Writing Memories 10

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Writing Memories 10
Module 5.1 Generation Next 

We have now arrived at our last module: the happiness brought to us by our children and grandchildren. I refer to this as Generation Next. When we emigrated to Canada, our parents stayed behind in what I am now beginning to call the Untied Kingdom. If we were lucky, we saw each other every two years or so. Life’s realities have not changed all that much, and once every two years or so is when we see our daughter and granddaughter. The big difference, of course, is Skype. The social media breakthrough now allows us to see and talk and share on a regular basis. This is wonderful. So, where do we begin with Generation next? With a poem, of course.

Yellow [Poem 1]:

Sunshine and daffodils: my grand-daughter
paddles in the kitchen sink. Her mother
washes feet and dishes. “Sit,” Finley says,
and “stand,” following the words with actions.

Now she says “Yellow, yellow,” as daffodils
fill the computer screen to shine in that
far-off kitchen five hundred miles away
by road, but immediate by Skype.

“Yellow,” Finley repeats, “yellow.” Soon
in that distant province where spring arrives
so much earlier than here, she will see
daffodils dancing their warm weather dance,

tossing their heads to gold and yellow trumpets,
fresh, alive, and young in the soft spring breeze.

Commentary: Amazing how children grow and develop. When Finley first came to visit us, her vocabulary was limited and she would select one word and preach it like a preacher leaning out from her Sunday pulpit. Yellow was such a word. Yellow bananas, yellow birds, yellow daffodils and, of course, yellow jello. Is there really any other color for jello? I tried to convert this poem into prose, but it didn’ change much.

Yellow [Prose 1]:

Sunshine, floating dust motes, and the ever-present scent of daffodils: Finley, my grand-daughter paddles in the kitchen sink, rainbow bubbles from the washing-up liquid, with its hint of fresh green apples. Her mother washes Finley’s feet first, then the dishes. “Sit,” Finley says, and “stand,” she follows the words with suitable actions. Sink water swirls and bubbles as she stamps her feet with the slurp of a washing machine, drubbing old clothes. “Yellow,” she says, “yellow,” as once again my St. David’s Day daffodils fill my nostrils with their heavy perfumes and the computer screen with their brilliant golds to shine in that far-off kitchen five hundred miles away by road, but immediate by I-Pad.  “Yellow,” Finley repeats, “yellow.” Soon in that distant province where spring arrives so much earlier than here, she will walk into the garden, hear the robin’s song, and see the daffodils dancing their warm weather dance, tossing their heads to wind-sound through green leaves and yellow trumpets, fresh, alive, and young, fanned by the scent-bearing, soft spring breeze.

Commentary: Some padding, yes, and an attempt o expand the scene and include more varied details, but a success? I am not sure. Right now, I don’t know that I have captured what I wanted to capture. Maybe it is time to rethink everything and start yet again. Before we do, let’s return to the theme of yellow.

Her Shadow [Poem 2]:

Grubby marks remain where her nose rubbed up
against the window pane. Excited she

stood there, watching birds perched on the feeder.
“Finch,” I pointed. “American Goldfinch.”

“Yellow,” she cried out with joy, “Yellow.” Her
tiny hands plucked at air, catching nothing.

Her nose, all wet and runny, left damp, snot
stained letters, her signature, on the cold

glass. That’s how I remember her. Still the
window stays unwashed and her shadow
often comes between me and the morning sun.

Commentary: We all witness them, those moments when time seems to stand still and we see eternity in a grain of sand, or in a stain on the window pane. And what pain we suffer when the little culprit leaves and the house returns to the now unaccustomed silence that reigned before the enthusiastic arrival of Generation Next. The next poem concentrates on the sense of emptiness, and no I will not retouch these poems. They are just where I want them to be.

Empty [Poem 3]:

Empty now the house, clean the floors where she
spattered food and scattered her toys, polished

the tables, grubby no more, where small hands
clattered fork and spoon, her breakfast not wanted.

Empty the bathroom, the tub where she bathed.
Dry the towels, full the toothpaste tubes she

emptied in ecstasy. Where now her foot
-prints, her laughter and tears, the secret

language she spoke that we never understood?
Empty too my heart where, a wild bird, she

nested for the briefest time, then flew, yet
I possess her still, within my empty hands.

Commentary: We have all shared such moments and they will vary for each of us. You have had them too. Write bout them, preserve them, catch them and imprison them in the lines on the page that form prison bars for words. Keep them. They are as valid as photographs and just as powerful. In fact, with the proliferation of selfies and the gradual disappearance of the hand-written word, they are probably even more powerful than the ephemera that, like butterflies or one day moths, flutter and flitter through the anonymities of our digitalized world. And now, may the light of the poetic and prosaic muses shine upon you and bring you a wealth of inspiration, for my journey is over and this workshop is done.

Writing Memories 9

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Writing Memories  9

Module 4.1: Love in Old Age

We discussed love in old age, how it happens, how it continues, how it changes with age, how important it is. As usual, we began with a poem and, since Princess Squiffy, aka Vomit, features in the above photo, I will begin with a speech, or maybe it was a rant, I overheard when my beloved was away in Ottawa and I was talking to her on Skype. I knew the cat talked, but I didn’t know exactly what she was thinking until I heard this.

Poem 1:

In Absentia
Princess Squiffy

“I hear your voice, delicate, distant. I
run to the sound, jump on the table in
my usual spot by your plastic plaything.

You aren’t here. He is. I can hear you
talk. I stalk to his noise box and see a
shadow, moving, but I can’t make it out.

My muscles first tense, then stiffen. I sniff,
lean forward, but find no trace of female
smell. I cannot sense you. You call me by

my favorite names, mew at me, and I
respond. Shifting shadows, your haunting tones,
memories dancing to the music of

your absence. I can’t eat. I bristle when
he laughs. Where are you, my love? He doesn’t
care for me the way you do. I loathe him.”

Commentary: Since these are the cat’s words, not mine, I do not think it would be right to alter them in anyway. Therefore they must stand as they are. Oh dear. Meanwhile, we must contemplate the love we have for animals, so important as we age. And yes, I love my cat, and my dog, and my false, stuffed Koala Bear, and my old goat, even though I am well aware that yes, Goats do Roam.

Poem 2:

Lost
for my beloved

My body’s house has many rooms and you,
my love, are present in them all. I glimpse
your shadow in a mirror and feel your
breath brush my cheek when I open a door.

Where have you gone? I walk from room to room.
When I seek, I no longer find. When I
knock, nothing opens. Sometimes I am scared
to enter a room because I know you’re
in there. I hear your footsteps on the stair.

Your voice, some days, breaks the silence, whispers
my name in the same old way. How can it
be true, my love, that you have gone, that you
have left me here alone? I count hours,
days, clutching dust motes, finding no solace
in salacious sunbeams and troubled dreams.

Commentary: I wrote this poem while my beloved was away in Ottawa, visiting our granddaughter. We Skyped regularly and it was during one of those Skyping sessions that the cat ranted the first poem. Love in old age takes many shapes, even for a poor little pussy cat. I guess I’ll just have to live with it.

Poem 3:

Le mot juste
for my beloved

Le mot juste, the exact word that sums it all up,
catches the essence of the thing painting it with care.

Seven colors stripe the rainbow sky, each with its name:
it seems so simple, but the world is changing every day.

Think color. Think blind. Think color blind. Imagine
the world we see reduced with failing eyes to grey scale.

Think flowers now, roses, daffodils, a hollyhock,
hydrangeas, hyacinths, hibiscus, poinsettia,

or the scent of early morning grass as it falls
beneath the blade. I look across the breakfast table

and see my wife of fifty years, a teenager reborn,
walking towards me in the café where we first met.

I search my mind for the words to describe her,
but I can no longer find le mot juste.

Commentary: What more can I say? I tried to rewrite this, but it is “so hard to recapture that first, fine, careless rapture” (Robert Browning). And I am many things, but certainly not a wise old thrush, singing each song twice over, though I wrote the above twice over, as you will see.

Le mot juste [Prose 1]:

Le mot juste
for my beloved

Le mot juste, the exact word that sums it all up, catches the essence of the thing painting it with care. Seven colors stripe the rainbow sky, each with its name: it seems so simple, but the world is changing every day. Think color. Think blind. Think color blind. Imagine the world we see reduced with failing eyes to grey scale. Think flowers now, roses, daffodils, a hollyhock, hydrangeas, hyacinths, hibiscus, poinsettia, or the scent of early morning grass as it falls beneath the blade. I look across the breakfast table and see my wife of fifty years, a teenager reborn, walking towards me in the café where we first met. I recall the café’s noise, the taste of the coffee, sugared, with cream, its bitter-sweet smell, the pink tip of her tongue testing her lipstick the hot, salt bite of melted butter on toasted crumpets. But when I search my mind for the words to describe her, I can no longer find le mot juste.

Commentary: No way, José. Great ideas, but they don’t cut it. Just stick to the original.

Poem 4:

Still
for my beloved

She moves more slowly up the slope, pushing
against the hill’s shallow grain. I know so
well her swaying grace of old, but now she
shuffles with the drag-foot limp of the aged,

and aged she has, like a good wine in an
oaken cask. Her beauty still lingers in
my memory, lodges in my mind and
still I see her as she was, and for me

still is, beautiful in body, mind … slim,
graceful, a joy to hold and behold. Her
eyes still sparkle and she bubbles still with

a champagne thrill that draws me to her, and
still she enhances each room she enters,
filling me, body, soul, with warmth and light.

Commentary: It is so difficult to watch other people age. It’s hard enough to work out what is happening in our own bodies and minds, but it is even harder to imagine what other people are going through. I look back on my grand parents, my parents, my own ageing process. Then there were cats, dogs, friends. I blinked twice and our daughter was suddenly entering middle age. My beloved and I have been together for fifty-eight years, fifty-three of them, married, here in Canada. So many memories. So much love. Sometimes words fail me. How can I say any more?

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Writing Memories 8

 

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Writing Memories 8
Module 3.1: Illness

We talked about illness in old age, how our systems weaken and break down. Above all we discussed the difference between minor illnesses, the coughs and chills that, if caught in time, do not threaten to carry us away and the serious illnesses that are life-threatening or that steal our loved ones, still living, away from us as they shut themselves into the prisons of their own minds. Sad and serious faces filled the room. Everyone knew a friend or a family member that was suffering from, of had suffered from, Alzheimer’s or some form of cancer. It is not an easy topic: how could it be? Yet it is one that, as writers, we must often face and to which we must bear witness. How do we do it? Now that is the question. Here are two poems in which what turns out to be a minor illness is treated with humor.

Poems 1 & 2

Two Gnomes

Two small gnomes camped
last night, one in each of my lungs.

All night long they played
their squeeze-box, wheeze-box
concertinas, never quite in unison.

Sometimes they stamped their feet
and my body rattled with their dance.
Their wild night music caught in my throat
and I coughed unmusical songs
that spluttered and choked.

An east wind blew outside my window.
It whistled and groaned
as it herded the stars from left to right.

The stars pursued the westering moon.
The planets danced to the rhythms
of the accordion music playing in my chest,
and the sky’s planetarium folded and unfolded
its poker hands of silent cards marked with my fate.

Pibroch

This morning, the bailiff, Mr. Koffdrop,
evicted the two gnomes from my lungs.

Landlord Bodie placed an ad on Kiji
then rented the free space in the left lung
to a tiny piper who took up residence by my heart.
This piper piped me a highland pibroch
on his whisky-worn pipes.

A pack of miniature wolves infiltrated
the midnight forest flourishing in my other lung.
When the pibroch played, they pointed their noses
at that spot in my throat where the full moon
would have been, if she could have broken in.

They mingled their howls with the bagpipes’ caterwaul
and I lay awake all night with my heart beating
arrhythmic suspicions on its blood red drum.

The drum played, the pibroch wailed,
the wolves howled, my body lay scarred by
an absence of sleep and the presence of moonlight
that drove stars from the sky and filled the room
with shadows and shifting shapes.

Commentary: These poems recall several sleepless night when the wheezing kept me awake. I remember watching stars and moon outside the bedroom window and thought long on the Platonic dance of the spheres. In fact, I composed these poems in bed on different nights and wrote them down the following morning. They certainly amused me at the time and I am certain that the maintenance of humor in the face of disaster is a gift from the gods. It bolsters our will to fight and makes light of the ills and evils that sometimes surround us. The prose versions clarify the poems.

Two Gnomes & Pibroch [Prose 1]

Two Gnomes: Two small gnomes camped last night, one in each of my lungs. All night long they played their squeeze-box, wheeze-box concertinas, never quite in unison. Sometimes they stamped their feet and my body rattled with their dance. Their wild night music caught in my throat and I coughed unmusical songs that spluttered and choked. An east wind blew outside my window. It whistled and groaned as it herded the stars from left to right. The stars pursued the westering moon. The planets danced to the rhythms of the accordion music playing in my chest, and the sky’s planetarium folded and unfolded its poker hands of silent cards marked with my fate.

Pibroch: In the course of the night, the bailiff, Mr. Koffdrop, evicted the two gnomes from my lungs. Landlord Bodie placed an ad on Kiji then rented the free space in the left lung to a tiny piper who took up residence by my heart. This piper piped me a sad-to-play pibroch on his whisky-worn pipes. A pack of miniature wolves infiltrated the midnight forest flourishing in my other lung. When the pibroch played, they pointed their noses at that spot in my throat where the full moon would have been, if she could have broken in. They mingled their howls with the bagpipes’ caterwaul and I lay awake all night with my heart beating arrhythmic suspicions on its blood red drum. The drum played, the pibroch wailed, the wolves howled, my body lay scarred by an absence of sleep and the presence of moonlight that drove stars from the sky and filled the room with dancing shadows and shifting shapes.

Commentary: Both of the pieces seem finished and I really have no desire to plump them out further. I feel that way sometimes with a piece of writing: “No la toques más, así es la rosa / don’t tinker any more, roses are like that” (Juan Ramón Jiménez). It is so easy to write those words from the great Spanish poet and Nobel Prize winner. But one would do well to also remember these words from Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech ye in the bowels of Christ, think that ye may be mistaken.” And yes, we may all be mistaken, especially when we believe too strongly in our own infallibility. Dealing with serious illness is a much more difficult proposition.

Shadows
Self-portrait

My front door stood open, but I thought
I’d left it closed. I tip-toed in and called:

“Is anyone there?” Echo answered ‘… there, there,
there …”
then silence. I walked from room to room,

startled by shadows. I opened doors, looked
under tables, searched behind chairs. No one.

Ghosts flitted deep in dark mirrors. Curtains
shivered in an unfelt, worrisome breeze.

The house stood silent and empty, save for
the fear, the silent fear, that lurked
like my remembered cancer in each room.

Commentary: This is a poem from a sequence of poems …  A Cancer Chronicle … to which I do not wish to return or, in the words of the immortal Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote it all happened: “En un lugar de La Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme / in a corner of New Brunswick, whose name I do not wish to recall …” But this is one of the joys of writing: it permits us to bear witness to anything we wish, no matter how terrible it is. More, it allows us to face the unfaceable, to bear the unbearable, and to control the uncontrollable.  In our own little worlds we are indeed, as Alexander Selkirk discovered in his solitude, the masters of all we survey. This is, surely, an enormous consolation and comfort when we live in this brave new world in which we actually control so little of what happens around us.

Suggestions for the writing exercise included in each module:

Write a prose memoir, just reminiscing.
Use 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person narrative.
Choose 6-12 words from the reading and expand on them using associative fields.
Write from an image or a metaphor.
Journal style: automatic writing, but try to select the gems.
Letter style: write to a friend.

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Triumphs

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Triumphs

Waking to moonlight in the middle of the night, making it safely to the bathroom without tripping on the rug in the hall, managing to pee without splattering the floor, the seat,  the wall, or my pajamas, climbing back into bed, staring at the stars’ diminishing light until I manage to fall back to sleep. Waking to birdsong in the morning, walking to the bathroom without bruising my left arm against the door latch, shaving without cutting my face, getting in and out of the shower with neither a slip nor a fall and without dropping the soap, drying those parts of my body that are now so difficult to reach, especially between my far-off toes, pulling my shirt over those wet and sticky patches still damp from the shower, negotiating each leg of my pants hanging on to the arm of the rocking-chair so I won’t fall over,  tugging the pulleys of the plastic mold that allows each sock to glide onto my feet, oping the heel will end up in the right spot, forcing swollen toes into shoes now much too small, hobbling to the top of the stairs and lurching down them with my stick in hand, cautiously, one step at a time … on guard for the cat, the edge of the steps, the worn patches where my cane might catch or slip … one more step, and I’ve made it down. The first of today’s miniscule triumphs.

Monte Alban

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Funny things, photos. When I updated my I-Mac, and I-photo became Photo, I lost some 10,000 photos, or more. Thanks to some hard work over the weekend by one of my good friends, we re-established contact with the missing photos. Skimming through them, I found this one, my words and Clare’s  computer art. I wrote it a long time ago, sometime after 1995, when I first visited Oaxaca. This piece records a visit I made, with Hayden Leaman, another good friend and an Oaxacan savant, to Monte Alban.

Under a hot sun that weighed us down and struck us like a hammer on an anvil, we wandered around the archaeological site and met with many vendors, some of whom seemed to have genuine artefacts, while others obviously offered us fakes. I couldn’t believe how the old men first discovered and then sat in the thin lines of shade emanating from a post, an edge, or a corner, la grata sombra / the welcome shade, as they say in Spanish. This one gentleman, who told us he had walked over from Arrazola,  some six kilometres or so away, asked us for nothing, chatted with us, and proved to be a wonderful source of local information. It was a pleasure to share our water with him. He was the possessor, he assured us, of a genuine green card, and didn’t believe in illegal immigration.

The words in the picture above summarize my thoughts at the time. I asked Hayden later where he wanted to go. He looked around at the temples, the monuments, the tombs, the ball court, the observatory … “Who wants to go anywhere?” he replied. “I am happy right here.”

I visited this and other sites later with Clare. She too proved to be very adept at finding the shade and just sitting still. Look and listen carefully: you too may be able to see and feel the beauty and the silence.

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Pen Friends

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Pen Friends

A writing day, today: so, spoiled by choices, even though some of those choices have grown wings and flown away. Pen friends and mood pens: I think I’ll begin with … and they are color coordinated for ink … this one … but you’ll never know which I chose … Maybe it will be my Waterman’s: speckled blue, second left. I do love pens: so essential to write with. Cursive hand-writing too, no longer taught in schools. It has become my secret code: nobody can read it.

But do you remember when pen friends really were pen friends and you wrote long letters to people in France, or Spain, or Germany, so they could practice their English and you could practice whatever language they spoke? I can remember playing postal chess with some of my pen friends. A move per letter and each letter taking a week or more to arrive. A full game with a pawn ending could take years! Did anyone ever meet their pen friends, I wonder? I know I did. I think of the immediacy of today’s online dating sites and I sometimes sigh for the old days. Courting by fountain pen … the slow and solemn can-can of two tortoises in the Carnival of Animals by Saint-Saens.

I write every day in a hand-written journal and have done so most days since 1985. I also keep a pocket notebook for odd moments, usually when I am outside in Mactaquac, or Funday National Park, or on Prince Edward Island, or at the beach in Ste. Luce-sur-mer, or beach-combing in Passamaquoddy. If I manage to write anything decent, I transfer these written ‘gems’ to the computer, where I revise and re-work. My poetry is almost always penned, but short stories usually go straight onto the computer, as do the novels, I have written three, though ideas and plans for stories and chapters do appear in the journals. I have come to think of the journals as a quarry and a memorandum, the computer as a workshop.

Come to think about it, I have, in the not-so-distant past, given workshops and seminars on just this topic. It is a very useful and informative subject, especially for beginning writers. With it comes the statement that (a) we must learn to recognize good writing when we see it; (b) we must learn to recognize, and reject, poor and weak writing; and (c) we must realize that we are not writers, we are re-writers. I always recommend people to keep their early drafts. Our tendency as re-writers may well be to revise out the energy and spontaneity of the original. This usually happens when the high-school policeman (thank you, Ted Hughes) steps into our brain and lectures us on how to write properly and correctly. If we lose that initial emotion, we must re-re-visit the original flow and try to recapture it recapture it in the re-re-write. Now here’s a good question: how many re-re-re’s can we get in there?

 

Swansea Bay

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 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.