Invisible Scars

 

SD 16

Invisible Scars

            Our minds absorb words as blotting-paper soaks up ink. Phrases carve beehives deep in our inner circuits. No te preocupes / don’t worry. Yet tone and carry are different in each language and the comfort-blanket serenity of no te preocupes does not translate.
Nor do the catcalls from the soccer, aimed equally at opponent and referee, and tumbling raucous from the stands where people sit. Shrill whistles sound in the bull ring: a matador who seems afraid to approach this particular bull for reasons only known to him, yet his shakiness visible to all who watch and understand what they are seeing.
The Cordobés answers the telephone he places on the bull’s nose, yet fails to approach between the horns and his sword rebounds off bull bone: pincha hueso. Each one wounds, the last one kills. El Viti, stately, graceful, an elderly churchman proud of his vocation and always willing to perform to perfection the weekly ceremony of the sacrifice. The boos when the bull enters the ring, stumbles, and comes up lame and limping. The cheers that accompany the arrival of the seventh bull. The refusal to eat meat that has been slaughtered in the bullring, even though it is advertised outside the butcher’s: tenemos solomillo de toro de lidia / we have tenderloin steaks from fighting bulls. Bulls who have led the best of lives, fed on the tenderest pastures by flowing streams. Bulls grown for slaughter and public sacrifice.
Guernica. The bull fight in the sand-filled square. Except it wasn’t a fight, it was more a circus. The slippery pig. The hens and chickens. The rabbits and hares. All the animals running scared. The animals released, one by one, and the spectators jumping into the ring, really a square, one by one, and chasing down the animals, taking them home for dinner, if they could catch them.
Then the bigger beasts. The mule, ferocious, jumping into the air, kicking four tormentors, one with each leg, and biting a fifth with his teeth. No fearful, clucking chicken this, nor the cow who came after with her padded horns. Participants moved more carefully now. She watched them from her querencia the place where she chose to fight to the death. She knelt, scraped off the rubber balls that covered her horns. Re-armed, she charged and the crowd scattered, all but one young kid, caught, fallen to the ground, the cow standing over him, ready to gore again.
Sixteen years old, an outsider, I jumped with others over the barrier, twisted this away and that, thumped the cow’s side, smelled her fury, her fear, the whole soured being that emanated from her. Together, we hustled her, bustled her, dragged her kicking, butting, from the ring, backwards, pulled by the tail.
Visible scars of damaged animals. Scars of the participants. That young man who broke his leg. That old man, inebriated, stuffed with food and drink, who loosened his belt to move more freely. We watched as his pants slipped from his waist to fall around his knees and trap him, just as the cow charged. He survived but will bear the scars forever, some visible, many not.
Long summer days, on the Sardinero, the Segunda Playa, playing soccer. Different rules, different skills, different swear words: I carry a dictionary tucked into my bathing trunks and refuse to play while I look up the words spat at me by my opponent. Good heavens, I think, is that anatomically possible? The ball bounces away on the hard, sand ridges. I chase it and steadily dehydrate under the hot sun. A sea-salt wind desiccates my body. My mouth fills with salt water when I swim out to retrieve the ball from the sparkling sea. My tongue sticks to the inside of my mouth. When I spit, I spit dry and everyone laughs. Now I am totally dry, shiver, and no longer sweat. Now I am no longer my self, but I’ll never be one of them.

 

Dolphins

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Dolphins

Another life, another world, another dream …  dream of freedom perhaps. A great white shark, fifteen feet long, has broken into the peace of Passamaquoddy Bay. Yesterday, or was it the day before, he snagged a seal and devoured it before the eyes of tourists on a tourist boat. You can see the video on YouTube, but I won’t watch it. There’s too much violence in the world around me. Too much hate, illness, sickness, death, too many predators.

We have fallen in love with violence. Ketchup Violence I call it, because the victims get up after the shootings and appear next day on another eppy-sode, another video, another film. Except in real life, they really don’t. The shootings are real. The victims are really dead. And no, they don’t recover. Red blood is red blood and when we shed enough of it, and when the shock is violent enough, or the hit brutal enough, no, we don’t recover. Human blood is not ketchup spread on the french fries of old bones and recirculated later. It is ours, it is vital, and when it flows out, it does not flow back in.

Contrasts: the gentleness of the beginning, versus the harshness of the end. The hatred and tension that drives us on and on. Perhaps we should all join the army, for a year or two. “There’s no life like it.” We live in a bilingual country, at least, I do. “Pour ceux qui aiment la vie.” Or, as Socrates once said: “The unlived life is not worth examining.” So, join he armed forces: there’s no life like it. Pour ceux qui aiment la vie. Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Ukraine, Crimea, Yemen, Syria … where next, where ever next?

As Pink Floyd once said: Is there anybody out there?

Ghosts

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Ghosts

My grandfather would wheeze, then cough, as he leaned on the old black dresser in the Welsh kitchen with its vast, cast iron fireplace. “As black as the hobs of hell,” he would say, and “as warm as our kitchen.” It was full of nooks and crannies where pasties and pies could stay warm, soup cauldrons could hang from iron chains, and copper kettles could whistle wild tunes and call us all to endless cups of tea. Sergeant-major tea: so strong and filled with so much sugar that a tea-spoon could stand upright and never fall over. Gassed in the First World War, my grandfather was always out of breath and each time he coughed, he brought up a tiny part of his lungs. “One day,” he announced between wheezes, “there’ll be nothing left.”
Twice a day, my grandfather would roll up the newspaper and brandish it like a conductor’s baton. The first time would be when I came home from school and it was time to do my homework. The second time would be after supper when it was time for me to go to bed. Each time he rolled up that newspaper, he would tap it gently on the dresser to get my attention, and then he would speak those famous words: “Let battle commence.” I would fight to escape to the street to play with my friends. I would fight to stay on my feet and I never, never wanted to go to bed. I hated to be entrenched alone, upstairs, in the cold shadows of that ghostly no-boys-land where I could hear mice and rats scuffling behind the dugout walls and smell the sour smells of old age and illness that stalked my dreams.
“Up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire,” my grandfather would sing, conducting with his baton and pointing to the stairs. I was never afraid of him. He was dark, strong, tall, and very gentle, a great man in his own right, one of those tall men who would always stoop to help a little child. If I was too troublesome, he would start to cough. And if he started to cough, the pink phlegm would come and he’d spit it into the red and blue polka-dot handkerchief he always carried. The pink phlegm caused consternation and in the ensuing panic, I would bolt for the stairs, go up to my room, undress, put on my pajamas, and bury myself in the vast double bed I shared with my grandmother. My grandfather’s bed was in the middle room downstairs. I didn’t realize then, as I do now, that he could no longer climb those stairs up which I scuttled.
After a while, I left of my grandfather’s house and went back to live with my father. One day, my grandfather, as he prophesied, coughed too much and that was the end of him. After the funeral, my father took me back to see my grandmother. Aunties and uncles, cousins, family friends that I didn’t know, neighbors known and unknown, spilled over the house in an invasion of tears and grief. After the friends had gone, my father and I decided to leave and the family gathered on the doorstep to wave us goodbye. I waved back to them all. “Goodbye,” I shouted. “Goodbye aunties, goodbye uncles, goodbye grandmother.” I paused. My grandfather stood there waving to me. “Look: there he is. I knew he couldn’t have gone.” I pointed and waved. “Goodbye grandfather!”
“Don’t be stupid. He’s not there,” my father said. “He’s dead.”
“I can see him,” I said. “He’s there. I can see him.”
“He’s not there. He’s dead.” Tears ran down my father’s face.
Sitting here, writing these words, I can still  see my grandfather, standing on that doorstep, waving goodbye. And I can still feel my father’s long dead, shadowy hands reach down, grab me by the shoulders and shake me, shake me, shake me, until I too am crying and the ghosts of my milk teeth are again rattling in my head.

 

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Things

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Things I carry with me

            That old black cast-iron stove, wood-fired, that baked the best ever breads and cakes and warmed the bungalow on cold, summer mornings. The Welsh dresser with its age-blackened rails that displayed the plates, and cups, and saucers. The old tin cans that ferried the water from the one tap located at the end of the field. Full and wholesome, its weight still weighs me down as I carry it in my dreams. The Elsan toilet from the shed by the hedge and the shovels that appeared, every so often, as if by magic, as my uncle braved the evening shadows to dig a hole on the opposite side of the field, as far from the bungalow as possible.

            The outhouse at the end of the garden. The steps down to the coal cellar where they went when the sirens sounded, to sleep in the make-shift air raid shelter, along with the rats and mice that scurried from the candles. The corrugated iron work shop in the garden where my uncle built his model ships, the Half-Penny Galleon and the Nonesuch. The broken razor blades I used to carve my own planes from Keil Kraft Kits, Hurricanes and Spitfires, an SE5, and once, a Bristol Bulldog. Twisted and warped, they winged their ways into nobody’s skies, though once we built a paper kite that flew far away in a powerful wind and got tangled in a tree. The greenhouse from which I stole countless tomatoes, red and green. Kilvey Hill towering above the window ledge where the little ones sat when there were more guests than chairs in the kitchen. The old bombed buildings across the street. The bullet holes in the front of the house where the Messerschmidt strafed us.

            The old men spitting up coal dust from shrivelled lungs. The widows who took in lodgers and overnight travelers. The BRS lorries, parked overnight, that littered the street. The steep climb upwards into those lorries. The burrowing under dirty tarpaulins to explore the heavy loads, and many other things. The untouchable, forbidden drawer where the rent money waited for the rent collector’s visit. The old lady, five houses down who, when the shops were shut, sold warm Dandelion & Burdock and Orange pop for an extra penny a bottle.  The vicious, snub-faced Pekinese that yapped fierce defiance from the fortress of her lap. The unemployed soccer referee who on Saturdays walked five miles to the match and five miles back just to save the bus fare, his only financial reward. My father’s shadowy childhood. His first pair of shoes, bought at five years old, so he wouldn’t go barefoot to school.

            Wet cement molded onto the garden wall, then filled with empty bottles to be smashed when the cement set solid. The coal shed where the coal man delivered the coal: cobbledy-cobbledy, down the hole. The outside toilet with its nails and squares torn from yesterday’s newspaper. The lamp-lighter who lit the lamps every evening as the sun went down. The arrival of electricity. The old blackout curtains that shut in the light and shut out the night. The hand rolled fabric sausage that lay on the floor by the door and kept the heat of the coal fire in the kitchen. The kitchen itself with its great wooden chair drawn up by the fire. That chair: the only material possession I still have from that distant past.

Wanderer

Wanderer
El Árbol de Tule

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So many tales are told about the árbol de Tule, that thousand year old tree standing outside the city of Oaxaca. Hernán Cortés is said to have sat beneath it when he came to Oaxaca in 1525, or thereabouts. And it was old then, and famous in folklore. The tree is also famous for the pictures that nestle in trunk and branches. For small change, the little boys, released early from school, will point their mirrors up, into the tree, and spotlight with reflected sunshine the features that you seek. A thousand years, or more, have produced a thousand images, or more. Even the face of  Hernán Cortés himself is said to be captured somewhere along the tree-trunk’s art gallery, if you can only find it.

Like Borges’s eternal library, your own portrait can be found there, somewhere. You must search patiently for it, staring into the tree bark until it takes on your features. Then you can move on, knowing that whatever happens you will be caught forever in the life of one of the world’s wonders: el árbol de Tule. But beware of imitations and avoid the plastic imitations and the photos from cheap camera’s that will trap your soul forever, leaving no trace of you in the real world. Ignore these warnings at your peril, or you too will be locked into your cell phone and sentenced to life imprisonment within those digital walls.

Ghost Train

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Ghost Train

Old fair grounds, I remember them well, the coconut shy, the dodgems, the swing boats, what the butler saw, the bearded lady, the tunnel of love, the ghost train … with its skeleton that loomed out of the darkness, the spider webs that draped themselves over your face unless you ducked, the witch on her broomstick, cackling, the flashing lights, the eerie voices,  the laughter, the screams …

… I arrived early so I could sit in my usual place. I watched the men enter, tapping hesitant, unsteady, slow, leaning heavily on sticks. I saw the women bald and beautiful , naked skulls hidden beneath hats and head scarves. Haunted looks lurked behind staring, wide-open eyes as the outpatients waited for something to leap out and frighten them, not spider webs and skeletons,  but the ghastly visions of tubes, pills, chemo, needles, all the paraphernalia that tortured them first time round.

The annual check-up seems so much easier. Blood tests, screenings, fervent hopes that the devil in the detail, horned, fork-tongued, cloven hoofed, red tailed, hasn’t been hiding, like a wayward ghost, in the small print of blood tests, scans, urine samples, all too ready to break free, leap out and beat us once again into submission.

The ghost train: has that cancer really gone or could it come back, condemning us once more to hospice or ward, to chemo and radiation, to the knife, or to other things more radical?

I sniff the double hospital smells of despair and ill-health, of hope and cures for all those ills, and I am there again, arms folded across my chest, lying motionless on that moving bed of bleached white sheets, heading slowly into that tunnel that smells of polished steel, where machinery coughs and starts and stops as flashing lights whirl their cadences of kill or cure above my troubled head.

Tunnel of love or ghost train? I guess I’ll soon find out.

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Cell Phone

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Cell Phone

    Fingers slip across the telephone key board, pressing  wrong numbers or punching them in in the wrong order. Strange voices reply from the other end. This morning a woman spoke to me in a language I didn’t understand, Then a man came on the line and yelled at me in broken English to “Go away! Go away! Leave alone!” I imagined him tearing the telephone from his wife and berating her for answering this call from a total stranger.

    Often, I am too clever for my own good. I think I recall the right number for a friend, but when I punch it in, I find I have reversed two of the figures. I imagine other people doing that when they call me: “Sorry,” I say. “I think you have the wrong number.” “Is that 472 …?” they query. I say that it isn’t and they say sorry and end the call. Then they call me straight back and get the same answer.

    I hate running through my list of callers to get to the name that I want to call. But that’s what I have to do most days now. At least I don’t run into so many wrong numbers.

    And as for answering the phone … well … I am tired of robot calls, especially around election time. I am fed up with telephone surveys. I am driven crazy by heavily accented, high-pitched voices that call me from overseas, in the middle of the night or wake me early in the morning to tell me that my computer needs repair. “Suh, suh, we have discovered a werry nasty wirus [sic, or should that be sick] on your computer. Give me all your passwords and let me in to your computer and I will repair it instantly.”

    I have had calls from the telly-phony tax men who tell me the RCMP are about to knock on my door and arrest me if I don’t immediately give them my VISA Card number, passwords, and send them, right now, the $7,200 I owe them in taxes. I have grown to loathe the harbor boat hooter that announces I have won a cruise from Florida to Mexico on a super cruise ship …. probably a rusty tug boat that will take me twice around the harbor, be declared un-seaworthy, and leave me stranded, miles from anywhere, and paying a fortune to get myself home … and all I have to do, they say, is … I put the phone down. Click!

    I think it’s the marketing surveys that really get my goat though. I am no expert, but I have read up on surveys and designed some myself. What I love-hate about telephone surveys is the lack of real choice, the forced direction in which they push you, the pre-determined result on which the designers are fixated. I know it’s a waste of time, but I occasionally indulge: “On a scale of 1-5, where 5 is good and 1 is poor, how would you rate …” I explain that the question and the ratings do not work, but they are adamant that I must answer from 1-5. Yes, they understand that it can’t really be done, but yes, it must be done, because that’s what they are paid to ask me to do.  Click!

    O tempora o mores … the Latin phrase translates literally as Oh the times! Oh the customs! but more accurately as Oh what times! Oh what customs! or yet again, Alas the times, and the manners (Wikipedia). No wonder they call it a cell phone: all too often I feel I am a prisoner in the cell of the telephone system, incarcerated in my love-hate relationship with the cell.