Thursday, December 31, 2009

Fewer wolves, but still bears

By the time I was born, there were fewer wolves in Wales than in Dylan Thomas' day. But even so, you had to be careful with the bears.

In November, my parents had moved into the ramshackle farmhouse that was to be their home for the next fifteen years. Cold and draughty, they struggled to make it a cosy home for their first Christmas in their own home with their baby. My mother battled to keep it and me clean with little hot water heated in the copper. A neat and proper woman, she liked everything to be "tidy" as we say. She ironed everything with the flat iron, warmed on the top of the range. It was a cold and icy December and every day my father worked long hours, outdoors. His gloves and socks hung over the warming oven of the rayburn to dry off. By December 24th, they were tired to the bone. She dressed the tree and hung up some paper chains but was was exhausted and went to bed before he came home that night. He had been working until nearly midnight to have Christmas Day off.

She was disappointed that he hadn't been there to lay the baby's stocking in the inglenook and put the cheerful presents under the tree. But at least they would be together on Christmas morning and he wouldn't have to get up at five o'clock.

Waking early, she tiptoed downstairs to make him a cup of tea. The doorway at the bottom of the stone staircase opened into the sitting room and the latch was noisy so she left the door open to make her way back upstairs quietly. Boiling the kettle in the kitchen, she heard the baby stir. A snuffly cry that turned into a good morning moan. By the time she'd got back to the latch door, he'd wrapped the baby up and come downstairs. A warm lie-in was not on the small tyrant's agenda.

Anyway, he seemed happy to stay in the sitting room. Strangely happy. Enthusiastic, you might say.

He edged her towards the tree and, amongst the jolly, colourful presents, she saw two parcels wrapped in brown paper. When she asked what they were, he simply shrugged and gave a little sly smile. Opening the first parcel she found an electric iron. Bliss. This wonder of technology lasted over twenty years, flattening all our clothes into obedience.

And in the other parcel was The Bear.

His paws went thin about thirty-five years ago and so I gave him velvet re-treads. His eyes have lost a little of their sparkle but they are original. One ear was chewed by a dog and needed to be stitched back. His fur isn't what it was and so I knitted him this sweater in the sixties. When I was about five, I gave him a bit of a haircut. His nose has worn away to a little snub. In the late fifties, he stopped growling and only said "clunk". Revising for finals in the summer of 1974, I leaned against him as I yawned my way through Lipsey's "Positive Economics". Suddenly, he found his voice. "Clunk ... errrrr", he said. A Keynesian comment, I think.

He celebrated his fifty-seventh birthday on Christmas Day. He's led a great life.

"Clunk ... errrrr"

Friday, December 18, 2009

Bring out the tall tales now

"Years and years ago ... when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed.

Ghosts whooed like owls in the long nights when I dared not look over my shoulder; animals lurked in the cubbyhole under the stairs and the gas meter ticked. And I remember that we went singing carols once, when there wasn't the shaving of a moon to light the flying streets. At the end of a long road was a drive that led to a large house, and we stumbled up the darkness of the drive that night, each one of us afraid, each one holding a stone in his hand in case, and all of us too brave to say a word. The wind through the trees made noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe webfooted men wheezing in caves. We reached the black bulk of the house. "What shall we give them? Hark the Herald?"

"No," Jack said, "Good King Wencelas. I'll count three." One, two three, and we began to sing, our voices high and seemingly distant in the snow-felted darkness round the house that was occupied by nobody we knew. We stood close together, near the dark door. Good King Wencelas looked out On the Feast of Stephen ... And then a small, dry voice, like the voice of someone who has not spoken for a long time, joined our singing: a small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door: a small dry voice through the keyhole.

And when we stopped running we were outside our house; the front room was lovely; balloons floated under the hot-water-bottle-gulping gas; everything was good again and shone over the town."

"A Child's Christmas in Wales" by Dylan Thomas

It snowed last night but as he would have said, not the same snow. Not a dumb, numb thunder-storm of white, torn Christmas cards. I did my best this morning walking my blind more-than-slightly wolfy-looking boy through the snow. We walked the first footsteps across the field and he romped through the snow as playful as a pup.

But still not the same snow. Perhaps it will when I'm There.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Entreat me not to leave thee or to return from following after thee

After their marriage in July 1951, they moved into “rooms”, a common enough experience for a young married couple at the time. Maintaining modesty while edging past your neighbour on the landing was excruciating. There was little privacy for a shy and virginal couple to get to know each other. Despite this, by the Spring of 1952, she was pregnant. They were now desperate to have their own front door but they needed somewhere with premises for his business. Not just as simple as renting a two-up, two-down.

In the Summer, they found a farmhouse. Enough space for a growing family and the business. It was cold, even in August and had no electricity or indoor sanitation. They made a hard decision and went for it. It would need a couple of months of work to make it habitable but by the time the baby arrived, they would be in. A warm kitchen with a range, one bedroom that would serve and the sitting room with a cosy inglenook. The rest would come in time.

They couldn’t afford the rent on the house and the rooms so they each moved back with their parents while the work was done. Every day when work finished, he started all over again to plumb cold water into the house and to connect mains electricity. They reckoned that it would be alright by the end of October. The baby was due on October 19th and they would be ready to move in by the time she was out of hospital. A touch of impatience brought the baby in early October. In between rushing up and down to the hospital he struggled to have everything ready to move in but it wasn’t right. She came home and went back to her mother to wait. Gradually, through November, he made it habitable and moved his possessions in and camped praying the house would warm up to bring his family home. Every day, she would push the pram up the hill and check it out as the small pieces of furniture arrived.

Eventually, the range was reliable and would stay in all night. Masonry stopped falling down the inglenook and the sitting room was marginally warmer than the outside world. There was still frost on the inside of the bedroom window but hot water bottles in the bed and the 2-bar on for thirty minutes before bedtime made getting to bed a short but acceptable dash. It was a cold and dampish Autumn, like most years. Perhaps a bit colder.

They set a date to move back in together. Friday 28th November. He made arrangements to get help with the business so that he could finish early and, with the Morris 8 loaded to the brim, he took all her clothes, linen and the baby’s layette. It was very cold and overcast, a miserable day but, at least, not raining. His parents were there so that there was tea, ham sandwiches and cake when she arrived. She said she could push the pram up the hill and would be there within the hour. The baby was wrapped up well. Anyway, it didn’t seem as cold now.

As they said their last, fleeting goodbyes, the overcast sky whitened and the first snowflakes started to fall.
“I’ll come back”.
“No, I’ll walk”.
“I’ll come back, please don’t walk”.

She lifted the baby out of the pram and climbed back up the steps into her mother’s house and then went back for the pram. Tears rolling down her face, she hugged the baby, refusing to accept that they would have to stay another day. Her mother and sister silently made up the spare bed.
Outside, the snow swirled and impertinently peered in at the window and fell away mockingly to settle on the ground.
Tea was made and refused.

A squeaky car horn peeped. Outside was the little black car, its tyre tracks the only marks in the snow. With no time to argue or debate, the pram was folded up and bundled into the back of the car. And she was in, still holding the baby tightly. The tiny engine raced as they slipped and slid up the hill. Turning into the yard of the farmhouse, they skated to a halt, home at last.

The in-laws had left the tea on the table and set off for home leaving the young couple and their baby on their own for the first time.

Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

From zero to hero

It's been just over 9 months since Spot arrived to live with me.

Yes, that was a great big bald bum. Criss-crossed with scars. He was shaved to the top of his tail which made it look detachable.

Soon the hair began to grow over the scars but he had a saddle-back of shorter hair where the shaved bits were growing back. By the autumn, there was a good covering of hair but you can see where the shaved patch was, even around the top of the tail. It wasn't as waterproof either and if it rained, it would get properly wet. Real, outdoorsy collies are waxed, like barbours. All they do is have a shake and all the water is off them and onto the kitchen floor.

Now that it's winter, I'm pleased to report that he's completely covered with a winter coat.

Let's face it, you can't go out annoying the cat without your coat on.