SummaryA young man, unsure of his Welsh ancestry—confused by his parent's evasiveness, and his grandmother's refusal to share anything personal about her reasons for coming to America—visits Wales and discovers the deceits that formed the foundations of his life.
1. The Preparation
For the first 20 years of Douglas Williams’ life, his grandmother Mary had been tightlipped about her past—what had brought her to America, what and who she had left behind. During the last week of his last semester of college, Douglas’ father Llewelyn Williams Jr., fearing a downturn in Mary’s health, insisted Douglas join the family at the nursing home that had housed her for the last five years. That evening, after a short visit from a priest during which she insisted she was healthy as ever, she asked about Douglas’ upcoming Army service and if he still expected to be stationed in Europe for a time. When Douglas answered yes, she made this request of him: Please look up my brother-in-law Joseph, who might or might not still be living in Wales. She gave Douglas a photograph of her long-dead husband Llewelyn Williams Sr., noting that she had none of Joseph, but that the two brothers, born a few years apart in age, shared enough features for the photo to be useful. Promise you will do this for me, she insisted. Douglas kissed her on the forehead and promised he would. Mary’s request took everyone by surprise, especially Douglas’ father, himself equally tightlipped about his origins—as if it were a family obligation to bury the past. Even the portion of his father’s life after arriving in America—being raised by a single mother, becoming a citizen, creating a successful contracting business in southern California, marrying his mother—was underrepresented in the family scrapbook, which began, essentially, with Douglas’ birth. This reluctance to share had become the spine of Douglas’ emotional development and had created in him an ambivalence about delivering on the promise he had felt compelled to make that night in the nursing home.
Two years later, while stationed in Frankfort, Germany, he was encouraged by his college sweetheart Hollis Sweeney—post-grad fellow at Trinity University in Dublin—to get the whole family history thing out of your system once and for all. So, in August of ’74, with the first week of a two-week furlough to kill before reuniting with Hollis in Dublin, he found himself at last in Wales, having hitchhiked from London in less than half a day. As he approached the county of Caerphilly, which contained within it the two villages where Mary had suggested he begin his inquiries—the impossible-to-pronounce Senghenydd and Abertridwr—Douglas’ initial ambivalence had given way to a blossoming curiosity. This much he already knew: His grandmother had married Llewellyn—the older of the two Williams brothers, both miners—when the two were “quite young.” Everyone—literally everyone over the age of 14 within a 30-mile radius—worked in or for the mines, specifically Universal Colliery, at the time one of the world’s largest coal producers. Douglas had been told that his grandfather Llewellyn Sr. had died in the great Senghenydd Mining Disaster of 1913. And that his father—Llewellyn Jr.—had emigrated with his grandmother to the U.S. less than a year later, when he was only two years old. But the details were missing, and still were; only the scattered bones of a story had been unearthed—with no skeletal form to them.
The focus in Douglas’ family had always been on the present, on the future. What had happened was ignored, what was happening was stoically accepted, and what might improve life in the future was to be sought and cherished, no matter the emotional cost. Whatever reason Mary had for suddenly offering up Joseph, it certainly seemed out of character; what Douglas sought, urged on by Hollis and buoyed by the somber-toned but enchanting Welsh countryside, was the opportunity to finally learn something about the original Williams’ family.
* * *
North of Pontypridd and south of Merthyr Tydfil, the A470 wends woefully alongside the river Taff, twisting through desolate hummocks of pale grassland, home to a few sheepstock farmsteads higher up the sloping valleys, the deepest of which are pockmarked by clumps of wiry holly nestled against wych elms and sessile oaks, aberrant greenery overwhelmed by the dark cones of dead-grey slag heaps dotting the moors, reminders of Wales’ past mining glory. Douglas had spent the night a hundred yards off the road, hidden from view by a rotting elm, a branch of which had served as a makeshift tent pole for his tarp, keeping him dry throughout a night of intermittent rains. Upon waking, he dressed in his typical civilian uniform of blue jeans and grey “UVM Catamounts” sweatshirt, a necessary camouflage designed to hide his status as U.S. military—especially from young Europeans. He made his way back to the road through a dense fog that stubbornly resisted the sun’s efforts to dissipate it.
Minutes later, he was sitting on the gravel shoulder, gingerly picking at the torn skin on his elbows and knees. Blood streaked across his wrist when he wiped his mouth. His backpack lay in a ditch behind him, and his guitar case a few feet farther away, undamaged despite having been clipped by the truck that had emerged suddenly from the fog and failed to stop after the contact. The smell of dewy grasses and pungent sheep dung mixed with the taste of blood in his mouth, and he tried to spit away both. His breakfast of bara brith and jam curdled in his stomach and threatened to rise up into his throat. He spat out more blood and dirt, picked up his guitar case, shouldered the backpack, returned to the roadside, and raised his thumb. Not a local, Douglas surmised of the driver who had clipped his guitar case and sped away. A “tourist”—Welsh slang for British national—most likely, heading south from Brecon to Cardiff. A local would have slowed respectfully to once-over a young hitchhiker.
Since setting foot on Welsh soil, Douglas—second generation American, orange-haired, pink-cheeked, blue-eyed and lanky—had twice been mistaken for a local.
The first time was at a coffeeshop in Abergavenny early the previous day, when a young man with a Byddin Rhyddid Cymru (Free Welsh Army) tattoo on his forearm had mistaken Douglas for someone he knew, addressed him as “gim-roud” and—unconvinced by Douglas’ protestations—followed him out onto the street, calling out, “So now ya don’t know me?” Unnerved by the intensity of the encounter, Douglas kept his head down for the next hour of walking and made no attempt to catch a ride until he’d lost sight of the town. Once clear of the outskirts of Abergavenny, he found a stump off the roadway, sat and withdrew the picture he had carried in his wallet for years, the one his grandmother had given him in the nursing home: a helmeted, ruddy-cheeked miner, holding a pick-axe and lunch pail, stood in front of a sign that read “Universal Colliery Senghenydd.” On the back was written: Llewellyn Williams, Sr. 1912.
Although his mother Hannah was Swedish—archetypically blond, tan, broad- shouldered, high soft cheekbones—Douglas had that Welsh look: green eyes and fiery orange-red hair. Growing up in Southern California, Douglas felt more out of place than his black or Hispanic friends, who at least found social groups resembling themselves. But there was no one like Douglas in his grade- or middle schools, and only a spattering in high school. Douglas’ hair, grown out some since he’d made Specialist, was even more red than his father’s, his eyes deeper set, his nose longer and straighter, higher cheekbones. In total, he bore more of a resemblance to the man in the picture, including ears that “popped out” wide, as if a hat had been pulled down tight over his head. His parents had explained to him in middle school that he had been carried to term—his mother’s egg fertilized by his father’s sperm—by a young woman from the old country, the service provided through a local Catholic charity organization. “But you are all ours, young man!” they had assured him. The distinction between gestational and traditional surrogacy was lost on Douglas until he was in high school, but inasmuch as his parents didn’t dwell on his Welsh ancestry—nor on his mother’s malfunctioning uterus—he chose not to either, and what did it matter, really? He was an American, and like most children of immigrants, knew only a few phrases of the family’s origin language, and next to nothing about Welsh history. His American experience was the one in which assimilation trumped ethnic pride. Yet already, only a half a day in Wales, and he’d been mistaken for a native!
From Abergavenny, hitchhiking west along the A465 towards Merthyr Tydfil, Douglas had been in shadow most of that first day; the highway hugged the southern reaches of the slick and steep-faced Brecon Beacons, imposing their will over villages with odd names like Govilon and Gilwern. Along that stretch of road, he’d encountered a few faces that betrayed a mix of Portuguese or Spanish genes from the period when those two nations’ ships had touched the shores of Wales—and nearly every country from Africa to Norway. But those oddities had only served to highlight for Douglas the undeniable: he was heir to a Welsh DNA as distinctive as that of the Japanese, or Inuit.
The second time was late the same day, when the trucker who had carried him to this forlorn spot in Wales—a point about halfway between the tiny village of Aberfan and the larger town of Abercynon, located at the confluence of the Taff and Afon Cynon rivers—had also assumed Douglas’ local status, speaking a hash of diphthongs and swallowed consonants so complex Douglas had to raise his hands defensively, and struggled with the phonetic: “Alah thim sharad Com-ride,”—I don’t speak Welsh— to which the farmer had replied, smiling, “That’s alright, lad. Just so’s yer not English!”
Abertridwr—where his grandmother had lived, and the larger of the two small towns on Douglas’ itinerary—was a scant four kilometers southeast as the crow flies, but there were no direct routes there, or to Senghenydd just up the Caerphilly Rd. The two sister villages had become shells of their former selves after the collapse of the mining industry, and the only way in was through the county seat of Caerphilly, itself struggling to survive. With little southbound traffic, Douglas resigned himself to the possibility of a long day hiking the 20 kilometers. He withdrew the picture of his grandfather from his wallet once again and studied it.
This much he had learned: the Senghenydd Mine Disaster was the worst in UK history, claiming 439 lives on October 14, 1913. The explosion and fire that tore through the West Mine that morning left 205 widows and 405 fatherless children. Only 72 bodies were recovered. The body of the red-haired man in the picture, Douglas’ father’s father—and 367 others—were among those entombed and memorialized on site. The bones of the story were that less than a year later, his father had arrived in America with his grandmother Mary, having left behind Llewellyn’s Sr.’s younger and unmarried brother Joseph—one of the 232 survivors at work in the upper near-surface tunnels the day of the disaster. Throughout Douglas’ young life, Mary had refused to supply any details of what transpired between that horrendous event and the day she left for America with her infant son.
Out of his similarly reluctant father Douglas had pulled out a frayed rope of still more sorrow and misfortune: Lewellyn Sr. and great uncle Joseph had been orphaned in the first Senghenydd mining collapse of 1901, both parents succumbing to methane poisoning while part of a rescue crew. Mary’s father was likewise a victim of the original collapse, and later when she was a teenager lost her mother to pneumonia. After Mary emigrated to America with Douglas’ father in tow, Joseph had remained in Wales, and that was that. His father offered this: Yer Grandma had faced two equally unappealing options: stay and have her heart broke anew every day she saw Joseph head towards the mine, reminding her of yer dead Grandpa; or leave to establish a new life in America, and break her brother-in-law’s heart. To the obvious question, Why didn’t they all leave together? his father responded: I dunno, son. Likely we’ll never know. Steeled against all probing questions, Mary put an end to Douglas’ youthful curiosity when he was in high school: You move forward in life, Douglas. Life is what you do, pure and simple. Where yer headed—that’s who you are. There appeared no point in pursuing his heritage any further, and he had put it behind him until the fateful evening in the nursing home.
Sitting on a rock fence not far from the roadway, Douglas closed his eyes, and revisited that night: Mary had asked for an Anglican Priest to come see her. The home—alarmed by this surprising request, since there were no medical indications of decline or sudden illness—had notified his parents, who had in turn called Douglas. Once in the room, she appeared in no worse health than during the previous visit to celebrate her 85th birthday. Sitting upright in bed, she waved off the nurse who entered to give her pills, and directed the family where to move when the priest—who looked as old as Mary herself—suddenly entered, walking gingerly but with a slight limp. He passed the foot of Mary’s bed without introducing himself, and nodded in the family’s direction.
They did not recognize the man; he was not from the church Douglas had grown up in. Douglas’ mother and father looked at one another quizzically, and when Douglas’ father attempted to address the priest, he was “shushed” by Mary.
“This is between me and the Lord,” she admonished Lewellyn further, in her heavy Welsh accent. “It’s not fer yer speculatin’ or curious minds, none of you.” She acted as if the priest were a confidante whom she knew well, and not some nursing home rent-a-priest hired to provide solace to those in residence. She vigorously waved him closer to her bedside opposite the family and embraced his hand when it was offered.
“Mary, this is a surprise, I must say,” said the priest as he sat down next to her.
“No small talk, father,” said Mary.
“So, you’re not dying, I take it?” he said, smiling.
“No, I am not!” she barked. Douglas glared at his parents, thinking: You took me out of college for this shit?
“Is it about Joseph, then?” the priest inquired. “You’ve heard something?” Douglas’ mother and father nudged one another, looking even more puzzled than before. Hanna tried to speak, but Mary “shushed” her too.
“Move away, all of you,” she said to Douglas and his parents. She motioned for the priest to come close. She whispered in his ear, softly, “It is. And I have.”
“You wish to make a confession?” the priest whispered, equally softly. He cupped a hand between her lips and his ear.
“I do not,” said Mary, keeping her lips behind the priest’s hand when he twisted his head. The priest closed his eyes and dropped his head, in a show of disappointment. “I want you to carry a message to Joseph,” she added, with no hint of emotion. “You tell him I’ll forgive him, all these years on, if he’ll forgive me.” After several seconds delay, without further comment or gesture, the priest stood up and left, again nodding politely in the direction of Douglas and his parents, who remained strangely quiet.
“What the hell was that all about?” asked Douglas, directing the question to his parents.
“We’ve no idea. We’re just as baffled,” said his mother. His father looked stunned, then approached his mother and asked, “Mary, who was that priest?”
For a moment, Mary looked as if she might answer. Instead she said, “Come’ere, Douglas,” motioning for her grandson to stand where the priest had stood. “Will ya do something’ fer me?” Douglas’ parents strained to hear.
“Yes, Grandma,” answered Douglas, with a hint of sarcasm.
“You go look up yer great uncle Joseph when you’ve a mind to visit yer Grandpa’s grave in Wales. You’re headed to Germany for yer military service. Promise you’ll do that fer me, and you let me know when yer on yer way to do it, eh?”
“Sure, Grandma,” said Douglas, puzzled by this sudden reversal of her embargo on all things Welsh. Visit Grampa’s grave? Where did that come from? She squeezed Douglas’ hand and made him promise again to let her know when he made the trip.
“You’ve always been a curious boy,” she added. “I’ve no photographs of Joseph, but this one of yer grandah oughta do.” She opened a bedside drawer and handed Douglas the photograph of his grandfather, the one he carried with him now, then rolled over on her side, facing away from his parents, and—once again—that was that. In the two years since, she had never said another word about the priest—who he was, where he was from, how he might manage to get a message to Joseph, if Joseph was even alive. Douglas’ ambivalence towards Mary had stretched on, as did the doubt that he would ever execute her wish. While in Germany, through his first and second postings, the ambivalence had extended to his father. Why haven’t you ever gone back, dad? Weren’t you ever curious? Wasn’t a trip to the “old country” practically a required ritual for new Americans? The terse answer came back: She brought me here, gave me this life—your life—here in America. In any case, she asked you, not me. So, it’s your decision. His father’s answer seemed strangely calculated, matter-of-fact, but not unexpected. That was how the family had always been.
It was only after his relationship with Hollis had deepened, only after he felt sure that she was the one, only after she had insisted he needed this that Douglas had relented. He had added the Welsh itinerary for Hollis, not even for himself. After calling her with the news he had finally stepped onto Welsh soil, he made a second—as promised—transatlantic call to his grandmother’s nursing home, and left the message: Grandma. Arrived Abergavenny 8am. Headed for Abertridwr, as promised.
Twenty-four hours later, feeling free of the effects of his hit-and-run with the vehicle, he slid the picture back into his wallet next to the pound notes. Arm extended and thumb skyward, Douglas set off along the A470. He was an hour into daylight before the next car passed—slowing down, but not stopping. His thoughts turned to Hollis, the dark-haired beauty from New Hampshire who he had met as a freshman in college, and who now, after six years, appeared eager to marry him. It was unclear who was responsible for the long wait. There was originally the idea that graduating from college would come first. Then his stint in the army, spent primarily in Germany while she started graduate school, first in Boston, and now in Dublin, Ireland, at Trinity College. Hollis’ studies seemed to have no end, and she was paid decently for her work at Trinity College as a graduate assistant, so there was no rush on her part. Douglas had used his furloughs to travel throughout Europe, and to visit her when time allowed. And now this added task: to find his great uncle Joseph, and maybe discover why his family had been so reluctant to share its past, to learn what had Mary meant by: I’ll forgive him, all these years on, if he’ll forgive me.
Hollis had a lively spirit, was a hopeless and unconscious flirt, and expressed her love for Douglas energetically, always with a series of “I love you’s,” never just one. In bed, she focused exclusively on her own pleasure, and Douglas often felt as if he were watching a process unfold that he was only marginally involved in. But he had to admit that merely watching her excited him. Of all the women he’d been with, no one could match her intensity; those women who found him attractive—and there were many—expected too much of him. They wanted him to please them, to somehow be the cause of their pleasure. He could tell early on, in a conversation with a woman, if she were going to need him in that way. And he turned them down, without regret. Over the years, Hollis remained unconcerned that his travels, and his attractiveness to women, would offer up any threat to their relationship.
The sun was halfway across the sky when, squinting against the fine silver sheen of dewy and sun-drenched hillsides above the trees, Douglas stepped back as a small pickup—a U.S. model Toyota with the steering wheel on the left side—passed him at high speed. A hundred yards farther on, the driver applied the brakes harshly, smoking to a stop. The rusty truck backed up in a wavy line right toward him, its left wheels sending gravel flying into the roadside ditch. When it drew alongside Douglas, the driver window retracted with a thud, like a guillotine dropping.
“Where you headed? ” asked a rough-complexioned man with curly, orange-brown hair, white around the ears. The “you” seemed unnaturally extended—more like “yew” to American ears; Douglas had heard his grandmother speak with the same affectation. The man looked to be in his 50’s. He had blue-grey eyes, thin lips and a scar beneath his left eye, but a smile wrinkled his skin in pleasurable lines and his voice was a sweet baritone, the accent a blend of Liverpudlian and Welsh brogue. On the passenger side sat a young woman with dark, short-cropped hair and smooth, tannish skin, easily 20 or more years younger than the man.
“Are ya goin’ to Cardiff or points west? Pembroke or Fishguard?” she inquired gently, shortening the “you” to “ya” more conventionally.
“Eventually,” said Douglas. “Not today, though. Just going a bit southeast.”
“You’ve a lot of Welsh in ya,” said the old man. “I kin see that. But you’re American.”
“Guilty as charged,” said Douglas.
“Nah, no offense! Just the opposite. We love Americans here, eh Gwen?” He glanced at the woman. “Revolutionary spirit. Beat the English, God love ya fer that!”
The woman leaned across the older man. She had striking features, her dark hair more auburn than black with the hint of sunlight, much darker-skinned than a typical Welshwoman, but with dazzling sky-blue eyes and soft red lips. She had to have been part of that ten percent of the Welsh population with Portuguese bloodline.
“Were ya in a fight or somethin’?” she asked him, examining his face.
“With a truck,” said Douglas. “I lost.” Gwen laughed heartily.
“Ha! That’s Welsh humor, lad!” said the old man. “You may not speak the language, but that’s the spirit right there. You might say that, historically, we’ve been run off the road over and over again. And still we pick ourselves up.”
“Where d’ya want to go, then?” asked the woman. “Maybe we can take ya there?”
“Little town of —” Douglas struggled with the consonants “—Ah-bertree-dur. Tiny little place—”
“—South of Sen-gen-eth!” interrupted the old man. “Historical stronghold of the Welsh Underground! How would you possibly know of that place?”
“My grandfather. He lived there. And my great uncle.”
Both the old man’s and the young woman’s eyes opened wide, and the old man shouted: “Jaysus be, lad! Get in! Get in!”
As they drove south, the landscape changed. The road followed the high ground, and pockets of trees clogged the lowest lying land where streams flowed, or used to flow. Rough, rocky burns gave way to gently rolling hillsides easily mistaken for farmland, but which upon close inspection revealed only a thin skin of brown soil, patch-worked with bristled green and grey grass. Occasionally a grey-black, steeply sided pyramid of rock rose above the wavy horizon, a coarse reminder of what lay hidden below. Douglas sat between the two natives, absorbed by the starkness of the countryside. He occasionally eyed his guitar case and backpack rattling on the flatbed behind them. They were squeezed into a space between the left sidewall of the cargo bed, and a large wooden crate that extended from cab to tailgate, secured by several bugee cords.
“I hafta say, you really could pass fer a Welshman,” said the old man, after minutes of silence.
“I get that a lot,” said Douglas, returning the smile the young woman had given him. “I look a lot like my granddad. Everyone says it’s uncanny.”
“What’s yer name, then?”
“Douglas Williams. My grandfather was Llewellyn Williams. He was killed in the famous Universal Mine disaster. His brother Joseph lived. He’s the one I’ve come to look for.” The man and the woman smiled at one another.
“Look for?” said the man. “You’ve not got an address?”
“Long story,” said Douglas. “Family, um, idiosyncrasy, you might say. There’s been no communication for a very long time.”
“What a pity,” said the woman, extending a hand for Douglas to shake. “I’m Gwen, by the by.”
“The first or the second disaster?” asked the old man.
“What?” said Douglas, distracted by Gwen’s handshake and her beauty. “Oh, the second. The big one. They were orphaned by the first one.”
“Ya don’t say,” said Gwen, continuing to eye Douglas intently. “Emrys, isn’t Douglas beautiful?” She smiled at him. He felt fortunate that his status as a Specialist E-4 allowed him to forgo the military buzzcut that did his particular head a disservice. She ran her fingers through his hair. “Women must be falling all over themselves for you, eh?”
“Yesterday, in Abergavenny,” said Douglas, uncomfortable with the focus on his looks, “I got mistaken for someone else. It was a little disconcerting. Not just that they thought I was Welsh, which I get, but that I looked like a specific person. Not just a type. Called me gim-roud or something like that. Made me feel weird, if you want to know.”
“Why’s that?” she responded quickly. “He wasn’t a nice fella?”
“Not that. Just that he was so sure I was this other guy.”
“Well, he called ya Cymrwyd,” she added. “That’s Welsh fer comrade, what best of friends might call one another.”
“You’d think he’d know, then, if he was really good friends with the guy,” said Douglas.
“Unless they hadn’t seen one another in ages,” she added.
“I’m not surprised,” interjected the man. “You could even be related to me, lad!” The woman scowled, reached across Douglas, and punched Emrys in the shoulder. The old man just laughed. “Shame on me! I’m Emrys, by the way.” He and Douglas shook hands. “That mean anythin’ to ya? The name itself?”
“No, I really don’t know Welsh names or anything. Just some family history. And not much of that.”
“Means immortal in Welsh,” added Emrys, laughing. “Which is kinda like livin’ a lie, as none of us is!”
The truck bounced erratically on a rough surface for a few hundred feet, then seemed to settle into a continuous vibration as the gravel evened out. Douglas watched his guitar case slide to and fro in the flatbed behind them.
“Just making a quick stop. It ain’t far out of our way.” Emrys could see creases form on Douglas’ brow. “Jaysus, yer not in a hurry are ya?” He brought the truck to a gentle stop. “Aw, I shoulda asked you first. I forgot my manners.” His grimace suggested he was building towards the internal pain of an apology, but Douglas wasn’t sure. “Douglas. Say the word and back we go to the main road.”
Douglas rubbed his forehead. Two-plus years in the military and still he felt ill-equipped to judge a man’s character at a critical moment. The feeling in his gut could be cooling embers, or fuel that could ignite a full-blown fear if he didn’t control it. He rubbed one hand across his mouth, felt the newly formed scab below the lip. Out of the corner of his eye, Douglas caught Gwen smiling. She is very quick with her affection. Is she this guy’s young bride or mistress? Certainly not his daughter, tho she’s young enough. “What the hell,” he said.
Emrys shifted into drive. “That’s a good lad,” he said as he punched the accelerator. “And since yer not drivin’, I’ll buy you a pint fer bein’ a good sport, what eh?”
“I won’t say no to that,” said Douglas. A sharp crack came from the flatbed, and he knew it was his guitar case slamming against the frame or the crate. As he turned to look back, Gwen turned her head as well, so that their faces were only inches apart. Her blue eyes matched the intensity of the sky, and in this tough land of muted colors, of grim grays and pale green dotted with black rock, they seemed as big as the sky itself. Watching his guitar case settle into place against the cab wall, he could sense those eyes unaverted, looking him over. But instead of feeling pleased that another in a long line of women found him worth gazing at, he felt uncomfortable, as if he were being judged on—rather than appreciated for—his looks. Increasing his discomfort was the beauty and symmetry of her face. Thin nose, full lips, a beguiling smile, buoyant hair, and those eyes! She must know what she has. She must know what she is doing, how any man she looks at in that way will react.
2. The Opening
“Wake up, lad!” said Emrys just before he slammed the driver’s door hard. Douglas had no idea how long he’d been asleep. He was alone in the truck’s cab. He twitched slightly, accepted Gwen’s extended hand, slid groggily off the seat, and followed her towards a stone building isolated in a small green swale—a slight green dip in an unrequited landscape of grey and brown. Douglas scanned the horizon. Not a tree. No other buildings. Farther south, two of the pyramids maybe a mile away and a mile apart. A complex latticework of fences. A dozen sheep scattered in small groups of two or three, hundreds of yards apart. The road ended at the swale.
As the three of them approached the building, the front door swung open. The face of the man who emerged from the shadows was covered in grey stubble. Same general age as Emrys, but balder and fatter. He wore a bright white-collared shirt and black jeans. He squinted when he smiled.
“Dee-ur-tuweld-dee shmel, Emrys!” shouted the man. “Boray-da, Gwen!” He grabbed first Emrys, then Gwen, by the shoulders, and kissed them each on both cheeks. Then he looked at Douglas, who once again had the slightly uncomfortable sense that he was being examined, not just greeted. “And boray-da to you too, young fella! Good morning, as we say.” He held out his hand the way Gwen had earlier, and cranked Douglas’s firmly up and down, like a water pump. “De-sheen-karen-com-ride?” said the man to Douglas as they entered what looked like a tiny tavern. There were four small wooden tables, with four chairs stacked upside down on each and a ten-foot long bar behind which were several shelves of bottles, a small sink, and a stove. To the right of the bar was a door that Douglas assumed led to living quarters—or storage—of some kind.
Douglas recognized the man’s question. “I do not,” he answered. “Sorry.”
“But ya do a little! You understood me! And a little is not nothin’,” said the bar-owner. “Like we say here, a taste of cawl is better than none!” He turned to Emrys. “Well, then, Emrys. Ya got yer shoppin’ done, I see.”
“It’s a heavy piece,” Emrys said to Conwy, putting a hand on his shoulder. “I thank ya fer yer help in advance. It’ll take the both of us to haul it in the house when ya come fer dinner.”
“Diolch yn fawr,” said Conwy.
“Well, excuse my manners!” said Emrys, as the bar owner began upturning four chairs, Emrys continued, “Conwy, this here is Douglas. From America. Land of the free.” To Douglas the name sounded like Connie. The barkeep nodded as Emrys went on: “Douglas, this here is Conwy. Named fer the river he was found floatin’ on a hunnert years ago.” Conwy urged everyone to sit. Gwen and Douglas obliged immediately, but instead of sitting, Conwy pulled Emrys by the arm towards the back of the building.
“Not true! Stop saying that, Emrys,” said Conwy. Then he whispered something in Emrys’ ear, to which Emrys replied, “Later.”
Conwy turned his attention to Douglas. “So, Douglas, what can I fetch ya? It’s still morning, but around here noon begins about 10 AM.”
“Old timetables,” said Gwen, sitting down beside Douglas. “Mining hours. Up at four, down at five, lunch at ten.” She signaled to Conwy, who was already behind the bar. “Three pints for us and whatever you want, Conwy. And heat up your cawl and a loaf of rye. That’ll do, eh?”
“Conwy’s an old family friend,” said Emrys, noisily dragging a larger chair that had rested on top of another table and replacing the one Conwy had just put in place. As he sat, Gwen took her jacket off, laid it on her chairback, and stretched sensually skyward.
“All set, then?” asked Conwy. Emrys nodded.
“Gawd, to finally get my legs out!” Gwen groaned. “Never again!”
“Never again what?” asked Douglas.
“Ride all night from—”
“From halfway to nowhere,” Emrys interrupted crudely. “But it ain’t our story we want to hear. Only tourists ever come here is eager to pass right through Wales, quick as can be, on their way to somewheres else. We’re the forgotten part of Great Britain.”
Conwy arrived carrying four large ale glasses, each dripping a pale ochre foam. “Rye’s in the oven, cawl’s on the stove,” he said as he took a seat, then slid a glass towards each of his guests. “Here’s to ya, lad,” he gestured towards Douglas, “for havin’ the courage to take yer long journey.”
Douglas took several gulps before he realized that the ale was warm. At first he thought he might gag, but the sensation quickly turned soothing as the brew descended his throat.
“He’s thinkin’ about it, Conwy,” said Emrys. “And…” he paused while Douglas took another sip and smiled. “Clearly the lad has at least a touch of Welsh blood in him!”
Conwy giggled. “Here in Wales ya learn to trust yer gut, and ferget yer taste buds. Do that and you’ll survive the cawl that’s heatin’ up!”
“What’s cawl?” asked Douglass after another long sip.
“It’s a stew made from lamb and—fer this meal at least—Emrys’ potatoes,” began Conwy.
“My potatoes, mebbe, but Conwy’s parsnips and carrots—” Emrys added curtly.
“And swede!” said Gwen. “That’s the most important part! You can’t leave that out.”
Conwy excused himself, gathering the glasses, and returned moments later with another round of ale.
“Sound’s…interesting,” said Douglas. He stared at Emrys. “Your potatoes?”
“Ireland’s not the only country famous fer potatoes,” said Emrys.
Douglas gulped his second glass enthusiastically. “And what the hell’s a swede?”
Emrys frowned, then patted Douglas on the back and laughed. “He don’t know what a swede is! Musta been wrong about the Welsh blood.”
Gwen touched Douglas’ forearm gently. “Like a turnip. Or, whatchacallit over there? Rutabega?” she said. “No way you’d know if you’re not from here. Your Granny never served you none?”
“My grandma never talked about her life here. Most of what I know about my grandfather and my great uncle I learned from my dad, and that’s next to nothing.” Douglas realized his tone had shifted, as it did when he talked about his family, into a kind of monotone, in contrast to his companions’ lively Welsh brogue. He shook it off. “My grandma never wanted to return, and my dad never pushed for it. Then one day she just up and asked me—begged me—to look up her brother-in-law who stayed in Wales after she left.”
With some coaxing from his tablemates, and the effects of the ale building exponentially with each sip, Douglas told the story, as he had heard it, of the mining disaster at Senghenydd that claimed the life of his grandfather, and his grandmother’s subsequent exodus to the U.S. Another glass of ale appeared, and Douglas continued drinking. Gwen and Emrys and Conwy all sat silent and respectful. Thankfully, they did not press him when he stopped abruptly with: “And then I was born.”
Emrys threw his shoulders back. “Well, no matter. Here’s to you, lad. Fer doin’ yer grandma proud.”
“Have you a girlfriend?” asked Gwen, leaning towards Douglas. He felt helpless to avoid her gaze.
“Yes. Her name is Hollis.” The effects of the ale allowed him to appreciate Gwen’s beauty even as his thoughts turned to Hollis. Gwen returned the favor, staring—harshly it seemed to Douglas— directly back at him. He averted his gaze first, triggering a reaction from her.
“That’s so nice. Love is important. To have someone to love, I mean.”
“Why ain’t she with you, then?” asked Emrys.
Douglas turned towards Emrys, not because he had asked the question, but because he felt he’d fumble his answer if he continued to look at Gwen. “She’s working. She’s a graduate fellow at Trinity College in Dublin.”
“She’s smart, then,” said Conwy. “That’s not so good, lad,” he said with a wink and a smile. “You’re already at a disadvantage. Don’t tell me she’s pretty, too.”
“Yes, she’s pretty.” She is as pretty as the woman to my right! Absolutely!
“What’s a Catamount?” asked Gwen, eyeing Douglas’ sweatshirt.
“A kind of cat, I think, like a bobcat or a lynx. Small but ferocious. It’s the mascot for the college I went to.”
“Do ya miss her?” asked Emrys, uninterested in the provenance of a school symbol. “Yer girlfriend, I mean.”
“Yes, of course,” replied Douglas, but at that moment, he could not pretend to be unaffected by Gwen’s beauty; he forced himself to recall how much he missed waking up with Hollis’ warm skin warming his own, the sweet remnants of her perfume and sweat fueling his desire to make love again, secure in the knowledge that she would be the one to begin, and that he had only to accept her.
“Lechyd da!” said Gwen, raising her glass. “A toast!”
“To Hollis,” Douglas blurted out as a kind of apology to his girlfriend. He raised his glass up too quickly, spilling ale on the table. His three companions raised their glasses as well.
“To Hollis!” said Gwen and Emrys as one.
“To yer girlfriend,” said Conwy, taking a sip while the others lowered their glasses. “Love is all that matters, in the end.”
Lightheaded, Douglas groped for words like for a handrail in the dark. Gwen edged her body closer to him, securing his right elbow with her left hand, while Emrys leaned in from the other side. She raised her glass again.
“Here’s to love!” she said loudly, as she tapped Emrys’ glass. “Douglas? Do you have anything to add?” she said, as four glasses clinked together.
“Uh, here’s to swede!” said Douglas, attempting to stand. Everyone laughed. Gwen and Emrys eased Douglas down to a sitting position.
“To swede!” echoed Conwy. “And to the delightful but absent, uh…”
“Hollis!” said Gwen. “Hollis sweet and true!”
“Fook it! Drink up!” said Emrys, laughing with Gwen. Everyone gulped in unison. Emrys set his glass down hard—startling Douglas. “But lad, ya don’t really toast a swede,” he said in mock-seriousness. “You toast a man who knows how to cook a swede so’s a grown man’ll eat it. So… here’s to Conwy!” He struck Douglas’ glass hard enough to knock more ale out of it, and held his glass high for the others to reach. “To Conwy, a rebel at heart and a noble by deed. To one of us!”
“To potatoes!” said Douglas, leaning back in his chair hard enough for the front legs to lift and for Emrys to have to hold him. “To Emrys!” he blurted, looking plaintively upward at his host. He slammed his empty glass on the table. “I have to ask. What is this I’m drinking? It’s strong!”
“Ah lad, you’ll be pissing Taf in no time! Ya know what that means?” said Emrys. He grabbed Douglas’ shirtsleeve and turned him sideways roughly. Douglas thought for a second the old man was ready to hit him and he closed his eyes. When he opened them, feeling helpless and dizzy from three pints of ale, Gwen’s face had taken the place of Emrys’.
She was smiling broadly. “Callin’ someone a Taffy is like in the States, when only a black man can call another black man nigger and get away with it. From one South Welshman to another, it’s affectionate. If we were in North Wales, there’d be a fight.”
Seemingly satisfied that Gwen had explained properly, Emrys patted Douglas on the back. “Not far from here is the river Taf, where it all began. Most Americans is all jaw, but not you. Yer fair moithered, but yer the real article. Yer not a Gogs, that’s the main point.” Douglas joined in the laughter—knee-jerk social programming. He tried to stand again, unsuccessfully, and his head settled on Gwen’s shoulder. Conwy presented a tray of soup bowls filled with the cawl, and a loaf of bread as big as his thigh.
“Gogs is from North Wales, north of the Brecon,” explained Gwen, holding Douglas’ arm gently while Emrys clenched the other. “When we’re not pissin’ on the English, we’re pissin’ on the Gogs—and they on us.”
Emrys pounded on the table and shushed everyone. “Fer what we’re about to eat, Lord,” he said solemnly, “we thank ya.” He shoved a bowl towards Douglas. “Eat up, Douglas. This here’ll put grit in yer grin, and tears in yer eyes. That’s Wales in a bowl.”
The jostling startled him, and he snapped his head up, off Gwen’s shoulder. His brain felt loose inside his head, and he wasn’t sure where he was. The noise resembled the sound of his guitar case banging rapidly against the flatbed walls, only louder. Swiveling his head towards the noise, he looked through the now-open back window of the cab to see his guitar case and backpack ping-ponging off one another in the narrow gap between the crate and the sidewall. He surmised they could not have been on the A470, nor the A478 that would have taken them to Caerphilly, as both were smooth asphalt; they had to be on one of the B roads, maintained but less well paved. There were trees again on either side of the road, and deep shadows, as if they had descended into a valley. Someone had placed a Free Wales baseball-style cap on his head. He removed it.
“Ah, you’re back! Congratulations, lad, you’ve survived Conwy’s homemade bitter ale, and a fist of cawl, and yer still breathin’!”
Gwen placed the cap back on Douglas’ head. When he tried to remove it again, she grabbed his hands. “Looks good on ya, Douglas,” she said, smoothing the brim. Her touch was gentle but firm. “Wear it fer me, ok?” He relented, and relaxed. Anything she asks I will do. If she is attracted to me, I won’t spoil it by being rude. “How long have I been out? Where are we?”
“It’s a tiddle past 2 PM, Douglas. And yer ten kilometer from Abertridwr, and that’s only two more short of Senghenydd.”
“Can you drop me off there?”
“We can do better, Douglas. We can take you to my farm. I live in the very same valley.” Emrys pulled open the ashtray, picked up and then handed Douglas a small green bottle. “Take a coupla aspereen, and begin yer rehab. You’ll feel tip-top by the time we’re home.”
“So, you’re military,” said Gwen matter-of-factly. “I’d never have guessed, with yer hair. It’s not cut to the bone.” She stroked his hair gently.
“How’d you know, then?” asked Douglas, anxious that something he’d preferred to keep secret had been revealed.
“Your tags—dog tags, ya call ‘em?—dangled out yer shirt when we moved ya.”
“I don’t want people to know, as a rule,” Douglas noted. “American servicemen aren’t looked on too kindly in Europe these days.”
“English military, we’da dropped ya back before Conwy’s,” chimed Emrys. “American, that’s a different matter. Rest easy, lad. What’s yer rank?”
“Specialist in what?” asked Conwy.
“It’s a privilege rank. Doesn’t mean anything except I get to tell the most pathetic recruits what to do now and again, if the Staff Sergeant doesn’t want to.”
“So, just enough authority to cause trouble,” said Emrys—pausing for effect, telegraphing that there would be a punch line—“but not enough to end any.” Douglas did not think the observation worthy of a laugh, but when Conwy and Gwen chuckled, Douglas joined in.
“What’s in the crate?” he asked, struggling to keep his eyes open, but also eager to change the subject.
“Something for the house,” said Emrys. “A nice couch.”
Gwen unscrewed the cap for Douglas and dropped two white tablets into his palm. He closed his eyes and swallowed. She adjusted the Free Wales cap on his head gently, as if it mattered to her that it sat just right.
3. The Invitation
Emrys’ farmhouse, a two-story brown brick hybrid with narrow latticed windows and a steep roofline of slate shingles, stood halfway up a smooth slope of black earth about a quarter-mile square. There was a tiny window just beneath the point of the roof, suggesting a third story or an attic. Above the property fence line, grey-green tufts of grass mingled with rocky crags and the occasional oak. To the north, Douglas’ left, a string of similar farms, with similar brick houses. The earth rose up behind each and it looked to Douglas like a massive earthen wave was building to break over all of them. On each moist, black, square parcel of land a few sheep roamed. The soil had just been turned and was full of thick clods, masses as big as footballs. The air was pungent with a mix of manure and potassium. The Toyota was parked between the house and a corrugated shed with a chain link fence to one side. A couple of large black mastiffs barked incessantly.
Emrys pulled out Douglas’ backpack and handed him the guitar case, leaving the crate on the flatbed. Douglas followed him as far as the doorway. The aspirin, or whatever it was, had had the desired effect. He felt surprisingly steady and sober.
“Welcome home, so to speak,” called Gwen from over by the fence. She was playing with the mastiffs. To Douglas the scene was idyllic, yet he felt uneasy, perhaps due to the relatively abrupt shift from drunk to sober. As he passed through the front door transom and gazed on an interior that reminded him of his visit as a child to the recreated old Jamestown, a voice thundered from the top of the stairs:
“If yer up fer it, the best way ta see Senghenydd is on a bicycle!” shouted Emrys from the second floor. “You’ll pass through Abertridwr on yer way. Gwen’ll show ya.” The old Welshman dipped his head into view. “Leave yer guitar on the first floor. I’ve got yer pack up here in a room that’ll be yours if ya do us the courtesy of stayin’ fer supper and an overnight. Now catch!” He tossed a small object down; Douglas instinctively reacted, and caught it. It was his wallet. He patted his empty rear pants pocket. “Take it easy, lad. Fell out when we was carryin’ you to the truck. You oughtn’ta carry anything important back there.” Douglas asked if Emrys could open his backpack and throw down his passport as well. “Jaysus, yer not goin’ to the airport, son,” Emrys laughed. “And there’s no customs between here and Senghenydd.”
Gwen, outside waiting, urged Douglas to come join her. She held the handlebars of two bicycles, one in each hand; old-fashioned bikes with no gears, pedal brakes, and high front handlebars. Douglas stuck his wallet deep into a front pocket. “This isn’t London. No one’s going to pinch you in this valley!” she said, smiling. Mounting his bike, he pushed the wallet in even deeper.
They pedaled slowly, side by side. The road surfaced changed from tar to cobbles as they gained elevation. In fifteen minutes they reached the tiny village of Abertridwr.
“Say it like this,” said Gwen over the noise of the bikes on the cobbles. “Ah-bear-truh-dooer.”
“Ah-bear-truh-door,” Douglas repeated dutifully.
“Almost,” said Gwen, laughing. “It’s doo-er, like a do-good-er. Two parts.”
“Ah-bear-truh-doo-er. What a bizarre language!”
“No one disagrees,” she said, hopping off her bike when they reached the center of the village. “It’s like a rare bird, an endangered species which everyone wants to save, but no one wants the trouble tryin’ to save it requires.” They walked their bikes down the center of Abertridwr’s main street—the only street. There were a half-dozen two-story, rough stone buildings on each side of the road. A few had awnings, and a few had signboards above the first story. In the large window of one, Douglas could see clothing; in another, lamps and tables. Gwen stopped in front of a small window that displayed rows of treats: chocolates, cookies, puddings and cakes. “Wait here,” she said.
She came out a moment later with two long, slender éclairs, and handed one to Douglas. “I should tell you right now that there’s some drysien gywllt in there.”
“Some what?” asked Douglas. The first bite of the four-inch long confection revealed the answer: the hearty liqueur smelled distinctly of hazlenut.
He must have made a face. “You don’t like it?” she asked.
“No, no. It’s—Does everything in Wales have booze in it?”
“In this valley,” she said, breaking off a piece of the éclair for herself, “if ya had coal dust in yer lungs, ya had liquor in yer veins. It’s our history.”
An old man sporting a purple tam, carrying a flyrod and wearing mid-thigh wading boots, gave Douglas the once-over, and went on his way. “What?” said Douglas, reacting to the look. The man walked on, glancing back a second time.
“Might be your clothes. Kinda screams American. Or the way you was walkin’.” Gwen took his arm and pulled him towards a stone building with no windows and a single huge door in the middle. “I’ll try to explain. Americans tend to walk all confident and untroubled. Full of energy. All positive and the like. Ya don’t see that here, not in most of Europe. You’ve never been occupied. Yer country’s never been run over.” Douglas hadn’t thought about what he was wearing, or how he walked. He never thought about either. Jeans and a pale blue University of Vermont sweatshirt. So what? And I was unselfconscious—until I got to this country!
Gwen lay her bike against the pale stone façade of the largest building on the street, and Douglas followed suit. “On accounta it’s past history, Abertridwr has what you’d call county records, just like Caerphilly,” said Gwen as they entered the building, into what resembled a library foyer. “Thought we might look up your Great Uncle while we was here.”
They approached a counter that stretched the width of the room. A woman stepped out from behind it, and—recognizing Gwen—greeted her with a hug and the two-cheek kisses.
There followed a rapid-fire exchange in Welsh. Arwenna abruptly excused herself, nodded in Douglas’ direction, and disappeared behind an opaque glass barrier. He could see her surveying an array of unmarked filing cabinets, left to right, top to bottom using her finger the way a grade school teacher might count off a class of second graders. After a few minutes, she was joined by a short, stocky man. Within seconds, she came out with a small folder and spoke to Douglas, while the other man continued to search the file drawers behind the glass.
“Normally this might have taken a while,” she said, opening the folder and pointing to a list of names on the first sheet. “But we’ve had a number of inquiries about the survivors of the Great Mining Disaster on the part of the Anglican diocese of late, as the British government stopped funding headstones. These are the names of all the Williamses who were listed on the employment rolls in 1913.”
“Well, that’s a start, Douglas,” said Gwen.
“But it’s only a little helpful, I’m afraid,” Arwenna continued. She turned the paper around so Douglas could read it. “You kin see there were nine Williamses listed in the employment rolls of Universal Colliery, and they show a Llewellyn and a Joseph here.” She held her finger next to the two names, listed one above the other. “The difficulty is this. None of the miners owned land or anything of value back then, so records of residence were, and are, unreliable and scarce. Also, it was a mass burial—and even that was only fer the bodies they could recover—so long story short, no individual death certificates are to be found. The government has been goin’ off the employment records fer the headstones, and missin’ was presumed dead back in the day. That might be ok fer your granddah, but no help fer findin’ yer great uncle. There’s marriage certificates and birth certificates, if he were married or born here. But if he weren’t, then there’s probably no record at all. Family histories were updated in the 1960s, organized by current family names, surnames and such. So, this here list, only proves that in 1913, both men worked for Universal.”
The stocky man shouted from behind the glass, “Ruh-feth-el!”
“What’s he saying?” asked Douglas.
“He’s found something,” said Gwen.
The stocky man returned with a second sheaf of papers. He consulted with Gwen for a few seconds, speaking Welsh. Then he turned to Douglas. “So, was he married, ever?”
“Yer great uncle.”
“I don’t know. That’s the problem.”
“Who was yer grandmother, then?”
“Uh, her name was Mary. Mary Williams.”
“Maiden name?” the man continued.
Douglas suddenly realized that he didn’t know. “She never told me. I never thought to ask. We have kind of a strange relationship with her.”
“That’s a shame. If we could track a maiden name, we might find other relatives.”
Douglas rubbed his forehead, angry that he had not come more prepared, that he had not made more of an effort to extract information from his grandmother. In what normal family would a grandson not know his grandmother’s maiden name? “I don’t see what the good news is.”
“Well, the good news is I’ve got a Joseph Williams in here,” said the stocky man, holding the sheaf of papers up and shaking them. When he set them on the table, Arwenna looked over her boss’s shoulder at the top sheet. “I found it straight away, but then there’s the bad news. It weren’t birth or military record, or land deed, or marriage certificate or death certificate.”
“What was it then?”
“Police record,” he said, smiling. “Seems your family was one of the foundin’ families of the Welsh Nationalist Movement, before there even was a name fer it. The Williams’ brothers—your granddah and great uncle—was both had up fer a fire set in a commons house in 1907 when they was in their late teens. They was ahead of their times, those two.”
“What’s that mean?”
Arwenna cut in, “What that means, is that if it were common knowledge what yer family was and what they done, half of Wales would as soon honor you with a parade, and the other half would as like boot ya right out of town.”
“I feel like I’ve already experienced the latter,” said Douglas with a half-smile.
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Gwen consulting with Arwenna, looking over papers from the first folder. The stocky man continued, shuffling through more of his sheaf of papers. “Let’s see, moving on: In prison two years for inciting in 1920. Sentenced for two again in 1923 fer same. Original member of Plaid Cymru, created in 1925, three years before the mine was officially closed and all the miners let go. In 1940 he was rejected for military service, and then served four years in Strangeways—Her Majesty’s finest prison—in Manchester, England, for attacking the recruitment headquarters in Swansea with a firebomb.”
Hearing this, Douglas felt an unexpected sentiment—a twinge of sympathy for his grandmother. No wonder she had blocked out the past. Of course, now—at the end of her life—she would want to forgive her brother-in-law—for all the shame she might have had to endure if she had stayed. “Welcome to the old world, Douglas,” said Gwen, nudging him gently. “America was built on the shoulders of men and women hard done by, is what they say. Mighta been legitimate, their crimes, might not ‘a been. We don’t judge, do we? For you Americans, the past is the past, over and done with. Yer folks got to America. You’ve had a good life. And yer grandma she done good by ya.”
Arwenna drew a circle on a piece of paper—a street map—and handed it to Douglas. “That’s the general location of yer Grandad’s headstone in the Senghenydd cemetery, the lot paid for by Her Majesty and the headstones placed there by the Anglican diocese.”
The stocky man continued. “There is something else. Might be worth a look. A last known address for your Great Uncle Joseph—in Senghenydd.” He showed Gwen a small section of a street map and pointed to a spot, tapping a couple times.
“From when?” asked Douglas.
“1940, from the record of his Strangeways incarceration. It’s what he gave at the log-in. No next of kin, no place of employment at that time.”
“So, it’s possible, he might have returned there to live out his life?”
“He’d be in his eighties by now,” said Arwenna. “But I wouldn’t rule it out.” She drew an “x” on the map of Senghenydd, a few inches from where she’d drawn the circle.
The five-kilometer ride from Arbertridwr to Senghenydd was a continuous uphill slog, at about a four percent grade, enough to tighten Douglas’ thighs and calves even when he stood tall against the pedals. Douglas was sweating, and a 100 meters behind Gwen, when they saw a church spire of the famous village around the right-handed shoulder of a burn of black rock and grey moss. For three kilometers there had been only the bumps and swales of a lunar-style landscape save for the sprinkling of thick grasses that erupted from the fissures between the rocks. As they neared the village, the bumps grew steeper and more rock was exposed, and the swales revealed more greenery—mosses and some shrubbery—and a few trees.
They walked their bikes slowly through the narrow streets of red brick and grey stone buildings, most of which were abandoned. The colorful front doors of a dozen or so residences provided some relief from the drabness. Red, white, blue and green caught the eye. Douglas could not see any street markers. There were no numbers on houses. Gwen held the section of map the stocky man had given her, twisting it this way and that. Occasionally they would walk down a street halfway then have to turn back. After a half hour of walking, Gwen stopped in front of a blue door with a black iron knocker. Corner building. A small silver plaque beneath the knocker read “Rees.” There were two small shutter-framed windows to the right of the door, each with several small flowerpots on a thick, built-out sill.
“This is it,” said Gwen, gesturing for Douglas to move in front of her.
“The plaque says Rees.”
“Has to be,” answered Gwen, holding out the map, pointing to the “x” the record-keeper had placed on it. “Yer great uncle could have rented a room. There could have been a different name before this one. Could be he had a daughter and it’s her married name and she lived with them. Could be lots of things.”
Douglas approached the door and tapped three times respectfully. The door cracked open slightly, and Gwen stepped several feet back of Douglas. Out of respect? he wondered. A young teenage girl in an apron, holding a bowl in one arm, opened the door.
“Hello, Shwmae,” she said, smiling sweetly and curtsying slightly, as if she were greeting royalty.
“Hello,” said Douglas. He introduced himself, adding, “I’m looking for Joseph Williams, or one of his relatives. What’s your name?”
“Oh, you’re American!” exclaimed the girl excitedly. “I’m Addien, Addien Rees. Mother, it’s an American at our door!”
A slight woman, barely taller, appeared behind the girl. The two could have been sisters. He took note: Red hair, pale skin, skinny arms. All of Wales, from the beginning, in every sperm, in every egg.
“Yer not the first to ask about him, but y’are the first American, and the first to actually come to our door,” said the mother.
“Does he live here?” asked Douglas.
“Yer kin, are ya?” said the mother.
Douglas nodded his head. The teenager smiled and stirred the contents of the bowl. The woman looked at him silently. She examined his face, like so many others had since he’d crossed the border. All of Wales, from the beginning, in me as well. “You’re not what I expected, with that accent and all,” she said, stepping out onto the street.
“I don’t understand,” said Douglas, as the woman looked him over again in the daylight, away from the shadow cast by the building. “Are you—were you—Williamses? Have I got the wrong house?”
The woman lay her arm in front of her daughter.
“Inside Addien,” she said sternly. Then she yelled into the house, “Thom!”
A large man showed up in the doorway. The daughter squeezed by him, through what little space his presence allowed, followed by the mother. They both disappeared into the darkness.
“You’ve got some nerve, coming to this house,” said the father. Douglas stepped back, twisting his head around to look for Gwen, who was no longer behind him. “Didn’t expect the cap. You’ve no shame at all, have ya.”
Douglas nervously removed the cap. Free Wales. Jesus. This must be one of the other half Gwen mentioned at Conwy’s. The half that were not in favor of independence.
“So, you’re after yer great uncle, eh? Why would you be doin’ that?” the father continued. Douglas felt the heat of anxiety build in his neck. He struggled to respond fluidly.
“I never met him. I was told he lived here once, or might possibly still.”
“Well accourse ya never met him. The man’s been dead fer more’n twenty years.” The man’s tone and demeanor stiffened and he stepped aggressively towards Douglas. “You think I wouldn’t know who you were? That we would forget? Even with that clever accent?”
So, here it is again. “I’m sorry. I’m not who you think I am, whoever that is,” said Douglas, retreating. “My name is Douglas Williams, and I’m looking for my great uncle. I’m an American. My grandmother was Mary Williams. She asked me to look up her brother-in-law Joseph Williams. That’s all I know.”
“You should leave,” said the man. “That would be yer best move. Yer not wanted here.” He took another step towards Douglas, who raised his arms defensively. “OK, OK, OK,” he said as he turned around. “I’m sorry,” he called out, head lowered, hands still held high. When he glanced back, the man had retreated to his doorway. As quickly as it started, the confrontation was over, and the door slammed shut. When Douglas turned around again, Gwen was in front of him, standing between the two bicycles.
“Here,” she said, grabbing the hat. “Obviously a bitter man.” She placed the cap back on his head. “There’ll be a chill in the wind on our way back. All downhill.”
“Did you see that?” said Douglas, feeling the blood pulse in his temples. “Do you see now what I’m talking about? Just like the coffee shop in Abergavenny!” He was on edge now, heat crescendoing in his chest, thinking that he had made a mistake to accept Emrys’ and Gwen’s offer. The two previous uncomfortable encounters in the coffee shop and in the trucker’s cab—mild in comparison to this—put his Grandmother’s steely rejection of her Welsh past into perspective. I look like someone, I represent something, so awful that the bitterness defies time. Mary’s message was that she would forgive her brother-in-law, for what— she had not said. But did it matter? And how could he find out, even if he wanted to? He had to admit to himself, that his interest in pursuing his family’s past had been purely practical—he did not expect an emotional release of any kind, no sudden or beneficial insight would derive. The most he had expected was to feel more complete as a person, to get the bones of the skeleton aligned—and move on. Yet right now, he just wanted to be out of Wales, and quickly. Mary, perhaps addled by age, had been wrong. Joseph was dead; there was no point in continuing. The little girl looked out the window next to the front door; a man’s hand pulled the curtain closed.
“I want to thank you, Gwen, for your help. But I think it’d be better if I went back with you to the farm, and then left.” Gwen handed Douglas his bike and the two of them started walking down the hill towards the main road. “I mean, whoever these people think I am, they obviously don’t like him. I kind of understand a little of why my Grandma didn’t want to talk about her life here. I’m not feeling too good about it myself.”
“Shite!” said Gwen, looking down at the ground. “It’s my fault. I gave ya hope. I meddled. I thought maybe I could help ya find a little happiness, fer you and yer Grannie. I didn’t realize you was so—how dya say it—conflicted.”
“It’s not your fault.”
Her voice cracked. “Well, accourse you come with no idea what life is like here. You’re from the land of the free.” Douglas could see the tears forming in her eyes. “Ya see how poor we are, eh? There’s no freedom here. Emrys might have a large farmhouse, but he’s getting’ by on three dozen sheep and a coupla acres of potatoes. The English own fookin’ everything. We hafta ask ‘em fer headstones. Headstones, fer christsakes! Look around ya. Ya see a historic little village from times gone by, romantic lookin’ and all. Us, we see struggles and failures in every direction. For generations, there’s been nothin’ but unhappiness and tragedy underfoot.”
She turned the front wheel of her bike into his, and forced him to stop. She leaned towards him so that their faces were inches apart, her forehead even with his chin. Her features seemed softer than the ones he had first examined in the truck. “Don’t go. Stay the night.” Her blue eyes darted left and right. She wiped away the tears in both eyes with one hand. With the other she grabbed him behind the neck and pulled him to her. She kissed him hard, surrounding his lips and opening the scab. He tasted blood again before pulling away.
“Jesus! What was that for?” said Douglas.
“I’m goin’ ta leave the valley,” she said. “Tomorrow. Stay with us. Just one night. Would ya consider that?”
A few hours ago in the cab of the truck, he had imagined what it would be like to be with her; he had compared her with Hollis. And now, like Hollis, the passion, the desire! The past is the past, his mother had always said. Buried, like bones left entombed in a mine, or in a cemetery. He pulled away, the after-effects of the kiss not unlike the sucker-punch from the warm ale at Conwy’s. He touched his lip again, feeling the tear in the scab that her kiss had caused.
“Never mind,” she said, calmly. “My mistake. Gawd, I’m such an ass! I’ll tell ya what. We’ll go look fer yer grandah’s marker, and then back to the farm. You can get yer things, and be off.” She held out her hand and snapped her fingers several times, until he understood she was asking for the street map. He obliged. “Although it’ll be dark by the time we get back to the farm, and the alternative to a warm bed at Emrys’ is another cold night in a wet field. And you can’t go home and tell yer grannie you came all the way here, and didn’t get at least a look at your grandah’s grave marker, can you?”
The cemetery was high on the hillside above the church whose steeple they had noticed when riding in, across from the rise where they encountered the Rees family. Gwen walked briskly past an array of small headstones, past a sign for “Nant-y-Parc Primary School,” where she turned through an opening in the stone barrier separating the path from the lower reaches of the cemetery. Behind the school rose a 20-foot high circular tower, the upper half a bas-relief of mining scenes, the lower half bronze-plated. As they approached it, he could see that the entire lower half was embossed with names. “439 names,” Gwen said. Her plea for him to stay—and the sight of this monstrous reminder of the horrors of mining—had the desired effect; Douglas could see himself spending the night at Emrys farm. As for Gwen joining him the next morning—that remained to be seen. He was curious as to the source of her desperation, how it surfaced and sank like she was drowning. Might it surface again?
“The miners have this memorial here,” she said as they circled the huge round monolith. “And they also have their own section—” she continued, “—farther up the hill.” She stopped and tapped the bronze of the memorial. “Right here, them that was killed in the explosion, the cave-in or the fire, their names is on the upper rings, and them that escaped but have passed on, they’re on the lower. Yer standin’ right over where the pit head was.”
“The pit head?”
“The old mine entrance. The tracks used to go out a quarter mile right under where the school is now. To the left and up the highest spot there,” she pointed up the hill to a small series of knee-high stone walls. “That’s where yer granddah’s marker should be. The one the Anglican Church paid fer, as he was one of the victims. All the other headstones, those we passed earlier, was fer those officially on the record for Universal, but who didn’t die in the disaster, same names as the lower rings here on the monument. But as yer granddah and yer great uncle was brothers, they both might be up there, if yer great uncle’s criminal record didn’t deny him entrance.” She was on a roll now, like a tour guide, as if she had practiced giving this speech. “The church-bought headstones are nice, well made, polished. Down here, what the British bought, is just stones with names, just plain, no craftsmanship, no care put into ‘em. If yer Joseph ain’t up there, he’s down here, and findin’ a particular headstone down here will be near impossible. You’d hafta put yer nose to the stone just to read it.” He followed Gwen as she continued to circle around the memorial checking names. They were not listed in alphabetical order, but by job descriptions, so it was slow going. Within a few minutes Gwen found it, and motioned for Douglas to come look. There he was, in the section marked Colliers, between Bryn Harries and Pedr Bevans:
Douglas ran his fingers over the etched letters, closed his eyes, and imagined the man in the photograph descending one last time into the darkness, his twenty-year-old bride waiting down in the village of Abertridwr, hoping for his safe return. He pictured dozens of coal cars rolling into and out of the entrance below where he stood now. He visualized the bones of his grandfather and several hundred others, preserved by their sudden entombment, encased in coal-laden earth, or perhaps lying in a space that had once contained breathable air, then methane, then deprived of both by the blast. Unhappiness and tragedy underfoot, Gwen had said. That was what his Grandmother had left behind.
“Shall we look for Joseph, then?” asked Gwen. “If he’s not listed, it might just mean they haven’t got around to puttin’ him on, yet. Dependin’ on when he passed.”
After multiple tours around the base of the monument, neither one of them could find Joseph Williams among the hundreds of survivor names.
“OK, then. Let’s find the headstone fer yer granddah, shall we?”
Douglas followed Gwen up the hill; she led in a zig-zag pattern, occasionally bending over to sweep some grass aside. Douglas found it difficult to tell the natural rock from the cemetery stones he was stepping over.
After about ten minutes, Gwen stopped and knelt down. Again she brushed aside a thick patch of long grass that covered a shiny black stone with an etched dedication. Douglas knelt beside her. She stroked the slick surface as if to test its texture. It read, simply: One Of Many, and beneath it: Llewellyn Williams, 1890 – 1913. Douglas fumbled for his wallet, and took out the picture of his grandfather standing in front of the Universal Colliery sign. He held it out for Gwen. She touched it, gently, and spoke. “You’re the spittin’ image of him. It’s clear you was all from the same family.”
“That’s it, then,” Douglas sighed. “This is probably all I’m going to be able to tell my Grandmother.” He traced the letters and numbers with his fingertips, and as he did, she took his hand and held it, and they rose together. She pulled their entwined hands up to her face and kissed his hand, and then his lips. She rested her head against his chest, and quickly encircled his waist with both arms; her hands felt the skin just inside his jeans, and as with the first time she kissed him, he did nothing, for doing nothing was his path to arousal—with Hollis, and with all the women he’d ever slept with. If he responded too soon, he’d be admitting his attraction to her—to something in her character, but it was not in him to do so. It was only her need that excited him, and as always, the less he did, the longer he waited, the more women did for him, to him. It had been no different with Hollis in the beginning. Over the years, it was her growing need for him that defined the relationship, that she assumed was a “deepening” of their love. Was that the distinguishing feature of his emotional life? Was that all love was to him: being desired completely, and overwhelmingly, by another human being? Was that his heritage?
He felt energized by Gwen’s kiss, but not towards an escalating physical connection; but rather to continue his search, as if that had been her purpose all along, her method of seduction. To not let me give up so easily. Or perhaps to get me into bed with her. Perhaps both. When she withdrew her lips, he said, “Do you think that if we went to Caerphilly tomorrow there’d be more records that might tell me something about Joseph, and Llewellyn?”
“So yer stayin’?” she responded, smiling up at Douglas. “That’s what ya mean?” The fierce blue eyes, the red lips, the dark wavy hair, the sensual movements of her hands, sliding up his back, under his sweatshirt—all were directed at something she saw in him, wanted from him, and it didn’t matter at all to Douglas what that was. She might kiss him again. Soon. Or not so soon. It didn’t matter. It was enough now for her to make him believe she probably would kiss him again.
As they began to walk downhill, he slipped on the wet grass, and tripped over a marker, falling to his knees. Instinctively, he brushed aside the long grass to reveal the inscription: “Dee Clewes, 1927 – 1950.”
“Wow. Only 23 years old. And much later dates. But I thought you said only the miners killed in the disaster were given markers up here. The rest were down closer to the school.”
“Them and certain kin. Ya know, like a family plot. But there’s probably other Clewes here about, the father fer sure,” said Gwen.
“Then maybe Joseph has a stone here,” said Douglas.
“Mebbe,” answered Gwen, with no inflection, as if she’d intended to say “no” then abruptly changed her mind.
“So, we should look, then.”
Immediately, Douglas began sweeping away tufts of tall grass around Llewellyn’s marker, back up the hill. He moved carefully in a circular pattern, while Gwen began in another section and moved in the same fashion, the two of them inching closer to one another with each circular sweep. Within a few minutes, he exposed another Clewes marker, and called Gwen over. One Of Many, read the inscription, but the name and dates had eroded.
“That’s the Brits fer ya,” said Gwen, returning to continue her pattern search. “Do the bare minimum fer us, if anything at all.” The two of them had covered the entire section, examined nearly 100 markers, when their patterns finally overlapped.
“That’s that then,” said Douglas. “If he’s buried here at all, it’d be in the other section down by the school.”
“Or could be Her Majesty put the kibosh on him bein’ here at all, on accounta his convictions,” said Gwen.
“Is Dee a man or a woman’s name?” he asked.
“Could be either,” she answered. “Why dya wanna know?”
“Just curious. Might be worth mentioning to my Grandma. Maybe she knew the family.”
Douglas surveilled the cemetery one last time before accepting Gwen’s hand. She gently tugged Douglas down the hill, and soon the large section of cemetery they had explored near the outer wall was well behind them. They closed in on the larger section of cemetery near the school. He scanned the lengthy expanse of stones, and estimated it as the width of one football field, and the length of two. It most likely held more than 500 head stones.
Gwen sighed. “There’s another possibility,” she said, aware that Douglas was calculating the number of markers he’d have to examine to find his great uncle’s. “The man in the house coulda steered ya wrong on Joseph bein’ deceased, on account a he disliked ya.” She jogged towards the bikes. “In any case, we best be getting’ on. Emrys’ll wonder if we’ve done a job.”
Douglas followed her like a schoolchild. “What job?”
She laughed. “Not a job job. It’s an expression. Means got into trouble. Got nicked, if ya’d done a crime.”
He watched her continue down the road towards their bicycles. He accepted that her kiss had been the deciding factor. He would confirm the death of his great uncle—or find a clue to his whereabouts—and perhaps return to the cemetery here. Hollis was not expecting him for two more days, so there was time. He would withhold any mention of the kisses—and what they might lead to—when he and Hollis reunited. And what was happening, really? A dalliance? A fling? A mistake?
When he caught up to Gwen, when he saw her eyes, when she looked at him, it was as if there were no other color in the universe. He let her come close, but withdrew before she could make contact.
She gripped his face tightly, then let go. “Jaysus, yer so innocent.”
No one but Hollis, waiting for him in Dublin, had ever been as aggressive with him. Gwen wanted something for herself; she was not asking Douglas to do anything but be himself, to go on his way. Stay the night. Maybe that meant she wanted to sleep with him, maybe not. His natural desire for this Welsh beauty—her looks alone seductive enough—mimicked his desire for Hollis. In a strange way, thought Douglas, this is like a confirmation of my love for Hollis. They are like the same spirit in different bodies.
On the ride back to Emrys’ farmhouse, he played the kisses out in his mind again and again, all along the twisty roads that required no effort to navigate downhill, just light braking to control speed. The low heat of a nameless fear still simmered inside him, but it had the effect of supplying fuel for the passion that Gwen could then ignite. He accepted that his love for Hollis had not deepened over time, but had merely gained momentum. And all evidence suggested that was enough for her. Being attracted to Gwen didn’t challenge his relationship with Hollis—just the opposite. He felt close to Hollis, even as he was drawn to Gwen.