February 2007

An excerpt from "The Welsh Girl" by Peter Ho Davies

Peter Ho Davies(U-M home page) grew up in Wales and moved to the U.S. in 1992. The author of two story collections with great titles, "The Ugliest House in the World" and "Equal Love," he is also a professor of English at the University of Michigan, where he has also served as the director of the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing. His stories have appeared in the "Best American Short Stories" and "O. Henry Awards" anthologies; his books have received much praise and multiple prizes, and he is the winner of an NEA fellowship and Guggenheim Award. "The Welsh Girl" is his first novel.  

 

Pretty soon the pub is down to just soldiers and die-hards, the Welsh voices behind her wafting over with the smell of pipe tobacco. They're quieter tonight, slower, sluggish as a summer stream. The talk for once isn't politics. This is a nationalist village, passionately so. It's what holds the place together, like a cracked and glued china teapot. The strike, all of forty-five years ago, almost broke the town, plunging it into poverty, and it's taken something shared to stick back together the families of men who returned to work and those who stayed out.

The Quarryman's Arms is the old strikers' pub—the hooks for their tankards, her grandfather's and great-grandfather's included, still stud the ceiling over the bar—a bitter little irony, since most of its regulars, the sons of strikers, are sheep farmers now. Their fathers weren't taken back at the quarry after the strike, blacklisted from the industry, and for a generation the families of strikers and scabs didn't talk, didn't marry, didn't pray together. "Robbed our jobs," Arthur always says, though he never worked a day in the quarry himself. Even now the sons of scabs are scarce in the Arms, only venturing up the high street from their local, the Prince of Wales, for fiercely competitive darts and snooker matches, games the soldiers have cornered since they arrived.

To Esther the old scores seem like so much tosh, especially after the cutbacks at the quarry, where barely one in ten local men work now. But the old people all agree that the village would have died if not for the resurgence of Plaid Cymru, the Party of Wales, in the twenties and thirties, reminding them of what they had in common, their Celtic race, reminding them of their common enemy, the English. Dragoons were stationed here to keep order during the strike, and in the public bar the sappers are still called occupiers by some. It's half in jest, but only half. The nationalist view of the war is that it's an English war, imperialist, capitalist, like the Great War that Jack fought in and from which he still carries a limp (not that you'd know it to see him behind the bar; he's never spilled a drop).

Tonight, however, the success of the invasion has stilled such nationalist talk. The few Plaid sympathizers who remain nurse their beer, suck their pipes, and steal glances down the passage to where Esther is serving. She takes a fickle pleasure in standing between the two groups of men, listening to their talk about each other. For she knows the soldiers, clustered round the small slate tables, crammed shoulder to shoulder into the narrow wooden settles, talk about the Welsh, too: complain about the , joke about the language, whisper about the girls. Tonight they lounge around, legs splayed, collars open, like so many conquerors.

She tells herself that most of the locals are as filled with excitement as she is, even if they're reluctant to admit it. She yearns to be British, tonight of all nights. She's proud of her Welshness, of course, in the same half-conscious way she's shyly proud of her looks, but she's impatient with all the talk of the past, bored by the history. Somewhere inside her she knows that nationalism is part and parcel of provincialism. She has her own dreams of escape, modest ones mostly—of a spell in service in Liverpool like her mother before her, eating cream horns at Lyons Corner House on her days off—and occasionally more thrilling ones, fueled by the pictures she sees at the Gaumont in Penygroes.

This corner of North Wales feels such a long way from the center of life, from London or Liverpool or, heavens, America. But nationalism, she senses, is a way of putting it back in the center, of saying that what's here is important enough. And this really is what Esther wants, what she dimly suspects they all want. To be important, to be the center of attention. Which is why she's so excited as she moves through the crowd—"Cuse me!"—collecting empties, stacking them up, glass on teetering glass, by the presence of the soldiers, by the arrival of the BBC Light Program a few years ago, by the museum treasures that are stored in the old quarry workings, even by the school-age evacuees like Jim. They're refugees from the Blitz, most of them, but she doesn't care. If she can't see the world, she'll settle for the world coming to her.

She's sure others in the village feel this. The sappers are a case in point. No one quite knows what the base they're hammering together is for, but speculation is rife. The village boys, Jim among them, who haunt the camp, watching the sappers from the tree line and sneaking down to explore the building at dusk, are praying for the glamour of commandos. There's whispered talk of Free French, Poles, even alpine troops training in the mountains for the invasion of Norway. And the sappers listen to all this speculation looking like the cat who ate the canary. Jack is hoping for Yanks and their ready cash.

American flyers, waiting to move on to their bases in East Anglia, do occasionally drop in for a drink. But they're always faintly disappointing. Each time they're spotted sauntering around Caernarvon, getting their photos taken under the Eagle Tower, rumors start that it's James Stewart of Tyrone Power, one of those gallant film stars. But it never is. For the most part the Yanks are gangly, freckle-faced farm boys, good for gum but insufferably polite (in the opinion of the local lads), with their suck-up "sirs" and "ma'ams," and ineffably ignorant, calling the locals "limeys" and thinking Welsh just a particularly impenetrable dialect of English. Once, though, one of them, a navigator from "Virginny," pressed a clumsily wrapped parcel of brown paper and string on Esther, and when she opened it she way it was a torn parachute. There was enough silk for a petticoat and two slips. He'd been drinking shyly in a corner for hours, summoning up his courage. She was worried he'd get into trouble, tried to give the bundle back, but her spread his hands, backed away. "Ma'am," he told her, and he said it with such drunken earnestness, she pulled the parcel back, held it to her chest. He seemed to be hunting for the word. "You….," he began. "Why, you're what we're fighting for!" She's dreamed of him since, getting shot down, bailing out, hanging in the night sky, sliding silently to earth under a canopy of petticoats.

But soon now, she thinks, setting her stack of glasses down just before it topples, they might all leave—the soldiers, the evacuees, the BBC—and suddenly she can hardly bear the thought of it. Of being left behind.

 



 

 


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