Sunday, November 19, 2006

Memories and meanderings (again)

Why is it that the day I am on welcoming duty at church, and I am just a teeny bit late getting there, half the congregation (for want of a better word) gets there early - or on time, which is the same as early for Linden?

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Husband bought me season 7 of West Wing on DVD for my birthday, and we've been watching it avidly ever since. For those of you who aren't familiar with West Wing: you don't know what you're missing.

Last night it was the live debate between the presidential candidates, Matt Santos and Arnie Vinnick, aka Hawkeye from M.A.S.H. Harvey and I talked about this when we were out walking this afternoon. I wondered how it came to be that a radical, rebellious doctor could end up as a republican, albeit liberal. Harvey sniffed and said he couldn't really comment as he'd never seen MASH, as it was broadcast before he was born. I said that a dog who is 98 in human years should be careful about whom he is calling old.

Anyway, it did make me wonder what Hawkeye would vote today. Maybe being so disillusioned about the whole doctoring in war thing would have warped his thinking so dramatically that he would be a Republican. Or maybe he always was. No, surely not.

Harvey, having got bored with this conversation, pointed out the flock of seagulls and five oyster-catchers on the water-logged playing-fields. We crept up on them; they flew away.

All except three. I said, 'Come on, Harvs, we've got be really sneaky now,' and tippy-toed through a puddle. Two of them spotted us and flew away.

That left just one who was standing with his back towards us, staring aimlessly into space. 'Shhhh.' Two steps closer. The seagull turns around but doesn't panic. Another three steps closer. The seagull watches us (me - Harvey has wandered off in the opposite direction following a more interesting smell).

I am close enough now to see the seagull shake his head in an 'I give up with these humans' sort of way, and hear him sigh, before taking off to join his buddies on the next football pitch.

I do what Harvs does in this situation: pretend I was just walking that way anyway and that I'm not in the least bit interested in seagulls.

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Lots of people use the playing fields to practise their golf. As a result Harvs and I quite often find golf balls in the bushes. Let's be honest: I look out for them. I feel a great sense of achievement if I can take one home with me. Not that I play golf; it's just the hunter/gatherer, something-for-free instinct. It's why I have to gather blackberries. And conkers.

When I was a little girl I went, on occasion, with my grandmother to collect cockles from the bay. This was just before the signs went up forbidding the collecting of cockles on the grounds that the bay was highly polluted. Huh! I grew up not only eating cockles from the bay, but swimming in it too. It didn't do me any harm. I'm as normal as my dog.

I used these and other memories as the foundation for a short story I wrote a few years ago. Here is an excerpt in which the narrator, a slightly disturbed middle-aged woman, remembers going cockling.

I love the smell of the sea. I can smell it in the house sometimes when the wind is in the right direction, and then I open all the windows to let it in, but out here, coming straight off the water, it's sweeter, untainted by town odours. And sweetest because it carries with it so many memories.

When I was a little girl mammy would take me with her to gather cockles. In those days we didn't know about the pollution in the bay, all the chemicals from the industry in the valley that nobody bothered to clean up but poured straight down the Tawe into our lovely bay. The poison and the shit, we didn't know about any of that. We took the sea for granted, it was just there. It was where we learnt to swim, me and John, off the steps out along the prom. Mammy would sit at the top and watch us, and when we'd had enough, when our teeth were chattering so much neither of us could stand it any more, and we'd have to give in, she'd wrap us both in big stripey towels she kept just for summer and swimming, and she'd rub us down till we shouted to her to stop, we're warm now, mammy.

But you could only swim in the bay when the tide was in. When it's out, it's a mile at least to get to it through squelchy mud. Like melted chocolate, mud that slurps around your toes and sucks you into itself. We didn't walk on it if we could help it except when we went with mammy to collect cockles. Then we all, mammy and John and me, wore wellies to protect us against whatever was lurking there. We never saw anything but we knew there were things below the surface just waiting for our feet.

You've got to follow the tide out if you want to collect cockles. Mammy liked best to go in the early mornings, when the sun was light and clear, and the air was salty fresh. She would carry the rake and bucket and John and me would skip from puddle to puddle spotting crabs and tiny shrimps. By the time you got all the way out to the best cockle beds, you couldn't hear a sound; the village and its life and noise could have been a million miles away, not just across the sandbanks. We wouldn't be alone, there were always a few people out there gathering cockles, and they'd say, 'There's a good bed here, come and join us,' and we'd go over and then the hard work would start.

Mammy would rake the sand and John and me would collect up the cockles and put them in our bucket. 'Not that one,' mammy would say sometimes, 'that one's too small, leave it time to grow up a bit, take its big sister instead.' Or, 'That's an ugly old one, all open like that, we don't want his sort.' Then when our bucket was full, we'd carry it between us over to the nearest puddle and we'd rinse them to get rid of as much sand as we could, before carrying them all the way back home. We'd take it in turns. Mammy would carry the bucket for a bit and then John and me would struggle with the narrow metal handle digging into our palms. Mammy made up a game for us to play as we trekked back shorewards. We'd look at the village and spot people's houses and try and guess what they were doing right at that moment. 'Mr Rees, he'll have been out for hours with the fishing boat and Mrs Rees will be washing the children's clothes. Imagine having seven children to wash for,' mammy would say.

'Poor Mrs Rees. And old Mrs Evans will be sitting at her window waiting for her son to come back from the war.'
'Can you see her? Cooee, Mrs Evans.'
'Don't be daft, John, she can't hear you.'
'I know that, she wouldn't hear the foghorn if it was in her front room. And there's Mrs Penry's house, la di da, bet she's still in bed, waiting for her maid to bring her breakfast, yes ma'am, no ma'am, thank you ma'am.'

Then when we got home, the old tin bath would be out ready in the back-yard. Daddy would have got it out from the shed. Not the best bath, the one we use on Sunday night, but the one that leaks and can't go inside, and we'd be set to, fetching jugs of water from the outside tap to wash the cockles. Mammy would wash them until she was sure they were clean. Not a grain of sand would be found in those shells once mammy had finished with them, then she'd take them into the scullery and we could go and play, until she called us to come and eat them. The sweetest mouthfuls ever to come out of the sand and all the better for the work we'd had to do getting them. With crispy fried best bacon, it had to be best, Mammy only ever bought the best food. She knew how to look after her family.

9 comments:

Joy Des Jardins said...

West Wing is the BEST! One of my all-time favorite shows. I miss it terribly. I've actually forced myself NOT to buy every season on DVD. I only have season One. Not only would I just sit for hours re-watching it all, but.....IT'S EXPENSIVE at this point to get them all. Have you taken the leap and watched Studio 60 yet Liz? Written by the same writer from West Wing...I knew I'd love it...and I do! Great cast...a couple of my favs from WW are in it...ANOTHER ADDICTION! Enjoy your 7th Season Liz....

Anonymous said...

Great writing, Liz. Would love to read the whole story. Which reminds me. Have you uploaded any more of the other story from a couple of months ago?

And I suspect Hawkeye would either still be one of us crazy Democrats or would consider himself "libertarian."

Anonymous said...

Such nice memories, Liz, and beautifully written.

I always liked the West Wing, especially when Jimmy Smits joined the cast.

Regards to Harvs.

Anonymous said...

a very evocative piece of your writing - as always, Liz

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Hi, Liz. I'm a West Wing fan, too. We get it here on Sky. I remember the episode you mention and I can't see Hawkeye as a Republican either. But you never know. Harvs sounds the kind of dog my Simi could relate to! - She gets all dignified like that, too. The excerpt from the story is very good and I love your descriptions. Thanks for adding my blog to your list. I'll return the compliment.

Clare said...

I am only a recent devotee to the West Wing, but have swiftly become addicted... Phil has all the series on DVD (yes, they are expensice, and yes, he is a little obsessive!), and I have watched them all at some point in the last 16 months. I am now working my way back through on cold and rainy days when we can't go out and fly the kite.
Enjoy!

Liz said...

Thanks for your comments. This is me but I am going to sign in as other as I want to make sure it can be done as someone was having trouble.

Steve said...

Nice story, but I think I'm either going blind or the writing is getting smaller. Not sure which. I'm still having to sign in as other. Better than not being able to sign in with my Beta.

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