Railway Yards

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Railway Yards

The enemy came to bomb them. And they did. Tracks rooted out, twisted like spaghetti. Engine sheds burned down. Rolling stock ruined. Many children that year lived with the fear of thunder and lightning as Swansea, my home town, burned, in spite of the black out curtains and the air raid precautions. My father’s father lived by the railway yards. When I stayed with him overnight, the shuffle and clank of steam engines and the clatter of coal trucks scarred my dreams.

My mother’s father lived by the sea and each night the ebb and flow of the tides rocked me to sleep when I stayed in his house. I told the time by the tides and I knew every ship that entered and left Swansea Docks. Standing on the front step, with field glasses to sweep the bay, I could read the ships’ names, painted on bow or stern, and then check their movements in the local paper, the South Wales Evening Post.

Timetables: they ruled my life: time tables for the trains, tide tables for the ships.
When they drove me away to boarding school, I was far removed from the rail yards and the sea. I was now summoned by bells, my every activity chimed in by bell after bell. Bells: wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast, be silent. Bells for each class, for the angelus, bells for dinner, supper, bed time, and baths. Bells on the altar as we knelt before tall candles that flickered light as the tinkling bells flicked sound across the chapel. The only escape from bells came during field games. No bells then, just whistles. But bells and whistles whittled the timetables of a carefully regulated working life.

When we moved from Swansea (Abertawe) to Cardiff (Caer Dydd), our new house also backed onto train tracks and railway yards. The rattle of rolling stock lulled me to sleep. Each day, I opened my eyes to the clash and clang of early-morning shunting. Each night, at exactly 3:10 a.m., the express train to London would rattle past my bedroom window and shake me awake as I lay in my bed. The one day I didn’t hear the train, I woke up anyway, listening for its sound. When silence stalked beneath the stars, I knew there had been an accident, and I couldn’t get back to sleep. Radio and newspapers, there was little television then, screamed the news, so many people dead and injured. We mourned for the unknown dead, just like we did in the mine disasters and the bombings.

Lights out at 9:30, prefects and house masters on patrol outside dormitory doors enforced the silence that ruled the night in those inland boarding schools that I was forced to inhabit. No trains, no ships, no tides, no rattling of rolling stock, no steam whistle, no salt smell of the incoming sea disturbed my dreams, just the snoring and whimpering of lonely little boys lost in their iron-frame beds and longing for the comforts of home.

Invisible Scars

 

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Invisible Scars

            Our minds absorb words as blotting-paper soaks up ink. Phrases carve beehives deep in our inner circuits. No te preocupes / don’t worry. Yet tone and carry are different in each language and the comfort-blanket serenity of no te preocupes does not translate.
Nor do the catcalls from the soccer, aimed equally at opponent and referee, and tumbling raucous from the stands where people sit. Shrill whistles sound in the bull ring: a matador who seems afraid to approach this particular bull for reasons only known to him, yet his shakiness visible to all who watch and understand what they are seeing.
The Cordobés answers the telephone he places on the bull’s nose, yet fails to approach between the horns and his sword rebounds off bull bone: pincha hueso. Each one wounds, the last one kills. El Viti, stately, graceful, an elderly churchman proud of his vocation and always willing to perform to perfection the weekly ceremony of the sacrifice. The boos when the bull enters the ring, stumbles, and comes up lame and limping. The cheers that accompany the arrival of the seventh bull. The refusal to eat meat that has been slaughtered in the bullring, even though it is advertised outside the butcher’s: tenemos solomillo de toro de lidia / we have tenderloin steaks from fighting bulls. Bulls who have led the best of lives, fed on the tenderest pastures by flowing streams. Bulls grown for slaughter and public sacrifice.
Guernica. The bull fight in the sand-filled square. Except it wasn’t a fight, it was more a circus. The slippery pig. The hens and chickens. The rabbits and hares. All the animals running scared. The animals released, one by one, and the spectators jumping into the ring, really a square, one by one, and chasing down the animals, taking them home for dinner, if they could catch them.
Then the bigger beasts. The mule, ferocious, jumping into the air, kicking four tormentors, one with each leg, and biting a fifth with his teeth. No fearful, clucking chicken this, nor the cow who came after with her padded horns. Participants moved more carefully now. She watched them from her querencia the place where she chose to fight to the death. She knelt, scraped off the rubber balls that covered her horns. Re-armed, she charged and the crowd scattered, all but one young kid, caught, fallen to the ground, the cow standing over him, ready to gore again.
Sixteen years old, an outsider, I jumped with others over the barrier, twisted this away and that, thumped the cow’s side, smelled her fury, her fear, the whole soured being that emanated from her. Together, we hustled her, bustled her, dragged her kicking, butting, from the ring, backwards, pulled by the tail.
Visible scars of damaged animals. Scars of the participants. That young man who broke his leg. That old man, inebriated, stuffed with food and drink, who loosened his belt to move more freely. We watched as his pants slipped from his waist to fall around his knees and trap him, just as the cow charged. He survived but will bear the scars forever, some visible, many not.
Long summer days, on the Sardinero, the Segunda Playa, playing soccer. Different rules, different skills, different swear words: I carry a dictionary tucked into my bathing trunks and refuse to play while I look up the words spat at me by my opponent. Good heavens, I think, is that anatomically possible? The ball bounces away on the hard, sand ridges. I chase it and steadily dehydrate under the hot sun. A sea-salt wind desiccates my body. My mouth fills with salt water when I swim out to retrieve the ball from the sparkling sea. My tongue sticks to the inside of my mouth. When I spit, I spit dry and everyone laughs. Now I am totally dry, shiver, and no longer sweat. Now I am no longer my self, but I’ll never be one of them.

 

Dolphins

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Dolphins

Another life, another world, another dream …  dream of freedom perhaps. A great white shark, fifteen feet long, has broken into the peace of Passamaquoddy Bay. Yesterday, or was it the day before, he snagged a seal and devoured it before the eyes of tourists on a tourist boat. You can see the video on YouTube, but I won’t watch it. There’s too much violence in the world around me. Too much hate, illness, sickness, death, too many predators.

We have fallen in love with violence. Ketchup Violence I call it, because the victims get up after the shootings and appear next day on another eppy-sode, another video, another film. Except in real life, they really don’t. The shootings are real. The victims are really dead. And no, they don’t recover. Red blood is red blood and when we shed enough of it, and when the shock is violent enough, or the hit brutal enough, no, we don’t recover. Human blood is not ketchup spread on the french fries of old bones and recirculated later. It is ours, it is vital, and when it flows out, it does not flow back in.

Contrasts: the gentleness of the beginning, versus the harshness of the end. The hatred and tension that drives us on and on. Perhaps we should all join the army, for a year or two. “There’s no life like it.” We live in a bilingual country, at least, I do. “Pour ceux qui aiment la vie.” Or, as Socrates once said: “The unlived life is not worth examining.” So, join he armed forces: there’s no life like it. Pour ceux qui aiment la vie. Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Ukraine, Crimea, Yemen, Syria … where next, where ever next?

As Pink Floyd once said: Is there anybody out there?

Rolling Stones

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Rolling Stones

I have counted down the days, hours, minutes,
one by one, each tock of my grandfather clock
linked in pen and ink chains of endless words.

From arrival to departure, time’s fickle finger has
pointed me onwards into my future or backwards
into a delusional past that never was as I recall it.

Packed bags, backpacks crammed full of snacks,
ammunition against the hunger wars soon to be
upon them, they commence their long journey home.

Grown ups, some in their second childhood, bemoan
ties that bind, tides that rip us apart, tearing hearts,
swinging us in and out as, cockle-shell heroes, we man

our coracles and consult wide-ranging horoscopes that
never fail to comfort, the future’s wild words, written
in pitiless skies to guide and inspire all earthly creatures

born into sadness and death. No heroes in this house.
Just two old people, grey-haired, broken, contemplating
this soon to be silent home, knowing the Rolling Stones

were right, that rocks in motion don’t gather no moss,
that each lost moment is a finger-nail torn from flesh,
that today of all days could verily be ‘the last time’.

Commentary: Here for such a little while and gone already. Two years since they were here and two more years before they come back again. The silence is overwhelming. Only CNN with its endless cacophony breaks into the conscious mind, though that mind is unconscious now of words and their meanings. Images of emptiness, empty nests, this empty nest, these empty nests fill the vacancy of space. The heart is a black hole in the chest, sucking everything out of the light and into that dark, vacant space.

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Ghosts

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Ghosts

My grandfather would wheeze, then cough, as he leaned on the old black dresser in the Welsh kitchen with its vast, cast iron fireplace. “As black as the hobs of hell,” he would say, and “as warm as our kitchen.” It was full of nooks and crannies where pasties and pies could stay warm, soup cauldrons could hang from iron chains, and copper kettles could whistle wild tunes and call us all to endless cups of tea. Sergeant-major tea: so strong and filled with so much sugar that a tea-spoon could stand upright and never fall over. Gassed in the First World War, my grandfather was always out of breath and each time he coughed, he brought up a tiny part of his lungs. “One day,” he announced between wheezes, “there’ll be nothing left.”
Twice a day, my grandfather would roll up the newspaper and brandish it like a conductor’s baton. The first time would be when I came home from school and it was time to do my homework. The second time would be after supper when it was time for me to go to bed. Each time he rolled up that newspaper, he would tap it gently on the dresser to get my attention, and then he would speak those famous words: “Let battle commence.” I would fight to escape to the street to play with my friends. I would fight to stay on my feet and I never, never wanted to go to bed. I hated to be entrenched alone, upstairs, in the cold shadows of that ghostly no-boys-land where I could hear mice and rats scuffling behind the dugout walls and smell the sour smells of old age and illness that stalked my dreams.
“Up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire,” my grandfather would sing, conducting with his baton and pointing to the stairs. I was never afraid of him. He was dark, strong, tall, and very gentle, a great man in his own right, one of those tall men who would always stoop to help a little child. If I was too troublesome, he would start to cough. And if he started to cough, the pink phlegm would come and he’d spit it into the red and blue polka-dot handkerchief he always carried. The pink phlegm caused consternation and in the ensuing panic, I would bolt for the stairs, go up to my room, undress, put on my pajamas, and bury myself in the vast double bed I shared with my grandmother. My grandfather’s bed was in the middle room downstairs. I didn’t realize then, as I do now, that he could no longer climb those stairs up which I scuttled.
After a while, I left of my grandfather’s house and went back to live with my father. One day, my grandfather, as he prophesied, coughed too much and that was the end of him. After the funeral, my father took me back to see my grandmother. Aunties and uncles, cousins, family friends that I didn’t know, neighbors known and unknown, spilled over the house in an invasion of tears and grief. After the friends had gone, my father and I decided to leave and the family gathered on the doorstep to wave us goodbye. I waved back to them all. “Goodbye,” I shouted. “Goodbye aunties, goodbye uncles, goodbye grandmother.” I paused. My grandfather stood there waving to me. “Look: there he is. I knew he couldn’t have gone.” I pointed and waved. “Goodbye grandfather!”
“Don’t be stupid. He’s not there,” my father said. “He’s dead.”
“I can see him,” I said. “He’s there. I can see him.”
“He’s not there. He’s dead.” Tears ran down my father’s face.
Sitting here, writing these words, I can still  see my grandfather, standing on that doorstep, waving goodbye. And I can still feel my father’s long dead, shadowy hands reach down, grab me by the shoulders and shake me, shake me, shake me, until I too am crying and the ghosts of my milk teeth are again rattling in my head.

 

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Things

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Things I carry with me

            That old black cast-iron stove, wood-fired, that baked the best ever breads and cakes and warmed the bungalow on cold, summer mornings. The Welsh dresser with its age-blackened rails that displayed the plates, and cups, and saucers. The old tin cans that ferried the water from the one tap located at the end of the field. Full and wholesome, its weight still weighs me down as I carry it in my dreams. The Elsan toilet from the shed by the hedge and the shovels that appeared, every so often, as if by magic, as my uncle braved the evening shadows to dig a hole on the opposite side of the field, as far from the bungalow as possible.

            The outhouse at the end of the garden. The steps down to the coal cellar where they went when the sirens sounded, to sleep in the make-shift air raid shelter, along with the rats and mice that scurried from the candles. The corrugated iron work shop in the garden where my uncle built his model ships, the Half-Penny Galleon and the Nonesuch. The broken razor blades I used to carve my own planes from Keil Kraft Kits, Hurricanes and Spitfires, an SE5, and once, a Bristol Bulldog. Twisted and warped, they winged their ways into nobody’s skies, though once we built a paper kite that flew far away in a powerful wind and got tangled in a tree. The greenhouse from which I stole countless tomatoes, red and green. Kilvey Hill towering above the window ledge where the little ones sat when there were more guests than chairs in the kitchen. The old bombed buildings across the street. The bullet holes in the front of the house where the Messerschmidt strafed us.

            The old men spitting up coal dust from shrivelled lungs. The widows who took in lodgers and overnight travelers. The BRS lorries, parked overnight, that littered the street. The steep climb upwards into those lorries. The burrowing under dirty tarpaulins to explore the heavy loads, and many other things. The untouchable, forbidden drawer where the rent money waited for the rent collector’s visit. The old lady, five houses down who, when the shops were shut, sold warm Dandelion & Burdock and Orange pop for an extra penny a bottle.  The vicious, snub-faced Pekinese that yapped fierce defiance from the fortress of her lap. The unemployed soccer referee who on Saturdays walked five miles to the match and five miles back just to save the bus fare, his only financial reward. My father’s shadowy childhood. His first pair of shoes, bought at five years old, so he wouldn’t go barefoot to school.

            Wet cement molded onto the garden wall, then filled with empty bottles to be smashed when the cement set solid. The coal shed where the coal man delivered the coal: cobbledy-cobbledy, down the hole. The outside toilet with its nails and squares torn from yesterday’s newspaper. The lamp-lighter who lit the lamps every evening as the sun went down. The arrival of electricity. The old blackout curtains that shut in the light and shut out the night. The hand rolled fabric sausage that lay on the floor by the door and kept the heat of the coal fire in the kitchen. The kitchen itself with its great wooden chair drawn up by the fire. That chair: the only material possession I still have from that distant past.

Don’t hold your breath

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Don’t Hold your Breath 

    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, while I lay awake counting sheep and window panes and struggling with my future and my past.

    An east wind rattled my window whistling a sad song as it herded flocks of stars from one constellation to another. Wind and stars followed the westering moon’s slim finger nail as it scratched at the sky. 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.

    Black jack, bright jack, one-eyed jack: what do I care when fate’s cards tumble onto the table and I count their spots. Forty card baraja, fifty-two card standard, Tarot, or any of the many others, what do we believe and why? I pluck runes from a velvet bag and shuffle and cut multi-colored cards. I survey the skies, cast dice and I Ching pennies … The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings, I mutter, not believing a word of what I say.

    I look in the mirror and see myself as I am. Grey, ageing, diminished, withering … yet proud of who I am and where I’ve been. Upright, in spite of all my failures. Proud because of all the small things that I have achieved. Who am I? What have I done? Where am I going? The eternal questions thrust at the shadows in my silvered morning mirror. Silent, it grins grimly back.