Giving Something Back
I belong to a writer's group in Llandovery whose ages range from seventeen to even
older than me - and I'm a fossil. Last year the group, most of whom had never previously been in print, decided to write, edit and publish a collection of short stories and donate any profit we make to a worthwhile project; the town's Youth and Community Centre. It was fun to do and the diversity of the tales reflects the eclectic mix of authors. The title of the book is 'The Turnings of the Years.'
Here's one of the tales I contributed. I hope you enjoy it.
A Quiet Time in Carmarthenshire
'Rural Carmarthenshire has always been an idyllic, rustic paradise where time moves slowly, dictated by the seasons,' said the website. 'Where autumn follows summer and spring bringing new life to the fields, following the dark months of winter. In the heart of Carmarthenshire, nestling in the Towy Valley beneath the Brecon Beacons, sits the small town of Llangadog. First appearances are of a sleepy village, a place where motorists drive slowly around the dog, sleeping in the road outside the Red Lion - where locals, with time to spare, stop to gossip in the post office and the butcher next door knows every customer by name. A quiet tranquil backwater.'
A quiet tranquil backwater. That, if truth be known, was the reason I booked the holiday cottage; to escape and relax, away from my manic life. It was the picture of the dog lounging in the road that clinched it.
The cottage was small and sparsely furnished. The armchair by the fire had been well used. The sort of chair to doze in with your head resting against the high back. The arm had been patched with a square of faded green material. Dead people's furniture, my father would have called it.
A light drizzle had started to fall. The sky was heavy with dark brooding clouds. I unloaded the car, lit the wood burner and settled in for the afternoon. Ignoring the website warning of limited mobile coverage, I checked my phone for messages. Nothing, not one bar and the cottage had no wifi. I was alone, cut adrift from the world. My electronic umbilical cord severed. London, my office, the people I called my friends removed by an impenetrable ether.
When I woke the cottage was almost dark, the only light a dim red glow from the fire. I checked my watch, half past seven. My neck ached and a foul taste filled my mouth. I gulped down a glass of water, grabbed my coat and went outside. A gust of icy wind chilled my bones and stung my eyes. A fine spray of rain, like a mist, soaked my face and ran down my neck. I pulled my collar up and walked quickly along the road, past the churchyard filled with, slate headstones and Victorian monuments. Ahead I could see a lamp above an open door, beckoning. I could hear laughter and a murmur of conversation. A woman laughed. The door was open and a ray of brightness flooded out. Beside the door, a granite mounting stone, polished by a thousand rider's boots, shimmered in the wet light. I went in.
The bar of the Red Lion was crowded with drinkers. The place was hot and had the air of a party, of friends letting their hair down, gossiping, telling jokes and flirting.
I pushed my way to the bar. 'A pint of bitter please.'
The barman pointed to the pumps. 'Which one?'
'Which one is local?'I asked.
'Try the Cwrw. That's what I drink,' said a man next to me.
I watched the barman pull the pint. The beer was warm with a distinct hoppy taste, refreshing and comforting. I moved away from the bar and looked for somewhere to sit. All the tables were full except one. In the far corner, beside the window, an old man, reading a newspaper, was sitting at the table. He was wearing a flat cap, a shabby tweed jacket with leather arm patches and a black waistcoat. A farmer, I guessed.
I made my way over to him. 'Do you mind if I sit here?'
'Please yourself,' he replied without looking up from the paper.
It was then that I saw the Collie under the table. I eased a chair over the dog and tried to sit down but there was no space for my legs.
'Get over,' growled the old man and shoved the dog with his foot. He folded the newspaper and slipped it into his jacket pocket. 'You're not from round here?'
'No. I'm from London.'
He removed his cap and scratched his balding head as if carefully considering my answer. 'London.... Yes, yes,' he replied and replaced his cap. 'Holidays is it?'
'Just a couple of days. A short break to get away.'
He nodded. There was an awkward silence. '...I went to Swansea once. Terrible place. All those people.'
I pictured him wandering around a city and smiled. 'Have you ever gone back?'
He slowly shook his head.
'So you prefer things nice and quiet. Llangadog does seem a sleepy place.'
'Nice and quiet! I could tell you a tale or two about Llangadog,' replied the old man and gently tapped the side of his empty glass.
A pint of beer for some stories seemed a fair trade. I went to the bar and returned with two drinks.
The old man took a mouthful. 'We had a murder here in 2004. In this very pub.' He raised his eyebrows.
Now, he had my full attention. 'Really? Where?'
'I was sitting right here, in the bar, when it happened. He was mad, you see, besotted by a younger woman.'
'Who was he?'
'William Davies. He walked into the bar with a shotgun and pointed it at Caroline Evans. She worked here. He was 59 and she was only 27. Pretty girl too. She was six months pregnant and wanted nothing to do with him. He shouted, 'I'll blow your brains out and then shoot myself. We'll go together.' No one moved or said a word. You could hear the clock in the hall ticking as they stared at each other. Then Ben here,' he pointed to the dog, 'growled. He knew something was terribly wrong.'
'Did he shoot her?'
The old man took another sip of his drink. 'The police confiscated his shotgun and charged him with threatening to kill.'
'But you said there was a murder. You said he was going to blow her brains out and then shoot himself.'
'And so I did.' The old man drained his glass, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and smiled at me. 'It's a wet night. A whiskey to warm my bones.'
I went to the bar again.
'A psychiatrist said Davies was depressed but he was no danger to anyone else. The police dropped the charge of threatening to kill but, in case the psychiatrist was wrong, they kept his gun.'
It wasn't the ending I had expected. 'So no one got killed?' I felt a mixture of relief and ghoulish disappointment.
The old man leaned forward as if to share a secret. His stale breath repelled me but I had to hear.
'He stole a shotgun from a neighbour and came back.' The old man's eyes stared straight into mine. 'He did it. Blew her brains out, just as he said he would, then killed himself.'
I sat back, away from the old man's malodorous face and took a deep breath.
'A barmaid found both bodies when she came to work.'
We sat watching customers at the bar.
A stout man in a Wales rugby shirt was telling a joke. An appreciative group gathered around him. '... then I found someone was accessing my online bank account. I turned detective and found a man from New Zealand I thought was the thief. I confronted the Kiwi but he was slapping his arms and legs and sticking his tongue out. Do you know why?' Rugby shirt paused.... 'He was a haka.'
Groans and laughter greeted the punch-line.
The old man rubbed a hole in the condensation on the window. 'It's raining again just like in 1987. I remember the rain didn't stop for weeks.'
He was talking quietly, as if to himself. I leaned forward to catch what he was saying. 'Ben and I were moving some cattle by the river at Glanrhydsaeson when the accident happened. The river was about to burst its bank and flood the fields. Do you see? We had to move the cows to higher ground.'
The old man turned and faced me. He looked sad. 'The railway bridge collapsed pitching the early train into the river. The driver and three passengers drowned in the Towy that morning. I helped recover the bodies from the water.'
I contemplated what he said. Murder and a suicide in the pub and before that a rail disaster. Not what I'd expected to hear in sleepy Llangadog.
'Are you hungry?' asked the old man. He was smiling. 'They do some excellent bar meals here.' He tapped his empty glass. 'Let's eat.'
I'd had nothing since breakfast and was hungry. It would be rude to sit and eat without inviting the old man to join me and, to be honest, I was enjoying his company. I fetched a menu and more drinks from the bar while he went to the toilet. Ben didn't stir from his place under the table.
'It isn't all death and destruction,' said the old man. 'Did I tell you I once had a dairy farm of my own?'
I watched him cut a piece of steak and sneak it under the table to his dog. 'No. You said you used to move cows.'
'Before then, I farmed at Gwynfe. Had 36 milking cows. The tanker used to collect the milk every morning and bring it down to the dairy here in Llangadog. Then, they introduced milk quotas and we knew we had to do something.'
'Milk quotas, when was this?'
'1984. The Minister of Agriculture, Mr. Jopling, himself came to explain.' He stabbed to air in front of me with a finger. 'It was our chance to show him a thing or two. Two thousand of us showed up on our tractors. We blocked all the roads trapping the minister for hours and released hundreds of gallons of milk in protest. It was a grand day but I knew the end of milk farming was coming. It was time for Ben and me to do something else.' He shoved a mushroom into his mouth and chewed as he spoke. 'I was right. They closed the dairy in 2005.'
Did the old man just say it was time to do something else in 1984? I did a quick mental sum. That was thirty-two years ago. He would have been alive then, but the dog? It must have been a different dog or was the Cwrw effecting my hearing and arithmetic? But then, did it really matter? I felt relaxed. So what if the old man got his dates wrong. He was entertaining and, for the first time in weeks, I felt relaxed and a bit drunk. My break in the country was doing some good.
The barman came over and cleared our plates away.
'Gangsters,' said the old man, 'You have them in London don't you? Krays, Richardsons. I've read about them in the papers.'
'The Krays are dead but we do still have gangs in London,' I replied.
'Ben can smell them, you know; gangsters, he can smell them.'
I looked down at the dog asleep at my feet. 'You have gangsters here?'
The old man nodded. 'The first one was called Malcolm Heaysman, he turned up in 1971 and bought Godrewaun Cottage in the village. Ben didn't like him. He would snarl every time he saw the man and....'
'Just a minute. How old is your dog?'
'I don't really know.' He shrugged. 'I didn't have him as a puppy. As I was saying, he didn't like the man. We were in the lane one morning when a car pulled up. There were two men inside, strangers I'd never seen before. Ben went up to the car and then did something odd, something he'd never done before; he came and sat behind me, almost cowering. They asked if a single Englishman, an old friend of theirs, had recently moved into the village. Oh yes, I said and told them about the man doing up Godrewaun Cottage. They drove off. That's the last I saw of them.'
'Heaysman was beaten to death by the two men who parked their car and walked across the fields to his house. The police said he was a gangster from Islington, killed to settle an old score.'
I got up and made my way through the hall to the toilet. The Cwrw was stronger than I'd expected. The hall clock chimed the half hour as I returned. Was it really only eight thirty? I wasn't sure. We'd eaten a meal and I thought I'd been listening to the old man for hours. How many drinks had we consumed? Five, six, more; again I wasn't sure. How old was Ben? I no longer cared. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered.
Something had changed in the bar. It took me a moment to understand what exactly. The air was thick with cigarette smoke and the old man in the corner was smoking a pipe. I watched him tamp down the tobacco and strike a match.
He dropped the match into an ashtray on the table. 'Did I tell you about the fire?'
'No. What fire?'
The old man leaned back and blew a smoke ring in the air. 'It was in 1953 or was it 52? I'm not sure now. Anyway, my neighbours, at Glanrhyd Meilock, Mr. and Mrs Williams and their children were in bed when a fire started in the kitchen.' The smoke ring had fallen and was settling on the table. He waved it away. 'They escaped down the stairs and out the front door. Mrs Williams told me there so much smoke they had to go down the stairs, backwards, on their bellies. Then she remembered her mother.'
'Her mother. Whose mother?'
The old man raised an eyebrow. 'I just told you, her mother. Mrs Williams’ mother, the blind 80 year-old invalid, was asleep in a downstairs room, behind the kitchen. Mrs Williams went back into the house. Her husband tried to stop her. You see, the house was in flames. She told me the fire had spread across much of the kitchen. She crawled across the floor and dragged her mother out. Both women survived but Mrs Williams remained in hospital for some time with serious burns to her back. I used to visit her every week. Of course, I didn't take Ben. Dogs aren't allowed in hospitals.' The old man puffed his pipe, coughed, cleared his throat and sniffed loudly. 'The farmhouse was completely destroyed. We had to do something. I started a collection.' He sat up and pointed to his chest. 'People were very kind. The village collected enough money to completely rebuild the house within a year, imagine that, and Mrs Williams was awarded the British Empire Medal for her bravery.'
Thinking of Mrs Williams crawling across a smoke-filled kitchen, I peered through the smoky gloom of the bar and noticed, the man wearing the red rugby shirt had left. There was something else, all the women who had been there, earlier in the evening, were gone. The room was darker and for some reason, I could not fathom, the landlord had turned off the beer pump's neon signs. I turned back. A youth, I hadn't seen before, was refilling my beer from a large metal jug. 'Thanks,' I said and picked the glass up by its handle.
'Ben did his bit in the war,' said the old man.
I started to laugh. The old man was a fool to be humoured. 'Ben. Which war was that? The Boer War.' I sniggered. 'Was he in the army or the navy?'
'No.' The old man looked offended. 'We were on the mountain. Ben was barking. He'd found a dead man in a gully.'
I stopped smiling. 'A body, who was he?'
'There was three pounds ten shillings in his wallet which I was very glad of and an identity card.'
'You took his money? You stole from a dead man?'
'He wasn't going to spend it, was he? The old man shrugged. 'His name was Sergeant Jones. He'd baled out of a damaged Lancaster bomber. We found the parachute where he came down. The poor sod crawled three miles with a broken leg before dying.'
I'd heard enough. The old man with bad breath was a thief, a liar and a sponger. I'd been buying him drinks all evening. It was time to get back to the cottage. What was the time? I held up my arm to look at my watch. It wasn't there. 'Have you stalen my witch?' I tried again, speaking more slowly. 'Have you stolen my watch?'
The old man was lighting his pipe from a candle on the table. He shook his head.
'What's the candle for? Has the power gone off?'
'Stalen witches you say, power gone off. What do you mean?'
I wanted to explain but the words would not come. I took a mouthful of ale from the tankard in front of me.
'I used to drink with William Powell,' said the old man. 'He wasn't a friend but he had a few bob and was always willing to buy a round for anyone who would listen to his bragging.'
I concentrated on watching the old man's mouth. 'What sort of stories?'
'He lived at Glanaraeth Mansion. One night, when he'd had a good drink, he told me about his trial for killing a servant girl. He was accused of pushing her out of an upstairs window. The jury found him not guilty and he told me why.'
Tired as I was, I wanted to know more. 'Go on.'
'Said he tried to seduce her. He liked the ladies, you see, but she refused to submit. He knew the jury would convict so he bribed them and walked from the courtroom a free man.'
My eyelids were closed when something knocked against my leg. Ben jumped up and growled. A man was spreading sawdust across the bare floorboards with a broom.
'Lay down,' ordered the old man. 'There was a witness, a servant boy who mysteriously vanished.' He covered his mouth with the back of his hand to hide the words. 'Some say Powell killed him and chopped up the body.'
'What happened to him?'
'The boy? Nobody knows.'
'No, I mean Powell. What happened to him?'
The old man grinned. 'He built a house next door to this pub and used it to entertain different women. When Bill Williams, he was a draper from Llandovery, discovered his wife had been to Powell's house he was mad with anger but he wasn't the only one wanting revenge on Powell. A gang of them went to Powell's mansion and murdered him.'
'Sounds like he deserved it,' said sleepily.
'The stupid men left footprints in the snow and were soon caught, all except Williams. He escaped to France.'
I collected my wits and asked the question that I knew he couldn't answer. 'When was this man you used to drink with murdered?'
'What do you mean. You must have read about the murder. It was in all the papers. It was last January.'
'January, yes, no, I mean what year. Tell me the year.'
The old man looked at me as if I was an idiot. 'This year of course 1768. When did you think?'
I stood up and tried to focus. 'You're a liar. That was two hundred and fifty years ago.'
The old man drew the newspaper from his jacket pocket. 'So I lie do I?' He handed the news sheet to me. 'Here at the top.'
I sat down and read the headline. 'Two hanged for Powell Murder, other assassins turn king's evidence to cheat gallows.'
'What's the date?' demanded the old man. 'Tell me the date on the paper.'
It was in small print in the corner of the page. '11th day of September 1768.'
I woke and sat up in the chair. A ray of sunshine illuminated the cottage. I felt awful. The beer monster was taking its revenge for my heavy night. As the details of the evening slowly emerged I realised how ridiculous it all was. I must have been very drunk. How did I get back from the Red Lion? I didn't remember that part of the evening but the old man; I couldn't get him out of my mind. Who was he and where did he get all the ridiculous stories from?
I splashed some water on my face and cleaned my teeth. It was nearly mid-day, the pub should be open by now. I walked back through Llangadog, past the church, and on, along Church Street to the Red Lion. A sheepdog was asleep in the road.
'Ben,' I called. 'Here boy.'
The dog stood up, eyed me with distain and trotted away.
I tried the door of the Red Lion. It was locked. A man emerged from the post office opposite.
'What time does the pub open?' I asked.
'It doesn't,' he replied. 'The place has been closed for months.'
I looked through the window. The table where I sat with the old man was in the corner but it was covered in rubbish, discarded cans of pop, sandwich wrappers and an old newspaper. I tried to read the date on the paper but the print was faded. I stepped back across the road and saw a 'For Sale' board fixed from an upstairs window. I began to walk back, towards the cottage and had only taken a few steps when a dog barked behind me. The collie had returned to the Red Lion and was sitting in the road. I'm not sure if the dog's bark was telling me to but I looked up and there, above the doorway, was William Powell's name. I was standing outside the house he built before he was murdered.