Short Story: ‘The Gower Explorer’ by Jane Fraser

Jane Fraser Short Story TSS Publishing

Jane Fraser lives and works in Gower, south Wales, writing fiction and being Creative Director of NB:Design. She has figured highly in major writing competitions – in 2017 she was a finalist in the Manchester Fiction Prize and in 2018 gained 2nd place in the Fish Memoir Prize. In 2018, she was selected as one of Hay Writers At Work. She has an MA (distinction 2013) and PhD in Creative Writing Swansea University (2017). Published in many anthologies, she is seeking a publisher for her second short story collection and an historical novel in progress, but is delighted that her first collection The South Westerlies has been accepted by Salt Publishing and will be published next year. Find out more on her website here and follow her on Twitter @jfraserwriter


The Gower Explorer

Jane Fraser

 

Gweddw, ydw i. A widow, am I. I am a widow.

         The taste is unfamiliar on the tongue whichever one I use; though not altogether unpleasant. He is buried. The mourners gone. I sit at the kitchen table which is littered with half-eaten Welsh cakes and roll the sweet-sour syllables around my mouth, trying one after the other, to find the language which fits me better now that he’s not here.

         Pwy ydw i, nawr? Who am I, now?

I remember my mother telling me in yr hen iaith, the old tongue that you could know who a woman was by the contents of her handbag. I open the brass clasp of the only one I’ve ever had and watch as the contents spill onto the table top: Order of Service Vincent Joseph Bevan 1928-1998, a stiffly starched cotton handkerchief embroidered with G, a plastic comb, hair grips, a brown leather purse, heavy with coins, a house key; and a concessionary bus pass. My image stares back at me from the plastic, unsmiling, empty. There, typed black in bold is Mrs. G. Bevan.

         The night seems to slip away without me noticing and when light leaks in, I leave. I don’t bother locking the front door but turn and walk away through the yard. The chickens are scratching in the muck, wanting, always wanting; and the brown collies yowl and yelp, straining to break free of their chained leashes; but this morning I leave them to it and make my way to the bus stop.

         Dwi’n mynd i deithio. I am going travelling.

         The 07.20 116 Gower Explorer pulls up, its distinctive daffodil golden yellow against the flat green of the single-decker. About half-a-dozen of us board the bus. It’s always busy, this one, for the hour commute to Swansea – for those who work. I’ve never worked in a real job, in a city, anywhere. Just been on the farm. But I’ve caught this bus alone every Friday for fifty years, shopping bag on my arm, bound for market:

         Mynd drot drot ar y gaseg wen

         Mynd drot drot i’r dre

         Mam yn dod ’nôl dros fryn a dôl

         A rhywbeth neis neis i de*

 #

The passengers smile and say Good morning, Mrs. Bevan in the tone that asks without questions: How do you feel now that Mr. Bevan has gone? How do you actually feel? How are you? Siwd chi’n teimlo?

         How do I feel? I don’t know how I feel: strangely elated, angry, frightened, a light weightless sensation of rising, of unfeeling. I won’t be drawn. I just want to sit in my usual seat, on the left, three rows from the front and stare out of the window and watch the world that is familiar passing me by.

         …Llanmadoc…Cheriton…Oldwalls…

        It’s the usual convoluted stop-start route, picking up passengers outside their garden gates, the end of their lanes. The bus jolts and the gears grind up the inclines and around the hairpin bends along the only road out of this peninsula. I’ve been told it only takes twenty-five minutes by car. But we never had a car. And if we’d had one, I would never have been allowed to drive. There are a lot of nevers in my life. I count the nevers as we drive through the lanes this March morning: never driven, never read, never written, never had a passport, never had a cheque book, never had children.

         Diddiwedd. Never-ending.

         …Llanrhidian…

         I don’t bother to check my watch: no need now. Don’t need to get back for him. Don’t keep a dog and bark yourself, I hear him say. Ci, dog. The words curdling deep in my gut along with the stench of diesel as the bus idles at Llanrhidian. There is nothing that needs doing; but it feels that there is something that always needs doing, a restlessness tugging at me, a widow on the Number 116 to Swansea.

#

We pull away, skirting the estuary. That’s why I sit this side, so that I can gaze out across the water at the mountains tugging me from the other side, yr ochr arall, where I came from once upon a time: Carmarthenshire, Sir Gaerfyrddin. It seems almost touchable this morning and the hiraeth, longing, is churning in my belly. People say that at one time, not so very long ago, there were stepping stones that at low tide connected the land on either side of the Loughor, Llwchwr. I used to like to believe it was true and try to imagine myself, on the tide’s ebb, picking my away back across the gash of a river that severed me from my roots. And with the tide’s flow, the stones would disappear, my escape route covered up, and I’d be in back our farm in Llanddowror, in Carmarthenshire.

         …Crofty…Llanmorlais…Penclawdd…

         I wipe the smeared window with my left hand, my wedding ring tapping on the glass. I notice how chapped and swollen my fingers are these days, how the flesh bulges tight and shiny below my knuckle. There was a time when this thin band of gold would slip off. Now getting it off will not be easy. It doesn’t budge as I try to twist it between the thumb and index finger of my right hand. It would have been our fiftieth wedding anniversary this June. Congratulations would have been in order. Llongyfarchiadau!

         That’s the thing about arranged marriages. Made to last. The deal was sealed at Carmarthen Mart. Father had been there with the cattle when I was sold off with the nod of the head and a gnarled handshake along with half a dozen Welsh Blacks and a coffer bach to a Mr. Vincent Bevan, Farmer, Llangennith. A tidy sort, he’d said, not a Welsh speaker and not chapel either; but a good man, he was sure, with a fair few acres. I later learned he didn’t even have his own lorry, let alone a car. He’d come to Carmarthen with G.I. Thomas, Llanrhidian who did haulage. He relied on them to get about. He always relied on someone.

         The farmer wants a wife

         The farmer wants a wife

         E-I-E-I-O the farmer wants a wife

#

But I went willingly. There was no sign of the shiny ring through my nostrils like a bull then as he led me to Well Park Farm.

         …Gowerton…Dunvant…Upper Killay…

         They’re staring at me, these early morning commuters. Do I look different? Or just like any other seventy-year-old recently widowed woman on a bus with a shopping bag on her lap? Different. Gwahanol. It sounds so much gentler in Welsh, airy and breathy in the mouth. Things would have been different, I suppose, if there’d been children. The farm needs children, Gwen, he’d say, sons. It’s the way things are on the land.

         The wife wants a child

         The wife wants a child

         E-I-E-I-O the wife wants a child

I watch and listen as a young couple up front giggle and cwtsh up to each other. She’s whispering so close to his ear. I wonder if she’s cooing the love-words I once longed to use but never had the chance to give them an airing. How I would have loved the feel of uttering cariad, rolling its long Welsh vowels around my mouth’s empty chamber.

         For almost fifty years I’ve seen rams put to the ewe, bulls mounting cows from the kitchen window, making the beast with two backs. I’ve pulled lambs wet and slimy, watched their mothers lick them clean, suckle them from swollen teats. I’ve sat in the sheds long into the night, waiting for the cows to calve, listened to the primeval groan of their labour as nature took over.

         He never actually said it, but I could see it etched on his face, read it in the stoop of his shoulders, the set of his jaw: Your father sold me a dud, a barren bitch. Thought you would have been good breeding stock. Until one day he simply stated: We’d better just sleep back to back from now on, Gwen.

         Alone. Ar ben fy hun.

         Yet we were always together; yoked. We never actually seemed to go anywhere, no weekends off, no holidays, constantly tethered to the land. But surely we must have gone somewhere? To the next village perhaps, or to search for lost stock that had roamed across the common up to the top of the Down. We’d go on the red Ferguson: him cupped in the metal seat and me planted behind him, legs astride, my hands placed on his shoulders for support.

         Apart from that, we’d be pressed in the kitchen: me at the sink looking out over the meadow, on to the sea beyond, and him hunched over his tea, slurping through his toothless gums, waiting for it to stop raining, always waiting for the front to pass through.

         And when there was a break in the clouds, he’d rise from the table, scrape the chair across the flags, don his flat cap and green wellies, pick up his stick, slam the front door behind him, and be gone without a word.

         There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile

         He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile

         He bought a crooked cat which caught a crooked mouse

         And they all lived together in a little crooked house

 

         …Killay…Sketty…Uplands

         Almost there now. I know this journey like the back of my rough hand. Five more minutes and we’ll draw into the bus station and I’ll alight, my shopping back at the ready, and head for the market. Just a five minute stroll. Though I have nothing to buy this morning, nothing to fetch and carry, nothing to take back and put in front of him, one o’clock sharp when he likes his dinner. I do not have to be at the ready, standing there at the side of the table, a hired hand, slicing bread, pouring tea, waiting until he’s had everything he wants before eventually taking my place.

         Nothing. Dim.

         As I get off the bus, the cold hits me. Damp cold. Grey, Swansea cold. And a wind off the bay that seems to wheeze through the concourse, making it hard to catch my breath. I am glad of the warmth of the market and the momentary comfort. I am pulled, as ever, to the open stalls at the far end; the wooden tables piled high with caulis, potatoes, strange shaped carrots. And then on, to the cockles and the laverbread: What can I do for you today, Mrs. Bevan? Usual, is it?

         Usual? ‘Run peth ag arfer?

         Dim, diolch. Nothing, thanks.

         I can’t tell them that today is not usual and that I have no appetite at all, just a gnawing feeling that feels like hunger, but is deeper. It is all too much, too busy: the shoppers jostling me with their plastic carrier bags, the stale odour of cigarettes hanging on their coats, the smell of cooking and grease – faggots, pies, chips. And the noise, There is an incessant high-pitched hum in my head as though the world is out of tune. I need to go, get home.

         I retrace my steps, my empty bag lolling on my arm. I find a seat in the bus station and watch the litter dance on the blast of cold air that is slicing at my swollen ankles and wait for the next bus. I’ve no idea of the time, but there’s no rush. Not even a need to go home.

         I take out my bus pass and see the possibility of endless travel on Welsh roads, for free, courtesy of the Welsh Government.

         Free. Am ddim.

         I could go anywhere. Everywhere is new and fresh, bursting with possibility when you have never been anywhere. I could go back to Llandowror, the old farm; though there’s no one at home there anymore. Dead. Wedi marw. Nor anyone in Llangennith. All gone and me still here. For the first time in my life I feel I have freedom and choices, my get out of jail pass clutched in my hand. And yet I am rooted to a bench in a bus station that I’ve come to for half a century.

         I show my pass to the familiar, smiling-faced Nepalese driver on the 116 back to Llangennith. That was quick, Mrs. Bevan, he says, nothing you fancied, today? I don’t feel like talking, just clutch my bag close to me and sink into the usual seat for the journey home.

         Swansea…Uplands…Sketty…Killay…Upper Killay…Gowerton…

         Now the landscape is loosening and with it the tightness in my chest. I’m on the right, still three rows from the front, the estuary now in full flood, transforming the drabness of the vast expanse of dull mud and concealing the pills gouged in the sand. Apart from me and the driver, the bus is empty. After all it’s still only mid-morning and who apart from me would be travelling to the western edge of the peninsula on a winter’s day? I feel lulled by the engine and the warmth of the heating. Calmer. Stiller.

         …Penclawdd…Crofty…Llanmorlais…Llanrhidian…

         We are going back to Llangennith ‘the quick way’ via Oldwalls and Burry Green. And sooner than I’d anticipated, the ocean’s in view. We rumble down the hill into the village and the bus slows to drop me off at the farm before the bend. Drive on, I say, down into the village to the end of the road. He doesn’t say anything, but I catch his eyes meeting mine in his rear view mirror.

         

It’s a no through road where the bus terminates and turns. I thank the driver very much and wish him a good day as he opens the automatic doors for me to get off. The wind is strong in my face; on my lips, the taste of salt. My limbs are pulling me in a new direction so I don’t turn and walk back up the hill towards the farm, but on, along the single file track that leads towards the beach at Broughton, facing north-west across the estuary to Carmarthenshire.

        My empty shopping bag is light and purposeless on my left arm, so I cast it into the wind and watch it come to rest in the hedgerow. My brown leather handbag weighs heavier on my right arm which is beginning to ache. I unclasp it and hear my mother’s words echo down the years: Who was I? Pwy oeddwn i? Who am I, Pwy ydw i? I unburden myself of the contents, tipping them purposefully into the desiccated bracken as I walk the lane. My load lighter now, I feel unencumbered, feathery.

         I am left with just the bus pass in my hand. I focus on the passport-size image of myself staring back at me, serious, distant. It disturbs me. I can’t make out if she’s anything like me anymore, Mrs. G. Bevan.

         I walk on, a new and impulsive energy surging through me. With a grand flourish, I hurl my bus pass into the brittle nettles and the spite of bare blackthorn. I have no further use for it. My pace quickens, my heart pounds quickly as I approach the end of the tarmac lane and pick up the unmade track across the fields that fall off to the sea. Gwen, ydw i a dwi’n mynd i deithio. I’m Gwen and I’m going travelling. I say it out loud it in my mother tongue, over and over again, the sensation stimulating my taste buds.

 

*Mynd drot drot ar y gaseg wen

Mynd drot drot i’r dre

Mam yn dod ’nôl dros fryn a dôl

A rhywbeth neis neis i de.

 

Go trot trot on the white horse
go trot trot to the town
Mum’s coming back over hill and dale
with something nice nice for tea.

 

END


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