This is the follow-on to:
This one is much less bleak, and focusses more on the female character that I mentioned in the first story’s comments section. I like this one.
“Well, that didn’t go quite the way I’d imagined it,” Evelyn said when she put her phone down. She was more than a little nonplussed, not only by Dylan himself but also by his sweet but firm refusal to see her. She’d met him at a horse show, where neither of them were interested but both were out for the day with friends. She thought he was quiet and she hadn’t thought much more than that, beyond the fact that she liked the look of him.
Out of the blue, he compared a horse-faced judge with the horses themselves, and he awarded her first prize. He did it with such rigid, stiff-upper-lip Englishness that everyone had a good laugh. After that, she couldn’t stop noticing him, but he’d retreated back into his quietness and soon he wandered off on his own. She looked around for him but in the milieu he was lost to her. Evelyn didn’t even know him but she felt vaguely sad that he’d gone.
“Honestly, Kay,” she said in her call to her friend, “I don’t know what to make of him.” Kay giggled a little. “It sounds like someone has a slightly bruised ego,” she said, stifling another giggle. It was true, and they both knew it. Evie, as everyone called her, was pretty in a sort of a girl-next-door way, and she dressed well. At 50, she didn’t try for the overly made-up ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ look, but she wasn’t a frump, either. Taken all around, she was easy on the eye and she had a pleasant personality.
“You know what the worst part of it is?” she asked, rhetorically. “After five minutes of stumbling around trying to make conversation with him, I asked him if he’d like to go out for coffee or a meal. Want to know what he said?” She could almost hear Kay’s eyes rolling, so she continued. “He said that’d be nice, but he was busy and he couldn’t make it.” Evie took a breath and cleared her throat. “He said he was busy before I even mentioned a time or day.”
For some people that would have been enough of a clue, but there was something about Dylan that Evie felt drawn to. That was odd, because in the eight years since her divorce she hadn’t given any man a serious second thought. Sure, she’d been out with a few from time to time, but none of them excited her and soon enough they’d stopped calling.
“Claire, what can you tell me about Dylan?” she asked in her next call. “Not a lot, really,” Claire replied. “He works with Nathan and Jim, and they both speak really highly of him, so when we were planning the horse show trip they invited him along. I think they were surprised he said yes. Want me to ask?” Evie very much wanted Claire to ask, but she didn’t want to look desperate. “Not really important, I suppose,” she said. “I was just a little curious, that’s all.” By not saying ‘no’, she had of course said ‘yes’.
Nathan and Jim were Claire’s husband and son, and they worked in the family business that employed Dylan and a few others. In such a small environment Claire was sure they’d know more. Dylan was the topic at dinner that night, but very little light was shone. Dinner and dishes done, Claire picked up the phone and then cradled it, deciding right there that she’d visit Evie instead.
There wasn’t a lot to be said, really. Dylan had been in the job for more than a year but little was known of him. Ask him a question, Nathan had said, and he’ll phrase his answer as if quoting his résumé. They knew the basics about him, and some vague generalities about his past and his hobbies, but they’d long ago assumed he was just a quite private person.
“Nathan and Jim speak really highly of him,” she told Evie over tea. “He’s diligent, thoughtful, and he gets the job done, but he’s quiet. They don’t know much about his life, other than that he’s travelled extensively and seems to love England and Canada.” It was interesting in a vaguely unfulfilling way, but Evie didn’t feel any the wiser. “It did seem to surprise them both when he agreed to come out with us, though. That seemed to be something of a breakthrough, apparently,” Claire said. Indeed, it had been. Dylan sounded like an Australian but he was Welsh through and through, and a Celt, to boot, so he didn’t celebrate any of the ‘Christian’ holidays. That meant he excused himself from all the holiday festivities they planned.
“Old man of the sea,” said Evie. That’s what his name means in Welsh. She let her imagination run wild for a few seconds. Maybe his name explained why he had that faraway look, and why he liked lots of space around him. “Listen to me,” she said, coming back to herself. “I sound like a desperate housewife, or a dreamy schoolgirl.” One thing she knew, as she later said goodnight to Claire: Dylan had, without doing a thing to encourage it, gotten under her skin.
I was glad enough of the holiday time I took. Going up to Scotland to see Adam always brightens me up, except for that vile haggis he insists I gag down. I should never have mentioned how much it makes me want to heave, because the little shit now delights in putting it on the menu. Can you believe he told his mum it’s my very favourite dish of hers? She’s lovely, and I can see she’s put so much effort into it that I grimace a smile and never say no to a second helping. That fucker Addy; he’ll be blowing his bagpipes out of his arse one of these days.
Scotland. I feel a real affinity with the place, even if I can’t understand a word the fuckers say. If only they all spoke like Sean Connery we’d be fine, but I often have to look to Addy for a ‘translation’, so some of his friends think I’m a bit slow. They put it down, not to my Welshness, but to my assimilation into the English. Scotland is brimming with Celts and Gaels, and I joke that the really lovely people like Addy’s family are Celts, but he’s a Gael, the fucker.
I had a few days from the time I finished my visit to the time I had to be back at work, and I don’t know why, after all these years, but I knew I was going to torment myself on the way home. I think it was the bagpipes that did it. They produce the most mournful sound in the world, and try as I might, I haven’t been able to shake off the undercurrent of mourning.
Helen. Dead this last decade, and still I couldn’t get over it. I think I’d have been okay if I hadn’t lost both my family. No, that isn’t true. As much as I had loved Chris, there’s something even more special about a child. Helen was the blood of my blood. As Shakespeare so eloquently put it: “Our children are the arrows we fire into the future.” I was the broken bow to Helen’s broken arrow.
I drove down through Sheffield and out into the country, to Wentworth, the small village where we’d lived and where Helen was buried. I’d thought of taking her home to Caerphilly, where I was born, but by the time the medical profession had finished with her I was much too much of a mess to do anything other than to arrange for her to be in the place she had loved. Caerphilly is my home; Wentworth is hers.
I kneeled at her graveside and plucked a stray dandelion that had opened into the beautiful ball that would soon separate and float away. A dandelion is a weed to some, but to me it is a marvel of natural geometry. In the knowing of my people the dandelion has a mystical place. It is of the sun, as seen in its flower, and its puffball is steeped in symbolism. To us, the plant means ‘I shed light upon that which is otherwise hidden.’ Dandelions have strong symbology of positivity, progress and survival. I could use a world of them now; all but survival had died with my daughter.
“Helen, I don’t know how to let you go,” I whispered. “You’d be 19 now, and I wonder what life would have been yours.” Sometimes I wondered what life would have been mine, too. Tears running freely down my face, and lost in a world of pain, I didn’t hear the kindly old man who came to stand by me. “We came to bury our dead, and we come back to witness their life,” he said in a quiet voice. I felt his gnarled old hand rest gently on my shoulder, and a torrent of grief opened up from deep inside me. Through my tears and my wracking sobs, I saw him awkwardly kneel in a private row of graves. The names told me he had lost three of his own, and I was so sorry for that poor old man.
“They don’t call to us, you know,” he whispered to me. “We call to them, wishing them back, but they don’t call to us, wishing our company. They call to life, and they remind us that when we give up on it we give up on the part of them that wanted to stay with us.”
Life calls to life. I had been buried alive in an avalanche of pain, not even considering what Helen would have wanted for me. I read once more the beautiful poem of Mary Elizabeth Frye, written in 1932 for a Jewish friend whose mother had died in Germany. I had it etched into Helen’s gravestone, but until now I had only understood its words and had not comprehended its meaning.
Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.
She did not die. She didn’t go ‘away’; she just went ‘out’. I walked shakily to my car, got in, and sat still. The Presence descended on me, and I gave myself into It. I saw a woman standing in front of me, made of light, and holding out her hand, palm upward. I recognised her, and it shocked me. The voice of the Presence spoke clearly and gently into my ears and my heart: “I will return to you the lost years,” is what It said. The small glowing light in the palm of the woman represented the lost years, and the love I had foregone with them.
I felt suddenly exhausted, as if I had physically carried the weight of the last decade until I had run out of the energy needed to shoulder it. There was no chance of driving home now. I booked myself into the local pub, where everyone knew me still, and I slept the sleep of the blessed. It had been 3,580 nights since the last time that had happened.
Evie was on tenterhooks; she couldn’t sit still and she couldn’t pace without greatly annoying herself. For a week she’d been all over the place, unable to concentrate and finding herself infuriatingly in thoughts that kept looping back on themselves. She’d seen a boy named Dylan. She was attracted to said boy. Said boy lit out of there like a scalded cat when he noticed her noticing him. That should have been the end of it, but it was pretty far from that. She dreamed of him and for the first time in a long time, she had fantasies about being with a man. Oh, who was she kidding with the generalities? She fantasised about being with him. It was the best sex she’d never had.
He was in her dreams, too, so that by the end of the week she felt washed out physically and emotionally. A weekend was what she needed to recharge and get a grip on herself, and maximum distraction would help.
The George and Dragon, what a curious name for a pub; a joining together of an English king and the Welsh dragon. “The dragon is a long way from home,” she said to herself, as she completed the form that would finalise her reservation at the pub in Wentworth. To the English, who have grown up in a small country where local life is their life, a trip of a few hours duration is packed for as if a night away is to be spent as a week in another country. Evie spent more than an hour packing enough supplies to last that week, without considering that most of it would never leave her bag.
The tyranny of distance to be found in Australia would send the English insane, but to Dylan a trip of a few hours was like a trip to the local store. He woke, refreshed, and after a hot shave and a cold shower he packed his modest bag and put it in his car before heading back into the pub for a late breakfast. Having lived across the road all those years before, he was considered to be a local in absentia, and what he had hoped would be a quick meal turned into anything but that.
There was ‘Weskit’, a groundsman in the stately 180-room Wentworth House the area was named for, who for the whole of his adult life had worn a handlebar moustache, a waistcoat from which his nickname was derived, and who had a cane and a dog at his side at all times. Weskit was a local identity, and a garrulous one at that. It was local legend that he was capable of drinking one more beer than a town could provide, and so could his dog.
Many were the nights Weskit rolled down the street, ‘as drunk as Lord Wentworth himself’, with his dog, equally inebriated, staggering behind him and leaving a long and unbroken trail of pee as it walked. Local wags said Weskit and his dog walked 300 years to the pub, and a mile home, on account of the staggering. Weskit’s advice was, as ever, sage. “Get yourself a good woman, a good dog, and a good beer – but not necessarily in that order!” he bellowed. Dylan smiled politely; the joke was old and hadn’t become funny in the thousands of times Weskit had told it.
After a quick meal that became an endurance test, Dylan finally waved his goodbyes to the locals and made a run for it. He was dying for a pee, and he’d stop in the next town, because lingering any longer here was an invitation to stay for more hours than he cared to.
I drove out of Wentworth with a sense of relief and a pressing need to pee. Wentworth is home to the Percheron, one of the largest horses on earth, and they have right of way in the narrow main street. So do the two men whose sole occupation is to keep the massive Percheron turds clear of the road, and so I had to slow twice, once for a horse and its rider, and another for the turd collectors. I stopped and waved through an oncoming car. Visitors often didn’t know how to navigate this narrow road and its organic chicanes, so those who were familiar with both helped out by giving right of way.
As the car passed mine slowly I glanced in the window, just as she glanced back at me. It was Evelyn, and I felt a surge of fear-joy as I recognised her. Her eyes went wide in surprise then she smiled and waved. The vision of the woman I saw when the Presence came was here, an arm’s distance from me. I panicked then, and with a small wave and a confused frown I drove off and out of the town.
I was confused, alright. I’ve no doubt that was Dylan, but why didn’t he stop and say hello? Am I that repulsive to him? The good feelings had gone out of the day, and with a heavy heart I lugged the even heavier bag into the pub. I heard an odd man with a loud voice talking over a few other locals, and Dylan was the topic of conversation. “Excuse me,” I said, interrupting the waistcoated man, “But I heard you mention Dylan. He’s a friend of mine,” I said, introducing myself. “How do you know him?” It was several hours before I finally took my bag upstairs, and only a minute more before I lay down on the bed and thought about what I had learned.
Dylan seemed to be the most elusive person anyone had known. The people who knew him thought very highly of him, that much was obvious, but no one was willing to give an accurate insight into who he was under his skin. Perhaps they didn’t know. I slept for an hour and after waking I decided to find out for myself, if I could.
I called Claire and asked her if she had Dylan’s mobile phone number. She checked with Nathan, and even though he knew me he wouldn’t give the number, declaring that knowing Dylan, if he wanted someone to have his number he’d give it to them himself. Claire quietly looked it up in the company files and gave it to me.
Now that I had his number I didn’t know what to do. Would he be angry that I had it, or would he just dismiss me like he had before? No one likes rejection, especially twice. Where was I going with this? Sometimes in life you go off-road and just hope for the best. This was completely uncharted territory for me. I had a shower and decided a walk might clear my mind a little.
Wentworth has a lot to see, for such a small place. I set out on foot, planning on a reconnaissance of the immediate area. First, I visited the post office, a quaint little building not far from the pub. The lady behind the counter was sweet and charming, and I left with a few postcards, but not before she’d asked me if I was the lady asking about Dylan. Small towns, hey? “He’s loved round here,” was all she said before wishing me the best of the day.
I wandered down the high street, wondering where to go next, when I saw the spire of a church so monumental it piqued my interest. Such a large building for such a small town. I aimed myself toward it and along the way I found an even older church, its sandstone walls and carved angels almost gone. It must have been hundreds of years old to be weathered and eroded this way, and most of the headstones were time-worn, too.
The newer church was magnificent, its thick double doors arched twice the height of a man. England is full of such places, and I’m proud that we enjoy our heritage. I wander about, taking photos, and enjoying everything about the area. “Are you Dylan’s friend, then?” a pleasant voice asked from behind me. Marie introduced herself as one of Dylan’s old neighbours. It seemed the word was out. “I’m not sure,” I said truthfully. “I think I’d like to be, but he’s elusive.” Marie smiled. “He is that,” she said. “We all hope one day he’ll come home to stay.” That surprised me. “He lives here?” I asked. Marie pointed to a lovely looking house, all thick stone walls and slate roof.
We walked to the house, and I fell in love with it. On the capstone the date 1754 was written. This was a home with a lot of history, and much more than I knew at that time. “Why would you leave this?” I asked, incredulous. “Because a house like this will be here when you get back,” Marie said. My phone rang then, and I excused myself, thanking Marie and wishing her a good day.
It was Dylan, which took me by extremely pleasant surprise. “How did you know I was still here?” I asked, avoiding the issue of why he didn’t stop when we passed each other. “I knew you were there a minute after you started asking after me in the pub,” he said. “So, what do you think of the churches, and do you think I made a wise choice of housing?” he said, a smile in his voice. I just didn’t know what to say. “It’s okay,” he said, laughing, “Everyone there is pretty protective of each other, and me. I’ve been getting updates from all the bloodhounds.”
Now that I had him, I didn’t know what to do with him. The famous English reserve kicked into its highest gear. I was infuriatingly tongue-tied and I swear I blushed. “If you keep kicking your toe into the ground like that you’ll ruin your shoe,” he said. I was doing just that. “Top floor, east wing window,” he said, “You’d better come in for tea.” I looked back at his house, and up, and there he was, grinning at me like the Cheshire Cat.
He met me at the back door, where two gnomes stood guard and stood out glaringly, their presence jarring against the understated garden and the regency of the home itself. He saw my look. “My daughter’s idea of a joke. I can’t stand garden gnomes but one is her and one is me. My old cat, Lewis, is buried under one of them and my daughter’s canary, Buzzard, is under the other.” So, he had a daughter. As if reading my mind he said: “My daughter, Helen, is buried in the church graveyard.” And that was all he said.
We drank tea and then he gave me a tour of his home. It had been built for the daughter of the Wentworth after whom the area was named. Over the decades and centuries it had been changed, of course, and Dylan had made renovations as well, but they took nothing away from the sense of stateliness. It was a big house by English standards, and with very high ceilings. “You’re standing in part of what was a small ballroom,” he said.
The downstairs area had originally been the ballroom and three other rooms: one for the men, one for the women, and one where the original staff had a staging area for the food and drink that was served, and a place to keep coats and capes. Now, it had a very large and light commercial kitchen, a formal dining room, a lounge room, an office, and two bathrooms. “Upstairs has another lounge room, four bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a sitting room where I used to write,” he said. “Do you still write?” I asked, genuinely curious. “I have a blog that I throw some stuff on, and a few stories that rattle around in my head from time to time, but that’s about all,” he answered.
Later, we had dinner together at the pub, and for every question of mine he had seven for me. I felt the looks of everyone there were upon me, as they were. I later learned that in all his time in the village no one had ever seen Dylan with a ‘date’, if that’s what I was. After we’d eaten, everyone threw the tables and chairs together in front of a fireplace so big five men could have stood in it, and in the way of the English we sang songs before I was plied with questions in a fun-filled and mischievous way.
Dylan sat back from it all, smiling and taking it all in. I felt that in some unspoken way I was being accepted as ‘theirs’, and it thrilled me no end. The pub doors eventually closed, and with all of us still inside. Tea replaced drinks, and it came in pots so large a person struggled on their own to bring it to us, until it became lighter after the pouring.
It had been a hilarious night, filled with good company. I kept glancing at Dylan, and every time I did he was looking at me, smiling silently. Something was passing between us, and it was the kind of something I wanted to know everything about.
In the small hours of the morning, the herd began thinning. I was tired, so tired, and yet so full of energy I wanted this to go on forever. Dylan, ever the gentleman, excused me from the group and walked me to my room. He kissed me at the door, and as the Internet meme goes: all my base were belong to him. He said goodnight then, squeezing my hand before opening the door to my room. I’d have invited him in, if only I thought he’d have come. At the top of the stairs he turned and looked back at me, that trademark small smile on his face. “Sleep in,” he said, “and I’ll see you for a late breakfast at around ten.” I had seven hours until then, and the limerence shone so brightly I wanted it to be a minute past ten right now.
I didn’t think it could ever happen, but it did. I was there, so I know, because I am the reliable witness in my life. When I passed Evelyn – Evie – in my car it scared the shit out of me. That first time I saw her I thought she was gorgeous. It had been so long since I’d even looked at a woman that way, just thinking that thought had spun me about. I had to make a getaway, and quickly. Then she called me at work, and I didn’t know what to make of it, so I fled the call. Rudely, if I remember it correctly.
I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about her, and that scared me, too. It made me feel … disloyal, somehow. I ran. I ran away to Scotland and tortured myself with haggis. I left with a plan to go straight home, but instead I came to my real home here in Wentworth. I think I wanted to feel hurt, to tear my heart out one more time, and so I went to visit Helen. I talked to the old man and the Presence spoke to me.
I ran from Evie, too, but there is no distance between the heart and soul. I drove around in circles, wanting to get as far away as possible but always ending up back where I began. Then the calls and texts started coming, and something inside me knew I couldn’t run anymore. I went back to my home, opening it up and letting it breathe in the new life that had been so patiently waiting outside its windows and doors for so long.
Sitting back from it all, I watched how Evie was with my friends, and marvelled that she fit in as if she’d always been there. I watched as the grey and red barriers of energy around my friends dropped, and how they opened to her in hope for me. I watched her shine become brighter. It isn’t enough to be in a village; the village has to be in you, too.
We kissed, there outside her room, and it was electric. It had been my first kiss with any woman other than my long-dead wife, since all the way back in the late 1980s. I expected to feel some sense of remorse, at some sort of betrayal, but what I felt was … I’m still a little too scared to say it. Time would tell; it always does.
I left Evie there at the pub, promising to see her mid-morning. Home. I went home. The Presence was there to meet me, and this time I gave my soul into It. I knew now, there was just one more thing to do. I put on a coat, and there in the first light of the false dawn I walked up the small hill until I came to my destination. I knelt, as if in prayer, and put my hand on the cold marble headstone.
“Helen, I think I’m going to be okay, now.”