“Hi, John, thanks for coming,” I said to my father as I got off the train at Bangor station.
“You’re welcome, Tim. How’s Crewe? How’s college?”
“It’s all fine thanks. My finals are in a few weeks so I’ve been revising hard but I’ve decided to take some time off college work over the Easter holidays. I’ve taken a vac job as I’m skint.”
“Do you think that’s wise?”
“What’s this?” I asked as John went to climb into a strange looking vehicle. “New car?”
“Yes. What do you think?”
“Unusual,” I said diplomatically.
It turned out to be an electric car. This was comfortable enough and very quiet but it didn’t seem very practical as apparently it only had a range of 100 miles on one charge. It wasn’t a hybrid either but it did have a small petrol engine that would charge up the batteries to increase the range. Anyway John seemed very pleased with it. I wasn’t really surprised at his choice of vehicle as John was obsessed with green issues. He acted as an environmental consultant in a freelance capacity, advising on installations of solar heating, photoelectric systems, heat exchangers and that sort of thing, and he never seemed short of work.
“A hybrid uses a combustion engine to drive the vehicle whilst this one only uses petrol to charge the batteries,” explained John.
My parents home was a small-holding about 6 miles from Caernarfon down a narrow country lane. I’d spent all my childhood there and it was still home to me. The daffodils were out as we drove down the muddy drive to the house. The path to the back door was even muddier and I had to take my shoes off in the little porch before going into the house. I was quite tired after a busy week studying and the train there from Crewe had been very crowded and noisy. I was greeted by a lovely familiar smell as I opened the door from the porch into the kitchen and I guessed Wendy, my mother, had cooked my favourite meal, pumpkin lasagne, in honour of my return.
“Hi my gorgeous son,” she said as she hugged me tightly. ‘’Come in and sit down and if you like I’ll get you a nice cup of comfort tea and you can tell me all your news.’’
‘’Thanks, Wendy, I’d appreciate a cup of your lovely tea. It’s great to see you both and I’m glad of a break. I’ve been working hard at my studies and I’m exhausted. Also I’ve been a bit down, I had a bit of an upset – my girl friend, Chakka, finished with me at the end of February.”
“Oh dear that must be hard for you. She’s that lovely bubbly Malawian girl that you brought here in January isn’t she?”
“Yes, that’s right, the one who cooked cassava for us. It’s a bit strange as we’re still living together but now just as housemates, which is how we started off before we became an item. We’ve always had separate bedrooms so in some ways nothing’s changed. It turns out she was two-timing me. She’d been seeing someone in Bristol, where her parents live, and going out with me in Crewe. She only thought to tell me when she got engaged to the other chap. I was very annoyed, as you can imagine, and upset too and I was all for moving out but I’ve come to terms with it now and we rub along fine as housemates. With hindsight I realise that we weren’t that well suited. She’s into glamour, celebrities, the royal family and enjoys soaps and reality programmes on TV. Whereas I like nature, the outdoors and documentaries on TV. She said she really did like me and wasn’t sure how it would work out with Peter, the other chap, so she’d hedged her bets and kept us both in the dark. When he proposed she realised he was the one so she accepted and told me straight away. Anyway that’s her story.”
“Why didn’t you tell us at the time, you silly boy?”
“Oh I don’t know. I didn’t want to talk about it, I suppose. Anyway Wendy, that’s enough about me. How are you all getting on?”
“Well your brother Stanley’s got his first girlfriend – at 13 – I know. She’s called Vicky, is in Stanley’s class and is lovely. Her parents own a cafe in Caernarfon, one of the ones in the square. So that’s his news. John has been writing some stuff for Greenpeace that he’s very excited about – something about how the cost of wind generated electricity is going to be cheaper than that generated by nuclear power. No doubt you’ll hear all about it. Oh, I nearly forgot. The big news is that your sister is pregnant. That’s great isn’t it? I think they’ve been trying for a while.”
“Yes, she posted the news on Facebook and I sent her a soppy card. Anyway what’s your news? How are you doing and how are all your lovely animals? I didn’t get the usual welcome from the hens when we arrived”
“We’ve gone vegan, John and I. We’ve been thinking about doing it for a while and we finally took the plunge about a month ago. So sadly the animals had to go.”
“What all of them? That’s a bit drastic.”
“John took the cow and the goats to the market at Bryn Cir and we gave the chickens to our neighbours, Gwyn and Gwen, on condition they let us have a couple of eggs every week for Stanley. We’re not expecting him to forgo his favourite foods.”
“OK. Sad to see them go.”
“Yes, although we loved our animals we’ve come round to the view that keeping animals of any sort is no better than animal slavery. Animals should be allowed to live in the wild, not caged or tethered up. Anyway I’ve been wanting to expand our vegetable plot and instal a poly-tunnel so I need the space. We still want to be as self-sufficient as we can be and I think the veg and fruit will be more profitable.”
“I see where you’re coming from but surely the countryside wouldn’t be the same without sheep and cows in the fields and hens running around the farm yards?”
“I know they look pretty but have you ever thought about the kind of life they lead? Beef cattle only live for a matter of months instead of their natural lifespan of about 25 years and cows are kept producing milk by separating the calves from them shortly after birth and they are slaughtered after about 5 years. And you must bee aware how we treat chickens and what happens to calves kept for veal. It’s not natural and it’s not humane how we treat other species.”
Just then Stanley arrived and the topic was dropped but it had made a deep lasting impression on me. I noticed Stanley’s voice was beginning to change and he had fluff on his top lip – my kid brother! I was able to tease gently him about his girlfriend. I was pleased for him really. Then it was time for food. We all sat round the kitchen table to eat and afterwards Stanley washed up and I dried. When we’d finished we all played a few games of Zilch (a dice game), then a few games of rummy cup. We had an early night.
I had a lie in next morning and after breakfast – Wendy had kept an egg for me – I had a walk round the grounds with Wendy who showed me her plans for her expansion of the growing areas. She was very enthusiastic and was talking about taking a stand at the local farmer’s market to sell her excess vegetables and fruit. Apparently she’d developed a passion for plants and was hoping to supplement their income with produce from the small-holding. I had thought she might go back to work full time after us children had become independent – she’d been a midwife then a theatre sister – but she had decided hospital work was too stressful so all she did now was some part-time work as a health visitor.
I hardly saw John, who was immersed in his Greenpeace project, and Stanley had gone off on his bike to see friends. I helped Wendy dismantle the cowshed, cutting the timber into small enough planks to burn on their wood burner and then had a little doze on the sofa.
That night I’d arranged to meet one of my ex-school friends for a drink and Delwyn arrived to pick me up at 21:30. Stanley wanted to come too but thankfully wasn’t allowed – I think we’d have struggled to pass him off as over 18 and old enough to drink and anyway I wanted time with Delwyn on my own. As soon as I heard the car I rushed out of the house as I thought if Del came indoors we’d never escape. I was a bit disappointed though as he said he’d arranged for us to meet up with some other friends of his. Apparently this had become part of his weekly routine and he didn’t want to let his new friends down.
Delwyn and I had been best friends at school even though I was an English speaker and he was a Welsh speaker. Language was still very much an issue in North Wales but somehow we managed to get round it. Delwyn was a farmer’s son who had decided to stay on the farm and not to bother with college. His dad was against him going away anyway as he wasn’t a well man; the poor man had Parkinson’s and was gradually loosing his ability to do even simple jobs on the farm. It was rumoured that he had been a radical Welsh Nationalist in the 1960’s, part of a group that set light to English-owned holiday cottages. Groups like that believed the English were colonising their country, destroying their way of life and they wanted to drive them out. The English had to some extent created the situation by trying to ban the Welsh language. I never saw that side of his father though as he always went out of his way to make me welcome, as did his mum.
Del took me to a pub in Caernarfon where they had a pool table. Three of his friends were already there when we arrived and I felt a bit of an outsider, especially as they all spoke in Welsh. I was struggling to keep up with what was going on. Although I was taught mainly in Welsh I never became fluent and having lived in England for 3 years I had become quite rusty. Fortunately I was a competent pool player and I was able to gain the respect of these Welsh hillbillies with my skill on the table. In fact I was by far the best player and I didn’t let their put-downs get to me. Also the beer was good so all in all I managed to have a cool time.
On the way home I had a chance to catch up with Delwyn’s news.
“So how’s the farm?”
“Well, to be honest it’s bloody hard work. Dad can’t really do anything any more. His Parkinson is awful. It’s not just the shakes that he’s got – everyone associates those with the disease – he’s also lost the ability to walk far and often falls over. Mum’s has to spend most of her time looking after him, plus she does a bit of computer input work at home to bring in a bit of cash. So she doesn’t do anything much on the farm either and muggins here has to do just about everything. Although, to be honest, I have a bit of a break at weekends as Dai comes in and does the milking for me Saturday and Sunday mornings. This is the life I’ve always wanted and, with dad being the way he is, I’m my own boss. Sometimes though, I can’t help but envy people like you who’ve more freedom, who can take holidays and days off. Socially it’s difficult too. There’s only a special type of girl who’s prepared to put up with going out with a farmer. And you have to watch out for those that are interested, as there are those view you as a ticket to be a farmer’s wife. I’ve had brushes with a couple of them as well – frightening. Anyway how’s your degree going?”
“Well it’s my finals soon and I really haven’t a clue what I’m going to do when my studies finish. So I’m quite jealous of your ready-made career. Not that I think I would want to commit to running a dairy farm. I’m more interested in plants than animals anyway so maybe an arable farm, a market garden job or a plant nursery is where I see myself. At the moment I just want to get a good degree and that’s what I’m concentrating on.”
“So what did you think of my Welsh friends? I don’t think you’ve met any of them before.”
“Well to be honest, I thought they were a bit off with me, especially that red-haired guy who kept referring to me as “English” as if that was my name. I think it’s a shame they seem to want to keep the enmity between us going.”
“Yes I thought that was not the friendliest way of greeting my best friend. I thought their behaviour crass and small-minded. It upset me. I know I’m Welsh myself but I don’t see the English as a threat any more. We have our own Assembly now and Welsh is very much the first language in schools. I think that this should be enough to satisfy Welsh people that they are in charge of their own destiny.”
“I agree. It’s a shame they feel it’s necessary to keep banging on about it. I do wonder whether the pendulum hasn’t swung too far the other way. Everything’s very politically correct where the Welsh language is concerned.” I had thought a lot about this but had to be careful. I didn’t want to offend Delwyn. “Yet individually everyone is so friendly. I think people realise that without English visitors Wales would really suffer.”
“I’m a bit confused myself. I’m a proud Welshman and glad that our ancient language is being preserved but I’m not sure whether forcing everyone to learn Welsh is the right way forward. Languages can be very divisive as you’ve discovered this evening. Because of this it’s difficult to persuade people from other parts of the UK with young children, doctors, nurses, etc. to come to work here as they know their offspring are going to have be educated in Welsh. And why would they want that? Then public servants, teachers etc. all have to be bilingual, so only locals apply. The bright youngsters from here escape to London to enjoy city life. Many of our school mates have gone to England to get jobs as there’s not enough employment here. I worry North Wales is going to become even more of a little backwater than it already is.”
“Well I can’t help agreeing with you but I have to say I’m a bit surprised to hear you think that, as a born and bred Welshman.”
“Well I’ve been heavily influenced by my girlfriend who comes from England and who found it hard to enter our education system at the age of 13, knowing no Welsh. She knows that one of the causes of the anti-English feeling is that historically the English tried to force the population to learn English and to stamp out Welsh, but she thinks the present policy is just as misguided. She says it’s expensive and discriminatory and as the number of Welsh speakers is declining it obviously isn’t working.”
“I thought you were proud of the language and thought it gave your nation a sense of identity?”
“Yes that’s true but I don’t think you should force the issue. I mean the other day some supermarket was berated as if they’d committed a major crime because they had fallen down in some minor way, issued some staff notice in English only. I can’t remember the details. If it’s that way round it’s like a witch hunt but if something is written only in Welsh no one bats an eyelid.”
“OK Del, lets change the subject. You mentioned a girlfriend, is this serious? Has she got designs on your farm?”
“No she’s a travel agent is Janine. She’s 22, slim and dark and we’ve been going out together for three months. I’m totally infatuated with her and hopefully the feeling is reciprocated. So yes I think it is serious.”
We’d reached the drive to my folks place by then so I asked him if he’d any pictures and he had loads on his phone. I was surprised I’d not heard of or seen Janine before as he said she went to the same school as we did but a year above us. She was a lot better looking than any girls I remembered from school. I had wanted to tell him about my break up but I’d gone tired so I thanked Delwyn for the evening and went in to bed without asking him in. Anyway as a dairy farmer I supposed he wouldn’t have accepted. They have to get up so early.
I had another lie in next morning and caught up with a bit of revision before returning to Crewe. My house was quiet when I eventually arrived back. It was nearly midnight. There had been a problem on the line at Llandudno so we were bussed from there to Chester and I just missed a train to Crewe and had to wait for an hour. I intended to get up at a sensible time next day. I wanted to make the most of the last four days of college before I was due to start work.
A couple of days later Chakka surprised me by being at home when I walked in after lectures. She usually arrived back much later than me.
“Fancy a pancake?” she asked.
“Why what’s the occasion?” I replied.
“Maundy Thursday, you dope.”
“Oh yeah. I’d forgotten. I’m a bit of a dreamboat today. Hang on though, I thought pancake day was on Shrove Tuesday not Maundy Thursday.”
“Oh what the… I’m making pancakes on Maundy Thursday. I presume you’re going to oblige me and eat some?”
“Yes I’d love some please, whatever the day! So aren’t you going to Bristol for Easter?”
“Yes but I thought I’d treat you to pancakes first. Plus I’m hungry and need something before the long drive.”
Chacca looked stunning even with an apron on and it hurt that I couldn’t touch her any more. I somehow had to kept the switch in my brain that made me fancy her switched off. My expression must have given me away.
Chakka said, “Don’t look so sad. You’ll make me feel guilty. I thought we’d managed to get through our split without either of us getting too upset.”
“I’m sorry. You’re right. I mean it’s been nearly two months now. I know we weren’t really suited to each other and that anyway you’ve moved on. I think I’m upset because I’ll be on my own for the next 12 days. You’re going away and my mates have all gone back to their parents. We’ve just had our last lectures, so now my foreseeable future is working for two weeks at a pet store over the Easter Holidays, a last two weeks of revision, my finals and then … I don’t know what. Don’t feel guilty. We’ve got to be able to share this house as just friends. I wouldn’t want to share with anybody else. I know I’ll be able to cope on my own, especially as I’m going to be working as many hours as I can.”
“Here you are. Just sprinkle with caster sugar and squeeze that lemon on it.”
“Oh thanks. That looks lovely.”
About an hour and ten pancakes each later I found myself on my own. I felt a bit strange, lost really, as none of my mates were around for the holidays. They’d gone back to their parents. I’d stayed on in Crewe as I’d taken a job on to earn some cash, starting Good Friday, and working 12 of the next 14 days until the beginning of the summer term.
I decided to cook myself some liver so I braved the drizzle and set off for the butchers. I had to rush as it was after 17:00 and the shops shut at 17:30. The rain was heavier than I’d thought and I was wet through by the time I reached the precinct where the butcher was.
I spent the evening on my own, enjoying food cooked by myself, and watched a few things on the TV, something I rarely did. I was surprised at the amount of stuff there was on that I was interested in and consequently I stayed up later than I’d intended. I’d promised myself an early night so I’d be fresh for the delights of the morning, working in a pet store where I was due to start at 09:00. I set the alarm for 07:00 so I could shower and have breakfast by 08:00. The store was about 3/4 of an hour’s walk away in one of those awful shopping malls, between Aldi and PC World.
It had stopped raining in the morning and was actually warm and sunny when I set off, only 5 minutes late. Crewe was unusually quiet and the roads almost deserted, I suppose because it was Good Friday. I arrived 10 minutes before opening time but there was someone waiting on the inside of the glass door and she let me in. She told me where the staff room was and instructed me to put on a staff t-shirt. I’d have a designated locker and 3 t-shirts would be waiting for me inside it. She was a good looking girl and was very friendly so I was disappointed when I spied her wedding ring. Anyway seeing her cheered me up and made me wonder whether there would be other attractive females working with me. I’d not been out with anyone since Chacca finished with me and I wanted to change this situation soon.
I was put on shelf stacking. I had to walk around the store checking the shelves, noting down on an electronic device those items that needed topping up and then going to the stores, booking the goods out, piling them on a trolley then taking them to and putting them on the correct shelves. Apparently this was the job all new staff were given as it gave them knowledge of the layout of the store and the stock and was considered part of staff training. Some items, huge sacks of cat litter, dog food and bales of hay were kept stocked by someone else, a huge, shaven headed, tattooed armed youth who looked like he could be a white supremacist.
The store itself was huge, like an aircraft hanger. It had a mezzanine floor where pet rabbits, guinea pigs, kittens etc. were kept. The isles were wide, much wider than in most supermarkets and there were special offers everywhere, lots of ‘buy 1 get the second 1 half price’ offers which I deplored – trying to upsell items that probably weren’t needed. One of my pet hates – excuse the unintended pun.
The morning passed quite quickly with a coffee break at 11:00 and lunch at 12:30. I regretted not having made any sandwiches and had to get some soggy ones in a packet from the supermarket next door. The afternoon seemed to drag, I suppose I’d already got into the swing of things – learning new stuff always makes the time pass more quickly. There was a tea-break at 15:30 and I shared the staff room with the girl who’d let me in in the morning, who was called Stacey and was an assistant manager. She gave me a few tips on the company and a bit of lowdown on other staff members. I was right about the big shaven headed guy and was told not to discuss politics, especially racism with him. Her nickname for him is ‘The Nazi’ – but don’t you dare let him hear that – she said.
It was so busy later on that they asked me if I wanted two hours overtime. I worked until 19:30 and bought fish and chips on the way home. I don’t normally do take aways but the thought of going back to an empty house and cooking a meal was a bit daunting as was the thought of another ten lonely days. Although I do like company I’m not the type to go into the pub on my own. I was so tired that I fell asleep in front of the TV.