Summer in Wales

Summer in Wales
aka
Cricket, lovely cricket!              

Summer in Wales is always as I remember it: glorious days of sun and sand and blue skies and warm winds … and especially the sun on the beaches with the water sparkling and little boys and little girls playing cricket on the dry wrinkled sand packed hard when the tide goes out and leaves the land stranded … and uncles and aunties bowl under arm, not over arm, so the little ones could manage to score lots and lots of runs … and I remember us, standing breathless between the wickets, or at the wicket, if there was only one set of stumps, or a picnic basket stood on its side, or three pieces of driftwood, with sea-weed for bails, and what are bails, you ask?

              Well, bails are the sea-weed that is draped over the driftwood that stands as stumps. And we guard our stumps with the cricket bat that somebody has brought and we bowl with wet tennis balls, because nobody will risk a red, leather ball on the sands, with the wet tide standing there, waiting for the ball to be hit at it, or into it, and it’s cold, but not that cold, and when uncle hits the ball, right out so sea, someone has to run after it, then dive, and then swim after it, and if it’s real runs you want, then uncle runs two or three quite quickly; then the aunties tell him to stop running so fast or he’ll have a heart  … so he slows down and trots four or five; then he walks six and seven; and when you throw the ball back, he’s walking eight or nine; and then the dog intercepts the ball, catches it in his teeth, and starts running around with it in his mouth and everyone is trying to catch the dog except my uncle who is now limping very, very slowly between the wickets, but he’s already up to eleven or twelve; and then the little ones start crying because “It’s not fair!” Loud sniff! Then uncle stops in the middle of the wicket and sits there, waiting for somebody to run him out; except everyone is tired, except the dog, who is tireless and completely energized, and now the centre of attention; and nobody is going to catch him;  and finally uncle walks to the wicket and he lifts the piece of seaweed with his bat and everybody appeals, then he’s finally “OUT!” because officially he’s hit his own wicket and that’s illegal and now the game can go on once more, with everyone happy and God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world …

And the dog has dropped the ball right at the edge of the waves and is barking furiously at the incoming waves as time and tide march up the beach and sweep us and our memories all away.

After the Lecture

After the Lecture

After I delivered the lecture at London University, as it was back then, I caught the tube and descended at Paddington station. While waiting for the train back to Cardiff, I sat in the station bar and ordered a pint of beer and a Cornish pasty. An older man wearing a sweater and jeans asked if he could join me. I didn’t say ‘yes’ but he sat down anyway and straight away began to talk.
            I paid no attention to him until he rolled up his sleeve and showed me the collection of scars that ran crisscross, hard 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 I did. If you want to kill yourself, you must do it this way,” he reached across the table and picked up the knife I had used to cut my pasty. He pulled out a dirty hanky and wiped the knife in it. Then he laid the blade not cross-wise but parallel to the artery in his wrist. “And you must dig deep, first time, and at a slight angle.”
            “I’ve got to go,” I told him as a tinny voice came over the Tannoy. “That’s my train.” I stood up, leaving the remains of my pint and my pasty on the table.
            I got to the door of the station bar and looked back. Then I watched as my table companion finished my pasty and reached across the table to claim the remains of my beer.
            “Quite the lecture,” I thought. “Good job I didn’t spit in the glass.” Then I realized that both my day’s lectures had been effective, in one way or another.

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.

Weather or Not

Weather

We got an incredible one inch of rain in ten minutes last Friday evening. I got some wonderful photos and no, that is not my hand shaking.

In fact the weather in June has been most strange. The end of May saw four consecutive days at 32 C / 90 F. This was followed by four consecutive nights of frost. And then this devastating rainstorm on Friday evening.

Bird Feeder in Winter

Los Días de Noé / the days of Noah, as they say in Spanish. But our one inch of rain fell in just ten minutes and the wind was horrendous. Similar storms are called chubascos and I’ve also heard tromba.

Whatever: it was cold, dark, windy, and wet and 13,000 homes went without power.

Bird Feeder in Spring
(same angle)

Don’t Look Out

Don’t Look Out the Window

Don’t look out the window, you don’t want to
know what’s lying out there. Don’t look out.

Play ostrich. Place your head in the sand,
pretend there’s nothing there to worry you.
Pretend you can see the missing PPE,
the vanished masks, the surgical gloves,
the sanitized hand-wash that everybody needs.
Just don’t look out the window. Don’t look out.

Pretend there’s nothing out there. Deny that
nearly two million people are ill.
Deny that a hundred thousand have died,
not in vain, but from ignorance and vanity
 and a total denial of scientific truth.
Just don’t look out the window. Don’t look out.

Just look at these walls that surround you.
Smile back at the smiling faces, the nodding heads,
the puppet-string politicians who agree with
every piece of nonsense that issues, meaningless,
from empty mouths. Surround yourself with people
who believe what you believe, who think and do like you,
fellow narcissists and bullies, cheats and liars,
who have deceived and stolen, lied like you, to build
enormous fortunes while they have cheated on
their wives, gone bankrupt, and borrowed shady money
in questionable deals with shabby, foreign banks.
Don’t look out the window. Don’t look out.

All those employees know a bum deal
when they are on the sharp end of one.

But nobody speaks out and nobody,
but nobody, dares open those curtains
for fear of seeing that reborn beast,
its hour come at last,
slouching down the streets.
Close your eyes. Don’t look out the window.
Don’t look out.

Comment: I rarely comment on political events, let alone write poems about them. That said, I do not consider this poem to be a political statement. For me, the key to the poem can be found in the final five lines beginning with ‘for fear of seeing …’. I have explored inter-textuality before in these pages. I hope the reference to W. B. Yeats’ poem The Second Coming, is clear.

Kite

Kite Flying

So light, the kite,
a butterfly in flight.

Breeze battered,
sky-blue shattered.

Children stare
seeing the wing-shape
fluttering there
rising on flimsy air.

Diving, dipping,
nylon cord slipping,
finger-flesh ripping.

Here come others,
children and mothers.

Butterflies, bright,
ready for flight,
fighting wind-might:
a child’s delight.

I didn’t have photos of a kite.
I offer some humming birds instead.
Listen closely:
you can hear them hum.

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

Ffynon Wen

McAdam Railway Station drawn by Geoff Slater

Ffynon Wen

Stuffy, you said. I can’t breathe. Early morning mist scratched pale finger nails down your bedroom window. Grey foggy faces glanced in, grimaced and scowled. Damp and slippery, the window frame, when I opened the sash. What time is it?  Before I could answer, you demanded more milk for your tea. I left you there, in bed, went downstairs to the kitchen and brought back milk. Then you wanted more sugar. Shut the window, you said. It’s cold. I’m shivering.
Puppet on a string, I raised my cord-bound feet and danced at your command. Then I went downstairs, fetched more sugar, came back, and left the morning paper on your bed. On the front page, a picture of the last passenger engine, green and rusty, from the GWR (Great Western Railway). It used to carry passengers from Swansea to Cardiff to Paddington in London. Now it pulls a line of filthy coal trucks. Covered in dirt, rain, steam and dust, I couldn’t make out the name or the number.
Passengers on trains speeding to different destinations, we never had time, time for talking, time for understanding, time to think, time to be heard. Laden with baggage, our minds followed different tracks. Platform lights blazed in the night, a Van Gogh blaze of starry fires. We flashed past towns, stations where we’d never stop. Windows glowed in deserted waiting rooms, shattering the darkness, their full moons reflected in the double glass of a locked carriage door.
We rattled over cross-tracks, never knowing why, yet I have never forgotten the rhythm of the wheels, slowing, accelerating, running at full speed, the telephone wires looping, cattle in fields grazing peacefully, wondering why …
We rarely talk. I guess we have little to say. We leave big questions to float in the wind. We don’t tell our nightmares, our stories or our dreams. Trivia is too trivial. Serious issues cut too deep, unspoken, unanswered to this day. We bury our noses in the daily paper. We gloss our lives away. We flash past so many signals with their pointed mechanical signs.
When your train finally stopped, I disposed of your body in Thornhill Crematorium, opposite the Ffynnon Wen, the White Well Restaurant and Bar where we celebrated our last supper together.

Comment: An old story, resurfacing from the Archives in which I found my old, dusty Cambrian Chronicles. It’s also a story I have reworked many times, as poem, flash fiction, philosophical statement, personal memoir … I guess such moments, such memories, are very hard to come to terms with. They lie just out of sight and gnaw at us at night, surfacing when least expected and packing a powerful punch of helpless hopelessness. And no, there is nothing we can do about such things except stare blank-faced into our moon-faced morning coffee and blink back the tears we were unable to shed at the time.

I guess, deep down, it’s all about grieving and how we grieve. In some cultures, it is all about manhood and stiff, upper lip. In others, it is letting the tears flow and the emotions run riot. It differs with each and all of us for we and our circumstances are all unique. I look at the current state of the world and I keep thinking that, no, it’s not a case of one size fits all. Not everybody is the same, and each one of is special, and needs something special, especially in these difficult times. Keep safe, keep well, and do not provide, if you can avoid doing so, any reason for your loved ones to mourn for you.