The town of Blaenau Ffestiniog — may it ever flourish — is no fiction, nor are the places which surround it. It is therefore all the more important to stress that the characters who inhabit it in this story in no way reflect its real inhabitants past or present, or for that matter anyone anywhere. And within the town I have taken slight liberties with its geography.
Edward FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát was first published in 1859 and over the next thirty years went through five editions, each different from the last. I have quoted verses in the form which pleases me most, regardless of which edition they appeared in. I have also ventured to modernise their archaic thou, thee, didst, etc.
A word about Calvinistic Methodists. It would be quite unfair to tar them all with the same brush. Like most sects they have their fundamentalists, such as those portrayed here, but they have their moderates too. The same of course holds true, in reverse, of the Anglicans.
In what follows, everything spoken or written in Welsh has been translated, except for exclamations and endearments whose exact meaning does not matter. Various drafts have been read by Hilary, by Grasshopper and by Neea, and I am hugely grateful for all their criticisms.
We are born, it seems, with our souls empty, naked and asleep. Their awakening and clothing and filling entails a long journey, which can be especially arduous in adolescence as sexuality emerges. It is perhaps most arduous of all for boys who are gay. They have to work harder to discover who they are, and to come to terms with the answer. The effort of concealing a significant part of themselves often makes them loners, in desperate need of a friendship more intense than straight boys require: not necessarily a sexual relationship, but a communion of souls which at that age is all too rarely found. The story told here is of such a boy, and of a crucial stage in his soul’s journey.
2 Rhagfyr 2002
Although the events chronicled here took place half my lifetime ago, the time has come, quite unexpectedly, when I need to set them down in black and white. To recover the detail, I have had to delve deep into memories that I have not visited for years, and in doing so I have understood much that I did not understand before. The reason for bringing it all to the surface now will become clear when I have finished.
When I was thirteen, we had moved from south-eastern England up to Llanberis in North Wales, where Dad had landed a job as an engineer at the Dinorwig power station. Nestling at the foot of Snowdon, it was a good place to live. I necessarily learnt Welsh at school and had reached the stage of being able to hold my own, but I was not confident in it and much preferred my mother tongue. Mum and Dad picked up no more than a smattering, and we spoke only English at home.
Then in 2002, after two years of Llanberis, Dad was promoted to a better job at the Ffestiniog pumped storage power station. It was unreasonably far for him to commute — well over an hour’s drive away by slow and circuitous roads — so we moved again, to the former slate-quarrying centre of Blaenau Ffestiniog. There was not much for youngsters to do in the town. It was commonly condemned as grey and wet (which it was) and depressing (which, being surrounded by mountains, it was not). But it was depressed, and had been ever since the quarrying industry had collapsed. Houses were dirt cheap, and we found a splendid one, at the end of a terrace and flanked on one side by a square which pretended to be a public garden, with a few bedraggled shrubs and flowers and a bench or two.
Our house, alone in the street, had a loft conversion, with big windows projecting from the roof both front and back. It was allocated to me, and I was in heaven, for it offered superb views. In front it looked out over the roof of the house opposite and down the valley beyond, and diagonally to the mountains on either side. At the back it looked up at the precipitous crags of Carreg Ddu which beetled above the High Street. My hobby was birds — of the feathered kind, I hasten to add — and there promised to be a good variety visible from my eyrie, from the humble sparrows and blackbirds and occasional tits of the square to the hawks and falcons and buzzards of the crags.
Mum found a part-time secretarial job at the plastics factory, and we moved at Easter, ready for the summer term. School was handy, little more than a hundred yards away. For an ordinary kind of boy who was neither macho nor a complete wimp, neither an extrovert nor a hermit, I found my feet readily enough. Some of the kids there were pretty rough, and some were none too tolerant of the English. I soon learned to steer clear of both sorts, and got on reasonably well with the rest.
Yet there was a snag. I was gay. One part of me had to be hidden behind a screen, where it skulked in stifled isolation. My unfulfilled cravings of the flesh were one thing. My loneliness of soul was quite another. I could not turn to Mum and Dad for support. Don’t get me wrong — they were great parents, fun, easy-going, and generous with the understanding and trust and love which I badly needed. They gave it cheerfully to those parts of me which they could see and approve. But their simple philosophy was anchored to some deep-seated prejudices, and I knew that it would mutate, should they glimpse behind my screen, into incomprehension and disgust. That being unthinkable, I longed all the more for a companion with whom I could share my real self, for a soul-mate to understand and trust and love me on a different plane.
I had already come across a number of boys I found attractive. I had lusted after their bodies and yearned for their souls. All in vain. No fish rose to the few very cautious baits which I dangled. I dared try nothing more. The climate at school, both at Llanberis and Blaenau, was not encouraging. For straight kids there was no problem — you could be as promiscuous as you liked. The message for gays was equally clear — one false move and most of the kids, not to mention the staff, would be down on you like a ton of bricks. All I could do was look, and lust, and yearn, and hope.
From the very first day at my new school, one boy in particular caught my eye. We were the same age, fifteen and a half. But while I was below average in height, English-fair and young-looking, he was taller, with dark hair, strong regular features, an austere but gentle manner and, I noticed the first time I saw him stripped in the changing room, a body to die for. The sight of him, the thought of him, stirred my young hormones as they had never been stirred before.
His name was Isaac Evans. He was very Welsh, hailing from South Wales as his accent told even me, but perfectly tolerant of incomers and entirely ready to talk in English, his being vastly better than my Welsh. He lived directly opposite us in Ty Capel, ‘Chapel House,’ and next door to it was the chapel where his father was the minister. I had already brooded on its bleak architecture, and the plaque on the gable frowned its curt statement at me whenever I looked out of my front window:
TABERNACL M. C. ADEILADWYD 1867
Tabernacle, Calvinistic Methodist, built 1867.
One evening very soon after we arrived, Isaac was in his bedroom, which faced mine across the street, when he saw me leaning out, binoculars to eyes, trying to identify some distant birds of prey that were wheeling against the backdrop of Moel yr Hydd. He called over, asking what I was watching. When I told him, he said that he knew a bit about birds, and because he could not see them from where he was, I invited him to come up. He brought his own binoculars, and took a look.
“Ah, yes. Peregrines. They nest in the cliff above Wrysgan quarry. You can tell from their flight that they’re not merlins.”
That led on to a discussion about the difference between the various falcons, and it soon emerged that he knew more than a bit. I showed him my books, which interested him because he did not have many, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds website, which fascinated him because he had no computer. So began our friendship, and so my hidden hopes were fed.
Thereafter, many an evening and weekend day we went out together, watching choughs in the old quarry pit up at Rhosydd, buzzards on the moors above Maenofferen, tree-creepers in the ancient forests of the valley side, waders on the Dwyryd estuary. Once, having taken the Sherpa bus to Nant Gwynant, we saw red kites, which were beginning to move up from the Berwyn and to re-colonise Snowdonia.
Isaac was a serious boy, much more serious than me, with a strange wry humour but little chit-chat and no sense of mischief at all. He welcomed me, it seemed, for my company, for my computer which gave him access to ornithological websites, and because I took him seriously and could meet him on his own specialist territory. I liked to think he welcomed me for other reasons too, but I feared, even at the time, that I was being over-optimistic. He seemed to have no other friends. The kids at school did not pick on him but, while treating him respectfully, kept him at arm’s length because of his religious views. These I found puzzling and difficult. He never tried to force them unsolicited down my throat, that I will say for him. He only talked about them if asked, or if the subject cropped up of its own accord.
The first time it did, very shortly after we met, we were walking home from watching wagtails in Cwm Bowydd when Isaac asked why I was interested in birds.
“Oh, all sorts of reasons. Their variety. Their habitats. Migration. How they communicate. They live in our world, but yet in their own, if you see what I mean. Just a wonderful part of nature. Why do you like them?”
He gave me a considering look, as if weighing up my limited ability to understand.
“Much the same as you, and more. Because, as a wonderful part of nature, they’re part of God’s creation. You know about Genesis?”
Condescending, I thought, and I was a trifle miffed. I may have read precious little of the bible, but I was just about up to the creation story. I nodded, but he still spelled it out for me.
“On the fifth day God made the fish and the birds that fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven. All creation is good, and we should praise it. And, as far as it can, all creation should praise the creator.” There was more than a hint in his words of what I guessed was pulpit-talk. “Know Psalm 148?”
Er, no. I couldn’t run to that, and had to shake my head.
“Part of it goes: ‘Praise the Lord on earth’” — he was clearly translating in his head as he went along — “‘you dragons and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling his word, mountains and hills, fruitful trees and cedars, wild beasts and all animals, reptiles and winged birds, young men and girls, old men and boys, praise the name of the Lord.’ Everything that God created is good, and everything that praises the Lord is good — just listen to that chaffinch, Tom. And all God’s goodness deserves studying. But a single person can’t study the whole of creation. So I’ve chosen birds.”
Oh Lord, if that wasn’t the wrong phrase. Agreed, studying birds was a large enough hobby, or duty if you had to call it that. On top of studying boys, in my case. But that chaffinch, I reckoned, wasn’t praising the Lord. It was chatting up a lady chaffinch, with rather different motives. Mind you, if God really had created birds and boys, not to mention all the rest, he had also created sex, and that was good. He must surely have considered less enjoyable alternatives, and rejected them. So I would happily praise the Lord through sex, given the opportunity. But I did not know Isaac nearly well enough to say so, and strongly suspected he would not see it in quite my flippant way.
Meanwhile, I found his assurance hard to swallow.
“You go along with everything the bible says, then?”
“Yes, of course. It seems you don’t, Tom. But it’s God word, so it must be true.”
I had heard of people like him, especially in the American south, but I had never expected to meet one. I recalled that he was not doing biology or geology or anything at GCSE that might prove contentious. Deliberately, maybe. I was already embarrassed and out of my depth, but I had enough spark in me to stand my ground and protest.
“No, I don’t go along with it. But you say it’s God’s word. You can only believe that. You can’t know it.”
“Oh no, Tom. I do know it.”
It was the first time I had met that certainty which goes beyond logic.
“But what about Darwin, and evolution, and fossils, and the Big Bang fifteen billion years ago or whatever? How do you explain them away?”
“Tom, can you prove Darwinism, and that the universe started with the Big Bang, and all those things? Prove them?”
“Well, um, no, I suppose not.” I would be a Nobel prize-winner if I could, but I was reluctant to admit it.
“So they’re only theories, not fact. You can only believe in them. You can’t know them.”
He was throwing my words back at me, and I felt as if I was banging my head against a brick wall.
“But the bible proves itself,” he went on. “One day I’ll show you how, if you really want to know, but there isn’t time now.”
Just as well, perhaps. We were already in our street, and there outside Ty Capel was an ancient Cortina with his Tad and Mam climbing out. Isaac introduced us. His Tad was a wiry man, bible-black, dour, lantern-jawed, with thin lips barely covering the large teeth behind. His Mam seemed wispy and ineffectual, definitely second fiddle to her husband. We had already heard about them from Rhiannon our next-door neighbour, who from the moment we arrived had been joyfully putting us in the local picture and keeping us there. She called Isaac’s father the Parch, short for Y Parchedig, the Reverend. So, therefore, did we. She had no good word for him.
“That old vulture! He was at the back of the queue for the milk of human kindness. Not a patch on the vicar, or old Glyn Williams up at Moriah. And his poor asen! What she has to put up with!”
The Parch fitted my stereotyped image of the killjoy fundamentalist. He had other MC chapels on his beat, and on Sunday afternoons and evenings he would be off in the battered Cortina to keep them in line. So there was usually only a morning service opposite, and from my window I had already watched the small band of elderly worshippers filing in and, much later, out, looking as dour and killjoy as their minister. Congregations were rapidly falling off in those days, and chapels were being demolished left and right, or converted into garages or supermarkets. It did not look as if Tabernacl would last much longer.
I had just experienced Isaac exuding a temporary aura of righteousness. The Parch, I found, exuded a much stronger one, full-time. On this first meeting he was as gracious as an iceberg might be, and looked at me with that pitying smile which the man who is convinced he is heading for heaven reserves for someone who he is convinced is not. Accuse me of giving a dog a bad name, but I never found cause to change my opinion.
To jump ahead, although Isaac was quite a frequent visitor to my room and my computer, only once did he eat with us. No more, because I think he disapproved of our family frivolity. Laxity, he would probably have called it. A meal not preceded by grace, and accompanied by open laughter, affronted him. Once, in return, I was invited to tea at Ty Capel. It was a poor house. I do not mean that disparagingly. The Parch’s stipend, I gathered, was microscopic, the house was shabby and the furniture threadbare. No blame for that, only sympathy. The sole luxury, if it deserved the name, was an aged TV set on which the Parch watched rugby. Out of character, an outsider might think, but to the Welsh rugby is almost a religion: the one religion which unites them all. What the household was missing was humanity and fun. It gave off a miasma of pious rectitude which I found stifling.
But in this realm, I had to admit, I was in totally foreign territory. I was not religious or churchy in any sense at all. We were an ordinary family, lower middle-class if you insist on labels, which just did not talk about such things. They all seemed irrelevant to Mum and Dad. I was an ordinary boy, and they had never seemed remotely relevant to me either. Except for occasional family weddings or funerals, I had never set foot in a church, or a chapel. Until Isaac, I had never met anyone who professed strong views either way. I had come across some church- and chapel-goers, of course, but they did not wear their beliefs on their sleeve. Isaac’s defiant certainty was evidently a hallmark of the Calvinistic Methodists. What was so special about them? What made them different?
That evening, with Mum and Dad, I raised the subject, not very hopeful of an answer because they closed their minds to things they disapproved of or did not understand.
“I’ve been wondering about all these chapels. Why are there so many of them in Blaenau? What’s the difference between them?”
“Search me,” said Dad. “Not my cup of tea. They’re for people who don’t like the ordinary church. But what the difference is between Methodists and Baptists and things I’ve never fathomed. Remember Tegid at Llanberis? That mechanic with pierced ears who was a damned queer? A year or so back I was out with him in the van, sorting out a transformer, when we saw another chapel biting the dust. So I asked him what happens when a chapel closes down. Does the congregation just shift lock stock and barrel to the next one down the road? ‘Oh, good heavens, no,’ he said. ‘Can’t do that. Different God.’ But he didn’t explain any further.”
“Hmmm. Then you don’t know anything about Calvinistic Methodists in particular?”
“Fraid not, except they seem to be the most common sort round here, and they’re strict, I’ve heard. If you want an insider account, you’ll have to ask Isaac or the Parch, though you’ll probably get a sermon you didn’t bargain for. If you want an outsider’s view, well, I dunno.”
“Tell you what,” said Mum. “There’s the old professor. Wil Davies, next beyond Rhiannon. Were you there when she was telling us about him? He’s over eighty, lives by himself, a tiny little man. Rhiannon does for him, and she says he knows everything worth knowing. I gave him a hand with his shopping back from the Co-op today, and we talked about the history of Blaenau. Or rather he did, and I listened. He’s a lovely old boy. Ask him, Tom. He’ll be able to tell you. You’d like him, and I’m sure he’d like you to talk to. I think he’s lonely.”
I had not seen him so far. But next Saturday afternoon I was going up into town when he came down the other way, carrying a couple of Co-op bags which, in combination with his walking stick, made an awkward burden. There was no mistaking him. He was indeed tiny. His face was very Welsh: straight steel-grey hair flecked with silver, bushy black eyebrows, and a wrinkled leathery complexion. His brown eyes were small but alert and twinkling, his nose was beaky, and his wide mouth was mobile with humour and wit. Unusually for a boy who was not particularly outgoing, I had no hesitation in starting a conversation. His eyes were on the ground as he navigated the rough paving stones, and he did not see me until I stopped beside him.
“Let me carry your bags for you, sir.”
I was not sure why I said ‘sir.’ I never said it to anyone else, not even at school. In his case, it simply seemed right.
As he looked up at my face, his eyes widened and he swayed visibly. I was concerned, and reached out a hand to support him.
“Clouds of glory!” he exclaimed under his breath.
I did not understand, but was visited for a fleeting moment by a faint and elusive memory.
“Let me help you home, sir. I know where you live. Next door but one to us.”
He gave up his bags without protest and, carrying them both in one hand, I put the other round his arm and walked him slowly for the last hundred yards to his house. On the doorstep he scrutinised me again, for longer this time, his mouth slightly open.
“Thank you, ngwas. Thank you very much.”
He fumbled in his pocket for his key, and tried without success to put it in the keyhole.
“Let me, sir.” I got the door open and stood aside to let him in. “I think you ought to sit down.”
“Yes. I do believe you’re right.”
He turned in to the front room, and I dumped the bags in the hall and followed him. It was a study with a large desk in the window and, most extraordinary to me, every wall was lined with laden bookshelves: a hundred times as many books, I guessed, as we had in our whole house. The mantelpiece carried a number of framed photographs of people, one of whom, to my passing glance, rang a faint bell. He sat down heavily in the leather chair at the desk.
“Sir, may I suggest a cup of tea?”
He gazed at me again, and nodded. “Please, yes. And one for yourself too. You will find milk in the shopping bag.”
“Would you like me to put the rest of your shopping away?”
“That would be very kind.”
Picking up the bags on the way, I found the kitchen. The layout was the same as in our house. I filled the kettle and plugged it in. Mugs were on a shelf, sugar and a carton of tea-bags were on the working top, spoons were in the obvious drawer. No problem. While the kettle boiled, I stowed away his purchases in the fridge and cupboards. Again, all pretty obvious: there was no great variety there. As I made the tea, there were sounds of movement from the study, but when I carried everything through on a tray I had found, he was back in his chair. He looked better, and after a few sips of sweet tea looked better still.
“I’m very grateful to you, my boy. I’m sorry about that, I had … a bit of a turn. Tell me, is your name … Tom?”
“That’s right, sir. Tom Robertson. My mother helped carry your shopping the other day.” She had talked about our family, presumably.
The old man nodded as if he had been proved right.
“And how old are you? When were you born?”
“1986. I’m fifteen.”
“And when’s your birthday?”
“The 17th of September.”
His face dropped, I could not imagine why. Then his fingers moved as if he was doing sums in his head, and the answer seemed to cheer him up.
“Yes. So tell me about yourself, Tom,” he said. “You’re clearly not local. Where do you come from? What about your family? What are you doing at school?”
An outline of my uneventful life, my small family, my scientific bent, did not take long.
“And what are your hobbies? Your interests?”
I could hardly say boys, or Isaac, but I did tell him about ornithology. The bushy eyebrows rose. He asked where I had been bird-watching locally, and was impressed.
“You haven’t been here long. That’s a very good start.”
“Well, I’ve made friends with Isaac Evans from Ty Capel” — I nodded across the road — “and he’s well genned up on the birds round here. He’s taken me to most of these places.”
“Ah! I see. I wonder if he knows about the ravens on Craig Nyth y Gigfran. Yes, there really are ravens there” — the name means Raven’s Nest Crag — “but they’re difficult to see close to. Let me show you the way I used to get there.”
He got up creakily and moved behind the desk into the bay window, where I followed him. The crag loomed in full view over the town to the west, and with a claw-like finger he pointed out his recommended route. Then for a moment his gaze swung to the left, to the diagonal prospect of the Moelwyn.
“My favourite mountains,” he said softly. “They lived in my mind’s eye all the years I was away.”
He came back to birds. “And then there are the red grouse beyond Cnicht, round Llyn yr Adar. I’ve not been up there for years — it’s hard work to reach it — but I expect they’ll still be there.”
He rummaged for an old 1:25,000 map, and showed me where. I was grateful, and said so.
“But I’m afraid I’ve got to go now, sir,” I went on. “It’s nearly our tea time. Will you be all right by yourself?”
“Thank you, Tom, I am all right, and I will be all right. Thanks to you.”
“That’s OK, sir. I’ll just wash these up.”
I picked up the tray, and as I left the room I noticed that the photograph which had caught my eye was no longer there. I rapidly rinsed the mugs, and stuck my head into the front room again to say goodbye.
“Just before you go, Tom, two things. First, you call me ‘sir.’ Don’t you think that’s a little formal? I’m all for informality.”
“Well, what should I call you? I mean, ‘Professor Davies’ is quite a mouthful, and I can’t possibly call you, er, by your first name.”
I couldn’t, not possibly.
“No? Well … plain ‘Professor’ sounds very dry and academic. Ah! I have it! A compromise, but tending towards the informal. What about ‘Prof’?”
He grinned at me, almost like a boy, and I grinned back. I liked it. “Right. Prof it is.” And so it remained.
“The other thing is this. We still have much to talk about, so I hope you’ll come back to see me.”
“So do I, sir, I mean Prof.” He had already captivated me, I could not say why or how, and I would not dream of letting him go. “Anyway, there’s something I wanted to ask you. If I may.”
“Of course. Do you have anything on tomorrow morning? Do you go to church or chapel?”
I shook my head, rather more vigorously than I had intended, and he smiled at me again.
“No more do I. And you won’t be going out after birds with young Isaac either, because he will be in chapel. May I suggest eleven o’clock? That’s when I have a little tipple, a naughty survival from my Cambridge days. A glass of madeira, you know. Would your parents allow you that?”
“I expect so.” They were pretty laid back in that sort of way.
“Well, make sure you check with them. I’d hate to be accused of leading youth astray. Thank you, Tom. You’ve given an old man a new lease of life today. Excuse me if I don’t get up to see you out. Till tomorrow, then.”
I was only seconds late for tea, and told Mum and Dad all about it.
“You’re right, Mum. The Prof is a lovely old boy. There wasn’t a chance of asking him about chapels, but I’m going to see him again tomorrow morning. And he says, am I allowed to have a glass of madeira, whatever that is?”
“Don’t see why not. It’s a fortified wine, bit like sherry.”
“And Mum, Dad. I had an idea. Could we ask the Prof in for lunch tomorrow? He seems to cook for himself, and he hasn’t got much in his fridge or cupboards.”
“That’s a good idea, Tom,” said Mum, looking at Dad for confirmation. “Yes, do that. It would be nice and neighbourly. One o’clock, as usual.”
Next morning I presented myself at the Prof’s on the stroke of eleven.
“Good morning, Tom. And do have you permission to join me in my tipple?”
“Morning, Prof. Yes, I have.”
“Good. Come you in, then.”
“But before I do, Mum says would you like to come to lunch with us today?”
“That’s a very kind thought, Tom. Well, if your mother’s quite sure, yes, I’ll be delighted to accept.”
I nipped home to tell Mum, and came straight back. He had put out two glasses and a decanter of dark brown stuff, which he poured out. We sat sipping it: smooth and sharp at the same time, and rather good.
“Well, Tom, what was it you wanted to ask me?”
“It’s about all these chapels. I’ve talked to Isaac, who’s a Calvinistic Methodist of course. But I don’t begin to understand the difference between them. Why are there so many, and so many sorts?”
“Well now. That’s a very large question. It’s a matter of history, and of human nature. Even a modestly detailed account would take a week. Where do we start? Yes, you’re right, there are a lot of places of worship in and around Blaenau, and there have been many more. About forty altogether, they say, twice as many as there were pubs. All for a population of eleven thousand or so, at the peak a century ago. One denomination might have several chapels, simply serving different parts of the town. That’s straightforward enough.
“But why so many denominations? Well, you understand the difference between Roman Catholics and protestants? How the Church of England, the Anglican church, was established at the Reformation, breaking free from Rome for political reasons as well as religious ones?”
I nodded. I did know that much, if only in outline.
“In Blaenau, the Anglicans are still around, of course, though here they’re now called the Church in Wales. And there’s a Catholic church which is fairly new, set up mainly for the Irish navvies who built the pump storage and the nuclear, and stayed. That’s fairly straightforward too.
“Now. After the Reformation, as time went by, some people became disenchanted with the Church of England, for various reasons. Splinter groups sprang up which developed into full-blown churches in their own right. They’re called nonconformist because they didn’t conform, or dissenters because they dissented. Thus you have the Bedyddwyr, the Baptists. The Annibynwyr, the Independents or Congregationalists. The Wesleyaid, the Wesleyan Methodists. And the Methodistiaid Calfinaidd, the Calvinistic Methodists — the MCs as we call them for short — who parted company from the Anglicans only in 1811, and despite the name they’re poles apart from the Wesleyans. Some of these churches broke away mainly for organisational reasons. The Baptists and MCs broke away more for doctrinal ones — let’s not go into that, not yet, anyway.
“They’re all represented here, and elsewhere there are many more varieties again, and there have been even more in the past. Splinters of splinters, and splinters of those. Set up when someone had a slight difference of opinion with his original church, often because he thought it too soft, and who peeled off with his followers to start a new one. Everybody thought that he alone had the true answer and that nobody else did. Nowadays, things are simpler. Fewer and fewer people feel that religion means anything, so the denominations are all shrinking. They tend to amalgamate now, not multiply — the Wesleyans and the Anglicans, for instance, may soon reunite. There’s more tolerance, on the whole. But there are exceptions who retain all the fervour of their ancestors. Like some of the MCs. So, does that answer your question? Or begin to answer it?”
“Yes, thanks. It’s clearer now. I’d no idea it was so complicated.”
“I hope I’m not disillusioning you. You don’t belong to any church, do you?”
“No, I don’t. Do you?”
He smiled gently. “No. I did once, but not now. The more I thought about it, and the more I talked to ministers and theologians and suchlike, the less sense it all seemed to make. Do you know that lovely verse of Omar Khayyám’s?
Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and saint, and heard great argument
About it and about; but evermore
Came out by the same door where in I went.
“I was actually brought up as an MC — here at Tabernacl, in fact. When you’re a child, you don’t question. But when I was a young man, I had a … crisis. I was in a quandary, and the MCs rejected me. Even today they’d reject a young man in a similar crisis. My only complaint about this house is” — he gestured abruptly over his shoulder — “that it faces Tabernacl. I tried other denominations, but it was the Anglicans who offered me a refuge, though I didn’t need it for long. For many years now I haven’t subscribed to any creed. Not even the Anglican.
“But when I go, I’ll be buried by the Anglicans. They seem to me the least intolerant of them all. And intolerance is so demeaning. Do you remember what the Wee Frees did to Lord Mackay?”
I was lost, and shook my head.
“No, silly of me. Of course you wouldn’t, you’re too young — it must have been ten years ago. Let me explain. The Wee Frees are a Presbyterian sect which splintered off from the Church of Scotland. Their views are extreme. To them, the pope is antichrist. Lord Mackay was the Lord Chancellor — you know, the senior legal eagle in the government, and speaker of the House of Lords. He was a Wee Free. One day, as in duty and friendship bound, he attended the funeral of a legal colleague. No harm in that, you say. Every harm, said the Wee Frees. This colleague had been a Catholic, and his funeral was in a Catholic church. For that … sin, they expelled Lord Mackay.”
“But that’s … obscene.”
“And that’s intolerance, Tom.”
There was a pause as I absorbed it. “But you’ve finished your madeira, Tom. Would you object if we adjourn to the square and continue our discussion there? I like to sit in the sun whenever it’s warm enough.”
We walked the fifty yards to the nearest bench. I still had another part of my question to put to him.
“Prof, Isaac was telling me that the MCs believe the bible is true. Literally true. And therefore evolution is wrong. That God did create the world in seven days, just as it says. In fact he said he didn’t believe it, he knew it. How can he know? I don’t understand that.”
“No more do I, Tom. Well, perhaps I do. Yes, the MCs — these MCs — are creationists and yes, they know they’re right. In the sense that they won’t admit that other people are entitled to different views. In the sense that their own beliefs are so ingrained that they can’t conceive they might be wrong. But they can’t prove that they’re right, any more than I can prove them wrong. So creationism is only a theory. An opinion, to which they are entitled. You, in contrast, are a scientist. You know all about the theory of evolution. That is only a theory too, isn’t it?”
“Oh yes.” I was much happier to admit it to the Prof than to Isaac.
“And as a scientist, what do you do when confronted by rival theories?”
“Well, I look at them, and see which is more, um, likely. And I try to think of experiments to test it. To prove or disprove it.”
“Exactly. And evolution looks vastly the more likely to you. Who knows, one day you may contribute towards a proof that it is correct. Tell me, do you believe in God, at all?”
“Well, no, I’m afraid not.”
“That’s nothing to be ashamed of. And you never have?”
I shook my head. “No, never.”
“I did believe, once. But my faith changed. First to doubt, and then to what the MCs would call perversion and heresy.” The Prof’s face was not exactly bitter, but definitely sad. “I came to believe not that God created man, but that man created God. Voltaire said that if God didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him. That was centuries ago, and it was probably true then, and always had been. Man was still wallowing in the dark and needed light. Man needs to be able to explain what goes on around him, and the notion of a mysterious all-powerful God was an easy and satisfactory way of explaining what he couldn’t understand.
“But science has now shed so much light of its own. It can’t explain everything yet, not by any means, and some scientists do believe in God. But God isn’t a necessary factor in any scientific explanation. Not yet. But he might be, one day. One of the largest questions, I understand, is what triggered the Big Bang. At present nobody has any real clue, but one day a clue may emerge. And, who knows, it may be a clue that surprises science. What does all that say to you, as a scientist?”
I thought very hard. “That I don’t believe in God,” I ventured, “but I admit he might exist. But that there’s no need to assume he does exist until there’s some evidence for it.”
The Prof beamed at me. “A man after my own heart. A logical and open mind. Whereas young Isaac’s is closed.”
I had to give acknowledgement where it was due.
“Prof, if it is open, it’s because you’ve opened it. I’ve never thought about things like this before.”
“All I’ve done is introduce you to a new concept. Your mind was already open, or opening. Scientists can’t afford to have closed minds, can they? You’re at the age, Tom, where childhood’s acceptance gives way to manhood’s questioning. For the most part, children accept what they’re told. But they can’t grow into fully-fledged human beings if they’re not encouraged to question. So keep your eyes and your mind open, Tom. Open to everything. Don’t be like Isaac. Keep asking questions. I suspect his parents don’t allow him to.”
I pondered on what I knew of them, and agreed. About the Parch, anyway. Isaac’s Mam probably didn’t get a look in. Which reminded me …
“Prof, when Rhiannon was telling us about them, she called him the Parch — I understand that — and called her his poor asen. What does that mean?”
“It means a rib. A facetious word for a wife.”
“That takes us back to creation. Look, Tom, run to my study and get a bible.”
He told me where to find it, and gave me the key.
“There are two different accounts in Genesis,” he said when I got back. “Two different creation myths. The MCs must accept both of them as true, by definition, but I don’t recall how they reconcile them. In the first chapter — look, here — on the sixth day God created both man and woman. ‘Male and female created he them.’ But in the next chapter it’s different. At first only Adam was created and put to live in the Garden of Eden. But he was lonely, so God took out one of his ribs and from it ‘made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.’ Hence Eve. Hence wife.”
I had not heard of that one. “How gross. Makes me think of those manky spare ribs from the Chinese takeaway. You know, sweet and sour.”
“Oh yes.” The wrinkles on the old face deepened as he smiled. “Yes, I did try those once. Never again. Red dye, tasting of nothing but monosodium glutamate.”
Mention of ribs had put me in mind of lunch, and I looked at my watch. Nearly one.
“We’d better go and eat, Prof, but I’ll just take the bible back first.” I was still feeling mischievous. “Do you think God created monosodium glutamate at the same time?”
The Prof’s small frame rumbled with laughter. “Now, now, Tom, you’re being naughty. What would the Parch say if he heard you?”
He almost had. As I passed Ty Capel, the Parch himself came out. He gave me a glacially condescending smile, which slipped ludicrously into surprise when he saw the very obvious bible in my hand. Pink with suppressed laughter, I restored it to its shelf, returned to collect the Prof, and told him. Giggling like children we went to my house, where he sobered down with an effort. Mum and Dad welcomed him, and installed him at the table.
“I do confess my diet is a trifle monotonous,” he said to Mum, “so your invitation is even kinder than you imagine.”
“Not our invitation, really,” replied Mum, “though we should have thought of it. No, it was Tom’s idea.”
“Yet another feather in his cap, then. I’ve already discovered quite a number. Like punctuality. He made sure he was home in time for tea yesterday, and that we arrived on time today. I approve of that. Has he always been punctual?”
“Oh yes, nothing to complain about there.”
“So he was punctual even in arriving in this world?”
Mum and Dad both laughed. “He arrived on the dot,” said Dad. “It was a joke between us. Tom, I don’t think we’ve told you this before, but you’re plenty old enough to hear it now. When your Mum found she was pregnant, it was pretty obvious you’d been conceived on Christmas Day. I was on a temporary job up in Scotland then, and only had Christmas Day at home. So I told Mum that if you didn’t arrive on the dot, I’d know she’d been having an affair with the milkman.”
“Get away,” said Mum, laughing. “The milkman had red hair and looked like Lance Percival. Wouldn’t have touched him with a bargepole. Anyway, you don’t look in the least like him, dear. Not that you look like anyone in our families either. We sometimes call him the changeling,” she explained to the Prof, who was comparing our faces with interest.
I had long been aware that I was different. Where they were both quite tall, I had always been short for my age. They both had curly dark hair, but mine was straight and fair. Their eyes were brown, mine blue. Our faces were utterly different. I was totally unlike either of them, or my grandparents or great-grandparents. It did not bother me a bit, being called a changeling. I knew Mum and Dad were my mum and dad, I had always loved them, and they had always loved me, so what did it matter?
“Tom the changeling,” said the Prof, savouring the name. “And may I ask why you called him Tom?”
“Well, that’s an odd thing,” replied Dad. “He should have been Peter. When we first decided to go for a child, we’d agreed on that, if it was a boy. But once he was on the way, we changed our minds. Dunno why. Tom suddenly seemed the right name, to both of us. Didn’t have to argue about it.”
I had not heard that either. But I approved. I liked being Tom.
Talk turned to Welsh names, and then to the Prof himself. He was a native of Blaenau. He had attended the local school — mine — and in 1938 had gone up to Cambridge with a scholarship, in those days the only possible way in for the child of a poor family. After a year, the war broke out and he was called up, serving mainly in Egypt. On being demobbed, he finished his course and progressed from fellowship to lectureship to the chair of English Literature. He had published many books and articles, but his real joy, he said, had been the company of the young men and women he had taught. Like most Welsh expatriates, he had never forsaken his roots. When he retired in 1985, Wales called him home again, back to his old house which he had kept on when his parents died. He had never married, and was now eighty-two. Rhiannon next door went in once a week to do his cleaning and washing, but he remained fiercely independent in everything, like shopping and cooking, which he could still manage.
I was able, as the weeks went by, to flesh out those bare bones of his present life. He spoke his native Welsh by preference, but he always used English with me because I found it easier. He was well respected: as he sat in the square or did his shopping, older people would pass the time of day with him. But they rarely called at his house and, to his disappointment, the generation gap and his long absence meant that he knew few youngsters. So he lived a solitary existence, and I began to see why he relished my company. But in one sense he had never retired. He continued to write, and he remained in touch with his academic colleagues. He had a computer and knew how to use it, and he had what sounded like a large email correspondence.
In other respects he was quaintly old-fashioned. Whatever the weather, his dress was the same: black shoes, grey trousers with turn-ups, baggy tweed jacket, velour or knitted waistcoat, and tie. For reading, he used heavy horn-rimmed glasses. He was old-fashioned too in the breadth of his knowledge. He could talk about anything, at the drop of a hat. He was informed, but not opinionated. He had his own views, and he would spell them out on request, but he was expert at making you think for yourself. It was all enlivened by a gently sparkling wit. Kids of my age tended to see the elderly as boring and condescending old farts, at best to be humoured, and I was hardly an exception to the rule. Now I saw how wrong I had been. The Prof astonished and delighted me. Mum’s phrase ‘a lovely old boy’ might be very simple, but it was spot on.
Lunch over, the Prof thanked us nicely and excused himself, saying it was time for his nap. When I had cleared the table, I crossed the road to collect Isaac. I was surprised that he was allowed out at all on a Sunday, but he was. Presumably he was not profaning the Sabbath because he was praising the Lord through his works, namely birds. In that case I was not profaning the Sabbath either. I was doubly praising the Lord by studying not only birds but Isaac too. He seemed particularly attractive today.
I passed on the Prof’s recommendations about interesting bird habitats. Isaac gave me a sharp look.
“Have you been talking to him?”
“Yes, what’s up? He’s great.”
“My Tad told me never to speak to him.”
“Why ever not?”
“He didn’t say. But he must have good reason.”
“Well, you’re missing out. He knows a thing or two about birds.”
But Isaac was ready to accept his advice at second-hand. Because Llyn yr Adar involved a whole day out, we plumped for Nyth y Gigfran today. We tackled it by the direct route from below, an inordinately hard slog in the hot sun up the interminably long incline. Above the old quarry shelf we zigzagged upwards as the Prof had suggested. The ravens’ nest was clearly visible, its tall stack of twigs whitewashed with droppings. The birds were disturbed by our presence, but we found a point where we could look down on the ledge with their nest and its chicks, and by lying very still we calmed the parents’ fears and they resumed feeding their young. We could not talk, but Isaac was clearly delighted, and threw me smiles of pleasure which made me cross-eyed with desire.
To distract my thoughts, I turned my binoculars on the town spread out in front of us and inspected our street, a good five hundred feet below. As I watched, the Prof came out of his house carrying his stick and a newspaper, and a moment later the Parch emerged from Ty Capel and got into his car. The Prof reached the road round the square, looked left and right, and began slowly to cross. As he did so, the Parch drove towards him, screeching to a halt with only feet to spare and blaring his horn. I could hear it from my perch nearly half a mile away. Not just bad driving, I thought, but deliberate intimidation. The Prof ambled on, to all appearances unfazed, and installed himself on the bench.
I was disturbed, but Isaac, his binoculars still on the ravens, was blissfully unaware of the little drama. When he had had his fill, we carried on upwards as being easier than climbing back down, and on reaching the ridge we cut round to the left and descended fairly gently into Cwmorthin. As we walked back through the square, we found the Prof still sitting on his bench, reading the Observer. He raised a hand to both of us impartially, but Isaac walked straight past him with a muttered “See you tomorrow, then, Tom.” Ashamed of him, I slumped down beside the Prof. Gratefully, too, for I was sweating and knackered.
“Prof, Isaac says he’s not allowed to speak to you, but doesn’t know why. Do you?”
“Oh yes. His father’s never spoken to me either. It can only be because of the MCs’ … let’s call it … disagreement with me. Wil Davies is persona non grata to them. The message must have been passed down from minister to minister for the last — what? — fifty-seven years.”
“But that’s … sad.”
“Isn’t it? Both in the sense you mean, and in the other.”
“Prof, I saw the Parch nearly run you over.”
“Not for the first time, either. Don’t worry, I’m sure he wouldn’t really. But how …? Oh, of course, you had a bird’s eye view from Nyth y Gigfran. How did it go with the ravens?”
I reported, and he was pleased. But I did not linger. I stank to high heaven and needed to get home for a shower.
Next day, Monday, was May Day bank holiday, when Isaac and I had agreed to check out the red grouse at Llyn yr Adar, weather permitting. It did permit, and we trekked up Cwmorthin to Bwlch Rhosydd, then across country and over the Cnicht ridge to the Nanmor side, the best part of two hours. Above the lake we found a knoll where we parked ourselves to watch. For an hour we saw nothing but black-headed gulls on the water, a few sandpipers along the shore, and occasional snipe in the tussocks. Llyn yr Adar was only partially living up to its name, which means Bird Lake. We passed the time absorbing the view, a wide panorama of mountains round from Snowdon itself, via the Glyder and Tryfan, to the distant Carneddau and Siabod. Finally our patience was rewarded. Three grouse came into sight, strutting singly through the heather and pecking as they went. They were no great rarity, according to the book, but were uncommon in these parts, and neither of us had seen any before. We watched their solemn antics for quite a while.
On the way back, beside Llyn Cwmcorsiog, we lit on the partly-eaten remains of a rabbit which some bird of prey had carried up from the valley and abandoned. Maybe our arrival had disturbed its mealtime, though we had seen nothing. Isaac, though curious, knew little about the insides of animals. But I was doing biology for GCSE, and seized a good opportunity. I fished out my pocket knife, which I kept pretty sharp, and completed the dissection. I pegged back the skin with twigs of heather, opened the ribs, and gave Isaac a conducted tour of the heart and lungs, the liver and spleen and kidneys — such as had not gone down the raptor’s throat — and the stomach and intestines. Which brought us to the excretory and reproductive organs. It was a male rabbit, and I was able to give a fairly comprehensive guide to that department.
To see on this small scale, our heads were close to the rabbit, and close to each other — sometimes even touching — and I felt his warmth and his breath on my face. I was very much aroused and so, I could see, was he. To any other boy, I would probably have made overtures there and then. But not to Isaac, who so obviously lived by different rules from me. I would pave the way as best I could, but the first open move had to be up to him. Given his background, it could not be otherwise. So as I pointed out the rabbit’s testicles and sperm ducts and penis, I was careful to use those clinical words. His interest was obvious, and so too was his ignorance. Several times he started to ask a question, but dried up. His face was red, and in the end I took the bull by the horns.
“Come on, Isaac. What are you trying to ask?”
“Tom, I don’t really understand what happens when you, er … you know.”
“Hasn’t anyone ever told you? What do you know?”
“Well. My Tad talked to me about it once. But he wasn’t … um, very specific. He just said that when a man marries, he lies with his wife and plants his seed in her, and if the seed grows it becomes a baby and is born nine months later. That’s about all.” For once he had none of that slightly superior air.
Oh Lord. Would you believe such innocence, at his age? Not even the birds and the bees. I had to start at square one, drawing sketches in my field notebook or using the rabbit by way of illustration. The difference between male and female anatomy. Hormones. Ovaries, eggs, uterus, vagina, clitoris. Testicles, sperm, semen, prostate, penis. The mechanics of erection, intercourse, ejaculation. Fertilisation and what followed. I was still using clinical words, most of which were clearly new to him. So I translated, with words like cunt, prick, balls, hard-on, shag, come. He had heard some of those at school, but had not always known what they meant. I ended with contraception. Thinking that abortion might be a taboo subject with him, I omitted that. He listened intently, his eyes on my face except when I pointed to my sketches or the rabbit.
“Thank you, Tom. That’s taught me a lot. I’m glad to know all about it at last.”
“All about it? That’s only the basics, Isaac. Of reproduction and, oh, let’s call it mainstream sex.”
“Mainstream? What do you mean?”
Hmmm. We were moving into even more interesting territory.
“Well, sex for reproduction. There’s sex for love and pleasure too, straight and gay.”
His forehead crinkled. His creed probably said that sex should not be pleasurable. If so, his curiosity over-rode it.
“Well, yes. Sex ought to be fun. Isaac, haven’t you ever, er, even, er, played with yourself?” Dammit, I had no clue what words he might understand. Let’s be bold. “Masturbated, jerked off, wanked?”
He looked at me solemnly. “Yes,” he said quietly. “I know what you mean. Yes, I have, once or twice. But it was wrong.”
“Wrong? Wasn’t it, er, fun? Didn’t you enjoy it?”
“Yes.” Very quietly now. “That’s what made it so wrong.”
Oh dear. Hair shirts next?
“Well, I can’t see anything wrong with it. You’re not harming anyone. Even yourself.”
“Oh, but you are. It’s displeasing to God. Isn’t that what Onan did? Genesis 38:9. He spilled his seed on the ground, and the Lord slew him for it.”
I was flummoxed. I had no answer to that.
But he had another question. “And what do you mean, straight?”
Lord, again. What an innocent.
“Straight? It means heterosexual. Opposite of gay.”
His creed probably also said that gays were an abomination, but again he over-rode it.
“I have heard about gays. But, Tom, what do they do?”
Again I had to explain, in the clinical and the vernacular. A different attraction, gaydar. Mutual masturbation. Fellatio, blow-job. Sixty-nining. Anal penetration, fucking. Again he listened, watching me inscrutably.
“Yes, I see. That’s sodomy, isn’t it? Remember how God rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire out of heaven? Genesis 19:24.”
I had no answer to that, either. I was utterly frustrated. I had been rock-hard for hours. So, by the look of it, had he. Did he never let his urges rip? The answer, it seemed, was no.
“Tom, how do you know about all this?”
“Oh, my parents, partly. Kids at school, partly. But mostly from the net.”
Mum and Dad were trusting enough not to monitor or block my computer, and I often visited porn sites. I was as well-educated in that respect as he was ill-informed.
“I see. And have you, er, done any of this yourself?”
“Well, no. Apart from wanking, of course.”
“But you’d like to?”
Could that be the beginning of an offer? “Yes, of course.”
“Well, don’t, Tom, please. As far as I can see, it’s all fornication. All offensive to God, except in marriage.”
I gave up. I was not going to get him. Unless I had sowed temptation enough to reap a harvest later. But not now.
Isaac came from a family where every penny mattered, and he asked tentatively if the rabbit would be all right to eat. Why not? It was fresh, and the meat had not been spoiled. So I skinned it for him, hacked off the head and feet, gutted it but naughtily left the penis and testicles in place as a reminder of his sex lesson, washed it in the lake, and crammed it into my lunch box. We left the residue as a consolation for the disappointed raptor, and walked home companionably enough. What little talk there was concerned birds.
Life in Blaenau rapidly settled into a routine. I would often go out with Isaac. But whereas he remained a solitary, I came to make other friends: not close friends, but a degree or two above casual ones. With them I would kick a football around on the playing field or take the bus down to the cinema in Porthmadog. Mum and Dad might help out at weekends by ferrying me, and one or two of them, to fun places like the dry ski slope at Rhiwgoch or the white water centre below Llyn Celyn. But one thing they could not understand was that all my friends were boys. I was at the age, according to their rulebook, when I should have a girlfriend, and I began to contemplate the unwelcome step of finding one as a cover. Otherwise I was just an ordinary boy, unusual, to all appearances, only in my interest in birds and my one close and very unexpected friendship.
Over the next few weeks I often saw the Prof, although we had no hugely profound conversations. We were getting to know each other, talking in his house or on the bench in the square or, occasionally, over the meal table at our place. He was patiently opening my mind to all manner of things that had never entered it before, and encouraging me to form my own opinions. Never once did he take a superior attitude. He treated me as a friend and an equal — a young friend, to be sure, but not one to be talked down to. He banished much of my mental and spiritual loneliness. He fostered my self-confidence. His sympathy and stability and broad-mindedness were a marvellous balance to my uneasily brittle and narrow relationship with Isaac. Although I barely appreciated it at the time, I know now that his gift to me was priceless.
To repeat, I was a very ordinary boy, not well-read, not well-informed, with a schoolboy sense of humour but no sparkling adult wit. What could I possibly have given him in return? Companionship, certainly, as an antidote to his own loneliness. And my own young brand of friendship which became more familiar as the days went by, and even, when the occasion was right, gently teasing. He saw me, I thought, as the son he had never had. I saw him not so much as a father figure — my own was good enough for most purposes — but as a wise and stimulating and very special friend. At all events, to put it quite simply, we clicked.
One afternoon, on the way back from school, I rang his bell and there was no answer. He should have been in, and I was worried. I made my way round the back via Rhiannon’s garden and peered through his bedroom window — he slept on the ground floor — and there he was on his bed, curled up, face screwed in pain and looking at me with pleading eyes. Urgent action was needed. The back door was locked, so I found a lump of slate and broke the kitchen window, through which I could reach to open the door.
“Prof!” I cried, on my knees beside him. “What’s wrong?”
“Bol,” he muttered. Stomach — one of the few occasions he ever used Welsh with me. It was obvious enough: he had vomited and lost control of his bowels.
I flew to the phone and called the doctor, who came round commendably fast. A bug that was going the rounds, was his verdict, compounded by the Prof’s age. Not a hospital case, provided he could be looked after carefully for the next few days. Luckily it was Friday, and I was free full-time for the weekend. Rhiannon got the prescriptions from the chemist before it shut, and rustled up a commode. Meanwhile I half-carried the Prof to the bath where I cleaned him up. A foul job, but yet a privilege. He took his medicine and sat in his dressing gown while I removed the bedding and replaced it, and by the time Mum and Dad got in from work he was clean and reasonably comfortable, with a hot-water bottle for his stomach, and had been persuaded to drink. Mum, bless her, dealt with the bedding, and Dad with the broken window. Nobody questioned my self-assumed role as chief nurse.
I spent the next five nights there, in a sleeping bag on the study floor, alert for sounds from the bedroom, helping him to the commode at decreasingly frequent intervals, doing intimate things for him that he could not do himself. During the day, Mum kept up a supply of food, while I sat and watched the Prof as he dozed — and sometimes dozed with him — and talked to him when he awoke. I encouraged him to drink often if little, and he made a good recovery. By Monday morning he was safe enough to be left by himself, which was fortunate since I had to go to school. Mum, who was not at work that day, looked in from time to time, and I took over again once I was released. By the time I arrived on Wednesday afternoon he was up and more or less back to normal. I found him tapping away at his computer, catching up on his backlog of emails. He ate a reasonable tea with me, and I took the dishes back home and returned to him. He told me to sit down.
“Tom, keep my front door key.” We had commandeered it while he was ill. “I have a spare. Let yourself in now, whenever you want. Don’t ring. And Tom.” He fixed me with his beady brown eyes. “I’ve been wondering what I could possibly give you by way of thank-offering for all that you’ve done for me. No” — I had started to protest — “I know you. You’ll say you don’t want anything, because you did what you did out of fondness. And I believe you. You’ve acted entirely in character. So I’ll give you nothing. Nothing tangible. Only my thanks. And, more important, these words from John Clare:
Love lies beyond
The tomb, the earth, which fades like dew!
I love the fond,
The faithful, and the true.
“Their surface meaning is obvious, but you won’t understand what’s beneath them.” How right he was. “Don’t ask, Tom. Just remember them.” He said them again. “Promise?”
“I promise,” and I repeated the verse back to him.
It is a promise I have very carefully kept.
We sat and looked at each other in deep togetherness, the old man and his surrogate son, the youngster and his guide, philosopher and friend. Or, I wondered belatedly, were we more even than that? Were we at the soul-mate level? If so, he was wildly different from what I had expected or, more accurately, what I had hoped for. No way was he the lover with whom I had dreamed of communing. No way was he, as Isaac was, the object of my physical lust. Nor, surely, was I of his. But our meeting of minds, our mutual if utterly non-sexual love, our absolute trust — were they not enough to qualify us as soul-mates? Well, no, perhaps not quite, not quite yet. When I was with him, all the ships in my fleet flew their true colours — all except one, which was flying not false colours, but no flag at all. If my trust was to be absolute, I must unfurl that final flag and reveal to him my last secret. It crossed my mind to do so there and then, but my nerve failed.
But the thought did not break our togetherness. Neither of us said another word. In the end I put my hand briefly on his, went home, and collapsed into bed, knackered.
Soon afterwards, exams started and, what with all the revision, life became hectic. The Prof was more or less back to his usual self and I still saw him frequently if only briefly — he knew better than to distract me at this time. But with exams over, the pace slackened again.
Having so little common ground, Isaac and I rarely set out to discuss anything but birds. Other subjects always seemed, inexorably and uncomfortably, to lead on to religion, and one memorable Saturday proved no exception. We were sitting in the dappled woodland shade of Coed Cymerau, our backs against a gnarled oak just above the old packhorse bridge near Bryn Melyn, keeping an eye and an ear open for woodpeckers and nuthatches, amid the soporific hum of insects and the plash of a waterfall. Nearby rustlings suggested that there were little mammals on the move — voles, probably. It was blissfully peaceful.
“I’d love to do this sort of thing full-time,” I said sleepily. “Warden in a nature reserve or whatever, looking after woodlands and wildlife.”
“What qualifications would you need?”
“Well, I’m thinking of carrying on with biology at A-level, along with chemistry and maths. Then university, I hope. Biology there. Ending up specialising in conservation and environmental studies. That should be enough. What are you thinking of doing?”
“No need to think. I know. Theological college, and ordination. That’s God’s destiny for me.”
“God’s destiny? You mean he’s got it all mapped out for you?”
“Of course. God determines everything we do, good or bad. We can’t resist it.”
“Heck, that’s crazy. That means we’ve got no choice. We must have that.”
“Oh no. There’s no free will outside God. There’s no room for it, because everything happens by divine predestination.”
I was shocked, but tried to meet him on his own ground.
“But, Isaac. You’d say we end up either in heaven or hell, right?”
“Well, whichever we end up in, it must be decided by whether we’ve lived good lives or bad. Right?”
“Wrong. It was decided at the creation. Look, Tom. The church on earth is made up of two sorts. There are the saints who can never lose their crown.” Strong echoes of the pulpit were coming through. “They’re the elect, the predestinate, chosen by God for heaven. Grace is given to them. They can’t say ‘yes please’ to it, or ‘no thank you’. Then there are the sinners who can’t attain salvation, no matter how hard they try. They’re reprobate, not elect, damned. Salvation’s beyond their reach.”
“Then what’s the point of even trying to be good, for heaven’s sake?” I had not intended the pun, and Isaac did not spot it. Not surprisingly.
“Better to try than not. Lots of people think they’re Christians, but only a few of them are entitled to everlasting life. The rest think they do all the right things. They may feel the same way as the elect, they may find the same uplift. But their faith’s only apparent, not real. Even so, God insinuates himself into their mind, so they can still taste his goodness. That taste is a good deal better than nothing.”
“But that can’t be right, Isaac. You must have got that wrong.”
“I haven’t. You probably don’t know it, but you’re being Arminian.” Armenian? What the hell was he on about? “You’re deliberately misreading the bible’s message. Making it into an easy cop-out. Its true message was laid out by Calvin. You have heard of Calvin, haven’t you?” he asked, without much conviction.
Actually, no. The only Calvins in my experience were Calvin Klein and Calvin and Hobbes. He could hardly mean either of those, so I shook my head.
He sighed. “John Calvin. French reformer. In the Reformation. Sixteenth century. Calvinistic Methodists — right? — because our teaching is based on his. I think I can quote him word for word on this. ‘Therefore some men are born devoted from the womb to certain death, so that God’s name may be glorified in their destruction. Because life and death are acts of God’s will.’”
“Destruction?” I was horrified. “But Isaac. I thought God was supposed to be a God of love, not of destruction.”
“So he is. Love for those he’s chosen. Not for those he’s condemned.”
“But that’s not fair. It’s not … just. If you’re condemned from the word go, it makes life … pointless. A nightmare.”
“No, it doesn’t. You don’t know whether you’re elect or reprobate till it comes to the crunch. So it makes sense to hope you’re going to heaven, and act accordingly.”
“Well, it makes no sense to me. It’s against all reason. God can’t, um, discriminate like that.”
“God can’t …? Oh, Tom, sometimes I wonder why I put up with you. Look, who are you to question God? He made you. You can’t dispute with your maker. Remember Romans 9:21? No, you wouldn’t. ‘Has the potter no right over his clay, to make out of the same lump one beautiful pot and one crude one?’ If God wants to show off his power, doesn’t he have the right to put his splendid pots on exhibition, to be admired, and allow the workaday ones to get smashed?”
Hmmm. I thought I could see the point. A potter might expect some say over the fate of his own pots. But damn it, men were not pots. It sounded like blatant favouritism, cosseting a few special products and writing off the bulk of humanity as cheap crockery. Well, I did not believe in God at all, so it was an academic question. But I was still appalled at a belief which insulted reason and mankind. And I was saddened to hear it from a gentle boy like this, whom I certainly liked, certainly lusted for, and hoped I even loved.
These thoughts were very unwelcome, and they shattered the magic of Coed Cymerau. I needed, quite urgently, to consult my oracle. As soon as I could without hurting Isaac’s feelings, I suggested we should go home. Once I had got rid of him I bearded the Prof and poured out my problems.
“You’re dipping your toe into deep waters here, Tom. Yes, predestination. It’s a harsh doctrine, with an intolerant God. Harsher than perhaps you realise. According to the bible, in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were tempted by the snake and disobeyed God, didn’t they? That was the first sin committed by man. It’s called the Fall. Among Calvinists, there are various shades of opinion here. The more moderate ones say that God, after he’d created the world, looked at his list of everybody who was ever to be born, right up to the end of time. He decided which of them should end up in heaven — that’s what’s called election and predestination — and left the rest to punishment. He allowed the Fall to happen, though he didn’t actually set it up.
“That seems bad enough to you. But the extremists say that all this came before creation. That God chose who was to go to heaven, and who was condemned to sin and hell, before he’d even created Adam.”
I worked it out. “But that means God decided the Fall should happen. He actually made Adam sin. That’s bonkers.”
“But it’s what they say, Tom. And it’s all tied up with original sin.”
“It means that everyone has inherited Adam’s sin. Everyone is born with sin in-built. Nobody is born innocent. It means everyone is damned unless they’re rescued — born again, they call it — by baptism.”
“But that’s … disgusting.” I was flabbergasted. “It means that if a baby dies before it’s baptised, it automatically goes to hell.”
“It does. That’s why I called it a harsh doctrine. The MCs … well, what they teach is based on a document called the Confession of Faith, which they drew up in 1823. Even though they follow Calvin, it doesn’t say anything about election. That’s left to the individual minister. And I think I know the line followed by our friend across the road.”
And therefore by his son, who saw me, from his viewpoint, as beyond the pale, an unbeliever, damned. But he still seemed to like me, and he accepted me as a non-Welshman, which surely meant that he had some tolerance left. From my own viewpoint, I saw him as beyond the pale too, for keeping a blinkered and inflexible mind, for soaking up all this crap in the first place. But I still liked him, or more than liked him.
“But is that only the MCs? Other churches aren’t so tough?”
“No, most of them aren’t. True, some Presbyterians in Scotland and Northern Ireland are still Calvinistic hard-liners, like the Wee Frees. So are some Baptists, especially the Southern Baptists in the States. But most churches which ever taught predestination and original sin have now watered them down. Some even say that all unbaptised babies are saved. Most churches here follow the Arminian line now. That’s named after a Dutchman called Arminius, who led the protestant backlash against Calvin.”
“Oh, I see. Isaac called me an Arminian. I thought he said Armenian, and wondered what that had got to do with it.”
The Prof chuckled. “Anyway, Arminians say that man can haul himself up by his bootstraps. Everyone can be saved. If you aren’t saved, it’s your own fault, it wasn’t decreed by God. You do have free will. God is a God of love, not destruction.”
“That’s a lot better. And the Anglicans say that too?”
“Yes. Quite forcibly. That’s why I went to them from the MCs.”
I mulled it over. “Yes. I would too. So both, um, sides claim the bible’s behind them?”
“Oh yes. You can find texts in the bible to ‘prove’ — in inverted commas — almost anything you like. It’s not consistent.”
“That reminds me, Prof. Isaac said something else. He called God a potter who made lovely pots which he had the right to look after, and cheap ones which he had the right to chuck out. Well, if we don’t believe in God, it doesn’t really matter to us. But I can see some sense in it. If God did exist, and did create everything, shouldn’t he have control over what happens to his own pots?”
“Hmmm. Like most analogies, you can only take this one so far. If we were only pots, yes, maybe. But we’re human beings, who feel, who think for ourselves. We’re all different, but we’re all marvellous, we’re all potentially top-quality. If you had children, Tom, wouldn’t you try to give all of them the same chance?”
“Yes. Of course I would. Anything else would be favouritism.”
“And that’s unfair. Agreed. But this business about pots is interesting. Look, Tom, it’s time to introduce you properly to my old friend Omar Khayyám. I quoted him to you the other week. He was a Persian, in the twelfth century, best known in his day as an astronomer. And he also wrote poetry. The Rubáiyát. In my humble opinion it’s superb poetry. And in Edward FitzGerald’s translation it’s superb language. I can’t read Persian so I don’t know, but they say that FitzGerald is even better than the original.
“But the point is this. Omar was a Muslim, of course, and strict Islam is another harsh faith. Like Calvinism, it says that in the beginning God decided the destiny of every person who would ever be born. Predestination again. Well, Islam generated almost as many dissenters as Christianity, and Omar was one. He couldn’t find any alternative to predestination, but he didn’t like it. He took refuge in heresy.
“Now, Omar uses that same metaphor which Isaac quoted. He has the pots in a potter’s shop talking among themselves:
Said one among them, ‘Surely not in vain
My substance of the common earth was ta’en
And to this figure moulded, to be broke,
Or trampled back to shapeless earth again.’
Then said a second, ‘Ne’er a peevish boy
Would break the bowl from which he drank in joy;
And he that with his hand the vessel made
Will surely not in after wrath destroy.’
Whereat some one of the loquacious lot —
I think a Sufi pipkin, waxing hot —
‘All this of pot and potter. Tell me then,
Who is the potter, pray, and who the pot?’”
The Prof looked at me quizzically.
“Yes … I see … I think,” I said slowly. “We’re back to man creating God, aren’t we?”
“Yes. We are. People tend to see Omar’s message as ‘eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.’ But there’s a great deal more to him than that. He’s a rebel. Here are some verses of his on the standard theme of predestination. Orthodox, if distinctly cynical:
’Tis all a chequer-board of nights and days
Where Destiny with men for pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the closet lays.
The moving finger writes, and having writ
Moves on: not all your piety nor wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all your tears wash out a word of it.
With earth’s first clay they did the last man knead,
And there of the last harvest sowed the seed:
And the first morning of creation wrote
What the last dawn of reckoning shall read.”
I found myself grinning broadly, as if I had had too much to drink. Hitherto, I had always reckoned poetry pretty boring stuff, but I was already on a high, catapulted there by the splendour of these verses as recited in the Prof’s clear and sensitive diction. I felt much the same incredulous delight as if I had spotted a hoopoe in Coed Maentwrog.
“And then the rebel, the heretic, comes out — the Arminian, if you prefer. And more than the Arminian:
Oh you, who did with pitfall and with gin
Beset the road I was to wander in,
You will not with predestination round
Enmesh me, and impute my fall to sin!
Oh you, who man of baser earth did make,
And who with Eden did devise the snake,
For all the sin wherewith the face of man
Is blackened, man’s forgiveness give — and take!”
I grinned more broadly still. This was rebellion on a grand scale, to talk of forgiving God for what he had done to man.
The Prof grinned equally broadly back at me. “He’s cheered you up, hasn’t he? Borrow him, Tom, and read him properly. He’s got plenty more that you’ll like. That bookcase, top shelf but one, about eight books from the left, blue paperback — yes, that’s it.”
Now that Calvin had been balanced by Omar, I went home much happier. I read the Rubáiyát in one sitting — not that all of it was easy to understand — and became totally intoxicated. Over the week I read it again and again, learned some by heart, and decided to share my new delight with Isaac. Even though he would dislike much of the message, surely he would appreciate the language.
Next Saturday we climbed up to Wrysgan to watch the peregrines that lived in the fissured cliffs — some of the cracks, Isaac said, were a relic of the great earthquake of 1984. We carried on along the old quarrymen’s track round the contour to Llyn Stwlan, where we sat on a rock overlooking the dam. On the right loomed Moelwyn Mawr, ahead loomed Moelwyn Bach, the jagged crags on its right-hand side famously in the shape of a man’s profile. It was supposed to resemble the Duke of Wellington, the Prof had told me, but in his opinion it looked much more like Ted Heath, the last prime minister but four. Not having seen either gentleman, I had to take his word for it.
I told Isaac about Omar and got out the book. He was wary. I read him some verses that were not contentious, and he seemed to like them. I read the orthodox verses about predestination which the Prof had quoted, and he nodded approvingly. But when I ventured on to the rebellious ones, his face grew thundery. He snatched the book from me to check that I was not making it up.
“But that’s blasphemy!”
He flung it far out into the lake where it floated for a bit, then became waterlogged and sank, perhaps to be sucked down the outlet pipe and pulped in Dad’s turbines.
“For God’s sake! That wasn’t my book!”
He looked abashed. “Oh. Whose was it?”
“Oh, him. That’s all right, then.” The Prof’s property was evidently fair game. “He’s destined for hell anyway, but that’s no excuse for trying to drag other people down there with him.”
I was livid. “The difference between you and the Prof is that you’re a bigot and he’s not. And I go along with him, not you. You claim you’ve got the monopoly of being right. I claim that you’ve just as much chance of ending up in hell as I have, or the Prof has. There’s another verse in that book” — I gestured at the lake — “which goes:
Oh you, who burns in heart for those who burn
In hell, whose fires yourself shall feed in turn,
How long be crying, ‘Mercy on them, God!’
Why, who are you to teach, and we to learn?”
Isaac threw me a look of pure fury, picked up his rucksack, and marched off. I did not call him back or try to follow. What was the point? I sat brooding over his forecast about the Prof’s destination. Hell. Or heaven. I really had not thought about them before, any more than I had thought about most such things. Isaac, I reckoned, was aiming for heaven in the next life by going through hell in this, confident that God had mapped out his route for him. But I did not believe that God existed. If he did not, could there be an afterlife? And if there was no afterlife, could there be such places as heaven and hell? Once again, Omar suggested the answer.
I sent my soul through the invisible,
Some letter of that afterlife to spell;
And by and by my soul returned to me
And answered ‘I myself am heaven and hell.’
Heaven but the vision of fulfilled desire,
And hell the shadow from a soul on fire,
Cast on the darkness into which ourselves,
So late emerged from, shall so soon expire.
That made sense. I could go along with heaven and hell being inside you, in this life. But if they did not exist in the afterlife, where did your soul go after you died? Anyway, what was the soul? From my biology, I understood a bit about the mind: consciousness, sensation, thought, reasoning, all the product of electrical activity in the brain. Like in a computer, but far more complex. And when the brain died, the mind died. The soul must be something different. Or even — I felt I was taking a big step here — did it exist at all? Omar evidently thought it did, but then he believed in God. If you did not believe in God, or in the accepted heaven and hell, why believe in the soul? The Prof had made me think for myself, but some questions were still too big for me. I must ask him.
As I made my long way home round the hairpin bends of the access road I could see Isaac striding away, far below me. Even at that distance he seemed to radiate a smouldering glow of self-righteous anger. But the Prof welcomed me as placidly as always, hot and bothered though I was. First I told him of the fate of his book.
“I’m sorry, Prof, it was my fault. I shouldn’t have shown it to him. I’ll buy you another.”
“Thank you, Tom, but no. I have other editions. No, I will buy you another copy, for you to keep this time. And you know, this business is a good illustration of intolerance, isn’t it? One of the many reasons why Calvin challenged the Catholics was that he objected to their excesses in persecuting heretics. The inquisition and suchlike. But he ruled Geneva — that’s where he was based — with a rod of iron. When he found himself opposed by another reformer called Servetus who wrote books castigating him, he had him burned at the stake, along with his books. Pots and kettles, eh? Anyway, he might destroy Servetus and his writings, but he could never destroy his message.”
Pots and kettles indeed. Not pleasant.
“Prof, why do some people fly off the handle like that? Why can’t they chew things over calmly? And if they can’t agree, then agree to differ?”
“I think the short answer, Tom, is pride. Some people have to be right. They can’t admit they might be wrong. They can’t stand their power being challenged. They have to demonstrate who’s the boss. I believe the modern term for them is control freaks. It’s the closed mind again. Which is why I’m so glad that yours is open and questioning.”
I blushed, and was prompted to raise my latest question, about heaven and hell. He listened patiently to my stumbling thoughts.
“You’ve a knack, Tom, of coming up with knotty problems. And the answers to them. You’re not the first to locate heaven and hell in the mind, you know, but you’re in distinguished company. Milton, for example.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.
Even better, perhaps, T. S. Eliot.
Hell is oneself;
Hell is alone, the other figures in it
Merely projections. There is nothing to escape from
And nothing to escape to. One is always alone.
And I’d entirely agree with them, and with you. Heaven and hell are inside us.”
“And Prof, following on from that. If there’s no God, and no afterlife in heaven or hell, can we have a soul? I know what the mind is, I think, more or less. Activity in the brain, and it dies with us. But what is the soul, Prof?”
“It’s a woolly concept, it seems to me, not easy to distinguish from the mind. It’s said to be the noble, the emotional, the immortal side of ourselves. The emperor Hadrian wrote a delightful poem to his own soul. Animula vagula blandula — ‘wandering, charming little soul, guest and companion of my body.’ I rather like that idea. A guest and companion would be independent of us, and it wouldn’t necessarily die with us. If it didn’t, I suppose it could be called immortal. But your question is, where would it go after we had died? If I’ve got you right, you’re suggesting that if life after death is only man’s imagining, then the soul must be imaginary too. If that premise is correct, I don’t think I can shoot down the rest of your logic.”
For once, he seemed to be slightly side-stepping the issue, but I did not pick him up on it because I had another important question.
“Prof, you said you wanted to be buried by the Anglicans. But if there is no God, and no afterlife, even no soul, why does it matter?”
He chuckled. “Mainly because I hate the thought of being sneered into my grave by the Calvinists.”
“But why not have a service without any religion in it at all? You’re allowed to, aren’t you?”
“Oh yes, no problem. Why not a secular service? Well, maybe I see a church service as a sort of insurance policy, just in case I do have a soul, just in case — even more remotely — God does exist. If you had a child, Tom, would you have it baptised, just in case it died young, just in case unbaptised infants really were damned for eternity?”
I cogitated. It would be good to stand by one’s principles. But he was right. I had admitted God might exist. Therefore baptism might, just conceivably, do some good. It could certainly do no harm.
“Yes, maybe I would. Just in case.”
He nodded. “Yes. And it’s for the same sort of reason that I’ve plumped for a church funeral. Have you been baptised, Tom?”
I hadn’t the foggiest idea. I asked Mum and Dad when I got in. Yes, they rather sheepishly admitted, I had been. They weren’t religious, but their own parents and grandparents had expected them to have me done. And better safe than sorry …
Next time I saw Isaac he apologised about the book, to my surprise, and offered to buy a replacement. I thanked him but said no. I knew his pocket money was microscopic, and thought that it might not hurt to rub in the lesson.
“The Prof’s buying another copy himself. He said it all reminded him of Calvin and Servetus.”
Isaac understood at once, and had the grace to blush.
I still wanted to love him, though. He was entitled to his opinions. While I could not stomach their rigidity, I admired him for sticking up for them. Neither of us wished our friendship to founder on this rock, and we made a big if undeclared effort to continue as before. But my frustrations also continued, unabated. Even if either or both of us were predestined for hell, one thing that did not seem predestined was a sexual encounter between us. Yet I still hankered desperately for my heaven, for my vision of fulfilled desire.
The Prof’s state of health was now variable: sometimes he verged on the sprightly, sometimes he was painfully slow. He saved up his bigger shopping expeditions for Saturdays, so that I could carry his bags home. One July day, when I let myself in, I could not find him. I was quite worried until I heard noises from upstairs, where I had never set foot — his bathroom was beyond the kitchen — and I found him up there looking for a book. It turned out that he had another library on the first floor, at least equal in size to the one downstairs. Not only did it cost him a huge effort to climb up, but it struck me as downright dangerous for a man of his age who lived alone.
“Prof, are there any books downstairs which you never use? Or hardly ever?”
“Oh yes, quite a lot.”
“Well, why not move them up, and replace them with upstairs books which you use more often? Save you traipsing up and down stairs.”
“Why haven’t I thought of that before? Why not, indeed? Do I take it, Tom, you’re offering to do the fetching and carrying?”
As it turned out, the fetching and carrying took a whole weekend. It was hilarious. We called the game Predestination, and the Prof played the part of God. In his study, he decreed which books were reprobate and damned, and I took them off the shelves. Then, both of us giggling like six-year-olds, he put his arm round my shoulder, and I put my arm round his waist and half-carried him upstairs. There he chose the elect, the saints, which I likewise pulled out. Their destiny decided, I installed the damned in hell and the elect in heaven. The only thing awry was that heaven was downstairs and hell was up. Our frivolity would have shocked Isaac to death, not to mention the Parch. But we had a whale of a time.
As for Isaac, after our heart-to-heart by Llyn Cwmcorsiog I saw no sign that he harboured any — let us say — impure thoughts at all. Until one night, shortly before the end of term, when I looked out of the window before going to bed. Isaac’s light was still on, a sizeable strip showing between his curtains which were not completely closed. There was nothing unusual about that. They never were fully closed, simply because they were too narrow to meet. That household just did not have the money to replace curtains which had been made for a narrower window in some previous manse. What was new was that through the gap I could see the middle of his bed. He must have moved it, unaware that I could see it now. Mine was the only window in the street high enough to look down into his room. And on the bed was Isaac, or the relevant part of him. Naked, and vigorously beating himself off.
I knew it was spying, and knew I should not. But I could not help it. I watched, through my binoculars, which I tried to hold steady with my left hand while my right was active, very active, elsewhere. We came at the same time, he into a handkerchief, me onto the floor. Then his light went out. Well, I thought, winding down as I cleaned up the mess, however high-minded ministers’ sons may be, at least this one’s human after all. Or a little bit human. And if he’s that human, is he more human still? But the big unknown is whether he’s straight or gay. Or neither. If I was going to get anywhere at all, I would have to put it to the test. A scientific experiment, if you like. I spent the next hour or so hatching nefarious plans.
I found a juicy porn site of chicks being shagged, printed off a good picture, put it in a blank envelope and sealed it. Next day I took it to school, and while nobody was around I posted it into Isaac’s locker through the slit between the door and frame. When school finished, as I burrowed in my own locker nearby, I saw him collect some books, cast a puzzled look at the envelope, and stuff it into his pocket. That night I stood watch, a bit back from my window, lights off, binoculars in hand. His light came on and after a while he crossed the gap between the curtains, wearing his pyjamas and holding a piece of paper. He squatted down at the fireplace on the far wall, struck a match and burned the paper. Then he got into bed, under the blanket, and his light went out. I could not be sure, but I deduced the chicks had not turned him on.
On to the next stage, then. This time I went to a gay site and printed off another juicy picture, and followed the same procedure. It had better work this time — it was only two days to the end of term, and three days before our family was going off on holiday. And I was rewarded. His light came on and stayed on, he lay naked on the bed, and he looked at the picture held in one hand while he wanked with the other. As before, I went along with him. Once he was done, his light went out. I was getting closer.
Next evening, I asked him to come in to see something new on the RSPB website. He showed no suspicions. At the window I pointed to the square where a gaggle of sparrows was ridiculously having a bath in a puddle. He looked briefly, laughed, and sat down at the computer, while I stayed where I was, pretending to watch the sparrows but actually keeping an eye on him in the mirror beside the window. I had put a good gay porn site on the screen, long enough ago for the screensaver to have come up. As soon as he touched the mouse, there was the porn. He glanced round at me, but saw only my back. He knew plenty enough about computers by now to navigate round a site, and in the mirror I saw him clicking thumbnail after thumbnail for several minutes. When I thought the time was ripe I turned, and pretended surprise.
“Oops! Forgot that was up!”
But all my lovely plans crashed instantly in ruins. He leapt up and whirled round, hard-on very evident, face red.
“Dos yn fy ol i, Satan,” he spat out. “Rhwystr ydwyt ti i mi: am nad ydwyt yn synied y pethau sydd o Dduw, ond y pethau sydd o ddynion.”
My Welsh was good enough to catch the beginning, and I read up the rest later. ‘Get you behind me, Satan. You’re my stumbling-block. Your mind’s not on God’s things, but on man’s.’ Out he stormed, and I spent a very unhappy night.
Next day was the last day of term, which ended at lunch time. Awash with trepidation, I carefully avoided Isaac all morning. Indeed our paths did not cross until the final class. When it was finished, he came purposefully over to me.
“Tom, a word with you.” His tone was now of sorrow, not of anger. He waited until the room was empty before continuing.
“Tom, about last night. You know much more about all this than I do. But I’ve been thinking. I’ve been blind and slow, but now I see what you’re after. You’re gay, and you hope I am too, and you’re trying to tempt me.”
I could only nod.
“Yes, Tom, I am tempted that way. Yes, you did tempt me. With what you told me that day at Cwmcorsiog. And especially last night with the … computer. Yes, for a bit I did get carried away. Every one of God’s children is tempted. But God helped me to resist.”
It was the only chance I would ever have of saying what I needed to. I gulped.
“OK, Isaac, I did tempt you. Because I love you. I wanted to show you how I love you.”
“Tom, you mustn’t love me. I know you’re tempted. But you must resist it, for your own sake. And for mine. I like you, Tom. But I can’t love you. Not in that sense. You think about it while you’re away, and you’ll see what I mean. Right?”
I was too confused to answer, but he seemed to take my agreement for granted, as if the whole episode was over and done with.
“I must run,” he said. “I’ve got to change and get up to Llechwedd.” He had found a holiday job in the café at Quarry Tours.
Virtually everybody had already left, but as we went out into the corridor we saw Meurig and Ianto, two of the school’s younger bullies, emerge from a classroom a couple of doors along and head for the main entrance, sniggering as they went. Even though my mind was in turmoil, I wondered what they had been up to and, as we passed the room they had just left, I glanced inside. There, behaving very oddly, was a boy named Geraint, a year below us, whom I knew slightly. He was standing with his back to the wall, trying to cover his chest with his arms, and clearly on the verge of tears. He saw Isaac first and cringed, but at the sight of me he relaxed a little.
“Geraint! What’s up?” I asked in Welsh.
“Oh, Tom, please, you don’t have a spare shirt or sweater you could lend me, do you?”
What on earth for? It was a sweltering day.
“Sorry, Geraint, not here. I took my sports stuff home yesterday. But why … ?”
“I can’t go home like this,” he wailed. “Look!”
He lowered his arms. He was wearing a plain white tee-shirt, or one that had been plain white. But scrawled across the front in black marker pen was the message ‘Dw i’n gadi hoyw’ — I am a gay sissy. He turned round, and the same was written on the back. He lifted the shirt, and the same was written on his skin, front and back. I understood. Geraint lived, I knew, in Congl y Wal at the very far end of town. Unless he could find something to cover it up, he was condemned to walking a good mile through the centre of Blaenau announcing to the world that he was gay, and announcing it to his mother when he got home. He was a quiet and artistic type, almost feminine in face, a sitting target for homophobic louts like Ianto and Meurig. But I also knew that he was an unjustified target. He had a girlfriend, and presumably was not gay.
Isaac evidently did not know. “Go home like that,” he pronounced. “Proclaim your sins to the people, and repent, canys ffiaidd gan yr Arglwydd dy Dduw bob un a’r a wnelo hyn” — for all that do such things are an abomination unto the Lord your God. “Goodbye, Tom, I must go.” Off he went, as stern and righteous as any Old Testament prophet.
“But I’m not gay,” cried Geraint.
“It’s all right, Geraint. I know you aren’t. Don’t pay any attention to him. Look, come home with me — there won’t be anyone there — and I’ll clean you up. And put this on to get you there.”
I peeled off my tee-shirt with its RSPB logo and, whimpering with relief, he put it on over his own. Naked to the waist, I walked him the hundred yards home. We were close enough behind Isaac to see him disappear into Ty Capel.
Once in the refuge of my house, we surveyed the damage. The first priority was to clean the writing off Geraint’s skin, but the marker pen proved obstinate. Experiments with soap, washing-up liquid and white spirit hardly affected it, and we began to despair. Then I tried rougher tactics and found that the pan-scourer and Cif would shift it, at the cost of leaving his skin red and tender. He bore it stoically, but as I worked carefully around his nipples I saw a bulge grow in his jeans. Close contact with his very attractive body had already given me a bulge in mine. The setting was perfect for seduction, and he was so touchingly grateful for my help that I reckoned he would give me anything. But I could not ask for it. No way. It would be utterly wrong to take advantage of him.
I asked, instead, what had happened. The louts, much as I guessed, had been taunting him for most of the term, and as a final fling, the work of seconds, Meurig had pinioned his arms while Ianto wrote the messages. I was surprised he could spell that well. They could not be allowed to get away with it.
“Stand up to them, Geraint. I know you aren’t gay. You’ve got a girlfriend, haven’t you? Esyllt, isn’t it?” He nodded. “If they try any more monkey tricks, let me know.”
I was not very sure what I could do. But even if they were bigger than me, I was a year above them, and I did have my other friends who would back me up. With luck. Yet another thing that needed thinking about.
Once Geraint’s chest and back were clear of ink, I soothed his soreness with antiseptic cream. We then looked at his shirt. A write-off, we decided, so I binned it and dug out an almost identical one of my own.
“Oh Tom, you’re a hero. I’ll bring this back tomorrow.”
“Don’t bother, Geraint. Keep it. I’ve got plenty.” I knew his family did not have many beans to rub together.
As I had been cleaning him up, I had heard the letterbox rattle, and when I saw him out, bubbling with thanks, I found a hastily-scribbled note lying on the mat:
Tad’s just heard that he’s being posted down to Ceredigion, and we’re leaving at the end of August. But there’ll still be three weeks after you get back from holiday. Have a good time — Isaac.
So. So Isaac was going, and I knew I would miss his company. But unresolved questions were tumbling in my mind like washing in a dryer. Thinking that Geraint was gay, he had just been unforgivingly harsh to him, unforgivably harsh. That was typical of his attitude to anyone he saw as reprobate. Yet there was a conundrum here. He now knew for a fact that I was gay and therefore reprobate. Why had he been so considerate to me? After last night, I had been afraid our friendship had crumbled to nothing. But, provided I tempted him no more, he seemed ready to overlook my behaviour. To forgive it.
To forgive it? Yes. Last night had left me wallowing in disappointment and self-pity. Now I began to see his point, and to feel stirrings of guilt. I knew at last, for certain, that I would never win him over. I had tried, and I had failed. But had I been wrong in trying? That was the other question. What I had been tempting him to do was in his eyes a sin, an offence against the divine laws he believed in. But then, from my point of view, if I was not bound by those laws, it was hardly a sin to succumb to the temptation, was it? It might be a crime in the eyes of human law, at least until we were sixteen. But that was another matter altogether.
After pondering long and inconclusively I took my problem, as usual, to the Prof.
“May I ask your advice, please, Prof? I can’t tell you the details. But I’ve been trying to get … someone to do something he didn’t want to. It might have been a crime, in law, but only a minor one. But how do I know if it was wrong, morally wrong, to try?”
The Prof looked at me shrewdly. “I think the best yardstick, Tom, is that if it’s likely to hurt anyone at all, including yourself, in any way, short-term or long-term, then it’s wrong. True, punishment hurts, but that’s a quite different affair, provided it’s a just punishment. And that yardstick, in my humble opinion, is more important than the letter of the law. Because it also applies to behaviour outside the law, like being rude or inconsiderate, which can hurt just as much as physical assault. Does that help?”
It did. I had been tempting Isaac to break one of his taboos. It did not matter that his taboo was not mine.
“Yes,” I said heavily. “I have been inconsiderate. I have hurt him. And I’ve lost him. I never had a chance, anyway. I can see that now.”
I had been thinking out loud, and suddenly realised what I had said. My last flag had been accidentally unfurled. I looked at the Prof with mouth open and face red, but I knew him too well to be afraid.
He smiled gently. “Don’t worry, Tom. I’ve had a pretty good idea of what’s been going on. Or not going on. I do not disapprove, and it’s safe with me. You’re right, Tom — it was a forlorn hope from the start. Of course you’re disappointed. I know how you’re feeling now.
Ah love! Could you and I with fate conspire
To grasp this sorry scheme of things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits — and then
Re-mould it nearer to the heart’s desire!
“But don’t be disappointed, not for too long. You hoped you’d find love from Isaac, but it’s clear you never will. Will even your friendship survive?”
“Yes … No … Look, Prof. Something’s just happened.” I told him about the events of the morning. “And now Isaac’s going. I don’t know what to think. It might be a good thing, since I’ve hurt him. But even though he sees me as, um, a sinner, he seems to have forgiven me. As if he still values me. Yet he was ready to let Geraint face the music. I don’t understand.”
“Put this in context, Tom. Think what you give Isaac that Geraint can’t. Think why …” He tailed off.
We looked at each other, and I found, not greatly to my surprise, that I could supply what he had left unsaid, not from my own mind, but by reading it in those brown eyes.
“Prof. You’re thinking it is no bad thing that Isaac’s going, because it never can be a real friendship. Because we don’t have enough common ground. If it weren’t for birds, we wouldn’t know each other at all. We hardly talk about anything else, except religion, and we don’t exactly agree on that. Isaac doesn’t have any other friends — to him, everybody’s a sinner, beyond the pale. To him, I’m a sinner too. Yet he puts up with me, even forgives me. You’re thinking that’s not tolerance, but self-interest, just because he doesn’t want to lose my company. My bird-talk. Isn’t that what you’re thinking? And you don’t want to say it because it might seem unkind?”
The Prof was smiling lovingly. “Tom, you have no secrets left, do you? Not now. And soon I’ll have none left either, if you can read my mind as accurately as that. Yes. That’s exactly what I’m thinking. And do you think the same?”
I gazed at the drab grey building opposite, TABERNACL M. C., where Isaac’s mind was centred and mine emphatically was not. I had lusted only for his body, hadn’t I? Not, to be honest, for his mind. Birds were our only bond, and his was a friendship only of convenience. There was no meeting of minds. Whereas the Prof and I …
“Yes, I do think the same.”
“You never were compatible, Tom. Don’t think too badly of Isaac. He’s been conditioned into the way he is. Brainwashed, if you like. But you’ve each learned lessons from the other. I suggest you talk birds with him as usual, until he leaves. And then, without grief or guilt, let him go his own way, and you go yours. They’re very different ways. There’s a most excellent limerick, even though it is about destiny, which you may not know.
There once was a man who said ‘Damn!
It is borne in upon me I am
An engine that moves
In predestinate grooves.
I’m not even a bus, I’m a tram.’
“That’s Isaac. He’s a tram, who can follow only the narrow track that’s been laid down for him. You’re a bus. You can drive anywhere. Anywhere you like. You’ll find better friendships elsewhere, Tom. More important, you’ll find a better love. I wouldn’t dare call that your destiny, not after our discussions. But it’s simply inconceivable that so inquisitive and intelligent a person as you, so lovable and so loving, should not find it, though it may take time.”
I drew a deep breath. He had given me plenty of new food for thought, but he had already solved my conundrum and lifted a heavy burden off my shoulders.
“Thanks, Prof. Thanks. That’s good. You’re a star!”
“And you’re lucky, Tom. As you search for your love, you’ll be going out into a world which is ever more tolerant. Of course there are exceptions, and plenty of them. Individual exceptions like Ianto and Meurig. And general ones too — Macaulay found ‘no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.’ That was a century and a half ago, and it still holds true. Sometimes society still has a fit and takes a step backwards. But most of the steps are in the right direction.
“In fact another small one has been taken today. You won’t have heard the one o’clock news. You know the Archbishop of Canterbury’s retiring?” I nodded. “As head of the whole Anglican communion throughout the world, he’s in a pretty influential position. George Carey, who’s on his way out, is a sadly stodgy character. Well, they’ve just announced his successor. Rowan Williams, who’s currently Archbishop of Wales. He’s a good man. A liberal. A moderniser. He’s already ordained gay priests.”
“Wow! That’s great!” I had had no idea the Anglicans were as progressive as that.
“It might ultimately rub off on other churches too, though of course not everyone will approve. One thing I’m sure of is that there’ll be thunder from the Parch’s pulpit on Sunday morning. Tom … ” — the eye he cocked at me had a truly wicked gleam in it — “shall we be very naughty and celebrate, while he’s thundering, with a glass of madeira?”
I laughed. “I’d have loved to, Prof. But we’re going away tomorrow, for our holiday. Remember?”
His face fell. “I’d forgotten. How long for?”
“A fortnight. Back on the 10th. I’m going to miss you, Prof. But I’ll phone you regularly, just to check you’re all right. I feel a bit mean, not being able to help with your shopping and stuff. But Rhiannon will look after that.”
There was a long pause as he gazed at me.
“Don’t you worry,” he said abruptly. “You’d better go and do your packing. It must be time. Goodbye, Tom, and thank you. Enjoy yourself away from this old man.”
He creaked to his feet, and to my amazement he opened his arms, clearly expecting a hug. I obliged. Inside his baggy jacket he felt like a small sparrow, heart fluttering. And I kissed him lightly on the lips. To this day I do not know what prompted me. I could perfectly well just have hugged him.
After a few seconds he broke free and almost pushed me out of the door. As I turned round with a wave and a “Be good!” he was staring after me as if he would never see me again.
He never did.
But I saw him. We had our holiday, in a caravan on the Devon coast. Superficially fun, but all the time my heart was in Wales. I phoned him every other day, briefly, and all was well. My last call was on the Thursday, and we got home very late on the Saturday night. Next morning I had two important things to do. I wanted to see Isaac, but he would be in chapel. The first priority, anyway, was to check on the Prof.
I let myself in and was making for the study with a cheerful greeting on my lips when a middle-aged woman came out of the kitchen.
“Diawl, what on earth do you think you’re up to?”
“I’ve come to see the Professor.”
“Where did you get the key from?”
“Why, from the Prof. I let myself in and out.”
She looked at me speculatively. “Who are you?”
“Tom Robertson. I live two doors along.”
“Oh yes, I do know about you, then. I didn’t think you’d be so young. I’m Wil’s niece. Megan Parry.” I recognised her now, from the photos on the mantelpiece.
Then came the bombshell. “My uncle’s dead.”
My heart stopped and my mouth fell open.
She inspected me with an inscrutable face, as if trying to weigh up the boy before her, young-looking, struck dumb, too shocked to cry. A portly man of much the same age appeared from the kitchen.
“This is Tom Robertson,” she explained to him. And to me, “This is my husband,” and she tacitly handed me over, as if deputing an unwelcome job to a minion. Both contrived to convey their disapproval of me.
“What … happened?” I managed to get out.
“Oh, he had a massive heart attack on Friday morning,” said Mr Parry, “on the way to the Co-op, and died almost immediately. He must have known it might happen, because he’d written out detailed instructions for us, for his funeral. Do you want to see him?”
I was taken even more aback. I had heard of the Welsh custom of the dead being put on display in their own home, for friends to pay their respects and to say a last goodbye. Having been brought up in sanitised English ways, I had never seen a dead body before. I did not want to see any dead body, let alone the body of my friend. But I could only say yes. I had to say yes. To say no would be to betray him utterly.
Mr Parry led me into the study. The curtains were closed. The air was stuffy. The coffin sat on trestles in front of the desk. He lifted off the lid and I forced myself to look. There the Prof lay, in a white shroud, his hair covered in an obscene little white bonnet, his hands like claws folded over his stomach. He was a sparrow lying on its back, small, shrivelled, and dead. But beneath the beaky nose and the bushy eyebrows his face was still and peaceful. I looked for a long time, re-memorising what was already engraved on my mind. Then, my throat far too tight to utter any sound, I bent to kiss him gently on the lips, smelling a mixture of chemicals and cosmetics. Silently I framed a simple farewell.
“Bye, Prof. Thanks. My love. And good luck. If you need it where you’ve gone.” That said it all.
Mr Parry was speaking. “You must have been, er, good friends. If you want to come to the funeral, it’s the day after tomorrow, Tuesday. 11.30, in the church at Llan. And you can come to the gathering at the Pengwern Arms afterwards.”
I escaped without opening my mouth, crept home, and collapsed on my bed. Mum and Dad, hearing my sobs, came up to investigate, and were kind and gentle. “He had a good innings, Tom. You’ve been privileged to know him. Just remember him, for his goodness and his kindness. Don’t grieve too much.”
But the whole day I grieved, and did not step outside the house. I lay, and thought, and remembered. Or just lay, and ached in wretchedness. I tried to find comfort in the Rubáiyát, and cried myself to sleep.
Next morning I stirred myself and went to the florist, where after much deliberation I bought a modest bunch of red roses. I wrote a card for it, and took it round. Mrs Parry’s eyes widened, but she thanked me nicely. After all, the flowers were as much a token for her, the bereaved, as for the dead. Or were they also a symbol of mortality?
Oh threats of Hell and hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain — this life flies;
One thing is certain, and the rest is lies:
The flower that once has blown for ever dies.
I continued in my grief, and was incapable of going out again. Isaac would have to wait.
On Tuesday morning, both Mum and Dad were at work and I caught the bus to Llan Ffestiniog, the age-old village three miles away, mother of the young industrial offshoot of Blaenau Ffestiniog. It was nearly half past eleven when I got out at the Pengwern, and the parish church was almost full. Some of the congregation were locals, the rest obviously strangers — the elderly ones ex-colleagues from Cambridge, I guessed, the younger ones perhaps ex-students. Feeling totally out of place, I sat at the very back. The coffin stood in front of the altar, and on it lay red flowers and something silver — too far away to make out any detail.
The service was essentially in English, presumably for the benefit of the strangers. And not the modern form of service, but the old. No doubt the Prof himself had insisted on the Tudor language, even if he did not go along with its message.
The introduction. ‘We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.’ Nothing tangible, no. That he would not deny — who could? And nothing intangible either, if we did not admit the idea of the soul as guest and companion of our body.
The psalm. ‘Lord, let me know mine end, and the number of my days, that I may be certified how long I have to live.’ Lord, let me know nothing of the sort. With hindsight, I was sure the Prof had known the number of his own days. But I did not want to know mine.
The reading. ‘Behold, I show you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.’ My skin crept. ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?’ This sort of stuff had once been mumbo jumbo to me. Why did it now strike a sudden chord?
The address, mercifully short. The vicar spelled out the distinguished career of this son of Ffestiniog, praising his kindness and good nature. He clearly had not known the Prof himself, and was merely mouthing the platitudes the family had told him to say.
Finally the hymn, requested, so the vicar informed us, by the Prof himself. A good Welsh hymn too, Calon lân.
Nid wy’n gofyn bywyd moethus
Aur y byd na’i berlau mân.
Gofyn rwyf am galon hapus,
Calon onest, calon lân
‘I ask not for a life of luxury, worldly gold or petty pearls. I ask for a happy heart, an honest heart, a pure heart.’ Amen to that, at least.
The Prof was to be buried in the new overflow cemetery a hundred yards away, the churchyard itself being too full for further occupants. The coffin on its trolley was trundled out down the aisle. As it passed slowly beside me, I looked closely at what lay on top. The silver thing was a deep circlet, a sort of diadem or crown. The flowers were red roses, and seemed familiar. I saw the writing on the card. It was mine.
The congregation emptied itself out, starting from the front, and I was last to leave, in a daze. It ambled down the road with me at the back, my feet trying to keep up, my mind trying to keep up. At the cemetery I stood on the fringe, on tiptoe, trying to see. Someone grasped my arm. It was Mr Parry. “Come along, lad,” he muttered, and pushed me through the crowd to stand next to his wife, beside the oblong hole lined with artificial grass. The coffin lay at its head, but the flowers and circlet had been removed.
The vicar began to drone. ‘Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.’ My eyes wandered, and with them my mind, to the mountains across the valley. If the Prof had any way to enjoy it, his resting place commanded a broadside view of his beloved Moelwyn. I scanned the town sprawling across to the right, three miles away, and picked out Tabernacl. Beside it, I thought I could make out my attic window. If so, I would be able to see his grave from there, with my binoculars.
I came back with a start, willing my emotions not to take over my mind. The coffin was being lowered into the grave. ‘We therefore commit his body to the ground: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust: in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.’ No. Not sure, not certain. No hope, because no belief. But still a pleasant contrast to the doom and gloom of the Calvinists. We threw down handfuls of stony earth which rattled on the coffin lid, on the little silver plate which read
11 Mawrth 1920-
9 Awst 2002
‘That we may have our perfect consummation and bliss, both in body and soul.’ Yes, if we do have souls. But we don’t. So why did that sentence hit me between the eyes?
The ritual was over. It had answered no questions, only raised them. It had given no comfort to the living — not, at any rate, to me — and surely it had given none to the dead.
When I pulled myself together enough to ask about the flowers, I found that the Parrys had disappeared. Some people still hung around the cemetery chattering, but most were straggling back up past the church to the Pengwern Arms, and I straggled after them. Inside, tables of sandwiches and quiches and cakes and tea were surrounded by a politely jostling crowd. I was not feeling in the least sociable. I did not in the least want to stay. But I had to find the answer to my question, and hovered on the outskirts again. After a while I was buttonholed by an elderly man — I never discovered who he was — clutching a glass of whisky. He gave the impression that it was by no means his first of the day, and he was friendly and unguarded.
“Hullo, I saw you with Megan. Didn’t know Wil had any young relatives.”
“I’m not a relative. Just a friend, from along the street.”
“Oh. Nice of Megan to put you at the front, then. And nice of her to put the bardic crown on the coffin. Wouldn’t have expected it of her.”
“Didn’t you know? Wil won the crown at the National Eisteddfod. Just after the war. 1946, it must have been. Not the chair — that’s for the awdl. The crown’s for free verse. Very clever bit of poetry, his. Coded, of course. Had to be, then.”
I looked my puzzlement.
“Oh, it was a love poem. To his boyfriend. Who was only a boy, not much older than you. Come to think of it, he looked very like you, too.”
I was slow on the uptake today.
“Oh Lord, didn’t you know?” He leant conspiratorially close, wafting whisky fumes into my face. “Wil was gay. Quite a scandal, I can tell you. Inside the family and out. But they were made for each other. They were very happy together.”
“I didn’t … know about that. Er, what happened to his, um, friend?”
“Oh, he died. Cancer, you know.” The alcoholic face had mercifully withdrawn from mine. “Very sad. Remember that well. It was soon after Wil retired. Just before he left Cambridge. Tom died on Christmas Day, must have been 19, um, 85.”
Before I could grapple with that, Mr Parry emerged from the crush. He evidently heard the last bit, for he gave the old man a withering look and drew me away.
“Tom. I have a duty to do. Wil left very precise instructions for his funeral. We didn’t, er, entirely approve of all of them, but we had to carry out his wishes. You were to be at the front at the interment. If you brought flowers for the funeral, they and they alone were to go on the coffin. His crown was to go on the coffin too, and as soon as the funeral was over it was to be given to you. And you were to be given a package which he’d addressed to you. It’s in here with the crown.”
He handed over a quite heavily laden bag — a cheap and thin plastic bag from the Co-op which no doubt symbolised the Parrys’ opinion of the whole business. His obviously unpalatable duty done, he disappeared back into the throng.
I could not have spoken a word to anyone, so I turned and went out. With misted eyes I stumbled along the path which skirts the churchyard, and up onto the rocky knoll beyond. It looks clear across the valley to the Moelwyn, clear down the valley to the estuary, and into the cemetery below where they had nearly finished filling in the grave. I sat on the rickety bench and opened the bag, blinking enough tears away to see.
Inside was the crown, and with it was a large sealed envelope which contained five items.
The first was an old unframed studio photograph, head and shoulders, of a teenager, strikingly recognisable as the Prof. The hair was black, the eyebrows were already heavy, the eyes held that unmistakable twinkle of penetrating amusement. I turned it over. On the back was written ‘Wil Davies, 1935, yn 15 oed’ — aged fifteen.
And there was the typescript of the poem which had won him the crown. It was entitled Y Cyfeiliorn, which can mean the quandary, or the perversion, or the heresy, as you choose. It started by adapting a pennill, a folk song:
Mae dwy galon yn fy mynwes,
Un yn oer a’r lall yn gynnes;
Un yn gynnes am dy garu,
A’r llall yn oer rhag ofn dy golli.
‘There are two hearts in my breast. One is cold and the other warm. One is warm through love of you, the other cold for fear of losing you.’ Later, with the help of the dictionary, I worked out the rest. A man was telling of his love, which was frowned on by all except the two most closely concerned. It was addressed, on the face of it, to a girl. If one had the clue and read between the lines, it was addressed to a boy.
And there was the framed photograph which I had glimpsed on the Prof’s mantelpiece, before it disappeared. It was of another boy of about fifteen, but rather more recent — the hairstyle, tie and jacket smacked of the 1940s. Looking at it properly now, I realised at once why his face had rung a bell. He looked quite remarkably like me. It was signed, in young writing, ‘Wil, from Tom, with love.’
The hairs rose on my neck.
And there was a large book bound in soft red leather, a sumptuous edition of the Rubáiyát illustrated with sensuous Preraphaelite-style paintings. The inscription on the flyleaf read, in the same youthful hand:
Wil, from Tom.
Ah, my beloved, fill the cup that clears
Today of past regrets and future fears.
My flesh crawled.
Finally, there was a letter to me, from the Prof.
My dear Tom, my second Tom,
You cannot know what joy you have revived in an old heart. Remember me, if you can. And remember that sooner or later a new and better love will come your way. It will be easy to recognise. Go out into the world, Tom, in search of it. Go in search of what we are not allowed to call your destiny. Go with my thanks, and my blessing, and my love.
8th August 2002
There was nothing else. If there had been, I could not have seen it for tears.
The jigsaw was falling into place. The first Tom had died on the same day that I had been conceived. Coincidence, surely. It could only be coincidence. The name was common enough. But the Prof had seen me as his first love’s double, as his second Tom, and had loved me too. That was what bowled me over. I had known full well that he liked me. I had thought that he loved me almost as a son. I had had no idea that his love was of the other kind, the love of a lover. He had not shown it, in word or deed. But his last wishes could mean nothing else. This bequest of mementoes of the first Tom, who had been his lover, could mean nothing else. And, he had said, “Love lies beyond the tomb.” Now that I thought I understood it, that could mean nothing else either. Only in his death had the flag of the Prof’s secret been unfurled.
I could not confront it rationally, not yet. I simply sat, gazing unseeingly at the eternal mountains, noting subconsciously a flight of starlings, glancing at the raw earth which now filled the grave, sensing the warmth of his love washing over me. My own love for him was reinforced. So, in tandem, was my grief, and once back in the shelter of home I would give way to it. No matter there. Mum and Dad would assume, with every reason, that I was merely desolated by the funeral. They would not understand the truth. If they did, they would most certainly disapprove. I loved them dearly and, on their plane, they loved me dearly too, but there were some things they could not be allowed to know. The crown would sit openly on my desk as a gift from my friend; a surprising gift but, shorn of its background, in no way offensive. The rest of the treasures would disappear from sight in the jumble that was my bookshelf.
I have no idea how long I sat there before I felt enough under control to catch the bus home. I got off opposite the Co-op. No more shopping for the Prof, I thought inconsequentially, and tears trickled anew. But the stresses of the day were not yet over.
Standing outside Ty Capel was a removal van. Isaac came out of the house, spotted me fifty yards away, and shouted along the street.
“Tom! Tom! We’re leaving! Now! Tad’s needed in Ceredigion earlier than expected. We only heard a week ago, and I haven’t set eyes on you since. We’re almost ready to go.”
We were closer now. He saw the tears on my cheeks and misinterpreted them.
“Hey, it’s not that bad, you know. But I’ll miss you too. I’ve enjoyed being with you, Tom, watching the birds, talking about them, even if we haven’t agreed on … much else. I don’t suppose we’ll see each other again. But we can still write. I’ll send you our new address.”
He held out his hand, formally. I had grown up a lot in recent weeks, and I was ready now to let him go. But I could not let him go like that. Not him. Not my first, inaccessible, love. To his embarrassed astonishment I took him by the shoulders and kissed him on the lips. He was tall and vibrant and very much alive. Not small and shrivelled and dead, like the Prof. But I could only give him the same message.
“Bye, Isaac. Thanks. My love. And good luck. If you need it where you’re going.”
As he stood staring after me, I turned and went home, without looking back, clutching my precious bag.
Neither Mum nor Dad was yet in from work. From the haven of my room I glanced out of both the windows. Behind, a faint half-moon was rising above Carreg Ddu. In front, the Evans family was climbing into its ancient Cortina and the removal van was rolling away past the scruffy flower beds of the square. I opened the red-bound Rubáiyát at random.
Yon rising moon that looks for us again —
How oft hereafter will she wax and wane;
How oft hereafter rising look for us
Through this same garden — and for one in vain!
Today I had said a last farewell to two friends. One was young Calvin, lovely in body but incompatible in mind. Well-meaning but self-interested and self-righteous, imprisoned by his holier-than-thou dogma, incapable of giving love outside its walls. The future bore that out: he never even sent his address, and memory soon grew dim.
The other friend, however decrepit in body, had been lovely in mind — I dared not say in soul. Wise old Omar, free-thinking and tolerant and generous in his love. No, it was not Calvin who would be missing from my garden. It was Omar himself, the Prof. To him I would have written, every day, could mail have reached him. His memory stayed green.
And now, against all hope, he is more than mere memory. He is back again beside me, in the flesh.
He had foretold that I would find a new love, a love better than Isaac, a love easily recognised. For sixteen forlorn and lonely years I searched, and failed, and almost despaired. Only now, in this year of grace 2018, has his prophecy been fulfilled. I have found that better love, out of the blue, in a form beyond all expectation.
He did prove easy to recognise. Small of build, black of hair, eyebrows already heavy, eyes holding that unmistakable twinkle of penetrating amusement. Inquisitive and intelligent, lovable and loving. We matched. And now at last, as was promised over the Prof’s grave, we have our perfect consummation and bliss, both in body and soul.
In soul as well as body? Yes, in both. He is the spitting image of the Prof at fifteen. His name is also William, Wil the second, now united — reunited — to Tom the second. He was conceived — he asked his parents, and they could pin it down — on the 9th of August 2002, the very day the first Wil died. Just as I was conceived the very day the first Tom died.
Coincidence? Once, possibly. Twice, unimaginable.
There is only one alternative. Time was when I would have laughed to scorn the idea of reincarnation — how could it be possible, since we do not have souls?
But that premise is wrong. I know it, now. But I did not know it until the moment I recognised Wil the second, and in that moment understood how love can lie beyond the tomb.
The Prof, I now see, had known it long years before, from the moment he set eyes on Tom the second and uttered his cryptic greeting.
“Clouds of glory!” he had cried.
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The soul that rises with us, our life’s star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar.
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home.
Intimations of Immortality