f i c t i o n   

d. f.  l e w i s  



he magic times always seemed to be saved for a Sunday, when Father took us for views. His old jalopy took the steep winding roads in its stride. Up a Welsh hill, with our breath snatched away, we gazed awestruck at the way God was able to make things so really big and high, as if He were showing off for the benefit of us small fry.

Sometimes, Father took us to the caves instead, but on those trips Aunt Gwenda had to come, too, because she disliked heights – or so she maintained. The fact that she preferred dark places below ground to wide airy spaces mystified us underlings. I suspected Father was rather fond of Aunt Gwenda. Mother did not have any say as to who came on those outings. She usually sat in the back of the car and knitted shawls. It had been quite a while since she filled the front passenger-seat and map-read us through the valleys. Something to do with safety-belts.

One Sunday in particular, Aunt Gwenda was away in South Wales for the duration, undertaking one of her famous excursions along the Gower Coast. They were famous to us little ones, in any event, if not to anybody beyond our circle. She spoke about little else to us small tots. During her absence this time, we took the opportunity to visit one of the least accessible viewpoints, where one could often look down at light aircraft following the valley below. The road merely took Father’s jalopy three-quarters of the way up. The rest was on foot. Mother stayed in the back seat, wielding her crochet hook as if she wanted eyes for bait. But that was Father’s turn of phrase. Not mine. He was a strange cove, if that is not an even stranger expression to use about one’s Dad. From him I inherited the everpresent search for the exact words to describe things. Language for him was the placing of idiosyncratic and little used words upon a potter’s wheel and moulding them beyond their meanings. Only hindsight and maturity has given me that angle upon my own father. He could have summed it up much better himself, however.

In many ways, this was his story, with more bearing on him than on the likes of us next generation. I merely tried to follow his ways of thinking and of expressing himself, inevitably mixed with my own clumsinesses and false perspectives. But, there was little I could do about that, even if it was important to scry the smoke that choked memories of those of us too young to care. Through a filial filter faintly.

Yet how could I speak for so many? Several tongues into one – only Red Indians with their finger-lollipop whooping and pow-wows and smoke signals could untangle the mixed messages. And when we reached the viewpoint that particular Sunday, out of breath and excited, we tried to read the thousand chimneys of the town below us. There, an old lady scrimping on the fuel, the smoke so thin. Here, a fat man puffing on his pipe. There, a rich man browning ten bob notes upon the forking tongues of flame. Here, a musician belching strings of black notes from his smokestack for the crows to croak and screech. There, a bonfire on the allotments – with the war-dance of tiny people around its conflagration.

Father laughed at us little ones’ amateurish attempts to create sense out of randomness. Then he stated: “People think they’re sane – but seen from this distance, you know the truth of it.” His voice, with a tantalising Welsh lilt, was far-away, as if he were talking to himself. Though, he knew we listened.

Aunt Gwenda, if she had been present, would have said something cutting in reply. We kept dumb and continued to scry the smoke.

We did not always visit natural attractions, however. Yet no tourist gathering-spots (ancient or otherwise) seemed to carry the same enjoyment as our hill journeys. The untidy crowds of ordinary folk at official “sights” were ever eager for information that they didn’t know they wanted; the surly admission lady who doled out endless spools of tickets from behind a bevy of pot plants; other peoples’ children who started off interested but ended up fractious: all conspired against my love of mystery. Except, of course, on that day when we visited St. David’s Cathedral.

I had managed to shake off my companions, having spotted an interesting gargoyle from what seemed a mile off – and, indeed, there were some inscrutable specimens of gargoyle on various corners which, I was convinced, none of the tourists proper could even see, least of all appreciate. One had real tears. Then I actually saw figures emerging from previously empty walls, with stone bones, but not really stone at all. Small and impish and, yes, demonic. A few with vestiges of wings on their heads where hair should have been. They gaped and mouthed silently at individuals that they seemed to have picked out from the oblivious tourists. Somewhat like holograms, too. Holograms of grey stone. Eventually, a childish, or rather elfin, simian-like creature hopped up to me. It smiled slowly, as if it knew smiles were attractive to small people like me, giving the impression that it had never formed a smile before – forcing out a grunt which sounded more obscene than anything I had ever heard then (or since). It lingered in my vicinity for a few extra seconds when the others of its kind had vanished. I realised that it had fallen in love with me: I could actually watch the beat of its bleeding heart, the only thing which was not stone nor hologram-like. When my companions (Dad and some lesser known family members) emerged from their dose of history, they scratched their heads, trying to find one of their party whom they fleetingly believed they were about to leave behind. A young girl among them shed real tears as the others broke faith and ambled off into the blinding daylight. I made a painstaking smile and forthwith melted back into the stone – waiting to shed unfathomability upon another unsuspecting clutch of visitors.

All part of my confused sub-teenage thinking, no doubt: believing I was someone else. Through a two-way mirror looking-glassly.

Whatever the case, I have forgotten to tell about Dorothy Danks, Les, Stan, Todd and Jojo – people Aunt Gwenda and Mother knew, although Mother never let their names pass her lips. There was a difference between being mealy-mouthed and forgetful, and Mother was the latter. Aunt Gwenda simply referred to them in passing, as if it were her duty to give an airing to skeletons in her cupboard rather than allow them to moulder and fester with their flesh grown back on like corpses.

We did meet Todd, at least once. He said he was a businessman from Cardiff – except the glint in his eyes and the slope of his nose made us youngsters see him more as an itinerant salesman of romany mien than a big shot who lorded it about in an office. Aunt Gwenda allowed his arm to slither round her shoulder, whilst Mother winced and tut-tutted. Father scowled. We children laughed, more in an act of defiance at the grown-ups’ seriousness than there being anything at which to laugh. We knew there would be no excursions that weekend, high or low.

We once met Dorothy Danks, too, although we did not know it was her at the time. She did a Variety act with balloons and even dressed in stage sequins on quite ordinary evenings. When she bustled into the room one Christmas Eve, armed with presents for people she had not met before, I noticed that Todd (who was as surprised at her abrupt arrival as anyone) withdrew into himself like a tortoise, making undergrunts instead of the outrageous statements that were usually his wont. Her dress was brilliant, more showy than the Christmas decorations, and I found her gushing manner overbearing. Still, the presents were quite nice. How she knew I wanted a model lorry that carried logs was a mystery. I had told no one. Apparently, Jojo was the parrot that she used in her act. Her stage name was Dorothy Danks, but we were told to call her Aunt Violet. But whose sister she was to warrant the epithet Aunt was again a mystery. Before balloons, she performed an act, she told told us, with smoke: sculpting it into ephemeral shapes that made audiences gasp. Of course, such Variety turns became old hat. It was good to know that I was involved with people active at the closing edge of such an era of showmanship. Made me feel more loyalty to the past that to the present.

The future was indeed a no man’s land for most of us, in any event. The wars intervened. Nobody predicted the outcome, of course. I was the only one among us left to remember Mother and Father, Aunt Gwenda, Dorothy Danks &c. We never met Les and Stan. Who they were and where they fitted in were more mysteries. With all the various mysteries, my whole childhood seemed one long mystery. But that was far from the case. Life was relatively straightforward, everything, that was, except the matters of which I have spoken.

Les and Stan were indeed mysteries. Yet they were known by both Todd and Dorothy Danks – and went on to be reasonably important in television.

Television was then a phenomenon of the future, so should not have come within the ambit of my memoirs. How I knew all this, I have forgotten. And mysteries were really memories that had gone wrong. Not mysteries at all, really. Simply fallibility. Through a mental muslin dimly.

And as the years stretched on into war, we continued to scry the smoke where we were able.

That Christmas, we all played Blindman’s Buff in the parlour. I say “all”, but Todd stayed upstairs where it sounded as if he were playing Blindman’s Buff on his own, barging into furniture and floundering from wall to wall. Mother and Father did not play, either, but watched the rest of us, Aunt Gwenda and Dorothy Danks included, playing the fool as we dressed each other in blindfolds and mimicked ancient mummers that were said to haunt the ground floor. Sometimes we garbed each other in fancy-dress, despite the embarrassments. Mother clicked her knitting-needles. Father called out encouragements and sometimes assisted us younger ones with calls of “hot” and “cold” when we were seeking things in the room or upon each other’s persons.

One Easter, some of us nippers had grown up and left home. However, there were sufficient left for there to be giggles and sobs, shouts and whinges, throughout the day. Mother had now been accepted by all and sundry as congenitally senile. If this fact had been realised years before, it would have saved a lot of unnecessary heartache. Todd had not visited us for ages, so it was a great surprise when Nancy (one of us younger set) claimed to have spotted his face at the kitchen window. There one second, gone the next, I think was the trite expression she employed. But being one of the youngest, nobody believed Nancy, least of all criticised her use of English.

Aunt Gwenda was said to be away in Llanelli with a fellow called Asa Toth, although I myself suspected she was in the small aeroplane that buzzed our house every Sunday morning. However, Father had intimated to those of us teenagers able to understand him that Aunt Gwenda had forgotten about our family altogether. She had evidently also forgotten about Jojo the parrot who now had pride of place in our parlour (left by her on one of her last visits – as a final keepsake, as it turned out). There was not much call for Variety acts in her vein any more. Most of the newer breed of artist were soon to appear on black and white television (under the aegis of Les and Stan, no doubt).

In our parlour, there was a log-burning stove: made of black metal, with a raised Celtic design on the front depicting a deer and penitent male youth entwined with foliage. There were knobs, twiddles, rods and hinged openings on the side which amused me to think were the valves of a musical instrument, the medium of smoke pre-empting that of sound. Jojo often made squawking noises when people were prodding and poking at the stove, as if he were annoyed with either the irritating racket or the surplus smoke in the parlour thus engendered. But, today, he was screeching fit to raise his great grandfather from his resting-place amid the Pieces of Eight, buried beneath the silky sands of some Pacific Shangri-La. I followed the angle of what I took to be Jojo’s gaze towards the net-choked window, where the street lamp was still weaker than the seeping light of dusk. There I made out the muzzy outline of a head. It could have been anybody, but it could not be Aunt Gwenda, nor was it Mother, as I knew she was safely ensconced in her truckle in the master bedroom. But since my mind was racing with what Nancy had told the rest of us striplings earlier, I convinced myself it was Todd – complete with bow-tie and shifty dusky face. The face grimaced and mouthed a message, as if it were initiating a romantic liaison with me or conducting pre-elopement arrangements. I tossed my head in a haughty manner and scuttled from the parlour amid the flurry of my skirts.

Mother had knocked on the ceiling: a massive pounding that betokened a need for company or cough medicine. So I took the opportunity to scurry up the steep stairs and, hearing a wireless in another room giving forth with the shipping forecast, I was thankful that at least our family had eschewed television and were satisfied with the small mercies of sound without pictures. The trouble was that the announcer sounded tipsy. That was quite tasteless, especially in view of him warning of force-niners. But why was a wireless a wireless. It had nothing but wires, it seemed to me. I found Mother covered in something from which selective memory thankfully later protected me. Probably one of a new lot of little ones trying to cuddle her.

Nancy grew up into a beautiful woman – whilst I was put out to pasture, not exactly a spinster, more a mother without children or wife without husband. Yet they were all there, despite being less than ghosts. I read somewhere in a newspaper of Dorothy Danks. She became an impresario. Mother died, of course. In subsequent nightmares of mine, she had climbed to the roof, choked on chimney smoke and skewered herself on the TV aerial – as a goggled pilot tried to rescue her by chopper. Aunt Gwenda married Asa Toth in Swansea. Father went to join them. Various siblings and cousins of mine fought in the odd continental war – and I burnt unread newspapers on bonfires in the back garden of our home. In that way, I could never follow the trends of such wars nor hear about the deaths of people I loved. Yet I did try to scry, I really did try to scry, through a TV smokescreen squarely or, since the excursions of Aunt Gwenda were to be emulated, if not believed, a Phileas Fogg roundly.

But, now, amid my curdled thoughts that age has brought me, I often wonder whether what I saw that day in Mother’s bedroom covering her was not a child, indeed, no small fry at all. A dark spirit floating down ... or an evil gargoylic hologram stiffening back to stone ... or a new variety trick? In hindsight, her dear sweet head, beginning with the mouth, did doubtless strain to blow the first pink party balloon, a long vein-knotted one. The first of many. Through a medusa wirelessly.


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