I am sitting at my desk by the window. The lower sash is raised. Across the neglected grass and flower-tasselled privet, Bala Road is shaken by the passing of a truck scattering dust from Hanson’s Quarry. The Arriva Wales single-decker, empty as usual, lounges by the kerb digestively rumbling; a banner in vermilion letters along its side encourages me to buy the newest Kindle. On a high bracket outside the old electricity showrooms the clock claims it is ten past six.
Across the desk from me, Hugh Morris is sagging in the good chair we keep for clients. His grey jacket is crumpled, his pale blue shirt is bellied over his belt-buckle and his tie has a small, tight knot. Light, wispy hair is stuck to but retreating from his expanding zone of forehead.
The room is filled with the dry heat that has leaked out of the town’s oolitic limestone since the sun dropped below Moel Caradog and Hugh adds still more hot air. A fine white layer of dust has settled on the windowsill as on most of the town and its contents and inhabitants because I forgot to drop the sash at mid-day. That’s when the quarry trucks start coming through. The building is silent apart from Hugh and its high Georgian rooms are empty, save for the heat. Our two clerks, Carol and Stacey the trainee, have gone home and all other businesses in Corwen House stopped at five. In half an hour a caretaker will arrive from closing first the school and then the cemetery gates and then close us.
The Mac at my elbow shows me a stopwatch face hidden inside Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, carelessly drooped over a dead branch. I set it going when Hugh entered the room, just out of interest, and although he’s been here for only twelve minutes it seems like hours. Wait, he’s saying something he believes is important. I can tell by the way his eyebrows have come together above the pug nose in his fat face. I tune back in.
No, I’m wrong. He’s still working his way through the understanding but indignant stage before coming to regretful but firm. Then he’ll tell me what I know he’s here for and what I’ve stayed after six for and what Graham Bradshaw was too weak-kneed for and felt only I could deal with, “well, you were at school with him, Alwyn”, which is… breaking his father’s will.
Hang on, eyebrow alert, volume up.
“… and so I said to Carys, I said...” Carys is the second wife, “… no-one could say I didn’t agree with my father…” Now Hugh only agreed when the old man said things like ‘top-up?’ so actually most people from Llangollen to Llandrillo would have said he didn’t agree with his father, but there you go. And he’s off again.
“…but this isn’t what he really meant… and I’m wondering, Alwyn, what your advice would be... on account of the illness affecting him, you know.” Hugh is adept at allowing others to take charge in doing what he wants. The clock on the panelled wall strikes one bell-note for the quarter hour. I take a deep breath and the evening scent of privet blossom has filled the room.
I hear but don’t hear ‘click, click, snip, snip,’ and I am twelve years old passing the Villa gates, coming late home from school after cross-country and a voice says, “Good evening, Alwyn”. It is old Mr Hardy trimming the hedge. I have known him half my life so far. He is clipping with the wooden-handled shears with a loose hinge that rattles slightly, but the cut is sharp and clean thanks to the whetstone he uses to burnish the blades. I smell the oil on the stone even through the heady flowers. He is wearing an old check shirt, sleeves rolled to his elbows. There is a darn on the left sleeve. I am noting every detail. His black elastic braces are over his shoulders, holding up the gardening corduroys that are now too wide around his waist. He has gone thin lately. There are crescents and half-moons of vivid green privet sticking to both his bare forearms. He is squaring up a box-shape.
“’Lo, Mr Hardy,” I reply without thinking.
But in the time my feet carried me past the Villa gates reflex politeness gave way to a surfacing fact. He had been buried a week. The cortege had left these same gates on the way to St Matthews watched by a boy feeling sick to the stomach because someone he knew and liked was dead. Gone.
I stopped in the middle of the lane.
He was dead.
Seconds ago he had said, “Good evening, Alwyn.”
Snip, snip, click, click and, “Good evening, Alwyn.”
Why couldn’t it have been something… meaningful? He had looked directly at me as he spoke, the words sliding out under the full moustache. The blue eyes made contact with mine. He had nodded familiarly, showing a bald patch in his grey. He had been there. He might be there now if I wanted to look. It would take only a moment to turn and I hesitated but then did it. There was no-one. The hedge needed cutting. Untouched in a while, its castellations were blurred with new growth. I listened as if the sound alone might have persisted but all I could hear was Audrey Lowe from three houses up on her Vespa, wasping her way home. He had gone. I stood in the lane with no sense of fear, only bemusement and gradual regret. He had been here talking to me and I had not seen him go. What had it looked like, a sudden emptiness? - a flash of light?
He had a way of making a memory: Mr Hardy at the scarred table in the summer kitchen, steam clouding the windows while Alice flings newly-shelled peas into a pot on the range. “Want an egg, boy?” He throws me a hot boiled egg still in the shell and laughs as I juggle it free before dipping it in the salt bowl and eating, licking yolk from my fingers. He threw another to Colin his grandson, my age. We eat together. Alice, Colin’s mother, the Hardy’s widowed daughter-in-law watches.
Want an egg, boy? Want an egg?
And he says “Good evening, Alwyn”. Nothing else. Just heartbeats in my life as I pass by, he clipping privet into boxes. He had come from somewhere nearby… Bryn Saith Marchog… The hill of the seven knights, son. He often called me ‘son’. He said he came from there because it sounded exciting, mythical, what I wanted to hear. Not from a farm, not from the remnants of a Hall and a farm and no son any more. Just a few seconds and I say ‘’Lo’ back to him and pass by to ditch the rucksack and take Laddie over the fields.
The echo from the quarter bell is dying away through the panelled room... He would have stayed if he could, I think. Lingering, he’d just dropped by - hadn’t he?
The echo has died. I look with renewed interest at Hugh and fail utterly to see his father.
The worked-out quarry at Cwm Gwenllian had been bequeathed to a Wildlife Trust. A place of beauty away inside the Berwyns, there were swathes of orchids in June, clouds of butterflies, hundreds of rabbits and buzzards that ate them and raised their prehistoric young to grow into fierce creatures with mad yellow eyes. Winter-white hares wandered the January slopes and could be seen for a breath before they sprinted to the horizon. I had watched the quarry in every season. Hugh wanted it. He had all the money yet wanted this one thing his father held back, not trusting him to care.
“What was that about? I don’t know,” he whined. I had missed some element of continuity and tried to catch up. “I’ll have a buyer inside a month. It should have been mine.”
There go the orchids, the stream and all the world bounded by three rock walls and a single opening to a long track down the hill. If Hugh had his way. All gone like Mr Hardy’s privet, grubbed up for easy-care fences when the nursing home bought the old house. And Hugh would press me into helping him. The Morris family had their fangs into Bradshaw and Thomas; money invested, a portfolio Graham managed. When the quarry was sold guess who’d handle the sale? I wondered who rested easier, Mr Hardy or Iestyn Morris?
“Well, Alwyn. You’ll think of something. You’ll find a way round- eh?”
I pause while very loud and close Bertolucci’s ice-cream van plays... Greensleeves. “Hugh,” I say, “Um-” Here come the final bars. Now the van will turn into Andrews Avenue, start all over again. Except that Bertolucci’s sold up the year I qualified. “Sorry. Can’t be done.”
updated by @david-williams: 02/13/16 02:01:46AM