Lament

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Lament

I remember the hawk well. One moment the garden was empty, next he was there, on the ground beneath the feeder, feeding, or rather, fed. I didn’t see the kill. I walked past the window on my way through the kitchen from somewhere to somewhere, and there he was, perched upon a pile of feathers. Whatever the victim was, all edible evidence had disappeared and only the feathers remained. I guess the hawk saw me, sensed, or caught the sound of the camera. Within a second, between click and click, he had flown.

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I went outside to look at the wreckage of what had once been alive. Feathers and blood. The grim reality of avian life in my Little World of Island View. Between cats and hawks, a great deal of destruction is handed on from generation to generation. But although I have witnessed nature ‘red in tooth and claw’, I have seen nothing like the devastation caused by the avian flu. We tried to follow all the appropriate instructions, but the passerines all vanished and they never came back. We still have a couple of mourning doves grubbing around on the porch and back step, but I can remember counting, one day, sixty or seventy perched in a cluster on the clothes line. Pine grosbeaks used to swarm, now to see one is a big event. We still get the occasional evening grosbeak, but the grey jays have vanished, as have the swallows who used to nest in our garage. We know of a pair of cardinals in the neighborhood, but they rarely visit us. We can hear a Greater Pileated Woodpecker in the distant woods, but they no longer dance and play among our trees. A few years back, we had a garden full of bees balm, but no bees. Last year we saw very few butterflies, though they used to be regular visitors. Our hummingbirds have become occasional visitors, and I do miss seeing them.

I long to see again all those beautiful creatures, the cat bird with his endless imitations, the orioles with their songs, even the sparrows seem fewer and further between. As for the garden, the crows have taken over. A family of seven caw in the trees and visit regularly. They are sharp, wise creatures and I am always bemused by their aerial manoeuvres. They still sit on the garbage cans once a week and announce their triumph to the world. But woe betide if you leave a plastic bag alone at the roadside. They make short work of it with their shiny beaks ad the bag’s interior is soon strewn all over the road for you to pick up and everyone to see.

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.

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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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.

Birthday

 

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What a gift for my birthday: sunshine and light among water, glass, and flowers. It’s hard to believe sometimes that light and angle make such a difference. Who would believe, for example, that these are the same flowers taken from a different angle in a later light?

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What is it about birthdays? They are the same length as any other day, 24 hours. And yet, like milestones along the roadside, they mark our passage down the long journey of life. Miles, kilometers: my father could never make up his mind. When driving from Wales to Spain, he loved the miles, because they were fewer in number, yet he also loved the kilometers because, although there were more of them, they passed by more quickly.

Long journeys those: crossing the channel by ferry, then down the various routes nationales from the channel down to the Spanish border where we entered into Franco’s Spain, a very different world. Tricornios, the Guardia Civil, checking everything and everybody. We soon learned to carry an extra packet of cigarettes, some chocolate bars, something small that could be handed over or ‘confiscated’.

So what is it about birthdays, those milestones that mark our ways and our days? And where am I now on my life’s journey? Two years older than my mother, when she passed. Two years younger than my father. I look over my shoulder and see behind me the shadow of a bearded man, with a scythe, walking after me. He stoops at Lords cricket ground and, at six thirty, on the dot, he removes the bails from the stumps to signal the end of the day’s play.

Shadows are lengthening. I check my watch. The days are closing in. The umpires pass the stones they carry from hand to hand. One more over of seam, two or three more overs of spin? I adjust my stance at the crease, back away from the wicket and, like Sir Donald Bradman, I ask the umpire to give me a new guard …

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… I take it, scratch my marks in the crease, and look around me … shadows and the fielders are closing in.

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.