Chepstow

Happy Memories

COROMANDEL by Pam Horne

That moment
passing under the rock arch into Cathedral Cove,
I was offered delight beyond dreaming.
Had I gone down the rabbit hole or through the wardrobe?
But the absence of hatters and lampposts swayed me.
Perfectly blue sea lapped the brilliant sand
as far as the horizon, studded with myriad isles,
weightless as marshmallows, floating
between water and air.

Trees overflowed the fevered cliff,
pohutakawa trees with crimson Christmas flowers.
Sun releasing coconut essence from the gorse
and everywhere birdsong, strange island birds
with Maori names. I caught the blue flash of a tui
and then it was gone.

The spreading fronds of ponga trees like giant parasols filtered
lime-green light to tinge and soothe my reddened skin,
unused to this seasonal aberration.
And at night, the Southern Cross in a swathe of stars so clear
it bathed the sky in light.
I gazed until intoxicated, made dizzy
by this sensory upside-down Eden.

**************

HAPPINESS AFTER A FINAL GOODBYE by Barbara GIrardet

It was late autumn when she walked along the forest path. The dog, tail held upright and ears pricked, trotted happily in front of her. Dusk was gathering and she and the little dog were alone amongst the trees. The forest pathway led seamlessly from the open deciduous trees, now denuded of their summer canopy, into a dark grove of tall, straight, soaring pines. As she stepped off the sodden, decaying leaves of beech, oak, ash, and sycamore and onto the thick spongy bed of sharply scented fallen pine needles, a resinous incense hung heavily in the air. She felt an instant change in the atmosphere and the sadness that had accompanied her for so long turned into an overwhelming grief in the all pervading gloom of the pine forest.

The pine trees clustered closely together rose in straight, slender columns reaching ever upwards, their topmost branches interlaced in a graceful, delicate tracery of fine branches holding up the silvery grey heavens. Shafts of late evening sunlight from the dying sun shone between the tall straight columns, through fragile rose windows of cobwebs, casting shimmering pools of light onto the forest floor, like candles flickering in the heavy silent stillness. She had entered a holy place; she was standing on hallowed ground; in a cathedral; a parish church; a temple; a sacred grove.

Grief surged powerfully through her and tears flowed uncontrollably down her cheeks. She raised her face looking up into and beyond the sky, searching, yearning.

The little dog scampered off into the thorny undergrowth chasing after birds, stalking phantom shadows. She stood perfectly still, hardly drawing breath, letting her tears silently flow, listening to the soft rustlings of the trees around her, hearing the gently rolling sound of cooing wood pigeons coming from deep within the forest.

A soft, almost inaudible footfall sounded close behind her. She stiffened. A warm gentle breeze, light as a feather, floated in still air; a butterfly briefly came to rest on her shoulder. She closed her eyes, felt her body losing strength, emptying itself of its life force. She swayed, about to swoon. A steadying hand held her upright. Life flowed slowly back into her hollowed out shell.
“Dad, is that you?” She whispered the words, a prayer, a deep, longing hope.
She thought she heard the slightest murmur in her ears, vibrating through her body.
“Dad, is that really you? Oh! How I miss you. What am I going to do knowing you are no longer here, knowing I shall never see you again? I thought you would never leave me, but you have. How could you? I feel so alone, so lost. I loved you so much, I still ache with love and longing for you.”

Had she said these words out loud, or had she simply thought them. She didn’t know.
A strong feeling of not being alone flowed over and around her; a warm protective cloak, luxurious, sensuous even. She stood rooted to the ground amongst the tall dark pine columns.

She heard the soft murmur again, a feather brushing past her, blown on the wind. But she was sure that this time she had heard something. Her whole body filled with the unspoken words.
“I am here beside you. I will always be close to you. I shall never let go of you. Never!”

The tears trickling out of her eyes were hot and stinging. Her body filled with longing. She had a strong desire to turn around and look at her father. She knew he was close by, within touching distance. Her arms, heavy and leaden, remained by her side, refusing to reach out and touch him. She knew that if she tried to touch him or even turn around to catch a glimpse of him, she would lose him. She would no longer feel his strong quiet presence beside her; she would no longer hear his murmured words deep inside her body or be aware of his unseen hand resting lightly on her shoulder. The fragile mystery would dissolve. Temptation ebbed away. He was still with her. She continued on her walk through the darkling pines. Comforted. She was not alone.

The dog came bounding back and hurled himself at her. She knelt down and hugged him to her, his wet fur cold on her burning cheeks. She stood up and together they turned back for home.

Emerging from the forest she looked into the early night sky.
“Dad, you are alright walking amongst the stars? Aren’t you?” The diamond bright purity of the lone evening star pierced the heavens and blazed back at her from the indigo.

At home, she towelled the dog down and gave him his supper. She ran a hot bath, poured in essence of lavender, lit the candles and, divesting herself of her clothes, slid smoothly into the silky water. She lay, eyes closed, in the soothing, scented warmth of the bath, slowly being renewed.

She did not know how long she lay in the care of the cleansing water and the soft glow of candlelight. She was no longer aware of the passage of time. When the bath began to cool, she stood up and the water ran smoothly from her body. Putting on her nightdress, she went into the bedroom. The dog was curled up on the end of the bed waiting for her. She climbed into bed, pulling the duvet up around her. Lifting the wine glass from her bedside cabinet, she took a sip of the golden honeyed Riesling from the Rhinelands, admiring the pale sunlight tones flashing and sparkling through the clear glass. Reaching out she took up her book and opened it at the bookmark. Then, looking up through the skylight, she saw the evening star shining ever more brilliantly against the backdrop of a star-strewn infinity. She took another sip of wine. It filled her mouth, bursting with wonderful flavours, tasting like the nectar of the gods. She leant back on her pillows. As the wine trickled down her throat, warming her from inside, she felt suffused with the sun and soil that had given it its life.

Warm and comfortable, she was at last at peace. A deep and profound happiness flooded through her.

**************

THE CRAB SHELL by Ingrid Arntzen

I remember my first sprout, small and inviting in its pale green colour. It went into my mouth in one piece, and came out immediately in a mangled mesh. A quick look around, nobody had noticed my disgusting behaviour. I knew I had to eat it though, but my tummy was turning and the sweat was running. I was six years old at the time.

Here I am again, twelve years old, with a crab shell filled with the most disgusting thing inside call the ‘meat’ and I have been asked to taste it.
The colours are in a mix of pale green, yellow, brown, orange and some specs of red. I stir my fork in it, it is indescribable. I am reminded of my first sprout.

This is supposed to be the highlight of my summer holiday. We are usually served either prawns, crabs or occasionally lobster, and I am allowed to be really messy sucking out the meat from the little legs or the roe from of the prawns.

My uncle is encouraging me: ‘You are old enough to try the shell meat. It is a delicacy. Close your eyes, don’t think about what it looks like, and try it.’ I am closing my eyes and I can feel the tears pressing behind by lids. I am planning my escape; slide down, underneath the table, out at the corner and run for it. Can I manage to hold it in my mouth until I get out? My body shudders by the thought.

I open my eyes. The others are watching me. I load my fork with the smallest bit I can find, close my eyes again, and lift the fork. It is in my mouth. It is amazing. It is not at all what I expected. It is salty but also sweet with a sharp taste afterwards. It feels like lots of little bits in a fish sauce.

The tears have gone, my escape plan is in the waste bowl and I smile. They all cheer at me for trying. I am chuffed, I am pleased that I managed to push myself to eat it, and found that it was nice. I am now smoothly merging into the adult world, I am happy and I can do anything.

**************

HAPPINESS by Valerie Francis

A quiet, Cotswold hilltop, late December, mid 1950’s. Me aged 9 and cold, with young Aunt Frances, in weak sunshine, deep, cold frozen snow, pulling a wooden sled piled high with groceries on our way back to the farmhouse and cut-off village far below us.

Excited by the strangeness of being snowbound, I’d begged to go shopping. Granny layered clothes over my liberty bodice, found mothballed jodhpurs (no trousers in public for young ladies), my ‘grow into it’ mackintosh and welly boots . I grinned and glowed from wool-clad ear to wool-clad ear.

On the sled, a big loaf minus its crust, the oaty taste lingering; stewing meat plus ripe cheese made a heady mix of hunger inducing smells, wafting around us in the clear midday air and adding to our euphoria. While no one at the farm starved, cold Christmas leftovers, fatty goose and gristled ham from slabs in the larder had been. .. ugh!

Dragging the sled up to Stow, singing carols, had left us tired. Then strangers grinning at me, and the mounting supplies, made me beam with pride; toasted teacakes from the cafe had stoked my energy.

Swept town paths and more singing had brought us here.

Now for the gut wrenching bit:

A downhill slalom... on the, hopefully, traffic-free road, on frozen, hard-packed icy snow. Frances sat me on the front of the sled, arms outstretched across our precious cargo; she pushed off.

No breath for singing, our lungs full of cold air, excitement mounting as we gained pace. Frances leapt on the back. Both shrieking, we sped along the straight first few hundred yards. Then she yelled ‘lean to the right, for the bend ahead’.

Too late! The ditch welcomed me, luckily with soft snow. Frances was sitting on the icy road laughing, beside the overturned sled. Hugging one another, giggling, brushing the worst of the snow off the bread, we rebagged it and loaded up. The next bend did not defeat us, so I whooped with joy, and we careered on.
No birds sang, but we could hear a tractor... ahead of us, in the fields?

No more spills, we approached the red brick cottage on the edge of the village. At the last bend, slowing down as the decline began to level off, Uncle Rob stepped off the bank and grabbed at the sled, just in time. For his tractor was just round that last bend! Nearly always grumpy, Uncle said he had thought a gang of drunken ruffians was coming down from Stow, from the racket, and he nearly smiled. Perhaps the look was due to the aroma of the bread and cheese, but maybe it was the sheer exhilaration on our faces?

What a welcome for the pair of us at the farmhouse when we arrived, tractor-assisted, laden, tired but oh so triumphant.

***************************************

A SNAPSHOT IN TIME by Judith Kelman

I skipped happily along the hedge-lined path, aware of loud snuffling and chomping coming from cows on the other side, as they chewed the cud.
It was a warm, sunny day, and in my memory, it was always so at Ruby’s house. In truth, we must have had some rain occasionally, but I don’t remember it.

Passing the chicken run where hens were proclaiming their newly laid eggs, I paused to say hello. The hens ignored my greeting and carried on with their pecking and scratching in the warm iron-red earth, clucking and chuntering to each other in their endearing and companionable way. Ruby’s hens laid the most delicious eggs in the world. It was official. In fact, everything was wonderful at Ruby’s house, especially to a 7-year-old child.

As I turned the corner on my path, there, spread out before me was George’s wonderful garden. George was at home today, so I ran down to his tool shed to see if he was there. The shed smelled of oil, wood, tobacco and garden soil, and George’s gleaming hand-made tools were lined up all around the walls.

“Hello owd girul.” George was tall and bent, from a back injury, and although in constant pain, was always cheerful and kind. “What you be doin’ with yourself today old ‘un?”
I smiled back, but being shy I said nothing, and went back to the garden, leaving George to get on with his work.

Beyond the well-kept garden, filled with vegetables, fruit and trees, was the beautiful vista of the river Severn valley, with the vast silver ribbon of the river itself, and farms, fields and little hedges dotted by trees. I loved this place, and dreamed about it all through the year. Summer holidays couldn’t come quickly enough for me.

I listened to the steam train as it made its way between river and road, hooting and chugging like only steam trains do, and watched the smoke and steam streaming out behind. It fascinated me how the sounds of the train grew louder as it drew level with me, although as much as a mile away, and then changed tone as it went past and away.

Picking my way carefully past nettles that grew around the outside privy, I admired the profusion of flowers that were Ruby’s domain. George had no time to bother with flowers. Lilies, marguerites, dahlias, irises, snapdragons, pansies, sweet peas and roses.

As I paused at each group of flowers, to touch their delicate petals, and smell the different fragrance, an idea formed in my head. I would make some fairy houses, and then perhaps some fairies might come and live in them. Kneeling down beside a wooden bench I gathered newly dropped rose petals and snapdragon flowers to fashion little fairy homes, with beds and chairs, while chatting away to the fairies who might be listening. I was sure they would appreciate my efforts and take up residence in the night.

I spent a contented morning playing in this little oasis of pleasure, with birds chirping, hens clucking, cows gently mooing, and the occasional steam train with its rattle and hoot.

********************************