Out of Ireland have we come,
Great hatred, little room.
Maimed us at the start.
I carry from my mother’s womb
A fanatic heart.
W B Yeats 1865–1939
When the Black Dog stalked me, she lit fires
and kept me warm and safe.
When others turned their backs,
she smiled and called them ‘darling’
and showed me that despair was ephemeral
and that the friendship of others could be,
and it didn’t really matter.
Who always encouraged me and gave me the fanatic’s heart
For all those young men who still dare – and win.
Early September 1969
St Asaph Cathedral, North Wales
It was fitting, he thought, that God’s work should start in God’s house. The Bishop of St Asaph; a tall, heavily-built man who had recently lost his wife, was doing what he usually did most fine mornings – walking his cocker spaniel in the grounds of the small cathedral while contemplating his day’s work. He would let himself in to the cathedral while his dog waited outside, say his morning prayers and then bishop and dog would repair to his house where they would share breakfast.
The Bishop was just emerging from the cathedral as Flynn pulled up at the gate and got out of the Volkswagen. As he walked up the path, the Bishop, on seeing his cleric’s collar, smiled broadly. ‘Good morning, Father. What brings you out on such a fine morning?’
‘Good morning, Your Grace,’ said Flynn. ‘I’m on what I believe is the first holiday I’ve had for almost five years. I’ve been abroad and I’m on my way to Ireland to see my mother, God bless her. While I was away, I read about your lovely cathedral and vowed that if ever I got the chance, I would visit. So, here I am.’
‘Father, it’s a real pleasure to see you, and as luck would have it, I have some time, so come let me show you around.’
Flynn followed the Bishop into the cathedral. The morning sun danced through the colours of the leadlight windows; it was cool and calm inside.
Flynn faced the altar and crossed himself then followed the Bishop down the centre aisle as he pointed to features in the small cathedral. Soon they were both standing in front of the altar, the Bishop pointing to the work of the fine Welsh stonemasons who had constructed one of the high arches. When he received no response from Flynn, he turned and found himself looking down the barrel of a pistol.
David or Dafydd
A Saturday in late August 1969
He sat in one of the recesses in the wall of the little stone bridge. He looked down at the bright water dancing over the stones and up at the rolling hills dotted with white sheep, then to the distance to the towering peaks of Snowdonia.
It was believed by the locals that the bridge had been designed by Inigo Jones, a famous English architect of the 1600s. If true, the bridge had been the meeting place of the locals for 300 years. Wives and mothers met there in the mornings to gossip. Old men met, reminisced, and smoked their pipes there during the afternoons. After school, children met there and dropped stones into the water below and told tales, or they built little boats out of sticks and raced each other under the arch. In the evenings, the bridge welcomed lovers. Over the ages, the little stone bridge was the keeper of village secrets.
It was late in the summer of 1969 in North Wales. The evening breeze was still warm and the air was heavy and full of the scent of his home, the sweet fragrance of hay and corn safely stored in barns and stacks ready for the long winter soon be upon them, the smell of contented cows still out on the dark-green pastures, making the most of their freedom before they too were locked away for winter. North Wales that evening was at peace with the world.
It was Saturday, and he was waiting for his girlfriend, Bronwyn Jones, a veterinary surgeon. Like him, she had been away and had now returned to the valley where she had grown up. For her, too, the Hieraeth, or the longing that only the Welsh understood, had been too strong to resist. He smiled at the thought of seeing her after he had spent the week away in Scotland. He thought of her kiss and of then going down to the Black Bull for a pint of bitter ale and a laugh with friends they had both known since primary school.
As he gazed and waited, he realised, perhaps for the first time after two years in ‘Civvy Street’ that he was relaxed, he was glad to be out of the army and that he had at last become as normal as he could ever expect to be. He was glad to be home.
He was pleased he had finally finished the terms his father had imposed for his so-called apprenticeship on leaving the army without a job. Two years of driving a cattle lorry all over England, Scotland and Wales, taking cattle here and there in all weathers – winter, summer, spring and autumn. No breaks, no holidays – that had been the deal – just his father’s cottage down in Abergele with old Pat next door, a pocket full of money for fuel, food and a bed when he could find one.
He was always on the phone, always talking to his father, always being asked and increasingly being able to give an opinion on prices paid and quality of stock. Gradually he had realised that his father was asking his opinion more and more. At times he became exasperated with questions because he was always on the move.
So was his father. He would have to ring home at night to find out where he was. Sometimes the answer would be Liverpool or Ireland or Nottinghamshire, even London. His father was always at the ‘whatever’ hotel when he rang him, no matter how early in the morning or how late at night. They both worked at a frantic pace.
There was one golden rule never to be broken: no matter where they were, the three of them – the family – would meet on Sundays without fail.
Sundays were important. His mother could go to chapel. He and his father could go over the week’s trading and discuss what was set up for the next week then have a pint before a lunch prepared by Mrs Parry who had been with them for as long as he could remember and who had cried when he came home from the army. She always called him David Bach, David dear, little David, depending on the mood. When they were alone, she always spoke to him in Welsh.
But now he was out of that; lorry driving was finished. He now had a car, a new green MG, and he and his father had decided to divide the country across the middle from east to west. Originally David was to have the north of a line from Shrewsbury East to West and his father all of that south of the line. No sooner had they agreed than his father changed everything, saying that Manchester was the dividing line and that all of North Wales was his except for Holyhead which they would share.
He thought about the army and came to the conclusion that he did not miss his army mates anymore, nor did he wonder what they were doing. He did not miss the smell of fine machine oil on metal, the click of safety catches, the shuck of loading, assembling and disassembling weapons in the dark. The clatter of helicopter rotors, the smell of urine and frightened men in the cargo hold of a great fat bird of a transport plane which, when the green light came on, would open her bowels and evacuate them into the night. The snap of the chute followed by the jag of the harness. Always the same, the heart rate goes up and then down. A few moments to gather thoughts before landing. No lights, no sound, not even if you break your leg. All with the one objective: to make them the best in the world.
Then came the real thing. The adrenaline rushes, the supreme confidence in mates and self. And the shadows, always the shadows. Move in the shadows, lie in the shadows, watch the shadows, do what has to be done, if at all possible, in the shadows. Don’t think about what you are doing; do it and get out. Get back no matter what. Always stinking, sometimes sick, sometimes hurt. Debrief, clean up, relax, train, then wait, just wait for the next time.
With local girls, it was difficult because he was just another soldier, a soldier who never wore his uniform in public, who lied about his regiment. Too many contradictions. Too many questions with lies for answers.
Some of his mates were married. How did they get that far without telling? Did they wait till the wedding night and then say, ‘Guess what? And before we do anything, please sign the Official Secrets Act.’ Best avoid those sorts of complications. Stay single and avoid the Irish girls.
His Irish elocution lessons had made him all but Irish at the flick of a mental switch. That worried him at times, especially after a few drinks and especially if he happened to be with his father when it would have been easy to lapse into his father’s Irish brogue. Not that he came home much during those times. Maybe twice a year for leave and occasionally for the weekend.
On every Saturday that he was in barracks, he would escape to the dance hall in the rough end of town. No questions down there. Maybe the offer of a fight over a girl, from some insipid creep, backed up by his mates. Fights were to be avoided at all costs; no police meant no questions, just a one-night stand if your luck’s in. If not, fish and chips and the last bus back to barracks.
All of this before his thirtieth birthday, and he knew that he had seen and done too much for his years. Then the time came to go, and he wanted to go because he was tired of being somebody and nobody.
His commander at his demob interview had asked him to stay, promised even more promotion, told him he could be a sergeant major in a couple of years. ‘The army is changing and we’ll have to be ahead of that change. You have six months to change your mind, and if you come back, and I hope that you do, we’ll just treat it as leave and you’ll have your current rank back. I must remind you are on the A Reserve and can be recalled at any time and the Official Secrets Act you have signed will be in force for the next twenty years. Goodbye. Good luck.’
They shook hands. He saluted for the last time, received a salute in return. He turned to his right, paused and marched out of the office.
They had gotten him drunk that night in the sergeants’ mess and tried to convince him the next morning that he had signed on again. They pleaded and cajoled but in the end gave up and carried him out through the gates. The guard commander turned to the guard, saluted him, shook his hand and told him to ‘Fuck off quick, before we all cry. And don’t come back.’
Her touch on his arm broke the spell. As the village watched, as only the Welsh can, they quickly kissed and, holding hands and laughing, set off for the pub.
David McGonigal had Celtic blood in every vein of his body – the ‘McGonigal’ from his Catholic Irish father and the ‘David’ from his placid Welsh mother. He had grown up in North Wales in a house of two cultures.
Born in 1938, David did not know his father until he was five when a haggard man dressed in khaki and carrying a rifle turned up one day with tears streaming down his face. David had watched, confused, as this giant clung to his slim mother, sobbing while she stroked the back of his head and kissed his neck. He remembered being scared when his time came and he was picked up like a doll and kissed again and again. A man had never kissed him before.
After a few weeks, the giant soldier left, saying in English, ‘It will all be over soon.’
Soon turned out to be two years later on David’s seventh birthday. In the two years that had passed, photographs and letters had helped him to understand that he was no different from all the other children in the village; he did not have a daddy, he knew what his daddy looked like, his daddy was in the army and the farms in the valley grew food for the army to win the war.
David remembered the war and hearing about the bombs on Liverpool. He remembered his mother helping Uncle Hugh on the farm and how every week, an envelope arrived with ten pounds in it. He was always told it was from his grandma in Ireland and not to tell anyone; it was a secret. He never told.
On the morning of his seventh birthday, he was told his daddy would be home that day and that Uncle Hugh would pick him up from the station. When Uncle Hugh arrived, he did not have his daddy in the car. Instead, the man in the car was wearing a baggy grey suit, not a soldier’s uniform, he carried a small suitcase and not a rifle, was thin with sockets for eyes, had a limp and his hands shook.
This time, when the man who said he was his daddy saw his mother, he did not cry, he just stared, but his mother cried, arms hanging by her sides. David clung to her with a lump in his throat, more than a little frightened of this strange person.
After a few days, the stranger started to look like his daddy and he smiled occasionally. At night, David sometimes heard him scream and then he would hear his mother’s soft, comforting voice, the same voice she used with him when he had a bad dream or the toothache. He would hear her get out of bed and go downstairs, followed by the rattle of teacups as she came back up the stairs. Then he would fall asleep.
By the time David reached eight years of age, his dad, as he was told to call him, hardly ever screamed at night, had bought a black car and was dealing in cattle.
So, David grew used to his father, the great cattle dealer Brendan McGonigal, constantly moving cattle back and forth across the country and across the Irish Sea from Holyhead to Dublin, from Dublin to Holyhead. Always on the move, always happy, always with money in his pocket, always buying presents. Always away.
He once told David, ‘I come from a long line of Irish gypsies and the Welsh were all gypsies. That makes you one hundred per cent gypsy, just like me, and when you get older, you will wander away from this place. The wanderlust will battle with “the longing”, or what your mother calls “the Hiraeth”, and neither will win. You will always be a gypsy, David, always wandering, always coming home. God help you.’ He never mentioned it again.
Before his dad had come home from the war, David and his mother had spoken Welsh at home. At school, Welsh was not allowed, only English. After the war, when his dad was home, they spoke English, but when he was away, David and his mother spoke Welsh.
Sometimes, if his dad was home and it was the weekend, just the two of them would walk the river, talking, telling stories and looking for fish. If the weather was good, his dad would buy a little bottle of lemonade or Tizer, and a big glass of beer, and they would both go and sit on the bench outside the pub. He would often be embarrassed by the way his dad would hug him and kiss his forehead in public for no reason at all. He would just reach out for him, hug him, kiss him, look at him and then let him go with a big laugh.
Phyllis and Brendan
His mother Phyllis was an ‘Evans’, and the Evans family had lived in the Welsh valleys since before the Normans had invaded England in 1066. She and her brother Hugh had been brought up strictly chapel. No drinking, read the Bible and no work on the farm on Sundays except for milking and feeding stock. Chapel at least once on Sunday to get their weekly dose of hellfire and brimstone from the old granite-faced minister.
Unlike her brother Hugh – who was black-eyed with bushy black eyebrows, straight black hair, small yet muscular and a bit bow-legged – Phyllis was much taller, slim, ramrod straight like her grandmother, with a cascade of unruly, curly red hair, and green eyes.
Phyllis left home at seventeen to go nursing and her family were proud when she was accepted by Liverpool General Hospital. Her mother had told her years before that there was no future for girls in the valley. ‘Better you go nursing, my love. Marry a nice English doctor and have a big family. Best you could do around here is one of the boys from Plas Maen and they are no catch, believe me. Something funny about their father, I think.’
Encouraged by her mother, she had worked hard at grammar school and her headmaster Mr Harrison, on hearing that she wanted to go nursing, had told her that she had the brains to become a doctor. She had thought about medical school and decided that if her mother and father, with just a little farm, would never be able to afford for her to go to university, even if she could pass the exams, which she doubted, ‘then nursing it would be,’ she had told Mr Harrison. In the end, she knew it was Mr Harrison who got her a position at Liverpool General as a trainee nurse, because his brother was the registrar.
Grey buildings on the banks of a grey River Mersey. Miles and miles of docks on the Liverpool side of the river, receiving cargoes of grain, cotton and wool and on the opposite side, the Birkenhead side, towering cranes building new ships and repairing others. The Liverpool trams clattered and rattled all over the vast city, connecting every corner, every street of red-brick terraced houses to the second biggest port in Britain, second only to London and the mighty Thames. Phyllis saw more people in one day than she had ever seen in her life, and people of all colours too. She saw her first black man on her first train ride on her own, in itself a scary experience. She had been told never to stare, but she just couldn’t help it; he was just so black and so big. Then when he smiled at her, she blushed and looked away, too frightened to run and far too frightened to smile back.
While she had waited for a vacancy in the nurses’ quarters, she had lodged with her overweight and happy second cousin Gwen who had left the valley when she was sixteen and pregnant to the butcher’s son. They had run away together to Liverpool with the help of his father. They then had three more children, married secretly when Gwen turned twenty-one, by which time they had two butchers’ shops. It was Gwen who showed her that there was life after the valley and the chapel.
Three years of hard study, ridiculous hours, frightening matrons and exasperated doctors, endless bedpans, pink babies and sometimes brown ones and, with constant encouragement from Dr Harrison, Phyllis sailed through her exams, qualifying as a State Registered Nurse.
The day after she had qualified, as she tried to get her new nurse’s uniform perfect for her first day as a real nurse on the maternity ward, she was told to immediately report to the matron.
The matron sat behind her desk, smiling. Phyllis had never seen her smile before. In three years, she had never seen her smile. Standing behind Matron was Dr Harrison who was also smiling. ‘Come in, Nurse Evans, and please shut the door,’ said Matron.
Now Phyllis was even more confused. Matron had said ‘please’ and she had certainly never said that before; she never needed to. It was Dr Harrison, still smiling, who next spoke. ‘Nurse, do you remember that before you came to Liverpool, my brother told you that you have the brains to become a doctor?’
‘Well, both Matron and I agree, after watching your progress for the last three years, that you do have the potential to become a doctor and that’s why we’ve asked Mr Thompson from Liverpool University to join us this afternoon.’
For the first time, Phyllis realised that there was another person in the room. She followed the direction of Dr Harrison’s hand and saw a slight man in a dark suit, highly polished black shoes, white shirt and grey tie standing on the far side of the room. Then she saw the big red rose in his lapel and she knew who he was.
He was called ‘Mr’ because he was a surgeon and, according to all the doctors in the hospital, the best in the land. He had just returned to Liverpool from London. There was even a book running in the doctors’ common room on when he would receive his knighthood. All the bets were on this year’s King’s Birthday Honours.
Phyllis lost her tongue; she didn’t know whether to curtsy, smile or nod. Seeing her embarrassment, Mr Thompson quickly moved across the room and held out his hand. ‘I’m pleased to meet you, Nurse Evans. Dr Harrison and Matron have told me a lot about you. I don’t think that I’ve ever, in all of my forty years in medicine, been so impressed with someone’s final exams.’ He held out his hand again and she took it. It wasn’t warm or cold; dry or wet. It was soft, softer than hers.
Sensing her increasing confusion and discomfort, Mr Thompson again came to the rescue. ‘Dr Harrison, fetch the girl a chair. She looks as if she might pass out, and how about a cup of tea while we have a chat?’
Matron was still smiling as she rose to order the tea and vacate her chair behind the desk for the eminent Mr Thompson.
Dr Harrison brought Phyllis a chair and she sat down. He fetched another chair for Matron and one for himself. So, the three of them – Phyllis, Dr Harrison and the matron – sat and waited.
‘Nurse Evans,’ Mr Thompson began, ‘the School of Medicine at Liverpool University has just received a considerable amount of money from a benefactor who must remain anonymous. This money has been invested at the direction of the benefactor and the interest, again at the direction of the benefactor, is to provide a fully paid scholarship for one female student at the School of Medicine here in Liverpool. Dr Harrison, Matron and I have presented the names of several, we think worthy young ladies, together with our views, to the benefactor. We learned just this morning that we are to offer this position to you.’
Phyllis’s head spun, and as if on cue, there was a knock on the door and in came the tea, carried by one of Phyllis’s friends who, on seeing Phyllis, nearly dropped the tray.
Matron fetched a small table from under the window and motioned to the wide-eyed tea nurse to put the tray down. The cups rattled and eventually the tray made it to the table without a drop of tea or milk being spilt.
Matron moved to pour the tea and was waved away. ‘No, no, Matron, I shall be mother. Please sit down,’ said Mr Thompson. Matron obeyed, still smiling. ‘Now, nurse,’ he went on, ‘milk?’ She nodded. ‘Sugar?’ She nodded again. ‘One lump or two?’
This time, she had to speak. ‘Just one, please.’
His delicate white hands poured the tea, added the milk, plopped one cube of Tate & Lyle’s best into the cup and, with a hand as steady as a rock, handed her the cup and saucer. She took it without spilling any and smiled. He smiled back.
The same routine followed for Matron and Dr Harrison. After he had poured his own cup, he carefully added hot water to the pot, covered it with a cosy with ‘LGH’ on it in gold letters and sat down.
They all agreed that Phyllis should be given time to think and that she should have a few days off away from the hospital, maybe go home to Wales for a few days. Without saying more than was necessary, Phyllis agreed that she would meet with them again in a week.
Phyllis caught the train home that autumn afternoon, caught the bus to the village and walked up the lane, picking hazelnuts and the last of the blackberries out of the hedgerow as she went. Just the way she had done all the years before Liverpool.
It was good to be home. Her mother had tea and scones ready and she fussed continually, trying to break the tension Phyllis had unintentionally created. All that her mother had received was a telegram saying: ‘Coming home for a few days. Got good news. All well. Love Phyl’.
The assistant from the post office delivered telegrams by hand. No matter what the weather or the time of day, the telegrams were delivered by boy and bike – both as red as each other. By the time the telegram was delivered, most of the village and much of the valley knew what the message contained.
Phyllis had been reminded of how news in the valley travelled when she caught the bus at the railway station to take her to the village. As her train pulled into the station, it was five minutes late. By the time she had handed in her ticket and sprinted out of the station, she was sure the bus would have gone and that she would have to wait another hour for it to do the round trip back to the station, but there it was, still waiting with old Shadrach at the wheel puffing on his foul pipe and smiling. ‘Nice to see you, Phyllis. I heard you were coming,’ he said in Welsh. ‘Thought I had better wait, seeing as the train was running late.’
By the time Phyllis had sat down in the parlour of her home, smelled the smells of home and was eating her second scone, it all became too much for her round, ample mother. ‘What is it, love? You in trouble, are you? Like that cousin Gwen of yours. Your father’s side she comes from, though, not mine.’ Her mother’s lilting voice was getting a little higher with every word.
When Phyllis did not reply, mainly because her mouth was full, her mother started again. ‘Met a doctor, have you? Want to set a time for the wedding, do you? Hope he doesn’t have a big family, because the chapel will only hold a few. The hall will be all right, though.’
Before her mother had time to ask another question, her father came in, followed by her brother Hugh. Her father smiled, gave her a quick kiss and sat down with his cup of tea. He looked at her and waited. Phyllis folded her hands on her lap, looked at her parents and told them the whole story.
Her mother had cried and her father had stood up, smiled again and said that he and Hugh would go and milk the cows.
By the time Phyllis was twenty-three, with just three years of her studies completed with flying colours, topping her year every year and fulfilling the promise that Dr Harrison and Matron had seen in her, she was back living with her thirty-something brother Hugh on the family farm in the valley, washing Hugh’s clothes, cleaning the house, cooking the meals.
Their mother had died slowly from cancer and their father quickly from a broken heart and with the help of a shotgun. After they had buried them both on the same day, in the chapel graveyard high up on a hill, her brother took over the farm. She left medical school with the assurance that she could return at any time. On a clear day, from the top of the ‘mountain’, she could see Liverpool.
When David was about ten, he had only asked her once why she had done it; why she had left her career, her friends, her life, to return to take care of Uncle Hugh, a grown man. She had replied, ‘Well, he was and is my brother who could not boil water without burning it; Mother had done everything for him except dress him. She washed his clothes, cleaned his boots, cooked his food, made his bed and made sure he went to chapel on Sundays. He was a helpless babe at thirty-three. Good farmer, nothing else. What else could I do? I will always have nursing. I can always go back to medical school.’
The day David’s mother and father had met was a misty, drizzly, early autumn morning in 1936. Hugh had half a dozen steers to sell. As the hay harvest had been poor, he had told his corn merchant that he must sell some cattle. The corn merchant had told him that he had met an Irishman in Chester Market who might be interested.
When the corn merchant’s Irishman arrived, he climbed out of his shiny black car, introduced himself as Brendan, shook hands with Huge, raised his hat to Phyllis and asked her name. When she told him, he smiled. ‘Phyllis is a lovely name. Irish, I think.’
She knew that it was not; it was as Welsh as the daffodil. He held her eyes for a couple of seconds and in that time, she told him she could see all the way through his blarney. He had just smiled and touched his hat again.
Hugh watched, disconcerted by the directness of the Irishman and even more by his sister’s easy manner in front of a stranger.
Brendan’s clothes were a collection of contradictions. He wore a workingman’s ‘Sunday best’ suit of dark grey tweed with a bit of a red fleck with waistcoat to match; a silver watch and chain; highly polished, expensive tan boots; an old, battered Irish tweed hat and a red handkerchief with white spots, tied around his neck like a labourer showing his striped flannel shirt without a collar. He carried a cattle dealer’s usual cane, but this one had what seemed to be a silver top.
If that was not enough, he drove what looked like a new Rover car, the likes of which was hardly ever seen in that part of Wales where the pony and trap, and very small cars for the better off, were still the main forms of transport.
He seemed a nice enough man – about thirty, Phyllis thought, a big man at least six foot tall, so she only she only came up to his shoulder, and she was taller than Hugh. He had a bright smile and a rich Irish brogue that reminded her of the pub in Liverpool and of Gwen and her port and lemons on a Saturday night. He had all the blarney, all the chat in the world that reminded her of the injured Irish dockers at Liverpool General who, unless they were unconscious, would always try it on with a pretty nurse. A grope here and a squeeze there and a laugh were all part of taking care of the Irish.
She had listened as her brother and the Irishman haggled and argued over shillings and then pennies, neither raising their voice. After a good half hour with no agreement, Brendan said, ‘Think about it, Hugh, it’s a fair price. I’ll come back in a day or two.’ He turned to Phyllis and touched his hat. ‘Good day, Phyllis. I look forward to seeing you again.’ Then he climbed into his car and left.
When Brendan returned two days later, Hugh sold him the cattle, and when he was out of earshot, Brendan had asked Phyllis if she would like to go to the pictures. ‘I think it’s an American picture or something,’ he said. ‘I thought you might like to see it. I could pick you up and get you home safely; no need for buses or anything like that.’
Phyllis realised that he was speaking quicker than usual and his thick Irish accent was difficult to follow. He had also taken his hat off to reveal a thick mat of curly black hair with a grey, probably white stripe over his right temple. He was also screwing up his hat as he spoke, but his eyes never left hers.
She looked back at him, looked him up and down from his boots to the top of his head as if for final approval and to show they were on equal terms, smiled and said, ‘I’d love to go to the pictures, Brendan. Six o’clock Saturday?’
‘I won’t be late,’ he said, smiling and trying to put his hat on. He found that he had to straighten it, gave up, smiled again, shoved his mangled hat on his head and drove carefully out of the yard and down the lane.
Hugh was not happy when she told him she was going to the pictures with Brendan. ‘They’re all the same, these Irishmen. All they can do is drink and fight and steal cattle when they get the chance,’ he said. ‘All he will do is tell you he loves you and then leave you. I bet his father was an Irish tinker, a gypsy.’ He slammed the door and went to milk the cows.
Hugh never mentioned the subject again, though he spoke little to her over the next few days, grunted when she spoke to him and made more noise than was necessary as he went about his jobs in the dairy and the yard.
As she ironed and folded Hugh’s clothes, Phyllis realised that she really was back in the valley; nothing had changed. After being away for six years, first nursing and then medical school, she had been in another world. She had changed, but the valley had stood still, and here she was, being drawn back in, doing just what her mother had done for all those years both for Hugh and for their father. She thought of Liverpool and of medical school and of the freedom she had grown used to and of Gwen and Saturday nights in The Ship’s Bell full of workingmen, rough and as gentle as lambs all in one.
She thought of what her mother had told her about getting out of the valley and marrying a doctor and of the only eligible men in the valley being those boys from Plas Maen. ‘Something funny about their father, I think’, her mother had warned.
As her mind wandered, Phyllis thought about the Jones family who could communicate with the entire valley from the middle of her yard. Of the quiet Mr Jones who hardly came up to his wife’s shoulder; thin, almost gaunt; always stooped; always working dawn till dusk, and when he was not working, he was a deacon at the chapel; welcoming, handing out prayer books and wringing his hands in fervent prayer.
Phyllis tried to imagine Mr and Mrs Jones in bed. Was there love and tenderness, or were orders issued? ‘It’s time to have a baby, Mr Jones,’ followed by detailed instructions on how and for how long. Obviously something had happened at least twice. The very notion made her smile.
She thought of the two boys Gareth and Gwynn, carbon copies of their father, without the intensity. Where Mr Jones went, the boys followed, and Mr Jones went where Mrs Jones told him to go and did what Mrs Jones told him to do. As they walked up to the hill to chapel on Sundays, the Jones family reminded Phyllis of ships on the River Mersey – one big ship, perhaps a battleship, followed by a fleet of little ships, the battleship hooting a warning, the little ones silent.
Brendan was five minutes early on Saturday evening. When he arrived, Hugh was brooding in the dairy. Brendan carefully turned the car around so that the passenger side was closest to the front door of the house, turned the engine off, got out, walked briskly around the car up the two steps to the front door and knocked twice.
Autumn was already in the air, so Phyllis wore a grey tweed coat with a fitted waist and four big buttons, quite fashionable for the day. On her feet were black court shoes she had bought for her parents’ funeral. Her unruly red hair, freshly washed as she had helped Hugh earlier in the day feeding calves, was shoulder length and pinned back behind her ears with two silver clips Gwen had given her when she passed her final nurse’s exams. No make-up, but the moment had brought a blush to her cheeks.
‘Phyllis, you look lovely,’ Brendan said with a big smile. ‘Ready to go?’ She nodded. ‘Come along, then,’ he said as he ushered her to the car, opened the door and gently closed it with hardly a sound once she was inside.
Brendan walked around to the driver’s side and saw a movement out of the corner of his eye; Hugh was standing in the shadows of the dairy. ‘How are you, Hugh?! Don’t you worry, now. I’ll bring her back safe and sound!’ he shouted with a wave.
As they drove down the lane, Hugh threw a milk bucket across the dairy, narrowly missing Clara the cat who shot off to hide with the calves. As Hugh walked out of the dairy, he gave the bucket another kick for good measure and slammed the door shut.
At the house, Hugh found what he had been expecting. His supper of cold lamb and cheese with one of the last tomatoes from the garden was laid out on the table with fresh bread and homemade butter. A cold apple pie with a little jug of cream completed the meal. The kettle was boiling on the fire and the teapot was warm. His big pot pint mug was also warming, just as he liked. He looked for fault and could find none, except that only one place had been set – his.
* * *
Brendan was silent as he drove carefully down the lane. Phyllis looked at him and saw that he wore a well-tailored suit of Irish tweed of such a dark green that it was almost black, with little flecks of yellow that could hardly be seen. His striped flannel shirt this time had a white collar and around his neck, he wore a yellow silk tie with beagles on it. His hair, as unruly as hers, was just a mop of tight black curls. She realised she was staring and looked away.
As they approached the village, Phyllis looked at the inside of the Rover and saw that it was as impressive as the outside: fine, red leather seats; walnut dashboard; spotlessly clean with just a hint, she thought, of cigar smoke. Neither of them had said anything, yet there was no embarrassment. It was just as if there was no need for words. Phyllis relaxed and settled down in her seat.
In the village, there was just one phone box about thirty yards from the front of the Black Bull on the opposite side of the road and about sixty or seventy yards from the little bridge over the river. Brendan stopped the car near the phone box and, touching her on the arm, said, ‘Excuse me a minute, Phyllis. I need to make a phone call. I shan’t be more than a minute or two.’ He left the car and she saw him putting money into the machine and press button A.
A little later, she watched him putting more money in and could see that he was waving his free hand to make his point with whoever was on the other end, then the door of the phone box opened and Brendan approached her side of the car and, with some agitation, tapped on the window. ‘Phyllis, love,’ he said. ‘Do ye have any change? I’ve run out and I must ring them back.’ He looked calm but strained.
Phyllis opened her purse and without counting it, she gave him all of her small change.
‘Thanks, bless you,’ he said and, again without counting it, went back to the phone box.
When he returned half an hour later, he got in the car and said, ‘Phyllis, I am sorry. I promised to take you to the pictures and we’ve missed the show. Would you like me to take you home, for there’s little else to do in this small town?’
Phyllis didn’t want to go home. This big Irishman was starting to be interesting and anyway, why go home to Hugh on a Saturday night with only the certainty of chapel on Sunday? She had not been off the farm for weeks. Hugh had no interest in the pictures and had never been into a pub in his life. Every night, he read a farming magazine or the Bible while she read one of the two books a week that she took out of the little library in the post office.
‘No, Brendan,’ she said. ‘I wouldn’t like to go home. I’d like to go to a nice pub away from here so that Hugh, my deacon brother, does not get even more upset. When we get there, I’d like a whiskey and water and I’d like to warm my feet by the fire.’
For a moment, he just looked at her, his face reflecting a thousand questions, then he said, ‘Righto, I know just the place. It will take about thirty minutes to get there.’
As they moved off, they both spoke at the same time and laughed. ‘You go first,’ he said.
‘No, no, please, you go.’
‘No, I insist. You go.’
In the end, neither of them said a word because they had both forgotten what they were going to say. Finally Phyllis broke the silence and asked him, ‘Where are we going, Brendan?’ There was no fear or concern in her voice, as she felt quite safe speeding through the gathering dusk in a lovely car with this stranger of an Irishman with an easy name.
‘The Cat and Fiddle up on the moors. I’ll guarantee nobody will know you there. I sometimes stop there when I’m driving back from Mid Wales. It’s only a little place, but they do pull a good pint – my word, they do.’
As they pulled up at the Cat and Fiddle, she could hear the chatter of a Saturday night pub. The patrons had not yet started singing, but she was sure they would before the night was out.
The Cat and Fiddle was a grey stone building with a grey slate roof. The only thing distinguishing it from the other buildings she had seen in the car’s headlights was that it was bigger than the others and around the back, it had a few outbuildings and a stable where they parked.
In the dark, Brendan helped Phyllis out of the car, told her to watch the cobbles as they might be slippery and guided her gently by the arm to the front door lit by a paraffin lamp.
As they entered through the low door, Brendan had to stoop to get in. In front of them were two doors, each with a sign; one said ‘Bar’, the other said ‘Ladies Lounge’. He opened the door to the ladies lounge. ‘I’ll come in here with you. I’m sure we’ll be alone and will have the fire to ourselves. Not too many ladies in this neck of the woods have a drink on Saturdays, not that I think there’s anything wrong with ladies having a drink, you know. Why, you should see them in Ireland. Why, my old ma could drink me da under the table and he can drink the pub dry and she’s just a wisp of a thing, like you. Red hair too, going grey now, though. Do ye really want a [whiskey]? The whole sentence had come out in a rush and a bit garbled. He realised it and smiled a little self-consciously.
Phyllis smiled back easily at him. ‘Yes, please,’ she replied. She walked to the table closest to the fire and started to take her coat off as the room, softly lit with paraffin lamps, boasted a good fire and was pleasantly warm. She had no sooner undone the first three buttons and was undoing the last when he was there helping the coat off her shoulders and hanging it up on a hook behind the door.
When he turned from the door, she was standing at the table; a slim, full figure dressed in a grey gabardine, pleated skirt and an emerald green jumper and cardigan, all topped with a flame of red hair. ‘Why, we could be in Ireland,’ he said. ‘You look like an Irish colleen – damned if you don’t.’
‘This is no tribute to Ireland, Brendan,’ she replied. ‘This is all that I have suitable for a night at the pictures, or as it now turns out, for a night at the pub. I think I prefer this to a cinema full of smoke and coughs.’
‘I have to agree with you there,’ he replied. ‘I was not looking forward to sitting all night and not talking. I find that hard, and by the way that we started by not saying anything to each other, I had begun to think that the only words I might get out of you all night would be “goodnight”. How much water in your whiskey?’
‘Just a splash, please.’
They were now seated at the table closest to the fire and Brendan spoke first. ‘If you don’t mind me saying, Phyllis, how come a chapel girl like you, living on a tiny wee farm miles from anywhere in the hills of Wales, where even the sight of liquor is a mortal sin for some, has learned to not only order a whiskey and water but then drink it?’
By this time, she had raised her glass to his, said ‘good health’ and taken a sip. The whiskey warmed her and she told him about Liverpool, nursing, medical school, the deaths of her parents and how they died and how it seemed the right thing to take care of Hugh; she could always go back to medical school – they had promised her that – but for now, grumpy Hugh, her brother, came first.
The whole time she was speaking, he did not interrupt, neither did he take his eyes off her face; he just sat there, looking at her and listening. When she had finished, he said, ‘My God, goodness me. Well, that explains it.’
‘Explains what?’ she asked.
‘Will ye have another drink and I’ll tell you?’
‘Thanks.’ She gave him her glass and for the first time, she noticed that he too was drinking whiskey but from a much bigger, cut-glass tumbler.
She watched him as he chatted to the landlord in his easy way, then the landlord reached under the counter, pulled out a bottle and poured a good measure into Brendan’s glass. He then measured her a whiskey from a bottle behind the counter. When Brendan returned to the table, he had her drink in her glass and something of a lighter colour in his own.
Before he could speak, she looked him straight in the eye and said with mock sincerity, ‘Before you say another word, Brendan McGonigal, what have you got in your glass that is so special that you do not want to share it with me?’
She had never seen him blush, but blush he did. He looked almost frightened for a moment; then, when he saw that her eyes were smiling, he relaxed and became conspiratorial. ‘Well, now, Phyl …’
Only my family calls me Phyl, she thought.
‘It’s like this. The man behind the bar is an Irishman who just misses and loves his Irish whiskey, so every time I go to Ireland, I bring him a few bottles, and the deal is that whenever I feel like one myself, I can have it “on the house”. So there, simple answer.’
She looked at him again and said, ‘You can buy Irish whiskey in Liverpool, Brendan. The Irish drink it all the time with their Guinness. I’ve drunk it myself. Why not just buy it here? Why go to all the trouble of carrying it over the Irish Sea in your suitcase?’
Well, now, this is where it gets a bit complicated, you see. This whiskey is so special that you can only buy it at one place in Ireland.’
‘What do you mean? At the distillery?’
‘Well, sort of …’
‘What do you mean, “sort of”?’ She was becoming exasperated and Hugh’s warnings were starting to ring in her ears. What was this man up to? One minute, charm itself and the next minute evasive.
He saw the warning flash in her eyes and said deliberately, ‘The man I get the whiskey from makes it himself, for himself and his friends, just as his father did and his father before him. My father is his friend and so I am his friend. When he dies, his whiskey will go with him, for he has no sons left. All shot by the Protestants years ago. There’s no harm in what we do, Phyllis. It’s just a bit of fun. Here – would you like to try it?’
He held out his tumbler to her and she put it to her nose. She smelled the peat and heather of somewhere wild. She took a little sip and then another and handed the tumbler back. She had never tasted whiskey like it in all her life. It was another drink altogether. She held the rich taste in her mouth and then swallowed. Then, without thinking, she reached across and ran the back of her hand down the side of his face. ‘Thank you, Brendan.’
Perplexed at the change in her mood, he said, ‘It’s nothing, Phyllis. We call it “the Dew”.’
‘Brendan?’ she asked. ‘What did you mean when you said: “well, that explains it”?’
He laughed. ‘It was the corn merchant, Ivor Parry. When he told me about Hugh’s cattle, he added that even if I didn’t buy the cattle, I might get a look at his sister, if I was lucky. There was too much intrigue and challenge in that for me not to at least try.’
She said nothing, for she knew it was inevitable that she would feature high on the gossip list at least for a while, even though she had only been home for a couple of weeks. Gossip was all they had in the valley and, for the devout, chapel and more gossip.
On the way home, the more she thought about it, the more she knew that there was something about his whiskey story which did not ring true. As she thought about it, the warmth of the whiskey, the motion of the car and the comfort of her coat lulled her to sleep without her even realising it.
* * *
Phyllis awoke with a start as the car stopped. A flutter of concern was soon put to rest when she recognised her own yard in the pale moonlight.
‘We’re home, colleen,’ he said almost in a whisper. ‘Old Hugh’s probably looking at us out of the window.’ Reaching over her and opening the glove box, he took out a little paper bag full of humbugs. ‘Here, take these in case Hugh smells the liquor of the Devil on your breath.’
‘He’ll be long in bed by now,’ she replied. ‘Has to be fresh for chapel in the morning.’
‘Don’t you be too sure. I would mind betting he’s sitting in front of the stove, wrapped up in his dressing-gown, reading the Bible and waiting for you. Would you like to go to the pictures next Saturday? Make up for missing today?’ he asked quickly.
She smiled at him in the moonlight. ‘That would be nice, Brendan, and who knows? You might have another phone call to make.’
He chuckled in the darkness. She squeezed his hand lightly, opened the car door and was gone before he could move.
The front door creaked a little as she opened it and then, realising she had no reason to be too quiet, she shut it softly. She then opened the door into the kitchen and was startled to find, just as Brendan had predicted, Hugh sitting by a bright fire, paraffin lamp on the table, mug of cocoa in hand, reading the Bible. ‘Good picture, was it?’ he said, looking up. ‘Must’ve finished on time because I estimated that if it finished at a quarter to ten then you’d be home by ten-fifteen, and there you are. It’s just twenty past. Must’ve been a long picture.’
Phyllis was glad she had managed to get a humbug into her mouth between car and front door as this was no time for an angry Hugh. Why spoil what had turned out to be a lovely evening? She had broken the grip of the valley on her life.
She declined Hugh’s offer of a cup of cocoa and instead poured a glass of milk out of the jug on the cold slate in the scullery. ‘Goodnight, Hugh. Don’t stay up too late.’ And she went to bed.
Lying in bed, Phyllis thought about the big Irishman called Brendan, of his good manners and expensive clothes and car. She liked his good humour, his happy smile. She wondered about his long phone call and decided it must have been a deal for some cattle and so whoever he was ringing must have had a phone. That meant that whoever it was must either live down by the coast or perhaps in Cheshire, for the only phones in the hills were at post offices, pubs and other places in the villages. Few farms, if any, had been reached.
Phyllis did not have to wait until the following Saturday to see Brendan. On the Wednesday as she and Hugh were finishing breakfast, they heard a car quickly followed by a knock on the door. ‘I wonder who this is,’ said Hugh, getting up. ‘It must be someone we know because Bess hasn’t barked.’
When he opened the door, Brendan was standing in the doorway. ‘Good morning, Hugh. I am just off to Abergele to the markets and I wondered if Phyllis would like to come with me. She can have a wander around the shops and things while I’m at the auction, and I promise to have her home by teatime.’
Before Hugh could answer, Phyllis was at his side. ‘I’d love to come with you, Brendan. Hugh, let Brendan come in and give him a cup of tea while I get my jacket and shoes.’
Hugh stood aside for Brendan and waved him to the table. His face dark with a thousand emotions, he poured Brendan a cup of tea, put it on the table in front of him and pushed the milk and sugar towards him without speaking a word.
‘Well, thank you, Hugh. Just what I need. Had an early start this morning.’ He went on without pausing, ‘Now, Hugh, you know you said that you were short of hay? Well, I have found some good meadow hay down in Rhyll, and I was thinking that if we got some good corn together with the hay for those steers I’ve bought from you, and if you fed them through the winter, we would both be better off in the spring when they are fat. I will pay for the feed and pay you to keep the beasts and to feed them and we will split the difference, less the feed costs, when I sell them. You have the room because I know you have one more bullock yard empty. What do you say?’
The look on Hugh’s face changed as Brendan spoke; he was confused at his offer. Only moments ago, he was annoyed that this man had turned up to take his sister away for the day. He was even more annoyed at the obvious delight on her face and the way she ran upstairs to change. Now here he was, offering him what seemed like a good deal. It would certainly help his finances as spring was always a difficult time before he had any fat lambs to sell in June.
Before he could reply, Brendan continued. ‘It’s a favour that I am asking of you, Hugh. It looks like I am going to be short of a few fat cattle come the spring, because you are not the only one who has a rough time this hay harvest. I have had to send cattle away to the Midlands and all over the place. What do you say? I’ll be fair with you, believe me.’
Hugh hesitated and the moment was lost as Phyllis came back downstairs, flushed but ready for the day. She had changed into dark brown corduroy slacks; a loose, chunky, hand knitted jumper with a roll-down collar; on her feet sturdy, brown brogues; over her arm a grey tweed car coat.
Brendan looked at her. ‘My goodness, Phyllis, you look just the part. There are not many women who know how to dress for a cattle sale. I should have a good day because all the others will be looking at you and not watching what I am doing.’ Turning to Hugh, he said, ‘Think about it, Hugh. We can both make a bit of money. Come on, Phyllis, or we’ll be late.’ He rose from the table and opened the door for her.
‘Hugh, you’ll find some cold pie and fresh bread in the scullery. I’ll cook a meal for us tonight when I get back.’ She noticed that Hugh was not scowling. He stood with his mouth open as if in some kind of trance. She squeezed his forearm as if to reassure him, passed through the door Brendan was holding and made her way to the car.
As they were about to drive out of the yard, Hugh appeared, running down the steps from the house. He had a nervous half smile on his face as he approached Phyllis’s side of the car. She opened the window and Hugh rested his work-hardened hands on the sill. ‘Phyllis, could you get me some Stockholm Tar and some teat cream from Jones’s Store? I’ve just about run out and the post won’t be here before Friday.’ Then, looking at Brendan, he said quickly, ‘I’ll feed those bullocks over the winter for you, Brendan. And thank you. If you want to buy a few more, we could probably fit about ten or twelve in that yard. Might as well feed a full yard as one half empty. I may have had a poor hay harvest, but the wet weather has brought on those swedes and we’ll have some to spare, even after the cows have had their fill.’
‘Thank you, Hugh,’ said Brendan. ‘That’s music to my ears. I’ll see what’s in Abergele today and I’ll let you know when I bring Phyllis home this afternoon. That’ll be a big help.’
There was genuine pleasure on Hugh’s face. He’d never ‘dealt’ in cattle before; he’d only ever done what his father had done before him and probably his father before him. He’d always kept the calves from their milking herd of ten to fifteen, put the heifers he didn’t want to the bull and sold them in calf, fed the steers through winter and finished them off on the lush spring pastures. Hugh nodded, very pleased with himself, and went back to the house.
As he reached the door, he turned and waved, but neither Phyllis nor Brendan saw him as they were already talking. He quickly and self-consciously pulled his hand down and went inside.
Once they were clear of the village and on their way to Abergele, Phyllis asked Brendan what his conversation with Hugh had been about because Hugh almost seemed happy which was unusual for him. ‘Well, Phyl, there’s a man in Liverpool, a friend of mine with an abattoir. We’ve just secured the contract to supply all of the Cunard line with prime beef all year round. Now they’ve told us they don’t want big, three-year old bullocks; they want small animals under eighteen months old and not too fat. My part of the deal is that I have to find at least fifty cattle a week and rising to a hundred by the end of the year. They’ve also said that if we can do that and meet their requirements, we can apply to supply them with lambs and pigs as well. So, there could be a lot of business in it for me.
‘We already supply all of the big hospitals in Liverpool and Birkenhead as well as two or three big hotels. All of that on top of my usual trading in stores and fat cattle. So, if I can set up a few people to keep and feed cattle for me – like Hugh, especially with his Welsh Blacks, which I think will be ideal for the Cunard contract – then it will take a bit of pressure off my weekly trading. So far, I’ve ten farmers in the hills around here. That takes care of about a hundred cattle, so it’s a start.
‘It’s not that there’s a shortage of cattle; it’s just that they are so spread around, I seem to spend most of my time in the car, rushing between auctions. If I buy some today, they’ll go down to a farm we have outside Liverpool where the abbatoir can get them as they need them. Some might be ready for slaughter, some might need a bit of finishing, so we’ll do that. What I’m trying to do is build a pool of cattle so we can even out the supply that can be erratic at times.’
Phyllis watched him as he explained his ambitions. He spoke easily and with conviction, never once raising his voice, looking at her occasionally and then concentrating on the road. She was a little surprised that he should take her into his confidence after just one previous meeting. She was also pleased that he had brought Hugh onto his side. That would make things easier for her.
She caught the faint smell of cigars. ‘Brendan, do you smoke cigars?’
‘Yes, I do, but I’ve never smoked in your presence. I was always taught never to smoke in front of ladies.’
‘Well, now, Brendan, that’s a bit old-fashioned, you know. If you want to smoke, don’t worry about me. A lot of people smoke these days – women too. As for the men in the valley, they all seem to smoke pipes with that foul-smelling tobacco.’
‘Bacca Bryn Twist, that is,’ Brendan said. ‘God knows where they get it from. Out of ships’ bilges, I wouldn’t be surprised.’
They had just about reached Abergele. The little town was bustling with people, also ponies and traps loaded with all kinds of livestock and produce, all destined to be sold that day.
Brendan parked the car behind a hotel on the main street, called the White Swan. As they climbed out of the car, they could hear the bell ringing for the start of the cattle auction. As Phyllis was putting her coat on, Brendan came around to her side of the car and took a small package out of his pocket, which he gave to her. ‘Here you are, Phyllis. Something to keep your pretty neck warm. I’m told it’s made from the very finest cashmere, which I understand is goat’s wool.’
Phyllis opened the package and inside was a pale yellow, fluffy scarf made of the finest wool she had ever seen in her life. She put it around her neck, noticing how light it was; she could hardly feel it. ‘Thank you, Brendan. It’s very kind of you, but you shouldn’t be spending money on me.’
‘Nonsense, nonsense. I like buying presents and anyway, the shop assistant in Denbigh was a real lovely girl and she said that any lady would be pleased to have cashmere.’
As they hurried towards the ringing bell, she felt the scarf warm around her neck and again the faint smell of cigars came to her. Without realising it, she pushed her nose into the fine fabric just to make sure.
Phyllis had been to a cattle auction before with her father, but not since she was a little girl. The auction was held in a round building of corrugated iron. Inside was a round sale ring and tiered, single plank seats. Sometimes the buyers sat on the seats, but usually they stood around the outside of the ring. The auctioneer, together with his clerk, stood in a raised cubicle to one side of the ring. The cubicle was above the ring and the auctioneer looked down on the buyers and the spectators.
The bidding started fast and furious. Each bidder had a way of communicating with the auctioneer. One pulled his right ear; another just nodded; one raised one finger, another his thumb. The auctioneer missed none of these movements. As each lot was sold, the auctioneer smacked a short cane down on his desk and the auction staff had already brought another lot into the ring.
As Brendan had his back to her, Phyllis could not see how he made his bids, but several lots were sold to him and she could see him making notes. In between lots, she moved around the ring so that she was close to the auctioneer and could see Brendan front-on.
The next lot was five Welsh Black steers, almost a carbon copy of those Hugh had sold to Brendan. When the bidding started, Brendan didn’t move. Phyllis noticed that a thin-faced man and another, who Brendan had told her came from Cheshire, were the only bidders. Then there were three: the thin-faced man who just nodded, the man from Cheshire who touched his nose, and Brendan who just seemed to move the right side of his face in an exaggerated wink.
Phyllis heard two farmers next to her say in Welsh that the price was higher than they had expected. Suddenly, with the bid from the thin-faced man, Brendan shook his head at the auctioneer and walked away from the ringside, followed by the man from Cheshire. The auctioneer knocked the cattle down to the thin-faced man who looked annoyed at winning the bidding war, spat on the ground and left the ringside.
Brendan looked over to where he had left Phyllis; and, not seeing her, then searched the auditorium. She waved from her place near the auctioneer and went down the steps to join him as the next lot of cattle were driven into the ring.
‘Come along, Phyl. I’m finished here,’ he said. In less than an hour, he’d bought twenty cattle.
‘But the auction isn’t finished yet,’ she replied, not understanding his rapid exit.
Before she could ask questions, he went on: ‘I have a man here who looks at all the cattle before the sale, makes a note of those cattle he thinks I might be interested in and gives me a slip of paper before the bidding starts. That pen of little Welsh Black steers was the last pen for me today.’
As Brendan made his way for Phyllis through the buyers, sellers and spectators, he said, ‘How about a cup of tea and a sandwich at Bessie’s Bakery?’
Phyllis knew Bessie’s; that was where her father had taken her when she was a little girl. It was famous for its bread, sandwiches and cakes.
As they walked alongside the White Swan Hotel, naturally and without thinking, Phyllis took his arm. He looked down at her and smiled.
As they arrived at the front of the hotel and were about to turn down the high street to Bessie’s, Brendan stopped. ‘Never mind Bessie’s. How about a bit of lunch in the Swan?’
Phyllis had never been in the White Swan. Her father had always said that it was only for the rich and the tourists, but she nodded in agreement nonetheless.
The first thing Phyllis noticed about the hotel entrance was that it was separate from the bar at the front which was already filling with farmers and auctioneers who had finished for the day. As Brendan ushered her through the tall glass doors, they were met by a man dressed in a black morning suit who greeted them with a smile and a very English accent. ‘Good morning, Mr McGonigal. A little early this morning, but lunch is ready.’
‘Thank you, Robert,’ Brendan replied.
Robert beckoned to a young waitress dressed all in black except for a white apron and lace hat. She hurried over and Robert told her to take Mr McGonigal’s coat and that of the young lady. The waitress took their coats and Robert led the way into the dining room. Brendan motioned Phyllis to follow Robert and he fell in behind them.
At one end of the dining room, a log fire was blazing in the fireplace under a stag’s head. There were about twenty tables set for lunch with crisp, white tablecloths and silver cutlery. The walls were covered in paintings of scenes of Wales, Welsh Black cattle, horses and Welsh Mountain sheep. Robert held the chair for Phyllis and she sat down. Once she was seated, Brendan followed.
‘Now, Mr McGonigal,’ Robert said, ‘I know you never drink during the day, but perhaps the young lady …?’
Brendan raised his eyebrows at Phyllis, mischief in his eyes. ‘They don’t have the Dew here, Phyl, but would you like a drink?’
‘No, thank you, Brendan,’ she replied, more firmly than she intended. ‘A glass of water will do fine.’
‘Well, Mr McGonigal,’ Robert continued, ‘I’ll bring you the menu by all means, but if you will just trust me, may I recommend the salmon, fresh in the morning from where I dare not ask, but Chef has done it the way you like it – lightly poached, perhaps with a few small potatoes – and the spinach is also recommended. For starters, we have leek soup, but I think, if you don’t mind me saying so, Sir, you will find the salmon plenty in the middle of the day if you are busy as usual.’
Brendan looked at Phyllis. ‘Would you like the menu, Phyl, or shall we trust this man with the salmon that has been poached twice – once to get it to the hotel and once to get it to the table?’
She heard Robert cough nervously, but there was no need because the second table of diners was only just arriving and still on the other side of the room. She looked at Robert. ‘I’ll trust you, Robert. I’ll have the salmon, thank you.’
Robert looked pleased that she had used his first name, and turned to Brendan. ‘The same, Sir?’
Brendan nodded and Robert hurried off in the direction of the kitchens.
Phyllis realised Brendan had never intended taking her to Bessie’s; lunch at the Swan had been planned all along. She was pleased he had deceived her, that he had gone to all the trouble; she had never been out with anyone who had either the money or the forethought to treat her like this. Her thoughts about Brendan’s planning were confirmed when a little man with white hair and a twinkle in his eye came through the door into the dining room, looked around, saw Brendan and came up to the table.
Brendan saw the man approaching and half pushed another chair out with his foot. ‘Sit down, Pat. Phyllis, this is Pat, my man in the market.’
Phyllis smiled at Pat.
‘So, all sorted, Pat?’ Brendan asked. Before Pat could reply, he continued, ‘Did you see that weasel-faced fellow I left with that last pen? I thought he was going to be sick. Serves him right. I’ll bet he won’t do that again in a hurry. If he hasn’t sold them after the sale, to that fellow from Cheshire, I’ll bet we get them in Denbigh on Friday.’
When Pat spoke, he too had an Irish accent, but not as rich as Brendan’s; there was a Liverpool twang in his voice. ‘All done, Brendan. Transport’s organised. Shall I get the hay from Rhyll like you wanted?’
Brendan nodded and told him about the deal with Hugh, Phyllis’s brother. Pat smiled and rose to leave. ‘See you Friday in Denbigh, then?’ he said. Brendan nodded and Pat left.
As if on cue, Robert appeared with their lunch, followed by a waitress with fresh bread and butter. The meal was put in front of them quickly and without fuss. Robert bowed slightly and Phyllis was sure that the waitress gave a little curtsy as they both left. Brendan seemed not to notice.
The salmon was like nothing Phyllis had ever tasted before, quite unlike the salmon Hugh sometimes caught in the river. She had no idea what was in the dressing except that it tasted of lemon and also something bitter and fragrant. The potatoes were all the same size and the spinach melted in her mouth.
They ate in silence, enjoying the food, then Brendan said, ‘All we have to do is not forget what Hugh wanted, then I have a few cattle to look at up in Llansannan. And then I’m afraid I will have to take you home; otherwise I will have Hugh hungry and on my tail and I don’t want that.’
A few moments after they had finished, Robert appeared at the table. ‘I am not rushing you, Mr Mac, but I know what you like. How was the salmon, Madam?’
Brendan interjected in a loud, teasing voice, ‘It was perfect, Robert, you old rogue. You will make someone a fine wife one of these days.’
‘Really, Sir,’ said Robert, brushing crumbs off the table.
‘It was lovely, Robert. Take no notice of him,’ said Phyllis. Brendan raised his eyebrows and let out a laugh that made other diners look at them.
After Robert left with the empty plates, Brendan asked, ‘Would you like tea, or shall we be away?’
‘No tea for me, Brendan,’ she replied. So, he stood up and moved around the table to hold her chair for her. As they walked out of the dining room, she could feel the eyes of other diners on her. Brendan waved to one table as he opened the door for her.
Robert was there with their coats. He handed Brendan his and then helped Phyllis with hers. ‘A lovely scarf, if I may say so, Madam. I have not seen cashmere since I was at the Savoy in London. I remember we had an opera singer there once, a lady who claimed it was the only thing that would protect her throat in winter. I hope it does the same for you, Madam.’
They walked around the back of the Swan to Brendan’s car and it was only when they had turned into the high street that she realised they had passed the road to Llansannan. Brendan said, ‘I just have to slip home for a minute. I’ve left my notebook – another notebook – there. And I want to see if the post has been delivered.’ He turned the car down towards the sea.
About a mile down the road, he turned left into a narrow, cobbled cul-de-sac and stopped outside a small, whitewashed cottage, one of about twelve, six on either side of the street. Brendan explained, ‘These used to be fishermen’s cottages when there was a lot of fish around. I bought two of them about five years ago. Pat lives next door. Do you want to come in and see how this poor bachelor lives, or would you sooner wait in the car?’
Curious to see how Brendan lived, for her head was already full of memories of cattle auctions, a fine lunch and the solicitous attention of Robert and his staff, not to mention the planning that had gone into the whole day so far, Phyllis opened her car door to follow him into the cottage.
As Brendan approached the front door, he said, ‘There’s no one else here except William, and he likes everyone I like, the big fool.’
The front door of the cottage was right on the pavement and unlocked. Brendan opened it, picked up his mail from the mat and motioned for Phyllis to enter.
Inside the cottage was quite dark and warm. Brendan led the way down the short hallway into the parlour, calling for her to follow. She felt something wet and cold on her hand. She jumped, startled, and turned to see what it was. All she could see were two yellow eyes just below the level of her waist. She screamed.
‘For goodness sake, William. Is that any way to introduce yourself to a lady?’ Brendan had his arms around her. ‘It’s all right, Phyl. It’s only William. I should have told you. My mind was on other things.’
By this time, they were in the parlour and she could see William. He was the biggest dog she had ever seen in her life, more the size of a pony than a dog. He was sitting in front of them with almost tearful, limpid eyes, asking for forgiveness, his tail beating a tattoo of friendship on the floor.
‘William is an Irish wolfhound. Been bred in Ireland for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. Gentle as a lamb, most of the time.’
Still with his arms around her, Phyllis asked, ‘What do you mean, “most of the time”?’
‘Well,’ he replied, ‘I never lock the house and I like to think that if a stranger came in, William might not be gentle. Here, give him a pat.’ He held out his hand to the dog. William ignored Brendan’s hand and licked Phyllis’s. ‘There, what did I tell you? Gentle as a lamb.’
Brendan seemed unaware that he had his arms around her. Either that or he was making the most of the opportunity. She moved slightly and his arms fell away from her. ‘I’m sorry, Phyllis. I thought you might still be frightened of the dog, but I see that’s not the case. Looks like you’ve found a friend.’ He went off into another room, chuckling, and Phyllis looked down to see William lying at her feet.
She looked around the room. Clean as a new pin, tidy, furnished with old furniture – mostly oak. There were some hunting pictures on the walls, several big leather armchairs and a leather sofa close to the fire. On a sideboard was a tray with cut-glass tumblers and a full decanter. In the corner was a phone hanging on the wall.
She turned to find that he was watching her from the doorway. ‘Don’t get the wrong idea, Phyl. I’m not this tidy. Pat’s wife Mary cleans and if I want, cooks for me, makes the fire and feeds the dog and takes him down to the sea for a run every day. All I have to do is come home, sleep, change my clothes, pick up me mail and I am away. I even have the phone through to their place next door for when I’m away. Ready? Then we must go. Bye, William.’
The dog whined and Phyllis said, ‘Yes, goodbye William. Nice to meet you.’ She gave the dog a scratch behind his ear. He licked her hand in return.
Once in the car, Brendan looked at a gold watch on his wrist. She hadn’t noticed it before as he always wore a watch chain. ‘It’s now one-thirty. It’ll take us half an hour to get there, half an hour with the man and then half an hour to your place. Should have you home by three to three-thirty. Will that be all right?’
‘Of course it will be, Brendan. I’m having a marvellous day, in spite of William.’ She was still not prepared to tell him that she suspected he had planned the day with military precision so they could have the whole day together.
They stopped at Jones’s Store and got what Hugh wanted then took the road to Llansannan. As the car made its way out of Abergele and started climbing into the still green hills, the thin sunshine was warm through the car window. It was nearly full autumn; the leaves, a blaze of browns and reds, still clung to the trees; the sky was a misty blue with ‘mare’s tails’ streaming in from the north, perhaps bringing the first of the autumn gales that would strip the trees, leaving them naked for the winter.
‘A penny for your thoughts?’ broke the silence.
She looked at Brendan and said, ‘I was just thinking that this place is all I have ever known, and it’s really all I ever want to know. I would love to travel, but I would always come back to this. The Welsh call it the Hiraeth – the longing. I hardly saw autumn in Liverpool, even though there were plenty of trees around town and in the lovely parks like Calder Stones.
‘Life was always so busy. No sooner had I finished training to be a nurse than I was off to medical school. More work, more rushing. You don’t realise how much you have missed somewhere until times like this. Today has been like a holiday. No old Hugh grumbling; no looking out of the kitchen window, wondering what was going on in Liverpool; no concern that the washing might not dry, or that the fire might go out.’ She sat, silent, and looked out of the window again.
‘What about boys in Liverpool?’ he asked. ‘I bet you had them queuing up outside your digs.’
No one had ever asked her about boys before, then she saw that he had that big, teasing smile on his face again and she decided to join in the game. ‘Oh, yes, plenty of boys. And they were all either too old – at least thirty – too poor, medical students with a hundred hands, or married and feeling lonely on night shift, and they filled up all of my social time. Life as one great social whirl for this little girl from the hills.’ She tossed her red hair out of her eyes and looked away from him so he could not see her smile.
‘What do you mean? Too old at thirty?’ he asked quickly.
‘Well, they were, weren’t they, Brendan? Some of them were nearly ten years older than me, set in their ways, comfortable bachelors suddenly realising they had better get a move on if they were to contribute to the continuation of the species. Making a play for the first pretty nurse they could find was the only plan they had.
‘Then there were the doctors, old before their time, also set in their ways, using their status and the night shift to prey on the nurses, in the linen cupboard, all with two pairs of hands, always wanting to help in some dark corner, and if it wasn’t the doctors, it was the lecturers at medical school. One lecturer – he must have been forty – once asked me if I would like to go to Blackpool with him for the weekend to a medical conference. His nickname amongst the nurses was “Dr Groper”.’
When he said nothing, she looked at him and saw that his face was expressionless; he just stared at the road. Did he not see that she had joined in his little game of leg-pull? Had she gone too far? She didn’t know what to say next. Had he really taken her seriously?
Impulsively, a little nervously, she reached across and gave his arm a squeeze, but he showed no reaction. ‘Brendan?’ she asked quietly. Still he just looked straight ahead. ‘Brendan?’ she asked a little louder. ‘Brendan?’ Before she could say another word, he smiled at her and she gently punched his arm.
The cattle seen and bought without half the haggling he’d had with Hugh, Brendan and Phyllis were on their way to have her back by three-thirty at the latest. Again they didn’t speak, for it was as if they both realised there was nothing to say. Just being together was enough. After a while, she said, ‘Brendan?’
He grunted in reply.
‘You know those steers you just bought?’
‘Well, one had a limp and was smaller than the others. Did you notice?’
He glanced across at her and then looked back at the road. ‘So I see. Not only do you have an eye for old bachelor medical doctors, but you have an eye for cattle as well. Yes, my love, I did see it. The man said it had the limp when he brought them in from the field. I think he was wrong and I think he knew he was wrong. I think the beast has an abscess or something like that. Maybe something stuck in its foot. Anyway, I paid him twenty pounds less for that one, so he nearly gave it to me.’
He had used the words ‘my love’ as a manner of speech rather than an expression of fondness, but just the same, she thought, this is a very relaxed man, full of fun, obviously enjoying life, not short of money, good to be with and who seems to have no secrets. She decided not to ask him about girlfriends in case he said there was one in Ireland or Chester or somewhere. Best leave that one well alone because if he decided to pull her leg again, she would not know what to believe.
As they turned into the yard of her home, he turned the car around, as he always did, and turned the engine off. They could hear Hugh singing while milking the cows, his fine tenor voice doing justice to a hymn.
‘Hugh sounds happy,’ Brendan said and then went on, ‘Phyllis, I’ve enjoyed your company today. You’ve been good to be with. Would you come to Denbigh with me on Friday? I have a big day and I could do with a hand. Pat will be there for a while, but then he has to go to Holyhead to inspect a boatload of steers we’re sending over to Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire for the winter. We have to feed them and get them to Lincoln and Newark by the middle of next week so they can be sold at auction.
‘I’ll have to follow up with the buyers and see if I can buy them back privately in the spring without bothering with the auction all over again. I would appreciate a hand, and on the way back from Denbigh, we could have a nip of the Dew at the Cat and Fiddle and I’ll make sure they have enough beef and Guinness pie for another two. They always bake a big pie on a Friday. Will you come with me?’
She looked at him, smiled, put her fingers on her lips and then onto his. ‘I’ll be ready any time after seven on Friday morning. Thank you for a lovely day.’ Before he could speak, she was gone.
From the dairy, Hugh saw the tail-lights disappearing down the lane and he burst into song again, this time a Welsh lullaby he didn’t know he knew. Must have learned it from Mam, I suppose, he thought. Never sung it before. He continued to sing softly as he settled on his stool under another cow, bucket between his knees. As he squeezed her teats, the milk flowed and the cow stood perfectly still, chewing her cud, then she turned her head and licked his shoulder in appreciation.
It was not until Hugh had filled the bucket that he realised the cow he had just milked was the one for which he needed the udder cream, the one with sore teats, the same one that had kicked him out of the door that morning. So sore had she been, he had to tie her back legs together to stop her doing him even more injury.
‘They say we Welsh have the voice of angels,’ he said out loud. ‘Never knew we could do miracles, though.’
The milking done, Hugh turned the cows out into the field to eat the turnips he had carted. He washed up in the dairy and was finished for the day just as it grew properly dark.
‘Hearts of Stone’ and the sequel ‘Flight to Australia’ are available as i books from iBooks and Smashwords.com
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