infancy. Babs wondered if it was in those days of neglect that the cancerous seed took root? Or did those seeds come later, when the cat wandered the garden and fed off the wild life, mice and voles, and drank from the streams that flowed through the killing fields with their fertilizers, their weed killers, their nutrients, and their poisons?
“What are we doing to ourselves,” Babs wondered as she sat at the kitchen table and sipped a cup of tea. “Was my cat the canary in my coalmine, doomed to warn me of what’s to come? Will my own system be invaded then poisoned with cancerous growths? Will I be subject to that stumbling, downward road that leads in the end to an inevitable death?”
She lay awake that night alone in the bed wondering in what ways cancer might ravage her body. How long would chemotherapy keep her alive? Who would be there for her, who would hold and comfort her, who would slip that releasing needle into her veins when her time came?
Babs ran her fingers over her body as she imagined herself sliding day by day down that slippery slope that leads to the grave. Then she caught her breath, her heart raced, and her blood turned to ice as her fingers tripped against the colony of killers: three small hard lumps that nested in her soft breast.
Five reasons why a Teddy Bear is much better for you than a Kitty Cat. I know, I know: cat lovers will go wild. They think cats are such lovely cuddly things. And they believe strongly that nobody can resist a warm, loving, darling, purring bundle of fur. Well, I can resist cats. And I can give you five good, sound, solid, 25 carat reasons why Teddy Bears beat Kitty Cats any day of the week.
One Teddy Bears do not need to be fed on a regular basis. In fact, one piece of kibble will last a Teddy Bear for a very, very long time. And you can’t say the same for your cat. So less expense, no need to feed, don’t have to put that fresh water down every day, no constant fawning attention when hungry or just plain greedy, don’t have to worry about treading on the cat’s tail … In fact, a Teddy Bear wins out every time.
Two “Don’t mention cleaning out the kitty litter. Promise?” “I promise. I won’t mention it.” “Word of honor?” “Word of honor. Fresh Walnut and all that.” “You just mentioned it.” “Mentioned what?” “The kitty litter.” “I didn’t.” “You did: you said ‘Fresh walnut.’” “So?” “So that’s what keeps the kitty litter from smelling.” “Does it smell much?” “Quite a bit. I hate cleaning it out.” “Why?” “It’s so smelly, filthy, grainy, lumpy, stinking …” “So, why do you do it, then? What you need is a nice, clean, environmentally friendly Teddy Bear. There’s no cleaning up after a Teddy Bear. Who’s ever heard of Teddy Bear Litter?” “You said you wouldn’t mention it.” “Mention what?” “Kitty litter.” “I didn’t, you did.”
Three Teddy Bears don’t have off-spring. You don’t need to neuter them, and they don’t need taking to the vet. Nor did they sit and wait in family groups for their photos to be taken. What we have below is a fake photo placed there by the unscrupulous enemy for their own pro-cat propaganda purposes.
Four Teddy Bears are very obedient. If you tell a Teddy Bear to “sit” or to “stay”. He does so. Immediately. And he stays where you put him. There’s no clash of wills and egos, no conflict at all. Teddy Bears are easily trained and very obedient. Also, they don’t want to go out in the garden and wander beneath the bushes to shriek and whine when the moon is full. Now, if you have cats and you want them to sit and stay still, you must give them something to watch or to play with. Chipmunks and garden birds aren’t cheap, you know, and they are less trainable than cats. How long do you think it takes to train a chipmunk to just sit there quietly to entertain your cat? Especially when it’s being hissed at and the cat is bouncing the window with anguish? Also, Teddy Bears don’t climb on furniture, nor do they break ornaments, nor sink their claws into your hair as you pass beneath them, nor do they drop on you, unexpectedly, from great heights.
Five Five and finally, when there’s a moth, a fly, or a mosquito on the ceiling at night, you can’t train your kitty cat to fly into the air and snatch it off the ceiling. But as for Teddy: grab him by one leg, preferably the back one; give him his commands “Ready, Teddy, Go!” and hurl him skywards. With a little practice, he’ll nail that nocturnal buzzing monster every time.
No: all things considered — and I promise I won’t mention, you know what, that little box the cat sits in — there’s nothing better than a Teddy Bear. Wise, silent, friendly, cuddly, obedient, friendly (did I say that?), needs no training, always there when needed, waits patiently for you when you’re away, never stalks off with tail in air, never gets out and hides in the garden where you can’t find him, adorable, cuddly (did I say that already?) … Give me a Teddy Bear anytime.
Their tunes are one note symphonies, croaks of joy that move their fellow frogs to ecstasy, exhorting them to share the splendors of ditch life, in a springtime bonding that will loft them skywards.
There’s an ancient magic in this calling: water and laughter, sunlight, warmth, and all those joyous things that fill the newborn spring.
Moonlight swings its cheerful love lamp. New leaves and buds are also known to sing.
Comment: This always makes me think of the croaking chorus from Aristophanes. I do hope all those wonderful ancient plays, songs, myths, and legends are not forgotten in our croaking frog chorus of modern jingoistic advertisements and propaganda. Ah well, what’s a source for the proper goose is probably a source for the proper gander. Who knows nowadays? What we do know is that spring is just around the corner. Warmth and the absence of snow will help change our lives. And yes, that croaking chorus will be back.
Comment 1: It’s one of those pandemic days when the steam stays in the kettle, the heart rattles, the ribs, and nothing happens. This is the hopeful grey squirrel who sits outside the kitchen window and tries to persuade us to come out and feed him. Look at him: one eye on us and the other on the world around him.
I think he’s looking for his twin, or maybe his twain. But what if the twain never meet? Click on the link below, a real Golden Oldie, and you’ll see what happens when the twain really do meet. As they sometimes do.
Comment 2: When you click on the link, if you click on the link, remember: that was probably my first ever post. Oh I was a novice once upon a time, but never in a nunnery. And I still don’t like taking orders. That’s probably why I never became a bar tender or a waiter. Hey: wait a minute now. I think this pandemic lockdown is getting to you. You are as mad as a hatter or as confined as a teddy bear in a glass house. Oy! Whose is that voice talking to me on my own blog? It’s the other half of your split personality. Oh dear: I guess we are all getting to know that strange, locked up feeling.
What’s in a name? At the Farmer’s Market there are fourteen puppies in a cardboard box. One of the puppies, still blind, clambers whimpering over the side of the box and totters toward me. An elderly lady picks him up, thrusts him towards me and says: “Here: he’s your dog. He wants to be with you!” “No way, Lady!” I say and turn away. When I exit the market, I walk past the dog box. There are five dogs left but the one that wandered in my direction has gone. The salesman calls out to me: “Hey you!” He walks towards me. “That woman said you’d be back for your dog. Here: take him!” He unzips his coat, and there’s the dog, snuggled against his chest. “When was he born?” I ask. “January 16!” comes the reply. January 16 is my birthday. Today is March 8, the anniversary of my mother’s death. The dog is 53 days old, much too young to leave his mother. When I get home, my wife tells me to take the dog straight back to the market. “I can’t do that!” I say. “The man will be gone by now.” “But we don’t know anything about the dog!” “I’ll clean up after it.” I say. “I’ll feed it and train it.” “You’ll have to put it in a cage.” She tells me. “I’m not having it peeing and pooping all over the floor. You know why they’re called poopies.” Later that evening, I force the little puppy into the old dog’s crate, and I retire to bed. No sooner have I gone upstairs than there’s an unholy noise from the kitchen. “Help me!” I say to my wife. She laughs. “Not a chance! You know the rules!” Down in the kitchen the puppy is in distress. I take him out of his cage and he waddles and wags and promptly pees. I clean up after him and wonder what to do. The cage isn’t a solution. There’s no box in which to put him and any form of captivity, like a board across the door or a baby’s gate, sets him howling again. I gather my sleeping bag and a couple of cushions and I lie down on the kitchen floor. He immediately snuggles up to me, finds my finger, and sucks on it. I get up off the floor, make my way to the fridge, open the door, and pour a glass of milk; for the rest of the night, every time the dog gets restless, I stick my finger into the milk and the dog sucks my finger. I spend the next week doing this. While I’m lying on the floor, I study the dog. “What is your name?” I ask him constantly. Then, one night, as I watch him bounce across the room towards my milky finger, I know what to call him. “Tigger!” If I had waited another week, I might have called him Pooh! Tigger never leaves me. He is like an orphaned duck who follows the first human being who feeds it. Tigger follows me around the house with his nose behind my knee and if I stop suddenly, he bumps into me. My wife has started to call me Dada Duck. I now call her Mother Duck and our daughter has been renamed Baby Duck. Tigger has a second name: Dada Duck Dog. We have a little corner piece on our lot where the roads join and all the dogs stop, including mine. I went out there one day and put up a large sign with “Pooh Corner!” written on it. Beside it I placed an arrow which points “To the house!” All the children on the block love Tigger. When he came home, he weighed 6 pound and covered six tiles. Full grown, he weighs 110 pound and covers 108 tiles! He is gentle and well-behaved and everyone adores him. Some of the children want to buy a little saddle and ride on him, he is certainly big enough, but I won’t let them do that. The children on the block now call me Christopher Robin. At Christmas, they bring me pots of honey. As eleven years went by, Tigger grew old and slow. He developed cancer and had arthritis. On fine days he was fine, but on damp days he could hardly place one foot in front of the other. He had difficulty climbing the stairs and would sleep for hours rising only for his morning and evening walks and his food. Yesterday, el cinco de mayo, at 12 noon, Tigger passed away. Today, there is a little white cross at the corner of our lot. The children have laid a circle of flowers around the cross. On it somebody has painted: R.I.P. Tigger.
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.
There are striations in my heart, so deep, a lizard could lie there, unseen, and wait for tomorrow’s sun. Timeless, the worm at the apple’s core waiting for its world to end. Seculae seculorum: the centuries rushing headlong. Matins: wide-eyed this owl hooting in the face of day. Somewhere, I remember a table spread for two. Breakfast. An open door. “Where are you going, dear?” Something bright has fled the world. The sun unfurls shadows. The blood whirls stars around the body. “It has gone.” she said. “The magic. I no longer tremble at your touch.” The silver birch wades at dawn’s bright edge. Somewhere, tight lips, a blaze of anger, a challenge spat in the wind’s taut face. High-pitched the rabbit’s grief in its silver snare. The midnight moon deep in a trance. If only I could kick away this death’s head, this sow’s bladder, this full moon drifting high in a cloudless sky.
Comment: This is the prose version, from Fundy Lines (2002). The prose version was based on an extract from a longer poem that first appeared in Though Lovers Be Lost (2000).Though Lovers Be Lost is also available on Amazon and Kindle.
Black clouds build over the Bristol Channel, threatening to cross the Severn from Ilfracombe to Brandy Cove and climb inland to rattle our windows and bounce rain off our corrugated roof. We run out to the lane, looking for the dog, calling his name. Hoping to get him in before he gets soaked. The rubbish dump outside the gate sits on a concrete stand and dominates the lane. Tall and stinky, the red-brick structure rustles with scavenging, skirmishing rats. Pinned to the dump, a hand-written notice: “Please do not light this dump.” We smile as we read it. Our neighbours will put a match to this dump, one dry night, on the way back from the pub. Kim, Nana’s Wire-haired Fox Terrier, spends his days at the dump in an effort to achieve his life’s desire: the elimination of every worrying, scurrying rat that ever inhabited the planet. When he tires of killing rats, he will bring their bodies home to the bungalow. Sometimes he lays them in rows outside the backdoor: rats, mice, field mice, voles. Sometimes he brings them inside and places them on the concrete base beneath the old cast-iron stove. Every day Kim sacrifices to my grandmother, his Gower Goddess, and lays the victims out on her altar. The rain is close. We run back down the lane to avoid the storm that is now upon us. Violent and short-lived, like so many summer storms in Wales, raindrops will thump against windows and roof. Lightning will flash, thunder roll its celestial drums, and the wind will whip its lash round the chimney. We sit at the table and sip hot cocoa. No sign of the dog. Later, when the storm has passed, we wander up to the lane, avoiding the deeper runnels of muddy water, and stepping from high point to stony high point. We scurry hurriedly past the dump and listen to the rats. They will survive for another night. Nobody will be able to light the dump after rain like that. Back in the field, we fill up the water can, take a handle each, and carry the precious liquid back to Gran. We walk to the back door. Our neighbor is standing there, crying. “I didn’t see him,” she stammers. “He ran out from the dump as I drove round the corner,” she points to Kim, laid out on the back step, his broken body wet and bloody, the last rat he would ever catch still clasped tightly in his jaws.