Real Friends

Real Friends
Thursday Thoughts
23 September 2021

A good friend of mine wrote to me the other day. “Have you noticed,” he asked, “that you have less REAL friends the older you get?”

In my reply, I said the following. “Oh dear yes, and triply so since Covid set in. I have a few remaining friends who correspond regularly on e-mail, a couple of friends who talk regularly on the phone, and the rest, in spite of all the Covid-19 promises of TLC for the aging, have been AWOL for the best part of two years. Mind you, I have kept myself to myself. In fact, I have become rather anti-social in face to face / mask to mask situations!”

This question-asking friend, now lives in another province, in a care home for the ageing. Over the ages, such homes have had many names. In South Wales they were called the Workhouse, and that’s where the broken old men from the mines and the industrial smelters ended up. Places of shame. Places to be feared. Then we had Old Folks Homes. Some were called Sanctuaries. Others are now called Hospices or Care Homes and the Hospitals themselves have been forced to take on the task of looking after our old and frail senior citizens. Some of our seniors were lucky, fell into good homes, and were blessed. Others were cursed, poor things, fell into hopeless surroundings, and lost all hope. As for the homes themselves, some were run by religious groups, others by charities, a few by the state or local health authorities. Some were non-profit, others, well, we are having a debate, here in Canada, about some of the more unscrupulous and unhealthy care homes that are run for healthy profits right now.

And that debate was caused by Covid-19. Under-paid employees, working several care homes, not just one, travelling from home to home, and the pandemic entering those homes and settling in there, causing immense suffering, damage, and death. I look on this as CCD. Originally, the initials spelled out Colony Collapse Disorder, the death moth that entered the bee-hives and caused their buzzing to end in silence. Now, for me, they stand for Covid Collateral Damage. And that form of CCD is everywhere.

You can see it in families that are breaking up. One partner loses their job, their self-respect, and goes out looking elsewhere for comfort and for pastures green. Another is forced into excessive overtime because other members of their team, now working from home, all of them, cannot cope with home-schooling, house-work, partner, and children present all day long. They break down under the stress, can function no longer, and society starts to fall apart.

Mind you, it has been falling apart for years. When I lived in Spain, I was adopted by a family in Santander who owned and lived in a huge house. The grand-mother was the matriarch and she shared the house with three siblings, two unmarried, and one divorced. The parents lived there, on and off, as they had jobs elsewhere. A country cousin, same age as the grand-parents’ generation, also lived there and did the cooking and cleaning. And the grand-children settled in there too, during term time. When the family gathered for the Sunday meal, there were 22-24 of us around that dining-room table. In such a large family setting, there were baby-sitters at hand, somebody was always employed, somebody always knew the solution to a problem, or could find one pretty quickly.

When we lived in Swansea, two sets of grand-parents were close, as were aunties, uncles, cousins, and a network of friendly faces, all of whom gathered round in an emergency. But, bit by bit, that family disintegrated. Some went to London, others to Bristol, a few to Birmingham, we moved to Cardiff. In Cardiff we went from a family network to a nuclear family, consisting of my mother, my father, and I. Both my parents worked and I was at a boarding-school, term-time, but a latch-key kid during school holidays, cooking for myself, looking after the house, waiting for my parents to come home. When I, in my turn, left for Canada, my parents were left as a family of two, then, when my mother died, a family of one. Of course, there were Social Services. Social Workers visited every so often, but the gaps got longer, the loneliness grew, and a terrible isolation took over every aspect of my father’s life. When I flew back from Canada to Wales to visit him in Wales one year, I found no food in the house, my father totally uncared for, unwanted and, by this stage, unwilling to cooperate. he wanted to stay in his home. He wouldn’t move. In truth, he had become a miserable old man who wouldn’t change, wouldn’t accept help, and could no longer look after himself.

On the anniversary of my mother’s death, I called him from Canada. He did not pick up the phone. I called his brother, who lived in another town some forty miles away. He’s like that now came my uncle’s reply. He’s fine. Don’t worry. But worry I did. Three days later, his brother called me back. My father had suffered a heart attack and a stroke on the anniversary of my mother’s death. He had lain on the bedroom door for three days, no food, no water, no visitors, until his brother had finally got worried and decided to come round and see what was happening.

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” We all know that phrase. Unfortunately, many are not that tough. They get going all right: they go right out through the door and vanish into the sunset. So, my thoughts for today: what exactly is a friend, what do friends actually do, what is a fair-weather-friend, what are friends for, how many real friends do we really have, and yes, the question that started me on this rant, do real friends diminish in number as we grow older?

As my grand-mother told me, a long, long time ago, in the warmth of her Welsh kitchen: “Roger, a friend in need is a friend indeed.” Luckily, I still I have some real friends who are there when I need them. Thank you, real friends. You know who you are and I am very grateful to you. Covid-19 and CCD have not been easy.


And every valley

Meditations on Messiaen
Revelations

5

And Every Valley

And every valley shall be filled with coal.
And the miners will mine, growing old
before their time, with pneumoconiosis
a constant companion, and that dark spot
on the grey slide of the sidewalk a mining
souvenir coughed up from the depths
of lungs that so seldom saw the sun
and soaked themselves in the black dust
that cluttered, clogged, bent and twisted
those beautiful young bodies into ageing,
pipe-cleaner shapes, yellowed and inked
with nicotine and sorrows buried so deep,
a thousand, two thousand feet deep down,
and often so far out to sea that loved ones
knew their loved ones would never see
the white handkerchiefs waved, never
in surrender but in a butterfly prayer,
an offering, and a blessing that their men
would survive the shift and come back
to the surface and live again amidst family
and friends and always the fear, the pinched
-face, livid, living fear that such an ending
might never be the one on offer, but rather
the grimmer end of gas, or flame, or collapse,
with the pit wheels stopped, and the sirens
blaring, and the black crowds gathering, and
no canaries, no miners, singing in their cages.

Click on the link below for Roger’s reading.

And every valley

Man from Merthyr

Man from Merthyr

Memory loss punched holes in your head
and let in the dark, instead of the light.
Constellations faded from your sight,
erased by the arch-angel’s coal-dust wing.

 “I’m shrinking,” you said, the last time I saw you,
you, who had been taller, were now smaller than me.

 Tonight, when the harvest moon shines bright
and drowns the stars in its sea of light,
I will sit by my window and watch for your soul
as it rides its coal-fired rocket to eternity.

My eyes will be dry. I do not want pink runnels
running down this coal-miner’s unwashed face.
I’ll sing you a Welsh lullaby, to help you sleep.

“When the coal comes from the Rhondda
down the Merthyr-Taff Vale line,
when the coal comes from the Rhondda
I’ll be there.”

With you, my friend, shoulder to shoulder.
“With my golden pick and shovel, I’ll be there.”
Farewell, my friend, safe journey, sleep deep,
as deep as a Rhondda coal mine may you sleep.

On Being Welsh

On Being Welsh
in a land ruled by the English

On Being Welsh
in a land ruled by the English

is available at the following links:

https://www.amazon.ca/dp/9388319842

https://www.amazon.com/dp/9388319842

A shortened version of this manuscript was awarded first place in the David Adams Richards Awards for a prose manuscript by the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick, 2020.

Individual stories have been published in Anti-Lang (M. T. Head), West Coast Short Story Slam (Teeth), and on commuterlit.com (Remembrance Day).

Individual stories have won awards as follows: Butterflies (Honorable Mention, Atlantic Short Story Competition, Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia), Auntie Gladys (Finalist, Wordfeast NB, Postcard Stories), Message in a Bottle (Honorable Mention, WFNB Creative Non-Fiction), The Key (Finalist, CBC Short Story Competition), Letting Go (First Place, WFNB Douglas Kyle Memorial, short story).

I would like to thank Lucinda Flemer, Primum Mobile, the first mover, who brought together the KIRA artists and turned them into a creative community. These artists include Geoff Slater and Chuck Bowie, both of whom have influenced the writings in this book. A special thank you must go to Ginger Marcinkowski, my Beta reader, who really deserves an Alpha Grade for all her help and understanding.

I would also like to thank Dr. Karunesh Kumar Agarwal (Managing Editor) Cyberwit.net for his editing skills and his invitation to participate in this poetry series.

Donna Morrissey, award winning Canadian author and judge of the 2020 D. A. Richards Award, wrote the following about my winning submission.

Judge’s Judgement: “This writer’s prose is eloquent, lyrical and beautiful. His stories are disturbing and memorable. It is an evocative journey through the deeply seeing eyes of an old man, and back through his tormented and deeply felt self as a beaten boy. There were times I held my breath against his suffering, and times I applauded his courage to keep on living. At all times I was held by the strength of such writing as would allow me those sparse and limited visuals to the bruising of the flesh whilst leading me directly into the tendered heart. Congratulations.” 

The Story: Set in Tara Manor, a boutique hotel in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, the narrator searches for a story he can write. He rejects the stories and myths of other people and indigenous races, only to discover that he must be the subject of his own tale. It is a story of childhood abuse, first at the hands of his own family and then in Catholic and Protestant boarding schools in Wales where he was sent at the early age of six. It tells of a growing self-distancing from the world, including self-harm and attempted suicide, and then of self-discovery, understanding, and self-forgiveness, far from his Welsh homeland, in the Maritime beauty of Atlantic Canada.

Editor’s Comment: No doubt, here in these poems we are impressed by the ease and strength of the rhythm. Several of these poems show the passionate flight of profound imagination. The poems have poignant force of true feeling. All poems are irresistibly powerful.

Author’s Comment: Poems or stories? Both really, for On Being Welsh is composed of poetry written, not in verse, but in prose. Prose poems then, or poems in prose. How could I write anything but poetry when I come from the same town in Wales as Dylan Thomas and Vernon Watkins. I too was born with music in my heart and poetry on my lips.

On Being Welsh

On Being Welsh in a land ruled by the English

This is now published and in my hands. I do not yet have full details on links and where and how to purchase, but I will put them up as soon as I have them. Meanwhile, I am grateful to my cover artist, who always does such a great job, and to my editor, Dr. Karunesh Kumar Agarwal (Managing Editor) Cyberwit.net. What a pleasure it has been to work with him. The cover picture, incidentally, is An Only Son.

I am now working on my next book, Stars at Elbow and Foot. I am sure many will recognize the title as coming from a line of a man born in the same town in Wales as I was: Dylan Thomas. The island in the picture is the only Island visible in Island View, incidentally. Alas, I do not have a picture of my cat, though I may put one on my next cover.

Ah yes, time to celebrate. I guess we’ll open a barrel of wine tonight. Hopefully we won’t finish it one sitting. I’d be lying if we did. This incidentally is the bodega where I got baptized. If you haven’t got baptized in a Spanish bodega, you haven’t lived. I’ll tell you about it sometime. How I miss that verdejo! Unfortunately, the verdejo didn’t miss me, and that’s how I got baptized. ‘Ya te hemos bautizado!’ “Que sea yo, y no el vino.” And if you understand that, you speak pretty good Spanish or Spanish pretty good … and you probably have an evil mind, just like mine.

Here I am, on the sea-shore, selling C-shells and thinking about my evil mind. But remember, my evil mind is mine, and it’s a one-of-a-kind. You go and find your own. And watch out for those Saint John C-gulls.

Go on, buy one and read it.
I dare you.

Daffodils

IMG_0142.JPG

Daffodils
(for my mother)

Light in dark
bright yellow stridence
shrill golden dog’s bark
to warn off death’s wolves
that freeze her blood

she dreaded night’s unease
the devil’s wintry anti-spring
life’s darkest sparks

 but loved the daffodils’
sunny March cadence
of brief piercing dance

Comment: A Golden Oldie. My mother loved daffodils and planted them all over the garden in Cardiff, Wales. They are the national flower of Wales and break into blossom just in time to welcome St. David on St. David’s Day, soon to be upon us, Dydd Dewi Sant.

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.