Not Understood

by Mihangel

6. Kenneth

Love begins to be uttered
but cannot finally be told:
escapes from the far stroke
of an eyelid to become,
in its own turn, flame,
by which light we learn
that to love is to burn,
return to naked elements
transparent as the ash of snow
borne on our own breath
by our own true wind.

Sentinel, Toad in Love, 1991

We were growing closer, no doubt about it. Very much closer. Friendship, on my part, was already crystallising into love, as a water droplet crystallises into a snowflake. Perhaps that is a poor simile. Snowflakes start cold, and then they melt. But I dreamed of us living together and of what I would like us to do together. My right-handed rituals were already increasing from the normal twice a day, which I had admitted, to three times.

But the real Cilmin, as opposed to the stuff of dreams, remained a mystery. Was he gay after all? He held his cards close to his chest. If I hoped that he would show them to me as I had shown mine to him, I was disappointed. Yet I would not probe too deep. No harm, I reckoned, in asking about superficial things like earthy language. But profound things should be told voluntarily, not under pressure.

After tea, Mum wanted us to watch the rest of Braveheart, as if limiting our opportunity for hanky panky. No doubt she also wanted full value from the hire charge. Cilmin instantly agreed, as if grabbing a let-out. He had been polite to her over the meal. Of course he had — Cilmin and impolite are a contradiction in terms. And he was polite to her next morning in saying goodbye. But it was a slightly strained politeness. As I knew from experience, sympathy and outrage are another contradiction in terms.

On the way in to college on Monday morning, as we passed Penamser perched above the road, Cilmin put forward a startling proposal: that I should spend not only the next weekend at Lleuar, but the whole of the following week, which was half term.

I could ask for nothing better, and I had the feeling that matters were slowly coming to a head. But there were potential problems.

“I’d love to, but I’m not sure Mum would swallow that. Another weekend, yes. But ten days?”

“If you asked her, you mean?”

“Yes. I’ve never been away that long by myself.”

“What if I got my Mum to phone and ask her direct? Might that persuade her?”

I laughed. He had got her measure. “Much more easily than if I asked. But your parents will be away, won’t they? She mightn’t be happy about that.”

“Well, my Mum needn’t mention it, need she?”

All right, not complete honesty, but not dishonesty either. And it was heartening to hear that some Mums could connive with their sons. In the event, my Mum was tickled pink to be phoned by the lady of an old county family, and did not think twice before saying yes. So Friday morning found me at college geared up for ten days away. No need for jacket and tie, this time. And, once at Lleuar, Cilmin proved to be on excellent form. He felt freer, no doubt, on his own patch and with all parents out of reach. We took Rasmus for his walk, and for our meal we slummed it, by Glynne-Williams standards, with a fry-up eaten in the kitchen.

“This has to be called tea,” said Cilmin, poker-faced. “It can’t possibly qualify as dinner.”

But we still had our wine, in moderation. Hitherto at Lleuar, wine had come out of bottles. Today, Cilmin produced a box. I had only seen such things on supermarket shelves, never in operation, and was intrigued. He let me open it — break the perforations, lift the flap, and fumble inside to pull out the tap.

“Just like fishing your willy out of your flies,” he observed, grinning evilly at me.

That set me guffawing. These flashes of humour out of the blue were a rarity with Cilmin, and all the funnier for that. They were hardly dirty, yet hardly to be aired in front of parents. He was clearly right in claiming to be no prude, yet clearly right in saying that dirty talk did not come naturally to him. And he had begged me not to suppress my earthiness, a request which I obeyed. Another puzzle to mull over.

The meal finished, he insisted, orderly as ever, that we be virtuous and wash up. As I filled the bowl there was a sound of distant hammering.

“What on earth’s that?”

“Oh, only some quirk of the ancient plumbing.”

Now plumbing, like aviary and crypt, is a word guaranteed to set me off, and I only half suppressed a splutter. Cilmin cocked an eye at me, and an indulgent smile.

“I know the symptoms by now, Kenneth. You’ve got a joke up your sleeve. Let’s hear it.”

He did not miss much. And this time I felt less of a fool.

“All right then. Two, actually. Both about plumbers. One of them’s another limerick.

“There was a gay plumber called Lee
Who plumbed a young man by the sea.
Cried the lad, ‘Stop your plumbing!
There’s somebody coming!’
Said the plumber, still plumbing, ‘Yes, me!’”

“That’s quite clever,” said Cilmin, dispassionate as a judge. “What’s the second?”

“Do you know about the sexual position known as The Plumber? So called because you stay in for ages and nobody comes.”

“That’s clever too.” He was smiling broadly, but more at me, I thought, than at the joke.

“Your turn, then,” I said. “Two turns.” We were blatantly playing a game.

“Well, do you know about the constipated accountant? He couldn’t budget.”

I grinned, and he visibly racked his brains for a second one.

“Yes. What’s the difference between a bad marksman and a constipated owl? No? Well, a bad marksman shoots but cannot hit, a constipated owl …”

I chuckled. That was quite clever. But the answer to my puzzle, or part of the answer, suddenly dawned. While my dirty jokes were all sexual — no surprise, knowing me — Cilmin’s dirty jokes were only lavatorial. OK, there was the one about the priest, but he had looked that up, I reckoned, just to keep abreast. By my yardstick, his own jokes were not dirty at all. They were juvenile, in fact, the sort you might expect from a kid of ten or twelve, more juvenile even than mine. But his mind was not juvenile. Very far from it. What did that mean? Should I pursue it?

But Cilmin was reporting that he had heard from his parents, by now well into the Atlantic and having a whale of a time, and the opportunity passed. The washing up done, we went to his room. He already had the gas fire going, because we were not bothering with the log fire in the drawing room. It was the first time we had been together, relaxed and at leisure, since my unburdening.

He looked at me consideringly. “Would you like some music?”

“Good idea.” I glanced at the CD rack. “Wow! You’ve got American Beauty!”

“I went into Caernarfon for it last week. But you’ll have heard it a million times. Actually, I meant live music.”

“Live? You play, then? What do you play?”

“The cello. After a fashion.”

“Then yes please.”

I had not thought of Cilmin in this role, but it fitted. All I could do was strum amateurishly on a guitar. He took his cello case out of a big cupboard and tuned up.

“Anything special? So long as I can play it.”

“I know bugger all about classical music. Whatever you want.”

“Well, my party piece is the Bach Suite Number 1. OK?”

Never heard of it. I shrugged my shoulders. “OK.”

Whether he played it well or badly I have no idea. All I know is that he held me in thrall. At first he glanced across from time to time with a quizzical smile. Thereafter he concentrated intently, eyes closed, heavy eyebrows bent in a slight frown, playing from memory, listening to himself. I had no notion that a single instrument could express so much, and my soul melted. Quarter of an hour later the piece wound itself up. He opened his eyes and carefully laid the cello and bow on the bed. Only then did he look at me, with an unspoken but anxious question. By that point I could hardly speak.

“Cilmin … Cilmin, some of the time you were talking to yourself. Most of the time you were talking to me. Weren’t you?”

“So you heard that.” He peered at me more closely. “Yes, your cheeks are wet. Did you hear what I was saying?”

“No words. It was a strange language. Only your voice. A message. Certainty. Permanence. Reassurance.”

“Good.” He nodded. “I’m glad you heard that. It’s the advantage of playing solo. You can say what you want, the way you want, without having to tie in with others. Right, would you like a CD now? Anything in particular?”

“No. You choose.”

I do not even remember what he chose. I hardly listened to it. I was thinking, and thinking hard. We had reached a new stage. I recognised that. I now knew for sure what I had only suspected before, that we belonged to each other. Surely Cilmin knew it too. He wouldn’t talk like that through his cello to a mere friend, would he? And emotion told me that he was gay, whereas reason, based on his statement that he did not leap into bed with boys, told me that he was not. I could make little sense of it. Did he mean he didn’t leap casually, but only once he’d got as far as love? Possibly, possibly.

But he was leading the dance. There were umpteen questions unanswered, and until I understood what was going on, until I understood him better, I could make no move myself. The ball was emphatically in his court. I was therefore pensive, and so was Cilmin. When I finally slid into bed, I heard the cello talking to me again, very quietly, from the room next door.

If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung,
Would you hear my voice come through the music,
Would you hold it near as it were your own?

My nightly exercise was quite different from usual, and more exhilarating.

On Saturday, as agreed, we made our pilgrimage to Braich y Pwll, as near to Bardsey Island as we could go. We got up late, gave Rasmus a walk, and stocked up on basics from the village shop. The journey along country roads was surprisingly long, and we dropped in to Aberdaron to inspect the church and its gravestones of sixth-century monks. It was two o’clock before we nosed the last twisting miles to the car park.

Finally we stood on the high headland where the utmost tip of North Wales’s finger points out towards Ireland, a wild place, gnarled with fractured rock, swilled by the untamed sea. It was bright but very cold, a tempestuous wind whipping a sluggish swell into stampedes of white horses. Gouts of spray shot from the foot of the cliffs. Ravens and choughs rode the gusts below us. This time the horns of the Wicklow Mountains did poke up from the western horizon. But it was Bardsey that drew our attention, two miles away, hump-backed like a surfacing whale, white-fringed with breakers. I tried to hold Cilmin’s binoculars steady as I looked across the tide-racked strait at the scant remains of its monastery. 

“Surely there can’t have been twenty thousand monks there.”

“Not all at one time, no. But over the centuries … It lasted a thousand years and more. There could well be twenty thousand buried there. Until quite recently, when they gave up cultivation, they were always digging up bones.”

“And fancy living there,” I brooded, “or making pilgrimages in tiny boats across this dreadful sea. Think of the faith it must have taken. The loyalty to what they believed in.”

“Agreed. All the same, they were promised that to be buried on Bardsey guaranteed eternal life. That was a pretty good incentive. And three pilgrimages to Bardsey counted the same as one to Rome. That wasn’t a bad bargain either, when you think how far it was to Rome. But I do agree. I am a bit envious of their faith.”

“You’d have made a good monk,” I remarked.

I was thinking of his reclusiveness. But as he huddled from the wind, withdrawn under the cowl of his black hoodie, he also looked the part. Yet he was markedly less monkish now than when our paths first crossed. He wore his hoodie less often, he was meeting the world, he was breaking out. The catalyst, humbling thought, had been … me. It was I who was somehow luring him out of his dreary life. Unbidden, another limerick leapt to mind.

There was an old monk of Siberia
Whose existence grew drearier and drearier,
Till at last with a howl
He threw off his cowl
And deflowered the mother superior.

Oh, Kenneth! Not now! Be your age! It was quite the wrong occasion for flippancy, and I kept it to myself. Cilmin was still in thoughtful mood today, as if considering his next move. Was he contemplating the final step of throwing off his cowl and deflowering me? Ultimately, perhaps. But not yet. I knew him well enough by now to be sure that he would explain himself first, and unveil the hang-up which so obviously plagued him.

“I do sometimes feel like a monk,” he admitted after a long pause. “But a monk short of love. And hope. And faith. You don’t have any faith, do you, Kenneth? Religious faith?”

“None at all. I don’t believe in a god. I’m the despair of my family. Not Mum — she threw over the religious traces ages ago and despairs of me in a quite different way. But my aunties despair of me, and my grandparents did when they were still around. Gloomy Wee Frees, all of them, and I never saw anything in what they preached. I don’t feel any need for a god. I don’t see any place for one. OK, we do need a sense of wonder, at the complexity and immensity of things. Life, mankind, the world, the universe, they’re all mind-blowing. We shouldn’t take them for granted. But we don’t have to assume there’s intelligent design behind them. All right, we don’t understand them all, not by any means, not yet. But I reckon they’re capable of being understood one day. Without a god.”

“There speaks the robust scientist. And again I agree …” He tailed off.

“Or you’d like to agree, but …?” I ventured. I was close enough in wavelength to his sombre introspection to detect the discontent in it.

“That’s right.” He seemed surprised at the insight, yet not surprised. “Yes, that’s absolutely right. I’m usually a humanist to the core. I don’t feel any rational need to bring the supernatural into the picture. But I admit there are times when I hanker for something to pin a bit of faith on. Maybe it’s the same need that you describe, for a permanence and a certainty. If I had a worldly certainty, maybe I wouldn’t hanker for an unworldly one. But I do sometimes envy Gwilym and his gritty Christian conviction. Or even my parents and their bland conformity.”

“If you were a Christian at all, what sort would you be?”

“Anglican, probably, the liberal and human version which Gwilym preaches. Not Catholic — too authoritarian. Not Orthodox — too remote. Certainly nothing fundamentalist — much too intolerant. I’ve a lot of time for the Quakers, though I confess I do like a modicum of ritual. But I reckon that most of the differences between them all are later distortions of the original message. So are the differences between Christianity and other faiths. They’re cultural frills. After all, most religions seem to be based at root on a moral code that’s common to humankind. The ground-rules of a viable society.”

“I’d go along with that. A moral code doesn’t have to be the word of God, whatever name people put on it.”

“No. You’re right, it doesn’t. Somebody once said that the concept of God is the ideal of a goodness that’s entirely human. OK, like all ideals it can never be attained, not fully. But it’s a human ideal. If you call it God it implies the superhuman. And people who think they’ve got God behind them tend to become dogmatic and authoritarian. Which perverts the ideal.”

He sighed. “Yet I’ve still got this niggle. Have you heard of R. S. Thomas? One of the major Welsh poets of the last generation. He was vicar of Aberdaron, as it happens. He wrote an extraordinary poem called Via Negativa. I can’t remember it word for word, but remind me to show it you when we get home. I don’t really understand it. But it seems to be saying something very important, if only I could work out what. Some things are so difficult to understand …”

Cilmin’s expression was almost pleading. His voice faltered, and his next words were all but blown away by the wind.

“And it’s so difficult to be understood.”

“Let it ride, Cilmin,” I protested, trying to ease him out of his gloom, “and it’ll sort itself out. It’s a bit like quantum physics. The concepts are so strange that we’re still floundering. But give them time and they’ll become clearer. It’ll be the same with you.”

He heaved a sigh. “Yes. I know.”

“Don’t agonise about it, then. Don’t piss against the wind.” I was growing too cold for philosophising. “Which reminds me. I need a piss. This wind’s cruel hard on the bladder.”

I glanced round, but nobody was in sight and I pissed where I stood, turning my back on him to piss downwind. On zipping up, I saw that he was pissing too, also downwind, behind me and to one side. I forced myself not to look, for the occasion was still wrong.

Our pilgrimage, we decided, had earned us enough grace for the day. Chilled to the bone, we would warm up at the fire of our virtue. We drove home, Cilmin still so deep in his thoughts that I took refuge in my discman and the Grateful Dead. After another brief but energetic walk with Rasmus and an early meal, we sat down in Cilmin’s room with our coffee, and the gas fire at full blast. He had not forgotten, and showed me Via Negativa.

Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them too; but miss the reflection.

I had to read it several times before a meaning began to emerge.

“Is it saying that there’s something we need, that we hanker for? But we have to wait for it, without pretending that we’ve found it when we haven’t? But it is there, even if we can’t quite lay hands on it. Come to think of it, isn’t it rather like that bit of Robert Hunter?

“It seems we
must learn to
value the place
of becoming;
the almost but
never quite —
the sense of
impending as
opposed to the
of any desire.

“Does that make sense?”

“Yes. Yes. I suppose it does. I hadn’t thought of it that way. But isn’t it frustrating that it’s almost but never quite?”

That put me in mind of Cilmin himself, almost mine but not quite. I read the poem again.

“Cilmin. For God, try reading love. The love we hope for. The person we want to travel that road with.”

“Let’s have a look.” I handed the book over. He took his time, and lifted a troubled face.

“Yes. Yes. It fits. If only because y…” It almost sounded as if he was going to say you. But he started again. “If only because it’s always just out of reach.”

“Always? Maybe it’s within reach already, but we don’t recognise it because we’re expecting it to look different. You find that in quantum physics.” I chuckled. “You even find it in Hunter.

“Once in a while
You get shown the light
In the strangest of places
If you look at it right.

“And another thing, even more to the point. If it’s out of reach and it won’t come to you, why not try moving towards it?”

Cilmin sighed. “Nice thought. But wouldn’t it keep moving away again?”

He handed back the book and returned to his brooding. I leafed through the collection of R. S. Thomas’s poems, dipping in here and there. Equally difficult, many of them. But I lit on one, an easy one, which caught my attention.

“Cilmin! Talk of the devil! Here’s one about the past. Exactly what we were talking about a couple of weeks ago.”

“Read it to me.”

“It’s called Welsh Landscape.

“To live in Wales is to be conscious
At dusk of the spilled blood
That went to the making of the wild sky,
Dyeing the immaculate rivers
In all their courses.
It is to be aware,
Above the noisy tractor
And hum of the machine
Of strife in the strung woods,
Vibrant with sped arrows.
You cannot live in the present,
At least not in Wales.
There is the language for instance,
The soft consonants
Strange to the ear.
There are cries in the dark at night
As owls answer the moon,
And thick ambush of shadows,
Hushed at the fields’ corners.
There is no present in Wales,
And no future;
There is only the past,
Brittle with relics,
Wind-bitten towers and castles
With sham ghosts;
Mouldering quarries and mines;
And an impotent people,
Sick with inbreeding,
Worrying the carcase of an old song.

“I think we can agree on that!”

There was no answer, and I looked up. His face was buried in his hands. He was in tears.

“Cilmin! What’s the matter?”

He still did not reply. Alarmed, I knelt in front of him, my hands on his thighs.

“Cilmin? Please? What’s the matter?”

“I … oh … Kenneth …”

He slid to his knees and put his arms round me, his head on my shoulder. I did the same to him, patting, stroking, soothing, waiting for the flood to subside, waiting for enlightenment. I could not see where the problem lay. The poem said much the same as he had said himself. But it, or I, had touched some very raw nerve.

Eventually his sobbing eased. He panted, sniffled, and finally found a voice.

“Oh God … I’m sorry … It was that word …”

“What word?”

He began to sob again, out of control. I hugged and stroked more firmly. He was doing himself no good, and I could not help without knowing more.

Cilmin! Tell me! What word?”

He hiccupped a few times and sat back on his heels to look at me, face wet, mouth hanging open. He made a major effort to pull himself together.

Impotent,” he said thickly. “Kenneth, I’m impotent.”

Oh Christ!

I stared back, aghast. That explained it. It explained a lot of it, maybe everything. And there went my hopes, my dreams of the fulfilment I ached for. I felt instant self-pity. But as I focussed on his face, crumpled in pain and despair, the self-pity evaporated. It was unworthy. His need was infinitely greater than mine. He was hiccupping again, and again I hugged him tight, so that his chin went back on my shoulder and he was hiccupping in my ear.

“Cilmin. You may be impotent. But you’re still Cilmin. And I still love you.”

Brave words, spoken unthinkingly. Would I live to regret them, on reflection? But they caught him in mid-hiccup, which turned into a belch, right in my ear. This fastidious soul, ordinarily, would be mortified by a social gaffe like belching in public, let alone in someone’s ear. But ordinary rules did not apply. And my words jerked him out of the grief of despair into the anger of despair.

“You just say that! I hoped you loved me. But you can’t. Not now. What’s in it for you? Nothing!”

Off he went again. He must be calmed down. From my deep experience drawn from films, I decided that brandy was the medicine required, and eased Cilmin onto the bed.

“Stay there a moment. I’ll only be a moment. I promise.”

Down I dashed to the drinks cupboard and rummaged. There must be brandy there. At last I found it, disguised as Martell. Grabbed a glass, no doubt the wrong shape. Dashed up again. Poured — how much? Dunno. Be generous. Gave it to Cilmin with the classic words “Drink this.” He drank, hiccupped and belched again. This time he did apologise, and regained something of his usual poise. At any other time I would have been quite proud of my treatment. I sat down beside him, my arm back round his body.

“Tell me, Cilmin.”