The Welsh Great Aunt Novel by John Geraint
Election night, February 1974. At a bus stop in Tonypandy Square, 17-year-old Jac waits for two sixth-grade friends, Petra and Lydia, and hopes – not too hopefully – that a third girl, Catherine, will be with them.
Driven by some sort of vision of the Tonypandy riots of 1910, and the miners’ leader of years past, Jac made a solemn vow: to grow up; and ask Catherine out.
Nation.Cymru is thrilled to release the second part of documentary filmmaker-turned-novelist John Geraint’s seriously playful work.”Great Welsh Aunt Novel” accompanied by a reading by the author.
“Petra! cried Jac, “A pink-red beauty…”
There was only Petra and Lydia. No Katherine.
As the two girls approached a reasonable distance to talk, Lydia grimaced.
“Not yet, Jack! Not that old chestnut yet. Stop there. Please.”
Petra went ahead anyway, impersonating perfectly, from the deepest of her boots, Jac delivering her well-worn parody of one of the most quoted lines in 19th-century literature: “A rose-red beauty, the half my age.”
The Prince of Rehearsal burst out laughing. To the accuracy of takeoff from Petra, yes. But mostly to his own joke. His pun deserves to be repeated many times.
Lydia took a different view: “You mutilate this poem all times Petra wears her scarlet coat, and I still can’t understand why you think she’s half your age. It’s pretty obvious which of you is the least mature.
In their haste to catch the bus, Lydia’s glasses had fogged up. She wiped the brown frames from her face with a wave of her hand and polished the thick lenses of her scarf.
Lydia Peake with honey hair. No nonsense on his part.
Jac may have read some poetry; she would have read a lot. His latest enthusiasm was for Dannie Abse of Wales, newly elevated to the cannon of the sixth form programme: so reasonable, so precise.
Of course she had to note, given the odd coincidence of her name being a near-homophone of Lydia Pike, the fictional object of Abse’s teenage obsessions.
She had even lent Jac a book by Abse, an initiation novel. Autobiographical. Ashes on a young man’s sleeve.
“Thank you, Miss Peake,” Jac said. “Good evening and welcome to you too.”
Lydia Peake. Lydia Pique. This has been a strange coincidence. How many A-level candidates can study a literary character with virtually the same name? But it was the Rhondda.
And there, over Lydia’s left shoulder, Jac could still see James Taylor, in his Welsh form, so reminiscent of the American.
Odd conjunctions abound: Charged synchronicity swirled around Pandy Square tonight. Well, that was the crux of it all. The knot. The epicenter.
Charged synchronicity? I like that, thought Jac. I have to try it on Martyn.
You better break that line Tonypandy Torquemada first.
The synchronicity didn’t seem to work in “Petra’s” favor. The name was a local rarity. In a way, she had gotten away with it.
Her parents had decided to name her Cora Petula, which would have been incredibly exotic for the Rhondda; but her father had stopped for a pint on his way to register the birth.
He ended up not only putting the names in the wrong order, but also smashing them together. Pet-ra. Petra de Pentre.
Note, merged upside down, it would have been ‘Coula’, like a fridge compartment. What fun Jac would have had with that!
Still, it was a burden, being the namesake of a television dog. How many times had the rehearsal prince teased her about what she was doing blue stone this week? Or did he wonder aloud if ancient Jordan had boasted of an enchantress called “Tench of Petra”?
A pink-red beauty…
This Rhondda Petra has been a beauty. Dark-haired and dark-eyed, tall, thin.
Not by Jack beauty, but that of Martyn. They had been seeing each other since they had played the leading roles in the dramatized reading of under the milk wood which had been set up in the fall to mark the merging of boys’ and girls’ grammars, with a view to becoming complete.
Martyn and Petra. A match made in Llareggub. First Voice and Rosie Probert. Like Burton and Taylor in the film version. A passion fueled by style and alcohol. Stars of the show. And about to shine again, next school year, in a fully staged Shakespearean comedy.
Jac thought back to the scolding he had received from Lydia.
So much for the solemn vow he had just made. He couldn’t hold back the pun for five minutes. Lydia was right, it was a form of showing off, trying to prove how cultured, cultured he was, almost like Martyn.
Although Martyn was never childish, even in his most petulant moments…
Suddenly the Blaencwm bus was at a standstill. How had Jac managed to prevent the approach of a bright red twelve-ton double deck?
His mind is on other thingsas his aunt would say, as he sat in the corner reading, family life went on all around him.
They boarded, settled on the brown double seats upstairs.
A film of condensation fogged up the windows. Jac stuck out his index finger to spell something funny on it.
Then he remembered his wish and used his whole hand to wipe an arc off the window instead, just in time to catch a glimpse of the furniture store on the opposite corner as the bus pulled away. ‘Mr Burton’s Wardrobe by Times Furnishings, Pandy Square’.
He has to use it for a while. Or a variation on it. Or maybe not. Growing up!
Then past The Record Shop, past Jerusalem. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem….
How many places of worship did a city need?
Here’s another one, Zion. The Methodists.
The bus jerked, then accelerated, as Llwynypia Road straightened in the distance.
It was sacred ground. Not the Promised Land prophesied in these chapels, but the causeway where thousands of miners had advanced that night in November 1910, defying the cordon of the Metropolitan Police, newly arrived to guard the gates of the Scotch Colliery.
Jac felt himself moving with them, following the course of history, ready and eager to break on the mole of this police line, to sink under the blows of their truncheons. To sink, to rise again.
Something moved then, something moved.
It was true now too.
Not just politically, but personally. Among his friends.
Looking at Petra, Jac knew. Something about her relationship with Martyn had… metastasiswas it too strong? Mutated? Something that had always been there stirred. Is about to come out spitting.
No, not tonight, not yet… but, yes, maybe that too. There was so much vodka that even Martyn could swallow. Although he didn’t seem to know when he got into a bad mood. His depressions.
Jac always tried to adapt early to emotional shifts among his friends.
The only one of them who never drank, he was continually on the lookout for trouble, trying to avoid it, playing peacemaker or comforter.
That was how he saw himself, anyway. He understood, or at least he thought he understood, that the way Martyn drank was different.
Other friends began with a good heart by drinking two or three glasses. Only then, when they took one too many, would they become tearful. Or sick. Or both. It could happen quickly, but it always seemed unintentional, accidental rather than deliberate.
The blow down
With Martyn, the downward movement was there from the start, engineered in the process. It kept sinking, lower and lower.
It could be scary.
But in the past few days, something else had changed, something deeper again.
Jac felt it, caught it, in the slightest of Martyn’s responses, in the way he’d talked about his plans for the party that night. Or not even that, just a look in his eyes. Avoidance of some upcoming accounts.
Petra must have felt it too, would have been the first to feel it, even if she couldn’t figure out what it was. Something…sinister? Yet completely gone from what he was, this man-boy she had fallen in love with and wanted to love better.
You think that’s how girls think? Oh good?
Jac had no way of knowing, no experience of true love, no romance of any kind in his past, other than a few short dates at the Picturedrome and the Plaza.
A little rendezvous at the Picturedrome, in fact.
Despite this, he let his guesses go forward. Petra wanted to prove Martyn right, to make him whole. To probe his darkness, to feel that from the bottom of her heart she could speak to him, and his needs and, yes, even his depressions.
But still feeling adrift, out of its depth. Need something, someone to anchor it, to anchor them.
Society of friends
Maybe that something was the crew, the gang, the Society of Friends.
It was Petra herself who had baptized them that way, once home after Jac had picked up those words on the sign outside Maes-yr-Haf, as the school bus passed the Quaker settlement on Brithweunydd Road.
Reading aloud signs and notices that everyone could clearly see for themselves – this was another habit Jac was trying to teach himself to master.
But this time it had a happy ending: their click was aptly named.
The Society of Friends.
The has been something of a cult about them, the actors who came together to under the milk wood. For Jac, they represented an escape from the narrowness of his chapel upbringing. But there was still something spiritual about their commitment to each other, something pure and demanding.
Already they had spent so much precious time together, they were so much a part of each other’s hopes and dreams, so connected to each other, that Jac knew that nothing could separate them.
Petra and Martyn. Lydia, Penry, Nerys. Jacques. And Katherine.
All so different.
But with so much in common.
So intimate it could hurt.
The Welsh Great Aunt Novel by John Geraint is published by Cambria Books, starting next week and you can buy a copy here or in good bookstores.
The first part can be read here. We’ll have another exclusive clip next week.
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