Bilingualism

IMG_1092 (2).JPG

Bilingualism

I went on a French immersion course last week. The instructor asked each one of us to address the class for ten minutes in French. When my turn came, I stood up and announced that I didn’t know what to say.

The instructor then suggested I tell the class about my dreams. What do you dream of? I said that I didn’t have any dreams, I just had nightmares, not rêves but cauchemars, you know, nightmares. She asked me to describe my nightmares and I said I couldn’t. So, she repeated, describe your dreams. I don’t have any. Do you dream about your mother? Yes, I said, but I don’t call them rêves / dreams I call them night-mères / cauche-mères, sometimes couche-mères. Couche-mères, the instructor repeated the word.

The look she gave me: finger-nails scraping down a chalkboard. She turned her headlights on me and I sat there, frozen in the twin beams emanating from her eyes. Yes, night-mères, I repeated, because I set myself goals, not just dreams, achievable goals, and then I have night-mères, inspired by my mother, who says I will never achieve any of my dreams, because they are not her dreams, the ones she has for me, and they are the only ones that count.

You are here to speak in French, the instructor said, and you must speak French for another five minutes. So I told the class about the seals in the Parc du Bic in Quebec. The seals are like a plague, I said, like mosquitoes, only bigger and nastier, quite vicious, in fact. So the people who made Off to keep the mosquitoes away designed a new chemical spray that would keep the seals away. Now the French for seals is phoques, and since this is mainly a problem in Quebec, at the Parc du Bic, and not elsewhere, they called their product, you guessed it, PhoqueOff.

It’s quite simple to use, I said. It’s a spray, not an ointment, and you point the spray in the general direction of the seals. Then you squeeze the button and loudly say “PhoqueOff” at which point all the seals slide off their rocks with a little splash and vanish into the sea, leaving you alone on the beach.  I have tried it myself, I tell them, and I know it works so I highly recommend it to anyone who is plagued by seals.

I still don’t know why she threw me out of the class.

Railway Yards

IMG_0681 (3).JPG

Railway Yards

The enemy came to bomb them. And they did. Tracks rooted out, twisted like spaghetti. Engine sheds burned down. Rolling stock ruined. Many children that year lived with the fear of thunder and lightning as Swansea, my home town, burned, in spite of the black out curtains and the air raid precautions. My father’s father lived by the railway yards. When I stayed with him overnight, the shuffle and clank of steam engines and the clatter of coal trucks scarred my dreams.

My mother’s father lived by the sea and each night the ebb and flow of the tides rocked me to sleep when I stayed in his house. I told the time by the tides and I knew every ship that entered and left Swansea Docks. Standing on the front step, with field glasses to sweep the bay, I could read the ships’ names, painted on bow or stern, and then check their movements in the local paper, the South Wales Evening Post.

Timetables: they ruled my life: time tables for the trains, tide tables for the ships.
When they drove me away to boarding school, I was far removed from the rail yards and the sea. I was now summoned by bells, my every activity chimed in by bell after bell. Bells: wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast, be silent. Bells for each class, for the angelus, bells for dinner, supper, bed time, and baths. Bells on the altar as we knelt before tall candles that flickered light as the tinkling bells flicked sound across the chapel. The only escape from bells came during field games. No bells then, just whistles. But bells and whistles whittled the timetables of a carefully regulated working life.

When we moved from Swansea (Abertawe) to Cardiff (Caer Dydd), our new house also backed onto train tracks and railway yards. The rattle of rolling stock lulled me to sleep. Each day, I opened my eyes to the clash and clang of early-morning shunting. Each night, at exactly 3:10 a.m., the express train to London would rattle past my bedroom window and shake me awake as I lay in my bed. The one day I didn’t hear the train, I woke up anyway, listening for its sound. When silence stalked beneath the stars, I knew there had been an accident, and I couldn’t get back to sleep. Radio and newspapers, there was little television then, screamed the news, so many people dead and injured. We mourned for the unknown dead, just like we did in the mine disasters and the bombings.

Lights out at 9:30, prefects and house masters on patrol outside dormitory doors enforced the silence that ruled the night in those inland boarding schools that I was forced to inhabit. No trains, no ships, no tides, no rattling of rolling stock, no steam whistle, no salt smell of the incoming sea disturbed my dreams, just the snoring and whimpering of lonely little boys lost in their iron-frame beds and longing for the comforts of home.

Ste. Luce-sur-mer

PEI + bockle 2008 059.jpg

Ste. Luce-sur-Mer
(1995 &1996)

marooned and listless
monarch of all he surveyed
this ancient sea-side crab
caught naked on a wave-wet beach

surrounded by thronging gulls
their powerful beaks
pulling at the carapace
half-buried in the sand

moment of truth
the second the oyster’s
protective vacuum breaks
the crab sucked from the sand

battered the scattered body
spread over crisp sheets
pillowed on mermaid-hair
claws that once clicked

silent now hushed
listen to the tide
watch the wind’s footprints
walking on warm summer sand

St. Patrick

Empress 314 (2).jpg

St. Patrick

At Tara Manor, a long way from the Emerald Isle,
bold deer emerge at night to nibble the Hosta
Lilies and desecrate lawn and flowerbeds. They
arrive all curious, ears twitching, tails raised,

a wonder for some, a plague for others, culled,
last year, to no effect, with mothers giving birth
this spring to triplets and twins. Dead in a ditch

they resemble the Irish Elk, raised from damp,
peat bogs, or long-dead moose, white rib-cages
air-filled, ghosts galloping down Ghost Road.

He didn’t establish aquaculture. Salmon,
bringers of Celtic wisdom, spirit beings not
to be confused with commercial products,
but repositories of knowledge, swimming

Wikipedias to be consulted like oracles and
relied upon in difficult times. Where now do
we go to trust the truth, CNN, Fox News, CBC,
The Daily Gleaner, The Telegraph-Journal?

Commentary:

Yesterday’s post  https://rogermoorepoet.com/2019/08/26/think-about-it/  started a dialog about whom do we trust for information and how and why do we trust them. Today’s poem continues the same theme, but in a different format and with very different words and intent. Traditional wisdom, and the time to think things out carefully, is lost, save among the indigenous. Our times demand speed, hurry, instant decisions, merciless schedules f do, do, do, and little time for think, think, think.

What is this life, if full of care, / we have no time to stand and stare?” The Newport / Cas Newydd (Wales) poet |W. H. Davies expressed this well in his poem Leisure, full version here:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leisure_(poem)  Stop the world, I want to get off. Many have made the request, few have managed it. Yet all of us feel, at one stage or another, the need to ‘get away from it all’. So, what are you going to do about it? Do you even have five minutes to sit down and think … answers to be written on rice paer, folded neatly, and floated out to sea in a pea green boat manned (if that’s the right word) by an owl and a pussy cat.

IMG_0790 (2)

Full House

IMG_1173 (3).JPG

Full House

Full house: echoing footsteps, shadows,
everywhere, a litter of toys, crayons,
colored pages, jigsaw puzzles, Barbie
and Ken found at the back of a shelf.

Memories: pinned to the fridge, found
in strange places, an almond on my chair,
a drawing in my notebook, a message,
unintelligible, scrawled on shopping lists.

That peremptory voice calls my name
and I drag myself from sleep, only to know
it was a dream, netted up from slumber’s
dark midnight sea. I drift off again and

see her again, opening the bedroom door,
calling, calling, ever present in voice,
song, and dervish dance, such energy,
round and round, bouncing on my bed,

rolling the exercise ball across the floor,
oblivious to danger, harm, the perils of
unbalancing, stumbling, slipping, falling,
aware of the need for sticking plaster

comforts littering thighs, knees, calves,
feet arms, elbows, where ever instant
attention calls for instant, urgent treatment.
I will always remember the ambushes

that rolled off the tongue, phrases way
beyond the skills of a four-year old. What
if her mother is a lawyer, the youngster
shouldn’t control that sort of language.

She remembered so much from her last
visit. We thought she would have forgotten
us, but no, she remembered where almost
everything was hidden, out of sight but

no longer out of reach. Just a little bit taller,
stronger, more determined, faster, so fast
and loud we could not keep up. This morning
I awoke to the silence of an empty house.

Ghosts

IMG_1055 (2)

Ghosts

My grandfather would wheeze, then cough, as he leaned on the old black dresser in the Welsh kitchen with its vast, cast iron fireplace. “As black as the hobs of hell,” he would say, and “as warm as our kitchen.” It was full of nooks and crannies where pasties and pies could stay warm, soup cauldrons could hang from iron chains, and copper kettles could whistle wild tunes and call us all to endless cups of tea. Sergeant-major tea: so strong and filled with so much sugar that a tea-spoon could stand upright and never fall over. Gassed in the First World War, my grandfather was always out of breath and each time he coughed, he brought up a tiny part of his lungs. “One day,” he announced between wheezes, “there’ll be nothing left.”
Twice a day, my grandfather would roll up the newspaper and brandish it like a conductor’s baton. The first time would be when I came home from school and it was time to do my homework. The second time would be after supper when it was time for me to go to bed. Each time he rolled up that newspaper, he would tap it gently on the dresser to get my attention, and then he would speak those famous words: “Let battle commence.” I would fight to escape to the street to play with my friends. I would fight to stay on my feet and I never, never wanted to go to bed. I hated to be entrenched alone, upstairs, in the cold shadows of that ghostly no-boys-land where I could hear mice and rats scuffling behind the dugout walls and smell the sour smells of old age and illness that stalked my dreams.
“Up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire,” my grandfather would sing, conducting with his baton and pointing to the stairs. I was never afraid of him. He was dark, strong, tall, and very gentle, a great man in his own right, one of those tall men who would always stoop to help a little child. If I was too troublesome, he would start to cough. And if he started to cough, the pink phlegm would come and he’d spit it into the red and blue polka-dot handkerchief he always carried. The pink phlegm caused consternation and in the ensuing panic, I would bolt for the stairs, go up to my room, undress, put on my pajamas, and bury myself in the vast double bed I shared with my grandmother. My grandfather’s bed was in the middle room downstairs. I didn’t realize then, as I do now, that he could no longer climb those stairs up which I scuttled.
After a while, I left of my grandfather’s house and went back to live with my father. One day, my grandfather, as he prophesied, coughed too much and that was the end of him. After the funeral, my father took me back to see my grandmother. Aunties and uncles, cousins, family friends that I didn’t know, neighbors known and unknown, spilled over the house in an invasion of tears and grief. After the friends had gone, my father and I decided to leave and the family gathered on the doorstep to wave us goodbye. I waved back to them all. “Goodbye,” I shouted. “Goodbye aunties, goodbye uncles, goodbye grandmother.” I paused. My grandfather stood there waving to me. “Look: there he is. I knew he couldn’t have gone.” I pointed and waved. “Goodbye grandfather!”
“Don’t be stupid. He’s not there,” my father said. “He’s dead.”
“I can see him,” I said. “He’s there. I can see him.”
“He’s not there. He’s dead.” Tears ran down my father’s face.
Sitting here, writing these words, I can still  see my grandfather, standing on that doorstep, waving goodbye. And I can still feel my father’s long dead, shadowy hands reach down, grab me by the shoulders and shake me, shake me, shake me, until I too am crying and the ghosts of my milk teeth are again rattling in my head.

 

IMG_1063 (2).JPG

 

Things

18581930_1306791786107970_4016640231053970709_n-1

Things I carry with me

            That old black cast-iron stove, wood-fired, that baked the best ever breads and cakes and warmed the bungalow on cold, summer mornings. The Welsh dresser with its age-blackened rails that displayed the plates, and cups, and saucers. The old tin cans that ferried the water from the one tap located at the end of the field. Full and wholesome, its weight still weighs me down as I carry it in my dreams. The Elsan toilet from the shed by the hedge and the shovels that appeared, every so often, as if by magic, as my uncle braved the evening shadows to dig a hole on the opposite side of the field, as far from the bungalow as possible.

            The outhouse at the end of the garden. The steps down to the coal cellar where they went when the sirens sounded, to sleep in the make-shift air raid shelter, along with the rats and mice that scurried from the candles. The corrugated iron work shop in the garden where my uncle built his model ships, the Half-Penny Galleon and the Nonesuch. The broken razor blades I used to carve my own planes from Keil Kraft Kits, Hurricanes and Spitfires, an SE5, and once, a Bristol Bulldog. Twisted and warped, they winged their ways into nobody’s skies, though once we built a paper kite that flew far away in a powerful wind and got tangled in a tree. The greenhouse from which I stole countless tomatoes, red and green. Kilvey Hill towering above the window ledge where the little ones sat when there were more guests than chairs in the kitchen. The old bombed buildings across the street. The bullet holes in the front of the house where the Messerschmidt strafed us.

            The old men spitting up coal dust from shrivelled lungs. The widows who took in lodgers and overnight travelers. The BRS lorries, parked overnight, that littered the street. The steep climb upwards into those lorries. The burrowing under dirty tarpaulins to explore the heavy loads, and many other things. The untouchable, forbidden drawer where the rent money waited for the rent collector’s visit. The old lady, five houses down who, when the shops were shut, sold warm Dandelion & Burdock and Orange pop for an extra penny a bottle.  The vicious, snub-faced Pekinese that yapped fierce defiance from the fortress of her lap. The unemployed soccer referee who on Saturdays walked five miles to the match and five miles back just to save the bus fare, his only financial reward. My father’s shadowy childhood. His first pair of shoes, bought at five years old, so he wouldn’t go barefoot to school.

            Wet cement molded onto the garden wall, then filled with empty bottles to be smashed when the cement set solid. The coal shed where the coal man delivered the coal: cobbledy-cobbledy, down the hole. The outside toilet with its nails and squares torn from yesterday’s newspaper. The lamp-lighter who lit the lamps every evening as the sun went down. The arrival of electricity. The old blackout curtains that shut in the light and shut out the night. The hand rolled fabric sausage that lay on the floor by the door and kept the heat of the coal fire in the kitchen. The kitchen itself with its great wooden chair drawn up by the fire. That chair: the only material possession I still have from that distant past.