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.

Lament

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Lament

I remember the hawk well. One moment the garden was empty, next he was there, on the ground beneath the feeder, feeding, or rather, fed. I didn’t see the kill. I walked past the window on my way through the kitchen from somewhere to somewhere, and there he was, perched upon a pile of feathers. Whatever the victim was, all edible evidence had disappeared and only the feathers remained. I guess the hawk saw me, sensed, or caught the sound of the camera. Within a second, between click and click, he had flown.

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I went outside to look at the wreckage of what had once been alive. Feathers and blood. The grim reality of avian life in my Little World of Island View. Between cats and hawks, a great deal of destruction is handed on from generation to generation. But although I have witnessed nature ‘red in tooth and claw’, I have seen nothing like the devastation caused by the avian flu. We tried to follow all the appropriate instructions, but the passerines all vanished and they never came back. We still have a couple of mourning doves grubbing around on the porch and back step, but I can remember counting, one day, sixty or seventy perched in a cluster on the clothes line. Pine grosbeaks used to swarm, now to see one is a big event. We still get the occasional evening grosbeak, but the grey jays have vanished, as have the swallows who used to nest in our garage. We know of a pair of cardinals in the neighborhood, but they rarely visit us. We can hear a Greater Pileated Woodpecker in the distant woods, but they no longer dance and play among our trees. A few years back, we had a garden full of bees balm, but no bees. Last year we saw very few butterflies, though they used to be regular visitors. Our hummingbirds have become occasional visitors, and I do miss seeing them.

I long to see again all those beautiful creatures, the cat bird with his endless imitations, the orioles with their songs, even the sparrows seem fewer and further between. As for the garden, the crows have taken over. A family of seven caw in the trees and visit regularly. They are sharp, wise creatures and I am always bemused by their aerial manoeuvres. They still sit on the garbage cans once a week and announce their triumph to the world. But woe betide if you leave a plastic bag alone at the roadside. They make short work of it with their shiny beaks ad the bag’s interior is soon strewn all over the road for you to pick up and everyone to see.

My Favorite Pen

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My Favorite Pen

This is my oldest Mont Blanc fountain pen. I must have bought it in 1986 when I traveled to London to attend a Spanish Golden Age seminar at one of the university colleges. I can’t remember which, though I do remember the seminar was on someone called Francisco de Quevedo. We met like spies, my pen friend and I, on the steps of the British Museum. I had never met him before, so he carried a specific book under his arm, one of Quevedo’s I think, by which I would recognize him. We lunched together at an Italian Trattoria, whose name also escapes me, and we discussed the ways of that ancient Hispanic world and our own research upon it. I paid for our lunch from my travel funds. I had a sabbatical that year and had arranged a short tour of four or five British universities in my search for knowledge. After lunch, he took me back to his London college and I sat and absorbed wisdom from 2:00 until 5:00 pm.

After the seminar, walking back to the nearest tube station, I passed a shop that had this Mont Blanc in the window. I went in and bought it. On the spot. No second thoughts. Then I caught the tube to Paddington station. While waiting for the train back to Cardiff, I sat in the station bar and ordered a pint of beer. A well-dressed man, slightly older than me, asked if he could join me. I said yes. He sat down and began to talk. He told me how to commit suicide by slashing my wrist with a knife.  There were many incorrect ways to do it, he explained. But only one right way, if you wanted to be successful. He rolled up his sleeve and showed me his collection of scars that ran crisscross and welted over his left wrist. Failed attempts, he said. But I’ll get it right next time. I wouldn’t want you to make the same mistakes as me, if you decided to try it.

Must go, I told him. My train’s about to leave. I left the remains of my pint on the table, looked back, and watched him finishing my beer. Good job I didn’t spit in it, I thought. Then I realized that I probably had, one way or another. I boarded my train and 90 minutes later I was back in Cardiff. No more post-war, coal and steam engines, a diesel this, powerful, fast, and smelly. It reduced the former four hour journey to much, much less than two. Cafeteria style, the train carriage offered a table top for every four seats. I opened my new pen and wrote in the pocket journal I had bought for the trip.

So many memories. But I don’t remember the names of either of these two men. I do recall those scars, though, deep and ridged, crisscrossing like railway tracks. Every time we clicked over a junction or a cross track I shivered and my writing wiggled on the page.

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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.

Whisky

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Whisky

     Dry energy bristles through your body, tangible electricity, I dare not touch you. Sparks fly through your hair and light up pillows and sheets. Plugged into your flesh and blood, those instruments of life and death and in-between flicker and will not stand still, will not take appropriate measurements in the way doctors and nurses predict or want. Stranded on your beach of bleached white sheets, you are smaller than a seal, an otter, perhaps, a sea-urchin, or a star-fish, struggling in the high-tide mark, not with the sun and wind that dry you out, but with the sands of a time that is ticking away from you, filtering through your fingers, fleeing from your grasp. Your hair ruffles. Your forehead wrinkles. Your gaze sharpens. You have the hunting eyes of the unhooded hawk, or those of a peregrine falcon fixed on its prey, yet you cower like the land-bound beach-bird that he hunts. You are burning up, devoured in your own interior inferno. You slap at my hand as I take a risk and try to place it on your forehead to offer you consolation. What is it? I ask. What do you want? Shall I go and get the nurse? The doctor? You shake your head, your eyes flash, the air sizzles, and you whisper something, too low for me to hear. I put my ear closer to your lips. Your voice: coarse sandpaper over the soft balsa wood frame of a plane that will strive, one day, to grow wings, to take flight, to be a bird. Whisky, you whisper. I just want whisky.

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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?

Haircut

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Haircut

A new barber’s shop, all male, cutting and shaving, a sea change from the usual unisex, all women, we do it all for you, either of you, your choice. A Muhammad Ali barber shop: ‘we are the greatest’.

“Do I need an appointment?” I ask.

“Sure do,” the boy behind the counter replies. “We’re the hottest thing in town. Let’s see: I can fit you in tomorrow,” he checks the computer screen, scrolls up and down. ”2:35.”

“Nothing else?” I ask.

“Three vacancies next week … let me see …”

“Book me in,” I said.

“Good choice, my man, good choice,” he held out his hand and I shook it.

So here I am, balancing on my cane, hoping I can make it from welcome desk to chair. They greet me warmly. Tell me my guy’s waiting. It won’t be a moment. Here he is. He announces my name with a query in his voice. I nod my head in agreement and mouth his name.

Houston Control: we have lift off.

He accompanies me to my chair. Helps me settle in.

“What can I do for you?”

“Cut my hair?”

He examines me carefully, checks me out in the mirror, runs his hand over my head.

“Would you like to do a Number Two?”

Where I come from, a Number One is a golden shower, a pee-pee, and a Number Two is …

“Not in this chair,” I say.

“Excuse me?”

“A number Two? I don’t know what you are talking about.”

He points to the chart on the wall where nine different men are posing in black and white photographs with nine different haircuts.

“Oh,” I stammer. “Do you think that would suit me?”

“It’s your choice, my friend.”

“Go for it,” I say, my heart filled with misgivings.