So I finally went and done it.
I published a collection of short stories.
Something I’d had on the long finger for a decade thereabouts.
And the cover is a photo I took a few years ago now, on the Eastern Cape, where springboks bounded past just moments before the sun began to set. It’s one of my favourite photos, and it’s the background for my blog homepage (behind the cover of Unleashing the Pack ) and my youtube channel, as well as my personal facebook page.
And it’s part of the inspiration for the title story of the collection – 23 of them, all from various points in the places I’ve visited and lived in over the past thirty years, from home in Ireland, to Scotland, Madrid and other parts of Spain, to the USA. Of course, many could have been written anywhere you find humans.
Sometimes short stories are perhaps more prone to being analysed for signs of the writers own life and ideas. When writing a novel there’s always a little incident from life you can put in – usually only a few people pick up on them, and they’re like Easter eggs, in a way. With short stories the incident is most of the plot, and so some of these might seem like they’re just me putting down pieces of my life I considered worth recording. But they’re not. There might be a germ of an idea engendered by something that I saw or heard, but the rest is pure speculation on my part, putting my ideas into the being I created on the page, or more often, imagining what ideas such a person might have.
So I hope you enjoy them for what they are, a sketch of a growing body of prose sculpted by an amateur who aspired for self-teaching to reach pinnacles he hasn’t quite attained yet.
Late April Rains
The rain makes everything all right,
Like blessed water flowing over lips.
Birds sing sweeter as if assured
Life will hang on in for spring,
As insects emerge from dry refuge
To delight in the damp leaves.
Eardrums encounter drips gently
Caress the mind into peaceful ease:
Merged in memories of seasons spent
Naïve as nestlings of summers to come.
It’s a rainy day today, which reminded me of a poem I wrote a month or so ago, about how the rain is welcome when the land is parched. At least in imagination it staves off the drought to come and we live a little longer.
I took a trip to the river some days ago and sat down and thought of how different this spring is – much drier or course, but simply because we can go outside and see it the way we weren’t able to last year.
The soil thirsts for showers, but still
Seeds sprout green and buds flower.
Warblers and mistle thrushes whistle
Busily from the bramble bushes.
Upon thermals, raptors stall, surveying
Below, from distant forests, cuckoos call.
I sit upon a stone wall, watching
Wagtails bobbing below a waterfall,
Remembering, last year, the view
Of a robin, a tree, we then held dear,
And our feelings thence unfree
Behind our self-made fence
As we waited to leave impatiently,
Even as news came to grieve.
A brace of ducks take flight as slowly
Afternoon descends to night,
Slapping away the tiny silence, sweetly;
The air is filled with blossom scent,
And as the ducks take wing, I swear,
I shall never miss another spring.
the small picture view – how wonderful it is just to see this instead of concrete or our own bare walls inside. Long may we leave our houses and be greeted with life.
Calloused as an Old Oak Burr
Walking in the forests of a wide valley
Rimmed by cliffs above us, rolling mist
Over the slopes out across the blue vastness
The vultures glided across the blue sky from
One side to the other, while kites and kestrels
Worked the fields where the woods were
Cut when first men walked within the walls.
We stood under the canopy of branches
In the shade of old oaks, ages growing
Slowly seeking their sunlight, ever taller,
Thicker boles, holding aloft leaves and,
Even when those died, in winter, green
Epiphytes; a host of other lives, for centuries,
Saying to all in the forest: “Behold, I am here.”
Feeding feast for insects and birds that eat them;
Showering grazed ground with acorns for boar;
Robins following rootings, under those, creating
Holes where night-time animals hide yet.
One had recently fallen, after perhaps half a
Millennium spreading seeds and supporting
Epiphytic ferns: now hanging upside down
From the bough that held them high so easy
Over which we climbed on the clean bark.
And I thought of those who carried an axe
Into these woods to gather firewood,
To create charcoal from the oaks:
Brought perhaps as soon as they could walk
And pick up a twig to help their father,
And kept at it until they could walk no more:
Years of seasons spent sweating and freezing alternatively
Snacking on dark bread and forest berries,
Bring back home a snared rabbit if one was had.
How many injuries did they accumulate,
Inflicted by such occupations? A series of
Splinters, cuts, bruises and bones broken;
But shrugged off and shouldered on
Until calloused, like the knots and burrs
Of the trunks we touch: the pollarded boughs
Wounded, but budding forth once more for fifty years,
Until the axe of those weathered workers eventually fell again.
For even great oaks are eventually tumbled,
Even if only by time. And those ferns and lichens
That thought they clung to a solid structure are thrown
Over, to cling and seek the sun as best they can.
We sat upon the curved bough and ate our own victuals,
Thinking of those workers who listened to the same scene
Of songbirds and wind, and wondered of what life was
Like outside these woods, these walls of valley wide
Yet long and uneasily walked out of, and wished
For more, for escape, easiness, for freedom from their destiny,
But accepted, their lives would be lived, alongside these trees.
Then the telephone took my attention for a time:
A thread landing in my lap with a crack-like impact of
A snapping branch upon me,
And I sat upon a stump and sipped water to keep down the lump
In my throat at this long twitter list of lads and lassies
Of a too young age who’d taken their own lives, the last option:
Locked in the loss that seems so extensive in these times
Of lockdown, long as a valley apparently without exit;
The looking out at a world that looks so perfect, looking back;
The pressure like storm clouds gathered above the cliffs,
Building until smooth wood cracks and saplings snap.
If only they could have come to this forest, felt the breathing branches,
The soft sunspots, the birdsong rest upon them.
If only they could have stuck around long enough, to resist
Instead of rejecting the pain, the splintered spirit, the bruised soul.
If only they’d stayed a little longer, told another their wishes:
Shouted, screamed, even to a pillow, “I am here and I exist!
“I have a life that is well lived, and will be lived if given
The chance; a hand, a hug, a kiss.”
For even those who never had to lift a stick or chop a log, can
Build up burrs, callouses, train themselves to toughness,
Over the course of a century or half, from the finer grain
Of slow winter growth gaining perspective to appreciate this:
‘Tis only at the end we can reminisce.
Looking back, we can count up mistakes, regrets,
See the setbacks we withstood, taking bad with good,
Standing tall till Nature takes us, rather than the blade,
If only because we owe it to the saplings stretching in our shade.
Though only the beasts and bugs it gave life to
Knew of its presence, tall as it was, and only those, who
Were touched by its life will note its fall,
And all the rest of us are ignorant of what it meant to them,
For a tree, that is perhaps enough;
And if we could but be as wise, it would
Too, be sufficient for us.
For those who have fallen too soon….
So for the last couple of months I’ve been living like Hemingway. Well, without the writing, so much.
Or the bulls.
No bulls this year. No fiesta in Pamplona.
But I have been in Spain, enjoying the sunshine, and drinking.
I’ve been getting up early, with intentions of getting lots of writing done.
I have a run, or a cycle, while it’s cool, then have a swim after cleaning the pool.
And I’ve spent an hour or two on the laptop, staring at the screen, as I scroll through my social media and read about the horrible things happening, the shitshow that is the former lone superpower, the rising death rates in various countries, and watching videos of the violent racism so many have to deal with and the violent reaction to any request for such racism to stop.
Then I get breakfast for my kids when they surface from their darkened bedroom around ten, and pretty much any chance to get writing done is gone until perhaps mid afternoon when I wake from a siesta and have another swim to get my brain restarted.
Of course, it’s a strange time to live. But we’re alive. And in the end, well, what more can we ask for?
People are worried, though. And I was thinking about this – about panic and procrastination in these times of pandemic.
Sometimes we think that when people panic they start doing things: racing around, becoming very busy.
But they don’t.
Instead it seems that they are paralysed and they do nothing.
However, perhaps their reality is that they see that given the futility of the situation, and their imminent demise, there’s basically no point in doing anything. Instead it’s best to just relax and do nothing.
Because doing nothing is in fact the best thing to do.
Perhaps it’s only when we’re faced with death that we realise that we should’ve been doing nothing all along.
The object of our existence is to do nothing.
Doing is not the important thing, it’s just being.
We should just be.
We should just watch, and chill out.
So while it seems that I have done very little in these days, and there are several books that are waiting to get finished and some to get started, I’ve decided to not worry about that because if I do get sick, I’ll probably just stop writing rather than race to get them finished.
I’ll do what I have been doing – looking after the kids, being with the family, enjoying the scenery and the flowers in the garden and the birds around the house.
At the end of the day, does it matter if the book is one third finished one half finished or three quarters finished if the book is unfinished? Perhaps it’s best to nearly finish at least, but I’m loath to spend my last days worrying about it.
Of course, I am not sick, and I hope I’m not in my last days – keeping the head down here!
So I have written some. And I will have some to show people soon.
And I never stop writing poetry.
So here’s some of that:
Where Would You Go To?
Racing downhill, skidding over gravel path between pine peaks.
Slide to a stop beside scarlet-poppy-strewn field of barley, golden
Eagles calling overhead, staring at gliding silhouettes, shielding eyes
Against glare of sun, hot upon shoulders. A lone figure, surrounded
By a chorus of chirps, whistles and warbles, sheet of susurration
Wind through poplar leaves under a blanket of blessed silence,
Among a bouquet of orchids and other wild flowers, wondering
Where would one go from here?
Eventually remounting, rolling onwards over eroded pudding-stone
Thinking this is the destination of a multitude, but home to me.
Many would trek to get here: the very idea posited as post-retirement
Plan, proposed to stretch the Mediterranean holiday eternally past
A year in Provence; sold to dozens of millions dreaming of this,
Present position I’ve stumbled upon for life. So,
Why would I want to do any more than simply be, here?
Everything I can add upon this blessing only gravy, icing.
What matter if my works are acclaimed or even hailed?
When their very creation brings my own elation, and this station
Provides all the time, and space to do so at my pondering pace.
It’s only left to me to accept this grace, riding though this pretty place.
Thus, Shall we Dance
We shall dance, as the waters rise to sweep us under,
Clinging to one another as the cold creeps up.
As the fires near, burning all before them, we shall dance, locked in our final embrace, and thus they shall find us, as in the ashes of Pompey.
We shall dance, when the soldiers bang upon our doors, to take us away to the place nothing leaves except than screams and dead bodies.
We shall dance, to remember the disappeared, to hold their souls in our hearts, to follow their footsteps forward.
We shall dance the rains down upon the parched soil, the grass up into the sun. We shall dance the acorn out of its shell, the herds through their great circles,
We shall dance the great dance of the Earth, to the thunder and the birdsong, the cascade and the pulse of blood.
We shall dance our dirge to the tiger, the rhino, the great and diminutive wild brothers we have lost.
We shall dance to the Great Spirit, who sees all these deeds, all this destruction in the name of what you can not eat, what does not sustain, to sustain ourselves.
We shall dance, as we have done, for that is what we do. Thus have we always. Thus has it always been.
And if we live long enough, we shall dance upon your graves, and those of your ancestors, drumming them into dust for all this.
I wrote this poem during quarantine, when my family had a writing challenge to keep us entertained – we had to write something beginning with the phrase “we will dance” but in Spanish. I of course, wrote it in English and translated it for the zoom call! But it wasn’t quite the happy story everyone else wrote to cheer us up and pass the time.
But time passes, and little changes. Some things we want to change and some we don’t. And the things that stay the same seem to be the ones we want to change and those that do are sliding away from the wonder we have before us.
But we will go on.
Happy New Year everyone.
2019 was a stressful year.
2020 might not be much better.
But here’s some advice to keep you going.
The best medicines are, in order:
5 Hugs from kids (or animals if you’re stuck)
8 Fresh air outside the city
9 Diet Coke
10 A view of hills or mountains.
You might have your own order, but you won’t go far wrong when life is shite. Be careful with 4 and 6 of course!
You’re all adults out there…
Closing up Camp
Fish flash lethargically argent in the creek,
Creeping upstream, gleaning the last
Of the caddis flies until torpor takes them.
Sun beams golden in glowing leaves but slants
Lower now, more weakly heating us, huddled
On the morning porch hugging our mugs.
We don’t swim before breakfast, only
Paddle after our afternoon nap, picking black
And other berries to boil jam and packing
Pumpkins for the car; chopping lumber
For the evening fire still keeps off falling
Chill, but within weeks we will give in to
Winter’s grip and slip away to the city.
Closing shutters against storms and snow,
Emptying water tanks and pipes from icing,
Clearing closets of anything attracting rodents
Or racoons and slowly strolling round the
Leaf-strewn lawn, taking one last long look
Out across the fall-reflective lake, then forsaking.
Still, thinking of spring keeps back sadness,
Slipping through seasons until suddenly
It’s our last, and we must shut up for good,
Or have it opened sadly in our absence,
Our passage through camp just a forest path.
I write this back in September, thinking of the camp of my friend Tamir, who would have turned 60 a few days ago. I don’t have many photos of his summer place in autumn, but I am sure right now it’s deep in snow and the lake is starting to freeze over till springtime. Thus is life, as long as we still have springtime. And memories that shine like sunlight to keep us warm meanwhile.
These were written mainly over the last couple of weeks and seemed appropriate for
the weather and the midpoint of the month…
Lived or not
If we don’t stop to watch the sunset,
How do we know we’ve really lived that day?
Listening to the Birds and Bees
Perhaps people no longer
Stop to listen to the birdsong
Because they’ve taken all the birds away
And only sparrows in the traffic stay.
They Doth Protest Too Much
They did their bit and are owed.
What have they left us?
Tea, thinking each leaf
Left China for Ireland, then
Here, I use bags twice.
On the Death of Bowie
For some, no matter how old they go,
They’re gone too young, too soon.
And all we have left to hold is a song
That we can’t help but sing out of tune.