Aled Jones Williams
Translated by Marged Haycock
She was searching yet again for that one all-encompassing sentence. A single golden sentence that could drain away any compunction to keep on with the struggle, to fight it all. Words like sheepdogs moving with stealth, deliberation, one minute low to the ground, the next coursing wide across the field of her mind, bringing the stubborn, spiked flocks of her feelings into the fold of syntax, its structure and its full stop. An end to it all. The answer delivered. Everything solved. The struggle over.
But as a philosophy lecturer at Southampton University she knew full well that there wasn’t much difference between words and a damp paper bag: neither could bear much weight before breaking. As a mother, however, she craved and longed for The Sentence — that one all-powerful, all-knowing sentence that would put her heart and mind at rest. A mother — her — who had just lost her only son. A sentence that would sound like ‘Talitha, cumi’: knowing that there was an obscure, esoteric language somewhere that, when uttered, would open a great door to let in every possible means of healing.
Unconsciously she moved her finger across the misted-up train window. She came to, and stopped, embarrassed. She turned sharply towards the fellow-passenger on the other side of the table just as his gaze turned back to his newspaper. He’d been staring at this weird woman opposite doodling letter-like forms on the window which was all steamed up by the breath and body heat of the passengers in the compartment, full to bursting and filthy as usual, on the Holyhead-Chester line. Osborne hails recovery read the headline of the newspaper that the man was hiding behind.
‘Bangor?’ she asked him, although she knew full well that it was the Bangor train. ‘The train to Bangor?’
The man didn’t reply, but kept on pretending to read. It was clear that he’d had unpleasant experiences before with weird, middle-aged women on trains.
‘All the way to Bangor!’ came a voice from the seat opposite her.
She looked in the direction of the man’s voice. A bald head (looks like someone, she thought). Intelligent perhaps by the look of him? But she didn’t want him to engage her in conversation. It was her turn now to play hide-and-seek. She smiled briefly, nodded slightly and turned to rummage in her bag for . . . . . for what? . . . . her diary, yes . . . . that would do. (She hadn’t been able to read a book since the death, at least not from cover to cover; no further than the first paragraph, in fact; probably no further than the first sentence.) She knew that the bald man was looking at her on the sly. She looked at an empty page: August 18. Not that there was anything significant about the date, only that she had opened it there at random. She ran her finger slowly down the lined blank. From 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. As she stared at the blank, she remembered all of a sudden that it was the American author, Henry James, that the bald man resembled. She had seen a camera portrait of James once in some exhibition or other. Was it by Alvin Langdon Coburn?
She turned to the flyleaf and read her name: Elizabeth Scott-Palmer. She read her address: Mill Lane, Romsey, Hampshire. She saw the name Charles Scott-Palmer in her own handwriting opposite In Case of Emergency Contact. It was as though she was reading not about herself but about some other person she had walked out of that morning before catching a train to Wales. She felt that she’d lent herself out for years to someone strangely like her in appearance, and that now she was recalling the loan. She didn’t hear the bald man telling her: ‘Bangor next stop’. But perhaps she did hear, and ignored him.
* * *
‘But hang on’, said the taxi driver turning off his radio as they went along the mountain road above Rhosgadfan, ‘where are we going to?’
‘I’m not sure!’ she said peering through the window for the house she was certain was here somewhere. And although things seem to stay put geographically down the years, in the mind, they wander here and there, and once-big things get smaller.
‘It’s been years . . . . Stop!’
She saw it. From a distance, rising out from its sleeve of rush and fern, the ruin looked like a charcoal hand holding a black beam of a pencil against the paper air, now yellowing in the dusk.
‘There it is over there. Stop! I’ll be about an hour’.
‘In that dump! An hour! What on earth are you going to do there for an hour?’
‘I’m giving you business not asking you to mind mine. An hour, like I said’.
As she got out of the car her foot went down into a hole and she had to steady herself.
‘Want a hand? I’ll come down with you if you want,’ said the driver.
She ignored him.
On the way down she heard Charles’s voice from a fortnight before:
‘You need help, Lizzie dear.’
As she heard again the word ‘dear’ from inside her, she felt again the fury she had felt before. Her rage brought back the rest of his peroration.
‘What can a return to Wales possibly do for you? Wales is so far behind by now that it must be invisible. You didn’t even go to your aunt’s funeral, for god’s sake! Even though I offered to take you. That must be, what? Twenty years ago. Round figure. At least. ‘Wales is dead to me.’ That’s what you said then. Why go back now? Listen, Lizzie, we have to sit this one out. There are no escape hatches, dear.’
And it was that afternoon that she fully realised that she wasn’t with her husband, the father of her dead son, the two of them able to grieve together in confusion, but in the presence of Colonel Charles Humphrey Scott-Palmer — with his pat British Army phrases: ‘sit this one out’ and ‘escape hatches’ for the grief which was grinding her heart away every day — and by now one of the high-ups at GCHQ Cheltenham. (‘I listened to Putin fucking last night’, she heard him murmur to two of his friends in the garden as she was taking the wine in their direction. ‘Talking golf we are’, he said as she came up to them. ‘I heard you say something about putting’, she said and deliberately slopped out too much wine into the glass of one of the so-called friends she had never seen before. She almost added: ‘Well! Add you three to Putin and, hey presto, four pricks’. But like every good wife, she made her apologies and volunteered to go and get a cloth.)
As though her feet had become young again and remembered the way by themselves, she was suddenly in front of Hafod Owen, after years in parenthesis inside her English life, as she realised today.
‘What will you do there once you arrive, for pity’s sake, Lizzie? You’ll be all at sea’, she heard again the Colonel in her head.
‘I’ll follow my instincts’, she replied.
After her son’s death this woman who for so many years had delighted in the world of the mind and thought, in reason and logic — the philosopher René Descartes was her speciality — now had to excavate a different, almost virgin part of her personality, if she did indeed have it within her — to go somewhere deep inside her emotions to find something, anything, that could curb and perhaps bring under control, thereby casting out the wordless, amorphous pain that sometimes did take form, as a prison guard with his keys jangling round and round in her head, circling her so that she’d never get to see daylight again. There was nothing rational about grief. She’d found that out already. So her first instinct when she got back to Wales was to take a taxi to Hafod Owen. ‘Well, how stupid is that!’ is what she would have thought a while back. But here she was!
As she stepped through the void where the door had been — this year it was a green door, last year it was blue, and because your Taid’s1 a hopeless painter, slap-dash, look, said her grandmother, this year’s green is peeling and showing last year’s blue — she felt the bracken brushing against her ankles. She stepped back so that she could go on again and feel once more the tickle of the bracken along her skin. Was it a smile that formed on her face? No, it wasn’t a smile: she had no right to smile.
‘Bet love!’ said her Nain taking her hands out of the bowl, a smudge of flour on the tip of her nose. ‘How on earth did you come here? Is your mother with you?’ She felt her lips forming the word taxi. Her home counties accent was impeccable and she looked at the ravages that time had wrought. The roof where the floor had been. A mound of stones that had changed places with the chairs that weren’t there. Her grandfather’s hands were behind her covering her eyes and she was having to pretend ignorance when asked ‘who’s there?’ But that was the reality today. She didn’t know who was there. ‘Just one, mind’, said her Nain who caught her out of the corner of her eye reaching out on the sly to snatch a Welsh cake from the yellow pile on the table and hiding it behind her back, or else you won’t want any supper. The rushes — where there’d been a table — were clacking together like deranged needles knitting up memories from a past she hadn’t realised until now that was still inhabiting her, a past that had waited all this time to present her with the pickled gifts of remembrance. Her grandfather threw a shovelful of coal on the fire and she felt the heat that had been extinguished radiating out from the fireplace aflame with bracken. ‘Can I open the curtains, Nain?’ she said and she parted the ivy where the starling was, its body ticking for less than a second on the lintel before disappearing into the dim light of the present as the day grew old. Her terror as a nine year old is what had terrified the bird, she realised. Nine years old, and listening: We can’t take her, Wil. We’re just too old. It’s settled. She’ll go to live with Catrin. She pushed her hand against a portentous door no longer there to show the way to a parlour long gone. And the whitethorn in the corner like an old man bent over and weeping inconsolably for his dead daughter.
When Bet’s soldier son is killed on active service not even her Cartesian philosophy can help her cope with her bereavement. Instead, she embarks on her personal nostos, journeying back to the now run-down town of her childhood in north-west Wales, reverting to her native language that alone can encompass her grief. Leaving behind her comfortable life with her academic career, her posh English husband and his high-ranking friends, she finds her old family home occupied by Cheryl, a young woman who, despite her initial hostility, will become increasingly significant in her life. As Bet divests herself of her acquired English identity and retrieves her real self, friends and enemies old and new emerge in the changed and changing town. Drawn into Cheryl’s world of Robin Hood charity, she encounters a rich cast of characters, from the English incomer peddling right-wing politics, and Bet’s old professor with his bizarre, evangelical Christian community, to sardonic novelist Tom Rhydderch – returning as a leitmotif from previous work by Aled Jones Williams – struggling with writer’s block.
Writing with his characteristic subtlety and humanity, and crossing linguistic frontiers to now savage, now humorous effect, Jones Williams explores the depths and complexities of the human psyche in his most accomplished novel yet.
‘Intricate and multi-layered … perceptive insight by an inimitable wordsmith.’ BARN