Pen y Cae, October 1949
Dorothy met him in the Ancient Briton not far from the small village where each of them had ancestors. She had deferred her place at Wellesley for a year in order to see Europe and her maternal grandmother had given her fifty dollars and a camera, a black and silver Leica in a tan leather case. Then she had extracted a promise; Dodo must go to Wales, must take photos of the old farm, the mountain, the church, the gravestones of the Thomas’s, the Craddocks, the Vaughns and Dandos.
Everyone stared at her when she entered the pub; she had the sense that she had barged into someone’s private living room, though the door had Public Bar engraved on its glass. She stood out amongst the local women in her crisp sky-blue slacks, crew-necked sweater and saddle shoes. They seemed mired in the mud and heather, the tree bark and tea stains by the colours of their clothes, all of them in skirts and worn looking winter coats and stout-looking dress shoes. Not that there were any women in the pub at mid day.
He had approached her at once, handsome and smiling, making her feel welcome. He bought her a glass of warm beer. Then he had sung a haunting song in the language of his (and her) people. Everything had stopped in that moment, no one moved, no one touched their drink or spoke or lit the cigarette that dangled from their lips. All eyes were on the black-haired young man as he leaned almost jauntily on his stick and lifted his head and voice to heaven.
When she said it was time for her to go, he walked her outside and asked if he could kiss her. She understood that he had been in the war, that his leg had been damaged by shrapnel or gunshot or mine. She said yes because she was ashamed to say no.
‘Marry me!’ he said and she laughed and skipped away out of reach.
An hour later she was on the mountain faithfully taking the photos her grandmother had asked for when she fainted. A sheepdog and his master found her; otherwise she would surely have died. She was carried down the mountain on an old enamelled sign that advertised Buckley’s beer and woke in an itchy flannel nightgown that stank of old sweat. The farmer’s wife was smearing rancid foul smelling grease on her chest and throat. She was in a fever for six days remembering little except for a dreamlike procession of different visitors, a doctor, a nurse, a few small children, the farmer’s wife, the farmer himself and his dog, and the young wounded man with the pure singing voice. On the seventh day he came to see her and brought his mother and three sisters to meet her. They congratulated her and held her hand and kissed her. He spoke of their engagement and lifted her left hand to show off the gold and diamond ring she now wore. He had got the ring in France but failed to mention who he had bought it off or the dead hand it had been taken from.
As she lay there alone and exhausted she felt everything was drifting away from her; the water glass with its beaded linen cover, the walls of the room, the train that should have carried her to London, the boat to Calais, the Eiffel tower, Venice with its canals and gondolas, the Coliseum in Rome, the Parthenon, the Aegean sea, the olive groves, the brightly painted fishing boats, the dusty narrow streets that led to open squares with sparkling fountains. All were picture postcards blown out of her hands before she had a chance to post them.
Her marriage to a young Welsh war hero delighted everyone. She was back where she belonged. After the war it was the happy ending they had longed for. To go back on her word, to break her engagement was out of the question.
She married him, hoping for the best, but came to suffer him just as a soldier must suffer his wounds long after the battle had ended. Long after the wound was inflicted.
The Loire Valley, August 1958
Crossing the bridge our eyes were filled by the imposing presence of the chateau. Its towers and spires circled and chased by a murder of crows that swooped and cawed. I stopped to take a photograph while Thomas walked on, slowing his pace in deference to my dawdling ways. The weather which had promised fair when we drove towards the town now seemed on the brink of change. While one half of the sky was still blue and filled with high white clouds like those a child would draw, behind the chateau a great mass seemed to gather and brew, deep lilac grey and gun-metal blue. Heavy and ominous.
Perfect for a moody shot of the 13th century edifice, with the black pen strokes of the winged birds adding drama and interest to the scene.
I took several shots and adjusted the metering to be sure of a good exposure. Thomas was now 20 paces ahead of me and had walked into the shot. He wore his black gabardine coat and dark moleskin trousers and leaned, as he always did, to the right, his cane taking the weight of his body as he limped slowly forward. With his dark head turned towards the chateau only his bony wrist and strong hand showed white. I took another shot, this one including him in the composition, but this was no cheery familial snapshot such as a wife should take of her husband, him smiling at the camera with some tourist destination serving as backdrop and proof of their trip, but one which rendered him an ominous stranger, a black-clad cripple; priest, sinner or necromancer. Perfecting the graphic composition as artfully as if it had been sketched by Beardsley or Dore or Peake.
The full story is available in A Flock of Shadows (Parthian, Feb 2015)