Old Pal

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Old Pal
It’s as easy as ‘Bob’s your uncle,’ as we say in Wales. Yet Bob is my uncle and life with him is never easy. On Saturdays I drive him to the local supermarket so he can purchase his groceries. He also buys cans of Old Pal dog food for Paddy, his ageing and eccentric Cocker Spaniel.
Bob always strips the labels off the cans he brings home. He trades them in for stamps so he can buy cigarettes and things. However, this stripping reduces the cans to bright, shiny aluminum canisters that sit together on the pantry shelf. He claims he knows in which order he stacks them, but I think he’s playing Russian Roulette, because he can’t tell the difference between soup, rice pudding, and dog food. They’re all locked in look-alike cans. Bob doesn’t care. His diet is a lottery anyway. He shoves the can’s contents into one end and as long as they come out the other, he’s happy.
“That’s what life is all about,” he tells me. “Munchies in and munchies out.”
            Bob’s quite happy with mushroom soup for lunch, or eating rice pudding. If he opens a mystery can and finds dog food in it, he just adds a spoonful of curry powder and heats it up on the stove. He stressed out about eating the meat in dog food when Mad Cow Disease hit Wales and consumers avoided beef, but his family doctor told him not to worry.
            “You’ll never get Mad Cow Disease from dog food,” the doctor told him.
“Why not?” Bob asked.
“Because dog food’s made from horse meat.  You can’t get Mad Cow Disease from a horse.
Bob loves dogs, but he hates Welsh Corgis. One day, he asked me to take him out for a drive. He put Paddy in the back seat, on an old blanket then patted him on the head before closing the car door.
I was already in the driving seat. I had taken the precaution of placing a plastic garbage bag over the passenger seat, in case Bob had an old man’s accident, but he told me not to worry.
“I’ll be all right. “I’ve got my Old Pal with me,” he pointed to the canvas bag at his feet. It rattled when he kicked it.
“Where do you want to go?” I asked Bob.
“Down the road,” he replied. “Let’s visit the Corgis.”
Down the road we went, driving happily, until Bob’s face came alive with joy.
“Turn right,” he cried. “There’s a Corgi down that street. Drive slowly now.”
I slowed down while Bob counted the houses.
“Stop,” he told me. “Now. Stop now.”
I stopped and Bob turned around and started slapping Paddy until the dog began to howl. Then Bob rolled down the window, pulled an empty can of Old Pal dog food from the canvas bag, unzipped his fly, stuck his old man’s magic screwdriver into it, and peed.
“The Corgi’s coming. He’s nearly here,” I could hear Bob’s chest wheezing.
“There he is,” Bob screeched with delight as a black-and-tan Corgi appeared at the gateway to the house. Bob whistled at the Corgi and, as the dog looked up, he threw the contents of the can … whoosh! … all over the dog. The Corgi jumped back, blinked, shook himself, and growled and snarled as the can drenched him in a sticky, smelly, golden shower.
“Take that, you dirty dog,” Bob cried. “Quick, drive away, now, before anyone sees us.”
I put the car into gear and accelerated away.
“This is so much fun. I’m so excited. I’m so excited I want to pee again,” Bob pulled a second empty can from the canvas bag. “Turn left. Third house up. Get ready, Paddy. There’s another Corgi on the way.”

Bilingualism

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Bilingualism

I went on a French immersion course last week. The instructor asked each one of us to address the class for ten minutes in French. When my turn came, I stood up and announced that I didn’t know what to say.

The instructor then suggested I tell the class about my dreams. What do you dream of? I said that I didn’t have any dreams, I just had nightmares, not rêves but cauchemars, you know, nightmares. She asked me to describe my nightmares and I said I couldn’t. So, she repeated, describe your dreams. I don’t have any. Do you dream about your mother? Yes, I said, but I don’t call them rêves / dreams I call them night-mères / cauche-mères, sometimes couche-mères. Couche-mères, the instructor repeated the word.

The look she gave me: finger-nails scraping down a chalkboard. She turned her headlights on me and I sat there, frozen in the twin beams emanating from her eyes. Yes, night-mères, I repeated, because I set myself goals, not just dreams, achievable goals, and then I have night-mères, inspired by my mother, who says I will never achieve any of my dreams, because they are not her dreams, the ones she has for me, and they are the only ones that count.

You are here to speak in French, the instructor said, and you must speak French for another five minutes. So I told the class about the seals in the Parc du Bic in Quebec. The seals are like a plague, I said, like mosquitoes, only bigger and nastier, quite vicious, in fact. So the people who made Off to keep the mosquitoes away designed a new chemical spray that would keep the seals away. Now the French for seals is phoques, and since this is mainly a problem in Quebec, at the Parc du Bic, and not elsewhere, they called their product, you guessed it, PhoqueOff.

It’s quite simple to use, I said. It’s a spray, not an ointment, and you point the spray in the general direction of the seals. Then you squeeze the button and loudly say “PhoqueOff” at which point all the seals slide off their rocks with a little splash and vanish into the sea, leaving you alone on the beach.  I have tried it myself, I tell them, and I know it works so I highly recommend it to anyone who is plagued by seals.

I still don’t know why she threw me out of the class.

Railway Yards

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Railway Yards

The enemy came to bomb them. And they did. Tracks rooted out, twisted like spaghetti. Engine sheds burned down. Rolling stock ruined. Many children that year lived with the fear of thunder and lightning as Swansea, my home town, burned, in spite of the black out curtains and the air raid precautions. My father’s father lived by the railway yards. When I stayed with him overnight, the shuffle and clank of steam engines and the clatter of coal trucks scarred my dreams.

My mother’s father lived by the sea and each night the ebb and flow of the tides rocked me to sleep when I stayed in his house. I told the time by the tides and I knew every ship that entered and left Swansea Docks. Standing on the front step, with field glasses to sweep the bay, I could read the ships’ names, painted on bow or stern, and then check their movements in the local paper, the South Wales Evening Post.

Timetables: they ruled my life: time tables for the trains, tide tables for the ships.
When they drove me away to boarding school, I was far removed from the rail yards and the sea. I was now summoned by bells, my every activity chimed in by bell after bell. Bells: wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast, be silent. Bells for each class, for the angelus, bells for dinner, supper, bed time, and baths. Bells on the altar as we knelt before tall candles that flickered light as the tinkling bells flicked sound across the chapel. The only escape from bells came during field games. No bells then, just whistles. But bells and whistles whittled the timetables of a carefully regulated working life.

When we moved from Swansea (Abertawe) to Cardiff (Caer Dydd), our new house also backed onto train tracks and railway yards. The rattle of rolling stock lulled me to sleep. Each day, I opened my eyes to the clash and clang of early-morning shunting. Each night, at exactly 3:10 a.m., the express train to London would rattle past my bedroom window and shake me awake as I lay in my bed. The one day I didn’t hear the train, I woke up anyway, listening for its sound. When silence stalked beneath the stars, I knew there had been an accident, and I couldn’t get back to sleep. Radio and newspapers, there was little television then, screamed the news, so many people dead and injured. We mourned for the unknown dead, just like we did in the mine disasters and the bombings.

Lights out at 9:30, prefects and house masters on patrol outside dormitory doors enforced the silence that ruled the night in those inland boarding schools that I was forced to inhabit. No trains, no ships, no tides, no rattling of rolling stock, no steam whistle, no salt smell of the incoming sea disturbed my dreams, just the snoring and whimpering of lonely little boys lost in their iron-frame beds and longing for the comforts of home.

On Learning Welsh

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On Learning Welsh
            Here I sit, an old man now, in front of my computer, learning at last my mother tongue, Welsh. English is the language of the invaders, the mine-owners, the men who own the steel works and foundries, and who rule this land with a fist of coal inside an iron glove. Welsh is the tongue of farmers and fishermen, of the villagers who live on the hills and tend the sheep and plant potatoes in tiny small holdings where only the fittest children survive.
My mother’s father was the last of us to speak Welsh. It was banned in our house because it was bad for the kids. In a working-class household, Welsh, be it language or accent, was a barrier to success. And success came from imitating your English betters, and climbing upwards, like a vine, or Jack on his beanstalk, until you achieved the impossible and talked and looked and dressed like them.
Sitting here, I have discovered the beauty of simple words, not so much their meaning as their sound, the way they flow, the poetry of remembered rhythms:
Cwmrhydyceirw, the Valley of the Leaping Stag, though legend has it that ceirw was really cwrw, and cwrw is beer, and its real name was the Valley of the Brown Stream Frothing like Beer.
Words have their own music, even if you cannot pronounce them properly: Mae hi’n bwrw glaw nawr yn Abertawe / it’s raining now in Swansea. Mae’r tywydd yn waeth heddiw / the weather’s worse today. Bydd hi’n dwym ddydd Llun / it will be warm on Monday. Why, oh why, in Wales, do we always talk about the weather?
Place names also have their own magic: Llantrisant, Llandaff, Dinas Powis, Gelligaer, Abertawe, Cas Newydd, Pen-y-bont … Meaning changes when you switch from one language to another:  gwyraig ty / a housewife, gwr ty / a househusband, a concept of equality that has ruled Welsh lives since Julius Caesar invaded Albion, coming from Gaul with his legions in 55 BC.
            Un deg chwech, dau deg saith, tri deg wyth, naw deg naw … The photographer asks me to speak in English, then in French, then in Spanish, then in Latin, and lastly in Welsh. He checks the memory card in his camera and looks puzzled.
“You put on a new face each time you speak a different language,” he tells me. “Look, this is when you spoke French.” He shows me the photo and yes, I look happy.
“And this is when you spoke Latin.” He holds out the camera and I see myself on the screen. I look ever so grim. English, French, Spanish, Latin, Spanish, and Welsh: all different and each language is a new a map carved into my face.  Am I a clown, then, a comedian, a chameleon to wear so many masks and to slip so easily from one to another? Which, then, is my language and where is the Old Red Sandstone from Wales into which I can carve my memories and my dreams? More important, which of those many tongues will shape my story as I sculpt each letter of my tale?

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.

 

Full House

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Full House

Full house: echoing footsteps, shadows,
everywhere, a litter of toys, crayons,
colored pages, jigsaw puzzles, Barbie
and Ken found at the back of a shelf.

Memories: pinned to the fridge, found
in strange places, an almond on my chair,
a drawing in my notebook, a message,
unintelligible, scrawled on shopping lists.

That peremptory voice calls my name
and I drag myself from sleep, only to know
it was a dream, netted up from slumber’s
dark midnight sea. I drift off again and

see her again, opening the bedroom door,
calling, calling, ever present in voice,
song, and dervish dance, such energy,
round and round, bouncing on my bed,

rolling the exercise ball across the floor,
oblivious to danger, harm, the perils of
unbalancing, stumbling, slipping, falling,
aware of the need for sticking plaster

comforts littering thighs, knees, calves,
feet arms, elbows, where ever instant
attention calls for instant, urgent treatment.
I will always remember the ambushes

that rolled off the tongue, phrases way
beyond the skills of a four-year old. What
if her mother is a lawyer, the youngster
shouldn’t control that sort of language.

She remembered so much from her last
visit. We thought she would have forgotten
us, but no, she remembered where almost
everything was hidden, out of sight but

no longer out of reach. Just a little bit taller,
stronger, more determined, faster, so fast
and loud we could not keep up. This morning
I awoke to the silence of an empty house.

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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