The car was gathering speed as it hurtled round the bends of the twisting mountain road.
I knew only too well what was going to happen but there was no way in which I could alter the script or hit the brakes. All I could do was to wait for the inevitable.
There was someone in the passenger seat beside me. It had to be Michela, but her face was somehow in shadow.
And there, directly on cue, in the usual place and at the usual time, was that bloody vegetable stall; right on the bend, slap-bang in the middle of the road for god’s sake…
‘Keith! Keith! Watch ou-oaaaaa!’ Michela’s futile warning mutated into a chilling screech.
I was trying to say something to her but my tongue seemed to be tied up in knots and try as I might, I just couldn’t get the words out.
The car slewed across the road towards the safety barrier. We only had seconds before the impact and the darkness. Then suddenly, I remembered that there was always an escape.
I had to wake up, I must wake up…
And I began struggling to release myself from the immobilising grip of the nightmare.
At last, the images and muted clamour of the accident disappeared.
I lay, supine, quivering like a leaf.
But I had woken to the sound of the guns and the building shuddering violently. It wasn’t just me who was shaking; my whole bed was bouncing like cork on the ocean.
I had to get to the shelter of the cellar. I couldn’t stay here to be blown to bits or buried alive.
I tried to get up but this gammy leg I’ve got was as stiff as a poker and totally numb. I couldn’t get it to budge. It was as if I was somehow pegged out against the mattress. I began to panic.
‘Admir! Admir! Help me, I can’t move!’
But the young Bosnian who shared the room with me was nowhere to be seen. I struggled wildly to get my legs moving.
And then the thunderous roar and crazy rocking motion subsided.
Silence – except for the sporadic barking of dogs in the dark.
I swallowed and tasted blood from biting my tongue in my frantic efforts to speak in my sleep.
I wasn’t in Bosnia; I wasn’t a target of Serbian artillery and mortars. I was at home, in the house in Ruabon, alone and without Admir or Michela or anyone else.
What the hell had happened?
A train crash? The line to Wrexham from the Midlands passed over the bridge less than a hundred yards away.
An earthquake? I’d experienced quite a few when I worked in Indonesia – they were commonplace out there, but, if it was a tremor, I’d never felt anything like it before in this country.
I lay in the darkness, straining my ears for the slightest sound. But there was nothing to be heard now except for the murmur of the little river as it flowed under the railway bridge and the explosive rush of the occasional big lorry on the main road – and of course the thudding of my own heartbeat.
Normal night noises. No sirens. No shouts and screams. No shooting. Even the dogs had quietened down by now.
Had the whole thing just been part of my dream? Had all that shaking and roaring merely been some sort of extension of the oh-so familiar nightmare about the accident?
As the sweat rapidly began to cool on my body, I pulled the duvet up around my ears, my earlier fear giving way to intense irritation.
Ever since the accident and the traumatic events which followed, sleep, or rather the lack of it, had been a problem. However, this particular night I had managed with more success than usual to close the sluice gates of my mind against the constant tide of harrowing thoughts. I’d been out for a couple of relaxing pints in the Wynnstay up the road and come back at a reasonable hour in order to pack and prepare for the journey the following morning.
By now however all the spectres of the past had been fully roused, and it was unlikely that I would get any sleep again before morning. I should have got up and taken a tablet, but I just didn’t have the strength or inclination…
Remarkably, and at odds with my usual experience, I must have fallen back to sleep quite quickly after that, exhausted by the terror and consternation of my nightmare, because the next thing I knew was my alarm announcing that it was time for me to get up.
This is something easier said than done these days, in particular in the cold weather. I can never be sure that I will be able to feel my feet under me or that my right leg is going to function properly after being immobile all night. The number of times I’ve keeled over on my face after stepping smartly out of bed is nobody’s business.
As I made myself a cup of coffee before leaving the house to catch the bus, the news on the radio confirmed my suspicions that it had indeed been an earthquake which had been resposible for the explosive shock in the night; measuring 4.5 on the Richter Scale, it had rippled out from an epicentre in the middle of the Irish Sea as far east as Staffordshire, toppling a few chimneys in Anglesey and opening up large cracks in walls all along the north Wales coast.
I switched off the radio and turned my attention to the bags which I’d packed the previous evening. Having finally convinced myself that they contained everything I needed, I set about checking the gas and electricity knobs and switches, window locks and so on prior to venturing out.
I was all ready now – rucksack on my back, stick in hand, the other bag slung over my shoulder as I hobbled towards the door.
But just as I raised my hand to the latch, a fervent barrage of knocking resounded from the other side.
I swore under my breath. It was that prat of a postman, who else?
I stood perfectly still. I really didn’t want to indulge in any inane interchange with him at this time of the morning.
A second and equally insistent fusillade of knocking hammered against the door, followed by a clumsy attempt to stuff items through the antiquated letter box. I saw the crumpled edges of an envelope being shoved relentlessly through the narrow aperture.
For goodness sake…!
By now I was fuming. I put down the bag and my stick and opened the door.
“Ah, Mr Keith Jones. Good morning to you. Up bright and early today, fair play to you,’ crowed the balding bantam on the doorstep.
I said nothing.
‘You need to get a new letter box, you know.’
‘Yes, you’ve told me before.’
If he could just post things one at a time and take a little more care, there wouldn’t be a problem. This miscreant and his constant twaddle were the bane of my life. It was lucky for him that I had put my stick to one side before opening the door.
‘Did you feel the earth move for you last night?’
‘Yes,’ I replied as indifferently as I could.
‘It wasn’t as bad as 1984, but it was quite a jolt, wasn’t it? The glass of water on the bedside cabinet went flying. Smashed to smithereens on the floor. Hell of a mess,’ he continued, scrutinising the envelopes in his hand.
‘You’ve got quite a selection today,’ he announced. ‘One of those catalogues, an electricity bill and a letter from some fancy lady or other I’d say.’
‘Give them to me, please,’ I snapped, by now totally devoid of patience.
He handed them over and I shut the door on him.
What a twat! Always the same – always some sort of childish banter or other…
I noticed my hands were shaking, the envelopes were flapping wildly in my grasp. It was always the same – the slightest upset and I’d be like jelly. A side-effect of some the shovel-loads of tablets I have to get down me every day.
Things weren’t getting off to a very auspicious start.
I examined the envelopes myopically pushing my distance glasses up onto my brow – the little git had been quite right: the electricity bill – the final demand probably, a catalogue of hand-guns from Germany and a personal letter with the address written in an unfamiliar female hand. The envelope was very creased and the ink smudged here and there and the words ‘Not known’ and ‘Try Acrefair’ – the next village down the road – had been scribbled imperiously across it. Without my reading glasses which were somewhere in the depths of my rucksack, there was no point in my trying to read it now.
I peered a bit closer at the envelope and a sudden chill of recognition rippled through me. It couldn’t be from my younger daughter Emma could it? She’d have been in her mid-teens the last time I’d seen her handwriting. But there was something about the shape of the letters which rang a bell. I stood there rather dumbfounded, not quite sure what to do. I wanted to hear from her, yes… but I was also scared of what she’d have to say, especially after our last meeting.
Time was getting on and it would take ten minutes or so for me to reach the bus stop. The letter could wait – there’d be plenty of time over the next few days. I didn’t want to get even more het up before starting out. After all, I’d got a long and fairly challenging journey in front of me.
I stuffed the letter and the catalogue into my shoulder bag and, leaving the electricity bill on the floor by the door, stepped out into the early morning November mist.
Rushing (as fast as my disability allowed) along the riverside path, passing under the bridge and ascending the steep metal steps to the bus stop in front of the railway station was no mean feat for me at such an early hour.
By the time I’d got there, I was sweating profusely and panting like an old walrus. Thank goodness there was no one else around. I’d hardly started to get my breath back when the bus showed up.
I stepped on board, flashing my pass to the driver. I liked doing that – not having to announce to all and sundry where I was going. I used to get the same sort of buzz in the old days when I’d be flying to every corner of the globe with my work – without anyone knowing that the guy travelling first class in the seat next to them on the flight to Karachi or wherever it might be, was on his way to seal a deal to sell a consignment of arms to whomsoever was prepared to pay the current market price.
There were very few passengers on the bus that morning. I hate getting onto a crowded bus where people aren’t prepared to shift their bags or give up a square inch of space to let you sit down. But there were plenty of seats available today.
I headed straight for the back of the bus. The driver set off before I’d reached the seat and I was hurled into it headfirst, my shoulder bag threatening to garotte me and my rucksack like some enormous millstone preventing me from standing up straight to sort myself out. I lost hold of my stick and it clattered off down the bus, causing my fellow passengers to turn their heads and stare in my direction.
I was still trying to get abreast of the chaos and find a way of sitting without my knees being jammed hard against the back of the seat in front of me as the bus left the railway station and turned right towards Llangollen.
It was swelteringly hot at the back of the bus near the engine and the sweat still flowed unabated. By now I was really regretting having set out on this ludicrous venture. I should have stayed where I was, browsing through my catalogue and sorting out payment of that electricity bill.
As I struggled to make myself comfortable, I thought of Maggie Thatcher’s alleged remark with respect to bus travel – that ‘a man who beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure’. Without a shadow of a doubt, in my case, at 54 years of age, good old Maggie had got it right again.
I hadn’t always been a failure. Thirty years or so previously, I had left home and set about doing my own thing, making my fortune in the arms trade – my reputation in the field attracting attention and offers from all over the world, from every country where arms were in demand.
But now I was physically a cripple and my mind in tatters, an arid wasteland, and I was having to swallow copious amounts of drugs to keep me sane and to keep the pain under control.
With most of my ill-gotten gains frittered away, and money starting to become a real problem, I now found myself living in a rather nondescript town under the shadow of Offa’s Dyke in north-east Wales – a place more renowned for its brickworks than anything else.
I’d tried every which way to get my act back together over the years, and had spent large amounts of money on all sorts of therapies for both mind and body – but there was nothing that seemed to do the trick completely.
‘You must revisit the source of your angst,’ said the (expensive) therapist I’d seen in Chester, fixing me in the gaze of her large grey eyes. ‘You have to go back to your roots, to where you were brought up.’
Are you serious? I thought.
‘After all,’ she continued in her gentle middle class tones, ‘you’ve decided to move back to Wales. There must have been something drawing you back.’
Jesus! It was house prices which were the main reason for my return – not some sentimental notion of longing for the old country. The ever-increasing cost of living in Chorleywood in the heart of city stockbroker territory and my ever-shrinking financial assets meant I had to look for somewhere cheaper to live. I got wind of this place in Ruabon from a fellow tippler in the Con Club, and I went for it.
However, the lady therapist of Chester had planted the germ of an idea in my head.
I had attended these sessions about a year back and by the summer of this year I had to admit that I really was starting to feel a bit stronger. Whether it was the result of the therapy or just the passage of time – who knows?
Whatever was responsible, on a glorious day at the beginning of September, I made the decision that perhaps it might be quite fun to return to the old stamping ground – just out of curiosity. After all, there was nothing for me to be afraid of there. I didn’t know anyone; I wasn’t related to anyone who was still alive. It’s actually a very beautiful part of the world and I was confident that I wouldn’t be plagued by any ghosts from the past.
Nevertheless, I knew the journey would not be easy and it took a long time for me to pluck up courage and muster sufficient reserves of energy to give it a go – and by the end of October, the weather had turned and the season was starting to bare its fangs. Nevertheless, the decision had been made.
Certainly, the weather gods were not smiling down on me this morning. As the bus reached the village of Cynwyd, just south-west of Corwen, it began to pelt down mercilessly without a glimmer of hope that the sun would be showing its face in these parts for some time.
‘How were the roads?’
‘Driving in the rain really drains you, doesn’t it?’ said the hotelier – a portly gentleman of a similar age to myself – as he looked at the hotel registration card. ‘Oh, you haven’t put your car registration number.’
‘I came by bus.’
The owner’s eyes widened in disbelief.
‘By bus?! From Ruabon? That’s quite a journey.’
I hadn’t given much thought as to just how uncomfortable and exhausting an experience it would be travelling from Ruabon to Cricieth by bus in a single day.
By the time we reached Bala, about an hour’s journey out, my backside felt as flat as a pancake. Three quarters of an hour later in Dolgellau, my right leg had gone dead as was its wont and my whole back was wracked with pain. When at long last the bus arrived in the little seaside town of Barmouth where I had an hour’s break, I felt as though I would never be able to get to my feet again.
Strangely enough, the last time I had made such a difficult journey was on a coach from central Bosnia to the Croatian border with a crowd of elderly and infirm refugees as travelling companions. On that occasion I vowed that I would never undertake such a journey again as long as I lived. But in fact, the seats on the coach in Bosnia were probably more comfortable than those offered by public transport in rural Wales.
It had poured down every inch of the way and the stunning mountain and coastal scenery to which I had been looking forward was all hidden from view under a seamless blanket of opaque cloud.
After Barmouth I had to change buses twice before reaching Cricieth – a manoeuvre which, in the incessant deluge, involved even more hassle and discomfort. However, as we drew close to my destination, a cheeky little sunset showed itself, illuminating the brooding horizon beyond the silhouette of Cricieth castle and at long last the rain relented.
‘Do you know Cricieth?’
As a rule, I try to avoid any small talk of this type, providing only monosyllabic answers if absolutely necessary, but I was just so relieved to have arrived that I felt quite intoxicated and willing to indulge in conversation with anyone.
‘I used to come here on my holidays when I was a child.’
‘Get away. That’s quite a long time ago… I mean…’
‘Don’t worry. You’re quite right, a very long time ago. I can’t deny that.’
‘Are you from round here originally?’
Luckily, there was a lift in the hotel and the owner was only too willing to help with the bags. It was wonderfully quiet there too – deep-pile carpets, heavy duty fire doors and hardly any other residents around – not unexpected in November.
‘There’s a crowd of golfers coming in before the end of the week, but you’re off on Wednesday, aren’t you?’
‘That’s it,’ I said, already beginning to draw back into my shell again as we reached the room and the owner unlocked the door for me.
My accommodation ticked all the boxes. It was clean, comfortable and had a particularly fine view of the sea and across the bay to the mountains of Ardudwy on the other side. A bit more salubrious that my rather damp cottage in Ruabon.
‘We serve food in the bar from half past seven until nine,’ said my host cheerfully. ‘If you need anything at all, give us a shout.’
‘Thanks,’ I said, closing the door after him with rather more force than intended.
I went over to the window and gazed for a long time at the panorama. The sky was beginning to clear and Harlech and the hills of Meirionnydd looked remarkably close in the encroaching darkness as the final rays of the setting sun brushed gently over the ancient town and slopes behind.
I was completely knackered. I lay down on the bed fully clothed and couldn’t even bring myself to take off my shoes.
When I awoke about an hour later, night had fallen and the orange glow from the streetlights flooded across the ceiling. I was as stiff as a board, of course, and had chilled despite the central heating.
I’d better get into bed, I thought. I didn’t really want anything to eat. I’d had sausage and chips in Barmouth and a scone in a cafe in Porthmadog, and I was just too tired to go down to the bar, where I would, no doubt, have had to be sociable.
As I unpacked my shoulder bag, I came across the letter that had arrived as I left the house. I put on my reading glasses and saw that it was indeed more than likely to be from Emma, my younger daughter.
I thought of opening it, but decided then that it wasn’t a very sensible idea to read such a missive just before going to sleep. Tomorrow will do, I thought, and left it by the bed.
I then couldn’t make up my mind whether to take a sleeping tablet or not. I decided, as I was so tired, there was no need for one. They didn’t always agree with me and tended to upset my system in all sorts of ways.
The bed was comfortable. Plenty of room, and the sheets smelt wonderfully fresh. I relaxed a bit, listening to the rhythm of the waves on the beach, and before long I was asleep.
Translated by Martin Davis
War brings chaos and horror to the disintegrating former Yugoslavia, but for Welsh arms-dealer Keith Jones at first it is simply another lucrative business opportunity. Then, after he meets the Bosnian militant Michela, he finds himself drawn ever further into the dangerous conflict zone where loyalties are ambiguous and constantly shifting. Eventually, broken in body and spirit, he manages to return to Wales, but finds it hard to come to terms with the past. Revisiting his childhood home in the rural north-west, he struggles to comprehend the sequence of events and relationships which determined the disastrous course his life has taken. Meanwhile, Nina, a young girl from Sarajevo, falls victim to a smooth-talking Irishman who traffics her into the sex trade, eventually smuggling her into north Wales. When their paths cross, Keith at last finds a way to make amends for his past and achieve some degree of personal redemption.
Selected as the Welsh Books Council’s ‘Book of the Month’, Broc Rhyfel takes the reader into the darker corners of modern Europe, from the war-torn Balkans to the present day abuse and exploitation of women. Martin Davis’s latest novel is a page-turning but thoughtful thriller with a strong political theme, informed by a deep humanity.
'This powerful novel takes us on a journey to some of Europe's darkest and most dangerous corners.'