Sand waves laden with memory summon the sea white foam rushing to a fleeting union in Swansea Bay. Here I exist on the tenuous margin, shifting with the tide, a migrant, exploring an uncomfortable truth. We are all between worlds.
Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick- tock, I cry a tear for all the children born in the age of the electric clock. On Boxing Day, my father performed his early morning ritual, a cup of tea, the BBC news and the winding of the clock. This wall mounted pendulum beauty with Big Ben chimes was not an heirloom handed down from father to son but rather the only surviving life form in a bombed house across the street from the house where I was born.
“There it was, still on the wall. The front parlor was gone, the whole bloody house was gone, but the clock was still there. Not even the glass was broken.”
For my father it was life. In the midst of all that rubble something of beauty had survived and there was no way he was leaving it behind now.
“Edie, I want that clock on the ship with us.”
This was one of the few times in my life that my mother had absolutely nothing to say. The tick-tock, tick-tock said it all, a heart beating, grounding you firmly in place and time. My childhood was filled with the winding of clocks and the chiming of Big Ben on the wireless and the little bens in all the front parlors of my relatives. A Welsh mantra it was, a mystical chant, the pacing of life at a verifiable rhythm. You could hurry up or slow down and there was always the beat of the clock bringing you back to center, to home.
“That clock is your responsibility John. It’s not going in the trunks.”
From Boxing Day till the fourth of May nineteen fifty-four I would be aware of my duty. Helping my father build the cardboard box cradling the precious cargo that I would carry by a roped handle onto the Queen Elizabeth became a test of manhood. Necessary preparation it seemed for the journey to place where I would be living with cowboys, gangsters, and Doris Day. I was in love with Doris Day.
“She’ll never compare to Ginger Rogers or Janet McDonald.”
My father’s vision of American beauty was firmly fixed in the nineteen thirties. Everything of value it seemed was before the war. All the little Ben’s in all the houses of my relatives chimed the lament, before the war, tick tock, before the war, tick tock.
My sister Betty married a GI and left for New York in forty-five. Soon we would be there too, my mother, father, my other sister Phyllis and her husband Robbie. Only my brother Hector would be left behind. Having spent the post war years as a foreman on a peanut plantation in Kenya, he was not yet ready for a new adventure.
I was a mistake late one late night in forty-one. My mother was thirty-eight at my birth, my father forty-two, that was old in those days. But even more remarkable was my mother’s surprising revelation on her eighty-fifth birthday, prefaced with the honesty of old age.
“What the hell’s the difference I’m going to die soon anyway?”
This incredible use of the word Hell was followed by the disclosure that she had never seen my father without clothes, even though she had given birth to his five children. Considering the strict rules of engagement between the sexes of the working class Welsh in the years between the two world wars, this seemed a reasonable possibility.
They were a mismatched pair bound by necessity at a time when there were few choices. My mother was a spontaneous outspoken woman who loved company while my father was a private man who spoke only when it was necessary and kept everything around him in good order.
“If you can’t find a proper place for it then there’s no need to keep it. And if you do keep it, you better have a bloody good use for it.”
“Well Mr. Tidy Tom, there is nothing wasted in this house.”
“Now Edie I was not talking about you.”
“If I didn’t save every scrap from every meal, and every piece of cloth from old clothing, we would never have made it through the war.”
My father’s compunction for order was rooted in his insecurity from a lack of schooling before the first Great War. Like most children of those in service to Welsh land owners before 1914, his schooling began in September and ended in October when he was needed in the field for harvest. Luckily, at the age of sixteen a savior wearing an LMS Railway uniform taught him what was needed to survive.
“Mr. Evan Evans, the station master, taught me how to fish for Pike, and how to read”.
He always referred to the pike fishing first. In 1918 he became the assistant to the stationmaster of the LMS railway station in LLandeilo, where Mr. Evans became his teacher, and was spoken of with compassion.
“Mr. Evan Evans was a gentleman.”
“Well, Sir Thomas Watts of Swansea, did he also teach you how to turn five pounds a week for driving a railway lorry into enough money to feed a family of three?”
“Now Edie, there is no need to belittle the efforts of a man who went out of his way to set me on the right path.”
“I just wish the right path brought home a bit more money.”
“It’s taking us to America. You can’t deny that.”
My father’s defense of his mentor was in stark contrast to his lack of compassion for my grandfather, who was a batman to a British army Cornel. This military version of a butler, required him never to speak unless it was absolutely essential, which carried over into family life through his carefully repeated mantra.
“If you have nothing to say, then say nothing.”
A kinder version of this concept seeped through the generational divide to my father, who was a slim, slightly balding member of the Welsh drinking class, a brotherhood of the pint, allowing him to dream and find clarity
“A fag and a pint, that’s all I need.”
“Well you certainly make sure have enough money for both, even on five pounds a week.”
Cigarettes and beer were the life blood of these grimy men of smokestacks and coal. And stubborn women were the backbone that kept them standing through the onslaught of gray poverty between the wars. Then came the fire bomb blitz of the Luftwaffe in the second great war, which brought forth another of my father’s famous sayings.
“If there is a god, he bloody well forgot about Swansea.”
But in their beloved ramshackle sea town, with a limited supply of beer and cigarettes, the brotherhood prevailed, still finding joy in the little moments. I was one of those moments, born in the rear bedroom of a bomb-cracked house, the middle draw of a chest of draws my cradle.
“War brings some very unexpected things Edie.”
“On this subject Tom, we are in complete agreement.”
My fifteen and seventeen year old sisters treated me like gold, my nineteen year old brother, who was at sea, celebrated with a bunch of other merchant seamen in a Capetown nightclub when the news came. I’d heard the stories over and over in all the front parlors of my aunts and uncles while teacups clicked and clocks ticked.
Tick tock, tick tock, Christmas in Swansea, the town where I was born, I can smell the sea and the Christmas pudding. I can see the tramp steamers passing my window as I look down from the top floor on the River Tawe, some ships heading in to the north dock, others heading out to sea, maybe to New York. I loved sitting by that window, watching the ships and listening to American Armed Forces Radio on the short-wave—Father Knows Best, Burns and Alan, and Jack Benny. For brief moments I was already in America.
“John! Go help your mother, and put some coal on the fire. It’s getting bloody cold again. Auntie Anne and Uncle Will are going to be here any minute and I don’t want them saying anything about needing a cardigan to stay warm.”
We always had relatives over, for dinner, on Christmas. This time it was Auntie Anne and Uncles Will, who were as Welsh as anyone can possibly be and my uncle George, weather worn, old as the hills, and my favorite person in the world.
There was also my cousin Freddy who had returned from his army service in Germany with his German bride Francis, which was unusual in those days to say the least. Something about becoming migrants ourselves created in my mother an affinity for fellow travelers allowing her to temporarily put aside the animosity of a generation.
“We’re all trying to find our place in this world no matter where we come from or where it takes us.”
“I think you’ve gone to far this time Edie. Your brother Will was right. Once a German—”
“It’s Christmas, and our last one in Wales. You just worry about putting this place in order for the day, Mr. Tidy Tom.”
Defiantly, she even invited Francis sister, husband, and son, who was my age. They had only just emigrated for Germany. It was a real house full.
“I want to make this the best Christmas ever.”
“Don’t worry Edie, this is one we will never forget”.
My father was right. The consumption of a roast chicken occurred only once a year at Christmas, but this year through some elaborate family negotiation of ration cards, we had two. Careful planning had also insured the accusation of real butter, bananas, pomegranates, custard slices, mince pies, Welsh cakes, Christmas cake, figs, dates and apple cider. With great fervor my father prepared his annual Christmas Guinness flavored with nutmeg and sugar, his tumbler ritually stabbed by a steaming red-hot poker from the fire.
“Nutmeg and sugar, that’s the Christmas way to do it”.
My parents were caretakers for, Burrows Chambers, an office building right on the Swansea docks, that faced the River Tawe. We lived on the top floor above the offices and from five o’clock when the workers left, my parents cleaned the rooms and prepared sixteen coal fires for the next morning. My job was to empty the ashtrays and waste paper baskets, carefully removing any foreign stamps from the envelopes for my collection. Occasionally my father would offer profound advice.
“Always do the job right John, but remember to polish the brass doorknobs after you empty the ashtrays. Shiny knobs, that’s all they ever notice anyway.”
When my work was done, the hallways belonged to me, transformed into the greatest roller skating rink in the entire world. And when another boy came to visit, I was the guardian of a sacred trail that no one could match. Old marble floor corridors that wandered in an endless high ceiling maze, made metal wheels sound like rolling thunder. And on Christmas Day my new found German family member joined me in a roaring chase up and down the echoing halls.
“Follow me and slow down on the turns.”
Finally, Uncle George came down the stairs and sat at the bottom holding my new Eagle Christmas Annual with stories about space men.
“All right boys, it’s time for Dan Dare.”
Until I was eight Uncle George would read stories at every opportunity. My mother finally put a stop to it and reluctantly, I began reading all by myself. But holidays were different and Uncle George breathed life into a story. Something about his lilting old Welsh voice, dramatic, rising and falling with the victories and defeats of the heroes, held you still and silent. We sat, roller skates hushed, to hear the latest adventures of Dan Dare, pilot of the future, as he faced the villains of outer space.
“Dan aimed his ray gun at the advancing Treens. You’ll never take control of my ship.”
The smell of pipe tobacco in my uncle’s coat pocket was comforting; everything about him was comforting. If I had still believed in Father Christmas, he probably would look like Uncle George. His little row house in the Sandfields district of Swansea was very close to Oxford Street School where I learned the important lessons of life, such as how to pee slightly upward and downwind to win the distance contest in the schoolyard lavatory.
Every school day I rushed to join him for lunch. Spam frying with bubble and squeak enveloped me as the front door opened.
“Put the plates out, do the bread and watch Sammy doesn’t drink the milk for the tea.”
Sammy his cat, played as I toasted the bread on the fire. Then we would eat and talk about his army days in the Boar War, always referring to the wonderful photographs on the mantle piece of soldiers all lined up, stiff as a board facing the camera. Uncle George was a cook who hated the officers and laughed each time he told me how they’d spit in the stew pot for the officers before serving.
“It adds flavor”
I listened as if I had never heard him say the words and smiled as Spam was lifted from the pan and every day I laughed.
“John! Put those skates away and help your mother set the table.”
Christmas being Christmas, I had no objections to my father’s command. There was the best lace tablecloth, best dishes and more importantly the sideboard festooned with bright streamers and proudly displaying Christmas cake, trifle, mince pies, Welsh cakes, nuts and fruits.
“So you’re going to be a Yank, are you? You’ll be wearing long trousers and shirts with pictures on them. Careful you don’t forget where you come from.”
Uncle Will, the deacon of his Chapel in Gorsinen, spoke slowly with assure that God was on his side. He was a roly-poly man with bracers, and always a shirt and tie.
“A man is undressed without a shirt and tie.”
I did not like Sundays at Uncle Wills’ house. No wireless was allowed, no newspapers, books or music, only the bible.
“The Sabbath belongs to Jesus and to Chapel.”
Chapel or not, he didn’t seem to mind these distractions when he came to our house on Sundays or Christmas. He would sit quietly near the wireless in the front parlor reading the same page of the bible for half an hour while, Educating Archie, was on the BBC, a slight grin curling the edges of his mouth.
Aunty Annie’s voice trailed in from the kitchen riding the aromas of roast chicken and Brussels sprouts.
“Give me the pan dripping Edie, and I’ll make a lovely gravy.”
You could hear her if you were down the street and all the windows were shut tight. Nothing was embarrassing than walking along the street with some boys as the piercing trumpet of Aunty Annie’s Welshy voice lassoed you like Hopalong Casidy chasing down a desperado.
“Is that you John? Don’t you look smart in your uniform? Tell your mother I’ll be over after shopping, and not to worry about tea, I’ll be catching the bus to Kingsbridge at four.”
Her voice and the aroma of roast chicken made my father look up from his newspaper, rolling his eyes as he glanced toward the kitchen with expressions that told more than words. A quite man he was, not a very comfortable fit with my mother who never stopped talking. She loved company and he avoided people except for his pint at the local pub on Saturday night. We shared two things, first his collection of seventy-eights, mostly American. His favorite was Paul Roberson.
“There’s a singer for you.”
And for duets nothing compared to Nelson Eddie and Janet MacDonald.
“Voices of the gods.”
The other thing we shared was the LMS Railway lorry, which he drove for a living. After school I would rush to Victoria Railway Station and wait for him to arrive with parcels for the train, help unload and fill the lorry with new ones and then off we’d go.
“Mind those parcels and careful you don’t fall out the back.”
Sitting in the rear of the lorry, I had a grand view of the busy streets, the row houses, the factories and always the sea. The sea made Swansea a place of magic for it was always there, green or gray and flat as a pancake while the town rose and fell and rose again, it’s arms reaching out cupping as much of the sea as it could into a large basin.
“Sit on the floor and hold tight John. We’re going up Constitution Hill.”
The bumpy cobble stone drive up the steepest road in Swansea, allowed me to see the world entering through those open arms bringing dreams of America, Africa and the Royal Navy. Already a sea scout, I saw myself standing on the deck of a destroyer heading out into the Bristol Channel and the Atlantic beyond.
“Come away from that window and help set the table. If you spent more time looking at books instead of ships you would have passed your eleven plus.”
My mother was not a dreamer; she was always too busy by choice as well as chance and this, the biggest gathering I could remember, was decidedly her choice. Bing Crosby was singing, White Christmas, on the Victrola for the hundredth time as we sat at the dinner table to hear Uncle George propose a toast.
[size=“Here’s to the American adventure yet to come”. ]
[size=“There’s no shame in changing your mind.”]
[size=“Let them be Anne. ]It’s their decision, even if they haven’t thought through the consequences.”
[size=“They’ll be meeting us at the dock with four cars. ]That’s enough room to put all the trunks. One of those American cars is as big as my lorry.”
[size=“There’ll be Italian Catholics driving every one of those cars”]
[size=“The Romans were in Wales before the English. ]You’re ancestors were probably from Sicily.”
[size=As Uncle George put Uncle Will in his place, a whisper drifted voiceless, weaving through the plates and glasses, rising up, exploding in silence, falling gently, repeating rhythmically like my father’s clock.]
[size=“We’ll miss you, we’ll miss you”. ]
[size=Tick, tock, tick tock, conversation continued while out my window the early darkness of Christmas dissolved the river and lights floated in an effortless parade to and from the north dock.]
[size=It was time for the men to put away the tables and smoke while the women washed dishes and talked. ]It seemed like Sunday evening but there were no hand rolled left over Woodbines tonight only the best Players cigarettes.
[size=On Sunday nights my father would hand me the Cadbury’s biscuit tin in which he saved the precious remains of his Woodbines smoked down so far they turned his fingertips yellow. ]
[size=“Waste not, want not”.]
[size=Then with a razor blade I would carefully cut the burned tips from the ends of the cigarettes, split open the paper, and make a neat pile of tobacco for the little rolling machine, new cigarettes from old butts.]
[size=But not tonight, tonight everything was different. ]No one talked about the war, no one mentioned rationing, politics or the Queen. We were going to America and that is what mattered.
“You’ll be home in a year.”
“Jealous, that’s what you are.”
“It’s dog eat dog, no place for a Welshman.”
“If they’ve got the nerve to go, then I wish them all the best. If I was younger I’d be on the boat with them. That’s where the future is.”
“Who wants tea?”
Everyone responded to my mother’s call as arguments rose and fell in traditional Welsh fashion over a hot cup and a piece of cake. It was time for the sherry, that second piece of Christmas cake, and whatever could be managed within the limits of slowly tightening buttons. Uncle George dosed off, while my cousin Freddy and the German contingent headed home, allowing for Uncle Will’s usual remark.
“Once a German, always a German.”
We each found our way through the night as Christmas darkness stirred images of what was to come. My mother’s solution, as usual, was to be as busy as she possibly could, my father avoided company, read the paper and smoked and I had my lovely window where I would retreat at every opportunity. Drawn curtains, kept out the night, but I was enveloped by the darkness with my back to the curtain and my nose to the glass as I dreamed of the cowboys, gangsters and Doris Day.
“Take it all in boy. Remember the river; remember the lights on Kilvay Hill. Swansea will always be with you.”
Uncle George, arisen from his dreams, joined me in mine. Together we stared into the darkness, his thoughts in the past, mine in the future, meeting at the center as the pendulum swings. Tick tock, tick tock, Christmas in Wales was saying goodbye.
The next morning in the early light of Boxing Day, there at the watery edge of my world, with waves rushing to sand and returning in calm ripples to Swansea Bay, Uncle George spoke through my lips.
“Swansea will always be with you”.
From that moment until our departure I traveled daily from Burrows Chambers to the bay. Quickly I would pass the fish house smell and the small trawlers docked near the mouth of the river, to the bombed out pier jutting into the Bristol Channel. A fast climb to the sand dunes at my right and there before me the bay stretched from the River Tawe to the lighthouse at Mumbles head. This great curving arm holding my world in its warm grasp would soon to be left in the wake of an ocean liner. To relieve the fears my mother repeated a phrase woven into every family conversation at tea time since the end of the war.
“The bombs took everything, but we survived. This is nothing compared to that.”
But my Swansea came after the war, and while adults grieved for the old, children played amidst the rubble with dreams looking forward. Hollywood dreams pulled me over the horizon to America, while images of rowing up the Tawe on my first voyage with the senior scouts, kept my feet rooted in the sands of Swansea Bay. But my father made our journey clear.
“Make your choices boy, there’s only so much we can take with us”.
What to shed and what to keep in our limited space of the cargo hold on The Queen Elizabeth became my main concern. Finally, in order of importance I claimed my Rupert Annuals, my Eagle annuals with Dan Dare, and my beloved Sea Scout uniform. There would be room for more but the priorities were clear.
My mother chose the Swansea China Dinner Service from my grandfather’s house in Kingsbridge that had been spared the bombs. My books became dividers between cups and saucers wrapped carefully in socks and underwear.
“I want every one of those cups intact when we unpack. Do you hear me Tom?”
“And every one of those plates and saucers too.”
“Every one of those cups. Do you hear me?”
Obediently my father complied, fully understanding the importance of symbols, for he had his treasured pendulum clock. The elaborately prepared box for the journey sat beneath its ticking presence until the day before our departure when with great ritual he lowered the clock and our history into its cradle. When the deed was done, he spoke with his usual simplicity, compressing our world into a cardboard box.
“Well now, it’s over and done.”
After months of preparation, we were ready. The High Street Train Station was a parade of more relatives than passengers. Uncles, Aunts and cousins, kissing and crying broke into song as the conductor called out.
The entire station, it seemed, was singing along as the train pulled out.
“We’ll keep a welcome in the hillsides,
We’ll keep a welcome in the vales,
This land you knew will still be singing
When you come home again to Wales”
Suddenly it was real. I watched the gritty factories, the smokestacks, the heaps of coal slag, and the hills covered with small row houses, slip passed the train window, slowly dissolving into the green of pastoral Wales, while the voice of Uncle George still whispered.
”Swansea will always be with you”.
The North Dock had been my playground, big ships were in my blood, but I was not prepared for the world’s greatest ocean liner, a towering city of painted white steel above a black hull, floating on the tranquil waters of Southhampton dock.
“We’re on our way boy. Time to leave childhood behind.”
I was not quite sure what my father meant as we stepped from the gangway to the deck. But I knew it had something to do with unexpected urges below my waist line as I glanced longingly at the young female passengers. They seemed to be everywhere I turned my head as we were herded through a gleaming white steel doorway into a floating city that would become our home for the next five days.
In amazement, I entered the crowded wood paneled lift, shifting my gaze quickly between the breast line of the young female travelers and the brass control knobs that had been well polished, causing my smiling father to speak softly.
“Lovely finish on those knobs John”.
We were transported to the subterranean third class cabins on D deck, which was as deep into the bowels of the ship as humans could possibly be and still survive the pressure.
As we descended, images from the Saturday afternoon movie serial at the Castle Theatre filled my head. The Phantom Empire, awaited us deep within the center of the earth where Gene Autrey would do battle to save the planet from the lost tribe of Mu, while still finding time to sing a few cowboy songs.
“I’m back in the saddle again, out where a friend is a friend.”
My mother and sister were in one cabin, my father, brother in law, and myself in the other. Quickly I climbed into the top bunk plugging my nose bleed from the pressure with soft tissue, and staring in wonder at the clean white roll of toilet paper in my hand. We were on our way to America where never again would I use the torn pages of The South Wales Evening Post to wipe my bum.
The ship’s horn bellowed, bringing everyone on deck as ropes were hauled in and the tugs pulled us away from the dock. With unexpected speed our lives faded into a straight line of gray blue sea against a cloudy sky.
“Well it’s gone Tom. Fifty years of life gone.”
Not another word was spoken as we retired to the lounge for tea, cake and reflection.
As we plowed through an endless morning sea to the land of milk and honey, tea cups in hand, I thought of my father’s reference to leaving childhood behind.
It was as close to a coming of manhood conversation as we would ever have. That is except for his lesson in how to sharpen a dull double edged razor blade by rotating it against the inside of a drinking glass so those two or three newly arrived facial hairs could be removed with a bar of soap, a shaving brush and an old fashioned Gillette razor.
“And don’t forget the after shave. The sting lets you know you’ve done the job right.”
In his orderly world there was a divide between sex and being a man. Sex was physical while manhood was cerebral, and neither were topics for discussion. So, lost at sea without his guidance, at the age of eleven and three quarters, my hands explored the appendage in my trousers that seemed to have found a mind of its own. Familiarity with this attachment reached its peak as my voyage climaxed in New York Harbor.
“Wake up boy. We’re at the docks”.
I was down from the upper bunk and into my clothes.
“Brush your hair before you go up on deck”.
I could have used a lavatory on D deck but I held on, climbing the stairs until I was above the water line where small round windows framed my Hollywood dreams of America. James Cagney gangsters and their Marilyn Monroe girlfriends in tight sweaters with pointy breasts teased my imagination making me want to yell out loud,
“Top of the World, Ma!”
There it was, glistening in the early morning sun, a shiny bullet, erect and pointing to the heavens in brilliant Technicolor, an affirmation of my pubescent journey to manhood. It was the Chrysler Building, my first view of New York through the round portal of a lavatory window, proclaiming my arrival as I faced the urinal, head turned skyward, peeing with a smile.
The future was out that window and in my hands as I crossed the barrier between innocence, and self awareness, discovering a new body and new culture all at once. It was nirvana, the realization of mystical revelations discovered on other public lavatory walls creating a new purpose for that appendage now standing at attention all by itself.
This new transcendental state in the land of pointy breasts and nylon stockings was unwittingly supported by my father’s words of encouragement for this new world.
“Dreams belong to you boy, nobody can take them away.”
So I dreamed, and dreamed and dreamed.
Fog had kept the ship from the docks all night.
“Bloody fog! Might as well be in Swansea.”
“That’s all right Tom, we’ll land on your birthday.”
“I put on a suit and tie, and for what?”
“The fourth of May nineteen fifty-four will be a very special occasion. Now drink your Guinness and let’s enjoy our last night on board“.
My mother consoled and my father drank as we waited with other third class passengers wearing their Sunday best in the third class lounge. Between drinks my father walked on shaky legs to the doorway, disappearing in a cloud of gray mist, and then reemerging from the foggy soup with ready sarcasm.
“When this bloody fog lifts we’re going to see Mumbles head. This ship took five days to go from Southampton back to Swansea. Edie, we’ve made a hell of a mistake.”
“Well it’s too late to turn back now Tom. I hope they don’t have to wait for us all night on the docks”.
“Those American cars are big enough to sleep in. They’ll be fine as long as none of those gangsters are around.”
“Don’t be daft Tom. It’s not the films.”
“Well then, maybe they’ll drive home to Newark and be back in the morning.”
Drive home my father said. Americans don’t travel by bus they drive home and this they do in shiny cars with chrome bumpers and radios. Visions of a pink Cadillac convertible corrupted my innocence as I dreamed of sitting in the back seat with the movie star of my dreams. But I was conflicted. My heart wanted Doris, but my lower parts voted for Marilyn.
I had watched, Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend, three times in a row at the free movie theatre on board that showed a new feature, all day, every day. Upon the third viewing, my father and mother arrived at the theatre. That became the final performance, but Marilyn’s bare shoulders, the pink satin dress, and that voice, that sultry voice, were seared in my brain forever.
“Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.”
Meals on The Queen Elizabeth were also a Hollywood dream for there were no ration cards, and every day an untried food, and now we were on the verge of discovering hot dogs, pizza and even garlic. Waiters in fancy dress floated about our table with careful humility, leaning forward with platters, offering items I had never seen, as though we were royalty. There was discomfort for me as I watched them for I knew we belonged on the other side of the divide, serving rather than being served.
This magic word removed all my discomfort as an actual French girl with breasts, who smelled like heaven, sat across the dinner table facing me and spoke.
“Start with the fork on the outside first John, then move in toward the plates. John? Are you listening to me? Never mind that girl, and put that napkin on your lap, not in your shirt. And close your mouth.”
Having worked in the houses of those with money and manners, my mother knew where to begin, and seemed to enjoy being on the receiving end of all the fuss. The waiters understood and went out of their way to treat us with extra loving care.
“The waiter said we’re going to have that Italian spaghetti tomorrow night, with real butter”.
This brought visions of the French girl sucking a single strand of pasta through pursed lipstick red lips as I closed my eyes. She was one of the many dignified Europeans on board that passed us by with proud vertical heads perched on stiff spines. But everything about the Americans was slightly curved from head to toe. I mimicked the way they walked on deck as my father shook his head.
“There’s a swagger. It’s like they own the whole bloody world. They all think they’re John Wayne”.
This image of a cowboy with a six gun who spoke with a slow drawl was an irresistible vision of American manhood. Whenever I saw the French again girl I would swagger passed wanting to say something in cowboy.
These two well practiced words were on the tip of my tongue but never got beyond a murmured whisper through clenched teeth as she smiled and kept walking.
Proud Europeans and swaggering Americans however, never diminished my father’s commitment to home, especially when they referred to him as English. Three potent symbols of attachment to his ragged bombed out relic of a sea town accompanied him to the new world. First, the cufflinks given him by Mr. Evan Evans when he was sixteen, then the LMS Railway insignia from his uniform, tucked away in the breast pocket of his suit, and finally his treasured pendulum clock. His daily ritual of winding its coiled spring, the tick tock of the pendulum, and the resonating hourly Big Ben chimes were conformation of a life still in motion.
“Make sure nothing happens to that clock. It survived the German bombs and now it’s your job to carry it safe and sound off this ship”.
It fell upon my shoulders to ensure the safe passage of this time machine. I returned to the cabin on D deck several times a day, to be certain it was still there hidden behind the suitcases with a cardigan and several pairs of shoes on top to make it less inviting to prying eyes.
“Mind you don’t put anything heavy on that box John, and make sure that roped handle stays tight.”
On our final day at sea, while the French girl was on deck playing table tennis in white shorts, I tore myself away from this vision of heaven, to check once more on the precious cargo. It was a test of manhood, but lust won over logic as I glanced back watching her reach for the little white ball rolling to starboard. As she bent toward me, the monster in my trousers convinced me that the clock was safe, at least for the moment. I remained on deck until the fog rolled in blocking my table tennis fantasy and keeping us from our destination for one more night.
When evening came, I returned to the starboard railing, dreaming lustful thoughts, and listening to the magical sounds of French, Polish, Spanish, and to my parents dismay, German, floating from the lounge. Breathing in the salty darkness, I sensed the enormity of the world beyond my school boy existence in Swansea town.
“It’s a beautiful night.”
I turned to face the voice, but as first saw nothing.
“Is your family emigrating?”
I looked again, seeing in the darkness a tall man in a suit with skin as black as coal, and so began my first conversation with someone of another race. He was from somewhere in Africa, and worked for the United Nations I learned after my father came from the lounge to join us. After a long adult conversation, the man shook both our hands and returned to his cabin as my father spoke words reserved for few people.
“That is a gentleman.”
Then he pointed disapprovingly to the Irish men singing lonely songs near a lifeboat.
“But mind you don’t talk to those tinkers.”
This disparity made the black man and the tinkers that much more intriguing as I retired to our cabin on D deck. There in the upper bunk, bloodied nostrils plugged once more with toilet paper, I awaited our arrival in the Harbor.
“Wake up boy. We’re at the docks.”
My Technicolor New York morning finally began with that first life changing view of the Chrysler Building. From that moment, I glided through a daydream of smells from dry land, heat from the sun, and hurried voices all fighting for recognition. Passengers from everywhere gathered at the railing with tears and smiles.
“Never mind those bags, John. And pull your socks up. And Tom, straighten your tie and do up your coat buttons.”
“Not till we leave the ship. It’s too bloody hot.”
“Well at least try to look pleasant, they can see us from the dock.”
“Flashy shirts, that’s all I see down there, and nobody has on a jacket and tie.”
“Never mind that, you just worry about what Tom Watts looks like.”
“Watch your step on the gangway kid.”
The porter’s words, the ship’s horn, and the laughter, all blended into a single New York greeting. For that brief moment, if his voice bust into song and a chorus line danced across the Manhattan waterfront I would have accepted the reality.
“Keep your head up boy. They’re all watching us”.
I stood at the gangway with wobbly legs and shoulders back preparing for the final decent, my left hand firmly grasping the roped handle of the time machine.
“Au Revoir Johnny”.
Her soft voice faded down the gangway as the French girl passed me with never a look back, her body swaying gently. She knew my name. She called me “Johnny”. I stood frozen as my father leaned forward, his hand on my shoulder.
“Time to leave childhood behind.”
Now I was ready. We were dressed in our Sunday best, my mother in her brand new frock and my father in his double breasted suit and wearing his new trilby, the rim tilted slightly like Humphrey Bogart.
I lead the way as we stepped onto the wharf, my solemn duty accomplished. The time machine and my new found manhood had been safely brought to ground on American soil.
But the sand waves of memory still summoned the white foam rushing to a fleeting union in the tenuous margin between here and there. Swansea Bay is where I will always exist, shifting with the tide, a migrant facing the certainty of an uncomfortable truth. We are all between worlds.
Last edited on Tue Aug 31st, 2010 11:47 pm by John Watts
This monologue has been rewritten several times since I first put the completed piece up on the site. I have now updated the work to reflect its current state of development. It is longer and hopefully better.
Just wanted to say, I love the opening. Though, it feels like a misplaced novel instead of a play there are some exciting staging possibilities so far. Off to finish reading, now. A great start, I think.
Thanks for reading my piece. It does open in a different way than would perhaps be expected. If you want to hold an audience you need to hook them right in the beginning and the unexpected works well on occasion.
I am having a debate with myself, and of course with others, about whether to address my monologue directly to an audience sitting out there or to a specific person. The question is always, “Why am I saying these things”.
At the moment I am comfortable with my approach, but intend experiment with aiming my words toward my wife or our daughter or someone I haven’t thought of yet. Any thoughts on this would be appreciated.
"On Boxing Day, my father performed his early morning ritual, a cup of tea, the BBC news and the winding of the clock. This wall mounted pendulum beauty with Big Ben chimes was not an heirloom handed down from father to son but rather the only surviving life form in a bombed house across the street from the house where I was born. "
I love this as the opening because it simply begins with an endearing image and it tells the audience: ...and we're off.
It picks right up with the storytelling and lets us figure out why the speaker is talking throughout the piece rather than being told.
I was quite impressed with the story telling, John. I felt whisked away and afterwards did a google search of Swansea. I recalled some of your descriptions as I scrolled through the images.
Though, I was expecting something to occur with the clock. I expected it to be stolen or broken when you were off with the French girl. Or even a missed opportunity because you had to ensure the safety of the clock...something. It feels wistful but I am unsure as to what is being lamented really. It could be Swansea or youth or idealism but i'm not really sure.
I do love the details, though. It was an enjoyable read, a little like one of the short stories in Dubliners for me, which is why i thought it was a short story transformed into a play.
Your uncertainty about what I am lamenting is very relevant as I have been wrestling with how to bring my sense of loss and endless search for an alternative into focus within the story. I have begun that process by adding the first paragraph and ending with the same paragraph although those lines may not end up being there in the end. At the moment I need them to force my hand.
I am one of those many people who moved from one culture and country to another. Once you step outside you never can go back. You may return to the place you came from but you can never again be a part of what you left behind. At the same time you cannot let go of what you were and are never a true part of the culture and place you have settled.
So to put it simply, I lament belonging to a place, a culture, and even a time. The word, belonging, always gives me slight palpitations. Of course this can easily be interpreted in a much broader sense, as I say in my last sentence, “We are all between worlds”.
I don’t want to hit the nail directly on the head. To hold an audience and make the idea pertinent I need to weave the message of loss and longing into the wider context of the story. It requires very little writing but lots of thinking and I’m working on it.
I will have another reading next month and that will help.
John, this is a beautifully written and evocative piece. I blush to admit that I've never seen a one-man show, so don't know if this is par for the format. But I agree with blackjohnnie that this seems more like a short story or part of a novel than a play. Maybe even a memoir.
Your strong use of detail helps it to "show rather than tell." It is very literary -- and that's a good thing! I wonder if some conflict would help it seem more play-like -- if you even want it to go in that direction. The conflict could be civilized, as is this exchange:
"There’ll be Italian Catholics driving every one of those cars”
Reaching for the cider, Uncle George quickly put Uncle Will in his place.
"The Romans were in Wales before the English. You’re ancestors were probably from Sicily.”
Maybe your mother resisted the move more than you realized? That might be a source of some gentle, understated conflict. Nevertheless, this paints a beautiful family portrait.
Thank you for your kind words and observations. I agree that it does continue to have the feel of a novel rather than a play. I have found myself taking more liberties with minor specifics, especially with the voices and conversations attempting to change that. My problem is however, not wanting distort the essential truth of the narrative. It is autobiographical and I feel an obligation to the people involved, even though they have almost all passed away at this point.
With a one man show you can function as a storyteller. The job of the performer it to hold the audience’s attention and if with careful mix of story and voices that is achieved then I will feel comfortable with the result.
This is a work in progress however, and I fully intend to “try” to create more conflict. The places in the piece that you mentioned are useful areas for me to explore the possibilities and I will do so.
I will have another reading in September and that will certainly help me find more ways to make this come alive for stage presentation.
To make the point that I do understand traditional use of stage conflict perhaps you can have a look at my play, Ms. Maxwell and Mrs. Chen, which is a bit further down the list of works in the listing for, Critique My Play.
I just noticed that my posting of Ms. Maxwell And Mrs. Chen, is out of date. There have been several small, but as always, significant rewrites since then. I am posting the newest version of the play right now.
I certainly understand your wanting to preserve not only the truth of your characters but the lovely tone you've created and maintained throughout. You also seem well aware of the added dimension some conflict could provide. I don't think it would take much--just some strategically placed tension, similar to the way newspapers used to drop a little spot color on a page back in the day.
I look forward to reading "Ms. Maxwell and Mrs. Chen" and hope to do so before I leave for the (computer-free!) mountains.
You have inspired me to take the next step. i have spent the day editing and attempting to add more direct dialogue for my characters. Primarily it is the little exchanges that occured between my father and mother. In this way I avoided making things up and still was able, I think, to present the conflict that existed between them.
In a couple of other areas I pulled dialogue that already existed into a collective whole without comment as description of who is speaking is not necessay as the voice will inform the audience.
Masterfully done, John. I think the touches of friction add depth to the portrait and underscore rather than diminish the quiet love that holds the family together wherever they are. I also think your changes--which were subtle and I'm not sure I even noticed all of them--moved the piece toward theater. Beautiful!