Y Wraig ar Lan yr Afon - Aled Jones Williams
The Woman on the Riverbank, pp. 7-11
Translated by Marged Haycock
as the undertaker and his men were having a cup of tea and a joke in the back room, I saw them out the window. They looked at me as if to say who’s that bloke that’s just arrived on a moped? And moped is what they’d call it, I know for sure. (Wasp-bikes is what I call them because when I was younger — and there were more of them on the road then, for some reason — they sounded like the frenzied noise of a wasp that Mam had cornered with the edge of a glass tumbler on the corner of a window — right through the summer, ten or a dozen of them between July and the end of August — before lowering the rim of the glass very, very carefully over the poor creature; the wasp would get more and more incensed but more faltering somehow inside the glass — like hearing the changing of a gear from far away — then Mam would slide an envelope between the window-pane and the mouth of the glass, invert it and put her hand carefully over the envelope, before carrying the whole thing out into the summer heat like some sacred object, the wasp suspended in a quiver of outrage inside the glass, then she’d take the envelope away and shake the glass gently to let the captive out. Mam didn’t like to kill anything. So I’m a Wasp-bike rider. And I don’t agree with Mam that killing is all bad.) I pulled off the helmet just after passing the window, knowing full well . . . and shook my hair out free. Then I saw them turning now to have a good look at a girl. I could feel the blaze of their eyes on the curve of my bum in the leather trousers. With men, it’s specific parts they always home in on when they assemble a girl, arsemble you could say. In a minute they’ll be putting on a show of being all dignified. I’m sure I saw the vicar there as well, despite what I’d said.
If the girl who’d just got off the moped had turned her head a bit to the left and up to the far corner of the car park she’d have seen the green BMW, and probably recognised it, because she’d seen it once or twice before — if she could remember, obviously — it was the only car there so far, in hiding, camouflaged by the shrubs to one side and behind it, so that if you glanced that way you’d think it was just another shrub.
‘Don’t’, said the driver of the car to the woman in the passenger seat who’d taken a cigarette out of the packet, and had it almost to her mouth with the thumb of her other hand poised on the lighter, ‘We just need to see everything. Make sure she’s gone. For good. Then we’ll all be safe. And you can light up’.
The two of them watched the moped rider leave her bike and go for a few yards along the edge of the car park then down the steps and past the end of the offices, taking off her helmet after passing the second window and tossing her long, blonde hair deliberately to draw attention to herself, thought the woman, the cigarette still in her hand within an inch of her mouth.
‘Wasn’t she the ingénue?’ she asked, ‘We waved at each other once, I think’.
‘It was’, said the driver, his finger-tips softly drumming the steering wheel.
‘Don’t make that noise’, said the woman.
‘It’s not noise, it’s a tune’, said the man, ‘Ten Green Bottles’.
‘Should we be worried about her?’ said the woman seeing the girl opening the big door of the crematorium.
‘No’, said the man, drawing out the ‘o’ with his breath.
‘There’ll be no green bottles hanging on the wall’, said the woman, ‘Is that what you’re thinking?’
‘Perhaps’, he said.
‘By the way’, said the woman, ‘Remember to bring the book of photographs when you go in. Some of the dates attached to one or two of them could give the game away. The whole shebang. And that’d never do’.
‘Never do’, said the man.
Despite its size the door of the crematorium closed itself softly behind her, hardly any louder than a duster being drawn slowly, lovingly almost, across the top of a french-polished table. Everything in a crematorium has been softened on purpose. Because death without that soft tempering is too much for any living person to bear. We’ve always got to make light of death. Take away its sting. Or we’d just go mad. Even the soles of the staff here are soft, soft.
With this weird softness clingfilming round everything, I can smell flowers. But cheap ones. Flowers from filling stations ready for the anniversaries you’ve suddenly remembered. And the poor Pepco flowers that have had to come by articulated lorry all the way from Kenya. And the varnish smell, from all the coffins I suppose, that almost makes me feel I’m going to throw up. I hear a coughing behind me and turn round. There’s the man who was ogling me a minute ago — slavering he was. He’s playing the undertaker now. It’s his dad I’ve been dealing with, and I can see the likeness to the old man. ‘Who’ll be paying for the funeral?’ I asked. ‘Oh’, the old man says, ‘all sorted, love. A gent and lady from away. Cash. Twenties in notes, freshly ironed like.’ Right in front of me the son radiates after-shave. Duty-free, I’m thinking, by the look of his tanned face. I step back from the smell of the after-shave back to the smell of cheap flowers and the smell of the varnish. I decide that death and its battalion have got no taste whatsoever. His hair is all gelled up like a hedgehog. What a dump.
‘Is it you’s going to say a word?’ asks Paco Rabanne.
‘I’ll be saying more than a word’, I reply swivelling my hip around towards him, sticking it out just that bit, again in his direction, bending back a little and faking an effort to take my eulogy — that’s the right word, isn’t it? — out of my back trouser pocket. He’s watching all this. Just like he was meant to. And I make a show of opening the pages. He feels the weight of the paper with his finger and thumb like he was longing to fondle something else. This one, he’s got fingers for everything. For the dead and the living.
‘Ten minutes at least in there’, he says.
‘Fifty-four years over there’, I say pointing through the other door to the space where a coffin will be in a bit. ‘Catafalque’s the proper word’, I add.
‘Spot on’, he says.
‘But remember’, I say, ‘I might go extempore, bare my breast’. I winked at him. I can see the suntan on his face darkening.
‘A half hour slot is all we’ve got’, he says wriggling out of it, ‘And the vicar will be. . . ‘
That’s when I saw the vicar for the first time, standing in the office door — had he been there all along? — and the look on his face was like there was a doctor on all fours behind him with a deft finger up his bum looking for his prostate. I almost say, ‘He’ll find it in a minute’. I don’t think I’ve ever had any religious beliefs. I wouldn’t know a religious belief if it was under my nose. So I have to say again: ‘Like I said to your dad the other day, no fuss’.
‘But . . .’
And I stride into that vacuum between him and his single word of protest, and say:
‘She’s dead. And as you’d know full well if you’d listened more to the voice in your head, there’s no “but” after death’.
I wave goodbye to the vicar. He turns round meekly, probably dreaming of vaseline.
Just then a door opened and a round face, a bald head came into view round the edge, making you think of a single white saucer on a draining board.
‘I’m sure I’ve made a mistake, haven’t I?, said the man who’d just arrived, ‘Ieuan Humphreys’s funeral?’
A pause formed between asking the question and waiting for the answer, seeming like ages but somehow appropriate in the setting of the crematorium; a pause that felt, perhaps, like smoke rising.
‘It’s at mid-day’, said the undertaker presently, ‘I saw the name and the time on the list just now’.
A hand came into view under the face at the door to indicate, ‘Thanks for telling me’. The face and the hand retreated to join the rest of the body hidden behind the door, and shut it.
‘What on earth’s wrong with people, eh?’
Does he mean me? Or the man at the door with a face just like Henry James the author. I’ve got a brilliant memory for writers’ faces.
I step back into the smell of cheap flowers and the smell of the after-shave.
‘I’ll go and sit down then’, I say.
The undertaker — I’d like to ask him his name, but I won’t — looks at his watch. I want to ask, ‘How many minutes past the fake-Rolex is it?’ ‘About ten minutes now before the hearse comes’, he says looking at me, thinking and then saying it: ‘Do you want to be a bearer?’
‘Yes!’ I answer firmly, without ever having thought of it before. Almost crying, I turn round and go and sit down. On my own. Because there’s no-one else. And what’s ten minutes in a place like this? What’s an hour? In a place where everything and everyone’s run out of time.
I’m sure I’d discovered, if that’s the word, early on in my life that I didn’t belong to anybody or anything; more correct to say I couldn’t belong: there was something in me keeping me apart, a one-foot-in, one-foot-out kind of nature. Someone on the touchline watching the action in the middle, sometimes venturing — going headlong, as they say — into that centre, but losing heart, getting fed-up all of a sudden, or distracted by something else, so back to the touchline again.
Described by its author as more akin to myth than a novel, Y Wraig ar Lan yr Afon (The Woman on the Riverbank) centres on the arrival of the mysterious Rachel, who sets up home in the Red House on the banks of the river at the edges of Blaenau Seiont. An enigmatic figure whose potentially dark and violent past comes to haunt the narrative, the book traces the profound impact of Rachel’s presence on the local community, in particular the lives of studious Egwyl, the story’s narrator, and Myrr Alaw, a child who already at nine years old has been kerbed to society’s edges.
The forces that draw and hold together these three liminal figures become the book’s central interest: their relationship drawing at times on the Triads of Celtic mythology, or perhaps of Holy Trinities, three distinct figures as one. As Egwyl finds in Rachel a means and model of personal liberation, the destructive nature of their connection blurs into a dark culmination which sits somewhere between fact and fiction. Encompassing themes of faith, self-determination and sexuality, Williams presents us with a creative exploration of the condition of inbetween-ness – a space that this inimitable wordsmith inhabits to great effect, the poetry of his unique prose style flowing throughout with the force of a river.
A central figure in contemporary Welsh literature – a prize-winning playwright and poet as well as a novelist – Y Wraig ar Lan yr Afon affirms Aled Jones Williams’ place amongst the most exciting, enigmatic and boundary-challenging writers of his generation
“It compels us to raise questions and to enjoy inhabiting that space between knowing and not knowing, between good and evil, between fact and fiction.”
Hannah Sams, O'r Pedwar Gwynt
"Mae’r berthynas rhwng y prif gymeriadau’r un mor gyffrous a llawn tensiwn â’r plot ei hun; tensiwn sydd yn emosiynol, yn rhywiol ar adegau, ac yn eich cyffroi wrth iddyn nhw a’u perthynas dyfu, aeddfedu ac esblygu yn ystod y llyfr."