Nerys Williams: Four Prose Pieces

Accordion

There are so many stories, the child lost count of how they came to be known. Some emerged from sweet wrappers, others from a box of fly-speckled birthday cards. One epic story came from an accordion. When the child pulled it from the case it let loose an almighty wheeze. Stories flew out, mildewed, smelling of rot. The child tried to make the accordion sing. She chided it – be solffa tonic, make a pretty noise. The buttons seized on thin cloth that tapered underneath. Hoisting the leather straps on her shoulders – angry sounds tumbled to her feet. The accordion is dark blue inlaid with mother of pearl. It is the body of a horrible sound. Worse were the sweet spores as it moved in and out. The breath of a dead man encased in a trapezium coffin. A teacher told them of a poet who  described breath. The poet had been accused of using too many words to explain simple things. He made a wheeze so large it became monstrous. The noise brought up her grandmother from the shop below, who quietly told her “put it away”. However the accordion was battling for its breath, the bellows refused to close. However much the child squeezed the leather clasp, it would not shut. She wedged the box between the wall and a table, hoping it was chastened.

 

 

Plastic Passion

This year there is music in your house, your parents move awkwardly to disco  beats. Careful in crimplene and long polyester dresses, dark browns and floral patterns, shiny shoes and ruffled shirts. Lurex on the TV, the body in plastic, you drink from melamine mugs, your nightdress crackles against sheets. Two years before “Video killed the radio star”, two years after Abba’s “SOS”  you have fallen in love with Elvis Presley. At six you curate your wardrobe to match the Elvis film  on Saturday TV. The deep red embroidery of a rose on a tight denim jacket, matching jeans watching him in Roustabout on a Honda 350 Super Hawk attempting the wall of death. Forty years before you find how broken Elvis was about his film career. Hawaiian shirts in Technicolor, he tinkered with engines, the inevitable song which seemed organic at the time. His sneer, hair, hips, oil on his hands mirroring your uncle working in a homemade car inspection pit. Shovelled out of earth with no joists he hit the riverbed, it flooded and crumbled. The year in which you were happy to be taken for a boy, you wanted to walk like a boy, bouncing long strides on the pavement. Friendships with boys depended on participatory violence on the playground. Running fast, colliding into bodies, your hair was grabbed, bruises became  badges. Until four boys were taken to the headmaster for the ‘dap’, the black rubber soled plimsoll. They had given one other multiple love bites on their shoulders; you did not fully understand but  knew this was inappropriate. Like the secret shared the summer before with a ten year old girl, under the kitchen sink. Both mothers exchanging district nurse duties: a woman  left homeless, now in a shelter, the transfer of case notes, the difficulty of supporting the aged, the lonely . “Come here” obediently you did, she held a jar -  a pickled foetus. “Don’t tell” she whispered -“the mother doesn’t know we have her baby”, she slipped the bobbing foetus between Emo washing powder and scouring pads. You are reminded of this story when Esther Greenwood tells us in The Bell Jar: “I liked looking on at other people in crucial situations. If there was a road accident or a street fight or a baby pickled in a laboratory jar for me to look at, I’d stop and look so hard I never forgot it.”

 

 

Is There a Penis in the House?

Music warned you of slick presenters who thought only about the sheen on their face, the easy words. Making money from a minority language, far from the world you inhabited. A different Welsh, a self-appointed guardianship refuting tattered or evolved expression, a club for initiates on the small screen. As a child you smelt the carbolic soap and borax emanating from male bodies, folded into permanent pressed trousers. You thought about the political situation for days, sharing with a husband, talking to friends, following an invitation to speak on TV about the national and international. You arrive, full of translated political phrases, ready for business,  waiting for war paint. The make-up  artist tells you about the island, the devastation at knowing the nuclear power station they had spent years trying to attract has been scrapped. Hastily you articulate your concern about Wales as a playground for the M.O.D., the private companies operating ballistic testing in West Wales. She looks at you with no anger – “my husband is a fighter pilot in Valley – this is what we have here.” Deftly brushing under eye, closing your lid, you look up for mascara, she powders the gap between your neck and chest to avoid a line – she was kind. Between blusher, eyeliner and highlighter you talked about small villages, bigger towns. closed shops, the large supermarkets that stalked in square kilometres. Exchanging unsaid forgotten stories, how people congregated to  talk and laugh and fight over politics, over love  in your language. Companies came with boasts of jobs  councils offering spaces rates free, facilitating big business. She tells you her mother could not buy chocolates from the retailer at the price that the supermarket sold – “Game Up”. Wearing the mascara, the blusher, the foundation, the powder with the backcombed hair you realise that things have not changed in the county you love. The presenter looks in, mouthing hello, wanting to be seen, a bead of sweat on his forehead. You are torn – to you Welsh has become a language of compassion, care, restitution a language of concessions. Not the language of argument, strategic outmanoeuvring, polysyllabic words that wind, dazzle and explode against an opponent’s tongue. In the blood beat of the ear you hear the music of your past: scraping metal, industrial sounds punctuating the breakbeat of a synthesiser. As the politicians arrive for their make-up you understand, you are gender window dressing, an unromantic exile, pebbles in your mouth.

 

 

Facing It 

Two aerial images exist, separated by forty years placed on a wall to create continuity and discontinuity. Similar to those on polished cupboards in farmhouses showing squat houses, concrete walkways, fields with black and white Friesians. Photographs that map out the importance of hedges and the maintenance of property. Machinery flattened into landscape. Travelling salesmen came infrequently, but every farm has one image displaying particular zeitgeists: orange cars, fluted yellow petrol pumps, limewashed walls, churn letterboxes, tractors with small tyres. The salesman died, his family found thousands of photos, in boxes marked according to year. Maybe they were too expensive to those with little land,  only a garden with peas and potatoes. Who wants a photograph of a home not their own in an age of digitization, drones and road mappings? Ill at ease with a bonfire of images, his son follows the b roads his father took offering vintage images of homes. He comes to our door and offers a photo that is forty years old. The photograph waits for revolution, a summer’s day, doors and windows open, begonias on the windowsills. Singing that permeates thickets carried by the river, arias while mopping a concrete shop floor. It is so easy to buy into nostalgia, the taste of cherryade, the possibilities of rayon against your skin. Hush now, breathe easier, allow the encounters of that decade: you open a bedroom door of your friend’s house and find her parents writhing on the bed bumping against one another. Later you find the father’s mags and feel the warmth in your vagina, a new sort of hurt as you  giggled at the readers’ wives. It might be the story of a nine-year old friend who came to stay a night, no parent was home, she was terrified of social services. The casual racism of that decade, its sexism, anarchy, you now understand how a culture marks your breathing, etches your DNA. Ghosts leaving this village, abandoned the language, affecting accents exhausting the ear, slippages, a minefield of grammar and mispronunciation. Perhaps there is no error only attempts at affirmation; no failure but the redefining of identity; you gild the still but enquiring face, leaf by leaf.

 

 

Nerys Williams (b.1971), originally from West Wales, moved to Ireland in 2003. Her first poetry collection, Sound Archive (2011, Seren), won the Strong prize; her second is Cabaret (2017, New Dublin Press). She is an Associate Professor in Poetry and Poetics at University College, Dublin and has written widely on contemporary poetry in journals and single authored books. Of late she has been researching and writing on poets and producers at the BBC’s Third Programme. Nerys has been a Fulbright fellow and visiting scholar at UC Berkeley (2007, 2019) and in 2017 she held a Government of Wales / Literature Wales residency at Passa Porta, Brussels. The prose poems given here are from a draft volume, Republic, which examines bilingualism, West Wales of the 1980s and 90s, midwifery, mental health and Welsh independent music.

 

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