You know that full oft, in their course as they run,
An eclipse cometh over the moon or the sun;
Certain hills of the earth with their summits of pride
The face of the one from the other do hide.
Twm o’r Nant (1738-1810), Cyfoeth a Thlodi, translated by George Borrow
In late August we gather again and dip the sheep against a pernicious condition called scab, which is caused by microscopic mites that burrow into the skin and irritate the beast sometimes to death. It is highly contagious. The legislation for compulsory dipping dates back forty years, but it is up to the individual county whether to apply it or, if scab has been locally eradicated, to lift it. As so often with man-made boundaries, this can give rise to nonsenses. Garth Llwynog itself is in Merioneth, where dipping is compulsory. But on the far side of the Cnicht ridge my land spills over into Caernarfonshire, where it is not. None of my sheep are raised solely in Caernarfonshire, so I have to dip the lot. I have no problem with that: anything to avoid the scab. I would dip even if I were not obliged to.
But compulsory dipping raises practical problems. First, it has to be done in the presence of a police officer who ensures that the dip is correctly mixed, counts the number dipped, and issues a certificate to that effect. Without certificates sheep may not be moved out of the county, which complicates the paperwork when they are sold.
Second, there are in Merioneth — at a guess — a thousand sheep farms, all wanting to dip at about the same time. But the county constabulary has only about forty men on the strength. For this purpose, therefore, it has to borrow officers from neighbouring counties, and at Garth Llwynog we are usually allocated the Beddgelert policeman. But he has to be booked well in advance and, because rain will instantly wash the chemical off, one can only dip when the weather is dry. So if the agreed day turns out wet one loses the appointment and must start again.
Third, the active ingredient in the dip is arsenic, which has to be handled with care. Before the war a farmer died in Croesor and the cause was traced to arsenic poisoning. Splashes on the skin and clothes are utterly unavoidable and, following Tad’s lead, I insist that all helpers wash thoroughly before meals on dipping day. And when dipping is finished the used liquid has to be disposed of. Nobody in their right mind would pour arsenic into the river, which is tapped by people lower down, and soakaways are useless in our scanty layer of soil on top of solid rock. I have therefore to pay a contractor to take the stuff away. I believe he empties it into an abandoned quarry pit in Dyffryn Nantlle which grows more noxious by the year. All this because of microscopic mites.
We and the neighbours gather again into pens. We separate out the four-year-olds and wethers for the forthcoming sale. Next day, weather permitting — which this year it did — and under the policeman’s watchful eye, we mix the concentrate with water and fill the dipping bath. The sheep are driven down in batches and one by one dropped in. They like a chemical bath even less than a fresh-water one. And the ewes are harder to lift than at washing and shearing because, being recently shorn, have no wool to twine one’s fingers in. Once in the bath, they are pressed down by men with crooks to make sure they submerge completely. The bath is made of concrete, deep but narrow, with steps up at the end to a concrete platform where they shake themselves and drip. What comes off them flows back into the bath. They are then returned to the fridd, where they stay for ten days before being dipped a second time in a weaker solution. That done, they are turned out onto the mountain, all except those which are to be sold in a few weeks’ time.
Our dipping, this year, went without a hitch. Stan had been rather quiet recently: not morose, but thoughtful. But apart from stints at heaving sheep he seemed to enjoy himself, and I saw him chatting not only with the neighbours but with the policeman. His views on rozzers had undergone by now a distinct revolution.
In the brief interval between the dippings he completed his new portrait bust. It was another marvel, and Clough’s face is so much more expressive than mine. Stan asked me to go with him when he delivered it. Clough and Amabel received it almost formally, regaling us with sherry — to which we had both been strangers — and giving little speeches of commendation and thanks which were patently heartfelt. Clough offered, should Stan wish, to bring his genius to the notice of his many friends, from whom commissions would surely pour in. Stan politely declined. He was not ready, he said, to turn professional because there were more important things to do with his life. I caught him looking sideways at me.
“Understood,” said Clough, smiling. “And agreed.”
There was a blessing there, implied but clear, and in my turn I found myself looking sideways at Stan, with pride and fondness but yet with some unease.
What I saw on the outside was impressive. The doctor’s prescription of fresh and clean air, exercise and food had worked marvels. Stan had put on flesh. His face had filled out. His arms and legs had thickened from the spindly to the sturdy. His ribs could no longer be counted individually but, like his belly, were clad in muscle. He would always be slender, for it was too late for his frame to grow stocky, but he was vastly stronger than when he arrived, both in walking and in lifting, and his stamina was nearly up to mine. The sun, too, was having its effect. With his fair hair and complexion he was not the sort to tan much, but his pallor was a thing of the past and colour was in his cheeks. When in the heatwave he took, as I did, to working in nothing but shorts and boots he cut quite an imposing figure. Like me he kept his hair long, but from time to time allowed Mam to trim it, as she did mine, with scissors and electric sheep shears. Whereas once, to my eye, he was outshone by the local lads, he now outshone them.
What I saw inside him, though, was a mixture. In the spiritual fog I had inhabited for the last five years, I had found little happiness in life. Positive feelings, yes — love of my patch, love for Mam, relief that I was coping, gratitude to neighbours — but hardly outright happiness, and certainly nothing by way of fun. The trouble was, I reckoned, that I had lost out on half my boyhood. There were few lads of my age in Croesor anyway, and they flirted — and for all I knew more than flirted — with the girls. None of them was anything like a kindred spirit. With none of them did I have fun, of any sort. I was too serious, and I knew it. What I did not know was what to do about it. Nothing, I thought, could be done.
Stan had changed all that. His make-up of horseplay, chit-chat and repartee was catching. Early on, when first he pelted me with sheep droppings, I was quite shocked, but soon I was pelting him back. Time was when I never returned home with a smile on my face. Now I often did. Time was, what with Mam’s preoccupations and mine, there was rarely laughter in the house. Now it was standard. At tea one day, after Stan had become fluent in Welsh, he asked me to pass him the bara. I was flummoxed. ‘Bara’ means bread, and there was none on the table. He must have got hold of the wrong word, basic though it was.
“Bara,” he insisted, grinning. “Bara menyn,” which means bread and butter. He pointed to the dish of leeks, and light dawned. Leeks are ‘cennin’. He was imitating Cockney rhyming slang in Welsh. I almost choked with laughter, and it took some explaining before Mam understood.
Equally important, the more he settled in and the more he picked up of the complexities of managing sheep, the more he pulled his weight. He was giving himself heart and soul to Garth Llwynog, unless he was giving himself to me. He was proving, in other words, a huge asset both as a worker and as a person. He had become the friend and companion I had lacked since Madog left. He had endeared himself to Mam and the neighbours. Everything seemed set fair for fulfilling Clough’s prophecy of the year before.
Except for one thing.
Since the wall-repairing episode he had made no overtures that could be considered even remotely sexual. There was nonetheless no doubt whatever, as there had been none from the outset, that he was after me. All the other signs were there, at least as I interpreted them — the smiles, the hopeful looks, the evident disappointment that I was so unresponsive. Fulfilment lay within my reach. Yet I could not bring myself to grasp it. If the reader finds that strange, it is because it was strange. Were I — heaven forbid — to entrust myself to the mercies of a psychologist, he would doubtless supply fancy answers couched in gobbledygook. But I can supply my own simple answers couched in simple terms.
First, on the practical side, was my supposed vice. Clough had assured me that it was not unspeakable. My brain had accepted that. He had assured me that those who practised it were not necessarily outcasts. But that I had not wholly accepted. Given the conservatism of our neighbours, was the plunge too dangerous to take? And while Mam was undeniably fond of Stan, she was still old-fashioned. How far could I count on her support?
Second, on the theoretical but doubtess more important side, was love. It was a word I still fought shy of. I wanted to love him, I wanted to commit myself to him. But I was still disorientated in my mental fog, unable to see any distance ahead. Like Stan when cloud-bound, I was sitting tight in the hope of rescue. I prided myself on being able to find the best way through a problem; and so I could if it was an everyday one. I would neatly set out, side by side in my mind, the arguments pro and con, and weigh them against each other. But in this case the technique did not work. You will say that I was too rational, and you will be right. But there it was: while recognising all of Stan’s virtues, I was bogged down by the feeling that we were too different for love to work.
I do not mean different, believe me, in a snobbish social sense, as the Grosvenors had meant it of us Evanses. I wished that my blood-link to the nobility did not exist. That I am really of solid yeoman stock while Stan comes in effect from the gutter was equally irrelevant, for Welsh attitudes are largely class-free. So too was the fact that I spoke good English and he spoke basic Cockney, for in Welsh we were now on an equal footing.
Those facts, nonetheless, lay at the root of the final obstacle which took me so long to leap. The fault was mine, I see it now. I was over-proud. While I was not a social snob, I was an intellectual one. My hang-up was the difference in our mental backgrounds. It was not that I was three-quarters Welsh and he was wholly English. It was not that his worldly wisdom, garnered from the black market and the London streets, conflicted with my expertise in hill farming and rural life, for he had, after all, willingly thrown himself into our world. What I mean is that in our educational grounding we were miles apart.
It is widely acknowledged that Welsh schooling, overall, is better than English. That certainly applied to us. The Ysgol Ganolradd at Porthmadog had taught me well. The South Borough Secondary School for Boys had hardly taught him at all. How he spent so long in learning so little I have never discovered. His grasp of history, as I have shown, was minimal, and so too, unless you count his fascination with the local map, was his grasp of geography. He had no more than the odd word of French. His arithmetic was shaky. The most elementary of science was foreign to him. Current affairs and politics seemed to leave him cold. He read nothing for pleasure except comics. Dick Barton apart, he had never hitherto listened to the wireless, though now he might if I had it on. He was not even at home with a pen.
Beyond the nuts and bolts of life at Garth Llwynog and Croesor, then, was there anywhere that our minds could meet? That was my stumbling block.
Until our lives became intertwined, it seemed that like me he had had no close friends and was lonely. That, in both cases, was unsurprising. Until we met he had shown, as far as I could tell, no interest in anything that lay outside his immediate orbit. That was distressing. Yet when we did meet, his curiosity had suddenly awakened, to the tune of quizzing me in detail about my life. That was puzzling. And finally, in his crowning move, he had ventured into the unknown to search me out in person. That was mind-blowing. Did he see me merely as an anchor in his choppy sea, with whom he also hoped for sexual games? Or did he actually love me? True, he had said that he liked me. True, he had dropped sexual hints. But those are different. Never had he said that he loved me, not in so many words.
I might be some success at managing a sheep farm. But at managing a relationship, I ruefully concluded, I was out of my depth. Was it because necessity had kept my body and head well exercised, but adversity had allowed my heart to wither away?
In mid-September we three farms hold our annual sales. Croesor Fawr and Bryn y Gelynen traditionally sell first, followed a few days later by us. It is another busy period. All the four-year-old ewes we are going to sell and virtually all this year’s wethers have been kept in the ffridd after the dipping, so that a full gathering is not needed. What takes the time is sorting them into matching and desirable-looking lots, each of twenty of the same age and appearance. Each lot is then held in a pen. The neighbours help, both in the physical sorting and by offering opinions on which sheep ought to go in which lot. When I started by myself I could already make a reasonable assessment, but Gareth’s and Owain Bach’s suggestions were always welcome. They still are, but nowadays I often find myself overriding them, and I think they respect me for standing by my own judgment.
I will not bore the reader, who by now is no doubt fed up with sheep, by talking much more shop. At sales, gone is the spacious pre-war custom of treating all comers to a slap-up meal. Rationing simply forbids it. All we can offer is mutton and pickle sandwiches washed down with tea — and these days it is normal for our more understanding customers, who if the weather is kind might number a hundred, to bring a little screw of tea with them to help out. But we do feed the auctioneer and his staff properly. The sale is held, come rain come shine, in one of the fields near the house, and the neighbours’ job is to maintain the flow of lots to the temporary display pen where the auctioneer holds sway. Within three hours all the lots are knocked down. Next day, accompanied (one hopes) by the right dipping certificates, they are removed, some by the purchasers but most by the auctioneers who distribute them to the new owners. We are left to work out what, in conjunction with the wool sales, our income is for the year: not so much, this time, because I had sold many fewer four-year-olds than usual. And we have the chance to draw breath before the next annual cycle begins.
Soon after the sale, with life already much less hectic, Stan and I were sitting together in the shade of the ffridd wall. The heatwave proper was over by now, but intermittent days of scorching sunshine still reminded us of it. We were taking a break from separating out the ewe lambs in preparation for sending them down to the lowland farms for their first winter, and Giff and Gaff were lying panting beside us. For the last few weeks Stan had been unusually withdrawn, and I summoned up the courage to broach a few of my questions and my worries. I asked outright why he had latched himself onto me, first in the fog at the Elephant and later outside the Imperial War Museum. He looked down at his feet.
“I don’t know,” he said tentatively, as serious as I had ever known him. “It was strange. Somehow you seemed out of this world. When I first heard you at the Elephant you weren’t talking English, or American, or anything else I’d ever heard. I even wondered if you were German. And once I had seen you, once you had talked to me … you seemed even more exotic. I couldn’t get you out of my head. I … well, I wanted you.”
Wanted? In what sense was he using the word? I summoned up more courage and ventured for the first time to raise the oh-so-dangerous subject.
“Do you mean love at first sight?”
He blushed, clearly as uncomfortable as I was at discussing it. “Well, that’s what they call it.” He gave me a despairing glance as if wishing that I too had fallen for him at first sight. “Look, Dino. For several years I’ve known what I wanted, more or less. Someone like you. But I never found anyone who came near it, until you turned up out of the blue. So I had to see more of you. I had to find out more about you. That’s why I ran after your bus and caught you at the museum. I simply had to.”
“But what made you think I might be like-minded?”
“I don’t know,” he repeated, making great play of stroking Gaff’s head. “I got the impression you were. But maybe it was just my wishful thinking.”
“And what about coming here?”
“Same thing. You’d said I could come. The doctors told me to clear out. Ernie wanted me to clear out. I wanted to clear out. I’d spent all those months in hospital and the sanatorium thinking about you. After all, you’d saved my life. So I needed to see you again, desperately. I simply had to. No hesitation.”
“And after getting here?”
“Same thing again. It’s given me a purpose in life.” At last he began to drop his reticence. “Dino, that lecture you gave me on the Embankment outside County Hall. You were right. I did need something useful to do. That’s something else I spent all that time thinking about. And since I came here, it’s been everything I’d hoped for, and more. I’ve learnt so much, being here, and enjoyed myself so much. And you’ve been everything I’d hoped for, and more. Except for just one thing. I still don’t know if you really feel like I do.”
He was avoiding my eyes, and without warning he switched from Welsh to his native Cockney.
“Tain’t yer fault, Dino,” he burst out. “S’mine. Fink I buggered it up.”
“Nah,” I said. “S’my fault. S’me what buggered it up.”
“Nah …” he began before he cottoned on. Never before had I dared to imitate his accent, for fear of it sounding like mockery. With a shout of delight and an ear-to-ear grin he pounced on me and, with the advantage of surprise and his new strength, he wrestled me to the ground. Then Giff and Gaff joined in, and for a while we all tussled happily before sobering and sitting up.
“Stan, I do understand.” I put a hand on his bare knee and reverted to Welsh. “Because I am like-minded.”
His face filled with profound relief.
“And I am trying,” I went on. “But I’ve got problems to sort out. My own problems, deep down inside — that’s why it’s my fault. Please be patient with me.”
This time he did look me in the eye, and nodded hopefully. “All right.”
The moment was postponed. But one thing I recognised. Before long, matters would have to come to a head, one way or the other. And soon they did, in four steps in close succession, one brought about by friends and neighbours, one by myself, one by Stan, and the final and biggest one by Mam.
The very next morning we decided to have another go at the foxes, for Stan had bagged none before the cloud came down that day, and again we took the shotgun and Gareth’s terrier and — as I regularly did when on the mountain — a satchel of basic medical equipment for treating any hurt or ailing sheep we might find which had escaped the gathering.
We shot two foxes. We found a ewe which had been scouring, and while Stan held her I clipped the mess from her tail and applied oil. We found a lamb with a broken leg — an accident not uncommon in this rocky terrain — and applied splints, for the bones would still be pliable and knit readily. And when we reached Llyn Cwmcorsiog, which lies just the other side of the watershed and feeds down to Cwmorthin, we found men from the Yale Electric Power Company repairing the dam on the headwaters of the system that supplies their little hydroelectric station at Dolwen below Tanygrisiau. From them we heard that they had also brought up in their jeep a drum of oil for the Rhosydd pumps, and that Richard Owen the Rhosydd caretaker was at the quarry.
I know him slightly, and we sought him out. He had just, with difficulty, loaded his drum onto a tramway wagon, and when we offered our help he gratefully accepted. Together we pushed the wagon along the unlit tunnel for half a mile into the mountain. There we hoisted the drum high enough to empty into the tank of the compressor which supplies air to the pumps. Then, by the light of Richard’s lamp, we poked our noses into a few of the worked-out chambers where the slate had long since been extracted, leaving cathedral-sized voids that extended far beyond the reach of our feeble light. I had seen them before, but Stan was properly astonished. It was on the way out that we ran into trouble.
Richard was wearing his normal flat cap, but we had no headgear. We came to a point in the tunnel where the roof was lower than usual. I was in the lead and called to Stan to mind out. Too late. He cracked his head on a sharp knob of rock and cried out in pain. I looked back to see him staggering. Luckily we were near the entrance, and I supported him into the daylight. Blood was pouring down his face, for scalp wounds bleed like stuck pigs. I sat him down and on parting his blond thatch found a jagged tear. A sprinkling of the styptic powder from my satchel, normally used only for cuts on sheep, stemmed the flow somewhat, but it was still nasty. Richard offered to ask the Yale men to give him a lift in their jeep to the hospital in Blaenau, but Stan demurred.
“No thanks,” he said. “I can make it home. I’d rather be there.”
So homewards we went, down the old packhorse trail, with me at his elbow because it was none too smooth underfoot. Holding his handkerchief, now crimson and sodden, to his scalp, Stan walked slowly and mechanically. Possibly he had a touch of concussion. After two miles we dropped down to Croesor Fawr to return the terrier. Gareth and his wife Dilys were in, and they too looked at the wound.
“That needs stitches,” Dilys said instantly. “Gareth, you take him to the doctor.”
Gareth, having phoned to make sure Dr Roberts was in, hustled us into his car — not his tractor box this time — and drove us in state to Penrhyn. The doctor tut-tutted but was not unduly worried. The skull seemed intact, which was what mattered most. He injected a local anaesthetic and plied his needle and thread. But as Gareth supported Stan, who was still a trifle tottery, out to the car, Dr Roberts held me back.
“Dino,” he said, quite sternly for him, “I’ve heard great things about how Stan is getting on, and great things about how Garth Llwynog is getting on. You’ve fought your way magnificently through the past. But what about the future? You’re not taking care of that, are you?” He nodded towards the door through which Stan had gone. “I ti heddiw, i bwy yfory?”
That is a proverb of ours: today is yours, but whose is tomorrow?
Taken aback, I gaped. I thought I understood him. But was the situation that obvious? In the end I simply nodded and followed the others. Gareth delivered us back to Garth Llwynog. Mam came out to see whose car it was, clucked over Stan like a mother hen, and dragged him inside for a cure-all cup of tea. I tried to thank Gareth for his help, but he brushed it aside and put a hand on my shoulder. He is of an older generation even than Tad, a chapel-goer, and a wise man. I respect him deeply.
“Dino, I was chatting yesterday with Owain Bach. About you and Stan. And we agreed. That when you took on Garth Llwynog you were amazingly brave for a youngster. You threw caution to the winds, and you made it work, all by yourself. Your life’s been tough, we know. Since Stan came it’s been much easier, and you’ve been much happier. But recently he’s been low, hasn’t he? We think we know why. It’s because he hasn’t found what he needs. If he doesn’t get it, he may leave, and you will be alone again. That would be a shame, not just for you but for everyone in Croesor. Remember, your private life is no business of anyone else, not even of the minister. So be brave again. Take the plunge. Ni ddaw i neb lwyddiant a fo ry wagelog.’
That is another proverb of ours: success does not come to the over-cautious.
As with the doctor, I gaped at him. This time I did not merely think I understood. I did understand. Clough had been correct after all. My fears of ostracism were unfounded.
Gareth got back into his car. “It will be all right, Dino.” With a wave of his hand he was off.
That evening we were sitting together after tea. Stan was snoozing with Wmffra on his lap, Mam was mending, and I was in a disturbed and distant sphere. After a while I tried to escape my thoughts, which were tumbling pell-mell through my head like loose rocks down a scree slope, by retreating into the very different world of Dickens. I took down Great Expectations, which I had read umpteen times before, and dipped. The passage I lit on was the one where Pip, having come into money and destined for London, is on the point of saying farewell to his Kentish village and his father-figure, the blacksmith Joe Gargery. He has a favour to ask of his cousin and teacher Biddy.
“That you will not omit any opportunity of helping Joe on a little.”
“How helping him on?” asked Biddy with a steady sort of glance.
“Well! Joe is a dear good fellow — in fact I think he is the dearest fellow that ever lived — but he is rather backward in some things. For instance, Biddy, in his learning.”
Biddy, sagacious woman, assures him that Joe is fine as he is, and she reproves Pip for misguided superiority in assuming that he needs helping on.
That brought me up short. Stan too was rather backward in some things. For instance, in his learning. But was he not fine as he was?
Next day Stan had fully recovered, even though the plaster cheerfully refused to stick to his scalp. The thoughts tumbling down my scree, while they had come to a temporary rest, were ready to roll again at any moment. We were listening to the BBC news. It announced, briefly, two items that affected us. First, the basic petrol ration was to be suspended. That might or might not matter because people in remote areas without public transport were to get a supplementary allowance.
Even closer to the bone was the report that the police had uncovered a large black market ring based at the Bricklayers’ Arms goods depot in south London, and that arrests had been made. Stan and I looked at each other, without comment because Mam was with us and we had told her nothing about the part he used to play. But it was a huge relief that he had got out before the balloon went up.
Two days later a letter arrived for him. Since leaving London he had had no direct contact with Ernie, as far as I knew, but he dutifully kept in occasional touch with Rosie. And it was from Rosie that this letter came. She reported a crisis. Ernie was one of those who had been arrested. His trial of course lay in the future, but she expected him to be sentenced to two years if not more. Because their household income had now dried up, she had already left their rented house and moved with her children to her mother’s.
“So,” said Stan, “I’ve nowhere to go back to, even if I wanted. It looks as if I’m marooned here.”
I thought, with cowardly apprehension, that he might be leading up to the subject of our combined future. But no.
“Dino, you’ve offered me money before, and I’ve turned it down. But now I feel I ought to help Rosie out a bit.”
“Of course,” I said, relieved. “How much? A tenner?”
“That would be generous. Thank you.”
So I gave him ten pound notes which he put in an envelope and posted off. And the news was something we did have to tell Mam, while still not mentioning how deeply Stan had once been involved. She heard it thoughtfully.
“Well, I’m sorry about your brother, Stan,” she said, “though it’s the price you pay if you break the law” — in which she was overlooking my own peccadilloes of the past — “But you’re as welcome as ever to stay on here. Even more, in fact, than you were before.”
Even more than before? What did she mean by that?