The store has been here for a hundred years. It’s outlived the coal mines, the dead of world wars, the indecencies of Thatcher, the indiscriminate violence of South Wales valleys youth.
Every day I get up on creaking, clicking knees, joints and muscles stiff and singing with strange and tiny pains. I open the shop and take in the deliveries, the milk, the eggs, the boxes, the tins, and the wrapped meat and cheese. I used to sit on the back step, have a cigarette, and stare across our thin, long village at the mountains standing on either side of the narrow valley, firm reminders of the farms and of the coal mines. The deadly deposits of slag and dust are all grown over now, lush and green but human-shaped.
We are planted firmly here. I don’t care about the supermarkets, hypermarkets, and all the American-style malls. This is a corner shop, and we stay on the corner.
It gets harder though, each day more of a trial on my body, and the village and the valleys evolve. I walk home, and though the shopping mall near the train station is as shiny as TV, I also see an old painted sign on the side of the first house in a terrace on Lansbury Street, bleeding into the newness, as if seeking to reassert itself. Drink Coldaway for cough relief, it says, and I stop, stolen from the strangeness of the present that has become my every day, and I am back in shorts, running up and down the dusty streets of the sixties, the air brisk, dirty with coal soot and grime.
My store has a tinkling bell above the door. Sometimes I find it irritating, but I fear its silence more.
It rings and I look up. A man enters, perhaps my age, perhaps older. He ignores two young mothers who are checking the dates on the milk cartons, and comes straight to the counter. He has a haggard face, one where the jowls drip, the skin hanging loose around the well-outlined skull, eyes that sink back into his bones.
“Hello Jonesy,” he says, his voice soft, cracking, but with the unmistakable rasp and thunder of the Rhondda valleys. “It’s been fifty years. We need to talk.”
The high street is one long road that starts at an arbitrary signpost marking the division between two villages, Cwm Fach, which is higher up the valley, and our village, Cwm Fawr. The signpost, with the two signs back to back, is placed between two terraced houses so the border is marked by old dark stones and brickwork. The snaking road is nothing but terraced houses for a hundred meters, but then it transforms into a few shops and a bus stop, and the road widens a little near my shop to accommodate a small square and a cenotaph commemorating the war dead.
I close the store at five every day. I don’t stay open late, though people say I should; perhaps if I were twenty years younger I would, but not now. The outside air smells of the peat marshes beyond the town, snug against the base of the mountains, dotted with allotments and even older men bent over vegetable patches, or standing, staring up at the dark green slopes, a haze of cold-air cigarette smoke swirling about their heads, slow to dissipate. This is the smell of my childhood: the dirt, the sucking bogs that grabbed your boots that stank of shit and rot.
Not a stench I’ve experienced in years. An old Morris Minor, maybe a 1965 model, rounds the cenotaph and disappears down the A4058, leading to Pontypridd then on to Cardiff.
I walk faster than usual, eager to get home, eager to close the door to the world I’ve known for so long.
I also live in a terraced stone house, for there is little else in this valley. The walls and the furniture are drab, the colors faded, the wood chipped, and a subtle and pervasive smell of damp and old cooking clings to everything. I head upstairs, to the room I slept in as a child, the room I still sleep in, and pull a box off the top of the wardrobe. I rummage through a few old photo albums until I find a piece of folded card, and inside this a newspaper cutting.
It’s a photograph of me, with Idris and Gwilym and Mair. Local kids. I fold it back into the card, and leave it on the bed, my fingers tracing delicate circles on the aging paper.
None of it is true, just like none of what we see in the village is true, either. It’s all just a concrete stain on the natural world. In a big city it’s much harder to see the truth in this, but here, in this narrow strip of a village, only three streets wide, and two of them one-way streets, with the wild and terrifying darkness of the land sliding down steeply to a point on both sides, it’s impossible to not see the truth.
There are days where I see the past of the village sneaking through these new shiny surfaces, and even if it’s not the natural truth, it’s clear that the old town is not dead.
The doorbell rings, and I head down, considering ignoring it, but I open the door, and he’s there again, Idris with his droopy face, and his unslept eyes.
“Sorry, Jonesy, but we really do need to talk.”
I stand aside, and let him in.
Idris sits on a sofa that has lain neglected for years. It’s old, and dust rises as the thin man positions himself with a halting grace. The swirling patterns of the particles hanging in the thin shafts of weak sunlight seem like the concept of beauty from someone who has never really considered beauty.
The room is quiet in that manner when the daytime life of those who don’t work halts for a moment and there is the sudden terror and realization of existence.
“I haven’t slept well for fifty years,” says Idris, and he looks at me as if he’s asking me the question that would have led to his statement.
The walls close in and I shift from standing awkwardly by the door to sitting in my usual armchair. It’s raining outside, the sky is gray, it’s always the same here, and soon the sheet of gray rain, and the banks of heavy gray cloud merge with the dead remnants of the coal industry.
“I think I need to do something, Jonesy, I think I need to talk to the police, tell them what happened.” He scratches his palm with long yellowed fingernails gone brittle and chipped over the years, and this irritates me more than his wish to talk to the police.
I breathe, my throat drying, each breath shallow and rapid. “Can I get you a cup of tea?”
I stand and walk toward the door, and Idris also stands, his hands clasped behind his back as he hobbles to the window. He pulls aside the net curtains with two long, thin fingers and stares out at the terraced street, but he doesn’t answer.
I pause by the door, my walking stick close to hand, and I look at it with violence surging in my mind as I speak.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Idris, it was all so long ago. We just need to keep ourselves together.” My hand wraps around the smooth, well-molded handle, and I begin to heft it into the air, and in my mind I’ve already taken one, two, three strides toward him, the stick raised, power in my arms as I swing and bring it cracking down on his skull.
But he turns, and my hand springs back to my side, hanging loose and alien as he sits again without looking up.
“Come on,” I say, “let’s forget about the tea, how about we go to the pub instead?”
We leave the house, and head up the high street to the Griffin Arms, my stick tapping on the uneven paving stones, Idris walking in step, still scratching his palm.
I see another old sign on the side of an end house in a terrace—this one’s for a local baker that went out of business twenty years ago—and in the window of a charity shop is an old bicycle, similar to the one I used to ride as a child.
I tap my stick a little faster as we near the pub.
The pub is too bright, the furniture too old, and the patrons are all men, old and young, some playing darts, some at tables by themselves staring into nothing. We sit at a booth with two benches facing each other, high-backed, private, and quiet.
I order two bottles of stout, and as the barman passes them across the beer-soaked bar without a word, his phone beeps on the counter and lights up. He picks it up then leans back, his finger scrolling across the screen. It seems like an alien act in a pub as old and crumbling as this one. I’ve seen newer pubs with replicated old-world charm, but this is old in a twentieth-century South Wales kind of way, and there is nothing beautiful about it.
We face each other in the booth, sipping at the stout. I break the silence.
“We can’t go to the police. What would be the point?”
I lean in, lowering my voice to a whisper. “It was a bloody accident.”
Idris stares, and I feel him working inside my head, trying to ascertain whether I believe my own words. He finally reminds me of his truth.
“You say it was an accident, and I think you may even believe it, but you didn’t have your foot on his head, you didn’t hold it there, that boy’s thin hair brushing against your foot in the water, the bone of his skull sharp and heavy, and you didn’t press harder as he struggled to get free. I sleep every night with not just this image in my mind, but I can feel the bump, I can taste the blood and the dank dead peat in the pond water as I bite through my own lip to mask the rising terror.”
I reach for his arm, urging him with my eyes to keep his voice down. “But we’ve managed this long, we’ve lived without saying anything…” I pause, and wait until he looks at me. “And it was an accident, it really was, you didn’t mean to-”
Idris nearly knocks the bottle of stout over, and it wobble for a precarious second before righting itself. “I didn’t? I?”
I let go of his arm, and sit back. “I’m sorry.”
“We did it, Jonesy, not just me.” Idris stands and leaves, and all I can hear is music, the strange sounds of the Rolling Stones, or maybe The Who, on the jukebox, and I trace my finger across the words on a beermat for a beer that hasn’t been brewed in years.
I resolve to do something about Idris.
I arrange to meet with him the next day. I do not want to act with haste in his regard, but I have to do something. Some might look through the windows of my life and consider that it isn’t actually much of a life anyway, that there is no hope, no real dream left to conquer, and if I look closely I can see that it was always this way, at least since that day.
I decided that the old station would be a good place to meet; it’s quiet, there’s still a few old benches from when it used to be a working railway, and we can talk in peace. And in truth, it’s also near enough the river that when I bludgeon him with my stick, I will bundle him in to the fast flowing torrent, and he’ll surface somewhere close to Ponty, far enough downstream that no one will ever know. How sure am I? Sure enough that though I’ve considered what could go wrong, I’ve dismissed it.
The streets of my past bleed through the modern shop fronts, and the new one-way system, and the smoothed hybrid cars. Dust and exhausted brickwork made new again, buildings like The Roxy cinema, the Double Diamond nightclub where Tom Jones plied his trade and the Sex Pistols once played on a rainy Sunday while the village prayed for our salvation, shops that sell tools and electronics made obsolete by the modern, all of it like a shroud for a town, like a stain upon the bleeding dark green and frigid waters of the Welsh valleys.
I sit on one of the benches, initials and cruder words carved into the rotting wood, but Idris does not come. Further up the mountainside from here, on a wide stretch of flat ground on the other side of the railway tracks, is the pond.
It tugs at me, and whether it’s just curiosity or something more mysterious, I can’t tell. I haven’t been there since that day.
Perhaps Idris is there now. Perhaps he’s trying to decide. Or perhaps he’s stepped into the water, letting the frigid death smell of the peat and murk beneath engulf his body. Perhaps the boy we killed is pulling him in to the depths as I sit and wait.
I head to the pond, stumbling over the old railway line, thick with weeds and empty rusting beer cans, across fields thick with thistles, and over gates that lead to the mountain beyond.
I want to see the place, I want to see what atonement might look like, how it could begin; I want to sense the rhythms of the pond and the harshness of the dead marshes again. I draw up the image of the frozen water, how I will dip my toes, then my feet, and then my body, how I will immerse myself into the frigid waters.
And perhaps I will find Idris later, either at the pond, or if not there then maybe he will try to contact me again, and not go to the police.
If he does, if he contacts me, then I’ll strike him with my stick, I’ll lay him to rest wherever he falls, though I’ll aim for the river still.
I push brambles from my face with the stick, and as I walk it gets steeper and the sweat trickles down my leathery face, the sun reflecting off distant metal surfaces in the village below, off cars, off windows, off the life of the town.
I can’t wait for him. I will track him down when I return, I’ll find where he’s staying, I’ll wait outside the police station, waylay him, drag him into a back alley. The thoughts churn in my mind as I visualize his aged, defined skull cracking and splitting apart, the blood, the slackness of his face once I strike.
I reach the pond. A thin crust of transparent ice has formed around the edge where the sun has slipped away, and the water is as dark as I remember, waving fronds of long grass wafting in the shallows. A cloud passes overhead and the whole scene becomes like the night.
In there lay the body of Stephen Griffiths for three days before the police found him; they needed to get the divers out, a team of people who from afar just looked as though they were milling about, waiting for something to happen.
Idris and I watched them working, holding our thoughts until the moment they came out with Stephen in their arms.
And then we waited for them to knock on our doors, for the inevitable.
But it never came.
And I suppose Idris has still been waiting all these years.
And, perhaps, so have I.
I stand at the edge of the pond a little longer, as the afternoon turns to the dusk haze of evening. The streetlights flicker on in the village below, a bus toots an old horn, and the images of the past bleed through, on the other side of the valley it even looks as though one of the mines has sprung back to life, and I think I can see a procession of miners and the lights of the shift change.
But I know deep in my mind that none of this can be true, this is just the manifestation of the waiting, of the dead and dying past, the spirit left in old physical structures, in buried posters, in forgotten road markers, bricks, stones, and the flaking paintwork. This is not the same old of the castles and the protected ancients, all tarted up to woo the tourists, this is the past of my once reality, and it still lives.
I head back into town, the nighttime air cooling, my breath ranging out before me in great clouds.
I reach the old train line where I had sat on the bench waiting for Idris. Further down the tracks is an old bridge which is no longer used. When we were children, there was a great wrought-iron sign, cracked across the middle, that proclaimed that the bridge belonged to the Great Western Railway, and that it was built in 1885. This was one of our marker stones, one of our borders, the land beyond became foreign, full of new and wild and terrifying forest and promises.
I stand on the old tracks and watch as a host of fire engines and ambulances converge on the spot, followed a minute later by police cars. I wander down the tracks, much like we did in the past, except that the stick I carry today, I carry most days, it’s not one that I’ll throw away, unless I have a chance to use it on Idris.
When I get closer to the bridge, it’s clear that I’ll never use it on Idris. They hoist his body down and I continue to stare at his drooping face even as the police form a line and push me back.
I go home.
The next day, I open the store as usual, except that all the thoughts, all the memories, all the adrenaline-pumping, heart-abating images and smells and the feeling of rough feet on rough feet as we push against Stephen’s hard knobbly skull come flooding back at every second. And though I didn’t place my feet upon the boy’s head I can feel it, I am there, in the pond at every waking moment.
The boy, Stephen, stands in the shop, just a pair of bathers on, tight against his skinny, pale body; his hair is soaked, and drips all over the floor, the water running in thin trickles down his spine, down his legs, and he’s cold, his teeth chattering, his arms folded across his chest.
He’s there, next to Mrs. Pritchard, who used to run the Sunday school; and Mrs. Evans, who left town in a hurry with rumors of dead babies, affairs, and thievery in her wake; and Mr. Cartwright, who lost his job at the school. Bleeding through the shadows, I see Idris.
Stephen is there all day, and though I close my eyes, and sit, feeling the tiredness in my legs, the sore muscles, the aching bones, I know that when I look again, he’ll still be there, not looking at me, but scared, oh so scared, looking for his mother, calling for her, never to be found.
David Rees-Thomas is originally from Wales, and now lives in Japan. He is a first reader at F&SF, and has an Instagram page @littlepoo.
Published July 2018, Shimmer #44, 3300 words