Sioni Nionod

Chapter 2

As we passed, I pointed out to Yann our house on Lôn Garth, and beside it the Grisiau Mawr, the long flight of stone steps that drops straight down the cliff to Pencei and the Sionis’ warehouse. Mam and Tad would be taking them as a short cut, but we had to drive the long way round via Bank Place. We arrived at the same time. A middle-aged man, tall and thick-set, was standing at the warehouse door looking irritably along the road.

Yann now seemed positively frightened. “Ma eontr,” he told me between gritted teeth. My uncle.

The man spotted him and came across, bending down to the passenger window where he launched into a tirade of which I understood not a scrap. It was the first time I had heard Breton in more than a few words at a time; and whereas Welsh is always said to have a sing-song lilt to it, this sounded less musical in intonation, and more guttural. Yann’s response was sulky at first, then rebellious, and he interrupted with a self-defence, pulling up his trouser leg to display his cast. As it sank in that a bicycle cannot be ridden with only one leg and that a member of his team was now out of action, the uncle’s face was a picture not of sympathy but of frustration at being saddled with a new problem, and even of anger at Yann for getting himself into this pickle. Yann gestured helplessly towards Mam and Tad who were standing patiently by.

The uncle followed his pointing finger and remembered his manners. Standing up with a small bow and his regulation smile, he said that his name was Andrev Quéméner. Tad took over, in Welsh. He introduced Mam and himself as nurse and doctor, to which Andrev’s reaction, like Yann’s, was to ask how much the medical treatment would cost. On hearing that it was free, his relief was palpable. He thanked them nicely in Welsh which, mercifully, was moderately good, and the atmosphere became very much lighter. Tad pointed out that the real thanks were due to me for rescuing Yann in the first place and for bringing him in; which gave me the chance to say that I had seen the accident with my own eyes and that in no way was it Yann’s fault.

“Look, Mr Quéméner,” Tad went on. “Yann can no longer earn his keep, and he needs care. We appreciate that it puts you in a difficult position. So until you leave, would you like us to take him off your hands, as our guest? Owen would welcome his company, and he would help to improve his Welsh.”

Andrev’s face lightened yet more. He was not only relieved to be rid of an unwanted burden, but perhaps was also calculating that, in time to come, a fluent salesman would sell more onions than a novice Welsh speaker.

“We live up there,” Tad explained, pointing at the row of roofs visible high above the warehouse. “No. 4 Roche Terrace, first house on the left at the top of the steps. We would give him a bed and feed him, and Owen would look after him. We tried to ask Yann if he was willing, but couldn’t get him to understand. If you’re agreeable, would you ask him yourself?”

All this went over Yann’s head, though he must have known we were talking about him, and when his uncle turned to him with a torrent of Breton he could hardly believe his ears. Mouth open, he looked from Andrev to us.

E gwirionez? Mar plij! O, trugarez, trugarez!” All of that got through to me without assistance. Really and truly? Yes please! Oh, thank you, thank you!

This was working out wonderfully. Grinning I am sure like an ape, I patted him on his good knee, and he grinned back. Several other Sionis had clattered out in their heavy wooden clogs to see what was up. They plied him with questions and admired his plaster, and there were beams all round. They seemed to hold him in affection, and sympathetic affection at that.

Signalling to Yann to stay where he was, I extricated his bike from the car and surrendered it to a Sioni to stow away somewhere in the warehouse. Out of curiosity Mam and I followed, leaving Tad to hand over his parcel of medicines to Andrev and explain, no doubt with exemplary tact, what they were for.

The Sionis had the ground-floor room on the left, quite large but in a chaotic state. There were great stacks of hampers full of onions. There were trestle tables piled with newly-made strings of onions. The floor was deep in loose onion skins and stalks and miscellaneous rubbish. There were a couple of oil lamps — evidently no electricity here — and an oil stove on which simmered a large saucepan of what looked like a stew of bacon and onions. Along one wall was a row of dirty straw palliasses with blankets. In a corner was a malodorous bucket that seemed to be all there was by way of sanitation. What a hell-hole!

Inside the Sionis’ warehouse

Outside again, Tad was ending his conference with Andrev, who nipped briefly indoors. He came out with a sack containing Yann’s possessions, and with four complete strings of onions that he presented to Mam with a bow. Mam was left wondering, I could see, how on earth we were going to eat so many of the things before they went bad. He then held out a cupped hand to Yann, who dug in his pocket and passed over a crumpled ten-bob note or two and a handful of silver — a few pounds in total — which were presumably his takings for the day. Next Andrev, raising a threatening fist, said a short sharp word that made his nephew’s mouth go down. The message, I assumed, was to be good and behave himself, or else. Then everyone shook our hands, and we were free to go. Mam and Tad, balking at the long slog up the Grisiau Mawr, hitched a lift in the car. Throbbing now with excitement, Yann beamed back at them from the front seat. He must be resilient, and the last effects of his anaesthetic seemed to have worn off.

Trugarez, Aotrou! Trugarez, Itron!

Aotrou? Itron?” asked Tad.

“Er … Sir, Madam.”

“Please use our proper names, Yann,” Tad said. They were never ones to stand on ceremony. “We’re Betsan and Gwilym.”

O! Mat! Trugarez.” Oh! All right! Thank you.

“I asked Andrev,” Tad reported as I negotiated Lombard Street and turned uphill, “about their plans should it come to war. He says they’ll ignore it for the time being. They’re here to sell their onions, and won’t whistle up their fishing boat to take them home until they’ve sold the lot, probably in January or February. He says they can’t afford to pull out earlier, and he doesn’t seem to give a damn for planes and warships and submarines. And he gives the impression too that he sees no need to be patriotic and fight for France.”

With that, we reached our front door. For a few months Yann was ours.

Our house, being tall and narrow, is ill-designed for the disabled. It is essentially only one room wide, two rooms deep, and four storeys high. The front door, at street level, is on what we call the ground floor, with two bedroom floors above and a semi-basement below which contains the kitchen and looks out on a tiny scrap of steeply-sloping garden. While Mam went down to get some food going, Tad and I hoisted Yann up the first flight of stairs to his room at the back.

Eiddot,” I said, throwing open the door. Yours.

Ma hini?” Presumably that meant mine? Once again his mouth and eyes were wide in disbelief. He spotted the switch beside the door and clicked the main light on and off. Hanging on to me, he hopped to the bed to feel the mattress, softer surely by far than his old palliasse. He frowned at the bedside lamp, and I had to show him how to turn it on. While Tad and I put sheets on the bed, Yann took in the wardrobe and chest of drawers and desk and bookshelves and comfortable chair, and looked out of the window at the bird’s-eye view of the harbour below.

We showed him the bathroom, which is at the front of the house over the porch. He stared at the bath and basin and peered at the letters H and C on the taps. Being in English, they would mean nothing to him, and never have I seen taps marked P and O as they ought to be in Welsh.

Poeth,” I said, turning on the H tap, “ac oer.”

Poeth?” He was puzzled. The word must be distinctly different in Breton.

Chaud. Hot.”

I stuck a finger under it, and it was already warming up. He stuck a finger under it too.

Ma Doue!My God!

He turned his attention to the toilet and nodded. But …

Paper?” he asked. The same as our papur.

Yma.” I patted the toilet roll on the wall. He had probably expected a pile of chopped-up newspaper. He eyed the chain dubiously. I pulled it, and he jumped as the flush whooshed down. The deduction had to be that his life at home was basic by comparison, with no electricity or mains water, and that all this was an unheard-of lap of luxury.

As I supported him back to his room, Tad brought up Yann’s meagre sack and opened a drawer, moving its contents to another. Yann took the hint that he should put his belongings away. Propping himself against the chest of drawers, he emptied his sack onto the bed. There was pitifully little. A few socks, a sweater or two, spare trousers and jacket, some filthy handkerchiefs, but no pyjamas or even another set of long johns.

“Not much for five or six months away from home, is it?” said Tad in my ear. “Look, Owen …” There was a catch in his voice that I could not mistake. “Look, let him use Griff’s stuff, don’t you think? … And I’ll hunt out a spare toothbrush. He doesn’t seem to have one.”

This room, as Mam had carefully refrained from saying, had been Griff’s, and even after two years his clothes were still here. Tad was surely right. They couldn’t stay for ever. They were too small for me now, and we could hardly preserve them as if in a shrine to a saint. Let them find a new use. I opened more drawers and the wardrobe, waved at the contents and pointed at Yann.

Eiddot,” I said again. Yours. Let him be another Griff.

Ma hini?” he repeated incredulously.


When Tad came back brandishing a toothbrush, Yann was riffling delightedly through the clothes and picking out a jumper and a pair of flannels that were a vast improvement on his dirty old jacket and corduroys. Then he uttered a yelp of surprise. He had lit on a framed photo that nobody had felt up to clearing away, beyond putting it in the drawer out of immediate sight. Taken shortly before he left us, it showed Griff and me — very obviously me — at fifteen, in school uniform, head and shoulders, back to back, as like almost as two peas in a pod. Yann raised an astonished and questioning eyebrow.

Griff and me

I really had not wanted to go down that painful road with him. Not yet. One day, yes, but not so soon. But already I was forced to.

“Griff,” I managed, my throat tight. “Fy ngefell. Wedi marw.” My twin. Dead.

Yann gaped at me, and back at the photo and the clothes, and his face became stricken. He wasted no time on trivialities such as the how and the when. He just hugged me hard and, reaching out a hand, drew Tad into the embrace. It caught us totally unawares and totally unprepared. When Mam came up to see why we had not obeyed her summons to the meal, she found her husband and her son both in tears, and both in the arms of a Breton onion boy. She too was gathered in.

It was a turning point. That simple gesture changed Yann’s whole standing in the household. He was no longer the guest, let alone the waif whom we had, so to speak, charitably rescued off the street. Within half an hour of arriving he had become in effect a full member of the family. While he could hardly help recognising what he had done, he had not planned it in advance. I am quite sure of that. It was spontaneous, the way his nature worked. And that gesture confirmed my first instinct that here was my potential companion; not just a sounding board for my dilemma, but something very much more.

At last we sat down to a late and rather overcooked meal. Yann, who had changed into Griff’s clothes, ate like a horse. We talked little. For three of us, our hearts were too full. Yann was quiet as well, not surprisingly in view of his lack of language, but maybe his heart was also full. Asked if he was in pain, he said no. The codeine was evidently doing its job.

Tad did however warn that a fracture tends to hurt most on the day after it is set. Tomorrow Yann would need more painkillers, and he would best be lying down, or at least sitting with his leg horizontal, to help reduce the swelling. I was put in charge of his medication, given a supply of codeine, and instructed on the proper doses.

Mam asked Yann if he wanted tea or coffee, and although tea seemed to be the Sionis’ standard beverage — a large packet of tea and a gargantuan teapot had been on display in the warehouse — Yann plumped for coffee; because, I suspected, he saw that was what we were having ourselves. All the way through the meal he had been watching what we did, and imitating it. We would not have minded in the least if he had not, but he seemed to want to follow our pattern and do the ‘right thing.’ Fair enough.

While Tad and I did the washing up, which was our standard chore, Mam spent half an hour introducing Yann to the crutches: easy enough to get the hang of on the level but tricky on the stairs. By the end of it he was visibly flagging, and I suggested bed. He had had an eventful day; and so had I. He hesitated, and I divined that, as a novice to our lifestyle, he did not know what to do next. In the warehouse, no doubt, he would simply have stripped to his long johns and with no more ado lain down on his palliasse.

To give him a lead, therefore, I bestowed my usual hug on both parents and modest kiss on Mam. Yann could not bring himself to go so far, and instead offered her a ‘trugarez’ and a polite hand. But she grabbed him and gave him a hearty hug and a kiss. Tad almost shook the hand, but changed it to another hug without the kiss. Oh the niceties! I still did not know how I should bid him good night. Between adults and youngsters it was one thing, and safer territory. Between boys, I had no idea what the norms might be in Brittany; and the last thing I wanted was to make him uncomfortable.

Yann, bewildered but pleased, stumped on his crutches to the door with a look that invited me to follow. On the stairs I kept close behind in case he should trip. In his room he seemed lost again. Well, if he wanted to do things our way, I had to show him. “Daint?” I said — teeth? — and picked up his new toothbrush. When he gave no sign of knowing what it was for, I ushered him to the bathroom, squeezed toothpaste onto his brush and mine, and attacked my own mouth. Raising a surprised eyebrow at the taste, he followed suit, and with the swilling and spitting. When I asked about his leg, he pulled a small face as if there was some pain but not much, so I gave him another codeine to see him to sleep. The next step was even more personal. I waved at the toilet and, to give him his privacy, went out. As I climbed the stairs to my room, the one above his, I heard him peeing. So far so good.

A quick change into pyjamas, and I was down again. My new attire was clearly another novelty to him, at which he boggled. We went back to his room, where he sat down on the bed and I drew the curtains and switched on the bedside light. I found a pair of Griff’s pyjamas and placed them beside him.

“If you want,” I said.

The meaning got through. He cast a quick look at my neck as if to check I had nothing underneath, peeled off his own shirt and jumper, and put on the jacket. Then he stared for rather longer at my groin, which made me fear that the slit was gaping open. Was he checking again that I had nothing underneath, or was he taking a different interest? Either way, he was reassured, and began to wriggle out of his trousers. The right leg was easy, but the left was hard to get over the cast, and I knelt to pull it down for him. When he tackled his pants, I turned away. But he held up a hand and said “Gweljout kent,” which seemed to mean you’ve seen it before. He was positively inviting me to watch. So I did. Yann’s body when conscious was definitely more interesting than when asleep but, rather to my surprise, it still did not excite me.

With the pyjama trousers safely on, he hopped to the chest of drawers to retrieve the photo of Griff and me, which he stood on the bedside table. Again it moved me deeply, and it made up my mind. His hug before the meal had been one of sympathy. Now I would hug him out of friendship. Before he could sit down I took him in both arms and squeezed him, adding for good measure a quick peck on the cheek.

Croeso, Yann,” I said. “Nos da!

He squeezed and pecked back. Perhaps he did not understood the welcome bit, but he did the good night.

Nozvezh vat, Owen,” he replied with a brilliant smile. “Ha trugarez!

Bad leg first, he slid without undue difficulty into bed, sighing as if in relief at its softness, and pulled the blanket up. I switched off the main light, and as I closed the door his eyes were returning to the photo under the bedside lamp.

Once outside, I leant against the wall and drew a deep breath. It had been quite a learning curve for both of us. We were establishing what we were comfortable with, but were we establishing something more? Was Yann really that fellow soul? Or was he the sympathetic sounding board, that fellow mind? Or was he that fellow body to meld with? Or was he all three? Whichever way, give him full encouragement.

It all boiled down to Griff, didn’t it? Mourning for something that has been lost is clear and obvious, and up to a point you can process it emotionally. Melancholy is a loss that you hardly realise has been lost, and you cannot go through the process of mourning it properly. The pain, going unburied, hangs around and haunts you. The best method of dealing with the emptiness left by Griff’s departure, I was more and more convinced, was to fill it with someone else.

For a full five minutes I mused before padding barefoot down to the sitting room where Mam and Tad were talking. Mam looked as if she had been crying.

“All well?” Tad asked.

“All very well. He’s in bed, and he seems happy.”

“Excellent. I didn’t want to repeat this in front of him, in case he understood. But Andrev was saying that he’s been in trouble before, and that if he sets a foot wrong we must send him straight back to the warehouse. Yet from all the signs so far, he’s a good lad. And I’ve a nasty feeling he has a lot to put up with from his uncle.”

There was a pause.

“We’ve been thinking …” he said.

“I’ve been thinking …” I said simultaneously.

We stopped and smiled, as one does. “After you,” I offered.

“Well, we’ve been thinking, Owen, that you’ve brought something good into the house today. Not just Yann, good though he is. But we think that you … that he … that both of you … inadvertently maybe … have shown us the error of our ways. We’ve been hiding Griff out of sight, haven’t we? We’ve been pretending almost that he never existed … or at least pretending to each other, whatever we’ve felt inside. We’ve got stuck in a rut of grieving, a rut of our own making, like old Victoria did over Albert.

“And we think we ought to be more open about it. To remember Griff openly. To celebrate him, if you like. To bring him back into the house. We think that if we’d done that long ago, we’d have got over the grief much better. It’s what Emlyn advised, but in our pain we ignored him. We shouldn’t have done that. That photo Yann found, those clothes of Griff’s, they came as a shock after two years. But it seems right now that they’re back in sight. That something of Griff is back in circulation. Does that make any sense?”

“Yes,” I said, “it does. It’s very much what I was going to say as well. And I see Yann as an important part of it. Not that Griff can ever be replaced. But Yann could be a substitute of a sort. Similar but different. I’m already beginning to feel that way about him. As more than a friend. As a … as a sort of belonging-person, if you know what I mean.” Tad threw me a shrewd glance. “He could become almost another brother to me. Maybe even almost another son to you. It’s a bit like … Well, remember our dogs? How Lludd and Llŷr grew up together, and when Llŷr died Lludd was miserable? But as soon as we got Bran instead, Lludd perked up and was all over him. Mightn’t this turn into the same sort of thing, on a different plane?”

“Hmm. Interesting parallel. But don’t forget the difference in time-scale. Lludd and Bran were together for the rest of their lives. But Yann is ours — or yours — for only a few months. Invest too much in him, and the pain will be worse when the time comes for him to leave. Remember that. But as far as Griff’s concerned, we seem to be in agreement.” He sighed. “Well, there’s a lot to brood on. So let’s brood.”

“Yes. Let’s. Thanks for being Good Samaritans, anyway.”

“I don’t think Yann had fallen among thieves, but I take your point.”

Not among thieves, maybe. But his relationship with his uncle was clearly not of the best.

More hugs, and I went to bed. Thank goodness for like-minded parents. It took time, though, before I found sleep, for two questions were buzzing round my head like insistent mosquitoes.

First, could Yann really be a new Griff? Yes and no. Griff had been my twin, and there could never be another. But he had also been my companion. While we hadn’t exactly lived in each other’s pockets, he had always been at hand; until he wasn’t. He was the man of action who revelled in the outdoor life. I was the quiet dreamer who read, and contemplated, and wrote bad poetry. We were complementary. I understood him and he understood me. There were no secrets between us.

All our lives, for example, we had habitually seen each other naked, and thought nothing of it. We had reached puberty together and together come to terms with the physical changes. By the time he went, however, neither of us had really explored our sexuality or even given it much thought, for there was too much else in our lives. But Griff’s eye was just beginning to be caught by girls, and he told me so. It was only later — and considerably later, perhaps because my brain was so numbed by his going — that my eye began to be caught by boys. Had Griff still been around, I would have chewed it over with him, readily and without hesitation, because I trusted him. And he, being Griff, would not have been in the least repelled. He would have understood and given me his support through thick and through thin.

On the basis of all that, the answer seemed obvious. I had no idea what Yann’s views on my quandary might be. But if he could not be exactly another Griff, he could be approximately another Griff. I should treat him the same way, trust him equally, and hide nothing from him: neither my physical nakedness nor my internal secrets. The one was easily done. The other was impossible, unless we could converse with some fluency.

Second, what of the long term? Tad had made a very good point, if a thoroughly unpalatable one, when he warned against investing too heavily in Yann. Yann was a bird of passage who would soon be gone. We were ships that passed in the night … and that brought back to mind a wonderful verse by Longfellow I had lit on in the library that very morning — was it only that morning?

Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing;
Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,
Only a look and a voice; then darkness again and a silence.

Come January or February, everything would be back to darkness again, back to silence. Ordinarily that might just be tolerable, if Yann were returning the following July. But it looked as if by July, and probably well before, our countries would be at war; on the same side, to be sure, but normal coming and going across the Channel would hardly remain possible. Tad was right. The pain and the loss could be huge.

Having no money to speak of, I knew little about investment. But as I understood it, the principles are these: invest cautiously and your losses or your profits will be small. Invest boldly, and you risk huge losses but can make huge gains. What if the appeasers won the argument and this threatened war with Hitler came to nothing? I would kick myself for ever if I had not grabbed the chance. While gambling was not in my nature, my heart currently told me to throw in all I had; not only in the hope of profit but out of plain and simple charity. But wait and see what my heart might tell me in the days to come, once we had worked out how to communicate.

It was odd. You could call it bizarre. I had known Yann for no more than a few hours, yet here I was looking into our distant future. And if I had driven along that back lane only a minute earlier, ahead of him rather than behind, someone else would have picked him up and we would never have met. Fate — or destiny — was not a subject I often thought about. But it almost looked as if it was in play. On that note I finally dropped off.