Saturday, 12 November 2011

The year that my daughter was born I was living in a drainage culvert by the side of the B4340 in west Wales, at the end of the brief summer. It had become expedient that I flee Wiltshire, I knew that they wouldn’t have me in Cornwall and Cardigan Bay was about as far west as I could go. The culvert was fine for a few sunny weeks, the sheep were good conversation and the motor traffic infrequent; but come September the rain came hard down the road from Devil’s Bridge and it took no time at all to find me, and I was inundated.

I had learned the trick from a pretend biker in Cwmystwyth. Nobody could remember his name, he rode a Honda 125 and was referred to when he was referred to as ‘the man who lived in a hole in the ground’. I had met him weeding courgettes on an organic vegetable farm, and he told me his tale. There was an old silver-lead mine just outside the village he said, and partway up the mountainside was a small natural lake that had been used in the nineteenth century for irrigating the mine works and washing the ore. The sections of the diverted streams that were used for washing the ore were called the beds, they were red brick walled and still in good condition, coffin shaped and sized. The man who lived in a hole in the ground lined one of these with tin foil, climbed in with a blanket and pulled a sheet of corrugated iron over himself, and then it was his bed too. Like the culvert it only lasted for as long as the short Welsh summer.

I liked the story if not the man. I wished that someone had given him a much shorter nickname and that it had caught on, so that I wouldn’t have to keep referring to him in this way, like some kind of poly-barrelled multi-syllabic sub-hippie aristocracy, whenever people asked me where I was staying. I also didn’t like staying in Cwmystwyth. It was right at the end of a lush two and a half mile stretch of the Ystwyth that began at Pont-Rhyd-y-Groes. Magic mushrooms grew there in the spring in great numbers and their devotees descended en masse, annoying locals as they rolled around in the road, bathed naked in the river and generally whooped it up. The area became known as mushroom mile, even though it was much longer, or sometimes, ‘crazy creek’. Although like the summer these festivities only lasted a few weeks, the prejudice of the residents toward anyone who resembled a punk or a hippie was perennially set. If you shaved your head and dressed down they just assumed that you were on the run from the army, who staged survival exercises all through the Cambrian mountains and much of mid Wales, and they weren’t supposed to talk to you. So when I came across the culvert miles from any kind of encampment and yet not too far from a small forest, I thought that my luck had changed.

I walked away from my windowless 1950s touring caravan at dawn one Sunday morning, when I thought that none of the others would be up. I was right. The sun was rising far away beyond Beulah at the Abergwesyn pass and it turned much of the early autumn sky crimson. The makeshift campsite looked even more derelict, seedy and depressing than ever in this preternatural glow, an effect that many of its inhabitants would spend many years and much of their small inheritances attempting to replicate, to no avail, with supersaturated acid blotters and other things besides. They would pursue this elusive dream to the gates of insanity and even death, when all they’d had to do was to stay up all night in the right place, as I had.

The previous evening I had made a few vague stabs at sociability, flitting between the three or four different campfires with a six pack of Special Brew, trying one last time to make nice and fit in with these desperate outcasts. Mostly I was politely ignored, as I had been for all of the three weeks I had been there. The caravan was parked in the ruins of an old cottage. I had found it there wrecked, considered it a better bet than a hole in the ground among drug crazed strangers, and had managed to dry it out to my satisfaction. Beneath the remains of the cottage roof I built a stove from an old drainpipe and a catering size vegetable oil can and there I mostly stayed, a good quarter mile away from the rest of them, the other side of the tennis court that the original mine owner had built for his daughters. There I passed the summer nights drinking and reading Jilly Cooper and Anthony Burgess novels. For this I was shunned. The manner of their shunning betrayed their class composition. There was no, fuck off Frank we don’t like you, no-one invited you here you cunt. It was more a cold but polite cutting you off in mid sentence, or the ignoring of your asking for a cup of tea first thing, or else they would begin replies to you with ‘well, for me…’, indicating that they considered your attitude to life a little weird, and most of your opinions unacceptable. So it was no great hardship for me to leave them as they slept one idyllic morning, carrying only a damp sleeping bag and a small backpack containing other essentials and walk the nine miles to the culvert. As I began the hike I heard a loud chopping noise in the distance, and as I squinted down the valley at the sunrise I saw a Chinook helicopter flying at low altitude, the first search and rescue mission of the autumn season.

I decked out my new home with a couple of pallets that I found in the forest. There were three that had been bound with baler twine and chicken wire to repair a gate, and I thought that the two that were left would not be missed. I saw that I would be able to construct a bed base from the pallets, leaving me some room for an arrangement of straw & myself if I slept on my back. I had an idea that someone might be watching me and I missed my van. It was a Honda Acty, as opposed to the large Post Office vans that the other hippies preferred to buy at auction and equip with ornate panelling & wood burning stoves. I had lost it during a drinking, chess & arm wrestling triathlon to someone named shuteye who worked a poteen still from the back of his truck and slept underneath it. It was on a site that I had been warned about, Llangybi common, but I had craved drinking company. I began gathering brushwood to make a small fire for my kettle.

Three days later a man wearing a Barbour jacket with a shotgun broken over the crook of his arm woke me. He was clean shaven, a farmer.

“Morning," he told me.

I nodded at him & felt all around for my glasses. He crouched down & handed them to me.

"There's a storm coming," he continued. "A long one. You should come up to the house with me & the wife. I don't mind you people, not when you're alone. When you're in your gangs you go a bit crazy. Man weren't meant to live in large groups, you ask me. You should come up. The storm, it'll wash you away."

I asked where the house was. He was standing to leave.

"Up on hill, beyond the woods. You can't miss him."

I walked into the kitchen, kicked off my wellies. It was old fashioned with a modern washing machine. There were already three bowls of stew set out on the large oak table and the farmer’s wife was there, sawing a loaf of bread. She looked up, nodded.

“Dennis said you’d be up, he’s rarely wrong. Throw your coat anywhere, dig in. He’ll be here.”

I wasn’t wearing a coat so I pulled out a chair and took some bread. Dennis came in and got straight into it too. It was very good stew and the bread was still warm. Between mouthfuls he told me,

“I see your friends are gone, half of them.”


“From Cwmystwyth”.

“Where did they go?”

“No, I mean they’re gone-gone”

He raised his head and drew a finger across his throat. My mouth fell open. Some mush fell from it back into the stew with a ploop sound. I cleared my throat and wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. There was a low level roaring in my ears.

“Lead poisoning,” Dennis explained. “They were drinking from the bottom stream. There used to be signs up, but signs get burned for firewood. About half, eight or nine they reckon.”

I nodded. I wondered about the children and the dogs.

© Ted Curtis 2011