helen pendry

Book Club Extract | The Levels by Helen Pendry

The Wales Arts Review Book Club’s newly-announced Book of the Month is The Levels by Machynlleth-based writer Helen Pendry. The following is an extract from the opening pages, which introduces us to Abby Hughes, who has just arrived in mid-Wales on a macabre visit.

The Levels is a novel which skilfully enmeshes Welsh history with modern dysphoria and our many pressing anxieties: from development and the decline of agriculture, to the more universal fear for the state of the world. As Pendry’s debut novel, The Levels signals her skill at storytelling: we weave through the narrative, the tension slowly building as the central mystery unravels.

If after finishing this preview you would like to keep reading The Levels, join the Wales Arts Review Book Club for an exclusive discount from Parthian.


The Levels


The air is a cool empty kiss on the skin of his face. He opens his eyes and sees strobing light and sheet lightning. But there’s no light down here. His mind is making it up. He’s on his back on the rock and he can’t move. His right leg twists under him. Pain ebbs and flows through his skull. He’d like to walk home in the light. He knows the way out from level five, even in the dark and without a torch. He knows the incline up to the winch – the winch which was mangled by a rockfall last spring. He knows there’s a hole in the roof of the chamber, just above the winch. It was chipped out a century ago by the Bryn Hyfryd rockmen to save themselves the long trudge home at the end of each day through a mile of underground tunnels and then along the valley road. Some of them died before they’d pushed through. Some of them knew they’d die before they pushed through. He can taste metal. He can hear water dripping into a pool.



Holiday Park

Mr Palmer is ahead of me, leading the way up the track between chalets and bare flowerbeds. I drag after him, hands in the pockets of my jeans. There’s a glistening on the tarmac like a cold sweat. My boots scuff it. I can hear water splashing over pebbles in the trackside ditch, and below us, in the gorge, another stream gushes between mud banks. Everything is dissolving –sky into earth, trees into sky, my wet wool jumper into my skin.

The static caravans are raised above the track behind jutting decks, their bayed front windows facing out over the valley like ghost ships on the green swell of the hill, their blinds fixed shut against the winter. And then there’s a gap in the line of caravans and Mr Palmer stops.

‘Here,’ he says, and the sound of his voice comes out in a white mist.

There’s a ditch of churned-up mud that starts by my feet and ends in the belly of the hill. The only other sign of violence is an uprooted fir tree, flat on the ground. I’m not disappointed – ghoulish curiosity didn’t bring me to this hillside in Wales. But I am surprised. On the train I’d tried not to picture the scene of the accident because I didn’t want to know what a drone skidding out of the sky on an errant curve could do to a caravan and the woman inside. I tried not to think about twisted steel and shards of glass, of furniture foam spilling out of crushed velveteen cushions. I knew the body would have been removed by now, and I didn’t want to see remnants of liquid yellow fat splattered over sheets of fibreglass and MDF. Or blood washed to dark stains by the rain.

‘The MoD took everything away. For the investigation.’

Mr Palmer’s Puffa jacket makes him look almost as wide as he is tall, and he says ‘MoD’and ‘investigation’as though words like that explain everything and put an end to questions.

‘Did you see it happen?’ I ask him.

He sinks further into his warm coat and when he speaks it’s towards the muddy space in front of us and not to me. ‘It was a godawful noise. And then an explosion, and smoke, and bits floating down, and when I got here …Put it this way –I won’t be getting in a plane for a while.’

What about a caravan? I want to say, but I stop myself. I look out across the valley instead and study a triangle of forestry plantation and a low white farmhouse in the crook of a hill till the red and white tape that marks out the scene of the accident hums in the wind and draws me back to Mr Palmer and the gap in front of us.

He coughs and takes a step towards me. ‘Did you know Anwen well?’

I hesitate, and then nod, because it’s much easier than telling a lie out loud. I can’t tell Mr Palmer I didn’t know her at all, that I never met her. I can’t tell him I know the man who may have killed her, and that I’m here to find him, not to grieve her. I’m hoping my lack of words will suggest pain and he won’t pry any further.

He starts to walk away and I stay a moment, listening to the silence in the space in front of me and to the gale of the world blowing through it. I dig my cold toes downwards, feeling the earth, and in my head I hear Tegid Rhys say it was my fault. I turn that phrase over, and again I tell myself it’s a stupid idea. It was an accident. That’s what they’re all saying –the news, the MoD. It was a terrible accident and I have no good reason to question their story.

I try to pull my hands into the sleeves of my jacket but the sleeves are too short so I let the cold embrace me, as though it could freeze the contours of my body and make me feel defined. I know there’s a problem with the accident theory: if I don’t think Tegid had anything to do with this disaster I wouldn’t be standing here by a muddy ditch looking for some kind of evidence that would settle it either way.

When I catch up with Mr Palmer he’s half way down the hill.

‘Thank god it was out of season,’ he says.

‘Don’t they mind the drones?’ I ask him, ‘–the people who come here for their holidays?’

‘I’m sure they will now. But they didn’t used to. The drones are quiet. Not like the jets. The jets are really loud if you’re not used to them. But even those …well, people understand, don’t they? Our pilots need to train. Our weapons need testing. That’s how they protect us from the terrorists, isn’t it?’

We’ve reached the gate across the drive that leads to his dormer bungalow.

‘Back to work,’ he mutters.

‘I need somewhere to stay,’ I say. ‘Till the funeral.’

He’s pushing open the gate and he stops to consider this, and then he turns around and considers me. He’s wondering where to place a woman in her thirties who’s travelling alone and doesn’t have a car. I can see he’s not inclined to offer me one of his caravans.

‘There’s a bunkhouse in town, but I don’t think it’s open this time of year. There are a few B and B’s. You could ask in the newsagents. They keep a list. And there’s the Bridge Hotel, but it’s not cheap.’

He’s ruling out the hotel in my case, which annoys me, so the next thing I’m doing is asking a loaded question.

‘Was Anwen living here permanently? In one of your caravans? Isn’t that illegal?’

He steps back towards me, sticking out his chin.

‘I was doing her a favour,’ he says, his voice taut, ‘until the council came up with a house. She’d have been out of that caravan well within the time limit.’ Then he pushes through the gate and lets it clank shut behind him. When he gets to the house a security light flicks on over the front door and despite the fierce whiteness of its bulb it only adds to the gloom of the afternoon.

I start walking down the drive towards the main road. I know the way back to town – it’s a cold two-mile walk along a narrow road without pavements, and the cars don’t slow down for the bends, so when he pulls up next to me in a silver four-by-four and offers me a lift I don’t decline. But as I climb in the smell of pine air freshener slams the back of my throat and I start to wonder about the wisdom of sharing a confined space with Mr Palmer.

I have nothing to say about the dead woman because I didn’t know her. It’s soon clear though that Mr Palmer isn’t going to start a conversation about Anwen. I’ve told him I’m an old friend of hers, and I don’t think he’s the kind of middle-aged English man who would cope well with a weeping woman in his car. He’ll stay off the subject.

‘We had a soldier posted here all last week,’ he says, nodding towards the park sign as we pull through the gates, ‘which isn’t a great advertisement for a holiday park.’

At first I think he means the sign, not the soldier. It isn’t a great advertisement. It says ‘Sunny Hill Holiday Park in Magical Mid Wales’, and under that is a lurid painting of a green hill blobbed with white sheep under a blue sky and a radiant orange sun. Mr Palmer drives fast on the winding road and I try to focus on the horizon of hills to still the nausea rising in my stomach, but the hills are smudged into the greying sky and I can hardly make out the join. I glance at the dashboard clock and it tells me it’s only four o’clock. Even so, a day that’s hardly had the energy to show up is being elbowed out by the night. I share its exhaustion and settle back into the seat.

Mr Palmer turns to the pleasantries he’s been honing on tourists from England for years.

‘Where are you from?’ he begins, and I simplify and say I live in London. That starts him off on a long lecture about how Pont Rhith is at least twenty years behind the times. I let him talk. It’s easier if he speaks and I listen.

It’s a role I’m familiar with.

A fine drizzle provokes the windscreen wipers into action and then he’s asking what I do in London. When I tell him I work in a hostel for homeless people he says, ‘That’s the problem with cities: it’s where the dregs end up.’

I picture it –the dregs, the sediment, sinking to the bottom of cities, sucked into the black hole at the centre of a swirling galaxy of marine phosphorescence. And then I picture scum floating to the top and to the edges – all the way out to the Celtic Fringe on a tide of property acquisition and greed. I leave my upside-down view of the world unspoken because in his eyes it would be nothing but sour grapes. I have no silver four-by-four. I wear second-hand clothes. I don’t own a first home, never mind a holiday home or a hillside caravan park. And right now I’m cold and hungry and I’ve got nowhere to stay.

I let the swish-swash of the wipers lull me into semiconsciousness and then I hear him saying something about the Welsh hating English incomers like him, and how he wants his children to know there’s a bigger world out there, and that most of it speaks English.

‘Mandarin,’ I say. ‘Most of it speaks Mandarin. And after Mandarin it’s Spanish.’

He doesn’t say anything else after that and we reach the town in silence. When he pulls up outside The Bridge Hotel my stomach lurches, and it’s not because he’s braked with a decisiveness that betrays his desire to dispatch me onto the pavement. It’s because I’m looking at the map on his sat-nav screen –a diagram of fine, red, criss-crossing lines against a black background –and I’m thinking about Tegid. He was a vagrant, a drifter, the sort of man most people avoided and I had to work with because it was my job.

If it was wrong to call him crazy, then it was just as deluded to see him as a savant or a wandering sage. He just didn’t fit in. He was a man in his sixties who made maps and hated war. I know all that, and I’ve still come looking for him. I know something else. He wouldn’t have liked the sat-nav’s pared-down version of the world. He wouldn’t have liked its owner much, either, so I hesitate before I ask Mr Palmer if he knows Tegid Rhys. I’m standing on the pavement, holding the car door open, and he’s shaking his head and releasing the hand-break. Then he puts the break back on and leans towards me.

‘You mean that bloke who turned up a year or two back and started causing trouble?’ He doesn’t wait for my answer but barrels on. ‘Yes I know him. Always complaining about something, like the names I put on my shops and my cafe. He thought they should have Welsh names. He even tried to start a bloody petition, but that didn’t work, did it? How d’you know him?’

‘He’s the father of a friend of mine,’ I lie. ‘Is he still around?’

‘Hope not. It’s hard enough making a living in the back of beyond without people like him turning up and sticking their oar in.’

His hand is releasing the break again and I take the hint and lean on the door to shut it. Then I give him a little wave of thanks for the lift. He doesn’t wave back.


If after finishing this preview you would like to keep reading The Levels, join the Wales Arts Review Book Club for an exclusive discount from Parthian.