On the outside

 

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On the Outside Looking In …

I walked home on my own. As usual. I’d hated the church Christmas party with all its trumped-up noise, childish games, and artificial gaiety.
The priest, formidable yet effeminate in his long black skirted robe, had made us sit in a circle on the floor, legs crossed. He stood inside that circle and placed a bar of chocolate on the wooden boards. Then he walked around the group and whispered a word in each boy’s ear.
“You must wait until you hear your secret word,” he explained. “Then one of you, when I speak that word, whoever it happens to be, may have the chocolate bar,” he stared at us, large, horsey teeth, black no hair, eyes golden, fierce, like an eagle’s, beneath bushy eye-brows. “When you hear your secret name, you must run and grab the chocolate bar. Understood?”
I had come to the party on my own as both my parents worked. The mums and dads who had brought their offspring to the party leaned forward in keen anticipation. The boys all nodded.
“Are you ready?” The priest watched us as we nodded and then he shouted “Alligator!”
Nobody moved.
“Elephant!” The boys shuffled forward, like inch worms, hands twitching, fingers flexing and grasping.
“Tiger!” A sigh emerged from multiple mouths. Some of the boys licked their lips.
“Lion!” One boy moved, but the priest shooed him away. “Sit down. That wasn’t your word.”
“M-m-mouse!” The boys heaved, a sea-wave about to crest and break.
“I do love this game,” said the priest to the parents. “And so do the boys, don’t you boys?”
“Yes, father …” came the chorus.
“Monkey!” All the boys, except one, leapt into springy action. They dived, crawled, leaped to their feet, ran … a surging heap of boys writhed on the floor as the chocolate bar was torn apart and the long-awaited fights ensued.
All the boys moved, except me. I just sat there.         “I said ‘Monkey,’” the priest frowned at me. “That’s your word. When I say ‘Monkey’, you join in with the other boys and fight for the chocolate bar.”
I shook my head.
“Have some Christmas fun. Join in the game.”
I again shook my head.
“Why not?”
“It’s not right. You’re just mocking us.  I want to go home,” I stood up and walked out of the church hall. I turned at the door and saw the priest glaring at me while a mound of boys continued to scrummage on the floor.
As I walked home, it started to snow. Not the pure white fluffy snow of a Merry Christmas, but the dodgy, slippery mixture of rain, snow, and ice pellets that turned the streets of that little seaside town into an ice rink. I turned up the collar of my coat, bowed my head, and stuffed my hands into my pockets. Two houses before my own, I stopped.
A neighbor’s house. With a window lit up in the gathering dark. I drew closer, pressed my nose against the window and looked in. A Christmas tree, decorated with lights, candles, more decorations, a fire burning on the hearth, two cats curled up warm before the fire, presents beneath the tree, stockings hanging from the mantelpiece. For a moment, my heart unfroze and I felt the spirit of Christmas. Then I thought of my own house. Cold and drafty. No lights, no decorations. No fire. The snowball snuggled back into my chest and refused to melt.
When I got home, our house stood chill and empty. My parents were out at work and the fire had died. Nothing was ready for Christmas. I sat at the kitchen table, took out my colouring book and began to draw. When my mother came home, I showed her my drawing.
“Very nice,” she said, barely glancing at it.
“But mum, you haven’t really looked.”
She stared at the picture again. This time, she saw the Christmas tree and the lights, the cats and the candles, the decorations and the presents. But she never noticed the little boy standing outside the house in the falling sleet, peering in through the window.

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.

Gower

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Gower

To be Welsh in Gower is to spell it funny
and pronounce it worse: Gwyr.
It’s to know how to say Pwll Ddu.
It’s meeting the cows in the lane to Brandy Cove
and knowing them all by name and reputation,
which one kicks, which one gores,
when to walk in the middle of the lane,
and when to jump for the safety of the hedge.

It’s to know the difference between the twin farmers
Upper and Lower Jones.
It’s to recognize their sheepdogs, Floss and Jess,
and to call them with their different whistles.
It’s knowing the time of day by sun and shadow;
it’s knowing the tide is in or out
by the salt smell in the air
without ever needing to see the sea;

and now, in this far away land called Canada,
it’s hearing your stomach growl for crempog or teisen lap
whilst memory’s fish‑hook tugs at your heart
in the same way your father hauled in salmon bass
at Rhossili, Brandy Cove, Pennard, Oxwich, and Three Cliffs.

Commentary: I was checking Gwyr, the Welsh for Gower, where I was born, and found this interpretation of the name. <<G is for generous, your giving nature. W is for wise, more tomorrow than today. Y is for young, the years never show. R is for rapport, friends seek you.>> I don’t know if that’s me, but it certainly wouldn’t be a bad set of descriptors to live up to.

 

Swansea

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Swansea

To be Welsh in Swansea is to know each stop
on the Mumbles Railway: the Slip, the Rec,
Singleton Park, Blackpill, West Cross, Oystermouth,
the Mumbles Pier. It’s to remember where single
lines turn double by Green’s ice‑cream stall.

It’s to know where the trams fall silent, like dinosaurs,
and wait without grunting for one to pass the other.
As you wait you can hear the winter roar of the rugby
crowd or St. Helen’s summer “click” of ball on bat.

Today the tide is out and the nets are golden with starfish
as if a night sky stretched across day’s horizon.
Mudflats rule the bay beyond the sand, and banana boats
ride the distant waves, waiting for the tide to turn.

When it does, the Mumbles Railway has been sold
to a Texas millionaire and the brown and yellow busses
no longer run to Bishopston, Langland, Caswell,
Pyle Corner, Pennard, Three Cliffs, Ilston, Rhossili:
sweet names of sea and sand where my father fished
for salmon bass, his thin line cast defiantly at a rising sea
that would smash the walls of the sandcastles I built to last
forever, unaware that time’s rising tide would breach
their defenses, leaving them in ruins on the summer
beaches where I dreamed my buoyant boyhood away.

Commentary: The Mumbles Pier from Limeslade. This is the first water color painted by my father’s brother, my godfather after whom I received my second name. He took up painting after he retired and became a quite accomplished amateur water colorist. He gave me four of his water colors, I particularly wanted this, his first, and the later ones are excellent, especially the award-winning paintings, of which I have one.