Sometimes

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Sometimes an image comes to us, out of nowhere, and we struggle to put it into words. Or else it comes as words, and we strive to put it into color and shape. And what if it is the scent of grass, or of apples, or of fresh cut hay? Mushrooms frying are so symbolic. I think of Frodo in Lord of the Rings. Nobody can recreate for me the smell of fresh laverbread, barra lawr, Welsh caviar, according to Richard Burton. And don’t talk about the Penclawdd cockle women, ever-present with the laverbread in the Swansea market I knew as a child.

Names float through my mind: the butcher, the baker, the candle-stick maker, the man who wanted me to become a professional boxer, the man who wanted me to article with him to become an accountant, the day I wanted to leave school to article to be a lawyer. Were they just dreams? Or were they colored balloons, floated into the atmosphere, with multiple strings attached? And what does it matter now, forty, fifty, sixty years later, when life has been lived, and all those pasts have been condensed into a single tune, that recalls what I was then, what I am now, what I did, and all of it music played on a squeeze-box accordeon by a man who knew everything about me, past and present, and made his knowledge of my life his PhD thesis, dry, dusty, and so academic and biased, and yet his gateway to eternity’s Hall of Fame.

The little lady who lives above us looks on. Does she judge us or just take all that knowledge in and retain a rigid silence? Who knows? Who’ll ever know? And what about us? Are we just corporal ships sailing through a sea of silence surrounded by who knows what reefs and perils? And deep down, does it really matter, any of it? And anyway, who cares?

Today I met a former colleague. She scowled at me and lisped my name. I gave her a two-fingered flick of acknowledgement and turned away without speaking. What did I matter to her or her to me? Did the ice she used to store in her knickers actually melt when she saw me? Did she know me for who and what I am? Do I, did I, give a damn? How many fingers do you see, I wondered? Five? Three? One? And what does that one finger mean, standing out like a lighthouse on a lonely headland above a dangerous reef?

My Madonna of Grief, wrapped in her shawl of uncertainty, drifts through a cloud of unknowing and doesn’t give a damn, one way or another. My Lady of the Discalced Carmelites plods on through rain and snow, feet soaked or frozen, love and warmth in her heart, her foundations ever before her, her soul ghosting above the stupendous stupidities of this stultifying life.

Oh to fly with the angels, to float above the fog and fury of our daily lives, to rise and grasp the meaning of stars, planets, constellations, to hear the eternal music that binds the universe, to become one with the music of the spheres and their song of songs.

 

Ice

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Ice, so many meanings: sliding on ice, as cold as ice, icing the puck, walking on thin ice, skating on thin ice, ice-blue eyes, an icy stare … ice is also nice, as in icing on the cake, ice lollipops, ice in the drinks, holding it on ice …

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Stalagmites and stalactites, like ants in the pants, the -mites go up and the -tites come down. Ice giants, ice demons,  silent ice, groaning ice, ice floes, the river iced up, the head pond so many different shades of grey and blue and white, fading in places into black, and these look like black-and-white photos, but they aren’t, there’s always a tinge of color, even when you least expect it.

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Silent ice, singing ice, groaning ice, and the steady drip-drip of melting ice and what a show, sunshine stealthy on ic, stepping across it on tip-toe, and the ice as radiant as a stained glass window … and oh, there was so much more I wrote and still want to write. Too late now. It was incredible! I added a third photo to my original post early this morning, and, when I updated the post, the whole blog post was deleted and I uploaded a blank page. How tragic. Never mind: the ice will have to speak for itself in its own silence, in its own creaking and groaning, in its spectacular ice palace of glimmer and glow.

 

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Boxing Day

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23 December: my mother and I travel to my mother’s mother’s house, leaving my father to follow, if he wants to. No instructions as to where we’ve gone, or how, or when. But he’ll know and follow eventually, like the good dog he is, when the Pavlovian Parties are droolingly over.

24 December: Christmas Eve. Everyone is very secretive, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, and the ‘boy’ is sent from the room while the grown-ups discuss whatever secrets grown-ups discuss when the little one is not present. I never ask questions any more. Why should I? Little boys should be seen and not heard is the only answer I ever get.

25 December:  Christmas is here. Late last night, my grandfather, on hands and knees, shoved a box under the double-bed in the front room where my grandmother sleeps using his walking stick like a billiard cue. I could see him clearly from my bed on the floor on the far side of the room, beyond my grandmother’s sleeping place. I had a feeling it would be him. It’s been a long time since I believed in Santa Claus, let alone the spirit of Christmas. The Christmas spirits, yes, I believe in them. My grandmother keeps them locked up in a little bottle beside her bed labelled Hennessy Cognac. I have sampled the Christmas Spirits. They are nice. I believe in them. My grandmother has already risen. I’ll get up soon. I guess my father will be downstairs and the Christmas Spirits will be here in plenty. My guess is they have already begun. Joy to the world, peace at Christmas, and a truce and a laying down of arms throughout the joyous day. Perhaps I’ll get a soccer ball and we’ll play soccer in the no-man’s-land that lies between the barbed-wire tongues that simulate the trenches.

26 December: Boxing Day. By the time I get up, the gloves are off and the sparring has already begun. I hear voices, walk into the kitchen, and a hush falls on the room. Knife-edge glances slash the thick atmosphere. It’s Boxing Day. On my left, in the blue corner, my mother, smoking what is probably her tenth cigarette of the day. A thin haze of grey smoke escapes from bruised lips. Whether they are beaten or bitten, I will never know. On my right, in the red corner, my father. White-faced, hungover yet again, truly into the spirits of Christmas. He is breathing heavily, like a Boxer Dog in mid-summer heat, snoring and snorting at the leash. In the middle, my grandfather. He is keeping the combatants apart, creating his breathing space so the true Spirit of Christmas can disentangle itself from the Christmas Spirits and bring peace to earth again for at least sixty seconds between each round. I look around the heaving, threshing silence of the room. My father breaks that silence, pointing at me: “It’s all your fault!” he says, his red-dimmed eyes blazing with a sudden and renewed anger. He starts to rise, but my grandfather steps between my father and me. “Go and see granny. She’s in the kitchenette, by the stove,” he says. “Go now.” I run a gauntlet of staring eyes and go to my gran. As I shut the door behind me, voices rise higher in the room I have just left. Boxing Day, indeed. The gloves are off. The battle has begun again.

 

 

 

Xmas Birthdays

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Xmas Birthdays

They come in all shapes and sizes. The ones closest to Christmas, are they the best? Good question. Are the later ones any better? Who knows? In my case, January born, all I remember are the broken promises.

“I’m not buying you a Christmas present this year. I’m saving up to buy you something special for your birthday. What do you say to that?”

“Thank you, Auntie Gladys. You are so kind. I’ll look forward to my birthday.”

I next meet Auntie Gladys two weeks after my birthday. “Oh,” she says. “Was that your birthday just went by? I forgot all about it. Sorry.”

That’s just one example, but I remember many broken promises. I had to be older, sadder, and very much wiser before I realized that perhaps my Auntie Gladys didn’t have enough money to buy me one present, let alone two.

Then there was my mother’s mother’s birthday. It took place on December 23rd every year. During November, my mother never mentioned it. At the beginning of December, silence reigned. When my father’s office parties for Christmas drew closer, around the 15th or 16th of December, my mother’s mother’s birthday grew in stature and importance.

“Where’s your father?”

“I don’t know.”

“It’s late. He should be home. Did he tell you what he’d be doing tonight?”

“No.”

9 pm, 10 pm, 11 pm … then a key in the lock, I’d run to the door and heave at it with enthusiasm, and my father, pushing against a door I was now pulling open, would fall face first onto the mat, writhing and giggling.

Two or three nights like this and, on the evening of the 22nd or the morning of the 23rd, my mother would announce to me in a loud voice and in my father’s absence: “It’s my mother’s birthday. Pack your bag. We’re going to see her.”

“Aren’t you going to wait for dad?”

“No.”

“Aren’t we going to tell him where we’re going?”

“No.”

She’d call a taxi that would drive us to the train station or the bus station. She’d buy us tickets to her mother’s hometown, 40 miles down the road, and off we’d go.

I was often too tired to note the anxious tones of my grandparents’ questions. The mumbled conversations behind my back. The little errands that I was asked to run while the ‘grown-us’ discussed the nature of the current situational crisis.

“What do you want for Christmas?” my mother’s family would ask.

“I want my dad,” I’d reply.

Then, On Christmas Eve, still fatherless, but full of hope and the promises of presents and joy, I would go to bed and fall asleep, too tired to wait up and spy on dear old Santa.

Next morning, my father, hung over, rather smelly having slept in his shirt, unshaven, and looking sleepily sheepish, would appear and offer me whatever special gift he had been looking for during the past three days.

“Just for you,” my father would say, handing me his wrist watch (one year) or his fountain pen (another). “I went up to the North Pole specially to get it,” his smile lit up the room.

“Liar,” my mother would say and her family would roll their own sheep eyes and look at the ceiling or at their shoes.

“Well, maybe not the North Pole,” my father, now a little moth or butterfly, would wriggle on the pin my mother was sticking into him. “I went to London, actually.”

“Liar, liar.”

“But it was the office club’s official party trip. We saved a shilling a week to hire a coach and drive up to London to see Swansea playing Tottenham Hotspur.”

“Liar, liar, liar.”

“Well,” my mother’s father would mediate, “Swansea were playing Tottenham yesterday.”

“Told you so,” said my dad.

It was Christmas. Mistletoe would appear, kisses would be exchanged, peace would be bought, my watch wouldn’t work, and next time my father saw me he was wearing a brand new wrist watch that actually went tick-tock.

23 December … it’s my mother’s mother’s birthday again. I welcome the day with open arms, yet I always fear what might happen, and I always wait for the worst to come when the first of those Christmas birthday ghosts arrives to sit on the end of my bed and taunt me as I lie there, eyes wide open, haunted, sleepless remembering …

 

 

Cricket

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Cricket

            Street cricket. Played on ancient, cracked tarmac. The wicket: three sticks whitewashed on to the high stone wall of the cul-de-sac where my grandmother lived. It backed onto the wall that cut us off from the railway yards that led into High Street Station. That wall was the boundary, as were the neighbor’s front yards. Six and out if you hooked the cricket ball and hit it behind the wicket and over the railway wall. And you had to retrieve that ball. Lost ball stopped play and play stopped until you went across the bombed buildings at square leg, for a right-handed batsman, climbed the railway wall at its lowest spot, looked down at the rail yards forty feet below, and shouted until someone emerged from a workman’s hut to find the ball and threw it back.

            No worker … no ball … no game. Then you had to run out of your street, down the main road, up the hill for two streets, beg permission at the locked railyard iron gates: “Please, mister, can I get my ball?” Then run all the way back to where the waiting cricketers hung over your own street wall, by those bombed buildings, shouting and cheering. Search for the ball among shiny rails, shunting rails, rusty rails, dandelions, thistles, and nettles. Avoid the occasional shunting engine, with the driver leaning out of the cab and screaming warnings as the steam hisses out from the engine, brakes squeal, and wheels slowly clack on crossing tracks. Find the ball. Try unsuccessfully to throw it back over the wall. Try again. No good. Wall too high. Carry ball back to iron gates. Thank gateman politely so you can come back next time. Return ball to game. Game continues, rain or shine. Unless it’s real rain. The pissing down type. If so, run for nearest house and shelter by fire in kitchen.

            Other rules. Six and out over the railway wall. Two runs and fetch the ball yourself if you hit it into the bomb buildings at square leg, next to that railway wall. No fielders there. Too many loose bricks and too much scattered debris. Fragile walls still wobble or crumble warning you of cellars that might open up. Low walls that might collapse. You score four and out if you hit the ball into neighbor’s front yard. Some neighbors are nice and don’t mind. But watch out for the old witch whose fenced off garden is guarded by a gate.  If you hit her window, even with a tennis ball, she’ll be out quick as a flash, and steal your ball or stick a knitting needle in it, old spoil-sport. Otherwise, it’s single batsmen. You run your runs and walk back from singles. One hand one bounce, and tip and run once you’ve scored twenty. Much more difficult to stay in and everyone gets a chance to bat. One hand off the wall if you don’t clear it for a six and out. Dog stops play if your fox terrier gets the ball and runs around in circles, chasing its tail, with the ball getting soggy in his mouth. Damned dog. Damn difficult to catch. Lost ball stops match if dog runs back into the house and gives the ball you stole in secret back to your gran who was saving it for tennis.

            Cricket, in those days, was civilization. It had survived the bombing raids that missed the railway yards and bombed the bomb buildings. It had survived the machine-gun fire from the fighter-bombers that had strafed the street leaving bullet-holes, still unrepaired, in walls and shattering now-mended windows. It gave us a sense of rule and law, for the rules were strict and nobody broke them and stealing runs, touch and go, in tip and run was a skill and never a crime.

            Cricket: a small, bright window on the back-street where I lived, a window filled with happiness and light, even when it’s over the wall and six and out, or the dog runs away with the tennis ball, or the ball vanishes down a mysterious rabbit-hole in the bomb buildings and slides down to someone’s ruined cellar.

            Game’s over. The real Test Match is on, England versus Australia, though we live in Wales. The one primitive, tiny black-and-white tv screen in the street lights up with flickering figures and we sit around on the floor watching real men playing the real game on a sunny field in another world, the world, the world of black and white that many of us, us backstreet children from a ruined neighborhood, will never be allowed to know or see.

Name Game

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Quacker-quack-quack: I suppose there are better names for a sort of quacking duck cartoon. But then, what’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But would it? What if we called it a dead rat or a mushroom riot fungal infection, would it then smell as sweet? Good question.

With names, we are looking for le mot juste, the single word or short phrase that sums up the moment and seizes it, framing it forever. As the Welshman once said, when Wales beat the South African Springboks rugby team: “Now I can die happy.” And that’s what he was called ever afterwards: Dai Appy. Then there’s Dai Arrears, who could never pay his bills on time, and Dai Lemmer, who never knew what to do, and Dai Alysis, who had a kidney problem, and Dai A’Beckett, who ate too much sugar and chocolate, and Dai Ear-Kneed, who always held his hand out for a little extra financial help, and Dai Lingual, who couldn’t speak any Welsh (you’ll have to think about that one), and Dai Ap Bolockal, who had a devilish sense of humor and always played practical jokes on his siblings, and Dai Urnal, who slept all night and only woke up in the day time, and Dai Heederal, who threw stones at sea-gulls, and Dai Nasty, who lived in a shoe with so many children that he didn’t know what to do, and Dai Rection, who always knew the way home no matter how much he had had to drink, and Dai Late, who never arrived early and thought he would live for ever, not to forget Dai Anthus, the florist, with a personality so split he was also known as Bill and Ben the Flower Pot Man,  and there’s Dai Yallog, who always mumbling to himself, born in the Mumbles, mind, and mumbled so much his wife called him Mono, and there’s Dai Verse, a rotten poet, couldn’t ever make his poems rhyme in either unofficial language, and Dai Vulge, the village gossip, who could never keep a secret, and … and … One day, I will write a book about all my Welsh friends called Dai, and indeed, there are a great many of them. What adventures they would have. Enough to turn Under Milkwood sour with jealousy, probably.

Meanwhile, back at the duck farm, Quacker-quack-quack is looking for a nice, friendly duck name. Please let me know if you have any suggestions. And stop throwing sand in the Winky Bird’s eye: he’s got enough problems as it is.

 

 

Cooking

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Cooking

My Welsh grandmother, not my Irish one, taught me how to cook. At the time, I was the only grandchild. Whenever she cooked and I was in the house, she would take me into the kitchen, stand me on a stool by the gas stove, and encourage me to stir as the mixtures swirled and bubbled in pan or pot. I also helped her shell the peas, slice the carrots, whatever. When the preparation was ready, she would set aside a small portion that was mine. This might be a cake in the oven, a pair of biscuits shaped awkwardly by my own hand, or a small side pot of soup. “There’s nobody else,” she would whisper to me. “The old ways will die if I don’t teach you.” She was the one who taught me the exact moment when Welsh Cakes were ready to be molded, and there’s only one way to learn: place your hands in the mix. The right texture, as they say in the cookbooks, is ‘fine grain sand’ but you have to experience it to be certain what those words really mean.

I was a latch-key kid, as they now call them. Both my parents worked all day, leaving the house at 7:30 in the morning and not returning until 4 or 5 at night. Being able to cook meant that I never starved and I remember cooking soups, Cawl Mamgu among others, at a very early age. When I started traveling to France and Spain, I often ended up in various kitchens where I listened to the women as they prepared the food. Language and cooking went hand in hand and I learned how to roast coffee beans in a cast-iron frying pan, how to vary my range of soups, how to prepare casseroles, how to scramble eggs the continental way.

When I studied in Santander, Spain, my landlady left me, every night, one onion, one potato, and one egg. This was for the Spanish omelette that I ate most evenings. She cooked the first one for me, supervised me as I cooked the second one, and then abandoned me to my own devices. I often heard her snoring as I lit the gas, warmed the pan, and started to prepare my tortilla española. I still make Spanish omelettes, and they are delicious, but here in Canada they are never quite the same as they were in Spain. The ingredients look the same, olive oil, egg, salt and pepper, potatoes and onions … but the eggs are not Spanish free-range eggs from country hens and the oil, the potatoes, the onions, the salt … everything looks the same, but tastes vastly different.

Two days ago I bought a pound of fresh hake, merluza in Spanish. I cooked it in butter, half poached, half-sautéed. We ate half that night. Next day, I struggled with my thoughts: should I make fish cakes from the rest of the fish, or should I make a fish soup / sopa de pescado? Fish soup won. I put some truffle flavored olive oil into the frying pan, sliced small a tomato fresh from the garden, added a finely chopped onion, spiced it with sea salt, and added a small pinch of pimentón picante / hot Spanish paprika from La Vega in Spain. I let this simmer for a few minutes, then added some sherry. Into this mixture I put the rest of the hake together with the butter sauce that remained from the night before. The dish looked inviting, was very colorful, but appeared to be small and insufficient for the hungry eyes that followed the process. I added four large shrimp, sliced into four pieces each, a large scallop, thinly sliced, and sufficient water to thin the gathered liquids. Then I chopped up some sugar peas and added them as well. My sopa de pescado had undergone a sea change and become a sopa de mariscos / a sea food soup. The colors amazed: reds, yellows, oranges, and touches of green. On the spur of the moment, I named it New Brunswick Autumn Foliage. I tested it regularly as it simmered and it was ready when the sea food was done. Delicious.

I don’t know when my grandmother was born, or where, other than somewhere in Wales. I celebrate her birthday every time I cook something special, and my last two meals were very special. I don’t know where you are, Nana. You left us a long time ago. But wherever you are, thank you so much for the gifts you gave me. And Nana, I love you. You have traveled with me from Wales to Canada, and I celebrate you and your birthday every time I cook.