Royal Doulton

Trying not to …

Royal Doulton
            Some nights I woke up during the night, needing to pee. At night, I slept with my gran. I never liked using the Royal Doulton chamber pot that squatted coldly beneath her huge brass bed, especially if she was in the room. We had no indoor plumbing, nor running water. Apart from the rainwater the only tap was at the far end of the field, a long way away. Rainwater, caught in a bound, wooden barrel, was the only water we didn’t need to fetch.
            The cows that wandered through our yard at night really frightened me. We would meet them in the lane some times, a noisy, dusty, flowing, multi-colored tide that flooded the pathway and forced us walkers into the next field, if there was a gate close by, or to climb high into the hedge, if there wasn’t a gate. One cow, with a crooked horn, had gored our neighbor’s dog. She had also broken a young girl’s leg. Vicious when, isolated from the herd, she often meandered around on her own.
            At night, when I wanted to pee, I walked outside, to the outhouse. I would grope my way out of the bedroom and slide back the bolts on the door. Then I would half-open that door and peep out, listening carefully for any sound of the cows tearing out the grass with their teeth. I would sniff the night air, and if I caught the sweet breath of a cow in the vicinity, I would pee through the narrow crack of the open door and swear in the morning, when someone found the little puddle, that it wasn’t me, that it must have been one of the cows.
            One quiet night, I walked bravely out into the dark and stepped right into a fresh, warm cow pat. It sifted upward between my toes and rose to assault my nose. After I had gone pee, I wiped my foot again and again in the long grass beside the outhouse, then placed it beneath the water-spout from the rain barrel, trying to flush it clean before I crept back into bed.
            That was the night I left the back door open. Next morning, Nana woke us all up with a series of long, loud screams. The black and white cow had wandered through the open door and ended up in the kitchen where my grandmother had come face to face with it in the early morning light.
            I still have dreams, nightmares, really, of a herd of cows invading my bedroom, breaking down the doors, climbing in through the windows, and me all alone, trapped in my bed, shivering ferociously, squeezing myself, trying desperately not to go pee.

Brân

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Brân

Golden in the starlight, moon carved mountains and valleys, taut the skin, treacherous to the touch.  Heavy he is, glowing. He and his children. We carry them to the dark beneath the trees. Locate the secret, sacred place. Dig deep, bury him with the hoard.
We all know the place. Have measured it with footsteps. None will reveal it. Not under torture. Rather our lives than darkness eternal.
My mother limps beside me. Back-bent and broken. A crone in the moonlight. She’s been here before. Much too often. That’s how she bore me. Caught by the heathen. Captured and taken and twenty times taken.
Me, the blond son. Son of sea-raiders. Not black like my brothers. But never forsaken.
Head of the household, her man rejected her. Called for the Druids with mistletoe and magic, herbs and fragrance, scourging their medicine.
She would not drink them. Said she would keep me. Her biggest baby. Blond. To take vengeance.
Behind us, the villa in flames, there in the distance. Smoke rises heavenwards. Blots out the stars. “We should have fought,” my brothers say. “You would be dead,” my mother replies.
Brân, the white crow. King Arthur revenant. I fly the land, my brothers behind me. Black-haired, black-feathered. Strong as the crow flies. We travel at night. Fast now and furious.
My long bow penetrates. Shatters oak shields. Kills at a distance. None can withstand it. Daylight finds us grouped in the forest. Close to the place where the dragon lies buried. Close to my mother, the place where she sleeps.
Oh yes, they hunt us. But they don’t dare find us. Swift is their fate if they come close. Frightened they are, feared by the finding, wordless and dumb at the swift ending.

Comment: It’s an ill-wind, they say, blows nobody any good. So, ipso facto, some good must come from even the worst of things. Maybe, like Charles Dickens, I should write: ‘These were the worst of times, these were the best of times.’ The worst, because we have been under lock down, first voluntary, then involuntary, and now voluntary again, for 83 days. The worst, because we know that many people are dying and that many, many more are suffering. The worst, because we see some people, who think they are above the law, flouting the law and getting away with it while putting other innocent people at risk. The best, because we have seen extraordinary sacrifices made by the humblest people, many of whom, shop clerks, garbage collectors, street cleaners, bus drivers, taxi drivers, nurses, care-workers, house cleaners, were seen, if they were seen at all, as cheap labor to be exploited. However, thanks to CV, we now see them for what they are: the keys to making our lives and our economies function. The best, because where precautions have been taken the death toll has dropped and so have the infections. The best, because once again, we are free to move around so much more. However, many of us, after so long, no longer want to.

For me, safely distanced among the trees in my ivory tower, these have also been the best of times. I have made many new friends online. I have restructured the ordering of my acquaintances. I have gone into my computer files and found things that I cannot even remember having written. One such is Brân, the white crow, who is said to be King Arthur, still alive, and flying everywhere, ready to protect his from the evils that beset them. I do not know when I wrote this piece. Nor do I remember where the ideas came from. In what secret fold of the mind were they born? I do not know. But I do know that I have seventeen manuscripts, many of them rediscovered during this Dickensian ‘best of times / worst of times’, and all of them awaiting publication. This one is from a 67 page manuscript called A Cambrian Chronicle. 67 pages … and I don’t remember writing any of them.

A Sacrifice to Mithras

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A Sacrifice to Mithras

“What is this sound?”
“It is your own death sighing,
groaning, growing
while you wait for it
to devour you.”

“What is this feeling”
“It is the itch of your own skin
wrinkling and shrinking,
preparing to wrap you
in the last clothes you’ll wear.”

“What is this taste?”
“It is the taste of your life,
bottled like summer wine
once sweet tasting,
now turning to vinegar.”

“What is this smell?”
“It is waste and decay,
the loss of all you knew
and of all that knew you.

“That carriage outside?”
It is the dark hearse
come to carry you
to your everlasting home.”

“Look on us in our darkness,
help us to seek and see the light.
Keep us strong, keep us brave.
Mithras, always a soldier,
help us to die aright.”

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Comment: I am re-reading Puck of Pook’s Hill (Rudyard Kipling). It was given to me for a Christmas present (1955) by my father’s younger brother, my Uncle Frank. His signature is there, on the fly leaf, and his hand writing is as I always remember it. As I write these words, I can still hear his voice. The Song to Mithras, on which this poem is based, can be found on page 191, my edition (MacMillan, 1955), as a prelude to The Winged Hats. Without these clues, the poem operates in another space, more personal and more morbid, perhaps. The rites to Mithras were associated with the sacrifice, at midnight, of the black bull. The upper photograph shows one of the Bulls of Guisando (Los Toros de Guisando), which have stood in the province of Avila, in Spain, since time immemorial. So old are they, that the Roman legions left their mark on them in Latin, as you can see from the photo, when they conquered Spain after the Carthaginian wars.  The lower photo shows fighting bulls on a bull farm in Salamanca, Spain. Born from generations of fighting stock, these animals have been bred for thousands of years to die in the bull ring, as the bulls dedicated to Mithras were bred to die in the Roman temples. This is not a defense of the cruelty of bullfighting or the sacrifice of animals. It is rather a statement regarding the longevity of cruelty, of sacrifice, of the natural flow that leads men and women from birth, through childhood, to maturity, and on to old age, and death. My father is long gone now, as is his younger brother. Who will have access to these memories of mine when I go? Who will remember my family when I am gone?

Mist at Jarea

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Mist at Jarea

Moving in with the tide,
drawing gauze curtains
over the islands,
climbing, so silent,
pebbles and rocks
to arrive at our windows
and block out the sun.

The mist’s grey face
presses against the panes.
Long lost friends,
come back to haunt us,
loom out of our past.

They bear memories
born beyond the mist,
living now in, and for, this mist.

They come stalking us and tap
with long, cold wisps of fingers
at locked windows and doors,
bolted so they can’t get in.

 

 

Rain Again

The rain in Spain
does not stay on the plain

Rain
              When it rained in South Wales, it rained everywhere soaking rich and poor alike. There was no escaping the eternal wetness of Welsh Rain. Whenever we traveled, especially by bus, to another part of Swansea Town, it would be raining there too, but, as my auntie used to tell us when we came back home: “Smile now. Look happy. And remember: we had lovely weather all day. The sun was shining over there where we were. Raining here, at home, all day, was it? What a pity. You should have come on the bus with us!” I remember her smiling, all wrinkles round the eyes, her false teeth shining white, as she flashed a horse’s collar coal-scuttle of a grin, absolutely shameless. But we’d back her up. We’d all smile happily and laugh, and dance, and jump up and down, basking in the joy of the falsified sunshine of her wonderful smile, her shining false teeth. And she was right: where we had been together, the sun had shone all day, in spite of the umbrellas, our wet, cold feet, and all the undoubted evidence of a day of rain.

 

Empty Nest

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Emptiness
is an
Empty Nest

The wind at the window
scratches tiny notes.
I can no longer hear the tune
nor read the words.

Who walks beside me
as I pace my lonely path,
abandoned
in this empty house.

My self-portrait
stares back at me:
a splintered selfie,
framed in a sliver
of silvery glass.

Above me,
the monkey-faced moon,
that itinerant tinker,
walks a fractured way
over broken glass.

The knapsack on his back
is cobbled together
from a finery of cobwebs
and clumsy clouds.

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Bath Time

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Bath Time

              My grandfather took a bath once a year, On New Year’s Eve, so he could be ready, so he said, washed and clean, for the New Year. His bath day / birthday was a family event. If we wanted a bath, well the bath water didn’t stay hot for long in the bath-tub at the top of the house, under the rafters, so an old tin bath was dragged into the kitchen and a black, iron kettle was placed on the hob, and water was boiled. One by one, we were immersed, and scrubbed, to emerge pink and glossy. All this happened in the kitchen in front of the fireplace, where we sat up wrapped in bath-robes and blankets, drinking hot cocoa so we wouldn’t catch cold. But my grandfather took his bath at the top of the house, under the rafters, in the old chipped enamel tub with its lion-claw feet, water-stained sides, and its old brass taps. He walked up there fully clothed, walked into the bathroom, and shut the door behind him, drawing the bolt with a finality that shut us all out. He sang the great choruses from Aida, and Nabucco, and we imagined him, wallowing there, in the warm water, with all his clothes on, for it was hard to imagine my grandfather naked. Then, half an hour later, he would emerge, looking just like he did when he walked into the bathroom. We never heard the water running, nor did we hear it draining away. All we heard was the The Hebrew Slaves’ Chorus and my grandfather swinging his Blacksmith’s hammer as he battered at the New Year’s Anvil.

Comment: I didn’t have a photo of an old bath tub in my collection, so the lead picture is one of Geoff Slater’s murals: a buoy (pronounced ‘boy’ in Wales), taking a bath in the sea.  Let me know if you like these Welsh childhood memories, and I will keep adding to them. They are certainly fun to write and I find incredible the many ways in which memories surge as I am learning to speak Welsh. Each new chapter in my journey seems to start a new wave of thought.