Stuffy, you said. I can’t breathe. Early morning mist scratched pale finger nails down your bedroom window. Grey foggy faces glanced in, grimaced and scowled. Damp and slippery, the window frame, when I opened the sash. What time is it? Before I could answer, you demanded more milk for your tea. I left you there, in bed, went downstairs to the kitchen and brought back milk. Then you wanted more sugar. Shut the window, you said. It’s cold. I’m shivering. Puppet on a string, I raised my cord-bound feet and danced at your command. Then I went downstairs, fetched more sugar, came back, and left the morning paper on your bed. On the front page, a picture of the last passenger engine, green and rusty, from the GWR (Great Western Railway). It used to carry passengers from Swansea to Cardiff to Paddington in London. Now it pulls a line of filthy coal trucks. Covered in dirt, rain, steam and dust, I couldn’t make out the name or the number. Passengers on trains speeding to different destinations, we never had time, time for talking, time for understanding, time to think, time to be heard. Laden with baggage, our minds followed different tracks. Platform lights blazed in the night, a Van Gogh blaze of starry fires. We flashed past towns, stations where we’d never stop. Windows glowed in deserted waiting rooms, shattering the darkness, their full moons reflected in the double glass of a locked carriage door. We rattled over cross-tracks, never knowing why, yet I have never forgotten the rhythm of the wheels, slowing, accelerating, running at full speed, the telephone wires looping, cattle in fields grazing peacefully, wondering why … We rarely talk. I guess we have little to say. We leave big questions to float in the wind. We don’t tell our nightmares, our stories or our dreams. Trivia is too trivial. Serious issues cut too deep, unspoken, unanswered to this day. We bury our noses in the daily paper. We gloss our lives away. We flash past so many signals with their pointed mechanical signs. When your train finally stopped, I disposed of your body in Thornhill Crematorium, opposite the Ffynnon Wen, the White Well Restaurant and Bar where we celebrated our last supper together.
Comment: An old story, resurfacing from the Archives in which I found my old, dusty Cambrian Chronicles. It’s also a story I have reworked many times, as poem, flash fiction, philosophical statement, personal memoir … I guess such moments, such memories, are very hard to come to terms with. They lie just out of sight and gnaw at us at night, surfacing when least expected and packing a powerful punch of helpless hopelessness. And no, there is nothing we can do about such things except stare blank-faced into our moon-faced morning coffee and blink back the tears we were unable to shed at the time.
I guess, deep down, it’s all about grieving and how we grieve. In some cultures, it is all about manhood and stiff, upper lip. In others, it is letting the tears flow and the emotions run riot. It differs with each and all of us for we and our circumstances are all unique. I look at the current state of the world and I keep thinking that, no, it’s not a case of one size fits all. Not everybody is the same, and each one of is special, and needs something special, especially in these difficult times. Keep safe, keep well, and do not provide, if you can avoid doing so, any reason for your loved ones to mourn for you.
“Thirty-four doors and a key for each door,
sometimes two, and that’s only for the outside.
No master keys back then. A key for each lock,
if you please, and each door locked every night.
It’s still quite the task, a real responsibility. They
kept a turnkey, in those days, a full-time employee
whose job was to keep the keys and remember
which key fitted each door. Was it a double turn,
a single turn, a dead-bolt? The turnkey knew them
all. He also understood the interior doors and had
to wind the clocks, open and close cabinets, cloak
rooms, kitchens, desks, cupboards, drawers.
Others kept their own keys, and we often dismiss
them as lackeys, especially if they were black,
but they held the key to everything. Locksmiths
too, they could remove locks, take them apart,
cut keys, no job for a flunky. It took a smart man
to be a turnkey. He needed training, patience,
skills, knowledge, strength. Huge railway keys:
he knew how to look after them as well. Have you
seen the size of those old, brass carriage keys?”
Unveiling McAdam Railway Station Sunday, 30 June 2019
Today at 1:00 pm is the unveiling of Geoff Slater’s mural and diorama at McAdam Railway Station. In celebration of the Event, Geoff and I put together a little chapbook of poems on McAdam illustrated with two drawings of the railway station, , a photo of Geoff working on his mural, and another of him framing a portrait of yours truly, painted by Ruby Allan and framed by Geoff.
We are hoping for a nice group of people to attend the unveiling. There will also be a summer fashion show with some of the leading station ladies present.
I am sure a great time will be had by all and everyone is invited. Of course, not everyone will turn up, but I am sure that these two beautiful ladies will be there.
Very little to beat it actually, the joy of receiving and opening a new book, especially when it is one you have written yourself, in cooperation with a group of friends. In this book are the twenty-four (24) poems that I wrote for McAdam Railway Station.
I went to McAdam to watch Geoff working on his mural and installation (diorama). While there, I heard stories about the railway and started to write them down in stanza form. While I didwritethem, most of them were based on stories and anecdotes heard or overheard while the guides were guiding the tourists round the site. This is indeed a limited edition. We originally intended to print only 50 copies, but when we heard that there might be up to 300 people at the unveiling of Geoff’s mural, in McAdam, at 1:00 pm, Sunday, 30 June, 2019, we doubled the number of books we printed. I will be donating the majority of the 100 to McAdam Railway Station Historical Association. They can either give them away or sell them to help fund and support the impressive restoration work they are doing.
“We view history through the rear-view mirror of a rapidly advancing car” … and writing these poems was a veritable journey back into the past. Geoff left his glasses by his half-finished drawing, and that’s when the idea of linking McLuhan to Moore to McAdam occurred. Several of the poems focus on my own experiences of railway stations. Travel by train was a frequent choice in my childhood and I went almost everywhere by train. A local in-town train ran from the station at the end of our road and I often took it when visiting friends, shopping in town, or following the local soccer team, Cardiff City, aka the Bluebirds. As a result, much of the imagery within the poems involves my own knowledge and love of trains, while the narrative structures themselves are often based on those overheard words.
We wanted a photo of Geoff and me on the back cover and I discovered this one in my files. The portrait was done by Ruby Allan, my fellow artist in KIRA (June, 2107). She painted Roger Writing in the Red Room from a photo taken by another KIRA resident artist, Carlos Carty, the Peruvian pipe, as I was working at the desk in my room. Geoff framed the portrait and Mrs. Lucinda Flemer gracefully allowed it to be hung over the desk in the Red Room at KIRA, an honor for which I am exceedingly grateful. What a nice way to put our pictures on the cover of our book! If you are down McAdam way this Sunday, 30 June, drop in and see us. We’ll be there. Books and all.
“Put your fingertips on the rail,
see if you can feel its pulsing beat.
No heart rail rhythm now. No tremble.
Put your ear on cold metal:
nothing but silence. No murmur,
however distant. Black fly whine.
No-see-ums flit. The train track’s
buzz of harmony is lost and gone,
replaced by careless nature. Listen
to the wind whistling in the woods,
hark to spring sounds, so subtle,
grass growing, rust accumulating,
sleepers turning over in their graves,
silent, rotting beneath forgotten rails.”
Comment: Nothing so lonely as an abandoned railway track, rusting beneath snow and rain, the wooden sleepers rotting into oblivion. That said, the Southern New Brunswick Railway still carries freight trains through McAdam, and it is the railway station that suffered, with the loss of passenger traffic, rather than the rails themselves. What a pleasure, incidentally, to hear the hoot of the approaching diesel, to count the wagons as the train came to a halt outside the station. Then came the joy of watching the engine separate wagons from the main train, shunt them into sidings, return, and take the freight train, slow at first, but rapidly gathering speed, out of the station and away into the distance. Such memories. So many ghost trains riding those rails. So many ghosts bewitching the windmills of the child’s mind that still inhabits the ageing brain.
Painting a mural,
wall, knowing it will
stand time’s test.
a tumbled engine,
some from Macadam,
pebbled the floor,
camouflaged for war,
part of the painting.
Depart from the station.
Turn right. Straight ahead,
flaked peeling paint.
So sad, this outside
mural, exposed to winter’s
snow, frost, winds, and ice.
and so ephemeral.
Such a short-lived
summer, over in a day.
Butterfly on a rock.
Comment: This sequence comes from the indoor and outdoor work (murals) of my friend Geoff Slater. Geoff told me how ephemeral were the outdoor murals with a life-span of about ten years before they needed redoing. After that, the paint starts to fade, then crack, then dry and peel away. Our Canadian winters with their icy cold and the ensuing springs with their frost and thaw do not help. The protection, no ice, no snow, no sun, no rain, afforded to the interior murals means that they will last so much longer. Our outdoor art, unless cast in the firmest stone, is ephemeral. Like a butterfly, it will not last much longer than a brief summer day. Hence the final metaphor.
“Dozing in the cab, I was.
Smelt a different smoke.
It wasn’t my engine’s.
Saw flames. One, two,
three houses on fire.
Steam was up. Yessir.
Three short hoots I gave.
Three long. Three short.
S.O.S. Mayday. Mayday.
S.O.S. S.O.S. Kept going
till house lights came on.
People running. Leaving homes.
Jumped out of the cab.
Ran out to help them.
They thanked me.
Said I had saved their lives.
What else could I have done?”
Comment: This is a third hand poem. It came to me from Geoff who heard the story from the hardware store owner who witnessed the fire. The narrator is the anonymous engine driver who raised the alarm. Of course I don’t know exactly what he did, said, or thought. Our knowledge of history can be divided into two great moments: the momentous events, recorded by expert historians via diligent research, and intra-historia, as Miguel de Unamuno, that great Spanish philosopher and rector of Salamanca University called it, referring to those small, individual moments when history is made by anonymous human beings who did what they had to do and then faded into the anonymity of a distant past, now wrapped in silence, as is the store-keeper and the driver of the train.