Although nearly extinct today, the Sionis (pronounced Shonnies) are still remembered with affection by many an older Briton. In this story, the members of their gang in 1939 are fictitious, but the Roignants and the Daniels are historical, as are their misfortunes. The scene is centred on the town of Porthmadog in North Wales (habitually abbreviated to ‘Port’) and every place and every building mentioned, there and elsewhere, is real. The characters, you must suppose, speak essentially in Welsh, tempered with snatches of Breton and French and even, occasionally, of English.
Should you want brief guides to Welsh or Breton pronunciation, see www.omniglot.com.
For help with linguistic and other complexities, my thanks are due to Ben, Hilary, Paul and Pryderi, and of course to Jonathan.
6 Gorffenaf 2016
“Aiou! Kaoc’h, kaoc’h, kaoc’h!”
He was lying on his side, clutching his leg, groaning in agony.
These days I know how to spell it. But at the time it sounded exactly like coch, coch, coch, which in Welsh means red, red, red and in the context made no sense whatever. He was French, wasn’t he? And as I understand it, the Frenchman’s standard swear-word for every occasion is merde. After all, in a situation like this I would be bawling cach, which likewise means shit.
Belatedly, the penny dropped. Shit was precisely what he was bawling. His kaoc’h was the same as my cach. He wasn’t really French at all, any more than a Welshman like me was English. He was a Breton, which meant that our languages were cousins: far from identical, but close relations. While I didn’t know a single word of his — apart now from kaoc’h — we might, if we spoke slowly and simply, understand each other. Up to a point.
I had first set eyes on him that morning as I drove to Caernarfon to browse the shelves in the public library there. It is better stocked than ours in Port and vastly better than the library at school, and I wanted to sample not only my usual Welsh poets but some American ones too, with whom I was unfamiliar.
I passed him a few miles south of Penygroes just as he was turning off the main road, his bicycle festooned thick with strings of onions to sell from door to door, no doubt at the scattered farms around Nasareth and Nebo. He and his kind, in those days before the war, were a familiar sight from the late summer onwards, and to us natives they were known collectively as Sioni Nionod, Johnny Onions. Every year a gang of them came over from Brittany and rented a room in a warehouse beside the public wharf at Port, where they not only stored their onions and tied them into strings, but they also ate and slept; and from there they radiated out in all directions, east to Ffestiniog, north to Caernarfon, west to Pwllheli, south to Bermo, peddling their wares as they went. If you were around at the right time you could see them setting off with laden bikes in the morning and returning onionless in the evening. They were instantly identifiable, not only by their cargo but by their appearance — always a beret or a little peaked cap, often the stub-end of an acrid hand-rolled gasper dangling from their lip, sometimes a moustache, and a seemingly permanent smile.
They supplied us with our misshapen stereotype of the Frenchman; and most of us, apart perhaps from the greengrocers who saw their trade being stolen, accepted them with tolerance and even respect. I had never spoken to one myself because none had knocked on our door when I was at home. But I wholly approved, as one does of the faintly quaint and exotic.
I had not noticed this particular Sioni before. Although he wore the statutory cap at a jaunty angle, he was not sporting a fag-end and was maybe too young to own a moustache. In contrast to most of his tribe who tended to be fully-grown or even middle-aged, he was about the same age as me. And, to judge by the brief glimpse as I passed, his slightly chubby face and his regulation smile were decidedly attractive. As usual I was feeling lonely and sorry for myself, and the mere sight of him cheered me up.
In the afternoon, having read all I could absorb at one sitting, I set off from the library for home, my head awash with poetry old and new.
Cerddi Cymru sydd yn byw,
Trwy 'r blynyddau yn ein clyw;
Sibrwd ein halawon gynt,
Mae cwynfanau trwm y gwynt.
Songs of Wales survive the years,
Sounding still upon our ears,
Whispers of our ancient tales
Wafted on the grieving gales.
This time I took the age-old back lane which, as it winds its leisurely way up hill and down dale between dry-stone walls, holds far more appeal than the long straight stretches of the modern main road. A mile south of Nasareth I caught up with the same Sioni, and my heart unaccountably lightened. He was evidently returning to base after a successful day, because his festoons of onions were gone. The lane was too narrow to overtake him; but no matter, for there was no hurry. I followed at his speed, a little distance behind, amused and sympathetic. Even without a hundredweight or two of vegetables on board, cycling the switchback gradients of the mountain foothills is hard enough work. On a sweltering day like this it could only be purgatorial.
It was plumb in front of my eyes that he came to grief. At one point the road drops suddenly and steeply, and the Sioni was freewheeling down it at a fair rate. But at the foot of the slope, masked by a high bank, is a blind junction where a farm track meets the lane. And out of it, invisible until the last moment, trotted a pig.
Pigs, I suppose, can hardly be expected to stop and look both ways before crossing a road, and the Sioni saw it too late. He jammed on his brakes and swerved, missing the pig by an inch. But in doing so he skidded on the loose gravel, lost his balance, and was sent flying from the saddle to crash against the corner of a barn that stands in the far angle of the junction.
Wincing on his behalf, I stopped the car and leapt out to kneel beside him as he groaned his kaoc’h, kaoc’h, kaoc’h; and that was the moment when, as I have explained, it dawned on me that he was speaking Breton.
“Où es tu blessé?” I asked. In view of my total lack of his language, I hoped that schoolboy French would pass muster instead.
From close up, it was clear that he was indeed too young to own a moustache, for there was no more than a light fuzz on his face. His regulation smile had been wiped off, and he looked blankly up at me. Was my accent that bad?
I tried again in English, “Where are you hurt?” No response. Then in Welsh, “Ble wyt ti’n brifo?”
This time at least the gist got through, and he pointed to halfway down his left shin.
“Ama,” he muttered through clenched teeth.
Ah! Virtually the same as our Welsh yma. Ama must mean here.
As a doctor’s son, I knew the rudiments of what to look for. He was wearing thick brown corduroy trousers, so I took hold of the bottom of the left leg and raised an eyebrow for permission. On seeing a slight nod I pulled the corduroy gently up. Underneath were rather dirty flannel long johns. For God’s sake! Who could wear such things on a stinking hot summer’s day? But whether or not they were the sort with a built-in vest, to look any closer would mean taking the dreadful garment completely off. An interesting thought, but hardly permissible. Still, even if I could not see all I would like, I could see all I needed. The long johns were a tight fit, and the ridge of his shin bone was clearly defined. It ought to be straight, but it was visibly crooked and, at the kink, blood was oozing through the flannel.
“Wedi torri,” I said, pulling a rueful face. “Cassée,” I added to make sure. “Broken.”
It threw him into a state approaching despair. “O kaoc’h!” he repeated bitterly.
Something had to be done. There was not a soul in sight, and it was up to me to take the initiative.
“Ysbyty, hôpital, hospital,” I said with all the authority I could muster. “Rwan. Maintenant. Now. Mewn car. En voiture. By car.”
I pointed to mine. Car was the only sensible way. To find a telephone and wait for the ambulance would take an age.
A new anxiety joined the pain on his face. “Pegement?” he asked dolefully.
What did that mean? In Welsh we might at a pinch say pa gymaint, so was he asking how much? As I wondered, he confirmed it.
“Faint?” he added.
Yes, he knew at least some words of our language, and he wanted to know how much it would cost. But was he asking what I would charge for a taxi ride? Or did he have much bigger medical bills in mind?
“Dim byd,” I replied to both alternatives. “Rien. Nothing.”
Our hospital is there to serve the community and is kept going by subscription. Patients who can reasonably afford it are charged. Those who cannot — and these days of hardship they are many — receive their treatment free. Sionis, to judge by appearance, were far from rolling, and I was sure that this one would be patched up for nothing. Especially if Tad had a say in the matter.
“Mae fy nhad yn feddyg yn yr ysbyty ym Mhorthmadog,” I explained slowly and carefully. “Mon père est un médecin à l'hôpital de Porthmadog. My father is a doctor at the hospital in Porthmadog.”
My mother’s a nurse there too, I might have added if only I could remember the French for nurse. But one or other of those versions got through. Amazement showed, and a tinge of relief, and the beginnings of a warm little smile which, to my eyes, held more than seemed at first sight.
“O mat!” he said. “Trugarez!”
Mat must be the same as our mad, meaning good or lucky. I would expect him to be saying thanks as well, but his trugarez was nothing like our diolch. The penny dropped again. In Welsh, trugaredd means mercy. Go by way of French merci, and it must mean thank you after all.
“Met ma marc’h houarn?” He pointed at his bicycle.
This time intercultural understanding worked instantly. In Welsh we call it a beisicl or beic. But march haearn, and therefore presumably marc’h houarn, means iron horse. What a charming description!
In answer, I picked it up. It seemed undamaged, although the single string of onions still dangling from the handlebars had suffered. Bringing the car as close as possible, I managed to manoeuvre the bike into the back. Lucky that Austin Twelves are spacious — in an Austin Seven you wouldn’t have a hope. I helped my Sioni up to sit sideways on the passenger seat, where he pivoted on his bum and swung his right leg inside, while I lifted his left leg by the thigh and swung it inside too. Then I folded a rug into a cushion to raise the thigh and thus keep his foot off the floor. Although I did it as gently as I could, it clearly hurt; but he was no longer saying kaoc’h.
All this while the wretched pig, the sole cause of the disaster (unless you count the owner for not penning it properly), had been eying us evilly as it rootled in something unspeakable nearby; until it spotted a few loose onions torn off in the crash, grunted rapturously, and attacked them with revolting crunches.
We set off, reverting to the main road because speed now mattered. I spared a moment to thank heaven, metaphorically, for bringing this Sioni to me. School was just finished and Higher School Certificate was under my belt. Provided international politics did not get in the way, I was lined up, a year from now, for the University College of North Wales at Bangor; which would lead me on, as my youthful optimism was planning it, to a career in writing. In the meantime I was at a loose end. In theory I was looking for a temporary job to see me over, because according to Mam and Tad I needed something positive to occupy me. But I was half-hearted about it. Like all jobs, congenial short-term ones for youngsters — especially for those with no qualifications beyond a bent for literature — were few and far between. A menial role behind the counter in a shop held no appeal.
What I really wanted was time to learn about myself. The County School in Port had been all right. For the last two years I had buried myself in the work, deliberately trying to push extraneous thoughts aside, and I had come through with flying colours. But while I had no serious quarrel with my peers, the atmosphere there, once Griff had gone, was lifeless. It was largely of my own doing. I had not been cut off. I had cut myself off, pulling in my horns and retreating like a snail into my shell. All my old friendships, for want of tending, had guttered and gone out. No real sparks remained alive. Few pupils, moreover, stayed on after fourteen, fewer still after sixteen, and their adolescent interests seemed to revolve around little but football for the boys, film stars for the girls, and copulation for both. No blame: each to their own. We simply walked different paths.
Then again, while most of the boys bedded girls at the drop of a hat, none of the girls on offer held any lure for me. Although I was not yet wholly sure, I felt my interest pointing in the opposite direction. It was boys who drew my eyes, especially when unclothed in the changing room. So far I had not met a single one who was in the least likely to share my suspected taste, let alone one who was also congenial in face and mind. And while I had a clear if second-hand knowledge of what boys and girls did together, I had little direct information on what boys could get up to with boys. But I did have an imagination; and I had heard by devious routes, the least devious by way of Tad, that even if such relationships were unknown around Port, they were by no means unknown elsewhere. It was rumoured that the university at Bangor did not frown upon them, so long as they were kept discreet.
What I wanted over the coming year, then, was space to discover if my self-suspicions were correct. I wanted to sort myself out at leisure. Pie in the sky, maybe; but I needed to try. And because I doubted I could succeed single-handed, I yearned for the company of someone I could trust, someone independent-minded yet sympathetic, who could help me learn what I really was. But who? While Mam and Tad and Emlyn were wonderful pillars of strength, they were of the wrong generation. I needed someone my own age. In the absence of proper friends, to approach mere acquaintances from school would get me nowhere. I knew exactly what their advice would be: none of it to my taste, and some of it unprintable. So who?
Time was when there would have been no hesitation. Griff, my brother, my identical twin, had known me as well as I knew myself, and better. But two years ago he had gone by himself for an early morning swim and had not come back. His clothes were quickly found on our usual beach, but it was a fortnight before his body was washed ashore at Clogwyn Melyn on the other side of the estuary. No one knew exactly what had happened, and would never know. It had left the family with a gaping emptiness in every department.
But now here was this Sioni, out of the blue, coming down like manna (if I dare use the word) from heaven. For the life of me I could not tell why, because there was no reasoning behind it, but somehow his little smile made me think that he might be just what I needed. Here, it seemed, was that potential companion. Here was someone from an utterly different walk of life, someone unencumbered — provided we could understand each other — by predictable attitudes. Here was a wholly fresh mind and soul; not to mention, should it ultimately work out that way, a fresh body. I could start again with a clean sheet.
That was looking at it from my own selfish point of view. Looking at it from his, he was in a mess, and not only with the pain of a broken leg and the confusion of being helpless in a strange land whose tongue he barely spoke. He must also be agonising about his future. It would be months before he was pedalling his iron horse again and, for that matter, peddling his onions. He had been part of a team. Having served as a gear wheel in a larger machine he was now, with a broken cog, made suddenly redundant. If he rejoined his colleagues, what could he do with himself in his enforced idleness? Could they look after him properly? Would they even want to?
As I read it, the solution was obvious, both to his quandary and to mine. I should take him under my wing. We should offer him the hospitality of our home. While the order might be a tall one, the possibilities were endless. I must find out more about him. As I drove, therefore, I asked questions.
It will become painfully tedious if I carry on recording every word of our conversation. So from now on I will skip over most of the false starts and the fumblings at comprehension, and report only the upshot. It turned out, as the initial pain and shock wore off, that he knew a little more Welsh than had appeared. But, even so, the fruits of our half-hour of concentrated work in the car can be read in a minute.
My name, I told him, was Owen Owen, and I was seventeen. My parents, whom he would soon be meeting, were Gwilym and Betsan Owen, and we lived in Port, literally a stone’s throw from his warehouse-cum-dosshouse. His name, he told me in return, was Yann Guivarc’h, and he had just turned sixteen. It was his first year over here, and he had picked up only enough Welsh to sell onions to housewives and to pass the time of day. Most of his colleagues, in contrast, who had been coming for years, were comparatively fluent. The gang numbered nine, and its boss was his eontr.
“Breur ma Mamm.” Ah. My mother’s brother.
A few weeks previously they had been ferried over from Brittany in a fishing boat, along with their bikes and a first instalment of ten tons of onions. Two more instalments would follow at intervals, and they would return home only when the lot was sold.
Although that conversation sounds brief, it saw us the whole way to Port. I had stopped for a moment at the phone box at Bryncir to call the hospital with the message that a patient with a broken tibia was on his way, and Tad and Mam were expecting us. Yann, as I now must call him, was lifted carefully onto a trolley and wheeled in. He was not only still in pain but in obvious awe at his surroundings. The Madog Memorial Hospital is a small and local one, geared only to relatively low-level work. The staff, being few, have to be jacks of many trades; which means that complicated cases must be forwarded to the much bigger Caernarfon and Anglesey Infirmary at Bangor. The Madog is therefore an unimposing, even a homely, establishment that looks like a large private house; but quite possibly Yann had never before been inside a hospital of any sort. So, as I told my parents who he was and what had happened, I held his hand to reassure him. The palm and fingers felt hard and calloused. And he gripped my soft hand, innocent of manual labour, tightly in return.
“He doesn’t seem to have a word of French,” I ended my report, “or of English either. But he does know a little Welsh, and if you say something simply and clearly and slowly, he usually gets it in the end, by way of Breton words that are similar.”
Tad and Mam set to. The first and easiest step was to take off Yann’s boots and trousers. The bloodstain on the long johns had not grown, and the kink in the shin bone still showed through.
“Yes, Owen, you’re right. X-ray please, Betsan.”
Mam trundled the machine into position and took the picture. Yann was blatantly bemused by the technology, but as long as I was holding his hand he made no objection. While the film was being developed, Tad asked him simple questions which, with perseverance, were understood; and likewise the answers. Then the film came back. Tad took one look, nodded approvingly, and held it up to the light for Yann to see. Anyone could interpret it: the tibia was broken cleanly across, and the two halves, though at an angle, were not otherwise displaced.
“Nice and straightforward,” said Tad. “And mercifully the fibula’s intact. Usually, if one breaks, the other does too.”
As much by gesture as by word he explained to Yann what he was going to do: put him to sleep, set the bone straight, and encase it in a plaster cast. He found a photo to show what the end result might look like.
“Ie?” he asked to make sure he was understood. Yes?
“Ya,” Yann replied hesitantly, and Tad asked Mam to get the nitrous oxide and ether ready for knocking him out. But the next step was not so easy. Yann was wary of invasions of his privacy — and who could blame him? — and maybe he was intimidated by strange people, and especially strange women, in white coats. When he finally understood that, once he was unconscious, they would have to take the long johns off, he turned mulish.
“They have to, Yann,” I said. “To mend your leg.”
That took time to get through. But at last, with a trusting look at me, he agreed.
“Right, Owen,” said Tad. “This is the point where you’d better make yourself scarce. We’ll call you when he’s decent again.”
Disappointing, but fair enough. Letting go of Yann’s hand I headed for the door. But Yann, once it had sunk in, took fright.
“Ne hep Owen!” he cried.
That might be almost pure Welsh. Not without Owen!
“Oh,” said Tad. “Well, if you’re sure. All right by you?” he asked me.
Very much all right. I helped rid Yann of his disreputable jacket and jumper and took his hand firmly again as Mam held the inhaler mask in place and Tad twiddled the knobs. Within a minute the patient was looking blissful, within two he was asleep. Next we tackled the long johns. They were indeed one-piece from neck to ankle, with buttons down the front and an access hatch at the back. I wondered how often they were removed. Rarely, was the answer, as became apparent when we peeled them off. But the body inside was sturdy and well-muscled, good to the eye if not to the nose. Yet I felt not a single stirring of lustful thought.
“Owen, you shouldn’t really be here,” Tad said. “But since you are, you need to know what we’re up to. We could have given him a local anaesthetic, but I want to check on a couple of things that would sorely embarrass the poor boy. Let’s see if I’m right … Yes, I think I am. Look here.”
He was parting the pubic hair. The skin underneath was dotted with little dark red spots. He ran a fine comb through the hair, collecting whatever fell out onto a sheet of paper, and transferred the barely visible result to a slide which he put under a microscope.
“Yes. Pubic lice. And eggs.”
He made way for me, and I looked. A few nasty insects like miniature crabs, and some oval blobs.
“Ugh! How did you know they were there?”
“While we were waiting for the X-ray he was scratching, front and back. Which made me suspicious.”
Well, I suppose that’s one of the things doctors are for, to interpret what unobservant laymen don’t notice. And now I understood the embarrassment he had spared Yann. If I was being investigated like that, I wouldn’t want to know.
“His head hair’s all right, though,” said Mam, who had been combing up there. “No lice or nits that I can find. Pubic lice don’t live in head hair.”
Head lice are a common scourge on which the nit nurses wage incessant war, especially in primary schools. Pubic lice are rarely mentioned, perhaps because children of that age have nowhere for them to live. But I had heard of the things. According to the juicy rumour mill at the County School, Gareth Rowlands had had them, caught, it was said, off Annie Roberts who was a real slut.
“But aren’t pubic lice transmitted, um, sexually?” I asked. The thought, when applied to Yann, worried me.
“As often as not,” Tad said. “But if you share a bed you can pick them up from infested bedding. I doubt these Sionis are over-particular with their hygiene. At home maybe, but hardly here — Lord knows when this one last had a bath, or even washed. But a good scrub with Lindane will get rid of the creatures in no time. Would you fetch some, Betsan?
“Meanwhile,” Tad went on, “the other thing to check on is his backside. If you lift his good leg, Owen, high and to the side, I’ll do a tape test for enterobiasis.”
I half expected to be licking my mental lips, but again I felt no reaction. The patient was inert and beyond my lusting, as if an unconscious body is somehow sacrosanct. Tad held a piece of sticky tape to Yann’s anus for a few seconds before putting it on another slide. Mum came back with a bottle of lotion which she rubbed vigorously into the pubic hair and the wisps in the armpits and followed up with more combing.
“No lice at this end,” reported Tad from the microscope. “But he has got threadworms. The blighters come from undercooked meat,” he explained. “They live in your guts and lay their eggs round your anus where they hatch and itch like fury. But they’re equally easy to get rid of with an anthelmintic like gentian violet. You take it by mouth, and it kills them off inside you. But we can’t give him that till he’s awake. Right then, now the leg.”
Mam, respecting Yann’s modesty by laying a cloth over his middle, swabbed the contusion on the shin where the impact, cushioned by layers of corduroy and flannel, had little more than broken the skin. But the area was heavily bruised and swollen.
“When the cast’s on,” she pointed out, “we won’t be able to get those ghastly long johns over it, and they’re probably crawling with lice anyway. I’ll have them disinfected and washed. So we’d better lend him pants and a shirt. Would you nip home, Owen, and fetch some of yours that you’ve grown out of? He’s smaller than you, and they should fit.”
Because Yann would be fast asleep for a while, it was all right to leave him now. So I cantered home. The hospital is in Lôn Garth, the street which climbs up from the town along the cliff top above the harbour; and so too is our house, a bare two hundred yards downhill from it. Having searched out an old pair of pants and a shirt, I cantered back. Tad and Mam had already manipulated the bone into line and slipped a padded sleeve onto the leg, and were now winding layers of plaster bandages over it all the way from below the ankle to mid-thigh, leaving the knee slightly bent. After much smoothing the cast was left to dry.
“Good,” said Tad, rinsing plaster from his hands. “That should do. We couldn’t have wished for a simpler break. But one trouble is, if he’s got worms and lice, the chances are the rest of his gang have too. It’d be an act of charity to clean them out as well, wouldn’t it? Let’s take them the needful when we deliver this chap back. How many do you say there are? Eight others?”
I had rarely seen Tad and Mam at work before, and it was fascinating. They were caring people. But I knew that already, and this was my opportunity.
“How long before Yann’s out of that plaster?”
“Only three days with this temporary one, until the swelling goes down. Then six weeks, I’d say, with a longer-term replacement. Then, if all’s well, we’ll give him a short one, shin only, for another few weeks. It’ll be months, though, before his leg’s back to full strength. Don’t worry, we’ll lend him some crutches.”
“But what’s he going to do with himself until he can sell his onions again?”
“That’s up to him, isn’t it? Or up to his boss … Oh … oh, I see! … I see!”
They did see, and rapidly. They always did. They knew me well enough. For a full minute they looked at each other, and it was almost amusing to watch the silent conversation in their faces. We had never talked directly about where my inclinations might lie; but they too, I strongly suspected, had their suspicions and were ready to leave them unspoken until the time was ripe.
These days, moreover, we rarely talked about Griff because that way, we felt, lay insanity. But if there was a tacit conspiracy of silence, he was never out of our thoughts. His death, it goes without saying, had flattened them, numbed them, emptied them, whatever metaphor you care to use. And they knew full well how flattened his twin brother was too, how numb, how empty, how achingly short of companionship.
Both factors were visibly running through their minds, and at last they nodded. I knew I had won my case without even having to plead it.
“Yes, all right, let’s take him in,” was all Tad said. “Provided he’s willing, of course, and provided his boss is too. It could be very interesting. If he doesn’t like us he can always go back to his warehouse. But if it comes to war …”
He pulled a long face. This was towards the end of August in 1939, and the storm clouds were lowering ever blacker on the horizon.
“… I suppose they’ll all be going back to France. But one step at a time.”
“Let’s put him on the first floor, at the back,” said Mam, practical as ever but careful not to give the room its proper name. “Easiest for the stairs, and near the bathroom. And your first job, Owen, is to get him into the bath. No, silly of me. Not the bath, not with this plaster — it mustn’t get wet. Just get him to wash properly.” She chuckled. “You may have to help him. But you’ve always been good at helping lame dogs, haven’t you?”
I was puzzled. Lame dogs?
“Come on!” she said. “Think of young Tecwyn and all those other kids.”
Oh. Well, yes, I suppose so, in a way. She was referring to our school days when Griff and I had several times stood up for younger boys who were being bullied. On one occasion we had both been suspended for punching the offenders, which had been the only way to save the victim from getting badly hurt.
“Wouldn’t it be easier,” I asked, skirting a subject that made me distinctly uncomfortable, “to wash him now? To save him embarrassment.” And to save me embarrassment too, I thought.
“Yes, good idea. He’ll be under long enough for that.”
So we wheeled his trolley to the basin where I whisked away his modesty cloth and gave him a sponge bath. With Mam’s help I even half-rolled him over to get at his back. Thus, at a very early stage, I came to know Yann’s body at intimately close quarters, but still without any lustful thoughts at all, any more than I had harboured them in the presence of Griff’s nakedness. Mam, meanwhile, was clearing up and collecting medicines and crutches. Tad had disappeared to the office.
“That looks better,” said Mam when I had done. “Smells better too. And the cast’s hardened nicely. Just rub in another squirt of Lindane, would you? But be quick.” Yann was beginning to stir. “Now help me put his shirt and pants on. We’ll leave his trousers off for a bit, though, so he can see what his cast looks like.”
He was ready just in time. Mam whistled up Tad, and I held Yann’s hand again as he wuzzily came round. The first thing he focussed on was me, and he smiled: not his regulation Sioni Nionod smile but a real one such as had begun to show when he lay in the dirt near Nasareth. It warmed my heart. Then his eyes drifted down to his new shirt and pants and cast, and widened. He moved his leg experimentally from the hip and drew in his breath in obvious pain. Mam gave him a drink and four pills to wash down with it: two large white ones that I knew were codeine, two tiny and black.
“Those are gentian violet for the worms,” she explained as he drank. “Warn him that tomorrow they’ll turn his stools purple. See if you can get that across in Breton!”
A daunting task, and I did not even try. There were more important things to do.
“Trugarez,” Yann said generally. Thank you, once again. “Pegeit amzer?” he asked, pointing to his cast. How long for?
“Two or three months,” said Tad.
Yann’s face fell as he contemplated two or three months of immobile solitude.
“Stay with us, Yann,” I said. But it did not sink in. He was probably still a bit befuddled. “Stay … with … us …” I repeated slowly. “At … our … home.” Again it failed to register, or perhaps he was unwilling to believe it.
“Isn’t this something we’d better sort out with the Sionis?” Tad asked. “It’s high time we got in touch with them anyway. They’ll be worried.” It was half past six. “And high time we left as well, because we’re not paid overtime. We’d be millionaires if we were.” That was a standard joke of his, not to be taken too seriously. “Help him on with his trousers and jacket, Owen, then we’ll wheel him to the door. Bring the crutches too, and we’ll introduce him to them later.”
We fed Yann gently back into the passenger seat. When he was made to understand that we were taking him to the warehouse, he looked apprehensive, but there was no way we could avoid a conference with the Sionis. The first stage of our journey together was over and done with; and so, drawing a deep breath — certainly on my part and probably on his — we set off on the next stage. Mam and Tad had to walk because the bike was still in the car.