Not Understood

by Mihangel

3. Cilmin

I do not know if a tree
remains a tree when
I turn toward a cloud —
nor if my love is love
or infatuation of the eye
with the bright gilding
of the heart’s foundation
by whose inexact light
I happen to see another.

Sentinel, Fifth Watch, 1991

He gave way. We picked up our bags and went out to the car park and the MG. As we shoehorned ourselves in, a posse of macho types was eyeing us.

“I reckon they’re envious,” he said.

“Or pitying, that I don’t drive this thing the way they think I ought to drive it.”

“I’m glad you don’t. I don’t like speed, or noise. Not of that sort.”

“Nor me.” So we agreed on that too. “I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”

“Kenneth. Kenneth MacAlpine.”

I almost drove onto the pavement. I had overheard people at college saying interesting things about Kenneth MacAlpine, but so far had not had a face to put to the name. Were those macho types sneering at me for consorting with the likes of him? This isn’t keeping your head down, Cilmin. It’s sticking it up above the parapet, a target for snipers.

“Oh,” I said, trying to push my fears aside. “Same as the Scottish king?”

“That’s right. You’ve heard of him, then? Not many people have. Not here.”

“Comes of doing history. So you are from Scotland?”

“Yes. We came down five years ago, Mum and me.”

“No brothers or sisters, then?”

“No, just me.”

“Same here. What brought your Mum here, then?”

“She works for the Edinburgh Woollen Mills, and they put her in charge of their shop in Port.”

“Ah. And you prefer Kenneth, not Ken?”

“Yes. Not Ken, please. And definitely not Kenny.” I almost felt him shudder. “And I don’t know your name, either,” he pointed out.

“Oh, sorry. Cilmin. Cilmin Glynne-Williams.”

I was glancing at him, and saw him blink.

“Cilmin? How do you spell it?”

I spelled it out.

“Never heard that one before.”

“Not surprising. I’ve never heard of anyone else called Cilmin, either.”

“Where does it come from, then?”

“Oh, it’s an old, old name, from the top of the family tree. Cilmin Droed-ddu, Cilmin of the Black Foot. A semi-mythical character. Supposedly founder of the Fourth Noble Tribe.”

There was a pause as Kenneth, I sensed, stored that away to pursue later.

“And the Glynne-Williams bit — that’s a double-barrelled surname?”


“I’ve never met anyone double-barrelled before, either. It sounds like an old county family.”

How right he was. “Well, we were once. Cousins of the Glynnes of Glynllifon, who became the Wynns, who became the Lords Newborough. But that was centuries ago. We’re just minor gentry now.”

And thoroughly inbred and on the way out, I thought, but did not say so. Best shift the subject back to him.

“So before coming to the college you were at Ysgol Eifionydd in Port?”

“That’s right. Where did you go? Glan y Môr?” That is the secondary school in Pwllheli.

“No. Ysgol Dyffryn Nantlle. In Penygroes.”

“Oh … But …”

I knew exactly what he was going to point out. That Penygroes, like all the secondary schools in Arfon, has a sixth form. None of the schools in Dwyfor or Meirion does. Which is why Coleg Meirion-Dwyfor exists, as a sixth-form college for everywhere in the Pwllheli and Porthmadog area and southwards. Ordinarily I would have stayed on at Penygroes. I willed Kenneth not to ask why I had left it.

And he did not ask. Instead, we compared notes about the college, me with a year’s experience of it, he with only a few weeks’. It turned out that he was doing chemistry, physics, maths and biology at AS.

“I envy you that,” I confessed, “in a way. But I’m hopeless at science. My GCSE results were dire.”

“What are you doing, then?”

“A-level history, music and English literature.”

“And I envy you that, in a way. I like history. And I haven’t read much literature, not of that sort. And I’m probably rather narrow in my music.”

“Nothing but the Grateful Dead?” I asked teasingly, daringly.

“Not much else,” he admitted. “The Byrds, a bit. Bob Dylan, a bit. But I’ve got a one-track mind.”

He coughed as if he had said something embarrassing, and went on quickly.

“What music do you go in for?”

“Rather different. Classical. Especially baroque, anything from Monteverdi to Mozart. I’ve got a one-track mind too.”

And so on. Small-talk, but we got on famously. He was as he looked, gentle and intelligent. No hermit like me, but no great socialiser either. Confident but modest. Self-contained.

As we crept into Porthmadog in the tailback of traffic on the Criccieth road he began to give directions, “Left at the roundabout.”

We passed the Coliseum cinema, showing some ancient film, and he nodded at it.

“I don’t often go there. But there’s bugger all to do here, you know.”

“Ten times as much as in Clynnog. It’s no more than a village.”

“Mmmm.” It was not clear if he was sympathising or approving. “Second left beyond the level crossing, into the estate. Y Ddol. Yes, here. Know what we call this?” he added mischievously. “Midmadog, because it’s between Porthmadog and Tremadog. Next left.”

Nineteen-fifties housing gave way to nineteen-eighties.

“Left again, into Maes Gerddi. Follow the curve. Last box on the left.”

It was indeed a box of a house, cramped and flimsy to one born and bred in seventeenth-century space and solidity.

“I’ve got a book,” he said abruptly as I pulled up, “of Robert Hunter’s poetry, if you’d like to borrow it. Do you want to pop in? Mum won’t be home for ages.”

Was that a bait? If so, a bit early to rise to it.

“No, I’d better be getting home, thanks. But I would like to borrow it, please. I’ll wait.”

He seemed disappointed, but grabbed his bag, levered himself out of the car, let himself into the house, and soon reappeared.

“Here you go. I hope you’ll like it. And thanks for the lift, Cilmin. See you tomorrow?”

“Yes. I’m in first thing. Till then!”

I had not felt like this for years. Wrong — I had never felt like this. On a high, I drove home via Pant Glas, faster than usual, almost falling foul of the police speed trap at Bryncir. I was already deep in nefarious plans. No, not nefarious. Calculated, rather. Caution was called for, extreme caution, but at the same time boldness. Boldness? From me? It sounded laughable. But already, on impulse, I had taken the boldest step. I found room to hope that it had not been a crashing mistake, that I was not inviting public curiosity, that … that he really was what he seemed to be.

Over dinner I checked with Mum and Dad. It must have been seven years since I last had a friend to stay, but they exchanged a single glance and agreed without hesitation. Although not a word was said about motives or reasons, they understood. They often drove me mad, but in this area they were wonderful. Then I settled down to Robert Hunter on the web and in print. Much of his work, I found, spoke to me.

Just as Kenneth spoke to me.

While you were gone
These spaces filled with darkness.

Next day, Wednesday, I buttonholed him in the break between first and second class.

“I’ve read quite a bit of Robert Hunter. It’s great. And I’d love to hear more about him. But my timetable’s pretty full for the rest of the week. Um, could I persuade you to come and stay at my place over the weekend?”

He was looking at me wide-eyed, and replied with heart-warming speed.

“I’d like that. Thanks very much. But I’ll have to clear it with Mum. Let you know tomorrow?”

“Of course. If it’s OK, I’ll drive you back here on Monday morning, so bring everything you need on Friday. And Kenneth …”

This was tricky, but very necessary.

“I’ve got to say this, because we need to know where we stand. I’ve heard people talking about you. I hope I’m not speaking out of turn, but I get the impression it’s no secret. That you’re gay.”

“No, it’s no secret. Not now. Do you mind?”

“Not in the least. I’ve no problem with it. But at Lleuar …”


“That’s the name of our house. At Lleuar you’ll be in a spare room, and I’ll be in my room. I don’t leap into bed with boys, or men. OK?”

“OK by me,” was all he said.

But his face visibly fell. Qualms beset me. Had I misjudged him? Was he, after all, just out for sex? Wait and see, was the only answer. And meanwhile give him the benefit of the doubt.