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WAYNE PRICE

 

 

 

Wayne Price

Wayne Price was born in South Wales but has lived and worked in Scotland since 1987. His short stories and poems have been widely published and have won many awards. His debut story collection, Furnace (Freight, 2012), was shortlisted for the Saltire Scottish First Book of the Year and longlisted for the Edge Hill and Frank O’Connor Awards. His first novel, Mercy Seat, was published in February. He was a finalist in the Manchester Poetry Competition in both 2013 and 2014 and his recent pamphlet collection of poetry, Fossil Record, is a Laureate’s Choice. He teaches at the University of Aberdeen.

 

 

 

 

Everyone's the Same Inside

 

 

 

My father was the first of the family to stay on at school. His older brothers left as soon as they could, at fifteen, and apprenticed themselves to various jobs at the colliery; his sister earned a small wage as an assistant at the village chemist's, then was married and out of the family home by seventeen. My grandfather never quite forgave him, I think, but my grandmother was immensely proud to have a scholar in the family. At exam time she insisted that he be allowed to study at the back of the garden in my grandfather's pigeon cot – up until then the old man’s own, jealously guarded refuge – away from the overcrowding and endless squabbles of the little terraced house.

            One morning, my father opened the door to the cot as usual and was astonished to see a sparrow hawk roosting alongside the pigeons, eyeing him steadily from behind the chicken-wire doors that fronted the perches. He told me he’d wondered if he was seeing things in the shadows, after the brightness of the morning outside, but no—as his vision adjusted to the gloom, the hawk's features grew definite: the charcoal bars on its pale, out-thrust chest; the gold rims of its eyes; the brutal little bill-hook of its beak. It was almost twice the size of the racing birds beside it.

            For a while my father simply stood there quietly and stared. It must have swooped for a pigeon just as the birds were being called in after their last evening exercise, flashed after its prey right into the cot itself and then somehow been hidden by the other birds when the roosts were closed and latched.

            He had no idea what to do next. The pigeons seemed calm enough—it was clearly no threat to them inside the roost. If he tried to free it, which was his first thought, he knew it would attack him and cause panic in the cages. Maybe one of the racers would damage itself, break a wing or its neck. Then, Christ, there'd be hell to pay. He examined the hawk's talons on the wooden perch and imagined them at his face and eyes. The scalpel point at the tip of the beak, too: bright black, like the tip of a nib dipped in ink. But if he did nothing, his father would certainly find it after work and kill it through the wire with a garden fork, maybe, or shears.

            At a loss, he sat down, turned away from the strange visitor and opened his books to study, and my father's story was interrupted at that point and I never found out what became of it. In my mind's eye it's there still, looming at my father's back like calm King Death himself, and all the other birds perfectly peaceful, roosting alongside it like it was one of them, no stranger to them at all.

 

My father's great friend in those days was Alf Morano, a boy whose grandparents had come from Italy to the coalfields in the 20s. They'd opened a small cafe and ice-cream franchise that survived all the way into my boyhood, until the long strike finally put paid to it. My father's and Alf's main pleasure in life, in the summer holidays at least, was fire-starting on the mountains above Aberdare and the Cynon. Along with Alf's little brother, Tony, and sometimes a rag-tag band of other no-good boyos from the village, they'd light the grasses, gorse and heather after any long dry spell and try to set half the parish ablaze. The fun of it, my father told me, was racing the flames for dear life if the wind switched round and drove the smoke and fire after them. The beatings he took for it from his own dad (who always smelt the smoke on his clothes and knew) were legendary, and held up as a gold standard of punishment to my brothers and me.

            My father and Alf Morano remained friendly all the way into adulthood, though by then Morano had grown into a difficult, quarrelsome man. At some point he'd taken fiercely to religion and preached sometimes at the Gospel Hall where they prayed in tongues and boasted that God could mend anything from cancer to hemorrhoids if you believed enough, and let them lay on hands. He never courted or married and as far as I know had no cronies apart from my father. Over time he feuded so bitterly with the elders at the chapel he was finally told to worship elsewhere. He even worked alone – an unusual thing in that close-knit mining community – window-cleaning, odd-jobbing, or welding in a small, zinc-roofed hut he'd built for himself one summer. Smothered top to bottom with black pitch, it sat crookedly amongst the brick garages and workshops that over generations had strung themselves out along the village brook. If I ever passed the shed when he was busy there, the rusty door would be wide open, whatever the weather, and a weird, Plutonic music would be drifting out from the record player he'd set up inside, running off a diesel generator. I know now he was listening to Gregorian chants, of all things, though as a boy the sounds were other-worldly and ominous to me.

            But even more than music and quarreling, Morano loved to fish for trout and was safe enough company then, so when my father took me fishing, he would offer Alf a ride up to the Brecon Beacons with us.

            The water we fished was a small, remote reservoir deep in the Beacon hills. Its high, crenellated dam reared up at the head of a narrow valley like some long-lost Norman battlement and the single-track access road ended in shadow just below it. I don't recall ever seeing another car or fisherman there, though I suppose sometimes there must have been and my sense of the place's loneliness has cancelled them from memory. It was a bleak spot, even in summer, the banks steep-sided and the water so peat-stained it seemed you were casting your line onto black oil where nothing could possibly live. But we pulled the occasional wild trout from there some days—wiry, half-starved, needle-toothed things.

           

One day, deep into June it must have been because I remember being in the midst of my last school exams, Morano took me fishing there without my father. God knows why—we'd never fished without him before and I was a morose, generally silent adolescent, at least around anyone older. I must have been bad company at the best of times and no kind of company at all for the most part. But we made the long drive anyway to the tall, overbearing dam hidden in its fold of hills, and toiled up the grassy slope beside it in the late afternoon sun, and began our fishing as usual, some distance from each other.

            It was getting dark when I sensed him standing at my back. I hadn't heard him approach and had no idea how long he'd been standing there in silence, watching me. I turned and nodded. Any luck? I asked.

            He shook his head and stared past me at the flat, dark water, then up at the hills beyond, the lonely blue crowns of distant Cribyn and Pen y Fan.

            I'd waded in a little way – not far because the bottom shelved so dangerously past the margins – and when I turned to slosh back to where he waited on the bank the sound of the water breaking around my feet seemed unnaturally loud in the stillness. Now that evening was drawing in the sky had grown milky and vague. The air was still warm though, heavy and clammy, and midges were beginning to lift like vapour out of the heather.

            I joined him where he stood, laid my fishing rod flat with its tip in the water, and lit a cigarette.

            He watched me, still wordless, and shook his head.

            Keeps the midges off, I apologised, and blew the first stream of smoke away from him.

            I've been watching you, he said simply.

            I took another drag. Oh, I said.

            He nodded slowly. I see a lot of unhappiness. Too much of it in a bright young lad like yourself.

            I laughed, embarrassed. I'm fine, I said.

            No, he said.

            We were both silent again for a while and I smoked the cigarette down greedily, desperate to finish it and be able to wade back out into the water.

            Is it a girl? he asked, and I laughed again, incredulous. I could feel my throat begin to tighten.

            God, mun—I'm fine! What's this all about? I flicked the half-smoked cigarette away onto the stones.

            He didn't answer immediately, but something about his manner kept me rooted there in front of him.

            When I was your age, he said at last, and troubled like you, I used to cure myself of all that by thinking about what was inside all them pretty girls. You know, all the organs and guts and everything. Not a pretty sight, if you ever got to see it. He nodded to himself. It stops you thinking any of them are so special they're worth ending yourself over. You see what I'm saying? There was a quiet urgency in his voice suddenly and I was afraid he might reach out and grip my arm, or shoulder. That's how I saved myself from that kind of thing, he said.

            For some reason, I remembered a story of my father's about how when they were boys Morano would sometimes press-gang the younger kids of the street into acting out long, elaborate melodramas that he'd written in stolen school exercise books, stage directions and all. He'd direct them in a kind of frenzy, and of course it always ended in disaster when they couldn't learn their speeches or got bored and rebelled. Strangest of all though, my father reckoned, was the way he'd devote days of fevered writing and tyranny to each project and then, when it fell to pieces, abandon the whole thing in a moment and turn his mind to something else entirely, as if the whole thing had been just some kind of dream he'd woken from and instantly forgotten. I felt myself edging backwards now, but still couldn't seem to turn my face from him to end the conversation.

            You see what I'm saying? he repeated.

            I don't know, I said. I could feel the gnats settling and biting on my forehead, crawling into the hairs. I could feel them at the rims of my nostrils, and stepping on the lashes of my eyes.

            He nodded again, thoughtfully. Everyone's the same inside, see, he said.

            Aye, I said, and rubbed my itching face with both hands, breaking the awful stillness between us, maybe looking then like the desperate young lover he'd decided I must be.

            Put some of this on, he said, and fished out from a deep pocket in his coat a small glass jar filled with some kind of white ointment.

            What's that? I said.

            It'll keep them off, he said. Better than those dirty smokes, see. Put some on your face and hands.

            It smelled faintly of petrol and almonds and went on thick like greasepaint, and whatever it was, the midges loved it. I remember cursing, furious, then crashing into the cold water and doubling over to scrub away the crawling mask. And all the time I could hear Morano behind me, cackling like a fiend—the first and last time I ever heard him laugh—and when I finally straightened and turned to confront him he was kneeling on the stones, as if sick with hilarity, or praying crazily with it, and all my anger vanished and I was helpless with laughter too.

 

Six months later, when the snow and ice of the worst December in years must have made the smaller roads into the hills almost impossible, Morano drove alone to the little parking spot below the reservoir and ran a length of hose from the exhaust into the cab. I was at university in England by then and hadn't yet come home for Christmas. One night when I telephoned, shivering, from a call box on the campus, my father told me that a Water Board engineer had found him sitting there, frozen solid like meat inside an ice-box, nearly a week after the petrol tank must have finally coughed itself dry.

            We only spoke about it once when I got home. It was late on Christmas night, I think, and my father told me about the last time, as kids, they'd set fire to the mountain. The wind had turned and the three of them—dad, Alf Morano and his little brother, Tony, eleven by then—had run yelling and whooping as usual ahead of it. But whether because the wind suddenly got stronger or because some of the grass was too green and the smoke was thicker, Tony got into trouble, maybe panicking or half-blinded, and the flames overtook him. He stumbled screaming down the slope towards the river, the two older boys not realizing in time and only reaching him when he'd already plunged in. He was alive, though the carpet of burning grass had melted away the rubber soles of his shoes and he'd been running on bubbling skin until that had scorched away too. We did save him, my father said. We did save him.

            They carried him, all three boys hysterical, back to the house in Windsor Terrace and then, as if miraculously, he became completely calm and Morano's mother was able to comfort him and lay him down on the bed. He died of shock just after the doctor arrived, and my father marvelled, as he told me the story, that other than the burns to his feet there wasn't a mark on him.

            I know of course that my father told me the story as some kind of confession. I know he thought, in his guilt, that it must have had something to do with Morano's own death, up there under the dam in the snow. And maybe that's how it was, though I never told my father about the strange conversation about love we'd had, just Morano and me, looking out over the water to the big Beacon hills on that one evening he took me fishing. Maybe it all comes down to the same thing in the end, anyway. Finding out so young – too young – that you could be saved at last, and it could still not be enough. 

 

©2016 Wayne Price

 

 

Author Links

 

Fiction by Wayne Price at Freight Books

Fossil Record: poetry collection by Wayne Price at Smith/Doorstop

Interviews & stories by Wayne Price at Route Online

 

 

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