By Matthew James Friday
Our Nan Connie had inexplicable luck,
she could win a prize in any raffle. A randomly
plucked ticket always struck silver or bronze.
My mother had no such luck. We laughed
at her leaden tokens, while Nan piled up
perfumes, food baskets, ribboned condiments.
One fabled day at the seaside arcades Mum’s luck
finally cashed-in. A year’s bottled tuppences fed
into the game that tongued them over lips,
some back, most gulped down. It was the taste
of luck we slobbered over. 20p for three goes
on the hand-grabber game, the slippery claw
that always let slip. Mum’s last attempt: clunk!
The claw suddenly snaps off its arm and crashes
to the base, flailing fingers in the collection tray.
Giggling, Mum handed the limp claw to a teenage
manager, his eyes widening with wonderment.
Mum claimed her prize: a lasting family myth.
Sometimes the most fun we had at Christmas
was when every tipsy adult could be coerced
into a seat at the table for card games. Nan
and Mum presented their collections of two
pences, gestated by months of quiet collecting.
Nan shuffled the cards, revealing hidden talents.
Grandad prepared his pint and promised not
to cheat, which he did, outrageously. So funny
to my brother and me, but less as we grew up
and he played less despite our begging. Back
to the card games. Pontoon was the favourite
and could last hours, bronze coins shuffling back
and forth, cards hiding under the table, a break
for cake. For a few priceless years, we prayed
for 21, always laughing – that was the best hand.
Years on we continued to play but the table
featured fewer players as life’s random gambles
took its toll: ageing adults and evening fatigue,
sudden cruel illnesses, empty chairs. No chance
now we can ever be reunited for another game
though my childhood was dealt a winning hand.
‘Go on boy! Go on!’ cries the butcher
waiting nervously at the winning post,
punching the air as his greyhound,
Blue Curacao, streaks along the arterial
track. ‘Go on! For me, boy, for me.’
All week he’s up to his elbows in joints,
loins, portions, quick cuts, friendly manner;
as tender to customers as he is to meat.
The betting slip in his bony hands drips
with sweat. ‘Come on! For your old man!’
Suddenly the crowd cries. ‘Come on boy!’
The butcher’s heart thumps hard.
Here come the hounds. ‘Come on boy!’
Voice hoarse, lungs straining for air.
Here they are. Blue Curacao’s in the lead!
Like a flash of steel, the sliver of meat
and hard muscle pumps past Glyn.
‘Come on boy! For your old man! For me!’
Blue Curacao slices through the finish line.
The butcher chops the air triumphantly.
School assembly we flocked
to the fanfare of a rare treat:
Birdman. Superhero simplicity.
Perched on stage in armoured
overalls, behind a line of cages,
beaks poking out. No memory
of the actual man – a beard,
perhaps. It was all about birds
of prey: the hawk on his arm
with its hungry globes, slowly
creaking beak, tensing claws.
Volunteers called up. No way.
Most impressive were the owls.
We learned of how stories misled
us to believe in too-wit-too-woo.
We oohed at the snowy owl
as she arced her white head
all the way around childhood.
When her white wings opened
and she flew across the hall,
everyone ducked like mice, cries
of glaciated fear. Mrs Hanlon,
shaking her sensible headmistress
head, but the damage was done.
I would always love owls now.
Birdman packed up the birds,
squawking protests from us all as.
We flapped out to the playground,
waved Birdman away and became
the hawks and owls of stories.
Matthew James Friday has had poems published in numerous international magazines and journals, including, recently: All the Sins (UK), The Blue Nib (Ireland), Acta Victoriana (Canada), and Into the Void (Canada). The mini-chapbooks All the Ways to Love, Waters of Oregon and The Words Unsaid were published by the Origami Poems Project (USA).
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