Authors: Malcolm Pryce
To Tony, Marie, Ryan and Daniel
Sixteen crosses glimmering beneath the waters of a lake are all that remain of the Chinamen who built the Devil’s Bridge narrow gauge railway. Sixteen unhappy wretches who left their native land in the nineteenth century thinking they were going to build the great Union Pacific Railway across the United States and learned too late the bitter lesson that life so often conceals in the small print. From the comfort of your Aberystwyth hotel with all its modern amenities – its electric elevator and sophisticated telephone switchboard – it is easy to believe the official account of their deaths. A simple linguistic mix-up that transubstantiated gelignite for jelly in the dessert. But if you forsake the comforting embrace of civilisation and pass by the shores of the lake late on a winter’s day when the curlew haunts the land with its uncannily human cry, you may hear a different story. You may chance upon the humble peasant carrying brushwood home upon his back who will tell you about the trolls living deep in the belly of the mountain, and about the Promethean arrogance of the railway company that scoffed at the superstitions of the locals and carried on blasting despite the warnings. The peasant may tell you stories of his childhood when village girls were offered to the trolls as brides. Perchance he will point you in the direction of a forgotten parish museum where photos gather dust that show the many hairy babies born in those parts. And he may add with a glint of pride in his eye that many of them went on to achieve great renown and bring honour to the village as school games teachers.
In Deepest Cardiganshire
, by Colonel Sir Henry Lyons
For a while He just sat there and hovered, taking it one step at a time. He moved upon the face of those waters and made light. That was OK, but He really needed to set it off a bit, so He divided it from the darkness. It gave Him what you might call a framework. That was good, too. Then He tried out a firmament and after that he gathered all the waters in one place to make a thing called land. That was where it started getting tricky. Once you’ve got land there’s always the temptation to make things to put on it. It’s like having a toy farmyard with no animals. At first things went OK: seeds and trees and grass; and herb yielding seed after his kind; and no one would begrudge the herb the opportunity to do that. On the fourth day He had a brainwave: lights in the firmament, a big one and a small one. As soon as He saw them He knew that they were good; and there isn’t a single soul born since He first switched them on who would disagree with that verdict. They sure are lovely things, those lights, especially the ones down the coast from Aberaeron and Cardigan glimmering across the water at night. Drive through those places during the day and there’s nothing there: a scrap of village green, a few dogs and a bus shelter that smells of urine with a tattered rag that details the arrival and departure of buses as rare as comets. But at night, on the Prom at Aberystwyth, they twinkle and sparkle to you from down the coast, over the dark water, in strange agonised beauty. On the fifth day He thought up fishes and whales and birds, and that was enchanting too. When you look at birds, the way they fly, the freedom and ease and grace with which they glide around, it ravishes the soul. That was really where He should have called it a day. The hardest thing in the world is knowing when to quit. He was just like the guy in the casino who can’t leave the table: just one more throw of the dice. We all know what happened on the sixth day: He got out of bed on the wrong side. After breakfast it was kine and creeping things that creepeth over the earth; and after lunch He came up with the creepiest thing of all: man. The creature that was always getting into trouble. Six thousand years later one of them walked into my office.
He was wearing a museum curator’s uniform buttoned up to the throat: four solid brass buttons in a row up the front of the Prussian blue serge. He had epaulettes, gold braid at the cuffs, and the general air of a Ruritanian dignitary that you sometimes find in the doormen of a certain class of hotel; and in leaders of banana republics, the ones who get their portrait painted in oils the morning after the
. I could tell his museum wasn’t one of those modern affairs where kids are encouraged to press buttons that make things light up. It was strictly Sumerian clay tablets imprinted with cuneiform markings like bird footprints; tablets of no interest to anyone, least of all the Sumerians. Rivulets of sweat ran down the man’s cheeks and formed dark lines in the serge collar. We were midway through the great August heatwave at the time and it was already unbearable by 9 a.m., which is the time he walked into my office. I didn’t know it then, but the uniform belonged to the Museum Of Our Forefathers’ Suffering in Hughesovka. The man had also placed a sock on the desk. Hughesovka is a town on the lower Don River in the Ukraine that was founded by John Hughes from South Wales, a steelworker who left the land of his birth in 1869 to build a town that bore his name. At least until the Bolsheviks renamed it Stalino to commemorate another famous man of steel. That’s not the sort of thing you can do any more, found a town that bears your name, and you have to admire the achievement. Louie Knight, Private Detective, is written on my business cards and on the frosted glass in the top panel of the door but that’s about as far as it goes. Half the people I give the cards to throw them straight in the bin. He was the first man I had ever met from Hughesovka.
For a while we sat peering at each other across the desk; he wasn’t smiling but some people can look amiable without having to smile and he was one. I could tell he was a connoisseur of that most under-rated of God’s inventions, silence. If you work in a museum a pin-dropping hush is your bread and butter. I like silence too and it’s hard not to warm to a man who has the manners to walk in and say nothing. Most people start gushing the moment their backside hits the chair. If I ever meet God I’ll tell Him. The best thing you ever came up with, better even than the firmament or the lights in the sky to rule over the darkness, better even than the birds, although I admit the birds are special, the best was the silence. If only there had been more of it. And He’ll probably say, ‘You know what? That’s the one bit I didn’t invent. It was already there when I started.’
We waited some more, the only sound the distant gulls, the sleepy traffic drone and two men sweating. Then I said, as the distant clock struck a quarter past, ‘It’s always nice to meet a quiet type.’
As if grateful for the hint, he told me to call him Uncle Vanya. I told him to call me Louie. I turned the Bakelite fan to a higher setting, stood up and opened the window wider; then sat down again. The heatwave had been going on since June. Each morning we peered through the curtains in the hope of seeing some sort of cloud that might spell the end of it, and each morning all we saw was a malignant glare, a sky bleached out to a sickly pallor. Walking along the Prom was like wading through gelatinised air.
I made no reference to the sock on the desk. Instinct warned me not to go too fast on that one. Clearly whatever the case was, the sock played a pivotal role and some people don’t like being rushed when it comes to pivotal things. Without even having to look closely I knew the sock was an item of fundamental importance and in this respect I was more right than I realised: it was my fee.
Calamity Jane, my partner, walked in and introduced herself to Uncle Vanya. She didn’t mention the fee on the desk, although she definitely saw it. Calamity was seventeen and, following a brief and ill-fated attempt to set up on her own last Christmas, was now a full-time partner in the business. Three or four years ago I had rescued her from the dark belly of the bingo hall, that subterranean cavern seamed with veins of fool’s gold where she had been one of the many teenage troglodytes with pallor similar to the one in the sky at the moment and a sullen resentment towards just about everything in life. I never ceased to wonder at the speed with which that attitude evaporated after I removed her from the milieu. Within a week it had been replaced by a bubbling silver brook of optimism, the sort that runs dry or gets blocked up in later years, but about which no one would ever dream of disabusing the young. They will find out soon enough.
Calamity drew up a chair to the desk, sat down and opened her notebook.
‘For many years,’ began Uncle Vanya, ‘I was a cartographer. I explored a wild and marvel-filled
, criss-crossed by rivers that scorned the puny attempts of man to navigate them. Though many men had passed before me and tried to fathom its secrets, all had failed and that dark centre remained on the map as a white expanse marked merely with the supposition that there might be dragons living there. It was a crazy realm containing extremes of joy and misery; troughs of despair, and peaks of felicity. I traversed its oceans of longing, I crawled on my slimed belly through the dark caves of its terror . . . I charted it all. You will by now have guessed the continent to which I refer is the human heart.’
We both nodded to signify that this thought had indeed occurred to us a while back.
‘I was the first to apprise mankind of the exact boundaries of this landscape. I traversed it all in that train wagon named after a Czarist prime minister, a man whose death was foretold in 1911 by Rasputin but who is now remembered by posterity chiefly for giving his name to a railway carriage. That particular contrivance that was to convey those vast armies of the damned, swept up in the terrible purges of the thirties, to the precinct of their damnation along the banks of the Kolyma River and other sundry hell holes of the Siberian prison system. I am referring of course to the Stolypin car.’
He turned to Calamity and said, ‘S, T, O, L, Y, P, I, N.’ I had not yet made up my mind whether he was sane or not. I’ve learned it doesn’t pay to jump to conclusions in this respect, but I admired his grasp of detail. You could tell that in his museum the cards that labelled the artefacts were yellowed round the edges to exactly the same degree; that nothing was written on those cards that couldn’t be absolutely verified by the latest scholarship; and he typed them all himself, at home in the dim light of a forty-watt bulb amid the fug given off by socks drying next to the fire, while his loving wife placed a gentle hand on his shoulder and set a dish of cabbage soup down before him. If a man could speak typeface this man spoke Pica at ten characters per inch.