“Sometimes suffering is just suffering. It doesn’t make you stronger. It doesn’t build character. It only hurts.”
— Kate Jacobs; ‘Comfort Food’
“Sometimes suffering is just suffering. It doesn’t make you stronger. It doesn’t build character. It only hurts.”
— Kate Jacobs; ‘Comfort Food’
A most heartfelt letter written, but never sent. The tender letter from Thomas to his lover Michael, written in around 1957. Taken from the brilliant ‘Man In An Orange Shirt’, this is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful yet tragic love stories I’ve ever seen on TV and encapsulates an era of forbidden love. A love that dare not speak (or write) it’s name for fear of imprisonment. It would be another decade before the law on prohibiting homosexual relationships would be repealed, at least in the United Kingdom.
“The love I feel for you runs through me like grain through wood.”
Think about that for a minute.
If you haven’t seen the BBC adaptation of Man In An Orange Shirt, it’s available on BBC iPlayer for the next couple of weeks.
The Unsent Letter:
My Darling Thomas,
I'm at work. Nobody knows I'm writing to you here. They think I’m drafting a long and stupefying memorandum about incremental shifts in the price of Welsh coal since the end of the war for the ladies in the typing pool to type up later.
You refuse my visits so you're probably tearing up my letters too but there's nothing else I can do but keep trying. It's beyond my control, do you see?
All those months ago, when I had nothing to lose really, I wrote to you in my head but was too cowardly to set more than lies upon paper. And now I find I no longer care. The love I feel for you runs through me like grain through wood. I love you, Thomas. Your face, your voice, your touch, enter my mind at the least opportune moments and I find I have no power to withstand them. No desire to.
I want us to be together as we were in the cottage. Only for ever, not just a weekend. I want it to go on so long that it feels normal. I think of you constantly. Your face, your breath on my neck at night. I want to do all the ordinary, un-bedroomy things we never got around to doing. Making toast. Raking leaves. Sitting in silence.
I love you, Thomas.
I’ve always loved you.
I see that now.
Tell me I'm not too late.
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It’s not about living anymore, it’s about surviving. I’m dying on the inside, and it has to stop. My grandmother always used to say “tell the truth and shame the devil.” So I guess it’s time to shame that arcane, evil bastard.
I wish, just for once, I would allow this inferno of a pressure cooker inside me to just explode, gushing out a scalding geyser of everything that’s making life pretty helpless, painful and empty, in a glorious maniacal onslaught. I wish I could tell you what a shitty existence I feel I’ve fallen into, through no fault of my own, and how deeply and unavoidably unhappy I currently am. I wish I didn’t have to hide this disease, often for the preservation of others, often to appear normal and healthy on the outside. I wish I wasn’t so good at applying and wearing undetectable makeup with the only purpose of giving me the appearance of health and glowing vitality. I wish I saw a bright future ahead of me, with exciting adventures to seize with unquestioning, open arms. I wish I didn’t often see potential love – and even the world – casually pass me by. I wish I didn’t crave the love of ‘one’ so intensely. I wish I wasn’t alone. I wish I didn’t daydream about a life with my very own beautiful children, only to shed many a tear over the children I will never have; that’s one of the things that hurts me the most deeply of all.
I wish I could grab a bag and run out of the house at five minutes notice because a friend surprised me with a weekend away or just for a perfectly spontaneous dinner date. I wish I didn’t promise to join friends when I’m invited to do something incredible & life-changing, or just invited do something wonderfully everyday, like going to the shops and laughing at silly things. Or being asked to travel the globe and feel the sand between my toes… because at that very point they asked me to join them, I knew I had already broken my promise before I even said yes; because as naïve as I am, I always believed there was hope, and I might be strong enough/well enough to make it, maybe next week or in a month or two. In reality, that’s rarely the case. Hope now seems more akin to a malevolent entity, or a cruel mistress. Now, joyful excitement feels too much like fear.
There’s more, so much more I could say. However, I can’t; doing so, in my naked and raw truth, and to completely lay oneself bare, is an impossibly. In doing so, I would alienate the few friends I have left, because nobody wants to hear that, and really, no one should. So I censor my self-pitying self and psyche, so not to rock the boat, to keep things nice and neat and sterile and reliable, as its always been. Heaven forbid I might appear a weirdo, a freak, a depressing force that will only drag you down. I can’t post certain ‘arty’ photos I take, because some find them uncomfortable and read too much into them… and then ask me if I feel suicidal, which I do not. If art provokes an emotional response, even if that response makes one uncomfortable, doesn’t that mean the art is doing its job? Anyway, isn’t that a little irrelevant? Think about it.
There’s very little left of me these days – even I miss the old me. I’m dying on the inside, and I’m so desperate to live again. Despite my all the shattered pieces and shards of razor sharp glass strewn at my feet, I still have so much love to give, and to give freely, unconditionally. This existence has to stop. My worry is that there might only be a handful of straws left, and my back might already be too weak…
From what I’ve seen, most people with an opinion on this horror in Orlando are trying to claim or disclaim it for something:
– He did it for ISIS.
– He acted on his own without orders.
– This was an Islamism-inspired massacre.
– It was a homophobic massacre.
– He was gay or had gay tendencies.
It is perfectly possible for all the above statements to be simultaneously true, and highly likely they are. Yet they are being treated as if they contradict one another.
The victims were targeted because they were gay. That matters, and it particularly matters to gay people – why shouldn’t it? As the slaughter of Jews in the streets of Europe and Israel has shown us, when people are being murdered simply for being the thing they are, that is terrifying thought, and rightly so. It does make it about you, more so than about everybody else – whether you like it or not, and trust me, it’s “not”. So it’s all very well taking the line, “This was an attack on all of us, on our society, on our freedoms,” and yes, it was. But the dead people are gay people, and to treat that as somehow secondary is adding insult to grotesque and unfathomable injury.
Islamist groups, by their cult-like nature and grandiose rhetoric, inevitably attract the disaffected, the fucked-up and violent – whether directly or claiming to act in their name – because they give those people a cause, licence and purpose with which to gratify their ugly impulses, even if they know fuck-all about that cause. Other causes and groups have performed the same function over the years. But this is where the problem lies *right now*, so it’s highly relevant.
The whole “This has nothing to do with religion” line is plainly wishful thinking. It has a great deal to do with religion. But what is also true is if you took religion out of the equation, abominations like this scumbag would find something else to latch onto – and then we’d have to look for a way to address that. Cults and causes provide the channel, the amplification, for the nasty to become the deadly. Islamism is the major such channel *today*, which is when we live; and Islamism subsists within Islam, not separately to it; so we need to recognise that.
Those desperate to exonerate Islam entirely, and those desperate to blame it entirely while shrugging off the obvious homophobic nature of the killings (“Oh, look, he was gay, so it can’t have been homophobic!” – fucking hell, seriously? You can’t have gay homophobes? Have you thought about that for three fucking seconds?), are picking out the bits that suit their existing take on things and binning the rest.
On the obviously crucial issue of gun control, I’ve got nothing useful to say, as I can’t imagine anybody who’s ever going to read this would disagree with me on the matter, and none of us are able to have the slightest effect on it or influence those who might. So what’s the point?
But as for the rest, well: disentangling what you would like to think from what is actually going on won’t stop it going on, but it will be a start. I’ve struggled to do that myself, but I’m finding that even if you don’t want to confront reality, reality will make it its business to confront you.
Finally, nothing here is ever promised, and there but for the grace of God go you or I. Life is short, love is love, we must enjoy life in freedom and not simply exist in fear.
Today in Cardiff, my home city, Gay Pride is in full and fabulous swing. I’m not there showing my pride. In fact, I don’t think I’ve attended my local camp celebration for over a decade, but today – and every day – I celebrate in different ways. I thought it was important to publish this story today…
ALL THE LITTLE THINGS
~ the imperfect (and true) love story.
I am 35 years old (I know, I look amazing).
I am 35 years old, and I have never once unselfconsciously held hands with a lover in public.
I am 35 years old, and I have never once casually, comfortably, carelessly held hands with a partner in public.
I don’t know if you can even imagine what that might be like because, of course, it’s a small thing, isn’t it? Holding hands with your lover in public.
And it’s not that nobody wanted to; it’s just that we didn’t feel comfortable to do that. Now, like many gay people, when I was younger – in my young life – I struggled at one time against being gay.
I didn’t want to be different. I didn’t want to be this thing that I didn’t really understand; this thing that I had learned was shameful or joke worthy. But, when I eventually did sort of understand and come to accept who and what I am, I have never – since that moment – never once have I ever wished that it turned out differently.
I am thoroughly, deeply, delightedly happy to be gay.
It suits me! I am really good at it.
And yet, every day I am jealous of straight people, because that private little, small, intimate gesture of affection has never once been mine.
Every day, I would see young straight couples walking through across the Bay, and they are casually holding hands, and I am jealous of them. I see a teenage couple at the bus stop, and she is leaning into him, and her hand is in his, and both of their hands are tucked into his jacket pocket for warmth; and I am jealous of that teenage couple.
I will sometimes see a man unconsciously put his hand, and a protective arm around his girlfriend and she will link her fingers through his; and I am jealous of that.
You know, maybe you’re on Queen Street and you’ll see an older lady and she gestures to draw her husband’s attention to something in the window and, without even thinking, he just takes her hand and they stand there, peering into the window discussing whatever it is that drew their attention, and their hands are just carelessly joined together; and I am jealous of that.
Because gay people do not get to hold hands in public without first considering the risk. Gay people do not get to put an arm through another arm, or put a hand on a boyfriend’s waist without first considering what the possible consequences might be. We look around to see where are we? Who’s around? Is it late at night? What kind of area is it? Are there bored teenagers hanging around looking for amusement? Are there bunches of lads standing outside a pub? And if we decided ‘okay, maybe it is okay’, well, then we do hold hands, but the thing is that now, those hands are not casual and thoughtless; they are now considered and weighed, and the nervous, continuous area risk assessments persists
But we stroll on hand-in-hand trying to be just normal and carefree, just like everybody else; but actually we’re not because we are constantly scanning the pavement ahead, you know, just in case. And then even if we do, we encounter a group of blokes coming towards us, and maybe we’ll decide sort of silently to continue holding hands, defiantly.
But now, our small intimate gesture between two people in love is no longer a small intimate gesture, it is a political act of defiance and it has been ruined. And anyway, then you sort of think ‘well we’ve had such a lovely afternoon poking around in that garden centre looking at things for the garden we don’t actually have’ and then you think ‘all it will take is one spat “faggots” or a split lip’ to turn that really lovely afternoon into a bad afternoon that you will never want to remember, but you will nonetheless, all the damn time.
And even if you are somewhere where you think ‘it’s perfectly fine here, perfectly safe here, nobody here is going to react badly to our tiny gesture’ – I don’t know, say you’re wandering through a posh department store. Even then, people will notice. Now, they may only notice because they’re thinking ‘oh, isn’t it nice to see two gays holding hands in public?’, but they still notice; and I don’t want them to notice. Because then our small, private, intimate, human gesture has been turned into a statement and I don’t want it to be turned into a statement. Our little private gesture, like Schrodinger’s cat, is altered simply by being observed. I don’t want to be an exhibition in the modern gallery of equality.
We live in this sort of homophobic world and you might think that a small little thing like holding hands in public, well it’s just a small thing; and you’re right – it is indeed just a small thing, but it is one of many small things that make us human. And there are lots of small things every day that LGBT people have to put up with, that other people don’t have to put up with. Lots of small things that we have to put up with in order to be safe, or not to be the object of ridicule or scorn; and we are expected to put up with those things and just thank our blessings that we don’t live in a country where we could be imprisoned or executed for being gay; and we are so used to making those small adjustments every day that, even now, we rarely even notice it ourselves that we’re doing it, because it is part of the background of our lives, this constant malign presence that we have assimilated. And if we complain about it, we are told that we have nothing to complain about because ‘aren’t you lucky that you don’t live in Uganda?’. And yes, I am lucky that I don’t live in Uganda, but that’s not good enough. This isn’t some sort of game or competition where the person who has it the worst wins the right to complain and everybody else has to just put up or shut up.
Our society is homophobic. It is infused with homophobia. It is dripping with homophobia; and when you are 35 years old and you have spent 20 years putting up; 20 years absorbing all of those small sleights and intimidations and sneers and, occasionally, much worse, you just get tired of it.
You get fed up putting up.
I am fed up of reading yet another article by yet another straight person explaining why I am somehow less than everybody else.
You get fed up listening to people describe you as ‘intrinsically disordered’; people who don’t even know you, from their celibate pulpits.
You get fed up of the scrawled graffiti and you get fed up of people sneeringly describe things – THINGS – as ‘gay’.
You get fed up of stealing yourself to pass by the Saturday night drunks hoping they won’t notice you.
And you get fed up of people using their time and energy and talents to campaign against you being treated just like every other citizen.
I am 35, and I am fed up putting up.
Now, I would of course prefer if nobody harboured any animosity towards gay people or any discomfort with gay relationships, but you know I can live with the kind of small, personal, private homophobia that some people might have. For example, I can live with Gwen in Abergavenny who sometimes turns on the television and sees Graham Norton and thinks ‘oh he seems nice enough, but does he have to be so gay?’.
I can live with that! I can live with Gwen, who doesn’t know any gay people apart from that fella who does her hair once a month in ‘Curl Up and Dye’, Gwen whose only knowledge of gay people and our relationships comes from what she has gleaned from school yards and church and Coronation Street. I can live with that. Now I would be happy to sit down on the sofa and watch Coronation Street with Gwen. I would be happy to have a cup of tea with her and discuss with her why she feels a little uncomfortable with gay relationships, and I would hope that Gwen would change her mind. I would hope that she would meet more gay people and would find out pretty quickly that we are just as ordinary, just as nice, or just as annoying as all of you are. And I would hope that she would change her mind, for her own sake as much as anybody else’s, because gay people are just as capable of bringing goodness into Gwen’s life as anybody else. And, of course, we could help her with the decorating.
But that kind of personal discomfort with gay people and their relationships is entirely different from the kind of homophobia that manifests itself in public, the kind that manifests itself as an attempt to have LGBT people treated differently or less than everybody else; the kind of homophobia that seeks to characterise gay people and their relationships as less worthy of respect.
That kind of homophobia, I do have a problem with, and I think gay people should be able to call it when they see it, because it is our right to do so.
Of course, many people object to the word ‘homophobia’ itself. They object to the “phobia” part. ‘I’m not afraid of you’, they say. But I’m not saying homophobes cower in fear every time they pass a Cher album but they are afraid. They are afraid of what the world will look like when it treats gay and lesbian and bisexual people with the same respect as everybody else. They are afraid that they won’t fit in this brave new world of equality. But, of course, their fear is irrational. Because, of course, the world will not look any different. You know, kids will still want to eat ice cream, dogs will still want to play fetch, the tide will still come in, and parallel parking will still be difficult.
You know, the most vocal homophobes, who know that they long ago lost the arguments around the decriminalisation of homosexual sex or every other advance for gay people since; these days you’ll find those very vocal homophobes clustered around the same sex marriage debate, and it is quite the spectacle. Because they know they can’t just right-out and bluntly say what drives them, which is an animus towards gay people and a disgust at what they imagine we do in bed, because they know that won’t wash with the general public any more. So they are forced to sort of scramble for any other reason that they can think of to argue their case; so ‘gay people are going to destroy the institution of marriage’, ‘gay couples will be wandering through orphanages picking babies off shelves trying to find one that matches their new Ikea sofa’, or that ‘allowing gay people to get married will destroy society itself’, and many, many more. Including my own personal favourite which is the old argument that ‘the word “marriage” is defined in some dictionary or other as “the union between a man and a woman” and that therefore same sex marriage can’t possibly be a marriage’, which is a piffling argument against words and dictionaries and not an argument against same sex marriage.
Now, of course, the other real driver of homophobia – and you can all clutch your pearls here, because yes, I’m going to go there – is a disgust with gay sex, in particular with gay male sex. The poor ol’ lesbians just get caught in the homophobic crossfire, guilty by association. Because what they really don’t like is anal sex; sodomy; buggery. And they assume that that is all we do. They feverishly imagine that we spend all day jumping around buggering each other. I mean they obsess on it and, in fact, what they actually do is reduce us down to this one sex act, whether or not we do it at all. Because we are not regular people with the same hopes, dreams and aspirations and ambitions and feelings as everyone else, we are simply walking sex acts.
Earlier this year, the Saint Patrick’s For All Parade in Queens in New York was held. It is a really lovely, charming, grass roots event in Queens which was set up in response to the ban on gay groups marching in the famous Manhattan Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. In that Manhattan Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, any Irish group who wants can march. Irish policemen can march, Irish firemen, Irish footballers, Irish community groups, Irish volleyball teams, Irish book clubs – any Irish people who want have a good shot of being allowed to march in that parade, except for Irish gays. Because as far as the organisers of that parade are concerned, gays are nothing more than walking sex acts and there is no place for buggery in their parade.
I actually saw a small documentary once about one of the leaders of the organisers of that parade. They are the Ancient Order of Hibernians and they’re like a Catholic Orange Order. They dress the same and everything, it’s hilarious.
And in the documentary, you know, he was a nice oul’ fella, and he had this lovely wife, and they seemed very happy together. And when I looked at them, I saw this life lived together and I imagined that if I asked him about their life together, that he would remember the first time they met, he would remember how nervous he was on their first date together, and how proud he was when he turned and saw her coming up the aisle in that dress that she had fretted over for so long. And I imagined that, if I asked him, he would remember that phone call to say that she had gone into labour, and the dash across town, and the other time that she went so far past her due date that she promised she would bounce up and down on a trampoline until the baby bounced out of her, and how they laughed so hard about that; and I imagined he would remember other occasions, like when their youngest broke his arm and cried all the way to the hospital, and that other time when she was sick and he could not sleep alone in the empty bed, so in the middle of the night he got up and went back to the hospital even though he knew they wouldn’t let him in to see her at that hour. I imagined that he would remember all of those things and many more; all of the small things that go up to making a relationship and making a person a person.
And when I looked at him, I imagined all of those things too.
But when he looks at me, he doesn’t see me that way.
He doesn’t see gay people that way. To him, we are just sex acts, and there’s no place for sex acts in his parade.
I am 35 years old and I am fed up putting up, so I am not anymore.
I am 35 years old and I not putting up anymore because I don’t have the energy anymore. Putting up is exhausting.
I am 35 years old and I not putting up anymore because I don’t have the patience anymore.
35 years old – I was born 9 years before the Stonewall riots and you have had 45 years to work out that, despite appearances, I am just as ordinary, just as unremarkable, and just as human as you are.
I am 35 years old and I am not asking anymore, I am just being. Human being.
I am 35 years old and one day, just like many of you, I hope to get married. However, my wedding will not be a gay wedding. It will just be a wedding; a beautiful, love-filled wedding. Like yours.
© 2015, rycariad.co.uk
TEASER! I’m working on a small English-language children’s book, age 5 and up, which will also be bilingual and translated to Welsh. The book will be heavily illustrated throughout and will feature subtle lessons and messages for children and adults alike. Quite an exciting for me, as my storytelling has always been adult fiction or poetry in the past. I also really need to work hard on my illustration abilities well enough to please a special 5 year old little dude – I must get the character absolutely right, or prepare for epic fail and disappointment! Due out this October, the photo is just a little taster, with very little clues…
One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.
All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen.
It was on the afternoon of the Christmas Eve, and I was in Mrs. Prothero’s garden, waiting for cats, with her son Jim. It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, though there were no reindeers. But there were cats. Patient, cold and callous, our hands wrapped in socks, we waited to snowball the cats. Sleek and long as jaguars and horrible-whiskered, spitting and snarling, they would slink and sidle over the white back-garden walls, and the lynx-eyed hunters, Jim and I, fur-capped and moccasined trappers from Hudson Bay, off Mumbles Road, would hurl our deadly snowballs at the green of their eyes. The wise cats never appeared.
We were so still, Eskimo-footed arctic marksmen in the muffling silence of the eternal snows – eternal, ever since Wednesday – that we never heard Mrs. Prothero’s first cry from her igloo at the bottom of the garden. Or, if we heard it at all, it was, to us, like the far-off challenge of our enemy and prey, the neighbor’s polar cat. But soon the voice grew louder.
“Fire!” cried Mrs. Prothero, and she beat the dinner-gong.
And we ran down the garden, with the snowballs in our arms, toward the house; and smoke, indeed, was pouring out of the dining-room, and the gong was bombilating, and Mrs. Prothero was announcing ruin like a town crier in Pompeii. This was better than all the cats in Wales standing on the wall in a row. We bounded into the house, laden with snowballs, and stopped at the open door of the smoke-filled room.
Something was burning all right; perhaps it was Mr. Prothero, who always slept there after midday dinner with a newspaper over his face. But he was standing in the middle of the room, saying, “A fine Christmas!” and smacking at the smoke with a slipper.
“Call the fire brigade,” cried Mrs. Prothero as she beat the gong.
“There won’t be there,” said Mr. Prothero, “it’s Christmas.”
There was no fire to be seen, only clouds of smoke and Mr. Prothero standing in the middle of them, waving his slipper as though he were conducting.
“Do something,” he said. And we threw all our snowballs into the smoke – I think we missed Mr. Prothero – and ran out of the house to the telephone box.
“Let’s call the police as well,” Jim said. “And the ambulance.” “And Ernie Jenkins, he likes fires.”
But we only called the fire brigade, and soon the fire engine came and three tall men in helmets brought a hose into the house and Mr. Prothero got out just in time before they turned it on. Nobody could have had a noisier Christmas Eve. And when the firemen turned off the hose and were standing in the wet, smoky room, Jim’s Aunt, Miss. Prothero, came downstairs and peered in at them. Jim and I waited, very quietly, to hear what she would say to them. She said the right thing, always. She looked at the three tall firemen in their shining helmets, standing among the smoke and cinders and dissolving snowballs, and she said, “Would you like anything to read?”
Years and years ago, when I was a boy, 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. But here a small boy says: “It snowed last year, too. I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea.”
“But that was not the same snow,” I say. “Our snow was not only shaken from white wash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely -ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunder-storm of white, torn Christmas cards.”
“Were there postmen then, too?”
“With sprinkling eyes and wind-cherried noses, on spread, frozen feet they crunched up to the doors and mittened on them manfully. But all that the children could hear was a ringing of bells.”
“You mean that the postman went rat-a-tat-tat and the doors rang?”
“I mean that the bells the children could hear were inside them.”
“I only hear thunder sometimes, never bells.”
“There were church bells, too.”
“No, no, no, in the bat-black, snow-white belfries, tugged by bishops and storks. And they rang their tidings over the bandaged town, over the frozen foam of the powder and ice-cream hills, over the crackling sea. It seemed that all the churches boomed for joy under my window; and the weathercocks crew for Christmas, on our fence.”
“Get back to the postmen”
“They were just ordinary postmen, found of walking and dogs and Christmas and the snow. They knocked on the doors with blue knuckles ….”
“Ours has got a black knocker….”
“And then they stood on the white Welcome mat in the little, drifted porches and huffed and puffed, making ghosts with their breath, and jogged from foot to foot like small boys wanting to go out.”
“And then the presents?”
“And then the Presents, after the Christmas box. And the cold postman, with a rose on his button-nose, tingled down the tea-tray-slithered run of the chilly glinting hill. He went in his ice-bound boots like a man on fishmonger’s slabs.
“He wagged his bag like a frozen camel’s hump, dizzily turned the corner on one foot, and, by God, he was gone.”
“Get back to the Presents.”
“There were the Useful Presents: engulfing mufflers of the old coach days, and mittens made for giant sloths; zebra scarfs of a substance like silky gum that could be tug-o’-warred down to the galoshes; blinding tam-o’-shanters like patchwork tea cozies and bunny-suited busbies and balaclavas for victims of head-shrinking tribes; from aunts who always wore wool next to the skin there were mustached and rasping vests that made you wonder why the aunts had any skin left at all; and once I had a little crocheted nose bag from an aunt now, alas, no longer whinnying with us. And pictureless books in which small boys, though warned with quotations not to, would skate on Farmer Giles’ pond and did and drowned; and books that told me everything about the wasp, except why.”
“Go on the Useless Presents.”
“Bags of moist and many-colored jelly babies and a folded flag and a false nose and a tram-conductor’s cap and a machine that punched tickets and rang a bell; never a catapult; once, by mistake that no one could explain, a little hatchet; and a celluloid duck that made, when you pressed it, a most unducklike sound, a mewing moo that an ambitious cat might make who wished to be a cow; and a painting book in which I could make the grass, the trees, the sea and the animals any colour I pleased, and still the dazzling sky-blue sheep are grazing in the red field under the rainbow-billed and pea-green birds. Hardboileds, toffee, fudge and allsorts, crunches, cracknels, humbugs, glaciers, marzipan, and butterwelsh for the Welsh. And troops of bright tin soldiers who, if they could not fight, could always run. And Snakes-and-Families and Happy Ladders. And Easy Hobbi-Games for Little Engineers, complete with instructions. Oh, easy for Leonardo! And a whistle to make the dogs bark to wake up the old man next door to make him beat on the wall with his stick to shake our picture off the wall. And a packet of cigarettes: you put one in your mouth and you stood at the corner of the street and you waited for hours, in vain, for an old lady to scold you for smoking a cigarette, and then with a smirk you ate it. And then it was breakfast under the balloons.”
“Were there Uncles like in our house?”
“There are always Uncles at Christmas. The same Uncles. And on Christmas morning, with dog-disturbing whistle and sugar fags, I would scour the swatched town for the news of the little world, and find always a dead bird by the Post Office or by the white deserted swings; perhaps a robin, all but one of his fires out. Men and women wading or scooping back from chapel, with taproom noses and wind-bussed cheeks, all albinos, huddles their stiff black jarring feathers against the irreligious snow. Mistletoe hung from the gas brackets in all the front parlors; there was sherry and walnuts and bottled beer and crackers by the dessertspoons; and cats in their fur-abouts watched the fires; and the high-heaped fire spat, all ready for the chestnuts and the mulling pokers. Some few large men sat in the front parlors, without their collars, Uncles almost certainly, trying their new cigars, holding them out judiciously at arms’ length, returning them to their mouths, coughing, then holding them out again as though waiting for the explosion; and some few small aunts, not wanted in the kitchen, nor anywhere else for that matter, sat on the very edge of their chairs, poised and brittle, afraid to break, like faded cups and saucers.”
Not many those mornings trod the piling streets: an old man always, fawn-bowlered, yellow-gloved and, at this time of year, with spats of snow, would take his constitutional to the white bowling green and back, as he would take it wet or fire on Christmas Day or Doomsday; sometimes two hale young men, with big pipes blazing, no overcoats and wind blown scarfs, would trudge, unspeaking, down to the forlorn sea, to work up an appetite, to blow away the fumes, who knows, to walk into the waves until nothing of them was left but the two furling smoke clouds of their inextinguishable briars. Then I would be slap-dashing home, the gravy smell of the dinners of others, the bird smell, the brandy, the pudding and mince, coiling up to my nostrils, when out of a snow-clogged side lane would come a boy the spit of myself, with a pink-tipped cigarette and the violet past of a black eye, cocky as a bullfinch, leering all to himself.
I hated him on sight and sound, and would be about to put my dog whistle to my lips and blow him off the face of Christmas when suddenly he, with a violet wink, put his whistle to his lips and blew so stridently, so high, so exquisitely loud, that gobbling faces, their cheeks bulged with goose, would press against their tinsled windows, the whole length of the white echoing street. For dinner we had turkey and blazing pudding, and after dinner the Uncles sat in front of the fire, loosened all buttons, put their large moist hands over their watch chains, groaned a little and slept. Mothers, aunts and sisters scuttled to and fro, bearing tureens. Auntie Bessie, who had already been frightened, twice, by a clock-work mouse, whimpered at the sideboard and had some elderberry wine. The dog was sick. Auntie Dosie had to have three aspirins, but Auntie Hannah, who liked port, stood in the middle of the snowbound back yard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush. I would blow up balloons to see how big they would blow up to; and, when they burst, which they all did, the Uncles jumped and rumbled. In the rich and heavy afternoon, the Uncles breathing like dolphins and the snow descending, I would sit among festoons and Chinese lanterns and nibble dates and try to make a model man-o’-war, following the Instructions for Little Engineers, and produce what might be mistaken for a sea-going tramcar.
Or I would go out, my bright new boots squeaking, into the white world, on to the seaward hill, to call on Jim and Dan and Jack and to pad through the still streets, leaving huge footprints on the hidden pavements.
“I bet people will think there’s been hippos.”
“What would you do if you saw a hippo coming down our street?”
“I’d go like this, bang! I’d throw him over the railings and roll him down the hill and then I’d tickle him under the ear and he’d wag his tail.”
“What would you do if you saw two hippos?”
Iron-flanked and bellowing he-hippos clanked and battered through the scudding snow toward us as we passed Mr. Daniel’s house.
“Let’s post Mr. Daniel a snow-ball through his letter box.”
“Let’s write things in the snow.”
“Let’s write, ‘Mr. Daniel looks like a spaniel’ all over his lawn.”
Or we walked on the white shore. “Can the fishes see it’s snowing?”
The silent one-clouded heavens drifted on to the sea. Now we were snow-blind travelers lost on the north hills, and vast dewlapped dogs, with flasks round their necks, ambled and shambled up to us, baying “Excelsior.” We returned home through the poor streets where only a few children fumbled with bare red fingers in the wheel-rutted snow and cat-called after us, their voices fading away, as we trudged uphill, into the cries of the dock birds and the hooting of ships out in the whirling bay. And then, at tea the recovered Uncles would be jolly; and the ice cake loomed in the center of the table like a marble grave. Auntie Hannah laced her tea with rum, because it was only once a year.
Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the fire as the gaslight bubbled like a diver. 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.
“Perhaps it was a ghost,” Jim said. “
Perhaps it was trolls,” Dan said, who was always reading.
“Let’s go in and see if there’s any jelly left,” Jack said. And we did that.
Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang “Cherry Ripe,” and another uncle sang “Drake’s Drum.” It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.