The Last Welshman
He was old then. Or not so very old. I was a child. But I remember him. Poor man. It was said of him he was quite mad. A man driven mad by the jungles of those eastern lands. Of Malaya. Or was it Burma? No Burma. He was the last to come home.
It was in the war when he was young and handsome. A laughing boy of a man whose world lay before him. He was to marry. She was a black haired girl who lived in a house on the other side of the street to his mothers. The black haired girl still lives there in the same house in the same little village in the same valley. But she is married to another man now. He would have married her. It had been planned. And if the war hadn’t come along to alter all that had been planned then that would have been that no doubt. There would have been something else to say. Something quite different. But the war did come. And he left his parents’ home on the other side of the street in the village. He left the black haired girl and promised to return. He promised to marry her.
But instead he had been driven mad half a world away from this place. This small village in a valley in Wales. In the war. In Malaya or some other green jungled land. Where birds cry out in the darkness of the day. Suddenly. Menacingly. Setting the mind into a frenzy and muscles tight. Tight in the eyes.Tight on the trigger. Trying to see in the darkness the little men hiding there. Where? There. There. Don’t you see them. Look. Waiting. And birds cried out in the darkness of night time. When all should have been quiet. When men should be allowed to rest. But there. There in that place. Daytime was the same as night time. Muscles twitched with strain. Muscles twitched involuntarily in the crackling spells of silence of the darkness. Day in. Day out. Night came and all was the same.
He came home. Eventually. They said he was the last to be found. The street was the same. And as with many other men he’d found nothing had really changed. Except of course the minds of those men. And the minds of those women who had waited. The minds of the men had changed. Ruptured by some indescribable maddening. His mind had changed. And he was no longer who he had been. His eyes told another tale. Those blue-blue far away blue eyes. He smiled a lot. A toothless smile. In between a puff of his small black pipe. The pipe my father had given him. While, and in spite of the spittle, which periodically dribbled hanging in a line from a corner of his mouth and down over his bristled chin to dangle and then fall downwards to the bespattered lapel of his tattered olive green jacket.
He had come home. She had waited. The flags and pennants had flown all day. But he did not see them. And she did not see him. He sat with his mother in the darkness of the parlour all chocolate and green painted leatherette walls. He sipped the dark beer in his glass. He smiled but said little. He smiled. But no one asked. She never came to the door to ask after him. Her mother would never allow her to see him. He would never marry. Some in the village said just as well. He would never leave his mother’s home.
Over the years he constructed a small shed at the top of the garden. A tin hut made of corrugated and galvanised zinc sheets. Other metal objects lost and found themselves part of that gathering enlarging hideaway. Beneath the mossy green barked elderberry tree. Blackbirds built a nest in an old enamel jug jammed into the cleft of two branches. Sparrows flittered amongst the leaves. Starlings visited to gorge themselves on the bright black berries and stained the tin hut with the purple dye of their shit. Gradually the tin hut rusted. A Colemans’ mustard enamel advert appeared to add a bright yellow square to the dull and sombre tones. An orange Typhoo tea advert appeared on another wall. As the man and the shed grew older together the wires and nails holding the metal sheets together wore away. At night when a cold breeze blew in from the grey Atlantic the darkness of our street became filled with the rustlings and scrapings, the tapping and clanging of hundreds of pieces of metal filling the night time air with a discordant cacophony of sound.
It was the hut where our first encounter had taken place. As I chased the orange plastic football which had swerved from its volition and at the same time displayed an almost disgraceful avoidance of its intended destination and decided on another for itself. He did not seem to understand this point. I was to blame for everything and its consequences. Of this he seemed in no doubt. Or if any it was very little and totally unobservable from where I was standing.
He shouted gesturing to the skies as if for divine condemnation on this little hapless fellah who couldn’t for the life of him kick a ball straight. And as he spoke, I could see into his mouth as he turned back to face me, his mouth still agape. Toothless and overflowing with an abundance of spittle that gave a gleam to his pink lips and seemingly erupted volcanic like from his face. To spray the area for a yard or two immediately before him. The skies remained somewhat indifferent while he ranted and raved. It was then I was able to look into his shed for the very first time and see the immaculate green wooden chair.
It was in that wooden chair he sat before the brazier when the days were grey with cloud and it rained horizontally. As it nearly always did then in winter months. And if truth be told still does – horizonytal like not that vertical namsypamsy easy stuff – horizontal and hateful rain! The dark brown empty beer bottles gathered like black pats*at his feet. Brown shiny ale bottles. Discarded ornamentation from those days when he was drunk. Which were often. When he sang. A strange language that had no sense. By this I mean it wasn’t English. So it must be a strange language. A language that made the people who heard him laugh. Madness. It was madness you see. Poor man. Quite obvious they said. When I asked. He was trying to sing in Welsh. But not being able to speak a single word of Welsh. He used to make it up. But I shall say this to you in confidence. I am not so sure that was the case. We could not speak Welsh either. I would like to think that it was some far eastern language. Or even Japanese. Learnt in some tormented place. Leaf green and jungled. But maybe that is my madness.
Ah, you lovely harmless man. Soft and breakable. You were broken. Too quickly. Dirty and lost. Your mother is dead now. Your father gone long ago. And you are unknown and uncared for when I meet you these days. I bid you good day. And you look at me surprised by this strange and unknown someone calling you by your first name with friendliness. Your bewildered eyes for a moment guided and serious. With purpose in mind you look into my eyes for a few minutes not saying a word. And then your eyes change. A smile of recognition. You say hello. I knew you when you were a boy. About this tall you were then. You were a little buggar. Hells angel they called you. And you ask after my mother and father. How are they keeping? And my sisters? And after all is said and done you shuffle away. The backs of your shoes split. Like the coat you wear. The cap you wear slanted to one side and slouched over one eye. The rim blackened with sweat.
Church Street, Llwynypia.
In the tin rickety shed underneath the whispering
drunk blue black fruit of the Elder tree
old Tom Wall beetle browed listened
to the creak and rattle of bent tin sheets
wrapped about his white tight eyed stare
he drank brown ale sang his thin whiney song
and dreamt of happier long past days
of the black haired girl who’d said she’d wait
for his return from Thailand’s jungle war
but in his overdue unexplained absence
she married another village man instead
her avoidance of his home coming was noted.
And so he sang and cried aloud to the bride
who lived in the same house across the same street
the same place he’d heard the war had started
a house with thick veiled closed net curtains.
Out there on the mountains cliff edged brow
Oakwood’s clenched tight the earth’s fastness
the storm howl sang its desolation song
in the black star speckled moonless night
old Tom Wall pulled his black greased cap
down over his eyes and all that might have been.
“Come days end we are but pebbles, washed back and fore in the tides time.”
*”black pats” – or black clock beatles lived behind the cast iron stoves of kitchens and living rooms in small cottages.