This story was unwittingly inspired by a reader who sent some kind remarks about The Scholar’s Tale and asked about my pen name. I explained that, in full, it is Mihangel Hwntw, Mihangel being the Welsh form of Michael and Hwntw (‘from beyond’) being the North Wales term for a South Walian. He replied, to my astonishment, with a virulent tirade against the Welsh. It was, as he himself admitted, an ‘unseemly display of shameless racism’. But such xenophobia between proud — possibly over-proud — neighbours is not uncommon, in either direction, and it struck me that it might be interesting to explore how a gay love affair might come to span the divide.
Writing a story like this solely in English is fraught with difficulties. The narrator is a Welshman. You must imagine that all the dialogue between Welsh characters is in Welsh, and that the dialogue between Welsh and English characters is at first in English but, as will become apparent, increasingly turns to Welsh. To help maintain the colour, however, I have retained occasional Welsh words or phrases. Most are exclamations and, unless they are translated, their exact meaning is unimportant.
This is not a Welsh lesson. But if you want to pronounce the principal names more or less correctly, Elfed is El-ved, Maelor is My-lor, Macsen is straightforward and Huw is the same as Hugh. Iawn — whose meaning will be explained in due course — is pronounced roughly Yown, rhyming with Town. For further guidance, see http://www.cs.brown.edu/fun/welsh/Lesson01.html. Tad, as is obvious enough, means father. But in Welsh some initial letters are altered by the preceding word. Thus a son addressing his father will call him fy nhad, my father, which is commonly abbreviated to Nhad. I therefore use Nhad in such circumstances, and Tad otherwise.
All the places mentioned are real.
I owe a debt to Bil for keeping me on the rails.
5 Ionawr 2002
It was a lovely summer evening as I chugged happily home from a day in the mountains. Term had just finished, and six weeks of unparalleled independence stretched out ahead. If you are a boy who lives in a very small village, who likes nothing better than the solitude of the wilds, and whose Tad works long hours including Saturdays, then your main problem is mobility. Up till now I had had three unsatisfactory options. Push bike, which in the mountains of Eryri is plain daft. Or buses, which cost a mint and don’t run when or where you need them. Or, on Sundays, cadging lifts from Tad. He had helped out uncomplainingly, but it dragged him away from his beloved gardening.
So last April, in self-defence, he had presented me for my sixteenth birthday with a second-hand yellow Honda scooter, a crash hat, a tax disc and insurance. Bless him. I had got on the road at once, and as soon as my GCSE exams were under my belt I had taken a course of lessons. Only a week ago I had passed the test, thrown away my D-plates, and now, armed with a full licence, could carry a passenger. There were snags, of course. The speed limit was 30, not that the scooter could do much more, and reckless holiday traffic made the narrow roads scary. But my independence was now complete, and I was in bliss. True, I had to think about a modest holiday job to replenish the coffers, but that could wait for a few days.
A couple of miles short of Bangor, where I go to school and where Tad works, I turned off the main road. Past the gatehouse of Penrhyn Castle, that grim monument to the exploitation of my people in the Bethesda slate quarries, and into the quiet oasis of Llandygái, with its short street of small houses and trim gardens leading up to the church. There stood an unfamiliar red Astra and a big removal van, nearly emptied, with bits of furniture on the verge and men carrying a sofa into a house. Ha, new people moving in next door. When old Mr Hughes died, Mrs Hughes had gone to live with her daughter in Llanfairpwll. Recently the Ar Werth sign had been replaced by Gwerthwyd, but we had not heard who had bought the place, so I was agog to find out. Llandygái is a friendly little community where neighbours are important.
Standing behind the van was a boy of my age or a bit younger. But where I am short and dark — typically Welsh, some might say — he was tall and fair. And, yes, decidedly attractive. I parked my scooter, took off my helmet, and approached him with a grin on my face and my hand stuck out.
“Su’mae! Elfed. Elfed Griffiths. Dw i’n byw drws nesaf, efo Nhad. Croeso i Landygái!”
He shook my hand, blushing. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand Welsh. I’m Hugh Lestrange. And my mother’s inside somewhere.”
Sais! English! Iesu Grist! I had a deep-seated antipathy to the English, engrained in the fabric of my being. What bloody right had an English family to invade our tight little Welsh village? Bitterly disappointed, I almost turned my back on him. But politeness had been drilled into me, like most Welsh youngsters, so I repeated in English what I had said before, carefully omitting the ‘welcome’ bit.
“I’m Elfed Griffiths. I live next door, with my Nhad.”
I saw him mentally filing the name. But he must have read my face, which had lost its smile and was doubtless glowering, and he apologised again.
“Oh Lord, I’m sorry. You were hoping I’d be Welsh. Or speak Welsh. But I’m going to learn. Can you put up with me till then? The English aren’t all bad, you know.”
Well, that was a bit better. He did seem to appreciate that most of the English were bad.
So I manufactured a smile. “Iawn. Till then.”
At that moment a poncy middle-class voice brayed out of the house, “Kitchen chairs next, darling!”
He picked up a couple, turned to me, and said “Diolch yn fawr.” His pronunciation was dreadful, but I got the message. He was saying thank you very much. At least he had made the effort to read up a few basics.
He carried the chairs inside. I called after him “Da bo am rŵan,” goodbye for now, and wheeled the scooter into our garage, deep in thought. Over tea, I told Tad. He was disappointed, of course, because he did not like the English either, and with very good reason. But his dislike was more mellow and rational than my youthful unforgiving hatred, which at that stage — I fully admit it now — verged on a warped and paranoid racism. Looking back, I can trace exactly how, over the next few weeks, my rabid extremism was softened in the fire and finally hammered into a relative tolerance, more akin to his. So Tad was inclined to be philosophical. The very fact that Hugh was aware of being potentially unwelcome gave him some comfort.
“There’s hope yet,” he said. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”
But I had another problem which Tad did not. I was gay. Hoyw, in Welsh. Not actively. I had simply known for some time that I could never love girls, but that I could love boys. I had not met the right one yet, or anything approaching it. A romp in the heather with any boy with a beautiful face was not my cup of tea. I knew I had to wait until my soul-mate turned up, someone who thought the same way as me. And on top of that, I was a loner by nature. I had plenty of casual friends from school, of both sexes, and got on well enough with them. But no real friends. Tad was well aware of all this — there were no secrets between us — and, though I thought I could detect sorrow that he would never have grandchildren, he was splendidly supportive. But he could only help so far. Some battles I had to fight entirely by myself, such as battles with myself. That night, as I jerked off, I found my thoughts turning, quite against my will, to Hugh. It’s just not on, I told myself. You can’t lust after the enemy. I managed to banish his image from my head, but it was not easy.
Next morning I was up early, intent on walking over Bwlch y Ddeufaen. I am no mountaineer, let alone a climber. Conquering all the 3000-footers and running up and down Cnicht in half an hour is emphatically not my scene. Except perhaps for the views they offer, the peaks as such do not mean much to me, and the big ones are usually swarming with visitors. I am no naturalist either, though I have picked up a bit of geology. No. To me, the lure of the mountains is that they are the bones of my country, the home and defence and refuge of generations past. My greatest pleasure is to find a solitary spot and, as the clouds sweep by, watch the ever-changing light. From bright and deceptively benign, to misty and mysterious, to black and ominous. And in my mind’s eye I replace the distant ants of hikers with shepherds and cowherds about their business, or with clerics and merchants and soldiers following long-abandoned tracks. I re-people the old forts with their garrisons, re-enact the battles of the past, relive ancient power politics. The mountains reek of history. The mountains are the soul of Gwynedd. Of my country. Therefore they are my soul too. I am a romantic as well as a loner, and not ashamed of it.
Nowadays the traffic hurtles along the dual carriageway of the A55 close to the sea and through the beetling cliffs of Penmaenbach and Penmaenmawr, a route tamed quite recently, only two or three centuries ago. Until then, the entrance to Gwynedd was Bwlch y Ddeufaen, the bleak inland pass connecting Dyffryn Conwy with the coastal plain at Abergwyngregyn, where the princes of Gwynedd had a llys, a court. No vehicles have crossed the Bwlch for centuries, but it is lined with prehistoric settlements and burial cairns, and in places the Roman road and its successors have worn the ground into deep hollow ways. This was once the principal access to northern Gwynedd, followed by most of the trade and most of the armies. Few people go there now. The only blot on the landscape is the high-voltage power lines which even today find this the easiest route.
So I drove east, turned off the main road at Aber, and wound my way up the steep valley. Ignoring the car park that serves tourists heading for the waterfalls, I continued to the end of the tarmac, parked the scooter and took to my feet. With intervals of sitting and pondering, I ambled across the pass, beyond the two prehistoric standing stones which give it its name, to where the tarmac starts again and the road drops steeply down towards Y Ro-wen. There I turned back, still lost in history. At the summit, my stomach was reminding me of my sandwiches when I saw someone coming the other way. Almost bound to be an English hiker, since few Welsh take their homeland as seriously as me, and I was mildly irritated at the interruption to my solitude. But as it drew nearer the figure became more familiar. Male. Tall. Fair-haired. Hugh Lestrange. Carrying a large rucksack, wearing sensible boots, striding out sturdily.
I was astonished. Not that he was exploring on his first day in a new home, but that he had come here. The dubious delights of Bangor High Street, yes; or the tourist traps of Caernarfon or Conwy Castles; or even the train to the top of Yr Wyddfa. But Bwlch y Ddeufaen? It was hardly spectacular — moorland rather than mountain — and hardly well-known. Far down any ordinary list of priorities.
We drew abreast. “Hi!” he said, grinning broadly. “Thought I recognised your scooter back there.”
For the life of me I could not help smiling back, though it broke all my rules.
“How did you get here?”
“Oh, bus to Aber.”
So he had walked four miles and climbed 1500 feet, and was not even sweating in the bright sun.
“But why here, of all places?”
“Well. It’s hard to explain.”
He gazed out across Llanfairfechan and the placid sea to Ynys Seiriol in the hazy distance, evidently collecting his thoughts.
“I have this odd feeling, you see, wherever I am, that I somehow need to know what makes the place tick. Not just now — that’s usually fairly obvious — but what’s made it tick in the past What’s shaped it. Shaped its people. When we lived in Germany, at Mönchengladbach — Dad was in the army there — I read up its history and prowled round the Rhine valley. Then we moved to Wiltshire and I did the same on Salisbury Plain. Tried to make sense of it. Its story, before it became an army training ground, back to the Stone Age. It’s a sort of … need to belong, I suppose. I’ve heard it called a sense of place. But you can’t belong somewhere till you know about it. So I’ve got to get to know this part of Gwynedd. Does that sound totally daft?”
“Not daft at all. I feel exactly the same. But why Bwlch y Ddeufaen? Why not somewhere obvious like Caernarfon?”
He looked surprised, as if I had asked a stupid question.
“Oh, but Caernarfon isn’t Welsh. OK, the Romans were there, and of course it’s Welsh now, and the county town and all that. But the English created the town. They built the castle. No, I’ve come here because this was the front door to Gwynedd, long before the English were thought of. This is the way you’d come in. Where you’d get your first sight of Gwynedd proper. Whether you were a monk or a pedlar or a king. So it seemed the best place for me to start too.”
Diawch. He was on the ball, this one. I could not have put it better myself. Two instincts struggled in my mind. One was never to fraternise with the English, who could not be trusted. The other was to find out more about this sensitive soul, alien though he might be. The second instinct won.
“Hugh, I was thinking of having my sandwiches. Have you eaten yet?”
“No, but I’m ready.”
So we shrugged off our sacks, got out our food, and sat down on the heather.
“So why’ve you come to Gwynedd?” I asked.
“Oh, my Dad was in the army. Like I said. Got seconded to the peace-keeping force in Kosovo. He was killed out there, a couple of months ago.”
I heard the pain in his voice. “Duw, I’m sorry.”
“We were in army accommodation at Larkhill, and had to move out. Well, Mum’s a qualified riding instructor, and she’s been offered a partnership in a riding school at Pentir. She comes from an army family, and she’s terribly terribly military, don’t you know.” He had put on an exaggerated accent. “And these stables sound a pretty snooty place. Just up her street. Don’t get me wrong. She’s OK, if you handle her right. But Dad wasn’t military, not in that sense. We were on the same wavelength.” It was pretty clear that he and his Mum were not.
“Where are you going to school?”
His face dropped even further. “I wanted to go to Ysgol Tryfan” — one of the two state secondary schools in Bangor — “but Mum insists I go to St Gerard’s. ‘Surely you realise it’s more appropriate for an officer’s son’” — he was obviously quoting her.
St Gerard’s is an independent day school in Bangor, academically good, but emphatically pricey and snobbish.
“Where do you go?” he added,
“Tryfan. It’s a good place.”
“So I’ve heard. But I’m not allowed. Anyway, it’s Welsh-medium, isn’t it? So I couldn’t go there yet. Not without Welsh. How old are you?”
“Sixteen last April. You?”
“Sixteen last May. D’you have any brothers or sisters?”
“No, there’s only Tad and me. He runs a second-hand bookshop in Bangor. We’re on the same wavelength too.”
“No Mum, then?” he asked tentatively.
“No. She walked out before I was a year old, and hasn’t been in touch since. She was English,” I added bitterly. “Discovered, a bit late in the day, that she didn’t like Wales. Or the Welsh. Or Tad. Or me.”
There was a pause. “So that’s why you don’t like the English?”
Well, Mam’s treachery to my beloved Tad was probably the main plank on which my xenophobia was built, but there were plenty of others too.
“One reason among many,” I admitted.
It hardly seemed polite to spell out the rest, unless he insisted. Which he did.
“Look, can you help me out? Please. I’ve no-one else to ask. I mean, it’s one thing to live in your own country, like I’ve done the last few years. And in Germany it was different. I wasn’t happy with the set-up there — British Army of Occupation, for heaven’s sake, fifty years after the war was over. But we were insulated. We had our own schools, our own shops, little reason to mix with the locals. But Wales is another matter. OK, it’s part of Britain, but it’s not part of England. I know the English are … aren’t always popular here. But I want to fit in as best I can. And if I’m going to fit in, I need to know the background. Why they aren’t popular.”
Fair enough, but it would need quite a lecture to put it across.
“Iawn. Well. There are umpteen shades of opinion. Some people don’t give a damn, and live happily alongside the English. But I’m at the other end of the scale, or nearly. Real nationalists can’t stand the English. Cold-shoulder them. For all kinds of reasons. Take the past. Time was when we were the only people in Britain. Our literature goes back much further than yours. There was a cathedral in Bangor long before there was one in Canterbury. Then you came swarming in and pushed us back, till we only had Wales left. We’ve got long memories. Ever heard of Elmet, as you call it now? A small Welsh kingdom, round Leeds. Hung on a long time before you finally squashed it, about 620 AD. We still remember it. It’s where my name comes from. Elfed.
“And then you started invading Wales itself. Took us over for good when Edward I killed Llywelyn ap Gruffydd in 1282 and built his bloody castles to keep us under control. It’s burned into our memory. There was quite a stir in 1982, seven hundred years on. You can still see the graffiti painted then, if you know where to look, saying cofiwch 1282, remember 1282. And the next year he mopped up the last resistance. Captured Llywelyn’s brother Dafydd, the last prince of Gwynedd. On Bera Mawr, only a couple of miles from here” — I jerked a bitter thumb over my shoulder — “and hauled him off to Shrewsbury to hang, draw and quarter him. For defending his country.
“And ever since then you’ve been treating us like a colony, nibbling away at our resources, our identity. Exploiting our coal, metals, slate, water. For your own profit. Insisting till quite recently that kids speak only English in school, even in the playground. Infiltrating Wales and diluting our culture. Buying up our houses for holiday homes at prices beyond our reach. Small wonder there was that campaign some years back — Meibion Glyndwr — to torch holiday homes. I agree with the reasoning behind it, if not with the method. And you buy up perfectly good Welsh businesses and bring in English labour and sack the Welsh. That happened to Tad. He had a damn good job with a computer programming firm. He was due for promotion. But it hadn’t been taken over a week before he was out on his ear.
“Beth nesa? What next? Well, hordes of you swarm in for your holidays. Look at the coast here. Prestatyn, that’s Liverpool-on-Sea. From there past Rhyl to Abergele, it’s solid with caravan parks. Then Bae Colwyn and Rhos, which are Costa Geriatrica. And out on Llŷn there’s Abersoch, aka Wilmslow-on-Sea, for the folk with too much money and too little sense. Iawn, it helps the economy, can’t be denied. But it does nothing for our Cymreictod. Our Welshness. You lord it over us as if you own the place, and laugh at our funny language and our quaint customs. Net result, the language has been dying. Iawn, it’s picking up a bit now, but there’s a hell of a long way to go. So nowadays the graffiti say Tai, gwaith, iaith — houses, work, language.
“And do you offer us independence like all your other colonies? Like hell you do. All you’ve allowed us was this referendum on whether we wanted a Welsh Assembly. Hardly any powers, nothing but a talking shop. Wafer-thin majority in favour. If we’d had the option of a proper parliament like Scotland it would’ve been a thumping big majority. And when we’d said yes, what did you do? Imposed a Whitehall poodle on us as First Minister. We had the hell of a job to get rid of him and get Rhodri Morgan instead. A proper Welshman. And … oh well, that’s plenty enough to be going on with. To show why you’re not popular.”
It struck me that I had been on my soap-box for rather too long, and that I had not been entirely polite in referring to the English as ‘you’, as if Hugh himself had been responsible for all these iniquities. So I hastily added, “Nothing personal, of course.”
Hugh was gazing at me thoughtfully. “OK, I take your point, and I can’t dispute your facts. I’m not defending the English, what they do, what they’ve done. Lots of them are crass and insensitive. Can’t be denied. But there are lots who’re thoroughly decent. And aren’t you over-painting it a bit? I mean, Englishmen regularly behave like that on holiday, whether it’s in Blackpool or Majorca. It’s not aimed just at the Welsh. They always have been arrogant with foreigners — it’s how they won their empire. But how long do you go on holding it against them? I mean, are they really to blame for what their ancestors did? It’s like the Crusades, or the slave trade. They shouldn’t have happened, but they did. And there were Welsh crusaders and slave traders as well as English ones — do you feel guilty about that? And even now, surely, the right isn’t all on one side, either. OK, English yobs get pissed in Prestatyn, but I gather that Welsh yobs get pissed in Caernarfon, and smash the place up as well.”
Overall, my preconceptions were far too deeply entrenched to be easily altered. But one thing I did notice. Whereas I had rudely used the blanket term of ‘you’, he had referred to the English as ‘them’, not as ‘us’, as if he was distancing himself from them. And I had to admit that his last point was true.
“Well, yes. But I’d rather have Welsh yobs smashing the place up than English ones. At least it’s theirs to smash. The long and the short of it is that if you’re a proper Welshman you just can’t trust an Englishman. At least, Tad and I can’t.”
“No exceptions, then? You have to be a full-blooded Welshman to be on side of the angels?”
I sensed that he had found a weakness in my argument and was probing it.
“Well, no. After all, I’m half English,” I replied defensively.
“You mean you sort of suppress your Englishness and cultivate your Welshness?”
“Something like that.”
“Does that mean a full Englishman can’t ever identify with the Welsh? Become an honorary Welshman?”
“Well, there are exceptions, of course. So I’ve heard. Though I’ve never met one myself.”
“Well, there’s a target for me to aim at, then. And the first step is to learn Welsh, isn’t it?”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“Do you reckon it’s easy to learn?”
“Oh yes,” I said blithely. “It’s very straightforward.”
“And how best to set about it?”
“Well, they say Wlpan courses are the best. Intensive. Based on conversation. Bangor University runs them. But only in the winter.”
“Ummm. That’s a pity. I’d hoped to get fairly fluent before term starts.” He cocked a considering eye at me. “But what about you? Would you be interested in teaching me? I’d pay, of course. Mum’s already agreed to fund me learning Welsh.”
Duw. An interesting idea. But play it cautiously.
“It’d have to be pretty well full-time, you know, if you want to be fluent. And you realise I’ve never taught Welsh before?”
“Does that matter? At least you know the language inside out.”
“Hmm. How much would you pay?”
“Haven’t the foggiest. How much would you charge?”
“Haven’t the foggiest either. Have to ask Tad.”
“Well, if we can agree on a price, how about it?”
It was a thought. It really was a thought. I needed the money, and I reckoned I could give fair value for it. It would be a sight more interesting than stacking shelves at Tesco. Equally important, I reckoned I could survive the next six weeks in the company of this bloke who was, I already had to admit, far out of the ordinary run of Englishmen. Pam lai? Why not? In for a penny.
“Iawn, you’re on.”
He beamed with delight. “Cool. Thanks a million. For starters, what’s this word iawn you’re always using?”
“Oh, a very useful one. Equivalent of ‘right’ or ‘OK’. Also means ‘very’. But I won’t begin proper lessons till we’ve got textbooks. We’re both going to need a structure to follow. Tad can help there too.”
“Right. I mean iawn. Makes sense.”
“But there’s one thing we can do without a textbook. Pronunciation. If you don’t mind me saying so, yours isn’t exactly hot.”
I found a scruffy bit of paper, got out the 1:25,000 map I always had with me, and started him off with the Welsh alphabet (which is by no means the same as English) using place-names as examples. Some good specimens for practising on were in fact within sight, like Ynys Seiriol and Abergwyngregyn and Llanfairfechan, with Dwygyfylchi just round the corner. Welsh pronunciation, once you know the rules (unlike English which does not seem to have any), is easy, though some of the sounds do not come readily to foreign lips. I was pleased that he managed ll, that standard pitfall for outsiders, very well, though the long ŷ as we say it up here, and some of the diphthongs, were more elusive. But it was a good start.
So I retraced my steps with him as far as Y Ddeufaen, pointing out things of interest as we went. Miles away to the east, just short of the silver ribbon of the Afon Conwy, we could just make out the gable of Caerhun church on the site of the Roman fort, where the road over the Bwlch began. Again to my surprise, he knew about it, and even supplied its Latin name. So, as we walked back, I probed to see how much he already knew about Gwynedd and its history. Quite a bit, it emerged. A couple of years ago, he and his Dad had been on holiday further south, at Borth y Gêst, and they had explored those parts, from Cricieth up into the mountains. It had whetted his appetite. He had read enough since to grasp the outline of Welsh history, and was not badly informed on the Romans and the Middle Ages.
Of course it’s all pretty superficial, I said cynically to myself. He’s read no Welsh literature, and his history’s all one-sided, being drawn from English sources. But — I forced myself to be fair — at least there’s something to build on. At least he’s read Edith Pargeter’s Brothers of Gwynedd — now there’s a sympathetic English writer — and so he’s well genned up on the last princes. I began to appreciate the enormity of what I had taken on, of trying to instil some Cymreigrwydd into an Englishman. It’s not going to be easy, I realised, to strike a balance between the healthy scepticism due from a true Welshman and the proper encouragement due from a teacher. But it’s not going to be dull.
When we got back to the scooter, the question arose of how he was getting home. To catch a bus from Aber would mean a long wait. So I offered him a lift. He had no crash helmet, of course, though he would have to get one if we were going out together regularly. Now, because in a sense he was my guest and it was my duty to protect him, I insisted he wear mine, while I remained bare-headed. We followed the old road, where the chances of meeting a police patrol were nil. But as we buzzed across the bridge over the dual carriageway, what should pass beneath us but a blue-and-yellow-chequered police car. No harm done, surely: we could hardly be identified. And so we returned to our respective homes.
Over tea, I filled Tad in on what had happened, and asked his advice. He listened with interest and — rather to my surprise in view of his traumatic experience with my Mam — with qualified approval.
“Give it a go,” he said. “You’re plenty wise enough not to sell your soul to the devil, like I did. And it’ll be good for you, too. Teaching’s the best way of learning. How much? Umm. Well, don’t go over the top. What are you thinking of in terms of hours? Eight hours a day, six days a week? Say fifty hours. Wlpan courses cost about a pound an hour. Hmm. That’s only £50 a week. Slave labour. And he’ll be getting one-to-one tuition into the bargain. But against that, you aren’t a qualified teacher. I’d suggest trying for £75 a week. It’s still not much, but if you go any higher you’ll probably put them off. And suggest a trial period of a week.”
So I went next door, to their back door as neighbours always do, and met Hugh’s mother for the first time. She was horsy in looks and in voice, and struck me as vastly less intelligent and sensitive than her son. I proposed my fee and explained why it was pitched at that level, and after some bickering she accepted it, at least for a trial week. And she agreed to pay for a crash helmet for him.
When that was all sorted, she fixed me with a faintly manic eye and said, “Introduce him to some girls, Elfed. He still doesn’t have a girlfriend, and if he doesn’t get one soon we’ll have to assume he’s a poof. And if stallions aren’t interested in mares they’re best gelded.” She laughed a sinister, neighing laugh.
Iesu Grist! Hugh blushed crimson. Full of rage, I thanked her politely and said goodnight, and he followed me into the garden.
“So,” he asked quietly, “are you going to introduce me to some girls?”
“No. Not unless you want. I don’t have a girlfriend either.”
He seemed relieved. “Good. If Mum was right, and I was a poof, would that be a problem with you?”
I forced myself to look him in the eyes. “None whatsoever.”
He seemed even more relieved. “Good. Because I think I am. You’re sure?”
Part of me wanted to match his honesty with my honesty. He was attractive, in body and mind. Very attractive. But that other deeply-entrenched part of me said no, he’s English, that’ll be playing with fire.
So I merely replied “Sure. No difficulty.” And we made arrangements for next day.
“Nhad,” I said as I got in. “She’s a poisonous woman, gweitha’r modd, but she’s agreed. And Nhad, Hugh’s gay. Or thinks he is. And she suspects he is too, and doesn’t like it.”
“Myn brain i! That’s a complication!” He regarded me carefully. “Have you told him about yourself?”
“Wise. But you think you might fall for him. No, you’re afraid you might fall for him. Is that it?”
“Yes. He’s very attractive. Likeable. But he is English. How do I balance the good and the bad?”
Tad ruminated. “Take your time,” he said at last. “Make sure the good really is good. And you may find the bad isn’t so bad after all. True, all the English people I’ve known at all well have proved rotten. But that’s probably my bad luck. I’m willing to accept there can be sound fruit there. After you’ve lived cheek by jowl with Hugh for six weeks, or four, or even two, you’ll have a clearer idea if he’s a bad lot, or so-so, or pure gold. And act accordingly. The thing not to do is act too soon, either way, before you’re absolutely sure. Like I did. But you know that as well as I do. Anyway, pob lwc. Good luck. And I’m behind you all the way.”
Thank God for an understanding, tolerant, trusting Tad. He was my sheet anchor.
“Diolch, Nhad. We’ve got to go into Bangor tomorrow to get a helmet for Hugh, and could you fix us up with a couple of copies of a good Welsh-for-beginners textbook? And would you give Hugh a lift in, while I follow on the scooter?”
“No problem to either.”
So next morning Hugh and I met on the street. His mother had already gone to Pentir. While we waited for Tad to get the car out we were hailed by a very good friend and near neighbour.
“Bore da, Tecwyn!” I replied, and made the introductions. “Tecwyn, dyma Hugh Lestrange. Hugh, this is Sergeant Evans, from the Bangor police station.”
“Pleased to meet you, young man. Welcome to Llandygái.”
They shook hands.
“How do you do. Sorry I can’t speak Welsh. Yet. But Elfed’s going to teach me.”
“Is he now? Well, take my advice and mind what words he teaches you. You can’t be too careful with the foul-mouthed youngsters around these days.”
He winked at me.
I grinned back. “You should know. Tecwyn keeps tabs,” I explained to Hugh, “on every youngster in Gwynedd.”
“Not all, I don’t. Only yesterday I was on the A55 when what should pass over the bridge by Ty’n yr Hendre but a yellow scooter ridden by a dark-haired young man without a helmet and a passenger with a green helmet. No idea who they were.” He was looking pointedly from my scooter to my helmet to my hair. “There might have been hundreds of vehicles of that description between Aber and here.”
“Oh yes,” I said, keeping my face straight. “We were out that way yesterday, and saw several dozen.”
“But if I’d been on the same road, mind, I’d have had to pull him in. Ta ta for now.”
And he climbed into his car.
“Great man,” I said to Hugh. “That’s the way he works.”
Then Tad emerged, and I introduced Hugh. They drove off together, and Tad told me later that, even in the five minutes it took into Bangor, Hugh had impressed him mightily. I met them at the shop, and we got the books and helmet.
Thus began Hugh’s education. It would bore the pants off you if I spelt out everything we did over the next few weeks. To satisfy our mutual sense of place, we tended to spend the day out, weather permitting, in some scenic or historic place, as long as it was secluded, and we would pursue our studies lying in the sun, lost in the vastness of the hills. After tea, as often as not, we continued at home. Usually in mine. His mother would be out at Pentir until all hours, so that I saw little of her, which was no great sorrow. But her shadow dominated their house and made it less than comfortable, whereas from the word go Tad got on well with Hugh. He lent him books, and within a week of their meeting insisted that Hugh call him Maelor, rather than Mr Griffiths. It became quite normal for Hugh to have tea with us. So we sometimes watched Welsh programmes to get him used to voices other than Tad’s and mine, and introduce him to other dialects.
Tad, moreover, was quite right. Hugh’s education proved to be Elfed’s education as well. Like any child, I had picked up my mother tongue quite automatically. English had followed a number of years later, learnt without conscious effort from the radio and TV and from my contemporaries, but reinforced by lessons at school. I was absolutely typical. All Welshmen speak English, whether or not they speak Welsh too. Having a way with words, they probably speak it and write it better than most Englishmen do. So I had learnt the rules for English, but not for Welsh. Like most people, I spoke my own language without ever giving a thought to its grammar and syntax. I had blithely told Hugh that it was straightforward. And so it is, as far as spelling and pronunciation go.
But the further I looked into the textbook, the more complex the rest turned out to be. In English, for instance, if you want to say ‘No’, there is essentially only one word to use. In Welsh, though I have never counted, there must be fifty or more ways of saying it, depending on the context. I used them all, but without thinking about them. Then there are the mutations, where the first letter of a word can be changed in up to three different ways by the word before it. These things come automatically to a Welshman. Genders come automatically too. One way sounds right, all other ways sound wrong. But an outsider has to learn the rules.
Quite apart from what I learnt, Hugh learnt too. He was an excellent pupil, with a quick ear, a flexible tongue, and a retentive memory. But learning any language in a structured way involves tedious memorising of grammar and vocabulary, and whereas we had fondly imagined we would be able to have proper conversations in a week, we found we were still stuck with textbook sentences like ‘Perhaps you have left your purse on the counter.’ Not very useful when we wanted to talk about history or culture.
So we compromised. At first, we alternated spells in Welsh with spells in English. Or, as time progressed, more and more was in Welsh but incorporated English words when Hugh’s vocabulary failed. It was bloody hard work, for both of us. I have heard it said that learning a language is like climbing a hill: a hard slog for a long time, but once you are over the summit you are past the worst and can coast downhill, still learning, but much more easily. And one measure of whether you have reached the summit is your ability to make puns. Hugh was always good at puns in English, and when he started punning in Welsh — which is not so easy — I reckoned he had got there. So one day, nearly four weeks in, I decreed “Dim Saesneg heddiw. Dim un gair.” No English today. Not a single word. We managed it, and were very proud. Hugh had endured much good-humoured banter from friends in the village, who followed his progress with interest. Now he could hold his head high with them.
Nor was it only a matter of language. Wherever we were, we also talked about history and literature. During the first week in August we spent a lot of time in front of the TV watching the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol (it was miles away in South Wales that year) while I tried to explain what was going on with the poetry and dance and drama. And at home I introduced him to Welsh pop — not the Manic Street Preachers and Catatonia and Tom Jones, who come from Wales but are not really Welsh, and whom he knew anyway — but proper Welsh music, from Dafydd Iwan to Bob Delyn and Catsgam. All in all we found we were working much more than the agreed fifty hours a week. No problem, for we got on well together. And so it went on, week after week. Many of the details merge in my memory, but four particular conversations do stand out.
One day, after only a week or so, we struggled up to the cave high on Moel yr Ogof where Owain Glyndwr had hidden from his English pursuers and, like him, we looked across the forest to Yr Wyddfa crowned with a halo of white cloud. Hugh had an unexpected request to make. He reported a conversation with his mother, who had pointed out that if she were to die before he turned eighteen there was no obvious member of his family to become his guardian. Three of his grandparents were dead and the last was in a home, with Alzheimer’s. Otherwise his nearest relative was a second cousin in Singapore. Could Hugh, she had asked, suggest a suitable potential guardian? Elfed’s Tad, he had said at once. So now Hugh was canvassing my opinion.
“It’s highly unlikely he’d be called on,” he said. “It’s less than two years before I’m eighteen, and Mum’s not expecting to turn up her toes in the immediate future. It’s just an insurance in case the unexpected does happen. What d’you think? And if you can stomach the prospect, what d’you think he might think?”
If it had been an imminent likelihood, I was still wary enough to have said no; but this remote possibility was a different matter.
“Fine by me,” I said.
Tad, when approached that evening, took the same line. So Mrs Lestrange paid a formal visit to confirm things, and added a codicil to her will. We agreed, Tad and I, that Hugh’s gesture in committing himself, however theoretically, to a strange family he had met so recently was both endearing and complimentary. And it was further proof, we felt, of his genuine desire for a Welsh identity.
This desire of his was underlined by a conversation in the middle of August. One day found us at Tre’r Ceiri, the Iron Age hill fort on Yr Eifl. Our GCSE results had just come through and, having both done pretty well, we were feeling pleased with ourselves.
As we sat on the rampart looking down towards the tip of Llŷn, Hugh said, “Elfed, thinking of results. I’ve been into Welsh for a month. Progress report, please. How’m I doing?”
“Bloody marvellously.” It was the honest truth. “I didn’t dare hope you’d be so good so soon. I reckon you’re past the worst, and it’ll get easier now. There’s still a long way to go, of course. You can’t be expected to learn the whole dictionary in a month, or hoist in all the idioms. But your grammar’s good, your vocabulary’s getting better, and your accent’s fine. There are times when you might even be taken for a Welshman.”
“Well, great. All thanks to you. You’ve got the patience of Job. It’s been damned hard work, but it’s been worth every minute. Being with you.”
A nice compliment, but what did he mean? We certainly got on well, but was he hinting at something more than that? Inevitably, we had learnt quite a lot about each other simply by being together, but remarkably little of our talking had been specifically about ourselves or our thoughts. Hugh had not mentioned his gayness again. Nor, of course, had I mentioned mine. But it was always in the back of my mind, and no doubt of Hugh’s. Might he be falling for me? Had he been Welsh, I would pretty certainly have been in love with him long ago. Tad was right, yet again. I had found that the good in Hugh was good, and the bad was nothing like as bad as I feared. He was sunny and open, intelligent and witty, and (though I was perversely reluctant to admit it, even to myself) already a damn good friend. I had not found a jot of arrogance or anti-Welshness in him.
On an earlier occasion, for example, I had asked him, “Hugh, if you were old enough, how would you vote?”
“Oh, in England, LibDem, no argument. But in Wales, Plaid, like a shot,” Plaid Cymru being the Welsh National Party.
Once, I might have suspected him of saying that merely to please me. Now that I knew him, I believed him.
So I had already accepted that he was indeed, in Tad’s words, pure gold. Not a bad lot, not so-so, but pure gold. Except, and this was the solitary fly in the ointment, that by birth and first language he was English. His virtues, numerous though they were, could never over-ride that one fatal flaw. So help me, that was how I saw it then — I am not defending my attitude, just recording it. Therefore, in my bleakly jaundiced view, he was still dangerous enough to keep at arm’s length, still impossible to fall in love with. Whether or not he fell in love with me. End of story, I thought. I had programmed my mind to avoid emotional involvement. My job — a demanding but enjoyable job — was simply that of a teacher. In this capacity, I could and did take pride and pleasure in helping him towards the Welshness he desired.
That reminded me of something else. “Hugh, if you’re to become an acceptable Welshman, we ought to do something about your name. I mean, Lestrange is so utterly un-Welsh.”
“Yes, I’ve wondered about that too.”
“Well, Hugh’s easy. Spell it H-U-W and it’s a fine Welsh name.”
“Iawn, no problem there. But what about my surname?”
“Well, there are other ways. I’m thinking of changing mine myself.”
“What to? And isn’t it complicated? Deed poll or whatever?”
“No, easy as wink. Your name is what you want to be called. Your surname’s not on your birth certificate. And I’m thinking of swapping my surname for a patronymic. You know, Tad’s first name.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, surnames are inherited, generation after generation. Like Tad and me, Maelor Griffiths and Elfed Griffiths. It’s very boring. Half the population of Wales is called Jones or Williams or Evans or Hughes or Griffiths. But round here the idea was only adopted a couple of centuries ago. Imported from England. Before then, we used patronymics, ‘so-and-so son of so-and-so.’ My Taid — grandfather — was Emrys. So Tad would’ve been called Maelor Emrys. And I’d be Elfed Maelor. Much more variety. More and more people are going back to the old system now.”
“Da iawn. Nice idea. But it wouldn’t work very well with me. My Dad’s first name was Max. Huw Max doesn’t sound right. Quite apart from there being no x in Welsh.”
“Well, it doesn’t have to be a proper patronym. What about Macsen? That’s near enough, and a perfectly good name. Very historic — you know, Macsen Wledig.”
In Welsh legend this was the name of the Roman emperor Magnus Maximus, who had started on his imperial career in 383 AD, supposedly at Caernarfon.
“Elfed! That’s it! Macsen Wledig was an ancestor of mine!” Huw was almost bouncing in excitement.
“How on earth do you know?”
“Well, the Lestranges are Norman, came over with William the Conqueror. But somewhere in Tudor times one of them married a descendant of Edward III, and the English roy —”
“Huw. Hold it. If you’re descended from Edward III, you’re descended from Edward I.”
In my book, Edward I was about the biggest bugbear in Welsh history, who had robbed us of our last shreds of independence and consigned us to servility. I shrank away from Huw almost as if he was King Edward Longshanks reincarnated.
“True. I wish I weren’t. But look here, Elfed” — and for the first time in our acquaintance he sounded impatient — “don’t hold someone guilty of the sins of their ancestors. I don’t like what Edward did any more than you do. But don’t hold me responsible. Everybody’s family tree’s got black sheep in it. I’ll bet yours has.”
“It goes back to Archbishop Williams of Cochwillan,” I protested grumpily, as if that answered him.
“In the Civil Wars? Iawn. But even archbishops can have ancestors or descendants who’re bad lots.”
I sighed and tried to be fair. “Well, I suppose you’ve got to have the benefit of the doubt.” I was still put out.
“Thank you, sir, for your generosity to this benighted foreigner.” He was poking fun at me, but I could not laugh. “Anyway, I was saying, if you follow the English royal line up, one branch brings you to Hywel Dda.”
“Ah! That’s better. A sight better.” Hywel Dda was the great lawgiver, king of Wales in the tenth century.
“And according to the old genealogies, if you believe them, Hywel’s wife was descended from Macsen Wledig.”
“Huw, that’s great! Huw Macsen it is, then. Much better than many a proper Welshman could claim. Macsen and Hywel might almost outweigh your later villains,” I added graciously. I was already feeling a bit happier.
So Huw Macsen he became, if only privately at first.
We got back quite early and, as we drove through Bangor, Huw asked to be dropped off at the library, and made his own way home.
Next morning we went to Dinas Emrys near Beddgelert, by arrangement with the National Park warden. We sat inside the ramparts and chewed over the legend that on this very spot, in the dying days of Roman influence, the young Emrys had confronted the evil Gwrtheyrn; or Ambrosius had confronted Vortigern if you prefer the English forms. Here the red dragon of Wales had fought the white dragon of the Saxons, and had emerged victorious.
Presently Huw remarked, a little cautiously, “Elfed, I’ve two things to say which you may not like. There was a bit in the paper yesterday, a quote from Kim Howells.”
This was a junior minister in the government, but a good Welshman. Huw fished a cutting out of his wallet and read it out:
“The Scots don’t mind laughing at themselves, but in Wales we’re obsessed with proving we’ve got an identity that the world doesn’t understand.
“I reckon he’s right. You ought to laugh at yourself more often. Even if it’s only laughing at those crummy nighties the bards wear at the Eisteddfod.”
My hackles rose instantly and I began to grumble, but he over-rode me.
“And the other thing is this. I looked it up in the library. Archbishop Williams was descended from Edward I.”
I stared at him blankly, in deep shock. Not that Huw and I were distant cousins. That was likely enough, since most people in Britain are related, though they do not know it. What rocked me to the foundation was the news that in my veins ran the blood of the arch-enemy, of the tyrant who had raped my country. My face flamed, and I was on the brink of erupting with anger at Huw, at the English, at the archbishop, at any conceivable scapegoat for my shame.
And then suddenly, as if lit up by a flash of lightning, the bigotry and illogicality of my thinking was laid bare to me. I saw the utter absurdity of it all, and the bubble of my pride burst for good. To my own astonishment, instead of exploding in fury, I collapsed in hysterical laughter, and fell back on the turf, face still scarlet, flanks heaving. When in a lucid interval I caught a glimpse of Huw, he was chuckling gently, both at me and with me, and wearing a distinctly satisfied look.
When I had recovered, he relentlessly followed up his victory, and we spent the rest of the day trying to reorganise my battered mind.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he said at one point. “I admire you Welsh for hanging on to your identity, your culture, through thick and thin. I admire you hugely. But your national pride is bruised. And that can turn into an obsession, as Kim Howells said. And obsessions aren’t good for anyone.”
I saw that he was right. By the time we left for home he had emptied me of my generic mistrust and hate. I still did not like what the English had done and were doing to the Welsh, any more than he did. But he had changed my perspective. He had brought home to me that while one might blame the past for the present, one could not reasonably blame the present for the past. He had taught me to judge not the herd but the individual. Edward I’s misdeeds could not be laid at my door. Nor, therefore, could they be laid at Huw’s. Nor was Huw an English opportunist buying a holiday home, nor was he an English yob getting pissed in Prestatyn. He was innocent. That he was English was his misfortune, not his fault. Come to that, was it even a misfortune? Are we not all born with clean slates, and what matters is what we write on them?
“Huw, you’ve performed a miracle,” I said at last, as things fell into place.
“Tit for tat, then. You’ve performed a miracle on me.”
I was already aware that, with this spring-cleaning of my mind, love was now on the cards, though I had not had time to face up to that yet. As for Huw, he too knew that the blockage had been removed. After all, he had engineered its removal.
And now he remarked, “Elfed. You’ve been keeping me at arm’s length, haven’t you, and I understand why. Really I do. But you don’t have to any more, do you?”
I could only reply vaguely. “No, I don’t, do I?”
Right now I was not ready to be more specific. I had just had a massive and effective dose of mental laxative, and was still recovering from the shock of the resulting clear-out. But I did need to discover, as soon as my system had settled down, how the land lay with him. And I knew just the place to do it.
So next day we crossed the Menai Straits to Ynys Môn, and spent a long time exploring the weird lunar landscape of Mynydd Parys, which had once been the greatest copper mine in the Old World. But we returned, at my suggestion, by a roundabout route which took us to the south-west corner of the island. It was already getting late, so we phoned home that we would not be in for tea, and bought something to eat instead. Eventually we reached Llanddwyn.
It is a remote little peninsula with a ruined church and with broad views of the mainland mountains in one direction and up to Ynys Gybi in the other, a magical place once the tourists have gone. We left the scooter in the Forestry Commission car park and ploughed our way for a mile along the beach to the rocky headland. By now it was almost dark. The sun had set into the Irish Sea and an orange glow leavened the western sky, while over the mountains to the east a nearly full moon was rising and reflecting in the waters.
Huw gazed in awe. I let him drink it in, and after a while he softly recited an englyn — a Welsh mini-poem, as delicate as a Japanese haiku and almost as untranslatable.
Y nos dywell yn dystewi, — caddug
Yn cuddio Eryri,
Yr haul yng ngwely’r heli,
A’r lloer yn ariannu’r lli.
The dim night is silent and its darkness covers Eryri; the sun in the bed of the sea, and the moon silvering the flood.
I had not heard it before, and was delighted. Mightily impressed, too, that Huw knew it.
“Who wrote that?”
“Gwallter Mechain. I found it in your Tad’s copy of Blodeuglwm.”
“How appropriate. Might have been made for the occasion. And for the place too. Isn’t it splendid here? It belongs to St Dwynwen, our counterpart to St Valentine. It used to be a place of pilgrimage for lovers, because here they couldn’t deceive each other.”
I said that very deliberately, in the hope of some enlightenment; and in the bright moonlight I saw Huw turn and look at me in long-drawn silence.
At last he spoke. “No deceit, then, Elfed Maelor. I told you I thought I was gay. Now I know I am. And that I’m in love. With you.”
And he kissed me on the cheek.
I had never imagined, let alone expected, that he would move so fast and so soon after yesterday, and I was so astonished that I made no response at all.
“O Duw, I haven’t spoiled it, have I?” he cried out in anguish. “I was so sure you were gay.”
“No, Huw, it’s all right,” I replied hastily. “You haven’t spoiled anything. No deceit from me either. You’re quite right. I am gay. But till yesterday I was trying hard not to fall in love with you. And succeeding. Now I want to love you, but I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. Sorting out my muddled brain. I’m sorry. Give me a few days. Please.”
And to show there was no ill-feeling I kissed him lightly on the cheek as well.
He gave me another long look. “Iawn,” was all he finally said, in a tone of understanding tinged with a hint of resignation. “Iawn.”
For half an hour more we sat, alone with our thoughts under the moon, but yet together. At last, by unspoken consent, we got up and trudged back along the sands. We chugged home over the Menai bridge, his arms around my waist saying more than they had ever said before.
Back in Llandygái, as we parted, I looked him in the eye. “Huw, thank you for saying what you did. I don’t want to raise false hopes, but I think I’m almost there.”
“Diolch am hynny,” he replied with a tolerant smile. “Nos da.” Thank goodness. Good night. And he kissed me once more on the cheek.
It was too late to share my turbulent thoughts with Tad, so I had to wrestle with them by myself.
Next morning dawned bright again. I told Huw that a day of quiet contemplation might complete my sorting out. So we drove to the car park in Nant Gwynant and walked companionably up the Watkin Path towards Yr Wyddfa, but below the waterfalls we turned off right along the old miner’s track to Cwm Merch, a small and long-abandoned copper mine perched on the side of Lliwedd. The view across to the bleak crags of Ysgafell Wen and Yr Arddu puts humanity into perspective, and it is a solitary place. I have never seen anyone else there. We sat side by side on the ledge of the old tramway, leaning against the wall which held back a scree of rocks and spoil, saying little, wrapped in our thoughts.
Neither of us had slept well, and soon the warm sun took its toll. Huw’s head nodded and his eyes shut. I took the opportunity to inspect him more closely. A face of strength and confidence. Straight flaxen hair. A longish nose. A generous and firm mouth with a hint of a smile at the corners. Tanned skin, very smooth. At the back of his jaw a barely visible strip of hair he had missed in shaving, not stubble but fluff. He did not have to shave every day, as I did with my permanent six o’clock shadow. Smooth muscular arms and large capable hands. Then I dropped off too.
We were wakened by a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder. Black clouds were rolling overhead, and the air was stirring.
“Waterproofs!” we cried.
Our rucksacks lay on either side, but even as we reached for them there was an almighty flash and a simultaneous explosion immediately behind us, followed by a sulphurous smell and the rumble of stones tumbling down the scree. Huw leapt up, and before I could collect my wits I felt him grab my arm and trousers and drag me bodily sideways, even as a great slab of rock slid over the wall and crashed down on the spot where I had just been. It did not miss me entirely, for my left leg was trailing behind the rest of me and caught a glancing blow on the shin. And as Huw tried to pull me further, my leg stayed behind, the slack of my trousers trapped between the rock and the ground. Small stones continued to rattle down, and I covered my head in my hands. But he whipped his first-aid kit out of his sack, found a pair of scissors, deftly cut right round my trouser leg at the knee and slit it down from knee to hem. I was free, and he hauled me away from danger.
He was in total command. The rain began to lash down, and in the twinkling of an eye, it seemed, he had fished his sweater and anorak out of his sack and dressed me in them, and pulled his over-trousers onto my right leg. With gentle fingers he explored my left shin, which was hurting like hell, and had me flex my foot and wiggle my toes.
“No bones broken, I think. Maybe chipped. Certainly badly bruised. Can’t do anything about it here.”
He fed the waterproofs over my left leg too. The eye of the storm was moving away across the valley, and we looked at each other. It was raining old women and sticks, as we say, and he was already soaked, his hair plastered down, his thin shirt clinging tight to his body. And we looked at the rock, maybe three tons of it. If it had not been for Huw, I would have been under it, squashed rather flat. Still under it was my rucksack, containing not only my waterproofs but my crash helmet, the scooter keys, my house key, and our one and only mobile. He knelt down and fumbled beneath the rock from both sides. All he came up with was my stick, the sturdy piece of ash with a fork at the top that accompanied me everywhere in the hills.
“Your sack’s there for the duration, I’m afraid. Iawn, what about you? There’s no way a helicopter could get here in this, even if we could whistle one up.” The cloud was now low and the wind gusting madly. “Which leaves two choices. Either I nip down and phone Mountain Rescue. Where would they come from? Plas y Brenin?” I nodded. “It’d be two hours before they got here, at least. While you get wet and cold. Or else I carry you down. That’ll be a lot quicker. I’m going to carry you.”
Where he was tall and slender, I was short but stocky, and we probably weighed much the same. Say eleven stone, no easy burden. But he was still in total command, and I could only obey.
“Not piggy-back with your legs round my waist. Bad balance, and I’ll need my hands for the stick. You sit on my shoulders.” He got out his own helmet and buckled it on my head. “If I do slip, you’ve got further to fall than me.”
He banished my doubts about his strength by lifting me bodily and sitting me on the edge of the tramway shelf, my legs dangling over. He put on his almost empty rucksack, grabbed my stick, and jumped down off the tramway. Standing against the retaining wall between my legs, he fed them over his shoulders, and I shuffled my bottom forwards until my weight was on him.
“Sit tight up against my neck. Keep your weight forward. Hold on to my head, but allow it to move, and don’t cover my eyes. Iawn? Off we go.”
So we went. Very slowly at first down a slippery grass slope, where Huw held the stick with both hands and took great care that it and at least one of his feet were always on the ground at the same time. When we reached the roughly metalled track, the footing was firmer and his speed increased. A few times he skidded slightly on a wet stone, but recovered himself. The rain was still heavy, and streams cascaded over the track where there had been none before. He did not try to jump or stride across them, but simply ploughed with small steps through the water. He said nothing beyond the occasional instruction or enquiry if I was all right, but concentrated single-mindedly on his task.
I was lost in admiration. He had unquestionably saved my life. He had risen to the emergency like a professional. He was carrying me as if he had been practising for months. And, as if it mattered, every word he had said had been in Welsh. Not just the thoughtful, companionable, patient, beautiful Huw of before, but now the brave, sturdy, dependable Huw. The few remaining barriers crumbled. I knew that I loved him.
As my mind took the final step, my body responded. Of all the absurd occasions to get a hard-on! I fidgeted to make it more comfortable, until it was pressing, though separated by several layers of fabric, against the back of my love’s head. As he picked his way down the track his body swayed, and to maintain my balance I had to rock gently on his shoulders. In the process I was being unintentionally wanked. The last thing we wanted now! So I squirmed backwards to take things out of contact.
Huw noticed immediately, and stopped.
“Mae’n ddrwg gen i, Elfed. It’s no good. You’re upsetting the balance. I know what’s up.” He gave a little giggle as he realised what he had said. “I can feel it. But don’t worry. Let it happen. Dammit, enjoy it, even. Though it isn’t what I had in mind for you. The important thing is to get you down.” And he giggled again.
With that permission, indeed that command, I surrendered and squirmed forwards again, and within a hundred yards I shot my load in my pants. Bizarre though the circumstances were — or perhaps because they were so bizarre — I had never had an orgasm of such intensity. As I came, I groaned aloud and gripped his head viciously, and Huw silently stroked my hands in acknowledgement.
We negotiated a stile with considerable difficulty, crossed the slab bridge over the now raging river, and climbed up to the Watkin Path. Here the going was much easier, and about an hour and a half after leaving Cwm Merch we reached the main road and the car park. Huw unloaded me onto a convenient wall and heaved a deep sigh of relief. Without the keys, nothing could be done about the scooter.
“I’ll come and get it with your Tad,” he said, “And we’ll try to rescue your rucksack too. Meanwhile, we’ve got to get you to hospital.”
Since the timetable at the bus stop threatened a long wait, we could only try to hitch, and Huw stood by the roadside thumbing. We were in luck. Only half a dozen cars had swished past, little more than headlights visible in the clouds of spray, before one drew up. A police car. Driven by none other than Tecwyn Evans.
“Thought I recognised you,” I heard him say as Huw bent to the passenger window. “You in trouble? Not allowed to give you a lift if you’re not.” Huw explained briefly. “Iawn. I’ll take you to Ysbyty Gwynedd. Not much out of my way. But I don’t want my upholstery ruined.”
He fished out some rugs to protect the seats, they inserted me painfully into the front, and Huw got in the back. As he drove, Tecwyn demanded details.
“A lightning strike, eh? That’s not something one can plan for. You seem to have coped pretty well, young man,” and he glanced appreciatively at Huw through the mirror.
He was interrupted by a call on his radio, which led on to an incomprehensible conversation and occupied him for the rest of the journey. He dropped us at the entrance to A&E and drove off, pursued by our thanks.
People say rude things about Ysbyty Gwynedd, but they dealt with me very efficiently. Much of my shin was now purple, but mercifully accessible without removing the remains of my trousers and revealing the embarrassing evidence inside. An X-ray confirmed Huw’s verdict that nothing was broken. Painkillers and rest was the only treatment they could recommend. We took a taxi home. My key being on the mountain, I was locked out until Tad should return, so we went to Huw’s, with me hanging on his shoulder.
The first thing was to get dry and warm. Huw took off our sodden boots, put on the kettle, carried me in his arms up to the bathroom, turned on the tap — there was no shower — and went down again. He returned with two mugs of very sweet tea and some codeine and, although his clothes were clinging clammily to him, insisted that I bath first. We had not seen each other naked before, and I felt some trepidation as between us we stripped my clothes off. I was especially conscious of the half-dried mess matting the hair on my belly.
Huw helped me into the bath and, while I washed myself and sipped my tea, he sat on the loo and eyed my body with unconcealed interest.
“Sorry to stare,” he said, “but I can’t get over how hairy you are.”
It was true: shaggy legs, a carpet of hair up to my navel, even some on my chest.
“I’m a smooth man,” he went on, “Jacob to your Esau.”
He peeled off his own clothes to reveal his muscular body. True again: apart from his bush and his armpits there was not a hair visible.
“I never will be hairy, I reckon. My Dad wasn’t. But what the hell’s it matter?”
He helped me out of the bath, dried my bum, sat me on the loo to do the rest myself, and handed me a dressing gown. He climbed into my second-hand bathwater and lay back to soak. Though naked together for the first time, neither of us had shown the slightest twitch down below. I was in no state to do or say anything about my love. My mind was half numb and could focus only on the recent events, and spasmodically at that. I was suffering, I am pretty sure, from delayed shock and Huw, considerate soul, recognised and respected it.
So, guiltily conscious that I had hardly said a word to him since we had arrived at Cwm Merch, I made a huge effort and broached another topic.
“Huw. I haven’t thanked you for what you did. If it hadn’t been for you, they’d still be scraping me off the mountain.”
“Self-interest,” he said, smiling guilelessly at me. “Can’t let anything squash my love.”
I appreciated both meanings, but persevered. “Well, once you’d got me out, you knew exactly what to do. How come?”
“Oh, I’ve done first aid and mountain leadership courses. Easy when you live alongside the army. That’s one thing they’re good at.”
He heaved himself out of the water and towelled himself vigorously.
“That feels a sight better. Let’s find some clean clothes.”
He slung our wet ones into the washing machine and supported me to his bedroom, where I had not been before. Tidy where mine was a tip. Rummaging in a drawer, he threw me a pair of boxers and some socks, and as I put them on he hesitated over something. He seemed to make up his mind, and held up a white tee-shirt.
“How about this?”
It carried the mysterious lettering ‘RU (Mg,Fe)7Si8O22(OH)2?’ I looked my question.
“A friend in the States sent it to me. I gather they’re all the rage there among chemistry students.”
He dug out an old pair of his trousers that might just fit me.
“But what does it mean?”
“Oh, the formula’s a mineral. Named after a place called Cummington. In Massachusetts, I think. Cummingtonite.”
As he got dressed and as I looked back at the message and worked it out, he smiled a wide and wicked smile.
“So are you?”
“I hope so.”
With him, ideally, but I knew that I would be out like a light as soon as my head hit the pillow.
At that point the noise of a car took him to the window.
“Your Tad’s back. We’d better get you round there. Hang on!”
“What’ll he make of that tee-shirt?”
“Probably too polite to ask. Even if he does, he knows I’m gay. And doesn’t mind a bit.”
“Really? Y nefoedd fawr!” Good heavens! “But better put this sweater on anyway. We’ve got to keep you warm.”
So we found ourselves at our kitchen table, Huw and I side by side opposite Tad, while I blearily relayed the outline of our story. Tad listened without interrupting, and when I had finished he moved round to Huw’s other side, hugged him, and said his simple thanks, “Diolch, Huw, diolch.” He made no attempt to hide a tear that trickled down his cheek, and I had a stark insight into the despair which would have engulfed him if I had ended up underneath that rock.
“Your name,” he continued to Huw, “ought to be Ywain mab Marro.”
I had no idea what he was on about, so addled was my brain, and stared stupidly; but it took Huw only a couple of seconds to twig, and to blush to the roots of his hair.
“Oh come on, Maelor,” he protested, “that’s going a bit far!”
“No, it’s not,” said Tad.
He saw me still gaping, and chuckled. “Ha, the pupil’s overtaken the teacher! Come on, hogyn, remember your Gododdin!”
The penny dropped. Aneirin’s Gododdin is the earliest Welsh poem, fourteen hundred years old, a string of elegies to warriors killed in battle by the English. Its first stanza commemorates a young man named Ywain mab Marro, and the very first line runs Greddyf gwr, oed gwas. A man in might, a youth in years. How absolutely right. That was just what Huw was.
Seeing that I had caught up, Tad turned back to Huw.
“When you first met Elfed, you pleaded that not all the English are bad. You’ll have heard that our experiences of the English have been none too happy, and we were sceptical. Elfed, I think, more than me. We shouldn’t have been. You’ve proved that you were right. Not by saving Elfed’s life, eternally grateful though we are — you’d have done it for anyone. But you’ve got an empathy with Wales and the Welsh that I’ve never met in an outsider. Ny bi ef a vi cas e rof a thi,” he quoted from a few lines further on in the Gododdin. There shall be no enmity between you and me.
“That’s right, Huw.” I had to add my agreement. “As far as we’re concerned, you’re a Welshman.”
Huw said not a word, but bowed his head in acceptance and hugged us both, hard.
Tad did not allow us to wallow in sentiment, but moved briskly on to practicalities.
“Look, boys, Elfed ought to be resting in bed, if not sleeping. Will you be all right by yourself? And Huw, we ought to recover the property you’ve carelessly strewn around Gwynedd. Are you game? There’s enough light left.”
It was six o’clock, and Huw was game, so they saw me to bed with a supply of codeine. I was only too glad to get there, and fell asleep the moment they left. Never a hope of doing what the tee-shirt said.
In the morning I woke late. Though no cushion of ease, my leg was definitely better. When I hobbled downstairs I found two things on the table. A damp square of cloth — the sad remains of my trouser leg — with a note in Huw’s writing saying simply ‘A memento for my love.’ And a note from Tad telling me to phone him in case of need and — a little mysteriously — to be especially considerate of Huw. So after a bite of breakfast I found my stick and limped next door.
The back door was unlocked. Once in the kitchen, I heard English voices coming from the lounge. One was Huw’s, the other belonged to a stranger whom I could see, through the open doors, lolling on the sofa. He was the spitting image of Stephen Fry as the general in Blackadder, a series which I had watched with glee simply because it showed up the English as total asses. The visitor’s plummy voice, and his inability to say r properly, somehow suggested that he too was a military man.
“Made any fwiends up here yet?” he was saying as I came in.
“Yes. The boy next door’s cool. We spend most of our time together.”
“Hmm. You seem to have picked up his accent in the process.”
It was true, I realised now he mentioned it, that Huw’s English had acquired a Welsh intonation. From me, presumably. I was not happy about eavesdropping but could not tear myself away, though I did step back out of sight.
“Have I?” Huw was surprised. “Anyway, he’s taught me Welsh, fluent Welsh. It’s marvellous.”
“What on earth do you want to learn Welsh for?”
“Because it’s the language here. Didn’t you pick up any Serbo-Croat or Albanian in Kosovo?”
“Course I did. Had to. The benighted heathens don’t speak anything else. But they all speak English here, don’t they? What’s wong with using that?”
“It’s a foreign language. Imposed from outside. How’d you have liked it if the Russians had invaded us in the cold war and everyone’d had to speak Russian?” I could tell that Huw was controlling himself with difficulty.
“Good God! Are you suggesting Wales is an occupied tewwitowy?”
“In effect, yes.”
“Seems to me your so-called fwiend’s been teaching you wevolutionawy ideas. What sort of chap is he? What’s his father do?”
“He keeps a shop. Salt of the earth.”
“Ha. One of these working-class nationalists, eh?”
“Nationalist, yes. So’m I, and proud of it. But the class system’s irrelevant here. The Welsh don’t have one. Not like you do in England.”
“Don’t you take that tone with me, boy. Damn it, you’re going native. I’ve seen it before. If you live outside England, you have a duty to your countwy. To fly the English flag. I’m going to speak to your mother about this. Suggest she keeps you away from these bad influences. Your father would have been ashamed of you.”
I heard Huw stand up. “Captain Masters.” His voice was icy. “I won’t have my father maligned. He would have approved of my friend. Wholeheartedly. I’m only sorry they never met. I think you’d better go.”
He spoke with quiet authority, and the visitor, blustering angrily, went. Huw slammed the front door on him and came into the kitchen white and quivering. He hardly seemed to notice me.
“I heard that, Huw,” I said quietly, “or the end of it. Thanks for the testimonial. Who’s that prat?”
“Captain Toby fucking Masters,” replied Huw in a flat voice. “Adjutant of Dad’s regiment. He’s staying somewhere nearby. Dad couldn’t stand him, but he gets on well with Mum. Thought it his duty to come and see how she’s getting on. She’s taken the day off, but she’s out shopping. She’s going to throw a wobbly when she hears I kicked him out with a flea in his ear. But he got right under my skin. Did you hear? Prime example of the benevolent English attitude to other races.”
“Pwime example” — I had to say this in English — “of a high-wanking officer.”
Huw exploded into laughter. “Oh, Elfed, that’s done me a power of good,” he said finally. “Yr hen dwpsyn. Forget the bugger, at least for now. How’s your leg?”
“Still hurts, but better, thanks. Slept like a log. How did it go last night?”
And he told me how they had driven to Nant Gwynant in Tad’s old Volvo estate, armed with the spare scooter keys and a large crowbar. Together they had manhandled the scooter into the Volvo’s spacious interior which was normally used for carting books, and trudged up to Cwm Merch. With the crowbar on a judiciously placed fulcrum, Huw had managed to raise the rock enough for Tad to reach under with the crook of his stick and pull my sack out by the strap. The crash helmet was a write-off, having taken the full force of the falling rock. But in doing so it had protected everything else, which was more or less intact and dry. By half past nine they were home again, to find me fast asleep.
“I had a long talk with your Tad,” Huw ended thoughtfully, “In the car, and afterwards. He’s such a lovely gentle person. Like my Dad was. We talked about my Mum. How difficult she is. And I hope you don’t mind, but I told him I loved you. He didn’t blink an eyelid. He just said, ‘Good for you, ngwas. Persevere, and he’ll love you back’.”
But even as I opened my mouth to say that I already loved him back, we heard a car door slam and Huw’s Mum stridently demanding help with the shopping bags.
“Oh, shit,” said Huw. “Elfed, sorry, do you mind making yourself scarce? I’ve got to face the music. Best by myself. I’ll come round when it’s all over. If I’m still alive.”
Fair enough. I went home, frustrated. An hour later he put his head round the door, looking shaken.
“Duw. She put me through it. Winkled out the whole conversation. Then she phoned Toby — he’s staying at the Goat in Beddgelert — and got an earful from him. Which she passed on to me. She’s arranged for us both to go down and see him. To make peace. Though I’m damned if I’m going to apologise for anything. But I’ll survive. Problem is, he’s put ideas in her head. She’s beginning to think you aren’t really a nice person to know.” He sighed heavily. “Have to play it by ear. Can’t do anything else. I must go. See you.” And he ran back.
I was still frustrated. Bottled up. Not liking one bit the way things seemed to be heading. It was noon. Beddgelert was a good three-quarters of an hour away. Add say an hour for them to talk. They would hardly be back before half past two. I tried to read, resting my leg on the sofa. It did not work. I sat in the garden. I unenthusiastically nibbled some lunch. I tried lying on my bed. By three I had this foreboding that something was wrong, badly wrong — a major family row? an accident? — and I was as jittery as if sitting on an ants’ nest. I tried ringing Huw’s Mum’s mobile. No answer. I summoned up my courage and phoned the Goat, asking for Captain Masters. Sorry, he’s not in. I thought of ringing Tad, but while he would sympathise he would not be able to help. Nothing else I could do but fidget and worry. It was not till five, when I was back in the garden and my heart had shrivelled to the size of an old walnut, that I heard a car draw up and footsteps coming round to the back. I climbed to my feet. But it was not Huw. It was Tecwyn Evans.
“Ah, Elfed.” He came over, looking as serious as I had ever seen him. “I’ve bad news, I’m afraid. The Lestranges have been in an accident.”
“Huw’s not …?”
“Mrs Lestrange is dead. Huw’s all right. Well, he’s got nasty injuries, but he’ll get over them. But he’s in Ysbyty Gwynedd, and he needs you. I gather you’re his brother now, in a manner of speaking. Would you like me to take you over? And would you like to tell your Tad?”
Bless you, Tecwyn, I thought. The voice not just of authority but of friendship. I hobbled inside, grabbed my mobile and painkillers, and locked up. As we sped round the bypass, siren blaring — he was giving me the works — Tecwyn filled me in. The Lestranges had been driving back from Beddgelert towards Pen y Gwryd when a car coming the other way had taken a sharp bend near Hafod Rhisgl too fast and too wide, hit their Astra amidships, and pushed it clean through the drystone wall and down the sleep slope beyond. It had rolled down a drop of a hundred feet and more. Mrs Lestrange had died instantly. Huw was concussed and bruised, and had broken both arms.
“Lucky to survive, he was. We had to get the fire brigade in on the bottom road to cut them out. They’ve put him in plaster and sedated him, but he’s conscious. Or was twenty minutes ago.”
“Does he know his Mum’s dead?”
“Don’t think so. Luned’s looking after him.” I knew Luned Williams, a charge nurse at the hospital and mother of a school friend. “I doubt she’s told him. We’ll check. If not, will you break the news? It’s not an easy thing to do, Elfed, you know. Leave it to your Tad if you’d rather. But it’ll come least hard from someone he knows well. And he knows nobody here better than you.”
“Wrth gwrs.” Of course I will.
And as we turned off the bypass I phoned Tad at the shop and told him that he was now Huw’s guardian and could he come over as soon as possible. At the hospital, Tecwyn took me up. Perhaps because of the circumstances, they had put Huw not in a public ward but in a room by himself.
Outside the door, Tecwyn handed me over to Luned.
“Elfed, oh good,” she said. “He’s a bit dopey with morphine, but he’s awake. He’s been asking for you. Don’t talk too much, he just needs you with him. Stay as long as you want. Have I told him about his mother? No, I’ve been leaving that to you. Break it gently.”
And I went in, alone.
He was lying on his back, his arms in their casts outside the sheet. His head was covered with cuts and bruises, but nothing that looked too bad. His eyes were open and his face empty, but as soon as he saw me it lit up and shone.
“Elfed. Thanks for coming.”
He sounded drowsy. I sat down in a chair on his right side and took his hand firmly in mine. The plaster covered most of his palm, leaving his thumb sticking out of a hole.
“Tecwyn’s told me what happened. How’re you doing?”
“Not much pain. But a bit cross-eyed.”
“That’s the morphine. We’ll soon have you out of here. But Huw.” I was dreading saying what I had to. “They haven’t told you yet …”
But he cut me off. “It’s all right, Elfed. I heard the nurse talking. She thought I didn’t speak Welsh. I know Mum’s dead.”
“So’m I. I suppose. I don’t know what to think about it.”
“Give it time. It’ll sort itself out. The important thing is you’re not alone. You’ve got Tad to support you. And you’ve got me to love you.” His eyebrows rose. “Yes, you’ve got me. Dw i’n dy garu di, Huw Macsen. Yn oes oesoedd.” I love you. For ever and ever.
And I leant down and kissed him on the lips. As I lifted my head he gave a little sob.
“Oh, Elfed!” A few tears trickled down. “Kiss. Again.”
This time his tongue felt its way between my lips. Not far, not passionately. But enough to confirm his own love.
“Oh, Elfed!” And he smiled.
He had tired himself and dozed off, the smile and the tears still on his face. Shortly afterwards Luned came in to check on him. Then a tap on the door announced Tad’s arrival. I told him quietly that Huw knew he now belonged to us, and that I had declared my love. Tad beamed his approval, hugged me, sat down on Huw’s left, and held his other hand. Presently Huw stirred, and his eyes focussed.
“Nhad!” he said sleepily. It was the first time I had heard him call him that, face to face.
“Croeso, fy mab. Mae popeth rŵan yn iawn.” Welcome, my son. Everything’s all right now. “Just rest.”
Huw smiled drowsily, and tears appeared again in his eyes. After a while, “Nhad, I’ve been thinking. Need I go to St Gerard’s now?”
“No, no need at all. Ysgol Tryfan, then, with Elfed? Your Welsh is plenty good enough.”
“Iawn. I’ll see to it. As Huw Macsen?”
“As Huw Macsen.”
He dozed off again.
“I’ll leave you to it, Elfed,” said Tad. “Get some food at the canteen. Here’s a bit of cash. Stay as long as you want, as long as he needs you. Give me a ring to keep me posted, or if anything crops up. Any time. You all right? Leg not too bad? Got your codeine? Iawn. Good lad. So’s Huw. I’m proud of you both.” And he was gone.
I stayed where I was, still holding Huw’s hand, dreaming about the future that stretched limitlessly ahead of us. We knew each other pretty well by now. But not yet, of course, sexually. It would be weeks before his plaster was off and we could give our love full rein. But I yearned to give Huw some physical pleasure, as a token of my love. As a token, too, of the union of England and Wales. Yet the setting was hardly propitious. I could not risk a nurse or doctor bursting in to find a visitor administering a blow-job to a patient. A more discreet hand job would be safer. But not even that could be contemplated until he was ready. Patience, boy, patience.
It was already dark when Luned checked him once more, and was satisfied. Before long Huw woke again, in discomfort.
“Ych y fi! I need a pee. How the hell do I do it?”
“I’ll show you.”
I turned back the sheet, rolled him partly onto his side, and found one of those cardboard bottles on his cabinet. Kneeling painfully beside the bed, I lifted the ghastly hospital gown he was wearing, and fed his cock into the neck of the bottle.
He fired, at length, and I squeezed his cock to milk the last drops out. As I did so, I felt it expand in my grasp, and I gave it a little stroke. He responded not with thanks, but with a very audible sigh.
Was this the moment? With luck, Luned would not be back for a while. I put the sloshing bottle down and rolled him onto his back again. Then I looked carefully at his face. Much more alert and vivacious than before. Even wearing a touch of mischievous anticipation. Miraculous. He seemed to be not only fit enough, but willing. I kissed him again, this time deep and long, and he responded with vigour. On surfacing, I glanced at his cock. It was rigid. So, still without saying a word, I lifted my sweater enough for him to see the message on the tee-shirt, and raised a questioning eyebrow.
His battered face crinkled into that wide and wicked smile which I had seen only once before.
“You bet! But” — he looked at his plastered hands — “I can’t do it myself. It’s up to you. England’s at your mercy, Welshman. Take your revenge.”
Iawn. I did. I attacked England. And presently it came into Welsh hands.