I remember the old coal fires in Swansea. My grandmother’s house in the Hafod, with a hearth separate from the kitchen. The hearth held a huge cast iron fire-place where cookpots and kettles hung or nestled into smouldering coals.
My grandfather’s house in Brynmill, had a magic fireplace. Banked in before bed, it gave warmth and light all through the night. Warmth, comfort, the family gathered, the wisdom of the old shared with the young, traditional tales and songs passed down.
Everybody was welcome and each one had a special spot reserved around the fire.
I have been revising this poem, shortening it, and changing it very gently. Funny how the old days come back and dance before us, like the flames dance on the coals, as the old ghosts walk now upon the logs.
The kitchen – hearth and soul of the house. Here we gather, sit around the table and talk our hearts out. But here, in Island View, we have a kitchen, a gathering, but no hearth, and hence no real heart around which the household revolves.
In spite of that, old habits die hard. I remember the old coal fires in Swansea. My grandmother’s house in the Hafod, with a kitchen in a separate room from the stove, with a huge cast iron fire-place where cookpots and kettles could be hung or nestled into the coals. My grandfather’s house in Brynmill, where kitchen and hearth were separated, but the fire-place still held its magic. Banked in at night, those fires gave warmth and light ar hyd a nos and then they we resurrected the next morning.
We have a woodstove here in Island View, but we rarely light it as the fine particles make breathing difficult after a while. We keep it for emergencies. This winter we lit it when the temperatures dropped to -40C, with the wind chill factor, and heat pump and electric furnace needed assistance.
Warmth, comfort, the family gathered, the wisdom of the old folks shared with the young, and the passing on of traditional melodies. All the old memories and thoughts, the wishes and desires, the hiraeth too, handed down, from old to young. Everybody was welcome and everyone had his or her special place.
Such memories tug at the heart strings – hearth strings. Anyone who shares them with me will know what I mean.
So soft, so subtle, this moment, when land and sea reach out and touch each other, sea hand offered for the land to raise up and kiss.
The Equinox draws near. This is the moment when sun and moon, day and night are equal. It is the moment when the world seems to stop, then moves again in another direction, from winter’s darkness into daylight and the spring’s delight.
And still I live in hopes to see the land of my birth once more, the land of my fathers where my father and mother met, the land where I first saw daylight, felt the land reach out to the sea, felt the joy of the sun-licked sea kiss, saw daffodils dance on the shore, and swans swimming on the sea.
“And still I live in hopes to see… Swansea Town once more.”
… 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 …
… and once when we went to Pwll Ddu, to the Black Pool, in English, where the stone bank holds the river back and we can sail our boats on the pool and the water is warmer than the sea … and one day, a long time ago, we saw this snake swimming across the backed up river, between the banks of reeds at the end of the valley, of Bishopston Valley, where the trees meet the salt marsh which leads into the sea … and he was a big snake, though I don’t remember what sort of snake he was … and he didn’t have a care in the world, just swimming across the water in the sunshine, hissing to himself, then he climbed the bank with a slither and a slurp … and was gone as quickly and as mysteriously as he came and we were left there playing, paddling, building dams, throwing stones at lumps of wood and pretending they were enemy battleships, waiting to be sunk … and playing ducks and drakes … and making the flat stones, like pieces of slate, slip and skip across the surface, one bounce, two bounces, six, seven, eight, and nine bounces … and the little ripples on the pool’s surface moved slowly outwards and suddenly my cousin trod on a broken bottle and there was blood everywhere … because someone had used a bottle for a battleship and had broken it with a broadside of stones … and we had to stop everything and strap him up and take him home and then he went to hospital and they gave him stitches, eighteen stitches, in the sole of his foot, and an injection … and suddenly what with the snake and the broken bottle, we cursed the pool at Black Pool, at Pwll Ddu, the name of which the boys from London could never pronounce, with their different accents and their capital styles, and though they were a part of us, like their mother was a part of us, they weren’t really part of us and they didn’t speak like us and they didn’t have our accents and they couldn’t pronounce the Welsh … and the neighbours laughed at them behind their backs …
Summer in Wales is always as I remember it: glorious days of sun and sand and blue skies and warm winds … and especially the sun on the beaches with the water sparkling and little boys and little girls playing cricket on the dry wrinkled sand packed hard when the tide goes out and leaves the land stranded … and uncles and aunties bowl under arm, not over arm, so the little ones could manage to score lots and lots of runs … and I remember us, standing breathless between the wickets, or at the wicket, if there was only one set of stumps, or a picnic basket stood on its side, or three pieces of driftwood, with sea-weed for bails, and what are bails, you ask?
Well, bails are the sea-weed that is draped over the driftwood that stands as stumps. And we guard our stumps with the cricket bat that somebody has brought and we bowl with wet tennis balls, because nobody will risk a red, leather ball on the sands, with the wet tide standing there, waiting for the ball to be hit at it, or into it, and it’s cold, but not that cold, and when uncle hits the ball, right out so sea, someone has to run after it, then dive, and then swim after it, and if it’s real runs you want, then uncle runs two or three quite quickly; then the aunties tell him to stop running so fast or he’ll have a heart … so he slows down and trots four or five; then he walks six and seven; and when you throw the ball back, he’s walking eight or nine; and then the dog intercepts the ball, catches it in his teeth, and starts running around with it in his mouth and everyone is trying to catch the dog except my uncle who is now limping very, very slowly between the wickets, but he’s already up to eleven or twelve; and then the little ones start crying because “It’s not fair!” Loud sniff! Then uncle stops in the middle of the wicket and sits there, waiting for somebody to run him out; except everyone is tired, except the dog, who is tireless and completely energized, and now the centre of attention; and nobody is going to catch him; and finally uncle walks to the wicket and he lifts the piece of seaweed with his bat and everybody appeals, then he’s finally “OUT!” because officially he’s hit his own wicket and that’s illegal and now the game can go on once more, with everyone happy and God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world …
And the dog has dropped the ball right at the edge of the waves and is barking furiously at the incoming waves as time and tide march up the beach and sweep us and our memories all away.
I remember little Willy, the mad boy at the end of our lane, whose cries of “Uh! Uh! Uh!” were the closest he came to speech. His presence still haunts me, for my father and grandfather made throaty sounds ‘Uh! Uh! Uh!” to chide me whenever I did something wrong or disobeyed the dictates of their adult world, their grown up world that layered cement on top of the high brick wall, that inserted bottles in the still wet cement, that waited for the cement to dry, and then smashed all those bottles with a hammer and locked little Willy, the boy with whom I must no longer play, into a high-walled cage whilst I watched and waited and knocked at the door and asked politely: “Please: can Willy come out and play?” But my only companion was his wild sound “UH! UH! UH!” flawed words torn with clawed hands from his throat and floated like invisible butterflies over the cruel glass jest of the wall they had built between us.
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: When I lived in Wales, a long time ago, there were twelve counties and each one of them voted whether or not to allow open pubs and hence drinking on Sundays. The ‘dry’ areas did not permit drinking, but the wet areas did. Hence there was mass migration from dry to wet every Sunday, especially after Sunday morning chapel. I dedicate this piece to every dedicated Welsh boy who fled his dry county to quench his thirst in a wet one! NB This piece should be read out loud, fast, in a Welsh accent and also in a single breath! Mind you, I find that hard to do nowadays.
The worst punishment of all was to be sent to bed early. You climbed upstairs by candlelight, if you were lucky, or groped your way upwards in the dark, if you had been really bad. You entered the cold, dark, damp of the bedroom and punishment was not to have supper, and not to have a warm hot water bottle or a warm baked brick to keep you warm in bed. I loved that hot brick, baked in the oven or by the fireside, then wrapped up in a towel. Bricks and bottles: they banished damp from the bed and kept you warm for a while, or burned if the wrapping fell off. The hot water bottles: they were made of tin not rubber, and once, I remember a cast iron duck, that my grandmother baked in the oven, then wrapped in swaddling clothes, like a little baby. But if the grown-ups said you had been naughty, or nasty, or cheeky, or just plain wicked, then you were given nothing to keep you warm, and you lay in bed and shivered until you cried yourself to sleep.
Royal Doulton Some nights I woke up during the night, needing to pee. At night, I slept with my gran. I never liked using the Royal Doulton chamber pot that squatted coldly beneath her huge brass bed, especially if she was in the room. We had no indoor plumbing, nor running water. Apart from the rainwater the only tap was at the far end of the field, a long way away. Rainwater, caught in a bound, wooden barrel, was the only water we didn’t need to fetch. The cows that wandered through our yard at night really frightened me. We would meet them in the lane some times, a noisy, dusty, flowing, multi-colored tide that flooded the pathway and forced us walkers into the next field, if there was a gate close by, or to climb high into the hedge, if there wasn’t a gate. One cow, with a crooked horn, had gored our neighbor’s dog. She had also broken a young girl’s leg. Vicious when, isolated from the herd, she often meandered around on her own. At night, when I wanted to pee, I walked outside, to the outhouse. I would grope my way out of the bedroom and slide back the bolts on the door. Then I would half-open that door and peep out, listening carefully for any sound of the cows tearing out the grass with their teeth. I would sniff the night air, and if I caught the sweet breath of a cow in the vicinity, I would pee through the narrow crack of the open door and swear in the morning, when someone found the little puddle, that it wasn’t me, that it must have been one of the cows. One quiet night, I walked bravely out into the dark and stepped right into a fresh, warm cow pat. It sifted upward between my toes and rose to assault my nose. After I had gone pee, I wiped my foot again and again in the long grass beside the outhouse, then placed it beneath the water-spout from the rain barrel, trying to flush it clean before I crept back into bed. That was the night I left the back door open. Next morning, Nana woke us all up with a series of long, loud screams. The black and white cow had wandered through the open door and ended up in the kitchen where my grandmother had come face to face with it in the early morning light. I still have dreams, nightmares, really, of a herd of cows invading my bedroom, breaking down the doors, climbing in through the windows, and me all alone, trapped in my bed, shivering ferociously, squeezing myself, trying desperately not to go pee.