Writing Memories 5

 

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A stitch in time

Banality, stupidity, or just old age: how did the knife slip from its intended path and end up slicing through my finger? Looking back, a year later, I seem to have lost the thrill of that shock. No sensation of pain. Blood oozed, squirted sluggishly, then flowed freely between the fleshy cliffs of the wound. I went to the fridge, took out an ice-cube. Blood all over the fridge door, the floor, dripping off my fingers. I went to the sink, ran the cold water, doused my hand in well water and ice. I could feel it then, a chaotic shrill pain, running through my hand in short, sharp electric shocks. I glanced at my little finger and saw white bone.

I tore a sheet from the paper towel roll: blotting paper to red ink. It sopped up the blood and overflowed in seconds. Another sheet. I bound it round the ice cube and tried, one-handed, to tighten my hanky round the paper. Impossible: the ice cube kept slipping. I looked at the floor: more blood. I looked at the telephone: neighbor? Police? Ambulance? I grabbed the hand towel, folded it in four, and bound it tightly round my hand, clutching the loose end in my fingers. I hurried to the door. Looking back, I saw a trail of blood spots and the cat, nose down, busy licking them up. Left hand held high to try and slow the bleeding, I drove to emergency.

Triage: the first nurse tossed the blood-soaked kitchen towel into the garbage can. “You won’t want this any more,” she grimaced. She took off my amateur dressings, and the blood started flowing again. “Are you on blood thinners?” “No.” You must have cut a vein.” “This will hurt,” she said, and sprayed some ‘stuff’ on my hand. It hurt. I tried not to wince. She tied my finger up tight, put my arm in a sling with the hand held high, and sent me back to the waiting room,

An overweight white male sat there, grinning at me. “Hurt?” he asked. “Yup.” “Much?” “It’s okay.” He stood up, put his hand in his jeans’ pocket, and turned his back on me. I could see the crack of his buttocks over the top of his pants. They bowed and bagged at the knees. He hoisted them up, the crack disappeared, the pants slipped back down, and the vertical crack smiled out at me again. “Here,” he showed me a packet, half concealed in his hand. “Try these. They’ll take away the pain.” “No thank you.” “They’re good. I take them. I get them off the street.” I took notebook and pen from my pocket and started to write. The guy shrugged, put whatever it was back in his pocket, and started to whistle.

The waiting room smells were different from the those of the triage room. In with the nurses, I had sensed their body warmth, their sweat at the end of a long day and at the beginning of an even longer night. I could feel energy, happiness, though I cannot explain what they smelled like. The air seemed to throb with positivity, good will, bustle, hope, and determination.  Perhaps it was the cleanliness, the medicinal smells, the disinfectants, the cotton swabs, the fresh, clean bandages, he sense of teamwork and companionship. It smelled and felt good in spite of the occasional unwholesome odor drifting out from the plastic bag where my blood-soaked hand-towel languished along with pads and bandages bearing witness to my loss of blood.

Outside in the waiting room: a different world. A sense of boredom and hopelessness filled the air. Bodies slept slumped over in chairs. The room smelt of stale sweat, dank clothes. An old man, isolated in the corner, reeked of urine. Some sipped coffee as they waited their turn, its bitter acidic odor similar to that of morning drinks on an overnight transatlantic flight with the same sour stench of too many bodies cooped up in too small a space. Sandwich wrappers and discarded gum packets littered the floor and rustled when disturbed by shuffling feet. Distant babble of nurses and attendants. A TV high on the wall tuned to the 24-hour news on CBC muttered its words quietly from on high. One lady had brought an orange with her and, as she peeled it, its bitter-sweet perfume made my mouth water and I was forced to swallow my own saliva.

Luck was with me and I didn’t have to wait long. A nurse called my name and her arm swept me into another surgery where a young man washed his hands, dried them on a paper towel, and encouraged me to sit down. He took my hand, placed it flat on the table between us, and began stripping off the dressings. When he came to the last one, I started to bleed again. “This should have stopped,” he said. “Tell me about it,” I replied. His eyes sparkled. “I’m sorry, he said, “but this will hurt a little bit. I am going to have to freeze your finger before I sew it up.” “Do it,” I said. He opened a sterilized packet, took out a needle, shoved it into a small bottle. “You’ll feel a little twinge, but the needle carries its own anesthetic, and it won’t take long to bite.” It didn’t. I flinched at first, but by the time he pushed the needle into my finger a second time, I couldn’t feel a thing.

He peeled back the skin, began dabbing and squeezing, and quizzed me again about anticoagulants. He chatted away, happy as a budgie on a perch, and I soon warmed to him. “This might hurt,” he said, as he inserted the needle, and threaded my laceration with a thin, blue thread that he knotted, then snipped. But it didn’t hurt. I couldn’t feel a thing at all. “Is your anti-tetanus up to date?” “I don’t know.” “This might be the tough one,” he said, referring to the third needle. It wasn’t.

I walked out of the hospital and drove home, elated. When I opened the door, I looked for bloodstains on the floor. Not one. The thin, pink, sand-paper rasp of the cat’s tongue had cleaned them all up. And there she sat, in the middle of the corridor, eyes glowing, licking her paw, waiting for me.

Commentary: I revisited Triage once again. My memories, a year later, are clearer, yet more distant. Have I managed to capture that experience in A Stitch in Time? I very much doubt it. So what have I captured? I just don’t know. What I do know is that the whole process of remembering, rewriting, re-configuring has been fascinating. That original setting down in words has been the starting point for four different departures, four different journeys back into the past. One of them took place last Sunday, verbally, as I was recounting the experience to those who were with me in the Saint John Free Library. Memory: what does it mean? How do we change it? How does it change us? Are our memories ‘real’, in the sense that they are accurate and permanent, or do they change as we age and color them, sometimes with a rose-tinted hue, sometimes with the deepest shades of grey and black? I cannot answer those questions. I do not have that particular skill set. But I can ask them of myself and I can set them before other writers so that they, too, may set out on similar journeys and enjoy themselves and their past as I am doing.

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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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Impact

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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.

 

Poinsettia

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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.

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.

Family Album

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Family Album

I recall him early in the day, carving his field into brown-tipped waves, with his two sheep dogs  running loose beside the enormous cart-horses that give him the horse-power, huge, born to labor and the plough, as they create their own steam in the morning mist, so cool, but stay clear of their hooves, huge hooves, iron shod hooves, hooves that will break a leg or stove in the dog’s ribs as if he were a rowing boat crushed against an Atlantic rock in the fast ebb-tide of the local bay, and watch out for them in the stable where they lean together, side by side,  like the oxen twins, Bright and Lion, out at King’s Landing, and like the oxen they munch their hay and stomp their feet and blow hot air out through their nostrils, almost in unison, their sweet-smelling breath sugaring the air, and the bright hay surrounding them, prickly and tickly, and leaving its speckled rash on arms and legs and necks …  and I thresh in dream-memories, flailing from harvesting remembered brightness beneath a star-filled sky, gathering memories, ordering them into vital bundles, and every package a re-creation of everything that I was, and am, and ever will be, and those who come after will find less of myself, yet more, much more, than this empty snowball of flesh, which sits here at the table, pen in hand, scribbling the words that begin and end it all, the tell-tale words that blindly bind and knot the ties that tie me in place, forever, between these lines, between these covers, and I jot down supplements that will supply fresh blood to the memories of my rapidly fading life … how long will I hold on to them, those memories, those moments of glory, those seconds that turn into minutes, then hours, and  the hours stringing themselves together to form days and weeks  as memories gnaw away the years, as a mouse gnaws away at a cheese, with jagged teeth until all that is left are sad photos of unnamed, unremembered people floating in the family photograph album like the one that my grandfather once gathered, and glancing from page to page I know no one even if the name is written there, his wonderful copperplate standing out beneath the photograph, ‘my sister Betty, aged two’, ‘my cousin David, aged ten months’, ‘my grandmother’s father’s sister’s cousin by marriage’, and there she is, this anonymous being, riding in the sidecar of a motorbike, and the photo all speckled and brown, like a hen’s egg, waiting in its egg-cup for the silver spoon that will bring it magically to life, a real life, not the false life of a forged memory that floods through my mind, so young, they are, so small, so pretty, all of them, so dashing, so handsome, even in their old-fashioned clothes, and now they are here, their spirits trapped in this photograph, floating ghosts in the half-life of a sepia snap, and will this be the afterlife for all of us, these snaps, taken in an instant, and then lasting, at first for hours, and then, forgotten and laid aside, then surfacing in another country, held by another hand and viewed by foreign eyes that do not know and will never understand … how can they ever understand?

Copperopolis

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Copperopolis

Mountains and craters on the moon look like this:
scarred, barren landscape, scabs of a dead industrial
revolution that created the largest copper smelting
plant in the world. Labourers strove for a living,
but met early with death. Rows of tiny, brick hutches
where families crowd, breeding like rabbits. Back
yards with greenhouses, cracked flagstones, allotments
where life-saving vegetables grow, and a chicken-coop
for the occasional egg worshipped after childbirth.
I remember it well. The garden walls adorned with
broken glass, set in concrete, so nobody could take
food from the garden, or steal the precious hens.
Washday on Monday, when furnace dust had settled
after the day of rest. Clothes hung out on Tuesday,
stained with the industrial waste that clogged bays,
fields, and farms. Summer and Fall, my father walked
shoeless to school, worked hard to buy himself winter
shoes. He sanctified footwear for the rest of his life.
He studied hungry, slept famished, and awoke to hunger
and cold. Born into poverty, we were rich in love.
My father broke out, scaled those walls, got odd jobs,
went to night school, educated himself, became someone.
He wanted the world for me. But my hands were too small
to grasp the enormity of what he had achieved and who he was.
He aimed for the stars, failed, but scraped his wings on the moon.
I cut my teeth on broken bottles and never wanted to leave.