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Star of Wales Short Story Anthology
"Stormydd yn garedig a thonnau halen yn ffres mewn cariad ..."
"Tempests are kind and salt waves fresh in love ..."
Shakespeare, What You Will
Anthology of Short Stories published online free of charge by Tenby Publishers.
Copyright remains with Author to whom any enquires should be made (via imbedded email link).
Star of Wales Short Story Anthology
The Sin Eaters
Supernatural Tales of Mystery and Suspense
e-mail: Gwyneth EdwardsThe Sin Eaters is a haunting anthology of twelve short stories, with a supernatural theme, set in present day Wales.
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The Sin Eaters by Gwyneth Edwards
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I was thirty years old when I first saw Myfanwy.
I travelled to Wales to have a quiet holiday to help get over the bitter break up of my marriage, a marriage that had begun so promisingly but ended disastrously. I was twenty-six years old when I met Laura, a chance encounter in a theatre that was to have a momentous impact on my life. I was attending a performance of Lady Windermereís fan at the Savoy theatre in London; Laura dropped her programme and I picked it up. As I looked in to her eyes I knew this was the woman I would marry.
Until I met Laura, I had never been in love. Oh I thought I had, but previous romances were like schoolboy crushes compared to what I felt for Laura, she made my blood sing. Two years after that chance encounter we were married. For the first few years of our marriage we were blissfully happy; life was good. Looking back itís hard to see when things started going wrong, but bit by bit our relationship started to unravel, the rows and arguments started to increase. Then Laura met Michael, a rich stockbroker, putting the final nail in the coffin of our marriage.
I never realised how materialistic Laura was. Had I been blinded by love to her faults before? Or had she simply changed beyond recognition when she met Michael? Either way, she was a different woman to the one I married.
The divorce was bitter. In the end rather than squabble over our possessions in an undignified manner, I let her walk away with the lionís share.
Six months after the divorce my emotions were still raw and I was very bitter.
My friends were concerned about me; they told me that if I didnít take a break I was sure to have a complete breakdown. I knew they were telling the truth.
I was worried too. I knew that I couldnít carry on in this mechanical way day after day, night after night. I was sleeping badly and having nightmares, a natural reaction to traumatic events, my doctor said.
I was able to take two weeksí leave from my job and as I liked walking, I was drawn to the Brecon Beacons. It was now the beginning of September; the countryside would be glorious at this time of year.
When I saw Pen Y Bryn Manor House in the brochure, I knew I had found my accommodation.
A few days later I packed my car and set off on the long drive to Brecon. I arrived late in the afternoon. Pen Y Bryn Manor House was situated on the edge of the town. A large oak lined drive led up to the imposing White Georgian Manor House. I had hardly got out of my car before I was greeted by a man in a dark navy suit who called for a valet to take my luggage.
"Good afternoon, sir, Iím the proprietor, Thomas Walter. May I welcome you to Pen y Bryn Manor House, and wish you an enjoyable stay."
"Thank you, Iím Stephen Bryce. I have no doubt that Iím going to enjoy my stay here. The house looks so beautiful."
The manís eyes shone with pride, he clearly enjoyed his work.
"I will take you up to your room. Robert will take your luggage."
A young man, probably around seventeen, waited by his side.
I put the two cases down and followed Thomas Walter into the manor house. The manor didnít disappoint. A grand old oak staircase dominated the interior. Portraits adorned the walls while military artefacts hung across the ceiling. The smell of beeswax and lavender filled the air. I followed Thomas Walter up the stairs to the second floor. He opened the door with a flourish.
"This is your room, Mr Bryce. Now if thereís anything you need during your stay please let me know. Nothing is too much trouble for us here at Pen Y Bryn."
He smiled then left the room. Robert put my cases down, smiled shyly at me and hurried after him. I looked around my room in delight; it was large, spacious and airy. A large four poster bed stood in the centre while a leather sofa occupied the far corner of the room. Everything was designed to provide luxury and comfort.
I walked to the window and gazed out at the mountains. The grounds of the house were immaculate. A variety of trees had been planted there: lime, cherry and chestnut. Rhododendron bushes and azaleas dotted the lawns. I sighed with satisfaction. I couldnít have wished for more peaceful and secluded surroundings to begin my process of recovery. I realised that this was the first time in months that I hadnít thought of Laura and gone through the unhelpful and time wasting process of speculative what ifís?
It was just after quarter to eight when I went up to supper that night. I was the sole diner and the food was excellent. After dinner I ordered a brandy and took it into the lounge to drink. The room was elegantly furnished with oak cabinets and porcelain vases. The walls were covered in eighteenth century tapestries and portraits. A dozen candelabra lit it up giving it a period atmosphere. I walked around in admiration. My eyes were drawn to a portrait of a beautiful woman. She was dressed in a pale blue silk dress of the Georgian period; her hair was as black as a ravenís wing and was hanging in lush ringlets over her shoulders. But it was her eyes that stood out - they were truly magnificent. Almond shaped and violet, they seemed to penetrate my very soul with their mystery. I gazed at the portrait for what seemed like hours but could have only been minutes. At last I walked away and as I did I could feel her eyes boring into my back. There was no question about it; the painter of that stunning portrait was a master of his craft.
I sat down in one of the comfortable red velvet armchairs and drank my brandy. The golden liquid slipped down my throat like warm molten nectar, and I sighed with enjoyment. I couldnít remember the last time Iíd felt such peace.
After I finished the brandy I closed my eyes, and, lulled by the warmth of the lounge, I started to drift off to sleep. My dream was incredibly realistic. I was galloping through a forest, the landscape was lush and green; I felt I hadnít a care in the world. I could feel the wind racing through my hair. I heard the thunder of the horseís hooves. The sound of laughter rang out, high and melodious, gushing like a crystal brook. It was springtime, and I could see bluebells, stitchwort and wood anemones covering the forest floor. The sun was warm on my face.
I woke with a start and heard the sound of rustling silk brushing past me. I opened my eyes and looked up, but there was no one there. I glanced at my watch and was startled to find out that it was after eleven oíclock. I yawned and stood up. Crossing the hall on my way to the stairs I passed Thomas Walter. He greeted me warmly.
"I hope youíve had an enjoyable evening, Sir."
"Indeed I have. I really enjoyed my supper. Iíve been admiring your lounge, itís really comfortable."
He beamed. "Iím glad you like it, sir. All our guests admire the lounge."
"Thereís one particular portrait that really caught my attention, can you tell me who the lady with the black ringlets was?"
"That was Myfanwy Morgan, her father was a baronet. They lived in Pen Y Bryn Manor in the eighteenth century."
"Itís a magnificent work of art. The eyes follow me as I walk."
"Thatís a sign of a good artist. George Locke was certainly that."
"Goodness, Iím still tired despite my nap. I think Iíd better get to bed; Iíve got an early start in the morning. I was hoping to explore the beacons and get some exercise."
"Well youíll certainly have good weather tomorrow and for the foreseeable future, the forecastís very good."
"Thatís encouraging. Iíll say goodnight now, Thomas."
Over the next few days I built up my strength with a series of walks in the National Park. The waterfalls that captured my imagination were Sgwd Gwladys and Sgwd Einion Gam. Einion and Gwladys were thwarted lovers from centuries ago who were destined not to be together in life, but in their present incarnation they join up and flow together as one. This story touched a chord inside me; I found it moving and poignant. By the time I returned to the Manor House I was tired but content with the dayís exploration. After a hot bath I poured a whisky and settled in the armchair by the window to enjoy it. Night was beginning to fall. The days are beginning to draw in I thought sadly, and soon winter will be here. Suddenly I noticed something moving in the shadows. I sat up and saw a shape appear from under one of the cherry trees on the lawn, it looked directly at me. It was her, Myfanwy, I would know that face anywhere. She made such an impression on me the first time I saw her portrait. I looked at her, she was smiling.
I finished my drink and made my way downstairs. I hurried out of the front door of the Manor. There was no sign of anyone, all was quiet and still. I made my way to the Cherry tree where she had been standing. I could have sworn that I saw a quick flash of blue silk. I rubbed my eyes and looked around again, but there was nothing. Just the all-enveloping stillness of early evening and the fading sound of birdsong. I retraced my steps forlornly back to the Manor House.
Over the next week I visited local museums to try to discover more about Myfanwy but I met with no success. I was reluctant to raise the matter with Thomas Walter in case he thought me fanciful.
I continued my exploration of the beacons and on my last day I was drawn back to Llangorse Lake. What a beautiful day it was. The air was filled with birdsong and bees swarmed over the wildflower meadows. I lay back on the lush grass gazing at the clouds. A gentle breeze fanned my cheeks and I closed my eyes.
I am not sure how long I dozed but it was the scent of roses that woke me up. It was getting stronger all the time.
I opened my eyes and I saw Myfanwy. She was walking beside the lake in her pale blue silk dress, holding a parasol above her head.
Time seemed to stand still. I stared at her in rapture. Her presence filled me with intense happiness. My eyes never left her face; she was so beautiful.
At last I called out her name, she turned around and smiled. She raised her hand in acknowledgement and I reached out to her. Then as suddenly as she appeared, she was gone. I knew this was no trick of the light. A feeling of profound melancholy overtook me. I scoured the area desperate to find a trace of her. Two hours later, after a fruitless search, I gave up. There was nowhere else to look and it was getting dark. Returning to Pen Y Bryn later that afternoon I saw Thomas Walter standing in the Hall. "Did you enjoy your day, sir?" he asked me pleasantly.
"I had a relaxing day thank you Thomas." I paused.
He stared at me, a knowing look on his face. He knew I wanted to talk to him.
I cleared my throat and summoned up courage. "Thomas, I would like to speak to you privately." I lowered my voice. "It concerns a rather delicate matter."
If the man was surprised that I was confiding in him like this, he certainly didnít show it.
"I am off duty in an hour, sir. I could come to your room. It would be me more private in there."
I nodded. "That would be perfect, Thomas. Thank you".
When Thomas knocked on my door I invited him in and offered him a seat.
"Itís about Myfanwy Morgan," I blurted. "I hope you wonít think me mad or fanciful, Thomas. Sheís appeared to me. I canít explain it." I felt relieved that I had finally unburdened my thoughts.
He shook his head. "No Sir, I donít think youíre mad."
"Do you know what her story was?"
He sighed. "Myfannwy was the only daughter of Sir John Morgan. Sir John had commissioned George Locke to do a painting of her. In the end he produced two paintings. George Locke was thirty years old. He was starting to attract attention as a portrait painter when he came to Pen Y Bryn. He spent a lot of time with Myfanwy and they fell in love. Sir John gave his permission for them to marry on condition they lived at Pen Y Bryn after their marriage.
He paused. "Six months before the wedding George and Myfanwy went riding in the woods. As they were galloping through the forest, Georgeís horse caught his foot in a rabbit hole. He went down and George was thrown over his head, breaking his neck."
"How terrible," I cried. "What happened to her?"
"She never married but stayed here at Pen Y Bryn, looking after her father."
"Has anyone else ever seen her?" I whispered.
"No sir, not to my knowledge. But people have heard her and they have smelled her perfume."
"A scent made from roses? Thatís what I could smell by the Lake."
"What I donít understand is why no one else has seen her." I looked at him perplexed.
"Come with me, sir," he replied. I followed him out of my room and up two flights of stairs. He opened the door to one of the rooms. There were two paintings on the wall, one large and one much smaller, both of them were covered in dust sheets.
He pulled the dust sheet from the first painting. I caught my breath in wonder. It was stunning. It was a painting of Myfanwy looking across Llangorse Lake. She was holding a parasol. Exactly like the last time I saw her. The sheer beauty of the painting brought tears to my eyes. I gazed at it for a long time.
Finally I turned to Thomas and shook my head.
"I still donít understand why I am the only person to see her." Thomas Walter gave me an appraising look and pulled the dust sheet off the smaller painting.
"This is a portrait of George Locke."
I turned to face the picture. It was like looking into a mirror, every feature was mine. I finally understood.
e-mail: Barry Harrison
Caldey Island was easily visible from the Castle beach, Tenby, as the three nautical miles that separated the two points was, for today at least, totally unhindered by cloud, rain, fog or any of the other factors of nature that so often impaired it. Chris stood on the pontoon waiting for the next of the Caldey boats to moor alongside, he was aware of what he was doing but strangely ambivalent to the reasons for the journey. He waited in what really was a world of his own, automatically going through the myriad of movements, responses, words and deeds that are necessary for an extant human to function in any form of civilised society. He didn’t really care what anybody thought, those days had gone now, and it all seemed sort of pointless, to him they seemed to be motions that had to be gone through until meeting lifes' only guarantee, death.
Chris watched disinterestedly as ‘ The Caldey Queen’ hove into view, a quaint old thirty foot clinker- built fishing boat which had been adequately adapted for service as one of the several ‘boat taxis’ conveying passengers the short maritime distance from Tenby harbours and beaches to Caldey Island. However this was not one of the scheduled summer journeys across the bay, whose dates (running from Easter Monday until October), were dictated by the community of Cistercian monks, who lived, worked and owned the Island. Those spring and summer periods saw a full day’s work for the Tenby boatmen, ferrying hundreds of sightseers to and from the island every day of the week (except Sunday!) and was a much needed source of income for Tenby town, the boatmen and, not least of all, the monastic community on Caldey itself. All Cistercian monasteries are required to be self-supporting and in order to be as such, the monks dutifully produced their own perfumes, chocolates and with the income from the island’s two gift shops and some small rental monies, they were pretty much self-sufficient, providing the summer weather was benevolent to the Pembrokeshire coast.
Considering it was April and technically, ‘out of season’, the weather was as kind as it was ever likely to be. Chris sat on the wooden bench-seat, gently rocking along with the motion of the sea as The Caldey Queen motored up towards the rickety jetty in Priory Bay and the oddly named Rubbishy Corner. Caldey looked magnificent, a sceptred isle, arising in all its majestic glory as they neared. But Chris’s eyes didn’t gaze upon the wondrous sight; in fact his head had remained in pretty much the same position throughout the thirty minute crossing. Over and over he had found himself counting the rings on the wooden deck boards and determined that the one directly beneath his feet had fourteen; he knew that in order to tell the age of a tree you only had to count the rings of the trunk; dendrochronology was a word that he knew.
‘Fourteen’, he thought to himself, ‘That’s not very old is it? Fourteen… for a tree’ and he started to cry…again. He deliberately hung his head low so his fellow travellers could not witness his tears.
The vessel had now had been expertly moored courtesy of its grizzled old seadog of a skipper and was being promptly tied off by the young lad who had sat with him in the cabin throughout the trip, assisted by a couple of scruffy looking urchins stationed on the island jetty itself.
‘Thanks folks, see you in one week, same place, same time ‘un’ said the grizzled Captain in his real Pembrokeshire twang.
It was only at this point that Chris raised his heavy head to survey the scene and it filled him with no sense of joy, it filled him with no sense of anything if truth were to be told and lifting himself like an old man from his seat. He clambered off the boat and followed the five or six other fellow travellers along the sandy paths, following directions given only by a few flaky wooden, weather-worn signs which had nothing more than a blue arrow painted on them to point the way for the tourist, for the lost and the lonely and those in search of something, anything, but for Chris probably nothing.
Although he moved like an old man, Chris Morrison wasn’t, he was 38 years old, physically fit, usually presentable, smart in both the fashion and the intellectual sense. Well that was how he liked to think of himself until recent events had overwhelmed him and hurtled him headlong into the state of a man he presently appeared to be. Now unkempt, he didn’t worry too much about his clothes, now unshaven, his grey-flecked beard the result of two months of total lack of care, now unaware, he grudgingly walked his weary ways, which even to the untrained eye, told of a man with much on his mind, carrying a burden that had so patently laid him low.
This motley crew of latter-day Pilgrims walked sheep-like along the paths that had first been trod by Celtic missionaries some fifteen hundred years before. A place of serenity and timeless charm, a haven of peace and preserved tradition where wildlife thrived amongst the woods, flowers, trees, soaring cliffs and countless coves and crannies of this magical place, sat stubbornly in languid Carmarthen Bay. None spoke as they passed the beautiful Chapel of our Lady of Peace, heading as they were for Saint Philomena’s guest house, no more than half a mile from the Cistercian Monastery which was at the epicentre of the island itself. St Philomena’s gracefully presented herself to the walkers and although its limestone walls gave her a very different appearance to the island’s other structures (having been built as recently as 1906!) the newest guests were pleased to see her. Chris felt nothing very much on seeing the guesthouse with its brick chimneys and turrets, its whitewashed exterior and leaded-glass fenestration. Patiently, with the other guests, he waited in its quaint gardens for the guest master, whom they had been told was Brother Thomas, the monk in charge of St Philomena’s and the welfare of its guests.
Chris sat on a low small stone wall which neatly surrounded a bed of flowers readying themselves for the spring and summer to come and as he did so he pondered his fate. He had agreed to come to Caldey Island for what was described to him as a week away ‘on retreat’, at the suggestion of a concerned friend who worked on one of the Caldey ferryboats. That very same friend having used his connections on the island and managing to secure Chris a week’s stay at St Philomena’s.
‘On retreat’ Chris thought to himself ‘What the hell am I retreating from?’ He had never been the sort of man to retreat from anything, never took a backward step in his life, first in a fight usually, he wasn’t ever going to let a bully get the better of him, or anyone
else for that matter, yet now here he was, officially ‘on retreat’. His reverie was disturbed by Brother Thomas who was now stood at his side; his fellow guests seem to have entered the house already.
‘You must be Chris, I’m Brother Thomas. Welcome to St Philomena’s. I’ve heard much about you my son and all you have been through. I hope we shall speak more, but for now will you allow me to show you to your room?’
Chris was touched and taken aback by the old-fashioned virtue and the apparent kindness of the stranger in his standard Cistercian garb of a pristine white habit covered partially by a hoodless black monastic scapular. A monk who appeared to be in his late seventies, maybe older, with a pure grey/white beard of such thickness and length it could only have been grown with a lifetime’s devotion to the cause. The older man insisted, despite Chris’s best protestations, on carrying his small suitcase to what was planned to be his home for the next week. They entered a single room, no more than twelve feet by eight, sparsely decorated save the small painting of Jesus with a glowing halo, nailed unceremoniously to the wall above Chris’s sparse, single bed. There was a small sink, a bar of soap, two towels and a wooden wardrobe that was unfit for any self-respecting bonfire. Chris didn’t care and then the monk was gone with a few parting words that passed Chris by.
He sat on his bed and looked around at his home for the next week, he didn’t want to stay but he knew he couldn’t leave, recalling the parting words of the grizzled boatman that he wouldn’t be back for a week ‘Same time, same place’. He felt the tears rolling down his cheeks and the by now familiar heart-wrenching pain and anger, the sorrow he was knowing, the pit of his stomach ached like it was his very soul. And now this was his home, another of the temporary homes he seemed to have inhabited for so long. He yearned for peace and to live the apparent undisturbed, untroubled and simplistic life that so many people seemed to enjoy, certainly the monks seem to. What had he done to deserve this? Was he so awful either now or in a previous life that he had to endure so much?
He looked unhappily around the basic room and he noted that alongside the bed was a small dilapidated bedside-table with a functional lamp on top with one drawer below, the knob of which hung precariously by a piece of incongruous copper wire. Chris carefully opened the drawer and was not in the least surprised to find therein a well-thumbed pamphlet entitled ‘Lectio divina’. He had no Latin so its’ title passed him by. He had always been an avid and eclectic reader, but hadn’t read a thing for the last nine months apart from medical notes and assessments, and his initial inclination was to quickly put the pamphlet back from whence it came and close the drawer. But on this occasion and for some reason or other he didn’t. He was inexplicably drawn to a poem he found on page three of the grubby pamphlet and he read it over and over again.
Chris noted that the poem was composed by Siegfried Sassoon, one of the leading poets of the first World war and although he wasn’t sure why, it resonated within him and he felt better reading it, somehow suddenly less alone and strangely strengthened by its’ words and sentiments. He read more of the pamphlet and discovered that the poem was favoured by the Caldey monks who believe that the middle of the night is ideal for the offering up of prayers because, at that time, the whole body and mind is more perceptive and the day is purer. Here also, people are at their lowest ebb in the daily cycle and consequently it is the time of greatest distress. He folded the pamphlet carefully and placed it into his back pocket. He knew now what he wanted to do with a certainty that he had not experienced for nearly a year.
A short while later he wandered into what appeared to be the living room of the guest house and found to his surprise that all his fellow travellers were seated on the various chairs and sofas that filled the Spartan room. A small but plump, plain looking woman in ugly shoes spoke to him. She wore what looked like a self-knitted cardigan underpinned by a
long skirt that appeared more like a hair shirt of the type worn as an undergarment in an act of religious repentance and atonement, but this time for her legs. Her accent was a broad Scottish brogue which was somehow appropriate for she was a broad Scottish broad.
‘S…sorry you must be Chris, I’m Maggie’. She proffered her hand towards him and he shook it gently. She proceeded to introduce the other guests but no sooner had she announced them than he had forgotten their names. It wasn’t an act of ignorance it was just that his mind was elsewhere. He heard Maggie say there was no television, no papers, no radio and no mail for the week, but the rest of the conversation just passed him by and at nine o clock that night he was in his room alone with his thoughts and his poem.
He had found his resolve. At two o clock in the morning he lay on his bed fully clothed and wide awake. He knew where he wanted and had to go to, and with the use of the torch they had been instructed to bring he was going there now, right now, his very own vigil… ‘Seek, in seeing your own blind being, Peace remote in the morning star’. The grubby pamphlet had proved more than useful in that on the back of it was a map of Caldey Island itself and Chris had seen the place he was now determinedly heading for. In the darkness but guided by torchlight, he picked his way along the narrow, sandy paths… ‘Lone heart, learning By one light burning, Slow discerning of worldhood’s worth’.
Ten minutes later he found himself just exactly where he wanted to be and suddenly everything that had gone before seemed apposite. The night was cold now, but the moon was full and he had no need of his torch anymore, he could see all that he needed to see. He had removed all of his clothing and though now as naked as the moment he entered this world he felt no cold, he fell careworn to his knees and raised his heavy head. He had read Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ and now he was living it, as he stood forked and naked, raging in his own personal storm, on his very own wild heath. Soaring above him was Calvary, Golgotha, twenty five feet in the air but firmly staked to the ground, a breathtakingly beautiful wooden carved depiction of Christ Jesus crucified…’Soul, awaking By night and taking Roads forsaking enchanted earth’. He stared at the tousle-haired divinity; he touched his nailed and broken feet, no more tears for now …’Man unguided And self-divided’. Chris rose slowly to his feet and just as he had promised himself he held his head high and looking into the lifeless eyes of the statue of The Man and the indescribable broadness of the Universe that framed Him, he asked the one question he wanted answering, the one he knew he would continue to ask for as long as he lived ‘Why? She was only thirteen. Why?’ The silence that followed was deafening to him.
Ballad of a Swansea Man
A recounting by
e-mail: Michael Jenkins
Hush, hush my little one, I tell you the story of a man who loves you, his family and his home-town very much. When he tried to improve our lives branded he was, extremist. Then, the hounding began. Too, he loved a young woman who was ill. They went away to start over. Granddad and Nan.
People and buildings, fate and aspirations became more complicated between that and the return. As a boy he’d trek up into the wild Brecon Beacons or down to West Cross with its bluebell dingle. Whenever he makes it in his head to that mother-of-pearl sea of “why is the tide always out, Mam?” he is whole and he knows what to do.
On the night of this story I’m telling you of his breathed-out air shapes a phantasm above the chestnut-mulched mess of the hessian-like path that leads between the pampas grass and the dunes onto the shivering sands.
A car crash type of life
Some said it was his fault. The world sometimes must have called him a loser or mad. He didn’t mind because back then he was right. Consequences winnow and harrow at times. Times like those since he’s come back. Fossil shell rain-drops stick to the earth.
‘So it is a home with no furniture, no curtains, no coffee table, no bookcase and two chairs and a table from a Charity shop and a sleeping bag on the floor.”
Yes that’s about it, yes.
I had caring, hard working parents and an education that helped me think and inter-passing Swans football at the Vetch and running from under the posts All Whites rugby at St. Helen’s and always at the top of the league Glamorgan cricket there and I played every sport and I had friends and girlfriends who I cringingly once took to those games and introduced to people. I was a punk and wrenched out hair while looking into my dad’s convex shaving mirror and wore a red and white checked shirt from a stall in Swansea Market, black leather jeans from the back of a leather jacket shop next to Derrick’s Records, authentic 22 lace Doc Martens I hitched up to London to get in Camden Lock street market, and the second-hand, cirrus cloud tuxedo dinner jacket I exchanged for childhood football programmes in the junk shop. I listened loudly to the SexPistolsTheClashTheRamonesSham69TheWireTheJamMan Band. Punk was confrontation. Everything was ok.
And spots daub like an Orthodox beeswax candle, swaddle and occlude in my mind.
“Who are you writing for, my lad?”
You’re right Dad. Father, Father, I never called you that. I didn’t understand you in all your ranting I saw but weakness. You are my father and you are a father I am proud of having.
“Does honesty pay dad? You told me it did.”
Walnut tree buds opening out already in this sloshing, gentle winter, where the daffodils came up weeks early, so eerily just there besides Mumbles Road and crocuses followed, besides the water-lily pond I often miss in the fold below our own Swiss Cottage in Singleton Park. I must understand how my home town is.
His fingertips once obeyed her curves there behind the boarded-up, red brick Blackpill train station. He notices the pulsing on and off red, yellow and green lights reflecting from a Christmas tree in the water-logged pool. He thinks he hears the sea’s loins whisper to him of the winter solstice that is both a staging-post and a turning point: the oblong colonnaded front of the building still gathers their rosebuds from their love years ago.
Your affair It was more than that. It lasted thirteen years. Helter-skelter., Michael, helter skelter is not something you can control from within and you… Well, you know yourself better than anyone how it has …
DO NOT FEED BREAD TO THE WILDLIFE
a sign puckering in the gouache sky. How is it that the magnolia colony of snow geese, beside the sleepy lake, cackles and fusses without missing a beat?
Michael ambles: his lungs hug the vanishing point of land and sea, solidity and flux, towards and away from the four decade years. At the slipway below the inn, four stones of a child; coloured brown, grey, white and black, zip and hop and skim the nurse-uniform-blue water below the phosphorescent surgeon-green air: mortality. The ocean tumbirs the pebbles as inevitable as the Postcode Lottery Code that some claim is more important than class in determining your life. Regardless of that, the current will drag back the stones: port-side to Clase Junior School, front doors you can’t paint, betting shops and Dad’s shift working at Port Talbot or they will drift off starboard-wise to the Grammar School, decorate wherever you like, holidays on the Continent, bars not pubs, restaurants, book-shops and girls like Mam. In a vital, unmoving hour he paints oval, bitumen eyes, shoulder length anthracite hair and marbling onyx lips. He pauses on the blueing-after-dusk stone arch freesia scented bridge over the canal on which coal-laden barges traversed the conifer cone forest that is today a Country Park. He hears an incubus: Genus Vivian Buzzard, undoubtedly.
“High time, boyo, I’d say.” Your hands are cold. Yes. I am back in the only life I can cherish. High hopes, too. Yes. “Recounting history to grow seems a bit dated as an explanation.”
“There have made so many ends of history, the Cold War, the European Union theories being sold. What about please the end of unemployment, homelessness and stop crushing us and our NHS with debts and cuts?”
“Being sold us, you mean. It all started with Thatcher dismembering the trade unions and the welfare state under flying the flag of patriotism in the Falklands Wars. ”
“But there were lots of unemployed in south Wales and lots of bad housing and too much domestic violence around, I know that from films, TV, books and listening to older people. And working in coalmines and on the docks couldn’t have been much fun, Mam. And shift work like Dad’s at the steelworks mucks you up doesn’t it also.”
“Yes, yes you are right. But they were hard jobs but people felt they could have pride in those manual jobs and the Labour Party was supposed to be where we made society better.”
“Did that happen? Wasn’t it Thatcher that said society didn’t exist? Why, Mam?”
“The world was recovering from the Second World War and greater consumerism meant greater financial profit and so they broke up the State industries to help businessmen make more money. Everything was privatised and if you bought into that, then you were okay and yes if you owned your own house it went up in value and you had something like wealth I suppose and some security and you passed it on to your kids.”
“But what about people who were losing jobs. Even Fords shut in Swansea.”
“Look at boys you went to Junior School with. They never had a job and they made it on the Dole and some casual work and it is their children who you see in and around High Street and in the centre, they are the underclass of petty crime, selling drugs, mental health issues.”
Lo and behold but don’t say that Nan has wrinkles on her hand when she holds the knife to cut you a big slice of apple pie or rhubarb tart. You, Mam and Dad, have pewter skin like a glassed-in display cabinet football trophy and the hand I see, and yes touch, its pricked-on liver spots is my watermarked, vinous, glaucous hand regrettably.
I can do it here, think and get my head together, in the emptiness, I can caress your rib shaking black pony tail and not in a fish-pool university library, where heinously the great opportunity of exchanging ideas and cultures never happens, wanting to be alone after the blast furnace of writing. My father really laboured in the steelworks’ real blast furnace, until he pulled apart his stomach lifting a molten ingot off a workmate.
Chucking the rain down, yet he senses a mob of crows overhead. They’re searching for refuge and salvation. It’s ok. He’s one of the lucky ones. It is okay to be who I am, too.
Becoming etched yellow, the knees start to sting. I fall all forward down concrete steps between the privet hedges. From next door’s porch, Mr Jones the Poacher who rediscovered but told no-one in officialdom the 1643 non-conformist chapel on wild, crab-apple Mynyddbach Common, smiles toothily at me in Welsh. The noise of my football togs scatters the cat I like to smooth – dead now too. Mrs Jones is from Devon. It is a town in England. I looked it up in my school atlas. I heard Mam explain it as a reason, to whippet Mrs Llewellyn –Neath/ Skewen dog track for her odd views and more understandable thick clotted Devon cream stout figure “It’s all green fields and valleys and thatched cottages across there. Proper farms, she always tells me.” “Half or more of our coal mines as well.” “The Vivians are from there and they made wads of money in Swansea.” “Gorseinon.” “Morriston.” “Velindre, Trostre.”
It’s four o’clock in the mildew afternoon and Mam and Dad are at work: so I’ll play World Cup Finals in the back garden. A little shouting and a quick silence disturb the air. Not the same croaky shouts as up on Roy’s Field where they must still yet cannon between water-tower and cemetery. Wales yelled and beaten England was silent. So it happens, as stuff happens. My stomach muscles tug tugging tightening. The shouting is Mam versus Dad. The same thing happens as I write this this this and that that that. It is the same holding back the bile and shame as when I walked four miles to where Mam was a cashier. Back in the day, my wet-mud fingertips scrunch up the flapping, heart-coloured School football jersey. Mam’s look will accuse but she’ll wash and iron it again so as to start anew at the next school year. The noise is jumping. I have to go. I know. Don’t you know the shouting tore me? It tears me every time I want to give love, and find love. And the coloured girls sing something from Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side.
“You have a family.”
Snap. The lilacs snap the glass vase, do they? My father turned away. I saw him look down into his tea, grip it and suspend the McVitie’s Chocolate Digestive above. I wanted it if he didn’t want it. He fathered thundered the garden-gloves onto the floor. My mother didn’t pick them up. I couldn’t believe that.
Come into the front room, Michael.
If I write I will not forget. Marilynne Robinson or Elaine Ferrante wrote that and though very different novelists I respect both and recommend them to friends.
‘Your father’s locked out of the steelworks again. We thought that was over but it’s never over. A cold coming we’ll have of it. For mark my words boys: they won’t be here when they can make more money elsewhere. We can’t rent the caravan this summer.’
My Mam saw me as more the rebellious, political son.
Her eyes were kindling for her beliefs. The words that didn’t douse in the light years behind or to come but awfully she couldn’t manage the events around her own family. I think it was after I left home that I realised that there was no herself there in her daily life or in how the neighbours always came to advice when a sixteen year old got pregnant or when a boy couldn’t write or someone was sick or beaten up or when advice was needed on how to .. How to so many things -she lived so much for others because she could do things they needed and they couldn’t do. You saw that giving in many places in the town and valleys.
I see now I began looking for an act to prove I deserved my life after hers was gone. I didn’t succeed so well and I lost it many times. Could I then come home, I mean if I achieved something we’d be proud of?
We’re going to Auntie Joyce’s. When Tonight I have school I spoke to your headmistress. We’ll stop at Shepherd’s in Parkmill for an ice-cream tea. Pack or we’ll go without you, Michael. Auntie Joyce was Mam’s best friend but what were Parkmill and Shepherds but I didn’t care because Mam was happy and we were going on a proper holiday with bucket and spades and sandcastles. Gower’s mustard-grass flavoured lanes cut up and churn in a countryside way, narrow and we run into a throbbing, bounding forward tractor. We reverse and just avoid sloping down runner-bean trees into that ditch there. Two minutes later, Dad screeches the brakes and we grate the wheels across a cattle-grid slow enough for me to see through the dry-stone wall’s gaps: there’s a fleshy, cut-out unicorn raising its Charlie Hebdo tricolour shaped horn and then of course it ignored the fuss we were making. Five minutes later, out of the car with a hold-all each to carry, wood smoke in the nostrils, I’ve picked and eaten blackberries and slip four inchoate decades forward onto the liminal red leaf carpet. A pointy-eared rabbit carried on its way. Over the fields was sea, open sea and one sailing-boat in the far away where each night we tuned into Radio Luxemburg before sunbed scraping asleep in a moored bunk-bed with my brother dead - too and the bird chirruping morning when we adventured through the Amazonian forest to the Non EU pasteurising law farm-shop and got stinky goat’s milk and thin rashers of bacon. After breakfast we tumbled down through the deep, couch grass sand-dunes. We forded the ice-cube stream where gulls fed on shoals of tiny fish. With my brother I climbed the foaming shale bank and up the right-angled river meadow. Up more and across more stepping-stones in the water and up more to the summit of the ruined castle and then down ever so in the kayak blitz towards the sprayed headland with the dinosaur feathers and sea shells. Somehow I knew they were always there with blanched bones of crabs and my death. Stranger pummel my chest. Water erupt from my lungs, in my mouth fingers not mine. My lips were sea-salty. The drooling waves kept rushing over me but weren’t there and I bobbed like a seal that carry the souls of the dead in Welsh mythology.
Four decades later, a little out of breath after climbing the fern musty dusky hill, I am wandering in lead, mullion-windowed Penmaen Church with what I can now smile at and think of as its porridge grey walls and a graveyard of oatmeal slabs of headstones with their Celtic Crosses, without sounding the child I was. The ascent was a challenge - to belief and memory and how I live. I thought of giving up. Perhaps that is my shame. Yet, the poetry of Dylan Thomas and the jazz of Charlie Bird Parker are at their greatest, and they are great, when they stop time, let us live the pomp of the moment with its sensory world and not our rationalising. Tonight, I stroll along the shore and on reaching the corporation manicured Ashleigh Road golf course I cross over the road at the sign Araf that I don’t know but welcome that it is Welsh, language of Merlin and Bards, and blink at and count one, two, three, four, five, six, seven geese and I gather up: there is no distraction of past or future but only the time we live in when I’m here – the now we can call it can we, a ballad made of it?
I resolve to do better for our children, their children and my home-town. I tried to do that in my real, working-holiday life that I blasted out for myself and her. Yes, it had to be away from the forges and coalmines of south Wales.
“Wasn’t that what you wanted for me, Dad? You were one of twelve children raised atouching the toxic dump of the Vivian’s copper works in Hafod’s Tip Row. You left school at twelve to work. I didn’t have to do that Dad. I’ve worked in Paris, Barcelona, Venice, Athens and Istanbul – great cities where I tried to make a contribution. Thank you for my
In another time, in a railway-terminus café I hate and I love. I do it in other places, too. I don’t know why. I detest and I cherish this miasma, this drollest epiphany. The good and the bad appear then leave. I want you to be one, baby. I want you where you must be. Past the open window where red-green leaves twist and fall like coins, like medallions, like words, like your petalled vanilla lips. I err and note that my memory remains freeze-framed by an Aegean blue Mediterranean sky. I think it must instead become slate grey Welsh once more to save me but it’s slow to happen and I am often amiss in understanding history and events. I then overhear: “If your lover sits next to you in a café, it means he doesn’t trust you.”
I create my wanton, lust feuille but gazpacho serious you as I extoll your virtuous life. I am here amidst the pulsing, hiss rising steam and the easily recognisable pygmy detritus of my own traits as I am askance that glorious rainforest tang of coffee-bean and adroitly placed gardenias that rekindle your body and you in my mind and I am happy you left me and are an eco-architect building for the people. Yacht masts and sails jostle like myth and legend down in the day below. I stare, stark, from the amber on my tongue to what once would have been an invaluable treasure-trove porcelain plate. In a café the drawn out, pulling away from us present tense whooshes as people come and the people leave. Charlie Parker jazz heats up, jittering fragments of gestures and ladies in lace threaded walking boots, rise and seize and InstaGram and trump out with OS Maps bright. A figure in shadow will soon go not slink an opposite way that is no different. The marshy citrus groves in Old Epidavros Port are rouged-up then ransacked by undercover security forces to discredit and foul the public perception of these torn people. Back in the big city we collect to distribute food, water and sleeping bags and Medicines Sans Frontiers medicines and treatments for cuts, bruises and upset stomachs. Outside where I am writing this a month ago I woke to bulldozers and workmen shovelling up the turf in the park and I talked to some workmen and asked why they had to dump it below my window and that of the other tenants in my social housing block when fifty metres away there is old waste ground.
“We can’t touch that for public health reasons.”
“That used to be the boundary of the town borough.”
“It was where they buried the victims of the cholera and plague epidemics of the last century. We don’t want to go digging their bones up and contaminating the water table and the air.”
“At least we don’t have that in Europe anymore.”
We the 99% in the tents of the indignantes inhale the cloudy breath of lemon juice under eyes to dwindle the of out-of-date tear gas of dictators and riot police frog marching a cockroach wedge down Parliament’s polished marble steps (am I surely not the only one who sees in his eyes the totemic image of the Odessa Steps from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin in front of Five Star Hotels and Government Offices.
None of the protesters worry as I take out my laptop but I worry about those undercover agents who really don’t like to see anyone recording or filming what’s happening and they will smash any device they can steal from you. Nevertheless, I do etch a line from the Japanese novelist Haruaki Murakami into my head or is it onto an I-phone or a Tweet – best to use more than one of these mediums anyway isn’t it: how prescient the words are in their lament for our impotence and yet hope as we do write them and we do believe someone will read them and do something to reverse them.
I love writing. Ascribing meaning to life is a piece of cake compared to actually living it.
Yeah, right. I know know if this is more than self-indulgence. Is it?
I hate and I love and I know why. I detest and I cherish this and all. Miasma and epiphany Nothing is new. A second rough sleeper dead in a shop doorway in Oxford Street
He disembarks with revelry sated friends from a bus from a protest march demanding free education. He drops in his rucksack his flame and vomit stained Anonymous mask. At dawn on the coming back coach he thought it something. The coach drops them in the uni night out Wednesday. He trolls backwards. The internecine Guy Fawkes mask hides and he is the inchoate past, looking any way in the present where the trafficked liminal sixteen going on thirty two years old woman in a red dress with lime teeth, orchid lipstick and chewing gum pout who has every name you can pay for at the stiletto end Wind- Street thunderclap. This is Heaven - above where Mom and Pops make the surprise visit to beat all surprise visits.
I must make a difference. The in-your-face punk I grew in defied their privileges and our mediocre dreams back then. Colour is passion and the migrant experience is enabling and I’m getting better I know because instead of getting angry at the in a way victims of a sort, I am getting angry at the “Put on a proper suit, pull up your tie and sing the national anthem,” of the rich and powerful. I won’t buy again from Amazon because of the way they abuse employees and I’ve thrown away my Vodaphone because they don’t pay enough tax and I volunteered to stand in Tesco one day a week and hold a food trolley into which we can deposit food for the Food Bank. Atlantic rollers fill and empty the fibrous rock pools and I will step onto them and search for mucky sea urchins not magical mermaids. That’s more appropriate because I understand at last that the steelworks to the left of the bay and the candy coloured houses to the right are the same town and the same me.
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