He who would true valor see, let him come hither. One here will constant be, come bad or fair weather. No line length can him fright, he’ll with a paragraph fight, and he will have a right, to be a writer.
Those who beset him round with dismal stories, do but themselves confound: his strength the more is. There’s no discouragement will make him once relent his first avowed intent, to be a writer.
Rejections nor bad critics can daunt his spirit. He knows he at the end will a book inherit. So critics fly away, he’ll fear not what they say, he’ll labor night and day to be a writer.
Comment: John Bunyan tempted me and I fell into temptation. In fact, as my good friend Oscar Wilde once said: “I can resist anything except temptation.” So, ladies and gentlemen, change the he to a she or the pronoun of your choice, turn the writer to a sculptor, stoneist, poet, playwright, painter, novelist, dramatist, comedian, song-writer, singer. Breathe deep. Believe in your own artistic talent and remember: “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.” Remember this too: “You’ll never get to Vancouver by bus, if you get off the bus at Montreal or Toronto.”
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.
An acolyte in a charcoal suit runs by. He neither stops nor speaks but slips on slippery words dripping from another monkey’s tongue.
This other monkey has eyes of asphalt, a patented pewter soul, ice water flowing in his veins. “Hear no evil! See no evil! Speak no evil!”
The hatch of his mind is battened tightly down. Nothing gets out nor in. The acolyte’s fingers grasp at a khaki folder, his manifesto for success.
Senior monkey stalks to his office and turns on the radio. His favorite music: the clink of mounting money.
Disturb him at your peril: this monkey is very important, and very, very busy. He’s also clever: a real smarty.
First, he empties all the chocolate candies from the box then he sorts them into little piles: green with green, brown with brown, blue with blue, red with red.
Then, like the Good Shepherd checking His flock, he counts them again and again, to ensure that none have been stolen and not one has gone astray.
Comment: Another Golden Oldie, this time from Monkey Temple. I have updated it slightly so it won’t be exactly the same as it is in the printed text. Senior Monkey has, of course, built a bigger box into which he can place all his chocolate candies and tuck them away for ever and ever. I guess if he were a bull and not a monkey, he would have tucked them away for heifer and heifer. Such is the sad state of reality in the Monkey Temple. But if monkey were a bull, he would be living in the cow shed, not the Monkey Temple. Oh dear, oh dear: and oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive with fiction, flash fiction, creative non-fiction, and all the other sugar and spice which goes into the spinning of spider-webs and fairy tales. Speaking of which, did I ever tell you the story of the… well, maybe next time. So tune in again tomorrow. Same thyme, same plaice, and I’ll sing you a song of the fish in the sea… and a fishy tail that will be.
Memories deceive me with their remembered shows, shapes shifting with a click of the magician’s fingers. What magic lantern now slips its subtle slides
across night’s screen? Desperate I lap at salt-licks of false hope that increase my thirst and drive me deeper into thick, black, tumultuous clouds.
A pandemic storm lays waste to the days that dog my mind. Carnivorous canicular, hydropic, it drinks me dry, desiccates my dreams, gnaws me into nothingness.
At night a black dog hounds me, sends my head spinning, makes me chase my own tail, round and round. It snaps at dreams, shadows, memories that ghost through my mind.
Tarot Cards and Tea Leaves are lost in a Mad Hatter’s illusion of a dormouse in a teapot in an unkempt tale. Hunter home from the hill, I return to find my house empty, my body devastated, my future a foretold mess.
Comment: Tough days around us and even tougher ahead. Covid-19 in the schools and people I know, young and old, frightened and in quarantine as a result. People I know and members of my far-flung (thank you, Jennifer, for that long-lost word) family. Funerals to the right of me, funerals to the left of me, of friends I know, acquaintances I hardly know, and many more whom I’ll never know now. “Into the jaws of Covid-19 rode the gallant six hundred, all masked, many falling, fewer of them every minute of every day.” Gallows humor keeps me alive. Last night my favorite teddy bear went AWOL. I got up at 3:00 am and sent out a search party. Sharp eyes spotted the copper band I lost last week. It had been hiding under the pillow. Then, joy of joys, they spotted Teddy’s black velvet band, the one that ties up the hair that falls over his shoulder and gets up my nose and makes me sneeze. They hauled him out from under the bed. I picked up the phone and cancelled the 911 call before the masked men in their jackboots and their PPE could break down the door and strip search the house for a missing bear. Alas, dear Mabel: I would if I could but I am not able.” How those words resound in my ears. Left ear, right ear, and, like Davy Crockett, a wild front ear. I will not give in to morbidity. ‘He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.” I will survive for another day. Meanwhile, I’ll call for General Worthington, the fellow who can always make the enemy run. “Will you have a VC?” I said “Not me: I’d rather have a bottle of Worthington.” Alas, they don’t make it anymore. And Watney’s Daft Red Barrel has bitten the dust and gone the way of the dodo. And all my friends are in the doldrums, watching, as Admiral Brown abandons ship, mans the boats, and hauls away into fairer weather and cleaner waters. You say you do not understand? ‘Blessed are the poor in intellect, for they shall know peace in these troubled times.’
Monkey is tired of writing reports that are never read. He is fed up with frequently asked questions and their unread answers. To every lock, there is a key. Monkey looks at the red and gold locks of the last orang-utangs and wonders how to unpick their DNA.
Monkey would give his kingdom for a key, a key, a little silver key: the key to a situation, the key to a heart, the office key, the key to the door, at twenty-one, the keys of fate, the Florida keys, the key to San Francisco’s Golden Gate, a passe-partout, a skeleton key, the key to Mother Hubbard’s cupboard, where she hides dry bones …
On the last day, when monkey leaves work he takes a lifetime of keys and throws them down a deep dark well.
As they halve the distance to the water, he listens to the sound of silence and wonders if they’ll ever hit the bottom.
Monkey Temple: the complete book, is available on KDP and Amazon.
Blueberry is a nocturnal teddy bear. At night he stands by the side of my bed and protects me all night long. Before I get into bed, I take Blueberry from the dresser and place him beside my bed. Only when he is there, on guard, do I get into bed tuck myself in.
“Goodnight, Blueberry,” I say to him, but he never replies. He has a job to do. As I drop off to sleep, he comes alive. Some nights I pretend to fall asleep. When I start to fake snore, Blueberry begins to walk around the bedroom.
He walks to the door and makes sure it is properly shut. Then he looks under the chairs and behind the dresser. Next, he opens the closet door, looks in, and checks that no Night-Bumps are hiding in there waiting to go BUMP in the night.
I am afraid of those Night-Bumps. One night, when Blueberry wasn’t there, a Night-Bump came and sat on my head and went bump-bump-bump all night long. I couldn’t get any sleep. Next morning, my head ached and I didn’t want to eat my breakfast. Nasty Night-Bumps.
The last thing Blueberry does is to check beneath the bed. Sometimes he crawls right underneath it. One night, I woke up to hear an awful noise, squeaking and screaming and a gnashing of teeth. Then silence fell.
Blueberry emerged from beneath the bed holding something that once had wriggled but that would never wriggle again. He walked to the waste-paper basket in the corner, took out and old sheet of paper, wrapped his little bundle in it, dropped it into the basket, then came over to see me.
“That’s the last Night-Bump,” he said. “It struggled wildly, but I got it before it could go bump. You can go back to sleep now. No Night-Bump will go bump in here again. They are all too afraid of me to come back. And don’t worry: if there’s anything else comes in, I’ll get it.”
“Oh Blueberry,” I said, and reached out to hug him.
“Can’t do it,” he sat down and showed me the soles of his feet, one by one. LOVE YOU: these words decorate Blueberry’s two back paws, with one word sewn into each. Usually, I can only read the message by day, when Blueberry sits down and rests.
LOVE YOU stood out as he sat down and raised his legs to show me his message. Then he got back up.
“No hugs. I’m on duty. No nightmares. No worries. Sweet Dreams. And back to sleep you go now.”
And I did.
Next morning, I picked Blueberry up, gave him a big hug, and set him down on the dresser, feet up. LOVE YOU, his feet said.
“Love you too, Blueberry,” I said. And then I added: “Everybody needs a Blueberry.”
Warm in Bed. Cozy. I roll over and the flashlight clipped to my Teddy Bear’s ear drives its hard, metal lump into my face. “Are you awake?” Teddy’s soft voice lilts across the pillow. “I am now.” “Look!” Teddy points with his little leather paw. “The moon: it’s climbing the fir tree.” Sure enough, a thin fingernail of gold is perched on a branch. It hides its face among the fir’s darkness and vanishes for a moment. “The maple tree has a garland of tiny Christmas lights,” says Teddy, pointing again. “Those aren’t Christmas lights, they’re stars.” “Spoilsport. Look, that one’s moving. I think it’s an angel.” “What time is it, Teddy?” “I don’t know.” “Here, lend me your flashlight.” I pull him towards me, switch on the torch, and focus its light on my wristwatch. “4:55 AM. That’s the early morning flight from Toronto. It’s a plane.” “I’d much rather it was an angel.” “Me too.” “Can we pretend it’s an angel?” “Of course we can. But it’s gone now.” “Perhaps angels don’t live long when they come to earth.” “I think they live for ever. Especially if we believe in them.” “Do you believe in angels?” “I was taught to believe in my guardian angel.” “What’s a guardian angel?” “He’s the one who looks after you when you sleep at night.” “But you don’t need a guardian angel. You’ve got me.” “But you’re a teddy bear, not a guardian bear.” “That’s true, but you’ve got Blueberry. He’s your guardian bear. Look at him standing there, on guard, all night long to protect you from the Night-Bumps.” “Ah yes, good old Blueberry. I’ve got a busy day today. I need some more sleep.” “Okay. Blue berry and I will watch over you. I’ll watch over you. I’ll let you know if any more angels climb the tree.” “That would be nice. Now I’m going back to sleep.” “Good night. Or should that be ‘good morning’.” Some days, when I wake up, I think I have dreamed all of this. Other days, I believe in talking teddy bears and angels. Today, I’m not so sure.
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.