Richard Gwyn

The Reading

Owen drove in silence, and with care. He had slept badly the night before, which is to say he had not slept at all, and now the act of staying awake for the duration of a two and a half hour drive had become an endurance test, since the mechanics of his insomnia dictated that while unable to sleep at night, he was perfectly capable of sleeping for stretches during the day, especially following a meal, and even, shamefully, while driving. He was also prone to dozing off during performances by his fellow readers at the events he was required to attend; for apart from being an insomniac, Owen Price was a poet, and today he was on his way to a reading. He had published a new collection, his third, and today’s visit to the mid-Wales town of Newtown was a fixture on his launch tour. He had already read at other locations throughout Wales, including the launch at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea, which had attracted around fifty people – a good number, he thought, for a poetry reading. Owen was certainly not a household name, but he had a modest local reputation and had been referred to – by a critic who was considered (or considered himself to be) a leading arbiter of judgement in such matters – as one of the more talented emerging writers of his generation, at least in Wales. Elsewhere, he was practically unknown. He was, in the articles of literary achievement, a very minor poet.

As he drove along the twisting roads, he felt the need to sleep wash over him. He knew he should probably pull over and take a rest, but could not afford this: he needed to be on time for his reading. Clutching at the wheel as though at the helm of a storm-stricken vessel, he forced his eyes wide open and began to sing, loudly, inanely, and tunelessly, his jaw clenched, lips barely moving. The hills of the Epynt rose in a green tide to his left as he negotiated an interminable bend in the battered estate car, the road descending into a valley charmingly populated by Friesian cows and through which a narrow river tumbled, its water refracting silver light. It was a bright June morning. He knew he should appreciate this bucolic scene; but he was too tired, much too tired.

Approaching his destination Owen tried to locate his favourite radio station for the one o’clock news, but the reception was awful, drowned out in loud crackling and buzzing by Radio Telford. Typical, he mused, slipping by default into a mode of thought that manifested as an unending clamour of complaint: you can’t get radio reception for a Welsh station in Wales. You can’t even get Radio Wales in Cardiff without Radio Bristol wading in like some colonial intruder. Or mobile coverage, for that matter, not that Owen owned a mobile. Technology was a source of limitless bewilderment to him, and his rejection of a cell phone, along with his ineptitude when faced with the practical matter of computer technology, was simultaneously a source of pride and embarrassment to him.

He had set out from his hometown of Cardiff at ten and was on schedule to begin his reading at the Newtown public library at two. He had brought sandwiches and a thermos of coffee and would find somewhere to enjoy his packed lunch – perhaps a bench in a nearby park – before turning up to his event a quarter of an hour before the advertised time. Owen was a methodical and punctual person, in spite of being a poet.

Having driven around Newtown three times without any success in identifying his venue (but unwittingly passing it twice before noticing the sign that designated it a Public Library) Owen pulled into the car park of the unexceptional red-brick building. He wasn’t optimistic about a Saturday afternoon poetry reading in this curiously voided town. Who had organised the event? Not his publisher, but a London-based PR firm which had won the franchise to promote literary events for a consortium of publishers, of whom his was one. Their name, he seemed to recall, was Con Art Promo, which might have sent out warning signals, but this had evidently not deterred whoever organised such matters at his publishers, or at the Welsh Books Council, which ultimately held the purse strings. Owen wondered how much Con Art were getting paid. Considerably more than his eighty pounds plus fuel allowance, that much was certain.

Outside, the sun had retreated behind grey clouds, which threatened rain. Owen took his sandwiches from a paper bag on the passenger seat and decided to eat in his car rather than search for a bench and risk getting wet and flustered just before his reading.

Inside the library, a monasterial silence greeted him. He inspected the notice board in the hallway, expecting to see some kind of poster advertising his event, like the one he had been sent in his Tour Pack by Con Art Promo. There was nothing of the kind. Behind the counter a woman was writing in a ledger. Owen moved over to her.

Hullo, he said. I’ve come up from Cardiff for the reading. I am Owen Price. Even as he said his name, he felt like a fraud.

The woman peered up at him, slightly startled. She made an expectant noise in her throat, as if presaging speech, and inspected the diary that lay open on the desk in front of her.

There doesn’t appear to be anything down, she said. Not any events at all for today, in fact.

Owen touched his cheek, because, inexplicably, it felt as if the wings of a bat had brushed his face. His first instinct was to flee, to return straightaway to Cardiff, but he held firm. All the same, he knew that his own credibility was struggling for survival.

He decided to adopt a chipper approach. Don’t tell me, he interjected – as though she had not said what she had just said – that you know nothing about any reading.

I’m afraid I don’t, said the librarian, and she smiled a nervous smile. Are they born that way? Owen wondered, or is it something in their DNA that predisposes them to that particular line of work, a sort of bookish determinism, a call of destiny; or do they grow, like Lamarck’s apocryphal giraffes, into the prescribed physical form? She was aged somewhere between thirty and sixty; trim, agreeable, owlish (obviously), but somehow crushed into premature nonentity by working in an institution paradoxically bereft of any qualities relating to the soul, condemned to a daily routine of doling out and stamping polyethylene-covered editions of works by Danielle Steel and Jeffrey Archer to a readership whose lives demanded a weekly dose of something more bracing than they were ever likely to encounter in this or any other town on the Welsh Marches.

Owen felt swamped by an overwhelming and almost tactile sense of pointlessness: about his being there, his stupid choice of occupation (he dared not consider it a profession), his inane pursuit of the written word as a means of personal salvation. Not for the first time, he contemplated – in a highly abstract manner, of course – the notion of suicide, before deciding that Newtown was not nearly exotic enough a place to end things.

He handed the librarian the schedule he had been posted from Con Art Promo, and she inspected it dutifully.

I’m sorry, she said, there must have been some kind of a mix-up. We haven’t been told anything about this. We do hold readings from time to time, in the Function Room, but I know nothing about this one, Mr Price. I am sorry. Sorry, she repeated, a little more quietly, as though a single enunciation were not sufficient.

Owen recalled the one phone conversation he had endured with the man from Con Art Promo, to check on details of his tour, having waited two months for an itinerary to arrive in the post (and which had eventually materialised in the wake of his phone call). The phone had been answered by a man possessing the implausibly Welsh name of Llewellyn Rhys ap Madoc, which didn’t quite go with the plummy voice that reminded Owen of a seditious and gravelly magistrate he had once had the misfortune to cross in his one and only encounter with the law. He suspected the Con Art man was a professional crook, who had seen an opening and had adopted a fallacious identity in order to get his hands on the loot. It was not an entirely improbable interpretation.

Ah well, he said, more to himself than to the librarian. I should have known.

Would you like a drink perhaps, a cup of tea? The woman asked.

No thanks, said Owen, I am weary of cups of tea.

I’m sorry?

I have an allergy, that is all.

To tea?

To something in it, I think.

The woman looked at him strangely, and straightened herself.

You are welcome to sit in the Function Room, to see if anyone arrives, she suggested, softening a little. Perhaps they sent a mail-out to interested individuals without informing me.

I doubt it, Owen said, but thanks anyway, I will.

He began to walk towards the room she had indicated when she spoke again.

I have a friend, she began, hesitatingly, who writes. I could give him a call, if you like. See if he is free. He met R.S. Thomas once, and several other writers of note. It would at least be company for you, after coming all this way.

That won’t be necessary, said Owen. Though it is very kind of you to offer. I might sit for a while and rest. Give it half an hour in case someone turns up.

The librarian ushered him into a large room with children’s paintings fixed to the walls with sticking plasters, as though they were, each one, covering an abrasion or a wound. A long window looked out onto a wet patio. The sun had given up for the day: a dense mantle of grey now stretched across the skyline from east to west, and the rain came down.

Once the librarian had left, Owen sat down in one of the chairs surrounding a large table. He took a book of his poems from his shoulder bag (he had come equipped with a dozen copies, as part of the deal with Con Art Promo was that he bring his own books to sell). He tapped rhythmically on the table-top with his fingers for a minute, then opened the slim volume at random and stared at the far wall, the one which was empty of children’s paintings.

When the golem entered the room, awkwardly, as though battling an invisible tide, Owen was slumped at the table, his head resting sideways on folded hands. He stirred, it must have been the sense of another body nearby, or perhaps the shuffling of the golem’s flat feet on the floorboards; he stirred and raised his head and looked uncertainly towards the figure in front of him. Its shape was amorphous, as though still in the process of being formed. The head, set upon slanting shoulders, was oval and – at least, at first – almost featureless, containing only the dim outline of eyes, a nose, and a mouth, as though a gossamer covering were stretched over the face, obscuring those features. The golem had skinny arms and legs, its grey flesh almost translucent. It was naked, but sexless. It trembled almost imperceptibly as it stood before the table. It did not speak, and Owen knew at once that it was a golem. He had read of such things, knew of their role in Jewish folklore as unformed beings made from mud or clay, brought to life by some incantation, the speaking of a secret word or name. He also knew that it had come for him, and that he was somehow responsible for its existence. Both of these realisations filled him with a dim, nebulous fear, or perhaps joy. Without moving from his chair he stared at the dumb and unmoving creature in front of him until it emerged fully into the landscape of the room, its features sharpening a degree, coming into focus. Simultaneously the golem began absorbing and then reflecting aspects of Owen’s own thought, the limitless capacities of his imagination and his memory. Owen remembered – or else memory sought him out and presented him with – an image of the interior of the Aghia Sophia in Istanbul, of watching a cat wash herself in one of the wide spaces of that cathedral; he saw a rocky island at a small distance from a beach where he was standing at night, forlorn and alone, pondering whether or not to swim out to it; he saw a scarecrow in a field on an early summer’s day and he wanted to lie down in the warm ploughed soil; he remembered the first time he had witnessed death, the crash of colliding machines, the splintering of glass, the stench of burning metal and rubber. And then he saw himself reflected in the golem, and he tried to remember how he must either manage this encounter or else escape it. Without thinking, he tore the opening poem from his book, folded the sheet of paper over several times until it was only a few centimetres square, and he approached the golem. He walked around the creature carefully, in a clockwise direction, before standing directly in front of it, face to face. The golem was the same height as Owen, but lacked his ease of mobility. Indeed, the golem seemed to find it hard to move at all beyond those awkward, jerky movements with which it had entered the room. Owen raised the folded piece of paper containing his poem to the level of the golem’s mouth and, moving his hand slowly so as not to alarm the creature, he gently inserted the multiply-folded sheet of paper between its slightly parted, dry and chapped lips. He placed his gift carefully on the golem’s small, leathery tongue. At first nothing happened, and then Owen noticed the tip of the tongue retreat inside the mouth, and the jaws begin to work, as the golem chewed slowly, methodically, on his poem. Elated, Owen returned to the table to retrieve his book, and carefully tore out a second page. The same thing happened: the golem received the folded piece of paper onto its tongue, paused for a moment as though weighing up its import or content, and then commenced its slow chewing. In this way Owen fed the golem his book, page by page, and he was fascinated by the way in which, with each offered poem, the golem would pause, as though wishing first to appreciate the flavour of the text, before beginning the process of mastication, and then swallowing, a process marked by a barely perceptible fluttering on the skin of its neck.

When the golem had eaten all of Owen’s poems, it stood still for a while, and then turned slowly to its left, before beginning its strange shuffling walk towards the door. But it didn’t open the door; instead it seemed simply to merge into the woodwork, to disappear back into the organic world from whence it had come.

Owen returned to his seat at the table, still holding in his left hand the cover of his book, its forlorn shell now devoid of any content. He took from his bag a bottle of water and drank thirstily. He wondered whether he should leave, and thought for a moment about the librarian at her desk, thought of her sitting there, oblivious to the appearance of the golem in this place she had called the Function Room. He wondered how she might have responded had she seen the strange, unformed creature. He wondered too about his own reaction to the encounter, how unremarkable he had found the thing, its willing subservience and malleability, how unquestioningly it had consumed the word-filled pages he had proffered it. And he wondered whether he had correctly understood the golem’s passive stupidity, its inert stumbling defencelessness before the world. He had fed the golem his words, but a kind of transference had taken place as well. He himself felt oddly purified, scraped out, reconfigured.

Owen took his time driving home. He followed the back roads. In one village he stopped off at a pub, spending an hour over a pint of beer and a pasty of indeterminate content. At another point, on an empty stretch near some woods, he passed a solitary church. He reversed along the road and parked outside. The church seemed ominous in the dusk. To his surprise the big handle on the outer door turned freely, and he entered. How strange that they should trust people enough, in these godless times, to leave church doors open. The air inside the church was cold and smelled of mould. He stood for a while at the entrance because there was a poem posted in the porch: he read it twice in the half-light, but could not make sense of it, even though there was nothing much to understand; a poem that drove relentlessly into the depths of the void; a joyless, and to Owen’s mind, entirely pointless poem by one of his country’s most famous sons, now dead, a priest who had apparently preached here on some occasion. And he wondered at the capacity of anyone to be a poet in this age, when any foul-mouthed cretin with celebrity status has his words repeated stratospherically by millions, while poets of the abyss go unheard in the darkened portal of a country church.

When he arrived home in the capital, it was past midnight and the street where his house lay was quiet. As he got out of the car he heard the febrile wailing of a Saturday night drunk somewhere nearby, followed by a smashing of glass. He closed the front door quietly, draped his coat over the banister and crept upstairs. His wife appeared to be asleep. He undressed and climbed into bed beside her, and she made a kind of chirruping sound, and turned, letting out a long sigh. He wasn’t so certain now that she was asleep, but he didn’t feel like speaking. The burden of irritation and burgeoning despair that he had felt on arriving at the library, the sadness and rage with which he had reacted to the poem at the church on his way home dissipated and he lay back on the pillow with his hands behind his head. When he remembered the golem he felt again the strange elation he had experienced that afternoon, the mix of joy and fear, the clarity and the possibility of a new beginning, and he did not know for certain whether he had fed the golem his poems, or whether the golem had fed him; whether the golem had read him, or he had read the golem. He lay facing the bedroom window. There were no curtains, as his wife had tired of the old ones but had not yet replaced them. A black mark in the vague shape of a spider caught his attention on the pane, and he stared at it for a very long time.

 original illustration by Dean Lewis

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