Westbury White Horse

Chaos

Westbury White Horse

Winter in Somerset. No trains from Frome.
They sit in the engine sheds, boilers frozen.

Clare drives me to Westbury, in Wiltshire,
the neighboring county. She leaves me there

and I stand on a platform as white with snow
as Westbury White Horse towering above.

People arrive, flapping their arms, stamping
their feet, walking around trying to stay warm.

Finally, to shouts, cheers, and laughter, a train
arrives, its boiler successfully thawed. People

rush forward, open doors, claim their seats.
It’s a corridor, not a compartment train.

“Is this the eight-fifteen to Temple Meads?”
I ask the porter. “Nope,” he says. “That’ll

be arriving later.” “When?” “About ten
or eleven, I expect.” “What train is this?”

“Ah, now this is the six-thirty to Bristol.
Running about two hours late. Better be quick.

The guard’s waving his flag. She’s about to leave.”
I open a door, climb on the train.  All

the seats are taken. I stand in the corridor,
shivering, all the way to Temple Meads.

Red Face of Fall

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Fall

red leaves are multiplying on the maple trees
bright berries draw rings round the mountain ash

just one flower survives on the hollyhock
its blaze of glorious blooms lost with the bees
faded away to silence and dried seeds

hummingbirds have departed too and geese
gather in great gaggles on the grass feasting
before they take flight and soar to the south

I want to walk out and talk about their journey
but they waddle away and won’t let me get close

 

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Old Pal

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Old Pal
It’s as easy as ‘Bob’s your uncle,’ as we say in Wales. Yet Bob is my uncle and life with him is never easy. On Saturdays I drive him to the local supermarket so he can purchase his groceries. He also buys cans of Old Pal dog food for Paddy, his ageing and eccentric Cocker Spaniel.
Bob always strips the labels off the cans he brings home. He trades them in for stamps so he can buy cigarettes and things. However, this stripping reduces the cans to bright, shiny aluminum canisters that sit together on the pantry shelf. He claims he knows in which order he stacks them, but I think he’s playing Russian Roulette, because he can’t tell the difference between soup, rice pudding, and dog food. They’re all locked in look-alike cans. Bob doesn’t care. His diet is a lottery anyway. He shoves the can’s contents into one end and as long as they come out the other, he’s happy.
“That’s what life is all about,” he tells me. “Munchies in and munchies out.”
            Bob’s quite happy with mushroom soup for lunch, or eating rice pudding. If he opens a mystery can and finds dog food in it, he just adds a spoonful of curry powder and heats it up on the stove. He stressed out about eating the meat in dog food when Mad Cow Disease hit Wales and consumers avoided beef, but his family doctor told him not to worry.
            “You’ll never get Mad Cow Disease from dog food,” the doctor told him.
“Why not?” Bob asked.
“Because dog food’s made from horse meat.  You can’t get Mad Cow Disease from a horse.
Bob loves dogs, but he hates Welsh Corgis. One day, he asked me to take him out for a drive. He put Paddy in the back seat, on an old blanket then patted him on the head before closing the car door.
I was already in the driving seat. I had taken the precaution of placing a plastic garbage bag over the passenger seat, in case Bob had an old man’s accident, but he told me not to worry.
“I’ll be all right. “I’ve got my Old Pal with me,” he pointed to the canvas bag at his feet. It rattled when he kicked it.
“Where do you want to go?” I asked Bob.
“Down the road,” he replied. “Let’s visit the Corgis.”
Down the road we went, driving happily, until Bob’s face came alive with joy.
“Turn right,” he cried. “There’s a Corgi down that street. Drive slowly now.”
I slowed down while Bob counted the houses.
“Stop,” he told me. “Now. Stop now.”
I stopped and Bob turned around and started slapping Paddy until the dog began to howl. Then Bob rolled down the window, pulled an empty can of Old Pal dog food from the canvas bag, unzipped his fly, stuck his old man’s magic screwdriver into it, and peed.
“The Corgi’s coming. He’s nearly here,” I could hear Bob’s chest wheezing.
“There he is,” Bob screeched with delight as a black-and-tan Corgi appeared at the gateway to the house. Bob whistled at the Corgi and, as the dog looked up, he threw the contents of the can … whoosh! … all over the dog. The Corgi jumped back, blinked, shook himself, and growled and snarled as the can drenched him in a sticky, smelly, golden shower.
“Take that, you dirty dog,” Bob cried. “Quick, drive away, now, before anyone sees us.”
I put the car into gear and accelerated away.
“This is so much fun. I’m so excited. I’m so excited I want to pee again,” Bob pulled a second empty can from the canvas bag. “Turn left. Third house up. Get ready, Paddy. There’s another Corgi on the way.”

Bilingualism

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Bilingualism

I went on a French immersion course last week. The instructor asked each one of us to address the class for ten minutes in French. When my turn came, I stood up and announced that I didn’t know what to say.

The instructor then suggested I tell the class about my dreams. What do you dream of? I said that I didn’t have any dreams, I just had nightmares, not rêves but cauchemars, you know, nightmares. She asked me to describe my nightmares and I said I couldn’t. So, she repeated, describe your dreams. I don’t have any. Do you dream about your mother? Yes, I said, but I don’t call them rêves / dreams I call them night-mères / cauche-mères, sometimes couche-mères. Couche-mères, the instructor repeated the word.

The look she gave me: finger-nails scraping down a chalkboard. She turned her headlights on me and I sat there, frozen in the twin beams emanating from her eyes. Yes, night-mères, I repeated, because I set myself goals, not just dreams, achievable goals, and then I have night-mères, inspired by my mother, who says I will never achieve any of my dreams, because they are not her dreams, the ones she has for me, and they are the only ones that count.

You are here to speak in French, the instructor said, and you must speak French for another five minutes. So I told the class about the seals in the Parc du Bic in Quebec. The seals are like a plague, I said, like mosquitoes, only bigger and nastier, quite vicious, in fact. So the people who made Off to keep the mosquitoes away designed a new chemical spray that would keep the seals away. Now the French for seals is phoques, and since this is mainly a problem in Quebec, at the Parc du Bic, and not elsewhere, they called their product, you guessed it, PhoqueOff.

It’s quite simple to use, I said. It’s a spray, not an ointment, and you point the spray in the general direction of the seals. Then you squeeze the button and loudly say “PhoqueOff” at which point all the seals slide off their rocks with a little splash and vanish into the sea, leaving you alone on the beach.  I have tried it myself, I tell them, and I know it works so I highly recommend it to anyone who is plagued by seals.

I still don’t know why she threw me out of the class.

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.

On Learning Welsh

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On Learning Welsh
            Here I sit, an old man now, in front of my computer, learning at last my mother tongue, Welsh. English is the language of the invaders, the mine-owners, the men who own the steel works and foundries, and who rule this land with a fist of coal inside an iron glove. Welsh is the tongue of farmers and fishermen, of the villagers who live on the hills and tend the sheep and plant potatoes in tiny small holdings where only the fittest children survive.
My mother’s father was the last of us to speak Welsh. It was banned in our house because it was bad for the kids. In a working-class household, Welsh, be it language or accent, was a barrier to success. And success came from imitating your English betters, and climbing upwards, like a vine, or Jack on his beanstalk, until you achieved the impossible and talked and looked and dressed like them.
Sitting here, I have discovered the beauty of simple words, not so much their meaning as their sound, the way they flow, the poetry of remembered rhythms:
Cwmrhydyceirw, the Valley of the Leaping Stag, though legend has it that ceirw was really cwrw, and cwrw is beer, and its real name was the Valley of the Brown Stream Frothing like Beer.
Words have their own music, even if you cannot pronounce them properly: Mae hi’n bwrw glaw nawr yn Abertawe / it’s raining now in Swansea. Mae’r tywydd yn waeth heddiw / the weather’s worse today. Bydd hi’n dwym ddydd Llun / it will be warm on Monday. Why, oh why, in Wales, do we always talk about the weather?
Place names also have their own magic: Llantrisant, Llandaff, Dinas Powis, Gelligaer, Abertawe, Cas Newydd, Pen-y-bont … Meaning changes when you switch from one language to another:  gwyraig ty / a housewife, gwr ty / a househusband, a concept of equality that has ruled Welsh lives since Julius Caesar invaded Albion, coming from Gaul with his legions in 55 BC.
            Un deg chwech, dau deg saith, tri deg wyth, naw deg naw … The photographer asks me to speak in English, then in French, then in Spanish, then in Latin, and lastly in Welsh. He checks the memory card in his camera and looks puzzled.
“You put on a new face each time you speak a different language,” he tells me. “Look, this is when you spoke French.” He shows me the photo and yes, I look happy.
“And this is when you spoke Latin.” He holds out the camera and I see myself on the screen. I look ever so grim. English, French, Spanish, Latin, Spanish, and Welsh: all different and each language is a new a map carved into my face.  Am I a clown, then, a comedian, a chameleon to wear so many masks and to slip so easily from one to another? Which, then, is my language and where is the Old Red Sandstone from Wales into which I can carve my memories and my dreams? More important, which of those many tongues will shape my story as I sculpt each letter of my tale?