Impact

IMG_0017.JPG

Impact

This photo comes up from nowhere, springs into your half-awake mind, diminishes your reality. W5: who, what, why, when where? But there is no who, save the person bearing witness to this moment in time, and you, the double witness who also contemplates and is therefore complicit.

Do you recognize this scene? Is this a moment in your life? Are you the one who struck the match and lit the flames in the lower corners? And are they even flames? Or are they moments of glory, flashes of fireworks, the world coming alive in a moment of combustion when light and dark are mingled until, fiat lux / let there be light, and the world is reborn, light and form, drawn from darkness, and earth and sea divided into separate realms. In principium erat verbum / in the beginning was the word and the world was born / reborn in this verbal-visual instant between sleeping and awakening, when dreams gain substance and ideas take on form and shape and grow in the observer’s mind until creation sparks into life.

Who now knows what will be, what might be? We see. We bear witness. We paint, draw verbal pictures, take snapshots, unfold our souls, placing them on paper and canvas capturing them by camera in snapshots … but What’s it all about, Alfie? Do you remember the film? The suspension in space, the knowledge that all is absurd, that this is a jigsaw puzzle of the worst kind, with no solution, no answer, and every path bifurcating before us, and each of us wandering in a maze, a labyrinth, with an entrance, but no exit.

Do you think up or down, when you’re floating in a space without gravity, where nothing is substantial and all the rules you ever learned no longer hold? The roller-coaster rolls on and you hang on, and sometimes the sun comes up and sometimes the sun goes down, and is that the first light of morning or is it the last light of day, and how can you be sure?

And where is it anyway? Have you ever been there? And if I told you where it was , what time of day it was, or what time of night, would you believe me? And if not, why not? And who and what am I? And why do you trust what I say? And why would you trust me, when you have never met me, and you do not even know who I am, or where I am, or what I am, and even I do not really know who I am or why I am, and why does any of this matter?

It matters because we need faith, we need substance, we need hope, we need to believe in something other than ourselves and beyond ourselves. We still want to wake in the morning and see the dawn. We want to grasp it in our hands, not just in our minds, and know that there is light beyond this darkness, there is hope beyond this gloom, there are better things ahead. See that forgotten candle? Pick it up. Take that match. Strike it against the box. Now light that candle. Take it out. Show it to other people. Encourage them to light their own candles.

Sometimes we need to enlighten the world, to turn it round, to reject it as it seems to be and to recreate it in our own image.  But take care: the image of the candle is not that of the laser beam or the searchlight. One by one, the small people, we must join together, and like tiny stars and light up the firmament. I cannot do it alone. But together, you, and you, and you, and you, if you walk with me, we can do our best. And that is the best we can do, in this, as Voltaire’s Candide once called it, the best of all worlds and the only one we have.

 

Trains (2)

IMG_0032

 

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.

Dydd Dewi Sant Hapus

IMG_0145

Dydd Dewi Sant Hapus
Happy St. David’s Day

March the First, St. David’s Day:  and here, in Island View, the snow accumulates and I can hardly see the trees at the bottom of the garden. A squirrel gnaws at the sunflower seeds put out by my beloved on the step by the sliding window so that Princess Squiffy, the house cat, can have her morning cartoon show, her Squiff and Squirrel, through the glass of the sliding door. Nose to nose, cat and squirrel, separated only by a thin layer of glass, stare at each other, like Roman gladiators.

Temperatures are still low and snow continues to fall. Softly, gently, it fills the hoof prints left in the old snow by the hungry deer who come each night to empty the bird feeders.  Gone, all gone, everything that squirrel and bird have left behind. Seven deer visit us. They troop through the garden every night, moving from tree line to feeder along regular pathways trodden down by their hooves. Sometimes I see them, in the middle of the night. They cast eerie shadows beneath the moon and startle if I move too fast and they spy me at a window. If I am quiet, I see their delicate muzzles, their long black tongues reaching out to lap up the precious seeds that will keep them going through this long, hard Canadian winter, a winter made even harder this year with its incredible changes, its highs and lows, its rains and snows, its fogs and thaws, its icy rain, then plummeting temperatures with black ice threatening again and again.

St. David’s Day/ Dydd Dewi Sant. In Cardiff / Caer Dydd, the daffodils blow their trumpets beneath already flourishing trees. The Feeder Brook, aka the Black Weir,  flows steadily through Blackweir Gardens to join the Taff  and the Taff runs out to join the Severn, and the Severn flows out into the Irish Sea, and that joins the Atlantic, and the Atlantic flows into the Bay of Fundy, and the River St. John flows past the end of my road to eventually join the Bay of Fundy and then the Atlantic Ocean, and now, on St. David’s Day, we hold hands in a great North Atlantic Wave and we are all united, from snowy sea to shiny sea.

My day-dreams carry me back to Cymru / Wales, that land of song where the wind conducts the daffodils and their pale, brass voices are raised in a hymn of hope that all will be well, that their spring, that was once my spring, will join this spring, that is now my spring, and that sunshine and flowers will triumph and that brighter days will soon return …

Not that these days aren’t bright. A new snake skin of snow covers the ground and the old, sloughed skin gradually disappears as a blank, fresh page invites new footprints.  A new month, a new page, a new beginning.  The signatures of crow and squirrel, Blue Jay and Chickadee, cat and dog appear as if by magic in the garden’s autograph album. A mysterious finger traces those special words Dydd Dewi Sant Hapus / Happy St. David’s Day and the snow continues falling, blanking out all memories from my old man’s mind.

Trains

img_0359

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.

Poinsettia

img0137_1

 

Poinsettia

     You can sense it, you can feel it, the alert spirit that guards this room. Walk in there at your peril. No, don’t. Just stand at the door and observe the poinsettia. You bought her a real one, a year ago, but she forgot to water it and when you visited, leaves and flowers, had crisped and dried, withered and perished. You even found cigarette butts stubbed into the pot’s powdery earth. You bought her another one, this time an ever-lasting, artificial flower, scarlet blossoms of silk with yellow-dotted plastic beads. Today a feather-duster breeze cleanses and enriches the leaves, replenishing their faded splendor. Motes rise, their dancing angels of dust hovering, suspended in a sunbeam that picks out their supple luxury. Their fiery tongues cry out to you from their green plastic pot in this empty room. The plant throbs with a startling vibrancy in this early morning light that enlivens piano keys, table top, and the polished, wooden chair arms you cleaned yesterday.  The poinsettias seem to wring butterfly hands as they gently flap in the breeze from the open window where thin lace curtains twitch, shaping the sunlight into light and shade. Her ash tray sits by the radiogram and awaits her return. That last cigarette, lipstick staining the filter, stubbed out and cold, waits for a companion. Later today, you will go to the hospital and visit her. You do not want to enter this room for its guardian spirit demands solitude and silence. You do not wish to create a disturbance, yet something moves you, and you walk over to her flower. A film of grey cigarette dust rises once more from the silk poinsettia, disintegrates, and dances before you. You bend your head to the silken surface and feel dry leaves brush their butterfly kiss across your cheek as you breathe in the ashen smell of stale tobacco.

Whisky

IMG_0067

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.

IMG_0136

Swansea Bay

IMG_0055

 

 Swansea Bay

            My childhood in Swansea: a mixture of seaside and sand. Walking over the bridge at the Slip to reach the dunes at high tide, the fish nets at low tide, the dog ever before me, running fancy-free, chasing yellow-beaked gulls that swoop low, mewl, and lead him on and on, past bundles of bathers’ clothes in summer, and the dog lifting his hind leg, visiting each pile, marking them, one by one, a squirt at a time, and us denying we know the dog, not ours, we say, then beg for the empty pop bottles, taking them back to the vendors, pocketing the cash back on the bottles until we have enough for an ice-cream, a grown-up wafer, not a childish cornet, or a go on the swing boats, and the dog comes with us, gets sea-sick, air-sick, hangs his head over the wooden sides drooling thick saliva as we wait for the bump and grind of the wooden bar that will slow us down in spite of us pulling on the ropes, harder and harder, until we swing higher and higher into the heavens, and the sands dwindle into nothing, and the dog throws up, and the man who handles the swing boats calls us bad names, as we run away, across the sands, ‘I’ll tell your dad,’ he shouts after us, but he never does, and the dog wanders loose across the sands to drink salt water and throw up again, and yes, I remember the starfish, their golden triangles winking wet in the sunlight as they hang from their netted firmaments, and we walk out along the concrete sewer pipes that pour the town’s waste, the town, and not the city, never for me a city, and how could it be a city when so many uncles and aunts lived on Town Hill and my father worked in Town Hall, and Swansea Town were the Swans, and they played soccer on the Vetch Field, the old hanging ground for the town jail, never the city jail, and the Mumbles Railway ran its electric trams out from Swansea Docks to the quarries by the Mumbles Pier, and we took that train, sat on the top deck, The Slip, Singleton Park, Blackpill, the Mayals, West Cross, Oystermouth, where last year, after a hundred years of absence, wild oysters finally returned, the pollution from Copperopolis, the largest copper mining and smelting town in the world, finally drained from Swansea Bay and the waters now clean enough to keep those oysters alive in their cultured oysters beds at Oystermouth, on Swansea Sands, below Oystermouth Castle with its ruined walls where we went once, but I remember nothing about it, nor Swansea Castle, in the old town centre by Castle Street, its ruined walls banned with their Keep Out signs and Danger, but the warnings themselves enough to invite us in, except we knew we’d be beaten if anything happened and we were caught and everyone knew everyone in Swansea Town then,  and somebody would surely bear the tale to our parents or grandparents,  but that’s enough of that, and its’ out of the tram and across the wooden planks of the Mumbles Pier, out to the end where the old men throw their lines into the sea and sit and wait and hope, pulling on cigarettes, Players Nay Cut for preference, as they watch swirling waters, taking sips, like old men everywhere, from secret bottles in brown paper bags that cause them to wipe their lips with the back of theirs hands and cough with pleasure, waiting for God knows what to come along and tickle the end of their line, and out there, at the end of the world, the lifeboat house with its slipway and the lifeboat, launched only in the roughest weather when the tall ships founder or the small boats are blown away, out into the sea, that twinkles now with its wrinkled old man’s face as it moves back and forth beneath wind and sun, and everyone is smiling in the summer warmth, though it’s cold where the wind blows off the sea, and it’s into the corners away from the wind, or into the pavilion where the arcade games wait for our money, and it’s ‘please, please, one more go’, as the small metal arms armed with their claws, clutch at toys and dolls, and furry animals, and the fighter planes come swooping down in their practice arcs and yes, I am a gunner again, fighting my Battle of Britain in a spinning turret with a mobile gun-sight, and time and my money run out and it’s ‘ please, please, one more go’, and my head is spinning, as the turret is spinning, and the world is spinning on its axis as memory’s spider spins its web of illusion, delusion, and time rolls backward on the station clock, as the tram rolls up and we track our tired way back home, past Oystermouth, West Cross, Blackpill with its little Roman Bridge, Singleton Park, the Recreation Ground, St. Helen’s, to the Slip, where we boarded in he first place, and home we go via the fish-and-chip shop in the road at the bottom of our street, and all adventures end as we open the front door, calling out ‘we’re home’, and the smell of warm salt and vinegar soaks through the newspaper binding the delicacies we have brought to placate the gods who wait in silence for our return.