Another Child’s Christmas in Wales

Jeanette Winterson, one of my favourite writers, has a tradition at this time of the year of publishing a Christmas story on her Website. It’s a great idea. So I stole it — since it’s the solstice. Winterson’s is about a donkey, a frost, a little girl, and something unexpected. Mine isn’t. I nipped around to the Bard of Laugharne’s Boathouse and suddenly found myself writing this.

The following contains storytelling. It is full of language like quips, puns, riffs, witticisms, aromatic rubs, fragrant scrubs, and it is mean, offensive, and will sleep with your mother. No animals were hurt in the writing of this tale, although a few fictional ones will be before it ends. Don’t read if under the influence of other writers. May not be suitable for vegetarians, those with religious beliefs, or those suffering from mood swings. Some subject matter may be offensive to holy mothers, reluctant fathers, saints and madmen, the man at the bus stop, in-laws, outlaws, small children with widgets, the insane, the countersinks, the girl next door, the dead kipper, the left wing, the right wing, Bolsheviks, the Russian ballet, conservative housewives, the duck’s wing, the goose’s wing, the dog’s hair, the ass’ rump, the riddle man, the sand man, the last passenger on the Intercity 125 just before Hull. Some content may be unfit for human consumption — but then it’s a story and it really shouldn’t be eaten like a meal. And some content may upset sensitive readers with a rash. Other contents will include the contents of a purse, a dead man’s stomach, a table of contents, and the contents of a brief as worn by Harry Longshanks. Those allergic to nuts strongly cautioned.

In those days, I couldn’t remember if it was my mates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who said I was still a little grig at heart.

My Christmas always began by the sea, like a corpse’s cold hand ruckled with lifelines and ice-edged with fish mouths just blaspheming enough to take away the goose pimples. And I can’t remember if I had kissed six girls when I was twelve or twelve girls when I was six.

Then there were the distant voices speaking. One was definitely my mum. The other was my friend Iggy, his pale face pressed against the frosty panes of the last house on the hill. His miserable parents had decided to keep him in for Christmas because he had taken to wearing the Grim Reaper’s cerecloths and pushing babies in prams on outings to the local cemetery.

Rosencrantz had said we should stand below his window and serenade him to cheer him up, to which I had replied surly, “That’s Romeo and Juliet, you pillock. And don’t forget, you’re minor characters in this tale, too.”

So, with much ado about nothing, we decided to leave Iggy to his fate. There were, after all, soon to be spinster aunts besotted on thimble sips of sherry; robust uncles blindly sloshed on barrels of Double Dragon; female cousins who had a predilection for crawling under the festive table and showing me what I had only dreamed; mother with the large wish bone in her small hands; father with a rime of frost on his lips after returning from outside — having just kissed the next door neighbor’s lips without a bunch of mistletoe; the stray black cats that marched down the middle of the street when the coals shifted in their warm cage; and the canary that always flew behind my grandmother’s stained apron and sang on her slow, rising chest.

It was a festive time. And on this eve, I had a rendezvous with a local girl in the old bunker on the sands.

I ditched Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at Ivor Pritchard’s. He lived with the mule that had kicked him in the head while serving with the Desert Rats in North Africa. He kept the mule in the house and his wife in the field out back. I knew the mule would distract my mates for hours as they watched the wily animal sitting by the fire reading to Ivor, since he would listen to only the mule. Every one said it was on account of the blow he received. Secretly, he told me it was because he always argued with his wife, but with the mule, after the initial disagreement, which was all just a misunderstanding, the animal was more favorably disposed to him than his wife, God rest her sooner than later.

So I made my way to the bunker, which during WWII had been used by the local men in uniform to spy on Bloddwyn Davis, who at approximately 9:45 each night, and just after the Black Out, would flick on all the lights in her house and strip before the lace to the sound of the chapel-singing Methodist neighbors Gwyn and Dolores Liturgy. And it is rumored that Private Blake would call out, “Oh, if I could only fuck her in church time!” It was to these hallowed stones that I was making my way. To the bible-black interior that smelt now of piss and smoke, not the sweat of real men in army uniforms protecting the land from sea invasion.

To get there I had to tumble down sand dunes as voluptuous as Miss Angler’s bosom — and just as silky. And the moon was like a claw that was just about to rip the night’s habit off.

Stealing my way to the bunker, I stopped to listen to the sea. It sounded a lot like the wheezing, farting, gurgling sounds that came from my relatives after feasting on the bird for hours. But it was, at least, a comforting sound. A sound that heralded the postpartum of the stable where the baby laid in swaddling clothes. And also the postcoital silence. Or the postmortem hush when the body is cut open and its inner organs are neatly arranged to look like strange planets with only the heart as a guiding light.

Reaching the bunker, I crawled in and felt sand in my trousers. I could see the lights of the town flickering like the eyes of envious wild beasts. Even from here I could hear doors being slammed in an effort to draw attention away from me. There was even a gossamer thread of smoke from a few houses, drifting into the black web of night so that the Widow of Silver Terrace could climb down and haunt her old abode before cock’s crow.

The sea spat on the sands. I heard the distant sound of bleating and knew it to be Dai Revenue, the local French taxman, trying to get some sleep in a ditch of nettles. He needn’t. His wife had just bought a nice new set of bedsheets decorated with large chrysanthemums. But he preferred the sting of the weed to the smothering, indecent sexual wantonness of ornamental flowers.

I waited for Rachel, watching as a corpulent Obelix ticked his way around the face of my wristwatch and praying that Asterix would make it to the hour.

It was cold in the bunker. I felt the ghosts of the Tommies huddled in one corner.

Then from down in the valley voices lifted and lots of heavy chains were pulled and things better not spoken about got flushed.

A choir began singing carols. It mixed with the silver shiver of the surf and the twinkle in Orion’s belt. It made me weepy. I remembered the time I got my hands on Eirwen Moses’ zipper one Sunday afternoon. And the raised voices and the harmony of the carol were an almost exact melody to that drama. On that day there were the raised voices of her parents and that lovely song of the zip sliding down its teeth and exposing satin. (She was a rich girl.) I could have sung that day, too, if only the parents hadn’t dragged me away.

The carol ended and somewhere in the universe a little star went out for good — only to be immediately replaced by another satellite.

When a braying started up I knew it was the local thespian, Alfred Molar, practicing for his part as Bottom in A Weaver’s Tale Told From Behind. Looking through the slit in the bunker, I could see his silhouette. And then it was either his behind or the high beams of a passing car.

With nothing to do to pass the time, I imagined I really saw Father Christmas flying across the sky on his sleigh. But all I saw was some Nordic god driving his quarrelsome dwarves over the rooftops dropping icicles on eaves and gutters and stopping off at the nearest fork in the road to fondle the hoar frost.

Rachel never showed up. But her cousin from Rhondda did. And waking one night to the moans of the Ghost of Christmas Past, he ran right into Rachel’s bed. Then hearing the groans of the Ghost of Christmas Future, he proposed marriage and offered her a life in Newport where he would work in the mines until he found a lump of coal that held a diamond. I never heard from Rachel again.

And so as the night wore on like a bad comedian before the lap dancing show, I decided to return home. It was Christmas Eve, after all, and my parents believed me to be at the Midnight Mass. And, in a way, I was: midnight was amassing and my blood would be spilt if I came home any later.

The house was quiet when I arrived. Santa’s biscuit and shot of whiskey were set out. I took both and rubbed some soot all around the furniture and all over the white poodle. As I crept up to bed, I witnessed a few dejected gifts still in need of colorful wrapping paper.

When I finally found my bed, I undressed by the light of the moon and saw a bright star blink. Quickly, I jumped into bed, hiding as hurriedly as possible a part of my anatomy that even made the empyrean doubt.

Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the drunk pissing against Miss Havisham’s old Morris Minor, I wondered about what great expectations the world had in store for me.

I watched as the lights went out in all the windows on our street — except for one. (And in the morning I was to find out why. Old Mr. Parsifal had drunk one too many at the local pub and had tumbled down a holy well.)

Snow began to fall steadily. I turned over and away from my sleeping brother. I whispered some expletives about Rachel to the darkness, knowing my parents would never hear, so tired were they after their long night. And then I slept.

For tomorrow would be Christmas day.

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Between the Urinal and the Stars

I was up bright and early this morning and then I fell fast asleep.

I like this that the writer David Mitchell says about language. He’s a damn finewordsmith and storyteller whose treats language as if it is a queen but writes it like it’s the working man. “I learned that language is to the human experience what spectography is to light: Every word holds a tiny infinity of nuances, a genealogy, a social set of possible users, and that although a writer must sometimes pretend to use language lightly, he should never actually do so — the stuff is near sacred.”

There is a definite sacredness to language. A certain tone, like when you tap a tuning fork, that must be dealt with if the words are to speak to someone else. There’s a real history to words, too. Nearly all are older than me! So they deserve respect. But then in the end you have to, if you’re a writer, come to terms with mastering them temporarily for your purposes but then knowing it’s their potency that will have the final power. I see words as being corralled in a timeless pasture until the moment comes to write and then they are released like wild horses and if you’re a lucky and talented writer you get to charge after the ones you want and they submit to a tether. But it’s always the ones that get away that really inspire and lead you endlessly back to language for a chance at something really grand.

Sometimes I get chagrined because I’ve got what Matthew Arnold calls, “the criticism of life,” that feeling of being trapped between the contingent and some longing for destiny, a middle state of poignancy where I’m not so much trying to escape life but feeling existential because I’m not engaging with it enough. Only inching towards its mystery as it keeps leaping away. What I’m saying it I can’t decide if I love Maine or hate it. I just read that Chandler reckoned you have to love or hate a place like you would a woman. But then I think, hell, at least I have some feeling and passion about this place which is some much better than a sense of vacuity, and surely that must satisfy the need to find a sense of belonging or else accepting.

You know, it’s not easy to be alive, but it should be glorious. Otherwise what have you? Property? Money? A flag? Ideology?

East of Eden

The word real has become about as secondhand as, well, reality. Blake’s doors of perception cleansed to within an inch of myopia. Even the role of the genuine rock ’n’ roller is now inflated to resemble a talentless blow-up doll. Is there no refuge from the namby-pamby intrusion of reality and its soft henchmen?

I thought perhaps Maine was the terra firma of unfeigned. But from time to time I keep coming across a slogan that addles the brain. It’s the one about the “Real Maine.” I immediately envision Graustark, an imaginary land of high romance. Or a Wonderland where every Aldous and Alice has swallowed an hallucinogenic.

Isn’t it bad enough that we have to tolerate the adjective? Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but now I have to be told that the place I live is not real! As though I’ve been living in a make-believe region for the last couple of years, passed into it through a wardrobe thick with fur coats, or crossed over a stone wall into the land of faerie.

The whole idea of qualifying the spirit of place galls me. If this other Maine is so “real,” then why must it act as a default for the other Maine that so pales in comparison? It’s such an ad hominem argument, anyway, laying claim to an emotional territory rather than a reasoning one, by purposefully raising people’s hackles.

And I feel cheated that this “Real Maine” is being withheld from me. The duplicity that such a statement carries makes me wonder if the Pine Tree State is simply a Vacationland until I or anybody else can find a more suitable and veritable home.

And then the hot ashes that got stirred settle and I realize the catchphrase is pushed because the places in question, these genuine Maine locales, are likely depopulated and need some way to lure new blood. A bit like the allure of romance novels with narratives of real lovers making the beast with two backs.

So as I stroll out of my house, my feet on as firm as ground as I can imagine, I look around at a neighbor busily working to finish his year-round house before the snow flies again or another taking a walk with her young daughter, the snow banks a joy to the young child’s sudden delight in sliding down their white backs. Or I look out over the sea, hear the faint rattle of stones in the sea’s surf and its rippled surface hazed with a deep, bedazzling blue. Or I glance at the dark pines creaking in the wind. Or I think about a hot cup of tea and a scone at the Belfast Coop, the locales inspecting the produce, turning ripe tomatoes over in their hands or deciding upon a squash by its shape and not its size.

This must be a dream, I think. And I’m suddenly glad that I don’t live in the “Real Maine.” How could it even compare to this imaginary one?

I’m Telling You Stories

I was a lonely child. Except for the times I was asked by my gran to visit Elwyn Parry in Abergavenny.

He was Welsh by way of Nepal. He could have easily been a sherpa. Instead he opted to be the Lollypop man at my local school and he always gave me preferential treatment when I had to cross at the busy intersection. Made all the other kiddies rush across as distractions while I was ushered across in his skiff.

He also lived alone. His wife had run off years ago with two African kings. He also served in Burma. Learnt the Burmese Waltz and named his cat Salzburg.

Anyway, my gran sent me to his house for spuds from time to time. He had a large shed filled with them and there was a rumor that he was the reason there was a famine in Ireland.

He had also lost his brother to British Rail. Worked nights driving the Intercity 125 to London via the Scottish Hebrides well before Scotland was a tourist destination.

I always found Elwyn shaving with a Ghurka’s knife. And on this particular day he had two German spies tied up in his living room. One of them I swear must have been a podiatrist, because he always kept looking at me.

I asked for the spuds. He added another piece of coal to his unlit fire and smiled. He motioned for me to come closer. I did.

The German spies tried to shout out “Ich Dien”, which I had heard the Prince of Wales once say to his mother when she asked him to stop playing with her family jewels.

Elwyn’s breath smelt like the inside of a duffel bag and I could see that he had a grenade’s pin between his teeth. He told me to follow him. He led me to his stash of spuds. Asked why my gran needed them. I told him for mash potatoes. He had staked empty crisp packets around his shed. To ward off the children, he told me.

Then he told me his secret. He didn’t grow the spuds. He got them black market off a lorry headed for Weston-Super-Mare, and they’d come all the way from Maine. Place called Aroostook County.

“Ok, Elwyn,” I said, “Enough with the bullshit. Where did you get these spuds?”

And this was the only time I saw him cry. But he still gave me the tubers.

When I left, I heard terrible screams from his house. And to this day I’m not sure if they came from him or the two German spies.

Or maybe it was from the cat. He was preparing to skin it as I was leaving.

The Old Corruption

Can I interest you in a couple of used black-and-white TVs? One’s very farouche and is only interested in nature programs and the occasional historical documentary. The other’s a bit more obstreperous. Likes nudity, thrillers, survival games in large council blocks and boyfriends with lots of pizza sauce on their moustaches.

They’ve been around the block a bit, especially on street corners. Circa 1960s. One’s even had its license revoked. The other’s mum is sick with a bad case of the reruns. But they’re very obliging when it comes to touching. Both like to be fondled, actually.

And they both come fully serviced. I’ll even throw in the doctor’s bill of health — as well as a program of the upcoming specials. One’s very good in the bedroom. The other’s got experience in the kitchen. They’ll keep you entertained well into the wee hours. You can even turn their sound down if you think they’ll wake the wife.

On the Chromosome’s Secret Service

Glorious morning. There’s a rime of ice glistening on every windlestraw.

I have become to like winter. Had a change of heart. Not the dark, though, that sloughs its skin too early. But the fire of the sun anoints the end of the day now, at least, with something approaching the sublime. And even the snow has a lyrical quality to it this early. By February, though, I will be sick of its grimy scurf; its slush like fetid pools from dirty laundry. And the entombed trees in their grave starkness will make me wish for spring like it is a bodily desire. But for now there’s a stillness and temporal beauty before winter strips away everything and leaves nothing but the raw sensation of some dismal finality.

I hear that Popular Mechanics has a list of 25 things all men should know. I’m betting constructing a perfect sentence isn’t on it. Nor reading. Nor writing poetry. Or being able to walk with an idea for a story in your head until it begins to speak with a rhythmic stride. Or even speaking eloquently and being understood. Or having a reckless, searching spirit in a passive world.

I almost get out the woad when I read about these sanctioned imperatives of what should maketh man. Mendacity. If there is anything worth the atoms we live on as men, it should be that all men should find a self that is theirs alone and shun the conglomerate called manhood. And a man should be known for the stories he tells. Not the stories written about him.

There is nothing more unmanly to me than a man who shuffles about in his mortal coil as if he was the lightening rod that all manhood animates but doesn’t have a zap of energy to think for himself and imagine a self other than the one he acquired at birth. We are all born in a primitive state but manhood is the need to find a consciousness that challenges this status quo. I think most men never evolve beyond the biological urgings they encounter at birth. It’s as if they preserve anger, fear, loneliness, apathy, ignorance, and violence, take all the rotten fruit and call it sweet. I can’t stand being just this vessel for a collection of ideas and urges, preserved somewhere on the shelf of man’s shadowy domain. Sometimes I wish I could inspect my own DNA and remove all the tornadoes and tsunamis that impede. I do believe that man is capable of greatness but simply prefers the tragedy and comedy he creates.

And why must cutting down a tree, say, have more of the X & Y factor than contemplating our place in the universe by observing the winter stars? Maybe I am so critical of the manly list because most of the labors of so-called Hercules are not anything I can do. I have never cut down a tree. But I could do it if my life depended on it to heat my home. And I can’t change a tyre without much ado, although I could if there was a need. I think the crux of the argument about what makes a man is an inherent need. What I need to see myself as a man should not be the same need for another man. Diversity is the catalyst for life. But society wants us to believe that originality is the death of man and that a subscription to the Magazine of Man is the only valued opinion, affirmed by the majority and sanctioned by men who wish they were more important than just editors.

It all stems from a sense of inferiority. Let’s quit trying to define the ideal man and get to living out the potential that’s in all of us. Only by doing should a man be judged. All else is projection and theory. A game of snakes and ladders.

A man should not try to emulate a list, but be a living testimony to achievements that inspires other men to find what they lack and begin to go after it like an old god after a new invigorating myth.

I am not the sum of another’s principles; I am the sum of my own errors and a part of a misguided but determined spirit.

Banned from Zoology Because of Bad Behavior

I will begin this blog’s service with a small story. It’s about an inch worm. It’s a short tale. For no sooner had he moved, when he was cut in half. And now it’s a story of two.

Did you know that I’m wanted in 52 counties of this state? And what for? I hear you ask. Licking the cream out of éclairs. It runs in the family. It’s on my dad’s side. He’s got some French in him. His ancestors came over with Charlemagne for the Battle of Ascot. Turpin Pout was the ancestor’s name. He was Charlemagne’s viscount — a petulant one. And he had a real love of éclairs. Used to hide them in the fingers of unwanted gauntlets. And when he reached the soiled earth of Albion, and Kent in particular, he snuck off one stormy night to eat a rather well-filled pastry and bumped into the Earl of Sandwich who was out doing the same thing with two neatly cut triangles of bread. And, well, the rest is history, as they say.

If only I could afford a castle in Spain. Alcazar Castle in Segovia looks lovely. I wonder if they’d swap it for a good story? But I’d need gardeners. A bit like Adam and Eve. Who, in my mind, were Earth’s first gardeners — sans wellies and clothes. If only their myth had portrayed them as such, there’d be none of this divide between evolutionists and creationists. Just squabbles over what are the best roses.

Mind the protozoa as you climb down the evolutionary ladder, there’s a good chap.

I must admit to something. I write because I’d been terribly unhappy if I didn’t and also because I really can’t do anything else and because I hope to make some money from it. . . and, for me at least, it’s also a way of not being forgotten. When I’m gone, I’m gone, but a bit of me will remain. And crazy as this sounds, it’s a way of immortalizing myself, even if I can’t and nobody reads a single word I wrote, I still want to try in the way a piece of innocent pottery wants to go on to be found thousands of years later. A bit like Yeats hammering his thoughts into a unity to that “eternal place as a deathless golden bird singing to eternity.”
But I’ll know, up until the day I can’t put the kettle on, that there’s something beside myself that’s around, living in the world I once loved even though my work may be untouched on a shelf. I don’t want to be forgotten.

And, of course, I might. It’s a risk. But so is everything worth its heart beat. And, daft as this may sound, books are a way to continue speaking when you’re not around. All the dead writers are dead but their words are not. Outdated some may be. Difficult to understand some may be. Silly some may be. Even questionable. But they exist as long as people want to read. And I believe we will always need stories. Without them the world has no soul.

And if it comes to that then I hope I am forgotten. But before then I’ll write and I’ll hope my words go on speaking well after I’m silent. Even if it’s between themselves in a closed book that nobody opens. A book is alive even when it’s not being read. It just becomes more so when it is.

But am I writing solely for posterity? No way. I’m writing because I refuse to let anyone say I can’t. And I’m mad enough to believe that I might have something someone in this crazy world wants to read. And so posterity plays a small part. But then sitting at the keyboard daydreaming plays an equally small part in the creative process — sometimes even a big part. And taking long walks helps, too. And so does listening to music, and reading, and playing with my daughter, and making love, and cooking breakfast, and crying and laughing and doing absolutely nothing but watchingsnowflakes slide down the window. I want to drink the whole world into my head. And, for me, that even means the one I won’t be around for. But if it gets into my imagination now, then, well, who knows. As Blake wrote: “What is now proved was once only imagined.” And so I will go on imagining.

“Life in this world is a big dream; I will not spoil it by any labour or care.” Li Po