Boxing Day

A wonderfully quiet and peaceful Christmas in Canada. Oh the sea, oh the sea, thank God it still flows between my family and me.

Boxing Day
            By the time I get up, the gloves are really off and the sparring has begun in earnest. I hear voices, walk downstairs to the kitchen, and a hush falls on the room. Knife-edge glances slice their menacing ways through the thick fog of war.
            Time for boxing: on my left, in the blue corner, my mother, smoking what is probably her second packet of the day. A thin haze of grey smoke escapes from her bruised lips and a cloud of exhaled fumes crowns her head with a murky halo. On my right, in the red corner, my father. White-faced, hungover yet again, truly into the spirits of Christmas. He breathes heavily, like a Boxer Dog in the mid-summer dog-days, snoring and snorting at a bitch in heat. In the middle, my grandfather, the referee. He is keeping the combatants apart, creating a tiny breathing space so the true Spirit of Christmas can disentangle itself from those false Christmas Spirits and bring peace to earth again for at least sixty seconds between each round.
            I look around the heaving, seething, threshing silence of a room where conversation has suddenly ceased. The fire is burning merrily. Beside it, tongs, poker, and small shovel stand to attention. On the hearthstone, the little red brush, with its long handle lies in ambush. This is what my father uses to beat me when he can’t be bothered to take off his leather belt. Scorch marks from the hot coal fire sear the handle and back of the little red brush. I threw it on the fire one day, hoping to see the end of it. Of course, it was rescued from the flames, resurrected, and I got beaten for that act of rebellion too.
            “It’s all your fault!” My father breaks the silence, pointing at me. His red-rimmed eyes blazing with a sudden and renewed anger. He starts to rise, but my grandfather steps between us.
            “Go and see your granny,” grandpa tells me. “She’s in the kitchen. Go now!” He points to the kitchen door.
            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. My grandfather has evacuated me from no-boy’s-land and, for a moment, I am no longer trapped in the mud-filled, cratered, shell-holes between the trenches, the uncut barbed-wire barriers, the poached-egg eyes peering through periscopes and spying on me from the parental and priestly parapets. Here in the kitchen, for a while, I walk on the wooden duck-boards that keep my feet dry and clear of mud and water.

Comment: This is, of course, the true origin of the term Boxing Day. A genuine Boxing Day has nothing to do with the myth that it was the day on which the servants, who worked Christmas Day on the Lord’s estate, received their Christmas Boxes. Peace on earth and mercy mild has got nothing to do with alcohol-fueled quarrels, raging hangovers, and little children who should be seen and not heard. Sometimes, when all the elders are down at the pub on the corner, the night may, for a little while, actually be silent. But the noise when the drunks roll raucously home is most unholy. Then little children should be wise like the wise men, run quickly into bed, and lie there, neither seen nor heard.

Memories

Memories

I did the memory test today. It’s hard to believe
that tomorrow I may not know where I am
nor what is the day. Others have passed this way,
none to my knowledge in my family. Sorrow gnaws
the red bone of my heart. The lady at the doctor’s
counter says she is seventy. Her bed-ridden mother,
for whom she seeks medicinal solace is ninety-eight.
Her mind, she says, is as sharp as a needle or a knife,
 or a blade of grass. What dreams, I wonder, flit
through her head at night? Does she recall her child
hood with its pigtails, the first young man she kissed,
church on Sundays, the genders carefully segregated,
driving there in the family horse and cart? Thunder rolls
and shakes my world’s foundations; a storm watch,
followed by storm warnings, walks across my tv screen.
Lightning flashes. Aurora Borealis daubs the night sky
north of Island View with its paint-box palette of light.
Memories, according to the song, are they made of this.
But what is this? Is it these shape-shifting, heart-stopping
curtains of shimmering grace? Or is it those darker
shadows cast by firelight on the smoky walls
of a pre-historic Gower cave where my ancestors gnawed
the half-cooked bones of the aurox and never ever
dreamed of Jung’s racial memories as they communicate
information from the unconscious to the conscious mind.

Sunday in Wales

To be Welsh on Sunday
(This prose poem should be read out loud, fast, and in a single breath!)

              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: I wonder how many other ‘serious drinkers’ or ‘amateurs’ remember these pubs and clubs. And, oh yes, there were so many more. The Mexico Fountain, The Tennis Court, The Old Market Tavern, The New Market Tavern, The Load of Hay, all those many colored dragons: green, black, blue … the Three Lamps, the Cricketers, the Villiers Arms, the Birchgrove Arms, the Rose and Shamrock, several Red Dragons, the Church, the Black Swan, I can’t remember how many different Georges, and Kings’ Heads, the Vine Tree, the Sun, the Oak tree, the Penguin, the Naval Volunteer, the Quadrant, the Coronation Tap, the Mauretania, The White Horse, the Black Horse, the Old Grey Mare … so many memories, and all deniable, and I’ll never forget the Wheelbarrow Race (ask me about it), nor Pickety Witch, one of those pubs at which I never stopped!

Survivor

Survivor

Every day, now he’s learning to speak Welsh,
he finds out something new about his childhood.
It’s not the need to talk so much as the necessity
of diving into himself and mining his memories.

Brynhyfryd / Mount Pleasant.
Pen-y-Bont / the End of the Bridge.
Ty Coch / the Red House.

This latter the house in which he was born,
way out of town, by Fairwood Common,
away from the strafing and bombing.
The war generation of his family all born
in the same in-the-country Gower bed.
No room in war-time hospitals
not even for the birth of war babies.

Three of his brothers did not survive
those rough, household births.
He still bears the forceps’ scars
from the moment the doctor
plucked him out, head first,
and hung him up by the heels,
shaking him, bringing him back to life.

He bears other scars as well
from the survivor’s burden of carrying
three dead brothers for seventy long years,
alive and kicking in the womb-warm
crevices of his still beating heart.

Daffodils

Daffodils

For ten long days the daffodils endured,
bringing to vase and breakfast-table
stored up sunshine and the silky
softness of their golden gift.

Their scent grew stronger as they
gathered strength from the sugar
we placed in their water, but now
they have withered and their day’s done.

Dry and shriveled they stand,
paper-thin and brown, crisp to the touch.

They hang their heads:
oncoming death weighs them down.

Merry Sunshine

“The flowers that bloom in the spring, tra-la, bring promise of merry sunshine …” Gilbert and Sullivan, from The Mikado, if I remember correctly, and not at all anonymous like the Anonymous Bosch artist who painted this painting. Still, I like it, and it certainly lends a little bit of color to the pale cheeks of these walls.

“And we merrily dance and we sing, tr-la, as we welcome the promise they bring, tra-la, of a summer with roses and wine …” I can remember my grandfather singing that in the kitchen in Swansea. He would conduct with one hand, and encourage me to join in with the other. And I did. Merry days, they were, before the fire in winter and out in the greenhouse in early spring.

So, where have all the flowers gone? Gone with the grosbeaks, everyone. Which reminds me, I saw an Evening Grosbeak at the feeder this morning. The first one in years. There used to be several nesting nearby and they were regular visitors, as were the Gray Jays, aka Whisky Jacks, aka Gorbies, aka Ghosts of the Woods and all of them long, long gone.

Will they naw come back again? Who knows? The world is changing even as I sit at my window and watch it go by. February, March, April, May, June, and now July. The lock down has been lifted, but the fear of going unmasked in the great outdoors is still with us, as are the anonymous givers of the virus, a donation I do not want, and nor does anyone else, in their right minds, compus mentis, and not yet willing to on the anonymous ranks of the Gorbies, the Grosbeaks, the Swallows, and the other birds that have fled elsewhere, leaving our yard to the crows, the blue jays, the squirrels, the chipmunks, and the occasional more colorful visitors.

Spring Flowers
by
Anonymous Bosch

Summer is Ice-Cream

I can’t put a real ice-cream up here,
it might melt and spoil the computers,
yours and mine,
so here’s a cardboard one instead!

… after my grandfather died I slept with my grandmother in her large double bed when I was there on my own … but when all the cousins were there we shared a double bed and three or four of us slept at the top and three or four of us slept at the bottom and we were so small and short in those days that our feet never touched in the middle and the bed was like an earth worm … an octopus earth worm with several heads and no feet … or all the feet in the middle … like a centipede … and sometimes my parents would have to snuggle in with us too … though we scarcely woke up when they arrived or departed … and with tears we would go tired to bed … and the grown-ups would promise that it was only for an hour or two … for a little rest … and we were so far north that the summer sun was in the sky until late at night … but sleep we did and they never woke us up … and we didn’t wake up until the dawn chorus of birdsong … bird after bird chirping and singing in the hedge with its bluebells and primroses … the hedge that divided one bungalow field from the other …

… and we were in the first bungalow field, which was the best one, obviously, because we lived in it … and there was another bungalow field behind us and we could look through the gaps in the hedge and occasionally there were gaps we could crawl through … but they were well guarded because there was an all out war between the two fields and we didn’t like the boys in that second field and they didn’t like us … and we fought our skirmishes through the hedge and at the gaps in the hedge and the people in the field behind us would rent out their bungalows to boys with strange accents who would be instant enemies the moment they opened their mouths or heard us talk and vice versa, the other way round … and it was the silent arrow or spear shot or thrown through the hedge … and the long trailing root set out to trip the unwary, and once we tied a rope across the field, a trip wire to trip those foreign warriors, and we meant to take the rope down before it got dark, but we forgot and we missed the enemy but we caught my father and all the uncles walking back home in the dark from the local pub … and didn’t they trip and all fall down in a great big squealing piglet pile … and the aunties thought it very funny because once they were down, they couldn’t get up again … and the aunties said it had nothing to do with the rope … that they were all falling down anyway, falling down all the way home from the pub they were, and stumbling … but we had hoisted our allies with our own petard and next day we were brought to justice and the justice was severe … and what, they said, if we had caught one of the farmer’s cows … and if it had broken a leg … then who would be responsible then, to the farmer, for payment, and we all hung our heads in shame for those days everyone was big on responsibility and being responsible was a big thing … and even the dog, our scout and protector, our war horse and chariot, for we were Ancient Britons that summer, sat there silent and serious and hung his head in shame at the hot bitter words and he wasn’t even wagging his tail … and the adult jury, twelve sober uncles, tried men and true, all pronounced us guilty and sentenced us to a day without cricket, a day with no jam on the bread, a day in which we must eat up all the greens, a day with no puddings, a day with no sweets, no treats, no ice cream …

… but summer was ice-cream! Who wants ice cream in winter when the hands are cold and the ice wind blows straight down from the Arctic? But in summer, to rob a child of ice-cream is to commit a capital crime against childhood … and the ice cream was miles away, and to run to get it and to bring it back before it melted was a rare adventure that had to be carefully planned … go to the end of the field, run through two sets of lanes, stop at the first ice cream shop and if there was no ice cream there because it had all been eaten by that awful foreign army, run another mile to the next shop … and if you were lucky there would be some ice cream there … and no we didn’t want cones … cones were for the babies … the tiny children who couldn’t control their ice creams … we wanted wafers, like the big boys we were, although we were all still in short trousers … and there were three penny wafers and six penny wafers, and even chocolate bars with thin chocolate on the outside and the ice cream inside … and there were lollipops and other marvels … like Cadbury’s ’99’ … but that day all this was forbidden … forbidden because we had set a trip wire for the enemy and caught, by accident, our very own men … oh the injustice, the burning injustice of it all …

Conkers

Autumn mists in Island View
and maybe, just maybe,
there’s a conker tree out there,
somewhere.

              Autumn in Wales … well now, let me think: autumn was conker season and the national anthem overnight turned from Land of my Fathers to Eye-tiddley-onker… and singing or saying it first — : my first conker  — allowed you to challenge anyone who had a conker and that was always fun, but not so much fun as getting your conker from the conker tree, the horse-chestnut tree, with all its conkers spread across the upper branches, much too high to reach, of course, because all the lower branches had already been picked clean, so you had to throw sticks up high up into the tree at the loftiest conkers in order to bring them down to earth, but it wasn’t much fun trying to catch them as they fell because they came in their little brown autumn jackets with prickles all over them and if you grabbed them in the air, then you got the prickles in your hand and that wasn’t a great idea … though it didn’t hurt all that bad … especially if you wore gloves … so up in the air went the sticks and down came the conkers … then there was  a mad rush to pick them up off the ground and to prise open their bright, shiny jackets … and there they lay, the inedible fruit of the horse chestnut tree, a lovely, rich brown chestnut colour, young warriors dormant  in their little beds … and that was step one …

              … and step two was to prepare them for battle … and there were ways to prepare conkers, secret family ways, passed down from generation to generation … some of us baked our conkers in the oven …  others soaked them in vinegar … or oil and vinegar … before we baked them … and still others left them out in the sun or on a window ledge to slowly dry out until they were hard and vicious and great warriors which could conquer other conkers …

Summer Storm

No, it’s not a beach scene, sorry.
It’s the view from my kitchen window
when a major rainstorm blew through the garden
just a couple of weeks ago

… and suddenly, one day on the beach, it started to rain … one small cloud turned into a big one … and the sky became black … from out of nowhere, a great clap of thunder and the storm scene from Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral, came resounding down in a shower of sound and everybody was running for shelter … into caves … under cliffs … under trees, on the far side of the rocks out  of the wind, and the water, and the horizontal tide of rain that brought relief from the heat … and some of us just stood out there … under the waterfall … enjoying the soaking … watching the water run over our hands, our faces, and our skins … 

… and that summer, like he storm and all the other summers, came to its abrupt end … we locked up the bungalow, walked up the lane laden with our bags and our packages … and when we got to the corner, we waited for the yellow and brown Swan bus that would carry us into town … and on the bus we retraced our steps, slowly and tiredly, away from the hedges, the sea shore, the sand and the beaches, and back to the red-brick houses and life in the cities from which we had come and to which we must now return …

…  and behind us, the salt sea, its bright sailor suit sparkling with waves and glee, waving us good bye from across the headland and away from the rapidly vanishing bay …