A Welcome Round Table

My mother has this Christmas tradition that, when we have all taken our seats and just before we have taken our first bite of a long-awaited roast dinner, we raise a toast to the dearly departed, to those members of the family who are no longer with us and to those friends that no longer accompany us throughout our life journey.  It reminds us, the living, to be thankful that we are seeing the close of yet another year together, to remain thankful to have known the dearly departed and that we remember them still.

The fact that this takes place before we have tasted our food is of the utmost importance.  To say thank you on an empty stomach is to accept that we have lost those that will never be by our sides again, that we will never break bread with them and share our laughter and sadness across the table.  Our eyes will never again catch theirs.

I sometimes like to imagine where the deceased are now, as if their memories have somehow broken free of their corporeal remains and drift uninhibited across the globe.  It can be difficult to think that all that we have ever known and all that we have ever loved and experienced can be so self-contained in our floating globe, silently rotating in the great big soup of the universe.  But it is and it must be, that is why we remember and why we say goodbye once again at the close of the year.

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War

‘They say war is coming, that they want it so it’ll happen . . .  Just like that! It doesn’t matter if you are the son of the mayor or of the dustbin man, it doesn’t matter what you think or what you feel.  As soon as you join up, they’ll ship you out.  Give you a rifle, a round, help you point it and let you start shooting.  It doesn’t matter that you are scared or do not want to kill, it doesn’t matter if you miss the birthdays of your nearest and dearest.  This is war!  War does not stop for the dead, and it doesn’t stop for the living!  It will continue regardless of what you think, so they say.  Join up and get in the fight, prove yourself, prove that you are a man!’

Here, at this junction, he takes a rest and leans against the pillow before starting again.

‘I’ve heard it before and I’ll hear it again.  Our lives are not so short that we won’t live through war, a war, any war.  Just think about it boy, there must be a hundred wars going on right now – all across the globe people are fighting for this or that, spilling blood for the power of belief.  Killing is justified, they say, it is justified because it helps to prove that what you say, what you believe, is right, is the only way.  We must fight to take back our land!  We must fight to stop them!  We must fight to prove ourselves!  We must fight because this fat bastard insulted me!’

Another rest before he carries on more lucidly.

‘Wars are funny things my son, they are odd things . . .  They are both natural and unnatural.  Nature telling us that we are too numerous and too many, that we need to thin the population somewhat, create a bottleneck so we can survive.  Wars are the outcome of the idle rich, of those that seek power and revenge.  War ain’t nothing good, but we’re used to it.  Society accepts the causes and the outcomes, realizes that there is always a price to pay.’

War is war, the living are the living, and the dead are the dead, I wanted to add.

‘There is nothing to see here son but history, the ashes of a thousand dreams . . .’

‘Dad?  Can you hear me dad, I’m right here . . .  Just give me your hand dad, you’ll be okay.  I love you.  I’ll be back soon, okay?’

I shepherd the son out, who is caught briefly off-guard by the single tear running down the older man’s left cheek.

This speech wasn’t anything knew, but I knew that the son had to try and talk to his father, to try and establish reality once more.

The Sea is My Sister

When I think of home I think of the sea, of the waves breaking against the rocks and the frothing remainder meeting the land in a head-on rush to embrace it.  I remember the time as a child when I was caught on a sandbar between the incoming tide and a deepening pool of seawater between the beach and I, making the pool a barricade that I had nearly lost the will, resolve and confidence to overcome.  I was scared of the things that could be lurking in the water, of the large flat jellyfish waiting with their tentacles outstretched and the crabs poised with their claws open, ready to snap at a moment’s hesitation on my part.

My feet were lost to the cold depths at this point and I could feel only the rush of water around my torso even though the bright intense sun hovered overhead, warming each body laid out on the beach in front of me, as if to mock my situation and to suggest that life went on no matter what happened to me.  With my cries of worry and my arms waving feebly I was eventually noticed and saved by an older brother who guided me by hand across the treacherous water that had so frightened and paralysed me.

I’d wanted the safety of the land, of something solid under my feet where I could look to the sea unmolested by creatures of the deep.  I’d become trapped because I was not paying attention to what was happening around me as I was too busy splashing in the water, resting on the sandbar and admiring the view of family and friends relaxing by the sea.

The journey to get to that beach had felt like a holiday in itself, not a fifteen minute drive from my family home.  Packed in the car, almost as tightly as sardines, we would be wearing our swimming trunks clasping plastic spades and buckets.  Sometimes a store box, packed with frozen ice packs, accompanied us and was filled full of cool and refreshing snacks that we’d eat after an hour or two of heating up in the fresh salt tinged air.  The North Sea would sometimes bring winds that had rallied and rolled across the water coming from as far away as Holland or Denmark, maybe even Norway at a push, or so I had hoped.  It was naive to think such things perhaps but I liked the thought of being connected with the countries that we had visited on holidays in the past.

After our little swim and exploration of the sand the two families would trudge back to the parked car, heading through a sandy beach that morphed into a half-hearted shingle before giving way once more to sand dunes, where shark sticks of dried grass would prick your feet and legs as you hobbled over them.  It was customary to then shake our clothes free of sand, shaking our bodies in union as we did so, and then push on to purchase an ice cream in a cone and try to all fit into the car once again.  We’d had a day at the beach and the sun had tired us out, we needed food and drink to replenish the physical and mental energy that we had lost exploring for shells, oddly shaped stones, the dried out remains of crabs and the dodging of the rubbish that protruded through the sand itself.

I had thought about these summer family trips to the beach years later as I relaxed in the back garden of my university house during my undergraduate years of study.  I had gotten lucky with this house so close to the university campus and the local parade of shops – French doors, from my room, led directly into our fairly big back garden where, during the summer, autumn and spring seasons, my house mates and I could relax unencumbered by walls.  We read in the sun, drank beer and burnt meat during numerous BBQ’s, we solidified our relationships here too.  It was the ideal relaxation area late on a Friday after a week full of lectures, research and writing, where we could gather with a few of our friends and get a mild buzz from drinking beers in the evening sun.  Music accompanied those gatherings, music that hung in the cooling air and permeated our bodies to slowly drift off out into the night once we had taken our fill.

The grass under my feet and the fact that I often took off my T-shirt as I lay on the grass meant that I felt truly rooted to the ground and I could stare at the sky freely, my eyes wandering from cloud to cloud or bird to bird as they popped into view.  It felt good being partially clothed, to feel the heat of the sun on my own skin or the coldness of the northern breeze against my chest.  It was different from sitting in a cool lecture theatre absorbing the information like a sponge, making notes on what I wanted to research and to write about for the next essay or presentation that popped up regularly, like ships on the horizon that appear in a pleasingly timely manner.  I wouldn’t admit it to myself, but I enjoyed the peace and the quiet away from the others that came with being down in the back garden by myself.  It had a timeless quality, that it felt like I could be a student forever and never truly grow up.

But still, I missed the sea.  The waves that broke, that swelled, that seemed to bore ceaselessly on against the land that I called home.