What’s in a name? At the Farmer’s Market there are fourteen puppies in a cardboard box. One of the puppies, still blind, clambers whimpering over the side of the box and totters toward me. An elderly lady picks him up, thrusts him towards me and says: “Here: he’s your dog. He wants to be with you!” “No way, Lady!” I say and turn away. When I exit the market, I walk past the dog box. There are five dogs left but the one that wandered in my direction has gone. The salesman calls out to me: “Hey you!” He walks towards me. “That woman said you’d be back for your dog. Here: take him!” He unzips his coat, and there’s the dog, snuggled against his chest. “When was he born?” I ask. “January 16!” comes the reply. January 16 is my birthday. Today is March 8, the anniversary of my mother’s death. The dog is 53 days old, much too young to leave his mother. When I get home, my wife tells me to take the dog straight back to the market. “I can’t do that!” I say. “The man will be gone by now.” “But we don’t know anything about the dog!” “I’ll clean up after it.” I say. “I’ll feed it and train it.” “You’ll have to put it in a cage.” She tells me. “I’m not having it peeing and pooping all over the floor. You know why they’re called poopies.” Later that evening, I force the little puppy into the old dog’s crate, and I retire to bed. No sooner have I gone upstairs than there’s an unholy noise from the kitchen. “Help me!” I say to my wife. She laughs. “Not a chance! You know the rules!” Down in the kitchen the puppy is in distress. I take him out of his cage and he waddles and wags and promptly pees. I clean up after him and wonder what to do. The cage isn’t a solution. There’s no box in which to put him and any form of captivity, like a board across the door or a baby’s gate, sets him howling again. I gather my sleeping bag and a couple of cushions and I lie down on the kitchen floor. He immediately snuggles up to me, finds my finger, and sucks on it. I get up off the floor, make my way to the fridge, open the door, and pour a glass of milk; for the rest of the night, every time the dog gets restless, I stick my finger into the milk and the dog sucks my finger. I spend the next week doing this. While I’m lying on the floor, I study the dog. “What is your name?” I ask him constantly. Then, one night, as I watch him bounce across the room towards my milky finger, I know what to call him. “Tigger!” If I had waited another week, I might have called him Pooh! Tigger never leaves me. He is like an orphaned duck who follows the first human being who feeds it. Tigger follows me around the house with his nose behind my knee and if I stop suddenly, he bumps into me. My wife has started to call me Dada Duck. I now call her Mother Duck and our daughter has been renamed Baby Duck. Tigger has a second name: Dada Duck Dog. We have a little corner piece on our lot where the roads join and all the dogs stop, including mine. I went out there one day and put up a large sign with “Pooh Corner!” written on it. Beside it I placed an arrow which points “To the house!” All the children on the block love Tigger. When he came home, he weighed 6 pound and covered six tiles. Full grown, he weighs 110 pound and covers 108 tiles! He is gentle and well-behaved and everyone adores him. Some of the children want to buy a little saddle and ride on him, he is certainly big enough, but I won’t let them do that. The children on the block now call me Christopher Robin. At Christmas, they bring me pots of honey. As eleven years went by, Tigger grew old and slow. He developed cancer and had arthritis. On fine days he was fine, but on damp days he could hardly place one foot in front of the other. He had difficulty climbing the stairs and would sleep for hours rising only for his morning and evening walks and his food. Yesterday, el cinco de mayo, at 12 noon, Tigger passed away. Today, there is a little white cross at the corner of our lot. The children have laid a circle of flowers around the cross. On it somebody has painted: R.I.P. Tigger.
Once a month, they used to stick a needle in my arm and check my PSA, cholesterol, and testosterone: blood pressure rising, cholesterol high.
The doctors kept telling me it was a level playing field but every week they changed the rules and twice a year they moved the goal-posts.
Monday Night Football: a man in a black-and-white zebra shirt held a whistle to his lips while another threw a penalty flag. It came out of the tv and fell flapping at my feet. Someone on the field called a time out.
I haven’t seen my doctor for three years. My urologist has been silent for more than eighteen months. It’s been two years since I last spoke with my oncologist.
I have become collateral damage. My body clock is ticking down. I know I’m running out of time.
Comment: I know I am not the only one to have fallen between the cracks in the medical service. Nor will I be the last. I don’t want to cry ‘wolf!’ and yet I feel as though I have been completely rejected. A year after I recovered from my cancer, I received a survey asking me to assess my post-cancer treatment and services. I read it and cried. I did not even know that the services I was being asked to assess were even being offered. I had certainly received none of the follow-up services. “A law for the rich and a law for the poor” indeed. And so many cracks between so many floorboards with so many people falling through. This is not a rant: it is a warning that all of us must look out for ourselves. I can assure you that if you don’t care for yourself, nobody, but nobody, except for your nearest and dearest, will give a damn for you either.
Boxing Day By the time I get up, the gloves are really off and the sparring has begun in earnest. I hear voices, walk downstairs to the kitchen, and a hush falls on the room. Knife-edge glances slice their menacing ways through the thick fog of war. 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. Here in the kitchen, for a while, I walk on the wooden duck-boards that keep my feet dry and clear of mud and water.
Comment: This is, of course, the true origin of the term Boxing Day. A genuine Boxing Day has nothing to do with the myth that it was the day on which the servants, who worked Christmas Day on the Lord’s estate, received their Christmas Boxes. Peace on earth and mercy mild has got nothing to do with alcohol-fueled quarrels, raging hangovers, and little children who should be seen and not heard. Sometimes, when all the elders are down at the pub on the corner, the night may, for a little while, actually be silent. But the noise when the drunks roll raucously home is most unholy. Then little children should be wise like the wise men, run quickly into bed, and lie there, neither seen nor heard.
As I walked home, it started to snow. Not the pure white fluffy snow of a pretty Merry Christmas card, but the dodgy, slippery mixture of rain, snow, and ice pellets that turned the steep streets of Swansea into ice slides and traps for the elderly. I turned up the collar of my coat, bowed my head, and stuffed my hands into my pockets. Two houses before my own, I stopped in front of our neighbor’s house. The window shone, a beacon in the gathering dark. I drew closer, pressed my nose against that window and looked in. A Christmas tree, decorated with lights, candles, more decorations, a fire burning on the hearth, two cats curled up warm before the fire, presents beneath the tree, stockings hanging from the mantelpiece. For a moment, my heart unfroze and I felt the spirit of Christmas. Then I thought of my own house. Cold and drafty. No lights, no decorations. No fire. The snowball snuggled back into my chest and refused to melt. When I got home, our house stood chill and empty. My parents were out at work and the fire had died. Nothing was ready for Christmas. I sat at the kitchen table, took out my sketch book and began to draw, then color. When my mother came home, I showed her my picture. “Very nice,” she said without looking up. “But mum, you haven’t really seen it.” She stared at the picture again. This time, she saw the Christmas tree and the lights, the cats before the fire, the candles burning on the mantelpiece, the decorations and the presents wrapped and waiting beneath the tree. But she never noticed the little boy standing outside the house in the falling sleet, cold and shivering, peering in through the window.
Comment: Everyone remembers Dylan Thomas’s story A Child’s Christmas in Wales, but not all Welsh Christmases are like that. This is the story of a forgotten child’s Christmas in Wales. It is a story about a latch-key kid, left alone at Christmas to fend for himself. I enclose the drawing he did and I dedicate the story to anyone who is alone this Covid-19 Christmas. Christmas spent on your own is not much fun. Looking through another’s window, from the cold street outside, is not much fun either. So, at this time of year, let us remember those who are lost and lonely, those who need a kindly smile and a helping hand, those who do not have the comfort of family and friends, a warm wood fire, or a cat or a dog to snuggle up to them, to lick them, and to wish them ‘all the best’ in the languages that all animals speak on Christmas Eve, and sometimes into Christmas Day. Phone a friend, nod to a neighbor, and may your Christmas season be filled with joy.
Silence in the garden. A hawk perched nearby. There are so many ways to die.
A cerebral bleed, minor, but enough to send him to hospital and keep him there.
Cured, ready for release, he would need extra care and added attention.
The devil lived in the small print. Too much attention needed now: his care home wouldn’t care for him.
Back to the old folks ward he went. There he lay, waiting for a vacancy in a home that would really care.
One day, Covid came a-visiting, stalked the ward that night, choosing its victims: you, you, and her, and him.
What killed him? A cerebral bleed, a minor stroke? Or a major stroke from the devil’s pen?
Bold words, bare words, a barren ward, another vacant place around a Christmas table.
Comment: Sitting at the breakfast table, with an empty space before me, I penned these words. So tragic, so avoidable. Yet how many families have gone through something similar in the past twelve months? How many empty spaces are there, vacancies that will never again be filled? I look at today’s figures from the USA: 18,466,231 infected and 326,232 already perished, an increase of 227,998 and 3,338 since yesterday. I am reminded of the words of Pink Floyd: “Is there anybody out there?” Blas de Otero also echoes through my mind: “levanto las manos: tu me las cercenas” / I hold up my hands: you cut them off. And yet it is Christmas Eve and there is still the Christmas promise of joy, and hope, and a new year entering. Let us raise our hands in prayer: and let us pray they are not hacked off.
He was a good man, and a better friend. He came over to mow the lawn and stayed for a beer. “This is gonna sizzle!”
Some called him uneducated, no BA, no MA, no LLB, but he had a golden heart and a PhD in the school of life and hard knocks.
I met men like him in Wales, coal miners in bars, steel workers on rugby teams, sheep farmers from the hills in the big city for the game.
Humble, they were, honest, hard men, hard working, intolerant of pretension and fools. When I went to university, nineteen and full of ideals, they pulled me on one side.
“You’re one of us,” they said. “However high you rise, don’t lose the common touch.”
I met men like him in Spain, foot-soldiers from the Civil War, riflemen, dynamite throwers with their skills learned at coal face and quarry.
Machado wrote poems about them: “Donde hay vino, beben vino; donde no hay vino, beben agua de las fuentes.” Where there is wine, they drink wine. Where there is no wine, they drink water from the fountains.
A good man, an honest man, an uneducated man, some say, who taught me more about life and how to live it than any university professor.
Comment: I read the obituary of one of my best friends in the newspaper today. He moved away from the neighborhood and we lost touch. But I never forgot him. As I have never forgotten those who shaped me in Wales and Spain. I have forgotten many of their names. But I have never forgotten their faces, nor their words of wisdom.At first, his passing brought a shadow to my life. Then I realized that no, he would not have wanted that. I think now of the good times, the laughter, the joy and, instead of mourning for him, I rejoice in all the goodness he gave me. Rest in peace, my friend. I will forget-you-not.
A Survivor from the Empress of Ireland Lights a CandleDuring the Old Latin Mass for the Dead Before the Main Altar at the Sanctuaire Sainte-Anne Pointe-au-Père
I am still afraid of fire: in principio erat verbum / in the beginning was the word.
I am still afraid of the loud voice of the match scratching its sudden flare, narrowing my pupils, enlarging the whites of my eyes:
et lux in tenebris lucet / and light shines in darkness.
Booming and blooming, igniting the soul’s dark night.
Voice of fire: et Deus erat verbum / and the Word was God.
Flourishing to nourishment, flames whispering on the flood: omnia per ipsum facta sunt / all things were made by Him.
Wool and water, this sodden safety blanket; and what of the cold plush of pliant teddy bear, the staring eyes of the doll:
et tenebrae eam non comprehenderunt / and the darkness comprehended it not.
The lashes of their eyes bound together with salt water, they were doused in a silken mist: hic venit in testimonium / this served as a witness.
Still the patterns pierce my sleep, hauling me from my opaque dreams, holding my wrists in this sailor’s double clasp: non erat ille lux / he was not the light.
Oh! Curse these dumb waters rising! “Not a hair on your head shall be harmed!” he said, hauling my sister up by her hair only to find her staring eyes belonging to the already dead: et mundus eam non cognovit / and the world knew her not.
Night waters rising. The moon raising its pale thin lantern glow: et vidimus gloriam ejus / and we saw His glory shining forth upon the waters’ mirrored face.
Comment: I searched everywhere, but I could not find a copy of my poetry book Empress of Ireland. Nor could I find a file containing the poems. Lost, I searched everywhere yet again and then, on an old USB, I found the text of the chapbook M Press of Ire. The above poem comes from that chapbook. Empress of Ireland is available on KDP / Amazon. I had forgotten how much I loved the sequence.