Warm in the Kitchen

Warm in the Kitchen

This early morning, the only warm place in the house is the kitchen, close to the fire, with all the doors closed. The black-out curtains from the Second World War are still in place and hang languidly over ill-fitting windows that let cold air into the house. They must be pulled back in preparation for that first glimpse of day-light. Your elders move in and out, letting in the cold air as they open and close the doors at either end of the warm space where the fire is just taking hold.

Your grandfather banked it overnight with black sea-coal and then he raked the fine, grey ash, with its still smouldering lumps of charcoal, into a warm mound, ready for paper, kindling, coal, and the match. He has also placed a newspaper over the fireplace to create a draft. If the fire doesn’t catch soon, he will throw some sugar onto the embers to aid the blaze. The fire will suddenly flare into life and the room will be quickly warmed. In the meantime, the kitchen, though warmer than anywhere else in the house, is still slightly chilly because the damp night cold has invaded and made everything wet and slick.

It’s great when you’re at your grandparents’ house, but when we are back in ours, my father and mother always leave early, to go to work.

When I was younger, they had to feed me, but I soon learned to make my own breakfast from whatever I found in the fridge. Now I can use a frying pan. I fry bacon first, and then, when I have plenty of bacon fat, I fry bread, eggs, sausage, black pudding, kidneys, tomatoes, mushrooms, and anything else I can find, including laver bread.*

Before I know it, I have become a latch-key kid and, when I am hungry at home, I fry myself an all-day breakfast: eggy-bread or fried egg-with-its-hat on doused in HP sauce for lunch, all washed down with tea to which I add condensed milk and sugar.

But this morning, they have made breakfast for me: porridge. “Porridge, porridge, skinny and brown, / waiting for breakfast when I come down.” And I hate porridge, especially burnt porridge, with a passion, and yes, they’ve burned the porridge again. I hold a cup of hot tea in my hands. I breathe in the steam and it loosens up my chest. The china cup warms my fingers. I prod at the porridge, feed some to the canine mouth that dwells unseen beneath the table, and stuff myself full of toast. Whatever I eat, when the food is inside me, I feel much, much warmer and now I am ready for the rest of the day.

*Laverbread Bara lawr in Welsh: edible Gower sea-weed, a delicacy often called Welsh Caviar.

A Winter Awakening

A Winter Awakening            

You hate the Christmas holidays. You always have and I expect you always will. Broken promises litter the ground like so many new year’s resolutions, made and then set aside in a jumble of wrapping paper, party hats, and empty, smelly beer bottles. So vicious, these early morning calls, your father pinching your ear or tugging your hair, then stripping back the clothes and leaving you lying there, the cold air invading your bed, shocking your toes, tweaking the small hairs on arms and legs.

You reach out to the bedside chair, grab your shirt, socks, and pants and stuff them between your legs where it’s still nice and warm.  Then you pull the bedclothes up to your chin and your day clothes lie between your thighs, a teddy bear bundle gradually warming you up again. You wriggle down into the bed, and try to go back to sleep, but it doesn’t work.  A great shout from downstairs: “Breakfast is ready!”

Now comes the tricky bit: staying under the covers, wriggling out of your pyjamas, putting on your shirt, your pants and your socks while still staying warm beneath the blankets. Then, a porpoise breaking the surface, you burst out of bed, pull on your trousers and a sweater, and you run downstairs to the kitchen the warmest room in the house, where breakfast is waiting.

Boxing Day

They’re not Boxing Gloves – but they could be. Photo by my friend Geoff Slater.

Boxing Day


            By the time I get up, the gloves are really off and the sparring has begun in earnest. I hear angry, raised voices, walk downstairs to the kitchen, and a hush falls on the room. Knife-edge glances slice their menacing ways through the thickening atmosphere.
            Time for boxing: on my left, in the blue corner, my mother, smoking what is probably her second packet of the day. A thin haze of grey smoke escapes from her bruised lips and a cloud of exhaled fumes crowns her head with a murky halo. On my right, in the red corner, my father. White-faced, hungover yet again, truly into the spirits of Christmas. He breathes heavily, like a Boxer Dog in the mid-summer dog-days, snoring and snorting at a bitch in heat. In the middle, my grandfather, the referee. He is keeping the combatants apart, creating a tiny breathing space so the true Spirit of Christmas can disentangle itself from those false Christmas Spirits and bring peace to earth again for at least sixty seconds between each round.
            I look around the heaving, seething, threshing silence of a room where conversation has suddenly ceased. The fire is burning merrily. Beside it, tongs, poker, and small shovel stand to attention. On the hearthstone, the little red brush, with its long handle lies in ambush. This is what my father uses to beat me when he can’t be bothered to take off his leather belt. Scorch marks from the hot coal fire sear the handle and back of the little red brush. I threw it on the fire one day, hoping to see the end of it. Of course, it was rescued from the flames, resurrected, and I got beaten for that act of rebellion too.
            “It’s all your fault!” My father breaks the silence, pointing at me. His red-rimmed eyes blazing with a sudden and renewed anger. He starts to rise, but my grandfather steps between us.
            “Go and see your granny,” grandpa tells me. “She’s in the kitchen. Go now!” He points to the kitchen door.
            I run a gauntlet of staring eyes and go to my gran. As I shut the door behind me, voices rise higher in the room I have just left. Boxing Day, indeed. The gloves are off. The battle has begun again. My grandfather has evacuated me from no-boy’s-land and, for a moment, I am no longer trapped in the mud-filled, cratered, shell-holes between the trenches, the uncut barbed-wire barriers, the poached-egg eyes peering through periscopes and spying on me from the parental and priestly parapets above the wooden duck-boards that line the floor on the far side of the room and keep the enemies’ feet clear of mud and water.

Eclipse

Eclipse


Was it a total eclipse,
or just a partial eclipse,
that sky the likes of which
I will never see again?

I do not want to see,
let alone experience,
the mushroom cloud
that descends from the skies,
then swells up again
to embrace them,
leaving my ashen body,
a bleak, black shadow
on a brick wall.

Meanwhile, back in my kitchen,
in the lull before the storm,
I wait and wonder if my world
and all within it
will be eclipsed.

Click here for Roger’s reading on Anchor.
Eclipse


Cats and Dogs

Cats and Dogs

I remember my mother and father fighting “like cats and dogs” as my grandparents used to say. Now, my grandparents had a cat. It was black and white and striped like a zebra. They called it Spot. My parents had a dog. It was an English Cocker Spaniel, gold in color, and off-spring to a famous sire. They called it  Wimpy but it was by no means a wimp and fought with everything in sight, especially the cat.

So when my father and mother fought and the family cat and dog fought, I thought, quite reasonably in my opinion, that dogs (with their short hair) were male and cats (with their long hair) were female, and that was the reason why they fought like cats and dogs. And “never the twain shall meet” as my grandparents used to say about my mother and father and the cat and the dog. I guess it was too early to learn about the birds and the bees when, young and all too innocent, I was learning about the cats and the dogs.

And of course it’s only natural that the twain should meet. My mother and my father, the cat and the dog, had to meet somewhere, didn’t they? How else would I be here? We weren’t the sort of family that practiced contraception by throwing stones at the storks to keep the babies away. But I could never work out why the cat always had female kittens while the dog had all-male off-spring. That was a bit too much for me, and nobody ever explained anything in those days.

And look, in spite of the differences between them, even cats and dogs can sometimes live together in peace. And opposites can and do attract, don’t they?

Bruised

Bruised

The clematis unfolds its flowers: bruised purple on the porch. Beneath the black and white hammers of ivory keys, old wounds crack open. A flight of feathered notes: this dead heart sacrificed on the lawn. I wash fresh stains from my fingers with the garden hose. The evening stretches out a shadow hand to squeeze my heart like an orange in its skin. Somewhere, the white throat sparrow trills its guillotine of vertical notes. I flap my hands in the air and they float like butterflies, amputated in sunlight’s net. The light fails fast. I hold up shorn stumps of flowers for the night wind to heal and a chickadee chants an afterlife built of spring branches.

Pressed between the pages of my waking dreams: a lingering scent; the death of last year’s delphiniums; the tall tree toppled in the yard; a crab apple flower; a shard of grass as sharp as glass, as brittle as a bitter, furred tongue at winter’s end.

I know for certain that a dog fox hunts for my heart. Vicious as a vixen, the dog fox digs deep at midnight, unearthing the dried peas I shifted from bowl to bowl to count the hours as I lay sick in bed. I sense a whimper at the window, the scratch of a paw. I watch a dead leaf settle down in a broken corner and it fills me with sudden silence. Midnight stretches out a long, thin hand and clasps dream-treasures in its tight-clenched fist.

The lone dove of my heart flaps in its trap of barren bone and my world is as small as a pea in a shrunken pod. Or is it a dried and blackened walnut in its wrinkled shell of overheating air? Sunset, last night, was a star-shell failing to fire. Swallows flew their evensong higher and higher, striving for that one last breath lapped from the dying lisp of day. Its last blush rode red on the clouds for no more than a second’s lustrous afterglow.

I lower defunct delphiniums, body after body, into their shallow graves. Night’s shadows weave illusions from earth’s old bones. Rock becomes putty, malleable in the  moonlight. Midnight readjusts her nocturnal robes and pulls bright stars from a top hat of darkness. Winged insects with human faces dance step by step with circling planets and clutter the owl’s path. Night swallows the swallows and creates more stars. The thin moon hones its cutting edge into an ice-cold blade.

Click here to listen to Roger’s reading on Anchor.
Bruised

Fake News

 Fake News

Sometimes at night I hear deer walking across the lawn outside my bedroom window. Intruders in the garden, they rattle the feeders then walk darkly into the woods. Sometimes a coyote howls at the fingernail moon and my heart pumps sudden blood, rapid, through my veins.

            Below me, in the hall, the grandfather clock ticks the night away. I stitch myself up in my dreams, count the black sheep in the family, and iron old ghosts upon the ironing board until they are as flat as the white shirts we wore in boarding school on Sundays.

            If I close my eyes, they rise up before me, those Sunday shirts, flapping their arms, and mouthing their apologies for the sorry life they made me lead. No, I didn’t need to spend those days praying on my knees before the stations of the cross. Nor did I need to ask forgiveness for all the transgressions pulled from me, like teeth, in the Friday confessional.

            Marooned in a catholic cul-de-sac, I walked round and around in rigid circles. An academic puppet, I was trapped in the squared circle of an endless syllogism. Who locked me into this labyrinth of shifting rooms where sticky cobwebs bound windows, doors, and lips? Why did the razor blade whisper a love song to the scars crisscrossing my treacherous wrist? Who sealed my lips and swore me to secrecy?

            A tramp with a three-legged dog, I slept beneath a pier at midnight and woke to the sound of the waves rolling up the summer beach. Once, I stole a deckchair, placed it at the edge of the sea, and told the tide to cease its climbing. The moon winked a knowing eye and the waves continued to rise. Toes and ankles grew wet with wonderment and I shivered at the thought of that rising tide that would sweep me away to what unknown end?

            Last night I wrapped myself in a coward’s coat of many-colored dreams. My senses deceived me and I fell asleep in a sticky web spider-spun by that self-same moon that hid among the clouds and showed her face from time to time. My fragile fingers failed to unravel all those knots and lashings and I was a child again walking the balance beam that led from knowledge to doubt.

            A thin line divides the shark from the whale and who knows what swims beneath the keel when the night is dark and the coracle slides sightless across the sea? I gather the loose ends of my life, weave them into a subtle thread, and make myself a life-line that will bind my bones and lash my soul to my body’s fragile craft.

Click here for Roger’s reading on Anchor.
Fake News

           

Teeth WFNB 5 March 2022

Teeth WFNB
5 March 2022
This is the story I was reading last night when Island View suffered its brief power outage and I was cut off from the WFNB Zoom reading. My apologies for the break in communications. First the text and then the live reading.

Lunchtime.
            I open a can of tom8to soup and heat it on the stove. I slice the remains of yesterday’s loaf of bread into one-inch cubes and fry them in olive oil and garlic. Tom8to soup with croutons. Then I put two slices of bread in the toaster. My father will only eat toast soaked in butter and layered with Marmite when he eats tomahto soup.
            “Lunch is ready,” I call out.
            The black American Cocker Spaniel, bought by my mother in a moment of madness, by telephone, unseen, camps in the kitchen. It nests at the far end of the table, by the stove, and defends its territory with warning growls and a snapping of yellowed teeth. I do my best to avoid the dog.
            “Dad, your lunch is ready,” I call out, a little bit louder. Dog, as my father calls it, growls and clatters its teeth. It has hidden a treasure in the folds of its old, gray comfort blanket, and guards it with the fierce, loving worry of a dragon protecting its golden hoard.
            My father enters the kitchen just as I place the soup on the table.
            “I’m not ready to eat,” my father growls. Put it back in the pot.”
            “What’s wrong, dad? I thought you were hungry.”
            “My teeth,” my father mumbles through a mouthful of pink gums. “I can’t find my teeth.”
            “Where on earth did you put them?”
            “I don’t know. If I knew where I’d put them, I wouldn’t have lost them.”
            My father circulates round the kitchen opening drawers, lifting saucepan lids, and shaking empty yogurt pots to see if they’ll offer up the rattling sound of lost teeth.
            “I can’t find them anywhere. I can’t eat lunch without my teeth.”
            “But it’s only soup, dad, tom8to soup.”
            “I don’t like tom8to soup. Your mother always made tomahto soup. Why can’t you be more like your mother?”
            “Sorry, dad. I’ll call it tomahto soup, if that will make you feel better. But it’s still made out of tom8toes.”
            “Don’t be so sarcastic. Help me find my teeth,” my father stomps towards the stove and Dog growls fiercely from its blanket as it guards its treasure.
            “Take that, you dirty dog,” my father pokes Dog in the ribs with his stick and Dog howls and spits out what it is chewing.
            “There they are,” my father’s voice trembles with excitement. He bends down, picks up his teeth, still hairy from the blanket and bubbly from Dog’s saliva, and pops them into his mouth. “That’s better,” he says, sitting down at the table. “Now I can enjoy my lunch.”

Click on this link for a ‘live’ reading of the story,
complete with Welsh accent.

One Goldfish

Ephemera

One Goldfish

A great big thank you to Allan Hudson, editor of the South Branch Scribbler Blog. He e-mailed me on my birthday, last Sunday, and asked me if I had a story that he could use on his new blog page Short Stories from Around the World. These will be published every other Wednesday, starting today. I am very honoured and proud to be the author of the first story, One Goldfish, third place in the WFNB non-fiction award (2020), that opens the series. It was revised and reworked in the Advanced Writing Course, run by Brian Henry of Quick Brown Fox fame. I would like to thank Brian and all my fellow participants who helped me rework the story. On Allan’s blog you will find links to other contributions from me. You will also find a series of featured authors, from New Brunswick, the Maritimes, Canada, and all around the world. Allan does a great job for us minor, struggling literary figures, not just for the greats. I encourage you to follow his blog and support him.

Ephemera

My painting (above) is entitled Ephemera. It shows a literary text semi-obliterated by various colors and devices. If we have learned anything from Covid it should be the fragility of life, the insubstantiality of existence, and the enormous powers of the natural world that surrounds us. My friends: take nothing for granted. Carpe Diem – seize the day – and “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may – for time it is a’flyin – and that poor flower blooming today – tomorrow may be dying.” This is Robert Herrick, of course. Here is my own version of the theme from The Nature of Art and the Art of Nature.

Daffodils

Winter’s chill lingers well into spring.
I buy daffodils to encourage the sun
to return and shine in the kitchen.
Tight-clenched fists their buds, they sit
on the table and I wait for them to open.

Grey clouds fill the sky. A distant sun
lights up the land but doesn’t warm the earth
nor melt the snow. The north wind chills
body and soul, driving dry snow
across our drive to settle in the garden.

The daffodils promise warmth, foretell
the sun, predicting bright days to come.
When they do, red squirrels spark at the feeder.

For ten long days the daffodils endure, bringing
to vase and breakfast-table stored up sunshine
and the silky softness of their golden gift.

Their scent grows stronger as they gather
strength from sugared water. But now
they begin to wither, their day almost done.

Dry and shriveled they stand this morning,
paper-thin, brown, crisp to the touch, hanging
their heads as oncoming death weighs them down.

Click on this link for Roger’s reading.
Daffodils

Lolly Lady

Lolly Lady

I guess if she were a boy she’d be a Lolly Laddy, or a Loblolly Laddy, depending on the circumstances. Did this one at 4:00 am when I was non compus mentis, whatever that means at that time of the morning. Just trying to keep from falling downstairs, I guess. I love the colors: violet for tranquility, red for strength and energy, yellow for clarity, and blue for feeling blue at that time of the morning.

I suppose, if I were Rimbaud, I would be able to write letters instead of colors. Alas, now I no longer know where to hang these things: I am running out of wall space. And frames. And nails. “A nail, a nail, my kingdom for a nail”… Richard III aka the Hunchback of Loblolly Alley. Mind you, I think his nail was detached from the shoe that fell from his horse. “To lose one horse is a tragedy. To lose two is careless.” Oscar Wilde on parenting.

I love the sparkles though. We have several sparklers and we keep them for the sad times when the world needs brightening, as it does all too often nowadays. The seasons roll on. The year is trickling by. I have decided to sleep under my duvet. It is certainly warm under there and the Teddy Bears really appreciate it. They want to hibernate, but I refuse to let them. If I let them hibernate the cat will be up on the bed, and we can’t have that, can we? Not me, and definitely not the bears. And here’s why not: Teddies or Cats? Click and you’ll find the answer. Or maybe you won’t. So try clicking here: Teddy Bears FFS. Oh dear, I think there’s a typo there: a Teddy Bear Typo. Never mind. I am sure you won’t mind.

I wouldn’t go down to the woods today, if I were you. And I think you know why! You shouldn’t go alone, either. But if you venture out, think twice about taking your teddies. They might run away to join the picnic and leave you all alone with the Night Bumps, the acorn throwers, the wild folk, and the Wood Chuck wood-chuckers.