A NIGHT IN ANNWN
(NaNoWriMo 2015 Winner)
by Owen Jones
Annwn is the ancient Welsh word for Heaven — like Valhalla is to the Scandinavians. ‘A Night In Annwn’ refers to Willy Jones’ NDE (near-death experience) when he is reunited with his dead wife, Sarah. It changes his life and that of everyone around him.
1 WILLY JONES
“Dad, are you up yet?” shouted Becky into the dingy, unlit cottage as she closed the front door behind her with a bang in case he wasn’t even awake. She immediately wondered whether she should have left it open. The smell was terrible. “Dad, it’s me, Becky! Get up now, please, Dad!”
She drew the curtains on the lounge front window, which was quite large for an old Welsh country cottage, but it was still small by modern standards. She opened it as wide as it would go and locked it on the old-fashioned stays and then went into the back kitchen.
Part of the reason for the smell became obvious immediately. Kiddy, the old black Welsh sheepdog was cowering by the back door looking decidedly sheepish herself.
“Don’t worry about it, old girl, you couldn’t help it. He should have let you out hours ago”. She opened the back door in and spread the dog’s mess further across the lino floor. “Shit!” she said involuntarily as a new, even stronger wave of stench arose from the freshly disturbed and aerated pile of crap.
As soon as the gap was wide enough, Kiddy gratefully slipped out into the garden, happy to be away from the source of her embarrassment.
Becky took a bucket and stinking floor cloth from under the sink, but had to empty the dishes onto the worktop before she could fill the bucket in the sink to clean the floor. In the absence of hot water and proprietary cleaning products, she used cold water and soap powder
There were no rubber gloves either, so she coupied down and began to clean up after the dog.
“Shit, shit, shit and more shit!” she muttered to herself. “This house is one big shithole!” As she moved around the two-foot long brown streak, the soles of her daps stuck to the floor. The whole kitchen needed power-washing with boiling water, she thought.
When she was satisfied with that small patch, Becky went into the garden and the outside toilet and poured the water away. Then she washed her hands and the bucket out under the outside tap; poured bleach from the toilet into it and refilled it with water, leaving the floor cloth to soak and hopefully clean itself.
She re-entered the kitchen, put the plug in the sink, turned on the only tap, opened the window and put the dishes in the water to soak as well. The only cooking utensil that had been used since she had last been there was the frying pan, but all the dishes were dirty and so were a lot of cups, whisky and beer glassed.
She knew what that meant. A fry-up and tea in the morning, late morning or early afternoon; a fry-up and beer in the evening and a few whiskies before bed. The situation was becoming impossible and Becky was rapidly losing patience with her father, although she did feel sorry for his poor old dog for having to live in a pigsty like this with her father, who didn’t seem to mind the smell and degradation.
As she was washing the dishes, she looked out on to the short mountain range which rose a few miles beyond what was now euphemistically called a garden, but which had been beautiful when she had lived at home. The mountains had always held a pulling fascination for her; she took after her mother in that regard. Her mother had done the dishes two or three times a day at that window and stared at those mountains for forty-two years.
She and her father liked to think that she was happy playing in or wandering around them now that she was no longer with them. She had died of cancer of the cervix five years before. It had been a complete surprise, because she had never attended the check-ups organised in the hospital. Diagnosed and dead within three months; it had been a terrible shock.
However, these days, Becky knew more about the disease, and had had tests herself, and suspected that her hard-working, stoical mother had known that she had a problem, but she hadn’t wanted to be a burden and perhaps quite liked the idea of being dead and away from the drudgery of a small, isolated, lonely, mountain farm.
“I was going to do them as soon as I came down!”
“Oh! You gave me a shock! I do wish you wouldn’t creep up behind me like that. I’ve told you about it before, haven’t I, Dad?”
“That’s a nice way to greet your old Da, I’m sure. Anyway, I wasn’t creeping about and even if I were, I am allowed to in my own house”.
“How are you feeling today, Da?” She sometimes lapsed into the old vernacular and called him ‘Da’ and sometimes they even spoke Welsh, but not so often since Becky had come back from horticultural college and her mother had died.
“I’m all right. I just get so tired and I can’t see the point of getting up early when it’s cold. Why not wait for the sun to warm the place up a bit first and stay in bed? Is there any tea? I’m parched. My mouth tastes like a labourer’s jockstrap”.
“Do you have to be so disgustingly graphic? I haven’t got two pairs of hands, you know! I had to clean up after poor old Kiddy because you were too ‘tired’ to let her out, and this place was too filthy to eat anything out of.
“And you really ought to take more care of yourself”, she said turning and looking him up and down. “You look a complete mess”.
William Jones was standing before her in his pyjama bottoms without any slippers. His half a head of white hair was sticking up at all angles and the muscles in his face looked as if they were still asleep. A whiff of his breath as he spoke revealed that she had been right about the whisky nightcaps – probably enough for a full headdress.
“Why don’t you brush your teeth and swill some water over your face to wake yourself up?”
“I don’t need any lectures on personal hygiene from you, thank you very much. I have my own routines, established over sixty years and they have always been good enough. I won’t be changing them now, not for you nor anyone else. Your dear old mother never complained and her standards are good enough for me.
“Anyway, if you must know the ins and outs of a cat’s arse, I was just on my way to use the lavvy. So, if you’ll excuse me…”
He went outside. He had always washed under the outside tap unless there was snow or ice on the ground, and a shower or a bath were still once-a-week, special occasions.
She dried her hands on a tea towel, filled the kettle, lit the gas under it, dropped three teabags into the teapot, after checking that it was empty, and went back to the dishes.
“Go and put some clothes on, Da”, she prompted him when he came back in and reached for the towel hanging on a hook behind the back door. “I’ll make us some toast and the tea will be brewed by them. Go on now, and don’t take too long about it”.
She warmed the pot, put the teabags in and poured the water onto them, then she pulled the plug from the sink and lit the grill. She had brought her own food as she usually did, because William rarely made it to the shops, and the inside of his fridge was an offence against decency. She would have to tackle it later, but she wanted to have had her breakfast first.
As the grill was warming up, she remembered the dog, and put the scraps she had brought into her bowl. There would probably be a half-opened, half-used, dried-up tin of dog food in the fridge, but that would have to wait and Kiddy deserved a treat from time to time.
Just before she heard her father starting to come downstairs, she shook the tablecloth outside the front door, replaced it with a new one and laid the breakfast out.
“See, you can look nice when you want to, Da”.
“No-one’s going to see me, so what does it matter? You didn’t put any beer with that melted cheese”.
“No, you get through enough beer during the day without having to have it for breakfast as well”.
“Beer in cheese is not like drinking beer, it’s traditional. Welsh Rarebit, that is. It’s a centuries-old Welsh custom, but you likes your melted cheese the English way, without beer”.
“One day, you will just be grateful, and the shock will be so much that I’ll keel over and go to join Mum on the mountains out the back. Parents complain that children are ungrateful, but old people, or you anyway, are much worse”.
“I’m sorry, Becky” he said looking up at her. “I do appreciate everything you do for me, really I do… It’s just that old people become set in their ways. My mother, may God rest her Soul, always put beer in the melted cheese for my old Dad, and your mother always did it for me. After sixty years of cheese and beer on toast, you becomes set in your ways. You can see that, can’t you?”
“Yes, Da, now will you please shut up about the bloody beer!”
“Ooh! Language, Becky! Your mother would not abide foul language in the house and nether will I in her honour! That’s another nasty habit you picked up in that English college”.
“No, it isn’t! I get that from you”.
William wasn’t sure whether that was true or not, but decided not o argue. “It’s a lovely drop of tea, and the cheese is a nice change, if we only ‘as it like this once in a while”, he said.
“The truth is, I knew there was probably beer in the fridge, but I couldn’t bring myself to go in there until after I had eaten”.
Her father laughed. “Now that I can understand! I don’t like going in there myself… especially if it’s dark. You don’t know what might be lurking in there. Something might bite your hand off!” and he made a grab for one of her hands.
She pulled it back in time joining in the fun.
“Why do you live like this, Da? There’s no need for it, is there? You talk about tradition, but Mum used to keep this house spotless. It was her pride and joy, but I bet she’d be too ashamed to set foot in it now”.
“Well, that’s where you are wrong, Miss Smarty-Pants with your English college education. I often sit and talk to your mother within these walls”.
“I know, Dad, but I bet she’s often shaking her head at the state you allow the place to get into. It stank like a cesspit this morning… beer, whisky, dog’s mess and old rotting food. It nearly made me sick!”
“I’m sorry, I do know that I let the place go too far sometimes. There is just no incentive any longer though. I try sometimes, I really do. The will power is just not there anymore, I suppose”.
“Why don’t you come and stay with us? We would love to have you and we have asked you many times. This place is too big for one man alone, especially one like you who has never had to run a household for himself. You’re not up to it, Dad, what with your rheumatism, your bad back, and swollen feet”.
“You make me sound fit for the knackers yard. Look, I know you have, you have all been very kind, but I cannot leave this house. There are too many people and memories here for me and old Kiddy. Anyways, if we moved out, your mother would be here all alone”.
“I know you believe that, Dad, but I think that if there are ghosts, and I don’t see why there shouldn’t be, then they can go where they like. They won’t be tied to one location”.
“Well, I am not so sure. You often hear of a spot or house being haunted, don’t you? Now I’m not one for emotive language like haunting and such like, but I think that ghosts, like people, become attached to one place and stay there”.
“But why would they become attached? It doesn’t make any sense”.
“Yes, it does when you thinks about it. We with a body become attached to friends, family and our property. If I died tomorrow, it doesn’t mean that you would go and live in Zimbabwe, does it? If a meteor came crashing down on this old farm, I wouldn’t up sticks and move to Scotland, would I?
“No, of course not. I am emotionally attached to this place. I stay here and if I have to go away for a while, I come back. So do ninety percent of other people. It’s only the weird expats who move away for a long time and most of them die at home too. You take it from me that ghosts, or people without bodies, do things for the same reasons as those with bodies”.
“Have you actually seen Mum and spoken to her face to face?”
“That’s a very difficult question to answer, my dear. I was talking to you this morning, but you had your back to me and couldn’t see me. However, that didn’t prevent you from knowing that it was me behind you, did it? In answer to your question though, I have never seen her as I am looking at you now, or had a conversation like this. I think that I have caught glimpses of her though, like when the telly’s on the blink and I hear her voice in my head”.
“You see Mum on the TV? I’ve seen that in films, but I’ve never heard of it happening in real life. Are you sure?”
“No, I didn’t mean that at all! I might see an image of her in a window, the steam of the kettle or in the shadows of the house. I have a theory about that. Your mother hasn’t learned how to project herself yet, and I don’t know what I’m looking for. Do you understand?”
“I’m not sure. When you’re dead you’re dead, aren’t you?”
“People assume so, but none of us really knows, do we? Or I’ll rephrase that… nobody can prove that they know. There is a man who insists that he is God’s right hand man on the planet, but God hasn’t helped him prove it. Yet, it is blasted out to the world from Catholic media as if it is undisputed gospel. How can he or they get away with that in this day and age?”
“If there is reincarnation, we have been dead before, so what is there to learn?”
“By the same token, if there is reincarnation, we have been born before, but we still have to relearn how to walk and talk and behave. Perhaps, dead people have to relearn how to make their bodies brighter or denser so that we can see them. Same with their voices”.
“So why don’t lots of people see lots of ghosts all the time?”
“I think that they do, but we don’t hear about it. The Christian Church is very strong and supports the state in most cases, so the state supports it. They prop each other up and the establishment figures who own the press and the media have a large stake in society as it is, so they all stick up for one another. I’m sure that there are tens of millions of Indians who see and talk to ghosts every day. I bet there are millions doing it every day in every country, but they would rather tell you about some jihad or that the pope kissed some tarmac. It’s a conspiracy and one that has been going on for centuries or more like when they started persecuting witches”.
“Do you really think so, Dad? It sounds a bit far fetched, doesn’t it?”
“That is exactly what they want you to think! If they can destroy your argument by ridiculing you, not necessarily your argument itself, then they have an easy victory. I do now, yes, but I’ve only just come to this conclusion. I have a lot of time to think these days, now that your mother isn’t trying to get me to paint the door or repair the roof every time it looks as if I might be taking ten minutes rest”.
“Mum wasn’t like that!”
“She bloody well was, you know, but she’s not now. She had a very hard life, and neither of us helped her as much as we could have, so she made me work hard too. Look, I’m not saying that she was wrong to do what she did. It made all our lives better, but she did do it and sometimes, I went to the pub rather than sit here and get nagged just because I was taking a few hours off. She could not bear to see someone not working. That was old school… it was normal back then. I’m not complaining. I had a few afternoons in the pub, and that was enough, and a darn sight more than she ever had”.
“Talking about work, I’d better crack on. I’ll wash the lino in the kitchen and clean out the fridge, but I’ll have to go home then and start on my own house. Why don’t you bring a chair to the kitchen door so we can have a chat?”
“Aye, all right. I can’t get down on the floor to clean it any more, or I wouldn’t get back up”.
“You’ve never cleaned a floor in your life, but if you wanted to, you would buy a mop or a Squeegee. In fact, I’m going to get you one for Christmas for saying that!”
“You know me too well, that’s your trouble. Anyways, we had a strict division of labour, your mother and me. I worked the farm and she ran the house”.
“Yes, except that she had to run the vegetable and the herb gardens too”.
“Naturally, that was always a part of the house. It was where the wise old women’, the witches I was talking about earlier, used to grow their herbs to keep the family strong and healthy. That was not male chauvinism, they wanted and needed that herb patch. So, learn your facts before you go criticising what you don’t know nothing about”.
“OK, OK, I give up. There, that’s the floor done, and it would take half the time with a decent mop. Now for the fridge”. She looked at her father, crossed herself and opened the door.
“I’m going in”, she said. “Jeez, it’s Hell in here!”
“Don’t exaggerate”, he laughed. “Pass me a beer, leave the rest there and throw everything else out, if you like”, which was what she did.
“OK, I really do have to go now. I’ll be back tomorrow morning to change the bed and do the lounge. What are you doing this afternoon, can I drop you anywhere?”
“I’ll have to think about that… Now then, what have I got on my social calendar for this fine summer’s day. Oh, dear, I seem to have mislaid it. What on Earth am I going to do now? I can’t remember a single appointment. In that case, I’ll just have to rely on the old standby, and walk Kiddy around the hilltop until we are both hungry enough to eat again and come home again to tell Mam all about our walk – how many rabbits we saw, how many snakes, and how many people, which is usually none.
“It’s either that or get you to drop us at the village pub and hope that someone will drop us home. Decisions, decisions! It’s all go, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know, but I have to go, and that is certain. Do you want me to pick up your pension tomorrow, Dad, and food and beer?”
“Yes, please, darling. We’ll just go for a walk today. Perhaps we’ll go to the pub tomorrow. Thanks for all you’ve done. Let me walk you to your car. Give my love to all your family, won’t you? Now, where’s that dog of mine?”
“Kiddy! Kiddy! Dewch yma – Come here.” she heard him calling as she drove slowly away, watching him and his faithful dog in the rear-view mirror. She wondered how much longer he would be able to cope on his own miles from anywhere as he was.
When Becky had driven off, William went back into the house, locked the back door and took his stick from the corner where it rested and a lightweight jacket from the hook on the front door.
“Bye-bye, my lovely Sarah. I won’t be long”, he whispered, and locked that behind him too
He didn’t need a lead for his dog because she had been a working sheep dog all her life and was always at William’s beck and call. They loved each other as much as any two different species can and set off on one of their daily routes which would have taken them near most of their sheep five years before, but now only led to empty grassland. He checked the sky again out of habit, but concluded that it would be a lovely day for the third time that morning.
A Night In Annwn was my winning entry into NaNoWriMo (National November Writing Month) 2015