‘Obviously A Phrase Of Which He Was Fond’, the latest in our Story: Retold series, is a new interpretation of ‘Be This Her Memorial’ by Caradoc Evans. Story: Retold is published in association with the Rhys Davies Trust.
This is a true story and this is what happened:
It was the morning after the worst storm to hit west Wales in a century and on top of the hill the trees had snapped like matchsticks and – no, wait, that’s not true. That’s not how it happened at all. It was like this:
It was a Boxing Day. Above the snowline the – no, hang on, that’s not true either. You know it isn’t. This isn’t fiction; this is a true story. Be honest.
Alright, alright. Deep breath. Start again:
The search for the blessed spring had taken the man up into the hills above Llanilar and deep into the cave system there and it was purely magical in that world underground and YOU’RE FUCKIN AT IT AGAIN!!! THIS IS NOT FUCKIN FICTION!!!
Okay. Okay. Clear the mind. Breathe in, breathe out. Steady the heartbeat, slow the pulse. Close the eyes and count to ten. Pick up the pen. Begin all over:
It was Marc, wasn’t it? Yes, it was. You know it was. It was Marc who first told you about Mani that time nearly two decades ago when you got the bus out to Llanilar to meet him, the plastic bags in your pocket for the mushrooms that you were both off to pick – tens of thousands of them, Marc said, the hillsides covered, the damp summer just then ending drawing the funny fungus out of the soil in unprecedented amounts. Never seen so many, Marc said: dry them out, they’ll see us through the winter. And that was fine with you, poor as you were, and all those free intoxicants on offer; just bend and pluck and there you go: sensory derangement. Could even sell some, perhaps, make a bit of beer money. And Marc was waiting for you outside The Falcon, wearing a cagoule against the warm and greasy drizzle. You both set off, over the stile, across the squelchy field, into the trees and up, up – a fairly gentle slope, but a long one, the gradient unbroken, and soon the fleece you were wearing became sodden: the moist air itself and the sweat of your exertion.
Anyway. Marc pointed and said: We’ll aim for that peak over there. You’ve got to meet this feller.
You asked him what feller and he told you about the man called Mani. Marc’d stumbled upon his, what, encampment is the word probably, the week before, on a previous mushie-picking outing. He’d lost his bearings, a bit, absorbed as he was in the harvest and ascending on all fours so’s he could pick, and he’d scrambled up over the ridge and at first he thought it was a ghost, an apparition of some sort, beard down to his belly-button, mad hair in a matted halo, just standing there as if waiting for him. Got a hell of a shock, I did. And then Marc noticed the axe the figure had been holding and thought he’d never get back down off the hill; this was Deliverance, Ceredigion-style, some nutter gone rogue and cannibal and hiding out up here from the authorities. But this figure, this feral man of the mountains, he’d just given Marc a grin and asked him if he’d like some heather tea.
You’d entered a patch of mushrooms by then and you were both in a crouch, picking, dropping the little stems into plastic bags. Close by, the wall of trees waited in a kind of static thrash and the peak rose above them. Not high, no, but you could see it, and feel its still surge.
Nice feller, Marc went on, this Mani bloke; they’d sat and chatted for quite a while. In fact, it had been night-time when Marc had started his descent down the hill. From southern England somewhere originally but he’d gone completely off-grid, Mani had; just jacked his job in, left his wife and family, got on the train to Aberystwyth, got on a bus inland and then just walked into the hills, no possessions except a survival kit, the kind that can be stored in an old tobacco tin: wire saw, matches, thin but tough tarpaulin, and that’s about it. An army knife. He’d left the modern world completely behind him. Three years ago this was, and in that time he’d built himself a decent living space out of logs and stones, planted a kitchen garden, smoked fish that he caught in the lakes and rivers, hunted rabbits and deer, even set up his own still. Totally off grid; no electricity, no running water, no money – especially no money: he was living proof that it was possible to live without the stuff. You’ve got to meet him. An amazing character. Got to admire what he’s done.
And what was that book you’d loved, as a kid? You read it time and time over, when you were living on the estate outside Liverpool: My Side of the Mountain by Jean George or someone. About a kid in America who ran away from home and set up a life for himself in the wilderness. It’d made you do the same, or attempt to: one night you sloped off into the copse of trees at the bottom of the estate and lived for two days in the trunk of a tree that had been hollowed out by fire. You ate what you thought was watercress from the rivulet downstream from the sewage outflow and you shat yourself and vomited uncontrollably and when you crawled home stinking and sick, so sick, the police were waiting for you and your parents were furious with worry. But they’d always lingered, the yearnings that that book had put in you, and hearing Marc talk about Mani that drizzly day, they’d risen again: to live so free. No-one would have any authority over you. You’d commune, and you’d never be lonely. And even death would be a nirvanic dissolution into a one-ness, wouldn’t it? There’d be nothing to be afraid of, ever again. It’d be like, you imagined, an endless embrace from a loving God.
So you followed Marc up, through the trees and beyond them onto the bare slope. Up towards the watery sun. And at the top, panting, Marc had called out Mani’s name and it was quite misty up there and the man came out of that mist as if concocted from it and the crags – it was all so very grey – and there was a gap-toothed grin somewhere in that crazed beard. He shook Marc’s hand and then yours, too, when you were intoduced, and you felt the callouses like a rasp and he led you into the place that was his home. A decent enough living space, Marc had called it, and the boy in the book had made something of an elfin palace but this, this wickiup, this bash, up here on the flayed and exposed hilltop, well. . . ‘living space’ will have to do as a functional description but it was just a kind of human sheep-scrape, wasn’t it? There were a few branches placed obliquely over a recess in a rock wall and some sheets of torn and filthy polythene – fertiliser bags – tied across them and an unsteady attempt at a dry-stone wall that ran with green slime and there was detritus all about; fire-pits, bones, empty cans, plastic bottles, rags, scraps of sheep-fleece and the stench from the nearby latrine-trench acridly infected it all: you imagined that everything up there stank of shit, that, if you put your nose into one of the drooping ox-eye daisies, you’d instanly recoil, gagging. And Mani – you all sat on stumps or stones and he boiled up some foul mixture that had bits of bark in it and Marc put a handful of mushrooms in the pot and you sat and drank. Mani had few teeth, and those that remained were like dog-ends floating in beer-dregs. There was an odd illumination at the backs of his eyes and there were things in his beard that looked like, and probably were, twists and coils of rotting meat. There were scabs on his hands. His fingernails were yellow horns and there was a curve of black matter beneath each one. His clothes were more hole than material to the extent that when he sat down opposite you a hairy giblet of a bollock plopped out. And the sour wash of his breath carried words, God, so many words, about how everyone down there was wasting their lives and they vegetate, they vegetate, they vegetate do you understand they are death-in-life they just exist they don’t live and humans do not need other humans and everything up here was his friend. Down there everyone was a slave. Birth school work death, birth school work death. Rat-race was obviously a phrase of which he was fond; he used it in every sentence, if sentences he used. Rat-race. You are all rats. You couldn’t disagree, could you, in all honesty, but you wished he’d shut up as the dull crab of a sun scuttled down the sky and when the mushroom tea began to do its work and Mani waved a bunch of yarrow sticks over your head and told you that you were talented but you’d die young you announced that you had to catch your bus and went down off the hill. The tea hadn’t been strong, and for that you were grateful, descending alone through the dusky woods; there were just some colours that really shouldn’t’ve been on what they were on and that was okay, even quite enjoyable, but still it was a relief to be sat by the fire in The Falcon with the mellowing dark beer, keeping an eye on the bus-stop over the road and visible through the window.
And what was it that made you return? That there might’ve been some hint, some suggestion, that you’d missed, or simple compassion? Another human being alone on that hill-top as the cold months came on, and you knowing that, and doing nothing to help? The mushroom harvest gave you a few nights of laughter that autumn and there was one night, wasn’t there, when you went outside to marvel at the galaxies and you saw your breath for the first time that year and you thought about him, on his own up there, with only the torrent of his words for shelter and comfort, and it hit you, for one total moment – the immeasurable vastness of mankind’s loneliness. So maybe that was why, sometime the next week on the first morning after you’d put the Economy 7’s back on, you took a bag of canned food onto the Llanilar bus. Got off and saw the snow on the ridges; not a lot of it, just some white drifts in the rocky hollows, but enough to tug goosebumps out of your arms. And you climbed up. Up towards the looming shadow-banks of cloud that threatened more snow.
Mani was bundled up in his shelter, a Bonfire Night guy in rags. He’d also pulled some branches over himself and some sods too and he struggled up from beneath these as you approached, the turf tiles tumbling off him. You gave him the food. He put tomato soup in a black-crusted pan and attempted to light a fire under it with bluely quivering fingers and you had to help him do it; you’d brought some lighter fluid up with you, too. He spoke, of course, and his words were fuzzed with a new impediment, a kind of lisp of the lip, and rat-rafe, he said, rat-rafe, and he spoke about how he was glad to be out of it and how people wayfted their lives away, slaves (flayf) to the wage, and no-one down there ever realised their true potential. Birth school work death. He’d wrapped rags around his feet but when the fire caught he unwrapped them and held them close to the feeble flames and flexed his toes, black with grime and orange-taloned, and you looked and you saw the deep red colours throbbing in the embedded filth: the colouring of wounds. You saw shallow rents with ragged edges, the raw frills of them darkening with either muck or gangrene around the bare bulges of meat. They were not clean cuts; no blade had made them. Mani did not notice your stare, bent over the pot as he was, slurping the soup up into the tangled knots of his beard. You made tea and huddled yourself up in your fleece and Mani spoke about the job he’d left behind in some advertising agency in Surrey. Left a lot of my old life back there aff well. . . Futch a wayft. . . I’m alife up here. . . You drank a lot of tea and needed a pee and Mani pointed in the direction of his latrine, behind a hip-high ridge of rock.
No flies in the cold days but the pit of shit seethed with other life, life of a kind you couldn’t look too closely at – things with many legs and sectional bodies, things that writhed. The stench was almost physical, felt as a facial pressure, an unpalatable fact in the guts. To piss down into that hellish soup, well, you couldn’t do it, you’d throw up, so you moved a bit down-slope into a patch of fruitless brambles and grey gorse and the rats scattered at your step, didn’t they, four or five or six of them, large, hunched things, they leapt and skittered with a speed and nimbleness that made you jump and yell in abrupt fright. They disappeared in that almost preternatural way that rats do, into crannies seemingly too small for their bodies, into invisible burrows, into shadow, and then you got that second stench buzzing in the bridge of your nose as you peed into the greenless bracken and you saw that the rats had been feeding on their own kind, a rotting mound of other rats, cable-tails astrew and bones baring through peeling spikes of fur. Clots, lumps, teeth and tiny claws in the dead and deliquescing mass. The stink. Did it make a sound, like Rice Krispies? A sizzle and a pop in rot? You thought it did. In your recall it still does.
Why would I kill them?, Mani said. They’re my brotherf. I afk em to ftay away from my food and fey do. We unnerftand each other. They’re like me. And he told you about the mountain rats, the big mountain rats, how they’d been visiting him at night-time to tell him about the secret world inside the mountain, where they had their kingdom. About the beauty of stalactities reflected in the lake waters below. About cities in the stones. And they were caring creatures; the other night, when the temperature up here fell below freezing, they all bundled themselves around his feet to stave off frostbite. It was lovely, he said. The warmth of their bodies – how his toes tingled in their fur. They nibbled the skin, very gently, just to keep the blood flowing, to stimulate sensation. I wouldn’t ever hurt them. We love each other, he said, and then he said something about them kissing him, even, one at a time, walking softly up from his feet, up his legs, across his belly, ribs, chest, to stand on his sternum with their long faces in his beard , nuzzling at his lips, their green eyes in his. One at a time. They took turns, that cold night. They waited in line to kiss him. They formed an orderly queue. Patient: they knew that no-one can win a rafe. And Mani grinned then, kind of, and the fronds of his beard parted like wheat with the passage of a hidden beast and you saw the reason for the lisp. And you saw the skull beneath the skin. Or some of it, anyway.
You made the phone call anonymously, in the pub – this was when mobiles were uncommon and expensive. You drank a lot of whisky as you waited for the sirens and/or some people in uniforms to come through the door. Neither of which happened, and whether Mani was brought down off the mountain that day or any other day you never found out. But that night there was a meteor shower above the hill, the Leonids they were called, sulphurous streaks across the blackfelt sky and you –
No. That didn’t happen. That’s not fucking true. What really happened was you got drunk in the pub and caught the last bus home and went to bed but evidently you can’t be trusted to tell the truth, can you, so you might as well do everyone a favour and just, right now, shut the fuck up.
Niall Griffith’s will read ‘Obviously a Phrase…’ as part of Wales Arts Review’s Story Retold event at Caught by the River Teifi. Buy tickets here: