Not understood. We move along asunder;
Our paths grow wider as the seasons creep
Along the years; we marvel and we wonder
Why life is life. And then we fall asleep —
Not understood. How trifles often change us!
The thoughtless sentence or the fancied slight
Destroys long years of friendship, and estrange us,
And on our souls there falls a freezing blight —
Not understood. How many breasts are aching
For lack of sympathy! Ah day to day
How many cheerless, lonely hearts are breaking!
How many noble spirits pass away —
O God! that men would see a little clearer,
Or judge less harshly when they cannot see;
O God! that men would draw a little nearer
To one another; they’d be nearer thee —
Thomas Bracken, 1879
Although this story is set in Wales, the Welsh language plays little part in it. For those who like to pronounce the more important names right, Cilmin is (fairly obviously) Kilmin, Clynnog is Klunnog, and Lleuar approximates to Hlay-ar.
As should be clear from the headings, the chapters are narrated alternately by the two protagonists. All verses in the chapter headings and, limericks apart, all unattributed verses in the text are by Robert Hunter. All the places mentioned are real (although I have moved Lleuar to a new site) and all the historical personages mentioned are also real (although Cilmin Droed-ddu, St Beuno and St Cybi are only mistily so). But every present-day character is wholly imaginary.
This story is dedicated, with respect and gratitude, to Ben.
31 July 2005
Walk into splintered sunlight,
Inch your way through dead dreams
to another land.
Maybe you’re tired and broken,
Your tongue is twisted
with words half spoken
and thoughts unclear.
Box of Rain, 1970
Not understood. A short phrase and sharp, hammering in my head like the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth. Try it in German, then, and French — nicht verstanden, non compris. Different rhythms, but just as terse. Now try my mother tongue, which claims to be the language of heaven — neb yn deallt. Back to the Beethoven pattern. But is it really my mother tongue? And am I a traitor for wondering so?
Yet all that is mere word-play. None of it matters. Language is only the wrapper round the parcel. What matters is what’s inside. Whatever the language, it’s me that’s not understood. Me, Cilmin. And it’s my fault that I’m not understood. If I don’t explain myself, how can I expect to be understood? But how can I explain myself if I don’t know what I am? At Penygroes they thought they knew, and they laughed at me. Here at Pwllheli they don’t laugh because they know nothing about me. So keep it that way, Cilmin. Head down. Be unsociable. Huddle under your hoodie. People assume it hides a menacing tearaway brooding on aggro. In fact it hides a wounded teenager bent on anonymity. And it works. They leave me alone.
I suppose, looking back, that last year was easy. I was fresh to Pwllheli. Nobody knew me, nobody got to know me. The move from Penygroes was a good move. The down side was living in Clynnog ― no free transport from outside the college’s catchment, only public service buses. But that’s all over now, thank God, now that I’m seventeen at last and can drive Dad’s old MG. There’s a new down side, though. There always is. All the macho lads suck up to the driver of a snazzy red sports car and enthuse about RPMs and injectors and how fast it accelerates from 0 to 100 and can they have a go? None of which is my scene. Macho lads, what’s more, tend to have other interests that I don’t share. But I’m unsociable with them and they’re taking the hint. This year promises to be more relaxed than last. And I will be equally alone.
Just what I want, yet what I hate. Aloneness means loneliness. Desperate loneliness. At least it does to me. I’m not a natural loner. And aloneness underlines that swamping sense of non-fulfilment. How can you find fulfilment if you don’t interact with people? I used to be quite popular. Until eighteen months ago I did interact, and I want to interact again. On top of that, I’m conscious of an outward urge, a sense of rebellion, an impatience with the narrow world of Clynnog and Pwllheli, of Gwynedd, of Wales. I want to break free. But I’m trapped in this narrow world. Just as I’m trapped by this walnut-shell of secrecy which I dare let no-one pry inside.
Keeping that shell closed shuts out any hope of fulfilment, any chance of being understood. If I’m to be understood, I’ve got to open up, I’ve got to trust, I’ve got to make my identity known. But what is my identity? An unknown quantity, to most. A laughing-stock, to some. An object of respect and love, to just three people. But what am I to myself? I’m not sure. Am I ashamed of the contents of that shell? I’m not sure. Would I want to change its contents? I’m not sure. I’m different, and proud of my difference. Aren’t I? Aren’t I? Yet what sane person wants to be fundamentally different?
So I don’t know what I am. Maybe there’s someone, somewhere, who can tell me. But to date nobody has. The only people I’ve opened up to are Mum and Dad and Gwilym. They sympathise and they support, but I doubt if they know what I am, any more than I know myself. And they’re of a different generation. Of my own age, I’ve not come across a single soul I feel in the least inclined to trust.
So here I am, reasonably good to look at (as if it matters), reasonably well-off (as if it matters), reasonably intelligent (I ought to make university), reasonably likeable (look at my past record), and pining for companionship and more. Yet what am I doing to find it? Hiding under my hoodie.
Such thoughts regularly chased pell-mell around my head, and they chased around it that Tuesday as I sat in the common room belatedly eating my sandwiches. Sandwiches, because the college canteen’s menu is far from inspiring. Belatedly, because my history class runs from 12:30 to 2:00 and I don’t like eating too early. And, as I nibbled the last bit of apple from the core, this boy passed me. I had seen him around a number of times over the first few weeks of term — evidently a new student and therefore presumably sixteen. I had overheard him talking to his friends in English with a noticeably Scottish intonation — evidently an incomer. He was eye-turning, too, his manner one of thoughtful independence, his hair curly and almost auburn, his face square and almost freckly, his eyes blue verging on green. Those eyes met mine as he passed, as eyes do, and in them I seemed to see a sympathetic recognition.
He was heading for the lockers. On the spur of the moment I ventured a step which I had never ventured before. I threw my core into a bin, pulled my hood back off my head, and followed him. I rummaged in my locker, he rummaged in his, and as he rummaged he sang softly to himself. The music was hardly my sort. It was the words that held me transfixed like a butterfly on a pin.
In the attics of my life,
Full of cloudy dreams unreal,
Full of tastes no tongue can know
And lights no eye can see,
When there was no ear to hear
You sang to me.