Shut your eyes and listen
to the colours in your mind?
Except for private vision
you might as well be blind.
Coast across the ruin
with the mudflaps of your soul
Slapping to the rhythm
till it sounds like rock and roll.
Easy Answers, 1994
That Tuesday did not begin well. At an unholy hour I was dragged out of bed by the shrill shriek of “Kenneth!” It was Mum, of course, and all het up. She was off to a meeting in Llandudno, she was already late in leaving, and she needed my help to push-start the car. Her mood hardly improved when I incautiously reminded her that she had known for a week that the battery was on the way out. Nor was my own mood serene. I liked to launch myself into each new day with a little peaceful exercise, in bed, on my back, with my right hand, and my routine had been interrupted. I returned to bed to resume it, but today’s fantasies, as well as the delayed explosion, somehow lacked their usual magic.
Showered and breakfasted, I sat in my room in a disgruntled reverie, trying to come to better terms with a misty late September day. I found myself grappling with the melancholy that had so often washed over me since we moved to Wales, and especially in the last couple of years. It was not so much a melancholy of soul as a melancholy of place: of a place that seemed to live not for the future, nor in the present, but off the past. It was a feeling of transience, not always obvious; but once I had noticed it I tended to notice it everywhere.
I noticed it from my bedroom. One window looked out across the flatlands, here less than half a mile wide, to the ridge of Ralltwen which dropped sheer to the back yards of Tremadog, its cliffs offering foothold only to clumps of heather, the scree slopes at their foot invaded by mature oaks. Towards one end was a small abandoned slate quarry, light glinting uncertainly from the tumbled slabs on its waste tip. The window in the adjoining wall faced the precipitous slope of Moel y Gest, gashed horizontally by the shelf that had once been a granite quarry, slashed vertically by the incline that had once taken the stone down to the railway. This quarry was equally dead, the spoil spilling below it heavily colonised with bracken and rhododendrons.
Within the circuit of the foothills, the nearby scenery of fields, roads, railway and housing — ours included — lay below mean sea level, protected from disaster by only a single sluice gate. In the foreseeable future, what with global warming and rising sea levels, the immediate area would be under water again. If one returned in five hundred years, what would one find? An empty expanse, no doubt, of tidal mudflats. Even the old farmhouses on the foothills would most likely be in ruins. Hill-farming was already a precarious livelihood and few youngsters followed in their fathers’ footsteps. All that would survive unchanged was the bones of the mountains. They would long outlast mankind, long after the flesh of human endeavour had been corrupted away. Permanence and transience.
I sighed. I was a two-faced character, and could not help knowing it. Until the last few years I had been childishly cheerful and carefree, joke-cracking, laughter-sharing. I still was, to some extent. But since the onset of GCSEs, since the onset of puberty, since the trauma of that atrocious revelation, more and more of the cheerfulness had been whittled away by new preoccupations.
There was my growing workload at school and more recently at college. There were my sexual desires, as insistent as any teenager’s but perhaps untypically focussed on gentle and abiding intimacy rather than quick and casual copulations. And, ever-present, there was the responsibility of jollying Mum along and the nagging burden of coping with the flagrant injustices of life. No surprise that the light-heartedness, nowadays, was often overlaid by an introspection which sometimes, like today, turned into an aimless melancholy.
But it was time to go. I pulled myself together, shovelled my books into my bag, locked up, and walked the quarter mile to the station. One of the many advantages of college over school was that you did not have to be there all day, only for your own classes. If I had an early class, I caught the college bus. If I started later, I took a later train. The reverse when coming home.
And so, this Tuesday, I sat by the grubby carriage window for the twenty minutes it took to trundle the thirteen miles to Pwllheli, headphones as usual glued to my ears, eyes open to the scenery which was still relatively unfamiliar. Past the same abandoned granite quarry. Over the dreary half-drained marsh of Ystumllyn. Beside Criccieth castle, built to subdue unruly Welshmen but, long superfluous in this genteel resort, now an empty shell in the care of Welsh Heritage. Past Hafan y Môr caravan park and its incongruously sad jollity. Between the mudbanks of the harbour and the suburban gardens a-flap with washing. Into the diminutive terminus, in every sense the end of the line.
Out of the station, past the cluster of signs pointing to the Promenade, Marina, Toilets, South Beach, Leisure Centre, Library, Golf Course, Aviary. I cackled whenever I saw it. My sense of humour is filthy and I don’t mind who knows it, except Mum. And that word aviary always sets me off. Because of a limerick:
Desire both uncouth and unsavoury
Held the Bishop of Burpham in slavery.
With demoniac howls
He deflowered young owls
Which he lured to his underground aviary.
Yes, I know, I know. Think what you like. But I always recited it to myself when I passed that signpost, and today it banished a slice of my melancholy. A couple of hundred yards more, up Stryd Penlan and Troedyrallt, to the college. Coleg Meirion-Dwyfor, to be formal. The Dwyfor campus of it, to be yet more precise, the Meirion campus being in far-off Dolgellau. And down to work.
At least Tuesdays were pleasantly undemanding. Biology class. A quick bite of lunch. Maths class. All over. How easy. Should be able to catch the 2:37 back to Porthmadog. A cheery word with Megan and Iorwerth. Apart from Mum, Megan was the first person I had come out to. At school I had resolutely kept it under wraps. At college I had decided to be open: not to flaunt it, just to let it be known. I had been there only a week when Megan showed marked signs of interest in me. I liked her, but I had told her straight out that I was not in the running for more than friendship, and why. She had taken it just as I hoped, with no revulsion or contempt, and had drowned her evident sorrow by chasing Iorwerth instead. She had also spread the news, as I told her she could. But there had been no public reaction whatever. Nobody had reviled me. This was a civilised place, it seemed, but also a barren one, for nobody had tried to chat me up either. And Megan was still a good friend. The last of my morning melancholy evaporated like the morning mist.
As I headed through the common room towards the lockers I passed this chap sitting munching an apple. I had seen him around before and, yes, I had already lusted. He was always withdrawn, always alone, always wanting, it seemed, to be alone. He was usually mysterious inside a black hoodie. But when his head was visible he was startlingly attractive. His hair was short and dark, his eyebrows heavy, his mouth expressive, but his brown eyes were sad. And I already approved of him for reasons other than his looks. I had seen him arrive and leave in a cool red MG, which meant he must be seventeen and in his second year. Anyone who drove a cool red MG modestly and quietly, without ostentatious gunning of engine or squealing of tyres, earned my automatic approval.
Today he was wearing his hoodie as normal, hood up as normal. But our eyes met as I passed, as eyes do. In his, shadowed though they were, I saw the usual sadness, but perhaps a spark of hope as well. I sympathised. But contentment was still upon me and, as I scrabbled in my locker, I sang a song to myself. On reaching the end of the first verse I sensed a presence behind me, and swung round. It was the lonely laddie, his hood now off.
“Sorry to eavesdrop,” he said, in a voice low in pitch and low in volume. “I was trying to hear. That sounded good.”
“My singing? Good?” I laughed. “I’ve been told it’s like a bullfrog with the trots.”
He smiled back, and the sadness was no longer there. “It wasn’t so much the music. It was the words. Where’s it from?”
“The Grateful Dead. Their album American Beauty.”
“Oh yes, I think I’ve heard of them. But never heard them.”
He hadn’t heard the Grateful Dead? He only thought he’d heard of them? What sort of heathen was this? They were my musical gods. I almost lived my life by them. They spanned all my moods from frivolity to anguish. They were my stimulant and my painkiller.
“That song,” I explained, “Attics of my Life. The words are by Robert Hunter. He wrote a lot of their lyrics. And he’s a poet in his own right, too.”
“How does it go on? Or is that all of it?”
“Oh no. Several verses. Look, why not listen to it? Sung properly, with the band. I’ve got the CD with me.”
“But I don’t want to waste your time.”
Spreading the gospel to the heathen was never a waste of time. Even more to the point, here was a personal opportunity emphatically not to be missed.
“No problem at all. Let’s go to the common room.”
We found two chairs. I dug the discman out of my bag, gave him the headphones, set the right track, and sang along in my head.
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.
I have spent my life
Seeking all that’s still unsung,
Bent my ear to hear the tune
And closed my eyes to see.
When there were no strings to play
You played to me.
In the book of love’s own dream
Where all the print is blood,
Where all the pages are my days
And all my lights grow old,
When I had no wings to fly
You flew to me.
In the secret space of dreams
Where I dreaming lay amazed,
When the secrets all are told
And the petals all unfold,
When there was no dream of mine
You dreamed of me.
As I sang in my head, I watched him. He was sitting there with eyes closed, his heavy eyebrows bent in concentration as he penetrated the American accent. He looked … what was the word? Velvety was the best I could rustle up. I had to lean forward to disguise what was going on in my jeans.
“I like those words,” he said when the track ended, “very much. How could I get hold of a copy? I wonder, could you possibly dictate them to me? It would be easier than trying to write them down from the CD.”
“Easier still to print them off the web. They’re all there, all his lyrics for the Grateful Dead. Let’s see if there’s a computer free. I’ve got Robert Hunter’s website bookmarked at home, but it’ll be easy to find.”
Off to the computer room, surreptitiously adjusting myself. Google obliged instantly.
“There you go. Attics of my Life. Let’s print it off.”
“No, don’t bother, thanks. I’ll just note the URL and do it at home. And read the rest too.”
“It’ll take you quite a time. There’s a lot of it.”
“You’re a fan of his, that’s obvious. Can you tell me more about him? Once I’ve read his stuff?”
I had two reasons for educating him, and no hesitation on either score.
“Course. No problem.”
“Thanks very much. Well …” He paused as if uncertain how to wind up our chat. “I’ve finished here for today. I’d better be getting home.”
“Same here.” I stood up and looked at my watch. “Oh, shit!”
“Missed my train. Never mind. I’ll do my homework in the library and get the college bus.”
“But I made you miss your train. I’ve got a car. I’ll run you home.”
“Don’t bother, thanks. I’ll be OK.” But I hoped against hope that he would insist.
“No, I insist. It’ll save you time, the way the bus stops at every lamppost. Where do you live?”
“Porthmadog. Where do you live?”
Pwllheli to Clynnog via Port is a long way, two sides of a bloody big triangle. But I looked at him, and saw that he wanted to drive me. And I knew that I wanted him to.
“OK, then, if you really don’t mind. Thanks.”