Sioni Nionod

Chapter 3

Next day was Friday. When I woke, quite late, Mam and Tad had already left for the hospital, but Yann was still fathoms asleep, his face peaceful and innocent. Normally, no doubt, he would be up with the lark, preparing for a long day’s work. Let him lie in now. He deserved it. As I sat in my pyjamas and watched him until he should awake, my thoughts turned again to myself.

There had been a phase of my growing up when I saw myself as superior and sophisticated. Griff had teased me about it, and rightly so, because it had been a pseudo-sophistication, a sham. I had been pretentious. I had been precious and over-prone to quote poetry. I had been over-serious. I had been opinionated and convinced that I knew all the answers. By now, most of the excesses had been beaten out of me, though I was uneasily aware that traces might remain. These days I recognised with humility that few if any answers were to be known.

And still I needed a friend. All right, Yann and I were different. I might be a budding intellectual; he, to the supercilious, might seem an ill-educated peasant. But so what? You can call me many names, but not, I hope, a snob. For a start, Mam and Tad would never stand for it; and it implies a sense of superiority which I no longer had. Yann, from all I had seen, was not in the least sophisticated and emphatically not pretentious. Yet, I was already sure, he was sensitive. So let us start from scratch, both of us, and meet on common ground.

He was lying on his side, and when finally he opened his eyes the first thing he focussed on was the photo on the bedside table. I saw memory return, and with it a little smile. Then he rolled onto his back and winced at his leg.

Bore da, Yann,” I said. “Poen?” Good morning. Pain?


Having expected this, I had a glass of water and two codeines ready and waiting. Next came the matter of breakfast. Cornflakes? Eggs and bacon? Toast and marmalade? Coffee? When some of that penetrated, his face lit.

“Right,” I said. “Stay here.”

Down to the kitchen and the cooker. Quarter of an hour later I carried the result upstairs and parked the tray on the desk. Yann was no longer in bed but stumping on his crutches out of the bathroom, and he seemed both worried and embarrassed. Owen, see,” he said, pointing back at the toilet. Puzzled, I went to look. It had not been flushed, and its contents were a dark purple. Oops. I had totally forgotten to warn him.

“It’s all right,” I promised, smiling and pulling the chain. “Those pills yesterday.”

At my third attempt he understood, and was reassured. He must trust me. No secrets between us, maybe; but he really did not need to know what undignified things had been done to him in hospital. I chivvied him back to bed, propped him up with pillows, and put his breakfast tray on his knees, where he attacked it with gusto. I learned later that his normal morning menu was a hunk of dry bread and perhaps a lump of cold bacon. Cornflakes and marmalade were new to him, and at his first taste he hummed in surprise.

Mat! Trugarez.Good! Thank you.

Having cleared away the breakfast things, “Baddon i mi,” I said. Bath for me.


I mimed splashing and washing.

O, kibell.” A totally different word. “Ha ma?And me?

He would be blissfully unaware that yesterday he had had a thorough sponge bath. Once again he really did not need to know how far his privacy had been invaded, but in any case Mam had said …

“No.” I tapped his plaster. “Water, no … Oh … well, perhaps yes.”

An idea had struck me. I beckoned him to follow, turned on the bath taps, and told him to shed his pyjamas. Once again I eyed his nakedness with curiosity but without desire, and once again I was puzzled. The prospect of friendship, I concluded, must be taking priority over any sexual urge. When the one had been established, perhaps the other might surface. Already I was poking my head out of my snail’s shell, and maybe my horns too would soon be on display. Unless, that is, Yann really was another Griff, for whom I had never felt, even in retrospect, any incestuous lust at all.

I helped him to slide into the water good leg first, and to sit down while I held his bad leg up. We have one of those wooden bath trays that fits astride the tub, and resting his cast on the tray kept it well clear of the water. He could do little but lie back and soak, which he clearly enjoyed. Very likely he had never had a hot bath in anything but a tin tub, which is far from the same thing. While he soaked, I shaved, which I do every other day. He watched curiously. There seemed to be no more fluff on his face than yesterday, and when I waved the razor and asked “you?” he shook his head.

Disul,” he said. Sunday. Only once a week for him, then, it seemed.

In due time I pulled out the plug and set the bath on its gargling ritual of emptying, at which he gave the drain a startled glance. I helped him out and stood by. Already he had found the knack of propping himself against furniture or a wall to compensate for his one-leggedness, but when he tried to balance on the good leg alone and to dry his back at the same time, he almost fell. So I dried his back for him. His buttocks were criss-crossed with weals. I had noticed them yesterday at the hospital, but today they were more prominent, perhaps because of his soaking: thin lines of residual bruising, neither fresh nor very old. A week or two more and they would be gone. But not so long ago Yann had been thrashed. Before he came to Wales? By his father? And what for? It was far too early to probe. One day he might tell me of his own accord.

I told him to return to his pyjamas because, on doctor’s orders, he had to stay put and rest. Meanwhile my own bath had been filling. I found no difficulty in undressing in front of him. He sat on the toilet, and naturally he watched, but he displayed no more obvious interest in my nakedness than I had allowed myself to display in his. That sort of trust, it seemed, was easily established. His Breton home, as later I came to learn, was by the sea where boys would bathe au naturel, and young male nudity was no novelty to him. When done, I dressed for the day because I would be going out.

The codeine, Yann said, had already banished his pain, so I gave him Griff’s dressing gown to wear and installed him in the comfortable chair in front of the window with a stool to hold his bad leg up. I sat beside him, and we talked. As yesterday, it was hard work, and very slow. As yesterday, he spoke in Breton with an occasional Welsh word if he knew it, and I spoke entirely in Welsh. The rhythm was staccato: single words, or at best short phrases, that we hoped would be recognisable. Some succeeded. Some failed to get through, in which case we hunted for an alternative that might work. As a method of communicating it was thoroughly unsatisfactory. Yet the challenge brought us together. We smiled often, wryly or in triumph. It was fun. After two years’ practice I was well accustomed to my own company. How much better, I found, to be in purposeful company. And much the same, it transpired, applied to Yann.

I asked him about his home. He had a younger brother and sister. He did not have a father, not now, because he had died ten years before, of drink. His mother had married again and Yann, not getting on well with his stepfather, was dumped on Uncle Andrev, who had a wife but no offspring. He did not get on well with them either, for they had no notion of how to bring up children. Now his mother and stepfather had moved to far-off Rennes, taking his younger siblings with them, and seemed to have forgotten him. He had no particular friends, although he did not yet say why. The weals seemed to fit into the same unhappy picture. Presumably, in the absence of a father, they had been inflicted by Andrev. Small wonder the boy had so eagerly fled from his custody to ours. But life at home was evidently a painful subject on which he was reluctant to dwell.

I moved on, therefore, to give him a gentle if distant introduction to my territory, or such parts of it as he did not know. The view from the window was essentially the same as from his warehouse but, because we were considerably higher, much wider ranging and uninterrupted by nearby buildings. The whole of the harbour was laid out in front of us, empty nowadays but for a few small boats. If Yann had been here only ten years ago he would have seen, as I remembered from my childhood, the occasional schooner loading with slates. If he had been here thirty years ago he would have seen the harbour packed almost solid, a steam tug standing by, and wooden ships being built on the foreshore. Now, with the rapid decline of the slate trade, the golden age of Porthmadog was a thing of the past. These days the place was run down. It might even, not unfairly, be called dowdy. But it was my home, and I loved it, warts and all.

In the desk I found a pair of binoculars, for Griff had been a bird watcher. Yann, who had never met such things before, was enraptured. He spent a long time with them, exploring the everyday sights. A train was fussing out of the narrow-gauge station onto the Cob. Seagulls were wheeling and squalling over the water. The postman was delivering letters. A handful of children were playing on Pencei. Someone was up a ladder mending the gutter on the Blue Anchor pub.

Yann focussed on something else, and after a long look he passed me the glasses, smiling. His finger pointed to a narrow gap between two distant sheds on the quay, and by chance we could see right into it. A boy and a girl were in there, in the tightest of clinches. I could even identify the girl from school — not surprisingly, it was Annie Roberts. With hardly any slate to ship, no workmen were around, and it was a safe enough hideout for canoodling; and for more than canoodling. As I watched, the boy dropped his trousers and Annie lifted her skirt, then their pants were round their ankles and he took her standing up. Never a sign of a Durex. How typical. Pursing my lips, I handed the glasses back. Yann took another look and, seemingly not interested either, lowered them.

“You?” he said, nodding towards the sheds and miming a few thrusts with his hips. He seemed to be asking if I had ever done what we had witnessed.

“No. You?”

“No.” He said it sharply, with no hint of regret or wishfulness, and promptly turned his attention to the distant view.

It was another fine day, if slightly hazy, and the sweep of mountains was graded in every shade of blue from dark to pale. For minutes on end he gazed at them, before sighing.

“In Breizh, in Brittany … Oh!” He was frustrated by his lack of simple vocabulary. “Paper?”

I found him paper and pencil from the desk, and he rapidly sketched a low and gently undulating skyline. “Breizh,” he repeated. He followed up with a row of sharp exaggerated peaks. “Kembre, Wales. Bigger. Better.”

I therefore took him on a conducted tour of the main summits that we could see, naming each in turn and showing him on the one-inch map. This too was a novelty to him, but he cottoned on fast to the principle, and how the intervals between the contour lines showed the shape of the land. He got it across that his onion-marketing area had always been in the direction of Penygroes to the north, and that the inland areas to the east were unknown territory.

So he had never been into the mountains proper. In that case I must take him. Car to Beddgelert and Capel Curig or Llanberis. Even railway to the top of Yr Wyddfa, which is our name for Snowdon. Railway to Ffestiniog. Maybe car down into the pastures of Llŷn, a much gentler landscape and more akin to his native land. And an ancient castle or two such as Caernarfon or Harlech. No, not a castle — medieval spiral staircases are not designed for the one-legged. But plenty of scope remained.

Our wanderings around the map had brought us to his professional stamping ground, and I pointed out Nasareth, near where we had met. We could smile, now, at the memory, and he gave me a hilarious demonstration of his marketing techniques, which with his connivance I stored away to pass on to Mam and Tad. It would amuse them.

Then his eyes drifted down the map, south to the coast, and turned wistful. He and his company, he laboriously told me, came from a seaside village named Santec a few kilometres from Kastell Paol, which is what the Bretons call Saint Pol de Léon, and from Rosko, as they call the port of Roscoff. He had grown up to the smell of seaweed and the sight of gulls and the sound of surf, and all the village boys could swim like eels. He grabbed the paper again to draw a neat little sketch of a rocky shore, the promontories separated by small sandy beaches. It looked very similar to Borth y Gêst, out of sight from where we were but only just round the corner.

“Just like these,” I said delightedly, pointing on the map to the little beaches near Borth and the headlands between them: Trwyn Cae Iago, Trwyn y Borth, Garreg Goch, Ynys Cyngar.

Raising a pleased and questioning eyebrow, he moved his arms as if swimming. Strange, one half of my brain told me: if he so enjoyed swimming, why had he gone so long unwashed? But perhaps he had not known our beaches existed and had jibbed at bathing in the harbour just as Griff had jibbed — it was repulsively contaminated, he used to say, by too many drains. Or perhaps Yann had simply been too tired from his daily round to bother with cleanliness and the sea.

To the other half of my brain, though, beaches spelt a different message. Suddenly, to my alarm and his, tears were rolling down my cheeks.

“Griff,” I explained, putting an unsteady finger back on Garreg Goch. “Drowned. There.”

A moment more and I was howling like an infant, and Yann’s arm was round me. He thought I was sunk in grief. In fact I was howling for almost the opposite reason: for emotional turmoil, for a sort of joy, for a deep relief. There was a boy beside me sitting in Griff’s chair, wearing Griff’s pyjamas and Griff’s dressing gown, with Griff’s binoculars round his neck and Griff’s map on his knees. And inside him, intangible but real, was something … a great deal more than something … of Griff. We empathised. He was a kindred soul.

* * *

After a break for a simple lunch on a tray and a booster dose of codeine for Yann, we sat smiling, thinking, saying very little, but in harmony. In the course of that gentle morning, it seemed to me, he had overcome his shock and bewilderment and incredulity. He was embarking on a journey of discovery into wholly foreign realms, leaping countless novel hurdles in his stride, away from the tedium of incessant hard work and the loneliness of life without friends; a challenging voyage but one he tackled with relish. Already he saw me, I think, just as I saw him, as something that he needed and welcomed. We had accepted him, and now he was accepting us.

About four I went out, promising not to be long. Mam had left me a short shopping list, and having bought the necessary items I visited the public library. The major question niggling at me now was how we might converse more easily.

Our rag-bag of Breton and Welsh words was all very well, but only up to a point. Plenty of nouns for common objects were much the same, like for iron horse or shit. Plenty were not, like for bath or uncle. Some adjectives and adverbs were similar, some were utterly different. And as for verbs … with all the complexities of tenses and persons, they seemed a minefield. By dint of much effort, our present system could take us so far with day-to-day practicalities, but no further. With profounder topics, with abstract concepts like emotions, with continuous narrative, it could hardly work at all.

One answer might be an interpreter. But, other than the Sionis, I knew of no Breton speakers, and the thought of the fratchety Andrev, for instance, as our intermediary in deep conversations did not in the least appeal. What we were in desperate need of was a Breton dictionary; hence my visit to the public library. But the branch in Port did not have one; nor, they reported on consulting their card index, did any other branch in the county. It had to be a bookshop, then. Mark that up for tomorrow.

When I returned empty-handed, Yann was dozing. I therefore fetched the relevant volume of our encyclopaedia to read what it had to say about Brittany and why Breton and Welsh are similar but different. Just as Devon and Cornwall, it said, jut out from Britain into the Channel on one side, so Brittany juts out from France on the other; and just as the tip of Cornwall is called Land’s End in English, so too is the tip of Brittany — Finistère in French, Penn ar Bed in Breton. For long ages the Channel served more as a link than a barrier, and the very name of Brittany means Little Britain. It was applied from the fourth and fifth centuries when waves of Britons settled there as they fled the invasions of the Saxons who were taking over what was to become England. In the course of time, British, the ancestral language of the island, evolved into the three regional branches of Welsh, Cornish and Breton which, while remaining similar, were no longer mutually comprehensible, or barely so. And for a thousand years Brittany remained politically independent, until in 1532 it was swallowed by France, much as Wales was swallowed by England under the Act of Union of 1536.

* * *

Mam and Tad, when they returned from work, came up to see how we were getting on. It had already struck me that, whenever Yann looked at me, a hint of tenderness crept into his eyes and the same beginnings of a smile onto his lips. The chances were I was giving the same signals myself; certainly that was how I felt. Mam and Tad, being my parents, noticed, and smiled themselves.

I reported our doings, or our non-doings, and begged the use of the car next day, provided Yann’s leg was behaving. I explained our need for a dictionary.

“Yann’s Welsh isn’t bad,” I said. “But only in a very limited area. He’ll show you after tea.”

So, tea over, the two of us staged a little play. He remained seated, but for him to use as a prop I took down a string of Andrev’s onions from where they were hanging.

“Yann is Yann,” I said, “and I’m a housewife. As well as the, um, narrator.”

He pretends to knock on the door, and I pretend to answer it.

“How are you, madam?” he asks, in Welsh.

“Very well, thank you,” I say.

“Onions, madam.” He holds up his string. “Do you want onions, please?”

“I don’t want any today, I’ve got plenty. You came only last week. Do you think we eat nothing but onions? Call next time.”

I shut the door on him. “So he goes round to the window,” I say in my role as narrator, “and knocks on that instead.”

Door opens again, angrily. “I told you I don’t want any.”

Cherubic smile. “Pretty onions, madam.” He waves them. “Only half a crown.”

“Too much.”

“Only three shilling, then, for you.”

“But that’s more than half a crown!”

Aiou! Silly Yann! Two shilling.”

“Oh. Well, all right then. Here you are. Would you like a cup of tea?”

“Oh thank you, madam. I like it much.”

Tad and Mam applauded, laughing, and Yann was gratified. He insisted on taking over Tad’s role in the chore of washing up, and thereafter, as I washed the dishes, he always perched on a stool and dried them.

* * *

Next day his pain did not return. His parasites seemed to have been expelled as well, for never again had I spotted him scratching. We therefore mounted our expedition. By far the best bookshop within reach is Bookland at Bangor, which serves the university there. You can get to Bangor from Port by train, but usually you have to change twice, and I blessed my stars that I had access to our car. My parents used it little and, having taken the test as soon as I turned seventeen, for the past month I had more or less commandeered it. So to Bangor we drove, an hour each way. Since our route took us willy-nilly through Caernarfon, I showed Yann the outside of the castle by driving round it, and he was duly impressed, having seen nothing like it at home.

But, however educational our journey, we returned from it with our tails between our legs. The staff at Bookland did their best. They ransacked their catalogues and even consulted the professor of Welsh who happened to be in the shop. The answer was final and definitive: no such dictionary existed, whether Welsh-Breton or Breton-Welsh, or even English-Breton or Breton-English.

So much for fond hopes, then. But only until next day, which was Sunday.

The Sionis, not surprisingly, were Roman Catholics to a man, and apparently devoted ones. They took the whole day off. At Andrev’s insistence, Yann went with them to church. I sensed a rebellion smouldering deep inside him, and not at what he was wearing. He was in Griff’s clothes, jacket and tie included, and even in one of Griff’s shoes which turned out to be the right size — only one, because his left foot was part-encased in plaster. It being Sunday, he had had his weekly shave. Usually, it appeared, he borrowed his uncle’s old-fangled cut-throat razor, and I had to show him how to use my safety one. He therefore looked remarkably smart, in contrast to most of the other Sionis who wore their shabby weekday garb. But still he seemed rebellious.

Out of solidarity I kept him company. Port has recently acquired a catholic church, only three hundred yards from our house, and this was the first time I had darkened its doors. It proved an interesting building — ultra-modern in style with a concrete vault — although the ornamentation and ceremonial and incense grated on my simple Methodist sensibilities. No blame: each to their own. We simply walked different paths. The Mass, in which needless to say I did not take part, was in Latin, but for the benefit of summer visitors the sermon was in English. The Sionis, many — all? — of whom would not have understood a word, sat patiently through it, dreaming of who knew what — hardly of going on to the pub, because Wales is dry on Sundays. But the preacher made my blood boil, and I must have shown it.

Prezeger zrouk?” Yann asked worriedly on the way home as he swung himself along beside me. He was already quite proficient with his crutches, and downhill he could outpace me.

With an effort I worked that out. Pregethwr yn ddrwg? Preacher bad?

Ie. Ddrwg, ddrwg, ddrwg.” Yes. Bad, bad, bad.

Penaos?” which presumably meant in what way?

A fair question, but one I could not cope with on the spur of the moment. Even in fluent Welsh, even after the last few days, it would not be easy to unload my personal soul-searchings. To express them comprehensibly in pidgin Welsh, or limestone Welsh as we call it, without the benefit of verbs, was beyond me. The question deserved an honest answer, but not now.

Nid rŵan,” I therefore said.

We were about to turn off Borth Road when we were hailed by Mam and Tad who were coming up from the chapel in Bank Place, also on their way home.

“Well met! But before you go any further, pop in to see Emlyn. We told him why you weren’t with us, and he wants a word with you both. But don’t be too long. Dinner’s coming up.”

So as we continued down towards the manse, less than a hundred yards away, I tried to explain to Yann that the Reverend Emlyn Williams was minister of Capel y Garth, the one we routinely attended. Neither time nor vocabulary allowed me to add that Calvinistic Methodists are often blamed for being dour, dogmatic and damning; and so, sadly, many of them are. But Emlyn was a dear and broad-minded man, a maverick among Methodists, whom I counted not only as a friend and mentor but almost as a hero. When Griff and I were suspended for thumping the bullies, Tad argued vociferously on our behalf, to no avail. Then Emlyn waded into the fight with his own formidable fists metaphorically flying, and left the headmaster draped dazedly over the ropes. Within an hour we were back in school and the bullies were out.

His first words now when he opened the door to us were, “No apologies, Owen, for missing the service. You were doing equally good work.” He turned to Yann. “A! Breizhad! Mat ar jeu?” he said, and held out his hand.

Yann, who at the catholic church had seemed wary of anyone in a clerical collar, responded joyfully, and for a few minutes they chattered away. I knew Emlyn was a scholar of distinction, but had no idea that Breton was among his skills. If it had been more practised once, it was clearly rusty now, for he often had to search for words; but it was infinitely better than anything I could do. Might we use him, I wondered, as an interpreter? It would be marvellous, but it would hardly be fair. He was a busy man, and we had to solve our own problems. Except that he solved them for us, or some of them.

“I know your dinner beckons you, Owen,” he said, reverting to Welsh, “so I won’t keep you. But your parents told me of your predicament. Take these.”

He handed over two hefty leather-bound books. Nouveau dictionnaire pratique fran├žais et breton, I saw as I looked at the title page of one, compiled by someone called Amable-Emmanuel Troude and published at Brest in 1876. With it was the counterpart Breton-French volume. Each weighed a ton.

“Oh goodness! Wonderful! Thank you very much, Mr Williams!” Good friend he might be, but I was far too young to call him by his first name.

“Your need is greater than mine,” he said. “And if I can be of further use, don’t hesitate to come to me.”

We bore the dictionaries triumphantly away, for use this afternoon. They could be our salvation, if not a complete one because of Yann’s lack of French. Over dinner we asked him about that.

The picture that slowly and painfully emerged, both at that mealtime and on later days, was a sorry one. In Brittany, Breton was the tongue of the people. Few spoke any French at all. France, ever since the Revolution, had been obsessed with preserving not only the purity of its own language but its unity throughout the nation. Thus, by law, state schools taught only in French, and children were compelled to speak only French on the premises. The penalty for disobedience might be a clog hung round the neck as a sign of shame, or a hard rap over the knuckles, or the command to write a hundred times on the blackboard ‘I will not speak Breton again in school.’

Many parents objected to this discrimination against their own tongue, and showed it by refusing to send their children to state schools. There was only one saving grace. The bastion of the native language was the church, and after a failed attempt to suppress even preaching in the vernacular, for the last ten years the state had relented to the tune of allowing church schools to teach in Breton. Church schools, however, were not free, and Bretons in general were poor. Yann’s father had not sent him to a school of any sort, but put him to work on the smallholding almost from infancy. But he saved enough of his meagre earnings, with some help from his mother, to attend night school for a few years, which taught him to read and write in Breton. To him, therefore, French — not to mention any other tongue — remained almost unknown territory.

Wales had once been in a similar boat. We were equally under the thumb of England, and time was when we suffered an equivalent persecution and much the same rules — in our case, rather than a clog, the penalty for speaking Welsh in school was a board hung round the neck bearing the letters WN, meaning Welsh Not. But no longer. For fifty years past, in Welsh-speaking parts, teaching had been in Welsh in primary schools and in English in secondary ones. By comparison, therefore, I was well off. Where Yann had only one language, thanks to our less short-sighted policy I had two and a half, the half being French. Hence the irony that, citizen of France though he was, he knew vastly less French than I did.

After dinner, for a while, his leg took precedence. We all walked up to the hospital where Tad and Mam cut off his temporary plaster. The swelling on the shin having satisfactorily subsided, they installed a new and tighter-fitting cast.

Back home, refurbished, the two of us sat down at Griff’s — at Yann’s — desk to explore the dictionaries. The pair of words that best described them were voluminous and daunting. Each had eight or nine hundred pages, and the typeface was small. No, they could never be our complete salvation; but they might open up our talking. Asking him to wait, I composed a reply to his question of the morning about the preacher at church, which took priority. It was another laborious process. I think in Welsh. I had to translate into French what I wanted to say, and write it down. Sometimes, when I did not know the French word, I had to convert the Welsh into English in my head and then look it up in the English-French and French-English dictionary that I had kept from school.

At last my French version was done. Yann, who had been gazing out of the window, cast an eye at it and instantly screwed up his nose. He could not read my writing. He wrote something himself, in a careful and unpractised script as if in a school exercise book. I have to admit that my own hand is little better than a scrawl; and it is hardly helped by parental example because doctors’ writing is notoriously indecipherable. So I wrote it all out again as neatly as I could, trying to imitate Yann’s style. This time he could read it. He set to work with the French-Breton dictionary to convert, word by word, something approximating to French into something even more vaguely approximating to Breton.

What I had written, keeping it as simple as I could, was this.

That bad preacher was talking about love. He said the only valid love is between male and female, and that true love between male and male cannot exist. What some people assume to be such love, he said, is false. It is an invention of the devil, it is forbidden by Holy Church, and it sends such sinners straight to hell. Avoid this temptation, he said, and you are on course for heaven. I think that is intolerant and wrong-headed nonsense. What do you think?

As Yann grappled with that, I looked out of the window in my turn and re-lived a conversation with Emlyn. Only a month or two before, when I was beginning to wrestle with the question of my nature, I had taken the problem to him. I am not a believer in the ordinary sense. I go to chapel only because of Emlyn and the wisdom he exudes, and the same is true of my parents. Thus the religious aspect did not worry me. But — at the risk of sounding priggish or over-idealistic — I do have standards. What was bothering me was the broader morality. I told Emlyn of the direction my mind seemed to be leading me, and asked him about the rights and wrongs of it. As expected, he took the question in his stride.

“Love, yes. That is something to which I have given much thought.” He sat back, entwining his fingers. “There is little in life, it seems to me, that is wholly black or white; and, contrary to popular opinion, the end can sometimes justify the means. So much depends on motives. Violence, for example, is usually wrong, but not always. You and Griff punched those bullies on order to rescue their victim from serious injury. Your motive was therefore laudable, and so too was your deed. And much the same can be said in the case of the present question.

“You are asking about love, and I take you to mean not lust but love in its fullest sense — you’re amply intelligent enough to understand the difference. Lust is all too common, as exemplified by the liaisons in which so many of your former schoolmates indulge; to the tune that, when things go wrong, their parents drag them to me to be married simply in order to save the family face; even if, all too often, they part company within months. But of proper love, of the faithful union of souls and not merely of bodies, there is less in this world than there should be. It is wholly good, and it is also a mystery not easily understood: one of the greatest mysteries that we encounter in our journey through life. Now as an old pagan once wisely said — and Christians do not have a monopoly of wisdom — so great a mystery cannot be reached by a single path.

“In much the same way, denominations need not matter. While I have chosen Methodism, I have no quarrel with Anglicanism or Catholicism or any other brand of belief, so long as — and this is the important point — so long as our goal is the same, and so long as that goal is good. Now if, as I believe, the faithful union of souls is good and therefore to be encouraged, how can the details matter? Souls are souls. Like bodies, they are male or female. But what fundamental difference is there between the faithful union of a male soul with a female, and that of two female souls, and that of two male ones? What does it matter if individuals follow different routes to reach the same goal?”

He chuckled wryly. “I know that in saying things like that I upset many of my colleagues, not to mention my superiors. But I stand by my convictions.

“You and Griff were always remarkably similar, you know, but differences were always visible too. Had he lived, I fancy he would have aimed for marriage in the usual way, with the utmost responsibility, just like your parents. And he would have made an excellent job of it. But he was Griff, and you are Owen. If you are different in this respect, it is God who made you so. No blame: each to their own. We all walk different paths.”

That was how that sentiment had become imprinted on my brain.

“So I am not in the least surprised that you are wondering about a route which does not correspond to the more usual one. You are the way you are because God made you so. My advice, therefore, is this. If your goal is the faithful union of your soul with another’s, of your body with another’s, then all routes are equally valid. If, because of the way God made you, you can achieve that goal only by the path you mention, then follow that path, and you too can make an excellent job of it. God is on your side, Owen. Pay no attention to what men may say. As St Paul asked, with very good reason, Os yw Duw trosom, pwy a all fod i’n herbyn? If God be for us, who can be against us?

I might not believe in God, but Emlyn’s acceptance had comforted me greatly. Yet the preacher this morning had said the opposite. He had denied one route to the union of souls. Well, if the opinion of the priest of the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer in Porthmadog — echoing no doubt the opinion of the Pope tucked up in the distant fastness of the Vatican — was set against the case presented by the Calvinistic Methodist minister of Capel y Garth in Bank Place, I knew which had my vote.

I caught Yann throwing me an unfathomable glance. His face was strangely red. With embarrassment? He had finished reading my message about this morning’s priest, for he had already moved across to the Breton-French dictionary and was looking up words and writing them down. His reply was quickly done.

Prêtre dans Santec dire même. Telegraphic and ungrammatical, but readily understood. Priest in Santec say same.

“Then your priest’s another silly bugger,” I said unthinkingly out loud in Welsh, which for bugger uses the English word. Yann of course failed to understand; so I wrote it down in French, ton prêtre est un autre bougre idiot, assuming that bougre has the same meaning, or lack of meaning, as in English. Yann found most of the words, but one was not in our sedate nineteenth-century dictionary.

“Bougre?” he asked.

Mot grossier, I wrote. Rude word. And by way of explanation I added Littéralement, un sodomite. Literally, a sodomite.

More looking up by Yann. Sodomite was probably not in the dictionary either, but the word is surely pretty universal — after all, the Welsh is sodomiad.

Ya,” he said with a bark of bitterly sardonic laughter. “Ya. Ma beleg kar mibion.”


He pointed to the prêtre in his written message. Ah, priest. The rest I got without help from the dictionary. Yes. My priest loves boys.

I raised my eyebrows high. Was there any limit to how two-faced people could be?

Hypocrite sacré, I wrote, knowing that sacré — useful word — means either holy or damned, as you choose.

Yann went back to the dictionary and burst into proper laughter. We had smiled aplenty before, but now it was full-scale belly-laughter. Not, on his part, at the proclivities of his priest, but at the fact that I had made a pun and he had understood it. I joined in. It was two years since I had laughed so hard. The pun was not particularly funny. I was laughing in delight that Yann was laughing with me; that, despite all the difficulties, our minds were continuing to meet, and meet more deeply. As we laughed, there was a tap at the door and Mam came in with two cups of tea on a tray and a beam on her face. As she went out she gave us both a little hug from behind, which moved me to the brink of tears. Yann was not unaware of the by-play. I caught his eye on the photo by the bed.

Pulling ourselves together, we returned to our stilted dictionary-talk. For the next step I briefly relayed the gist of what Emlyn had said, taking great care not to make it personal to me. It was still much too early to go into that. Yann, when he understood what I was trying to say, was not only embarrassed again but also astonished. It transpired that he was not a believer either, for which his damned hypocrite was largely responsible, and he went to Mass only because he had to. He declared that he would not return under duress to the catholic church in Port and its intolerant priest. Instead he would come with us to Capel y Garth where I, another non-believer, went of my own free will, and he would sit at the feet of a broad-minded nonconformist minister who was certainly no hypocrite. So long as he attended some church, he said, his uncle would be most unlikely to probe into its doctrine. Andrev might be concerned for Yann’s immortal soul, but he did not pretend to be a theologian.

It was many days before it sank in that Yann had not said what he thought about love between males and males. From his bitter laughter at his priest loving boys, it was far from clear whether he was sickened merely by priestly hypocrisy, or by the whole thing, or by both. I could not forget his evident embarrassment. If I had my own demon, he evidently had one too, of a different sort. I would have to tread with care.