Walls

Walls

             
I remember little Willy, the mad boy at the end of our lane, whose cries of “Uh! Uh! Uh!” were the closest he came to speech. His presence still haunts me, for my father and grandfather made throaty sounds ‘Uh! Uh! Uh!” to chide me whenever I did something wrong or disobeyed the dictates of their adult world, their grown up world that layered cement on top of the high brick wall, that inserted bottles in the still wet cement,  that waited for the cement to dry, and then smashed all those bottles with a hammer and locked little Willy, the boy with whom I must no longer play, into a high-walled cage whilst I watched and waited and knocked at the door and asked politely: “Please: can Willy come out and play?” But my only companion was his wild sound “UH! UH! UH!” flawed words torn with clawed hands from his throat and floated like invisible butterflies over the cruel glass jest of the wall they had built between us.

To be Welsh on Sunday

To be Welsh on Sunday
in a dry area of Wales

              To be Welsh on Sunday in a dry area of Wales is to wish, for the only time in your life,  that you were English and civilized,  and that you had a car or a bike and could drive or pedal to your heart’s desire, the county next door, wet on Sundays, where the pubs never shut  and the bar is a paradise of elbows in your ribs and the dark liquids flow, not warm, not cold, just right, and family and friends are there beside you  shoulder to shoulder, with the old ones sitting  indoors by the fire in winter or outdoors in summer,  at a picnic table under the trees or beneath an umbrella that says Seven Up and Pepsi (though nobody drinks them) and the umbrella is a sunshade on an evening like this when the sun is still high  and the children tumble on the grass playing  soccer and cricket and it’s “Watch your beer, Da!” as the gymnasts vault over the family dog till it hides beneath the table and snores and twitches until “Time,  Gentlemen, please!” and the nightmare is upon us as the old school bell, ship’s bell, rings out its brass warning and people leave the Travellers’ Rest, the Ffynnon Wen,  The Ty Coch, The Antelope, The Butcher’s, The Deri, The White Rose, The Con Club, the Plough and Harrow,  The Flora, The Woodville, The Pant Mawr, The Cow and Snuffers — God bless them all, I knew them in my prime.

Comment: When I lived in Wales, a long time ago, there were twelve counties and each one of them voted whether or not to allow open pubs and hence drinking on Sundays. The ‘dry’ areas did not permit drinking, but the wet areas did. Hence there was mass migration from dry to wet every Sunday, especially after Sunday morning chapel. I dedicate this piece to every dedicated Welsh boy who fled his dry county to quench his thirst in a wet one! NB This piece should be read out loud, fast, in a Welsh accent and also in a single breath! Mind you, I find that hard to do nowadays.

Rats

Rats

Black clouds build over the Bristol Channel, threatening to cross the Severn from Ilfracombe to Brandy Cove and climb inland to rattle our windows and bounce rain off our corrugated roof.
            We run out to the lane, looking for the dog, calling his name. Hoping to get him in before he gets soaked. The rubbish dump outside the gate sits on a concrete stand and dominates the lane. Tall and stinky, the red-brick structure rustles with scavenging, skirmishing rats. Pinned to the dump, a hand-written notice: “Please do not light this dump.” We smile as we read it. Our neighbours will put a match to this dump, one dry night, on the way back from the pub.
            Kim, Nana’s Wire-haired Fox Terrier, spends his days at the dump in an effort to achieve his life’s desire: the elimination of every worrying, scurrying rat that ever inhabited the planet. When he tires of killing rats, he will bring their bodies home to the bungalow. Sometimes he lays them in rows outside the backdoor: rats, mice, field mice, voles. Sometimes he brings them inside and places them on the concrete base beneath the old cast-iron stove. Every day Kim sacrifices to my grandmother, his Gower Goddess, and lays the victims out on her altar.
            The rain is close. We run back down the lane to avoid the storm that is now upon us. Violent and short-lived, like so many summer storms in Wales, raindrops will thump against windows and roof. Lightning will flash, thunder roll its celestial drums, and the wind will whip its lash round the chimney. We sit at the table and sip hot cocoa. No sign of the dog.
            Later, when the storm has passed, we wander up to the lane, avoiding the deeper runnels of muddy water, and stepping from high point to stony high point. We scurry hurriedly past the dump and listen to the rats. They will survive for another night. Nobody will be able to light the dump after rain like that. Back in the field, we fill up the water can, take a handle each, and carry the precious liquid back to Gran.
            We walk to the back door. Our neighbor is standing there, crying.
            “I didn’t see him,” she stammers. “He ran out from the dump as I drove round the corner,” she points to Kim, laid out on the back step, his broken body wet and bloody, the last rat he would ever catch still clasped tightly in his jaws.

Forget-me-not

Forget-me-not

sitting in the kitchen
crouching by the coal fire
hands quite warm
back quite cold
checking the windows
peeling back the curtains
blackout curtains
frayed and old
looking at raindrops
sliding down the windows
chill greasy raindrops
grey and cold

wondering who wants me
wondering who loves me
wanting my teddy bear
longing for my pussy cat
wanting my little dog
longing for his tail wag
so much missing
my nose so cold

now I am seventy
everything has changed
changed town and country
changed clime and weather
everything is different
nothing is the same
longing for my childhood
longing for my home land
watching the ocean
that comes rolling in

ocean of waters
ocean of memories
ocean of people
now long departed

Comment: Rhythm is everything here. I have just re-read The Sing-song of Old Man Kangaroo from Just So Stories (Rudyard Kipling). My mum and dad gave me copy when I was seven years old. Did they really think I could read it and understand it at that age? Whatever! The rhythms have stayed with me all my life and today I tried to reproduce them. My soul and my fingers danced as I thought of old man kangaroo and how he lost so much to gain so much. And what of the Elephant’s Child with his insatiable curiosity? I lost so much when I came here to Canada but I gained so much from this wonderful country. I tore my world apart then put it back together. How to explain it? It may not be explicable.

Hot Water Duck

Canada Geese at Mactaquac

Hot Water Duck

The worst punishment of all was to be sent to bed early.  You climbed upstairs by candlelight, if you were lucky, or groped your way upwards in the dark, if you had been really bad. You entered the cold, dark, damp of the bedroom and punishment was not to have supper, and not to have a warm hot water bottle or a warm baked brick to keep you warm in bed. I loved that hot brick, baked in the oven or by the fireside, then wrapped up in a towel. Bricks and bottles: they banished damp from the bed and kept you warm for a while, or burned if the wrapping fell off. The hot water bottles: they were made of tin not rubber, and once, I remember a cast iron duck, that my grandmother baked in the oven, then wrapped in swaddling clothes, like a little baby. But if the grown-ups said you had been naughty, or nasty, or cheeky, or just plain wicked, then you were given nothing to keep you warm, and you lay in bed and shivered until you cried yourself to sleep.

Canada Geese and Fall Foliage at Mactaquac

On Learning Welsh

 

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On learning Welsh

Welsh
is a key to my childhood.

Every day I learn something
about myself and my upbringing.

It’s not the need to talk
so much as the necessity
of diving into myself
and mining my memories.

Brynhyfryd / Mount Pleasant.
Ty Coch / the Red House.
Pen-y-Bryn / the Top of the Hill.

This latter the house
in which I was born.
No room in hospitals
for war time babies.

All of my wartime family
born in the same in-the-country
Gower bed.

Three of my brothers
did not survive
those rough, household births.

I still bear the forceps’ scars.

And I still bear the scars
of carrying my brothers
with me all my life.

A long and difficult
and very private history.

But it’s mine
and I embrace it
and I love it,
with all its warts.

Comment: The photo is of the dragon in Kingsbrae Garden. I think of it as a Welsh dragon … Y ddraig Coch … the Red Dragon of Wales, but of course, it isn’t. Anyone can write easy poems: Twinkle, twinkle, little star … it’s the hard, gut-wrenching stuff that’s hard to put down on the page. My close friend, Margie Goldsmith, encouraged me to write this. Thank you, Margie. Thank you for caring. This is indeed my life ‘… with all its warts …’ It’s easy to wear rose-tinted glasses and see everything as ‘for the best in the best of all worlds’. However, it’s more difficult to grovel on your knees, in the trenches, and to come face to face with the stark realities of who we are and where we come from. Thank you, Margie, for helping me and encouraging me to do just that.

Rain Again

The rain in Spain
does not stay on the plain

Rain
              When it rained in South Wales, it rained everywhere soaking rich and poor alike. There was no escaping the eternal wetness of Welsh Rain. Whenever we traveled, especially by bus, to another part of Swansea Town, it would be raining there too, but, as my auntie used to tell us when we came back home: “Smile now. Look happy. And remember: we had lovely weather all day. The sun was shining over there where we were. Raining here, at home, all day, was it? What a pity. You should have come on the bus with us!” I remember her smiling, all wrinkles round the eyes, her false teeth shining white, as she flashed a horse’s collar coal-scuttle of a grin, absolutely shameless. But we’d back her up. We’d all smile happily and laugh, and dance, and jump up and down, basking in the joy of the falsified sunshine of her wonderful smile, her shining false teeth. And she was right: where we had been together, the sun had shone all day, in spite of the umbrellas, our wet, cold feet, and all the undoubted evidence of a day of rain.

 

Bath Time

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Bath Time

              My grandfather took a bath once a year, On New Year’s Eve, so he could be ready, so he said, washed and clean, for the New Year. His bath day / birthday was a family event. If we wanted a bath, well the bath water didn’t stay hot for long in the bath-tub at the top of the house, under the rafters, so an old tin bath was dragged into the kitchen and a black, iron kettle was placed on the hob, and water was boiled. One by one, we were immersed, and scrubbed, to emerge pink and glossy. All this happened in the kitchen in front of the fireplace, where we sat up wrapped in bath-robes and blankets, drinking hot cocoa so we wouldn’t catch cold. But my grandfather took his bath at the top of the house, under the rafters, in the old chipped enamel tub with its lion-claw feet, water-stained sides, and its old brass taps. He walked up there fully clothed, walked into the bathroom, and shut the door behind him, drawing the bolt with a finality that shut us all out. He sang the great choruses from Aida, and Nabucco, and we imagined him, wallowing there, in the warm water, with all his clothes on, for it was hard to imagine my grandfather naked. Then, half an hour later, he would emerge, looking just like he did when he walked into the bathroom. We never heard the water running, nor did we hear it draining away. All we heard was the The Hebrew Slaves’ Chorus and my grandfather swinging his Blacksmith’s hammer as he battered at the New Year’s Anvil.

Comment: I didn’t have a photo of an old bath tub in my collection, so the lead picture is one of Geoff Slater’s murals: a buoy (pronounced ‘boy’ in Wales), taking a bath in the sea.  Let me know if you like these Welsh childhood memories, and I will keep adding to them. They are certainly fun to write and I find incredible the many ways in which memories surge as I am learning to speak Welsh. Each new chapter in my journey seems to start a new wave of thought.

Wet Welsh Rain

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Wet Welsh Rain

              Day after day, rain, drives in over Singleton Park and Swansea Bay. It claws its clouded way, shroud clad in grey cloud, up Rhyddings Park Road, through Brynmill, and up to the Uplands and Sketty, as it was then, now Sgetti. In those days, the rain got everywhere. It swirled around ankles and knees wetting everything below the hem of the raincoat. Umbrellas kept the shoulders dry. But when the wind blew, and gamp and brolly turned inside out, and people looked as though they were duelling with the wind, and threatening to poke each other’s eyes out, then a good soaking was sometimes better and safer and, in the worst of the rain and the wind, the gamps and brollies came down.  As for the puddles: they were everywhere. You walked in them, whether you wanted to or not, and your leather shoes turned into a pulp that let in water. Socks slopped around your feet, wetter than soggy blotting paper aka blotch [hands up if you remember blotch!]. Heads down, we faced the wind, draped around bus stops, waiting for buses that never came singly, but only in threes after much long suffering. Wind like a whiplash drove the rain before it and everywhere, woolen scarves turned into wet wash cloths and woolen gloves became underwater rain-sodden mittens.

Comment: As Tropical Storm Arthur gathers in the North Atlantic, we would do well to remember the good old days of summer holidays in Wales when it rained every day, bob dydd, during the whole two-week vacation. But did it really rain back then? Who remembers now? I seem to remember it was sunny every day, especially when the cricket was suspended with the words Rain Stopped Play displayed across the television screen. Ant the lunch time cricket scores: what joy to listen to them and to discover one day, as I listened on my illicit radio hidden in my school dormitory,  that play had been stopped because of “piddles on the putch, sorry, I mean puddles on the pitch” [hands up if you remember that announcement!]. I am sorry to say that particular radio announcer did not stay in his job for long. A great pity: I found him rather amusing.

We would do well, too, to recall the twelve days without electric power that followed Hurricane Arthur, back in 2014 [hands up if you remember Hurricane Arthur!]. Alas and alack: how accurate are our memories? And did all of those things really happen? As the street vendors and newspaper vendors [hands up if you remember paper boys!] used to cry out on street corners “Echo, Echo, South Wales Echo: Read all about it” or “Post, Evening Post, South Wales Evening Post, read all about it!” The South Wales Echo and the South Wales Evening Post hands up if you remember them … Oh those were the days … or were they? … click here and read all about it!

 

 

 

 

White Wolf

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White Wolf
Rhodri Mawr

Winter’s white wolf
shakes ice from her coat,
makes snowflakes fly,
blanches our world.

Nose pointed skywards,
she howls a North wind
straight down from the Pole
as we shiver indoors.

Snow gathers in the air,
thick as winged moths,
then drops to the ground,
plays dead in deep drifts.

Snow banks climb higher,
blotting out light.
Soon, Arctic cold will wrap us
in its endless night.

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White Wolf  in Island View

 

Comment: Y blaidd gwen yn y gaeaf / The white wolf in winter, translated from the original Welsh of an anonymous Gŵyr poet, circa 1613. Oh I do love messing about with images and words. I don’t have a photo of a white wolf, so instead I have posted a photo of my lapdog, Tigger, who weighs in at 115 lb. Tigger, of course / wrth gwrs, is a delicate champagne color rather than white. When he sheds hair in the summer known in the doggy trade as ‘blowing his coat’, it is like a snow storm coming off the back porch. The nesting birds and the chipmunks and squirrels can be seen carrying chunks of his fur back to their nests. They will keep wonderfully warm, wrapped in the raggle-taggle gypsies torn from coat. There are several jokes and pieces of misinformation or weird humor, woven into my poem. I wonder how many you can spot? Each of my poems is a puzzle, in one way or another, so have fun solving the riddles!