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Ash on a Young Man's Sleeve
By Dannie Abse
ParthianCopyright © 1954 Dannie Abse
All rights reserved.
Ash on a Young Man's Sleeve
Ash on an old man's sleeve
Is all the ash burnt roses leave.
Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where a story ended.
Dust inbreathed was a house –
T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding
June the first was our agreement, our day of peace. It came in that year with all sunshine and the windows open and the neighbours' radio. It was tennis-players and the yellow seasick trams grinding down Cathedral Road. It was the end of a school day where we left our carved initials, hurt and momentous, in the wooden desk, and schoolteacher (old Knobble-knees) rubbing off chalk from the blackboard like a nasty day from the calendar. 'Mind how you cross the road,' she said. 'Please, Miss Morgan,' asked Philip, 'can I have my yo-yo back? I won't talk again during lessons.'
Keith had asked me to his house for tea, for it was our day of peace, an interlude in our constant campaign of being mean to each other, of masterful vilification. We walked hardly together for we were enemies. Suddenly Keith said, 'There'll be bananas and cream, so you can leave as soon as you've eaten 'em.' 'I like bananas and cream,' I said. Other people's houses have a strange smell. Keith Thomas' home was no exception and I was sniffing. 'What's the matter?' Keith's mother asked. 'Is there something burning?' I went very red when the others sniffed. They just stood there, Keith and his mother, heads cocked, drawing air through their nostrils. 'I can't smell anything,' she said. I could. Perhaps it was the odour of sin or the past remains of previous tenants. I ate bread and butter and jam and Welsh cakes, and Keith sniffed and sniffed louder and louder, quite ostentatiously I can tell you. 'Blow your nose, Keith,' said his mother. I tipped the tea over the tablecloth and grew redder ...
This was all a long time ago: I was ten years high and I lived in South Wales. There everything was different, more alive somehow. The landscape and the voices were dramatic and argumentative. Already I knew the chapels and the pubs and the billiard halls and the singing.
'How old's your mother?'
'Mine's hundred and ninety.'
Near the White Wall, I was born in a smoky house, boasting. I knew the paper flowers, the Sunday suits, the stuffed animals, the brass, the clocks, and the ferns.
Always there was too much furniture in the room. Always there was too much noise and familiarity. Always there were visitors. Lovely it was.
But Porthcawl was the place with the long wind and the terror of the sea coming over the promenade with sloppy white paws. On Sundays, father would drive us down, plush and proud, scrubbed and avid, dodging in and out amongst the procession of cars that the seaside attracted like a magnet. And I would be in a race steering from the back seat. Over Tumble Down Dick and down Crack Hill. Past the Golden Mile and the green and green. Stop for Bull's-eyes. Stop for weewee. Porthcawl was the place. Posh. The Figure of Eight and the Ghost Train. The slowest Speedboats in the world and the thinnest Fat Lady. Come and See Minny, She Creeps and She Crawls, She Walks on Her Belly Like a Reptile – Hey, Hey – Tanner a Time. Not to mention Sandy Beach and the parents shouting at the deaf children: 'Don't swim out too far.' 'Stop that!' 'Dai, you'll get sick eating sand.'
I used to take two pebbles and throw them at each other. They were boxers fighting or two armies locked in a stony embrace. One was Wales, the other was England or France or Siam, or red-haired, freckle-faced Keith Thomas. My mother was born at Ystalyfera one rainy Tuesday, my father on Guy Fawkes night in Bridgend, so Wales always won, unless the inevitable cloud would interrupt the struggle with a lamentation of rain. Then the people, the lovely folk, would go scooting for the public shelters and wait for the rare Welsh sun or for the Western Welsh bus or for the Welsh pubs to open. And they would sing whilst they waited. Oh, sing my beautiful, 'Sospan Fach', 'Cwm Rhondda'. They would sing ...
Keith's mother put a plate under the tablecloth.
'Never mind,' she said to me.
'What are you blushing for?' asked Keith. 'Look, Ma, he's as red as a beetroot.'
'Quiet darling,' said his mother.
'I thought we were going to have bananas and cream,' I said. Later the man of the house came in, ate, and said no word. Grumpy he was. My mother used to say that he had whisky instead of blood running through his body. It was true too; I could smell it through his mouth. Besides, lunch-time yesterday, I heard him and saw him come out of The Bull with One Leg. Drunk he was and shouting: 'I am damned, we are damned. I know what sin is, so I know what God is. We're damned, damned, damned.' I stood in the street as the pub's doors swung behind a weeping Mr Thomas, who staggered tenderly into the sunlight. 'Darro,' he said, looking at me with spaniel eyes, 'you're damned too, little one.' And wobbly he walked down the road under the two o'clock sun. But now, in his own house, he said no word, looking at me without recognition, though only yesterday lunch-time it was that he confided to me the terrible, the most unspeakable truth. 'Come and sit down, Mr Thomas,' said his wife, so Keith and I went out into the garden. (Their garden is not as big as ours.)
'What's that?' I asked.
'Our washing machine,' Keith said.
'Does it work?' I asked.
'Put your finger by 'ere,' Keith said.
I did so and he turned the handle and my nail was crushed and I went home crying to mother. He was my enemy.
It was Friday night and we were Jewish. The two candles burning symbolised for me holiness and family unity. My mother could speak Welsh and Yiddish and English, and Dad knew swear words as well. One of my big brothers would say the prayer and we would eat. My brothers' names were Wilfred and Leo. The meat was kosher. 'Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands. Comb your hair.' I loved my brothers best.
In the schoolyard, too, they would dance around me:
'Dan, Dan, the dirty old man,
Washed his face in a frying pan;
Combed his hair with a leg of the chair,
Dan, Dan, the dirty old man.'
'I'll do you in, Keith Thomas,' I said furiously. That settled it. Keith and I would lead a procession of whooping boys into the lane and we would threaten each other, spit at each other, and finally swing our fists against the air until, by chance, one of us would get our face in the way and the fight would end. Fierce it was. Afterwards I would go into our garage so that I could weep alone and not show the shame of my tears to the other boys.
I loved my brothers best. Leo was a revolutionary. I already knew the 'Red Flag' and the Alphabet.
'A stands for Armaments, the Capitalists' pride, B stands for Bolshie, the thorn in their side...'
Oh, election day was a holiday. I would go over the town looking for a Labour car. I couldn't find any, so I chased the Liberals instead, and insulted the big slick cars that wore the blue colours.
'Vote, vote, vote for Johnny Williams, Kick old Whitey in the pants.'
'What are you shouting for?' said my enemy Keith Thomas, his eyes, poison blue, leering at me. 'Vote, vote, vote,' I shouted. Keith pulled a penknife out of his pocket, unclasped it and tested the edge with his thumb. 'It's sharp,' he said casually. 'You broke my fingernail,' I said. An election car passed by. 'Vote, vote, vote,' I shouted. 'Quiet,' ordered Keith, and he once more tested the edge of his knife ominously. 'You coward,' I said, 'fight like a Great Britain.' The street was empty. A cat slept on the sunlit doorway.
'Shut up, you podgy Jewboy,' said Keith.
'Podgy son of a whisky man,' I said.
'I'll slit your throat,' said Keith.
'I'll bash you on the nose,' I retaliated.
'I'll cut you into pieces,' said Keith.
'I'll split your lip,' I answered.
'I'll cut your ears off,' Keith said.
'I'll put your eyes out,' I said.
'Shut up, you podgy Jewboy,' said Keith.
'Podgy son of a whisky man,' I said.
Keith slowly came towards me with his penknife ready.
'Fight like a Great Britain,' I said.
Round the far corner ambled Dirty-face, pushing a pram, his dog following behind.
'Gosh,' I said, 'there's Dirty-face.'
We both hesitated. Then we ran away. We were both afraid of Dirty-face. In the Park I heard Keith shouting: 'Podgy Jewboy. Podgy Jewboy. Podgy Jewboy.' I walked home quickly to ask Wilfred to buy me a penknife.
This was all a long time ago. I was ten years high and I lived in South Wales. I was not to play with Dirty-face, or go down the Docks, or make noises in my belly when visitors came. I was to tie up my shoe-laces, be kind to the cat and wash. But there were more 'don'ts' than 'dos'.
And throughout all this my mother kissed me.
Cariad, clean heart, listen to me, this is my beginning. Let me start again.
We sat there, brown-headed, black-headed, fair-headed, red-headed, bowed over our books silently. In the next classroom a music lesson progressed and the piping unbroken voices sang out clear and true as water. 'The Minstrel Boy to the wars has gone, in the ranks of death you'll find him.' Outside, birds chattered and the traffic passed. Inside, on the window-shelf, tadpoles were black commas in the fish-and-chip water. On teacher's desk stood a vase of sweet peas that Tubby Taylor had brought her. Somebody passed me a note which read, 'Miss Morgan is in luv with the Head.' I dipped the note in the inkpot and threw it at the back of Foureyes' neck. He looked up, startled, thinking he had been stung. I was gazing with great concentration at the electric bulb and counted four drunken flies. 'You wait,' whispered Foureyes. The sweet peas in their faded colours reminded me of old-fashioned young ladies frayed in cheap dresses. I giggled. Then the bell rang: it was the end of school. Brown heads, black heads, fair heads, red heads, looked up eagerly. The Minstrel Boy abruptly came to an end next door. 'Class dismiss,' said Miss Morgan.
I ran out of school with my arms horizontal (for I was an aeroplane) into the summer evening. In the Park it said PLEASE KEEP OFF THE GRASS and DOGS ALLOWED ONLY ON A LEASH. I kicked the notices over. In the distance, the park-keeper stabbed with his little iron spear, cigarette cartons, pieces of newspaper and other rubbish. Old men were playing bowls over on the West Side. Young men were taking off their tigerish blazers to play tennis on the red gravel court. Lol, the idiot boy, was fishing with a net for tiddlers in the brook whilst another lad repeatedly banged the chained metal cup against the fountain for no reason. Suddenly, as I was swooping and zooming over my terrestrial sky, I found my enemy before me, his face frenetic, insane, ridiculous. His small stones of fists stung my body and my face, whilst all the other boys who had come to watch exhorted him to further savagery. Then once again, I was alone, weeping, the pebbles in my knees bruised and the skin over them bleeding, for the gravel pathway had curiously risen to meet me. 'I'll kill you,' I said, 'I'll kill you.' Nobody was in earshot. One of the tennis-players shouted 'Thirty-forty.' From afar, I could hear the wooden click as the bowls cannoned off each other. Through my splintered glass tears Lol, the half-idiot boy, came towards me with his fishing net slung over his shoulder. He stood there gawking.
'Go away,' I said.
He smiled sadly.
'I cry too,' he said.
'Go away,' I shouted.
'I fell into the brook and drownded myself,' he said, and added, almost whispering, 'So I don't cry no more.'
'You wait,' I boasted, 'I'll get that Keith.'
But, later, Keith Thomas became my greatest friend, for he, with his parents, moved to the next street, the other side of the lane. Keith's father would pass our house at night after the pubs closed, and I would hear him shouting:
'We're damned, the whole world is damned.'
Mother used to say: 'His poor wife, what she has to put up with, and her with a weak heart and swelling of the ankles. All his doing, his. Thank God that's one thing your father doesn't do.'
'His wife's condition is nothing to do with the drink,' Wilfred would say, who was a medical student. 'Mrs Thomas had rheumatic fever when she was a child.'
'Don't tell me,' my mother would reply. 'If that's the sort of diagnosis you're going to make when you're a doctor your father is pouring money down the drain.' Why did Wilfred laugh, I wonder? Sometimes I call Wilfred Big Stiff. He likes that.
'What sort of a future has little Keith with a father like that?' mother would go on.
Later in the night I would wake up and listen to Mr Thomas swimming home in the dark street outside. Once I crept out of bed to look out of the window. Mr Thomas was clinging to the lamp-post and another man was playing an accordion. The accordion player was singing, 'She was a good girl until I took her to a dance, she was a good girl but then she had her first romance' – and, tilting towards the moon, Mr Thomas in his bowler hat was shouting above the accordion and the singing, 'Christ is come but I am damned.'
Keith and I used to play hide-and-seek in the nearby church-yard, our laughter resounding all loveliness amongst the sombre stone angels. We played cricket in the stretched summer lanes, we fished for minnows in the stream and became Cowboys and Indians amongst the bushes and trees of the Park. (I was always an Indian because my brother Leo had told me that Cowboys were Imperialists.) It was all greeny and water and swan until one afternoon the following spring.
We were mitching from school in the lane behind our houses and we caught house-flies with our hands. We would throw the living flies into the web between the stones of the wall and watch the insect struggling before the spider came out from his den to eat it up. Usually we pulled the wings off the fly first so that it couldn't escape.
'Catching flies,' I said, 'is a social duty,' when Keith became doubtful of our inquisitory practices. Then the big man approached us. We saw him coming down the lane but we didn't think he would stop to speak to us. He wore a gay coloured shirt.
'Hullo,' he said.
'Hullo, Mister,' said Keith.
'What are you doing?' the big man said.
'Nothing,' I said.
'Would you like some ice-cream?' he asked.
'Don't mind,' Keith said.
'No, we're going,' I said.
He looked down at us puzzled. His shirt was very brightcoloured. Suddenly he smiled artificially. 'You're a lovely boy,' the man said softly with an invalid's voice. He placed his hand on my friend's shoulder. He had hair on his hand. There was something very physical and secretive about him. Mother had said sometimes to me, 'If you're a bad boy I'll give you to the gypsies.' But he wasn't a gypsy. I could tell that. His sticky pathetic face leered at us and he lisped something we couldn't understand. All the time his hand lay remarkably intimate on my friend's shoulder.
'Go away,' I said, 'or I'll tell my father.'
The man laughed. 'Where do you live?' he asked.
'There,' I said.
He took his hand from Keith's shoulder, giggled and turned away. Quietly we watched him walk down the lane. The big man turned round and waved at us, and we didn't speak to each other at all. When he had gone I said, 'You'll have the Black Curse now.' Keith looked at me concerned. 'What do you mean?' he asked. 'Well, the man touched you, didn't he?' Keith went white. "S all right,' I reassured him, 'you won't get the Black Curse unless we see him again.'
For weeks after that we wouldn't look at people and as we marched through the crowds we would stare at our feet. 'Don't dare look up, Keith,' I said, 'you might see the man and then you'll get the Black Curse.' Soon, however, we forgot all about the incident and it was not until the Wales v. England Rugby International match that we thought of it again. 'There'll be fifty thousand people there,' said Keith gloomily. 'The man's bound to be one of them.'
These big rugby matches were great fun. The kind Welsh crowd would pass us down over their heads, hand by hand, laugh by laugh, right to the front. And then there would be a band playing and the fat man banging the fat drum. Tiddle-um, tiddle-um, tiddly um tum tum. Hoo-ray, Hoo-ray. And they sang the Welsh songs that floated sadly, but joyfully, into the air over Cardiff Arms Park, as little dark-headed men invaded the field in an attempt to climb the goal-posts and hang there the all-important leek. There would be the ritual of the crowd shouting 'Boo' and 'Shame' when the policemen ejected the intense spectators from the holy pitch. The policemen knew they were unpopular. They tried to shoo the invading spectators away with dignity, but the spectators ran round them towards the goal-posts, jigging and dancing, putting their thumbs to their noses. What a laugh it was. Yet nobody succeeded in attaching the leek to the crossbar. As one of the men next to us said, 'The buggers have greased the poles.' England came out in their white shirts and the crowd clapped politely, but the real applause was reserved for the men in red shirts as they strutted out from the players' tunnel, cocky and clever. The roar subsided as the band played 'Land of My Fathers'. Fifty thousand people (including somewhere in the crowd the Black Curse man) stood with their hats off at attention. When the National Anthems were over there was another roar. Somebody said, 'Jiawch, England 'ave an 'efty team, much bigger than ours, mun.' The whistle blew, and soon after England scored. 'There seem to be two of theirs to one of ours,' the man with the wart said. Another remarked, 'In the old days Wales really had a team, not a bunch of students.' 'It's the referee,' added his companion. 'Look at that, offside if there ever was one.' At last Wales equalised. 'What a movement, what a movement,' said the man who had been talking of the old days. 'Just like in 1923 when ...' Three spectators near us wore red shirts and banged silver saucepans, urging the players to victory with screams of Llanelli encouragement and scathing criticisms. And we shouted too, oh how we shouted ... When the noise was loudest we swore and nobody could hear us.
Excerpted from Ash on a Young Man's Sleeve by Dannie Abse. Copyright © 1954 Dannie Abse. Excerpted by permission of Parthian.
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