Trains (2)

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Another Kind of Train

Stuffy, you said. I can’t breathe. Early morning mist scratched pale finger nails down your bedroom window. Grey faces glanced in, grimaced and scowled. Damp and slippery, the window frame, when I opened the sash. What time is it?  Before I could answer, you demanded more milk for your tea. I left you there, in bed, went downstairs to the kitchen and brought back milk. Then you wanted more sugar.

Shut the window, you said. It’s cold. I’m shivering. Puppet on a string, I raised my cord-bound feet and danced at your command. I went downstairs, fetched more sugar, came back, and left the Western Mail on your bed. You never opened it. On the front page, a picture of the last passenger engine, green and rusty, from the GWR (Great Western Railway). It used to run from Swansea to Cardiff to Paddington in London. Now it pulls a line of filthy coal trucks. Covered in dirt, rain, steam and dust, I couldn’t make out the name or the number.

Passengers on trains speeding to different destinations, we didn’t have enough time, you and I. We were always tied up our separate thoughts. As we flashed by, platform lights blazed in the night beneath fiery stars, scarce glimpsed in the artificial lighting. Windows glowed in deserted waiting rooms, shattering the darkness. Sometimes we stopped at these stations, watching as other passengers came and went.

We rattled over so many cross-tracks, without ever knowing why, yet I have never forgotten the rhythm of wheels on tracks, slowing, accelerating, running at full speed, the telephone wires looping up and down, the cattle in the fields grazing peacefully, then occasionally looking up as we passed. We rarely talked. I guess we had so little of substance to say. The trivia was too trivial and the big questions went unspoken, unanswered to this day. Noses in the Dandy or the Beano or Woman’s Weekly, we flashed past so many railway signals with their pointed mechanical warnings.

High Street Station, Swansea. The terminus ad quem. The nec plus ultra. The Great Western Railway’s Pillar of Hercules. In my dreams, I stand by the buffer stops, alone, knowing that you will never be aboard any train I may go to the station to meet.

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.

Pills

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A four-legged Harlequin cluckless duck: that’s what I feel like some mornings. In Spain they say: dar tres pies al gato / to give the cat three legs. This means to complicate life, to screw things up … and yesterday, I screwed everything up. But, of course, but it wasn’t my fault. It never is my fault. How could it be my fault? Repeat after me: I am perfect, therefore it was not my fault. QED.

Pills: yup. I forgot to take them again. Sometimes I think if they were actually Pils (as in Pilsner, or should that be Pilsener?) I would always remember them. Maybe I should wash my morning pills down with a shot of Pilsener (or should that be Pilsner?). That way I might remember to remember them. I would certainly remember my morning Pils. Pils, Pilsner, Pilsener: what’s in a name? Well, according to the BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) there are three classifications for Pilsners:  1 German Pilsner, 2.Bohemian Pilsener (note the extra E) and 3 Classic American Pilsner. As for my own Pills (or should that be Pils?), there are several medical classifications for them, but, of course, I always forget what they are.

There’s the pill for the back pain and the arthritic hip. I usually forget that one if the sun is shining and the sky is clear. Then there’s the one that eats away at bad cholesterol. I don’t often forget that one, as it’s the same shape and color as the two for high blood pressure, which I don’t have any longer as I rarely forget those pills. But when I do forget them, like I did yesterday, then I feel like the duck portrayed in the opening portrait.

But I’m forgetting myself … it’s never my fault. First I got up late because I didn’t fall asleep until early in the morning. Then, Molly Maid arrived while I was showering and wanted to clean the bathroom while I was in it. Not the most exciting prospect at my age. Then, when I had shooed them away, I was able to sneak out with a towel around me and actually get dressed. Then the telephone rang with an unrecognized number and I thought t was a robot call, so I left it to ring, but it was milady who was vacationing abroad so I picked up the phone and she talked for an hour. She left me with the promise that her friend would be calling me and two minutes after I put the phone down, that friend was on the phone, and that was another hour gone.

By this stage, Molly Maid is ready to perform their disappearing act, so I go to see them off, and breakfast has to be abandoned because it’s lunch time. So I make lunch, but I never take my pills with lunch and anyway, it’s snowing, and there might be rain later, but my arthritis isn’t plaguing me yet, so I really don’t need that particular pill, and the phone goes again. This message asks me to do something, so I do it. And the snow is falling and I don’t want to go out and plow the snow. Cold and boring. So I find something to do which is very, very important, but I like crossword puzzles. And the Brexit debate is on, so I follow that and wow, is that ever a mess. I think I’m screwed up until I listen to that lot: garbled garbage spoken with posh, plum in the mouth accents and imitation working-class foibles. Might as well be chewing straws and have their ears sticking out through ancient straw hats. Like donkeys.

So, by now tea-time is getting close and it’s time to think about eating, or blowing the snow, but the man next door has plowed out the end of the drive where the grader has left a ton of the stuff, and the man up the road is on the way down to help clear the rest, and he is travelling like a whirling dervish, and I limp down the corridor (or should that be corrida?) to say ‘hi!’ but he’s already turning the corner to the drive, so I limp to the garage to say ‘Hi and thank you!’ but he’s already half way up the drive on his way home, so I wave twice at his back and shout ‘thanks’ but he can’t hear me above the noise of the snow blower and he’s gone without seeing me, no eyes in the back of his head, I guess. So I wait till he gets home and I call him on the phone and we talk and I thank him. Then someone calls me and we talk. Then my daughter calls me and we talk.

And now it’s time for La-la-la-la-laCoronation Street, and I haven’t had any supper yet, and I know I have forgotten something, but I open my can of evening Pilsner (from Pilz, don’t go there) and I’ve forgotten something, but I don’t remember what it is and … what was I saying? Ah yes, no pills with my Pilsener and that’s what I forgot, and there they were this morning, lying on the table, and hopefully I won’t forget them today, but I haven’t had my breakfast yet and the cricket in Antigua will be starting soon and … oh dear … I know I’ve forgotten something. Ah yes, the clock, I’ve forgotten to wind the clock. But there’s something else and if you remember what it is, please let me know.

Light breaks

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Light breaks

“Light breaks where no sun shines;
where no sea runs, the waters of the heart
push in their tides;
and, broken ghosts with glow-worms in their heads,
the things of light
file through the flesh where no flesh decks the bones.”

Dylan Thomas, another Swansea boy, wrote those words a long time ago. I borrowed the phrase Broken Ghosts for the title of my second poetry book (Fredericton: Goose Lane, 1986) and I am proud of the links forged between Swansea and Island View, Wales and Canada, an earlier poetic generation and my own presence here among these trees covered as they are by winter’s falling snow.

Light is so important, especially here in winter’s dark where the nights are long. The sun’s warmth through the window, the distortion of light through glass and water, the presence of flowers amid the winter’s alternate brightness and gloom. Brightness of sunlight on flowers and of moonlight shifting across garden snow, cratered by the hoof marks of deer into a lunar landscape of shifting shadows.

Sometimes the ageing heart wallows in gloom. Those bedside shadows take on forbidding shapes  and Goya’s nightmarish figures rise out of the pinturas negras, the black paintings from the Quinta del Sordo, to walk again around my room. On nights like these, scarecrows arise from my past and their twigged fingers scratch at my face. They threaten with carrot noses and coal black eyes. They stump their thumping dance steps and send shivers coursing through my veins.

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/jan/30/goya-black-paintings-prado-madrid-bicentennial-exhibition

“What is it?” I ask. “What do you want?” But though their mouths open and lips, teeth, and tongue flap into idle movement, no words emerge and I am left, a broken ghost, floundering in an internal sea, not of light, but of darkness. Downstairs I go, pursued by the clump of snowy feet, to sit at my desk and walk my fingers across the keys in search of comfort. I find it in these photos: sunshine on flowers, a light to lighten and enlighten the darkness stalking through my mind.

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Warmth and light: together they will dispel this frosty spell that freezes my brain and will not let me close my eyes and go back to sleep.

Even tho it was Xmas

 

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Even though it was Christmas

I am as free as my father was free. He was free to walk on his walker, as far as he could go down the street. Free to walk in the wind and the rain. Free to sit on his neighbor’s wall when his legs and back got tired. Free to sit there, although it was raining, until he had recovered his strength and energy. Free to get soaked so badly that he caught a cold. And the cold was free to turn into bronchitis and the bronchitis was free to turn into pneumonia and the pneumonia was free to perform its assassin’s work as it tried to kill him. But my father was still free and strong enough to call the doctor and the doctor was free enough to call at the house and visit my father and write him a prescription for a free anti-biotic that would free his body from the pneumonia that was free to leave when it’s time was up and it felt ready to go. Pneumonia, the old man’s friend, they used to call it, sitting there, in my father’s lungs, muttering away to him, day after day, louder at night, and my father slowly getting stronger and the pneumonia growing weaker until one day it felt free to leave and freed my father from his immediate ills. Then my father was free to get up or to stay in bed. Being a free man, he chose to stay in bed all day and to listen to the radio and to read a book and when he got bored with reading he just lay there and counted the dots on the wall “one, two, three…” and “seventy five thousand, one hundred and forty three,” he told me one day when I was free to visit him, “though I have lost count once or twice and have had to start again from the very beginning. And the sun gets up at seven-oh-three, and strikes the third dot at seven fifty-three … and goes round the wall thirty-three dots to the minute; and leaves that third dot from the right at a quarter past three …” And there he stayed, day after day. But he was free. And sometimes the home help came and sometimes she didn’t, for she too was as free as the birds in the garden. And sometimes she remembered to buy him some food and sometimes she didn’t. And she was free to come and go, free to remember or forget. And my father was free to mumble or complain or grumble, though he rarely did. And he was free to eat, so long as there was food in the house. But when I went there to visit him I often saw that the cupboard was bare and my father had neither milk, nor eggs, nor bread nor cereal, nor tea nor butter. And all those people, those acquaintances, those friends, they too were as free as the sea-gulls in the sky. But to find the time to set my father free from the hunger and thirst he seemed predestined to freely suffer, they were never free enough for that.

Neither was I. Even though it was Christmas.

Even though it was Christmas
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This story is dedicated to all who spend time alone this Christmas, be they street people, homeless, or merely forgotten and neglected. Please consider sharing this story. And if you know someone who is alone at this time of the year, please phone them or visit them.

 

Touch and Go

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Touch and Go

            Rain. Persistent rain. Cornish mizzle that chills and wets. Basque chirrimirri penetrating flesh and bone. Low clouds blanket buildings, wrap themselves round the windshield. Cling with the tenacity of Saran wrap. Visibility variable, now clear, now a muffler round the car’s headlights. Darkness gathered, still gathering. Lights moving, cars moving, the road moving, blending first with the lights then with the shadows, shape-shifting.

            Down the hill now, out of the city lights, into the countryside. The road changing, patches and potholes, lights flickering in and out, darkness and light. Small animals of light, the potholes, shimmering, bumping by. Another pothole, moving, turning from side to side, a pothole with a ringed tail and two tiny eyes. A baby pothole, misses the front wheels, not the back. One dull, dry thump.

            What were you doing there, in the middle of the road? Why alone? Why no mother, no brothers? Why so small? I didn’t mean to … I didn’t want to … Why me? Why you? Why now? If only …

            Light breaks through the darkness clouding my mind. Memories: the driver on the road to Kincardine, chasing a jackrabbit, trapped in the headlights, a Belgian Hare, dodging down the middle of the country road. Laughing, the driver, with the joy of his hunt. Then: one dry thump. The car stopped, the hare, still twitching, held by its long ears, shown as a trophy at the car window, then thrown in the trunk. Memories: two lads in a half-ton, on a back road by Grand Lake. A sunny Sunday. Spotting the ground hog at the roadside. Driving at it with the truck. Swerving to hit it. The joy and laughter in their faces, looking back. One dry thump. The ground hog, front half viable, spine fractured, back legs paralyzed, dragging itself with its forearms to the roadside, dropping into the ditch.

            Legend tells of the man who met Death in Cairo. Death looked surprised to see him. “What are you doing here?” he asked. Fear filled the man. He ran, packed his bags, left Cairo with its vision of Death. Traveled to Baghdad. Met there with Death, who welcomed him. “Why were you surprised to see me in Cairo?” the man asked. “Because we had a meeting here in Baghdad, tonight,” Death replied. “And I didn’t know if you’d show up.”

“Every morning, at day break,
oh Lord, this little prayer I make,
that thou wilt keep thy watchful eye,
on all poor creatures born to die.”

            Dylan Thomas wrote those words in his poetry play for radio, Under Milkwood. All poor creatures born to die. That’s us. That’s you and me. We don’t know how, or why, or where, or when. And it doesn’t matter. That’s the whole point: it doesn’t matter. Our death was born with us, walks with us, lives inside us, and one day will take us by the hand, each of us, we poor creatures, born to die. What matters is that we live while we can, rejoice while we can, thrive while we can, think while we can, write while we can, enjoy every moment of every day that is gifted to us …

            Enlightenment came last night, at the darkest, warmest of times. It followed me home and crept with me into my bed. I thought of all the creatures found each spring morning, their lives cut short at night along the sides of our New Brunswick roads: deer, porcupine, squirrels, groundhogs, foxes, domestic and feral cats, dogs, skunks, and yes, one, very special, baby raccoon, a tiny raccoon, so small as to be almost invisible in chirimirri, mizzle, and mist.

            His spirit came to me in the under-blanket dark, wrapped itself warm around me, and brought me comfort. “You too,” he whispered. “You too. But not just yet. My work is done. I can go now. But you still have lots of work to do. Remember: Vis brevis, ars longa,” his raccoon spirit nuzzled me and I reached out and patted him. Then both of us settled down to dream our different dreams of a life and death that is surely nothing but a dream, or a game of touch and go.

Teddy Bear’s Nick Pit

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Today’s the day the teddy bears have their nit-pick: and what a nick pit it’s going to be. Who knows who’s starting what? Who knows where it will go? Who knows where it will end? More than anything else it reminds me of the monkeys in the monkey temple, sitting on their steps and pinnacles, in hierarchical orders, each searching the other monkey for nits and fleas and squeezing them between thumb-nail and middle finger nail, with a blood-red ‘click’ and a life-ending ‘clack’.

“Great fleas have lesser fleas upon their backs to bite them. And lesser fleas have smaller fleas, and so ad infinitum.” I remember this from my childhood, but, more important, the rhyme bite ’em / ad infinitum goes back much father than that, as you will see if you click on this Wikipedia article. Oh boy, Jonathan Swift, and you thought I was bad. I am Canadian Maple Syrup compared to his Irish Thistle Honey. And don’t talk to me about Swift’s views on famine, and how to avoid it.

Anyway, who knows what will happen. Apparently, my former family and clan, the Brits, do not know the old Spanish proverb: Martes, ni te cases, ni te embarques‘ / Tuesday: don’t get married and don’t set out on a journey. Why ever not? Because Tuesdays were apparently the days when the Spanish Inquisition punished the adulterers, male and female, set them upon donkeys, naked from the waist up, and whipped them round the streets while the town criers sang out their crimes in time to the executioners who wielded the whips and painted their sins in red stripes upon their criminal flesh.

Tuesday, bruise day: it’s going to be fun (gallows’ humor). What will become of (once great) Great Britain? What will become of Europe? What will become of our cultural and philosophical world order? Climate change, cultural change, ideological change, political change, the wind of change …  I guess it’s blowing, but who knows in what directions it will blow us all? So easy to open Pandora’s Box: so difficult to pack everything back inside.

Martes, ni te cases, ni te embarques‘  …

By the bye:

I wrote this two or three days ago, before the test squad for the West Indies was selected. Today (Monday, Monday), Theresa a decided not to hold the vote tomorrow, Tuesday, Tuesday, which is now today. Does anyone really know what is happening? How United is the Untied Kingdom [sick]. I certainly don’t know. Meanwhile, the Teddy Bears are having a picnic, and they are all out there, in the woods, Sherwood Forest probably, watching out for the Sheriff of Nottingham, and nit-picking.