Part eight: The Great Welsh Auntie Novel by John Geraint
Nation.Cymru is delighted to publish the eighth part of documentary maker-turned-novelist John Geraint’s seriously playful “Great Welsh Auntie Novel” along with a reading by the author.
Seventeen-year-old Jac has vowed to grow up – and to ask Catherine out. Travelling by bus up the Rhondda with his friends Lydia and Petra on Election Night, February 1974, Jac is trying to get a fix on his frustration at being stuck in a pattern of life dictated by parents and chapel…
‘When is this bloody story going to start?’
Years had gone by, the whole of Jac’s upbringing in Chapel, since they’d passed the Ivor Hael and Jac had re-imagined Pwyll galloping after Rhiannon; but they still hadn’t reached the middle of Gelli. How could any bus travel so slowly?
Patience, Jac! The Life of Ivan Denisovich wasn’t written in a day.
Jac weighed up the irritation in his question again.
Maybe he was right to feel frustrated: if someone’s story began only when they achieved a meaningful degree of independence, then certainly his opening chapter wasn’t written yet.
But the heart of any story was character, not narrative. And surely character began to be formed the first time a person asserted their own will, the first time they acted contrary to their parents’ wishes, the first time they experienced love for something other than those parents or themselves.
What came to mind now, on the top deck of the bus, was his steering wheel. His lovely sky-blue steering wheel. He’d never adored anything with the purity of emotion he’d felt for that toy – not Mam, nor Dad, nor his Auntie.
Certainly not the first crushes of his teens in their wet baptismal gowns. Not Bowie nor The Great Gatsby. Not the Romantic Poets he could quote so appositely. Not Catherine Evans…
Oh, that’s interesting: so she’s on the list now too?
It was interesting, Catherine appearing unbidden in a list of attachments, fundamental attachments. Attachments that would stay with him.
It was the first time it had struck him that way, how much of a fixture she was. He couldn’t deny how close he felt to her. But as a friend, as one of The Society of Friends, not as…
Really? Jac, be honest: how much you fancy her…
He parked the question, not for the first time, significant as it was. He’d ages to ponder it before he’d see her again.
The steering wheel
But his steering wheel.
He’d have been three or four when he was given it, he supposed. He kept it for years, long after classmates had grown out of whatever amused them as toddlers.
Why would he get rid of it? It could take him anywhere. And he never went anywhere without it. The sky-blue wheel had a white gearstick attached, and a squishy red disc at its centre, a disc you could push to sound a squeaky horn (until the air-bag inside got tragically punctured somehow).
Best of all was the vertical column that the hub of the wheel sat on, a column with a black rubber suction-pad at its base.
Using that pad, you could sit on the front seat on top of a double-decker like the one he was on now, fasten the steering wheel to the body of the vehicle and drive the bus all the way to the Depot!
And not just there: to Blaencwm or Blaenrhondda, over to Maerdy, up Clydach, any route at all on the whole Rhondda Transport network.
An awful funny way
His parents didn’t have a car – his father had suffered blackouts, and was debarred from driving, even if they could have afforded one – so the bus featured large in life. Every time he boarded one, that steering wheel was fast in his grip.
Jac memorised the routes, the locations and names of every stop.
Once, Uncle Stan had driven him and his Mam to Cardiff by car.
Jac’s puzzled yet caustic reaction to his uncle’s serial failure to follow the meandering bus route into Talbot Green, Pontyclun and then Miskin become part of family lore.
“How come you can’t stick to the proper route, Uncle Stan?” he’d asked, unable to hold back any longer as they by-passed the third successive village centre.
“You do go an awful funny way to Cardiff.”
The story was repeated ad nauseam by the adults. ‘You do go an awful funny way’ became the first of an endless succession of catchphrases coined by Jac.
Once he was old enough to use pen-and-pencil, he’d draw up detailed timetables of his own, sitting on the floor with his marvellous toy by his side, imagining routes to Charlie’s sweet-shop, to School, to Chapel – routes down the side-streets, lanes and gwlis of mid-Rhondda, short-cuts inaccessible to double-deckers, but massively convenient to himself and his family, where his magic steering wheel would come into its own.
Eventually, inevitably, came the day when he told his parents soberly that he was too old for a steering wheel, that he wanted them to give it away.
A week later, he was missing it so badly that he had to beg for its return.
Whether his Dad had wisely kept the original hidden away, or his Mam had indulgently bought an identical new one – well, Jac was so familiar with his beloved toy that he must have known, but by now he’d forgotten which.
The important thing was that he had it in his hands again. But from then on, it was a covert pleasure, one he never talked about playing out the back lane or up in Hughes Street beyond.
With children his own age, the last thing he needed was to be shown up as childish.
He knew it was the right thing, the normal thing, to go out and play.
Every child, no matter how tiny, played outside, in the muddy gwlis, on the spoil tips and derelict colliery workings. It was natural. Healthy.
Except that his family had a reticence about it. They always questioned where he was going, when he’d be back; always warned him, sternly, to take care.
Permission was provisional.
There was an incident that might have been the root of that.
When Jac was still very small, he’d been given a fantastic birthday present: a racing car he could sit in and pedal. A beast of a thing, fashioned in metal, shiny and red, a big white number 1 painted on the bonnet.
One afternoon, he was being looked after by his maternal grandparents, who shared the house on Tylacelyn Road with Jac and his Mam and Dad. His Grampa let him play ‘out the front’ beside the sunny doorstep.
Somehow, Jac managed to launch himself and his car down the vertiginous garden path.
He was racing!… to his death.
Apple of their eye
The speeding car hit the kerb at the bottom of the concrete path, turned turtle, spun over the top of the garden railings… and smashed onto the tar-mark of the busy main road a dozen feet below.
Miraculously, Jac had been thrown clear as the car overturned, landing awkwardly against the railings, still within the confines of the garden, alive but… Had he suffered a bang on the head? Was he concussed? Was there a scar on his brain, a line of weakness that caused the strange condition that he was careful to keep secret in later years?
The doctor was called. He pronounced the boy perfectly well.
Jac was left with just a hazy memory of nausea as the world had somersaulted.
But the recriminations amongst the grown-ups must have been titanic.
From then on, he would be, he must be sheltered from danger.
He’d always been the apple of his family’s eye, an only child, born late in a marriage, praised for every small achievement. His grandmothers idolised him.
‘My buttercup’, they’d call him. ‘He’s worth all the tea in China’.
Jac imagined butter and tea in china cups. It sounded messy. He knew it was supposed to mean that he was priceless, but he couldn’t work out the logic behind the words. Or indeed why priceless meant the opposite of worthless.
Grown-ups spoke a foreign language.
Loved too much
Recently, when Jac had told Catherine about all this, she’d asked straight out if he ever thought he might have been loved too much; if there wasn’t something overprotective, neurotic, in the way he’d been cossetted.
Jac didn’t get it. How could you be loved too much?
But his homelife as an only child didn’t commend him to other children.
He was used only to the company of adults, to a pace set by those in the last decade of their lives, not the first: a Chapel boy, clever with schoolwork but not quick-witted or canny; ill-suited to the rough-and-tumble of street games, to Strong Horses and Bolter, to foot-races and wrestling matches.
And there were things he knew that no other child did, things that Nan and Grampa talked about. Things like rheumatism and life assurance and adultery (which, surprisingly, was something only adults who weren’t properly grown-up seemed to do).
He wasn’t entirely sure of these grown-up matters, and he knew it was wrong to show that he knew too much about them, because in the world of grown-ups there were things that it was a sin to know, like in the story of the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.
So he hid things he knew from the adults, and he was always hiding things he knew from other children, hiding them like the yellowing vests his mother made him wear beneath his shirts.
His haircut, his clothes, his whole house, gloomy with varnished sideboards, coal scuttles and bible-black Bibles – all this was old-fashioned, stuck in the past.
It had no part in the world of electric fires and the Daily Mirror and formica tabletops, the world normal children lived in; the bright, flashy world that was changing and up-to-date and happening right now.
So he lost both ways.
His knowledge was shameful, and his ignorance of that modern world was shameful.
He was twp. And too clever by half.
You can catch up on previous extracts here. We’ll have another exclusive extract next week.
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