Part six: The Great Welsh Auntie Novel by John Geraint
Nation.Cymru is delighted to publish the sixth part of documentary maker-turned-novelist John Geraint’s seriously playful “Great Welsh Auntie Novel” along with a reading by the author.
Jac is travelling up the Rhondda with his friends Lydia and Petra. The bus is passing Llwynypia Hospital, where Jac was born. Seventeen years later, it feels like he’s still waiting for his life-story to begin…
Jac wasn’t one to dwell on the circumstances of his birth. Who did?
One day, in a drawer at home, he’d come across a black-and-white photo taken on the maternity ward – three nurses in starched aprons holding up three bonny new-borns for the camera.
But Jac wasn’t even sure which one of them was him.
His birth certificate was there too – Jacob Rhys, he’d been christened… well, strictly speaking, not christened, just registered: his parents were Baptists, and the whole point about Baptists was that they believed in Adult Baptism.
You weren’t baptised as an infant; you were admitted into church membership only after you’d made a solemn declaration of faith.
After that conscious choice, you’d undergo a ritual of total immersion in a full-size baptistry. Baptisms were highlights of the Chapel calendar, given more weight than Christmas or Easter because – it struck Jac for the first time now, sitting there on the bus (he’d better hope his Auntie didn’t find out, she’d give him grief for being so slow) – they guaranteed the future of the fellowship.
Yes, that was why emotions would be wound up to breaking point with the impassioned four-part harmony of Praise Ye the Lord, as the white-robed candidates climbed the stairs at one side of the pulpit.
One-by-one, they stepped down into the tank of chilly water (heating was an unnecessary indulgence of the flesh) which had been uncovered like a tiny swimming pool beneath the false floor.
Quivering hands were grasped by the minister, who whispered sacred, comforting words to the nervous soul in the circle of his arm.
Then, suddenly, he tilted them forcefully backwards, so that they plunged fully under the water, symbolising their death to the sinful ways of the world, before being lifted upright again, and pushed to the stairs on the other side of the pool, gasping with the first breaths of their New Life in Christ.
As they emerged, dripping, they were met by elders and wrapped in towels, but not before the congregation glimpsed the saturated gowns clinging to the contours of their bodies.
The pubescent Sunday School boys who’d been allowed to watch from the gallery above – and, gazing down now, from the upper floor of that Rhondda bus, at the pavements of his Valley getting baptised yet again, immersed in icy rain, Jac forced himself to confess to himself that he’d been no better than any of them – those wicked, innocent boys would study solemnly the progress of every teenage girl, every shapely young woman amongst the candidates, praying for an extended glimpse of bra and panties under the sodden white overclothes.
They were rarely disappointed. Praise Ye the Lord, indeed!
Stubborn Jac had never put himself up as a candidate for baptism, never made a ‘Decision’ for the Lord, never answered the earnest calls for those convicted by the Holy Spirit to come forward and declare that they’d ‘accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as their own personal Saviour’ (the only valid form of words that ensured Salvation).
So he’d never been saved, never been baptised, and of course, as the son of Baptists, never christened as a baby.
But he had a name all the same. Two given names in fact. Jacob Rhys. ‘Rhys’ – proclaiming his birth-right in the Land of his Fathers – spoken with a patriotic flourish on its ‘rh’.
‘Jacob’ – after the Biblical trickster who stole his brother’s birth-right – pronounced with a pure ‘a’ sound in the Welsh way his grandparents had been taught when they’d been in Sunday School: Jack-ob, not Jay-cob.
And, even before he could say it properly himself, shortened by everyone to plain ‘Jac’.
Petra, it seemed, had asked a question, but he’d been too wrapped up in his ruminations about being born (but not born again) to grasp that his opinion had been sought.
“He’s miles away,” said Lydia, uncharacteristically stating the obvious.
“My mind’s on other things,” confirmed Jac, his Auntie’s forgiving phrase springing far too readily to his lips.
“Well,” sighed Petra, “far be it for us to intrude on his fantasies, Lydia,” her rejoinder performed with a degree of archness sufficient to let him know she wasn’t really annoyed.
“As he always says, a boy has to have a dream, or how would he ever get through the day?”
(What? Had he actually been using that phrase with his friends?)
“I was going to ask him something about Catherine, but…”
Just then, the bus swung left, throwing them sideways in their seats. The moment, which suddenly seemed pregnant with significance, was lost. Rain streamed off the roof, falling in rivulets down the windows.
They’d reached Carter’s Corner. Mid-Rhondda was far behind now, but it was the best part of four miles still to Treorchy. The three Friends were alone again. The solitary pensioner must have got off somewhere during Jac’s reverie.
The girls turned back towards each other. Jac tried to find something, anything to say, anything to continue the discussion, to find out what Petra wanted to ask. About Catherine.
“It’s a long way to go…” he muttered unconvincingly, the protest song adaptation of Tipperary still rumbling on in his head. “And the roads are awful slow.”
“Nobody’s disputing that,” said Lydia, in the kind of tone that Jac recognised as a signal for him to explain himself or shut up.
“My point is…” What was his point? The girls stared expectantly.
He thought again about those baptismal services. Year after year, his refusal to commit. All that time saying ‘no’ to the biggest question of all, defining himself by what he was not, by what he refused to become.
“My point is that I feel stuck. I mean, do I have to wait until I go to university, assuming I do, to make my own… Decisions? To get up when I want, go to bed when I want, to eat, to drink what I want… And stuff that’s far more important than that. Stuff that really matters. Because… I know I always go on about the Rhondda, its history, what it stands for, what it means to me… but it has formed me, shaped me, made me what I am…”
“You mean like your parents have shaped you? The Rhondda’s prevented you from starting your own story, is that what you’re saying?”
“No, I didn’t mean that, quite the opposite… though it’s a good point, Lydia. But there’s a difference with the Valley: it’s bigger than a family. It’s a community, yes… but it’s varied, there are people who aren’t like me here, it’s more…”
Diverse was the word he was searching for, but his mind was grappling with how to get his broader point across; indeed, still trying to get a grip on what exactly his point was. He tried again.
“The Valley’s got its own distinctive character, right enough, but if I was free to, I could choose my Rhondda. I could go to that chapel or that pub. Get involved in rugby or drama or politics or whatever. Or all of them. Or none. Decide which bits of it were important to me. And to me, they would be important.
“My own choices. So, what I’m getting at, is that I don’t want to wait until I’m away from here for that begin. I don’t want to start becoming who I really am in some godforsaken university town. Amongst strangers. Who won’t understand where I’m coming from. I want this place to be the place where I find myself.”
Jac stopped. He’d said his piece. It was down to Petra and Lydia now.
“We were just talking about Daniel, Catherine’s step-brother…”
“…and Lydia was wondering what it was like for him to go away. To Swansea. Meeting new people there, from all over. It can throw you. Then this girl comes along… and I don’t envy her, being pregnant at that age, and I hope to God I never am, but…”
Lydia took up the account of their conversation.
“Maybe that’s how it went wrong for him. Being away from home. He seems to have relied a lot on Catherine, even though he’s older. Not having her there and… others who cared about him, people he cared about, not having them around, just as he was starting his story, as you put it.”
Jac felt glad to be understood. Affirmed.
“Thanks. Both of you. I know I get all cryptic, sometimes. And complicated. Sometimes I think I must be a bit of a nutter…”
He nearly told them then. Told them his secret. The crazy secret he’d shared with nobody, not even his parents. The secret he’d kept for the best part of a decade. The secret, it struck him now, that was nearly half as old as I’m.
But something held him back.
“I suppose… I’m just impatient. For my story to begin. My Auntie’s always telling me that I’m like a big kid, wanting everything to start right now.”
They fell into silence.
Out of the window, houses, streetlights, another chapel, a club.
Jac knew this place, he loved it.
He realised he hadn’t got his question straight: it wasn’t when would his story begin, but where.
In his mind, he retraced the journey they were making, that progression: Pandy Square, the bus heading north, a line on a map, the main road up the narrow valley.
Tonypandy flowing seamlessly into Llwynypia, Llwynypia into Tyntyla, Tyntyla to Ystrad and now Ystrad to Gelli.
Unless you were a native, you’d never know where one place ended, and another began.
Rhondda was an urban ribbon, spun out yard-by-yard, house by terraced house, township by township.
“This is a City,” he suddenly declared, loudly. “A Linear City. And we are its Citizens!”
Yes, a Linear City.
He could visualise every twist and turn they’d take from here on, through Gelli, Ton Pentre and Pentre, all the way to Treorchy – even though it was still a long way to go.
He knew the name of every bus stop by heart. And every whipstitch of the route would be threaded through a metropolitan sprawl like this, every available square foot built on, colonised by industrious, voracious, swaggering humanity.
On and on it went, a dozen miles end-to-end.
Eight more again, the Rhondda Fach, forking east from Porth up to Maerdy, that stronghold of communism, ‘Little Moscow’ (he tried not to dwell on the fact that his Auntie seemed to believe it was called that because it’s always so cold up there).
But if the girls were intrigued by this latest outburst, they didn’t show it. Perhaps they weren’t up to unpacking another of Jac’s non-sequiturs.
“Cheer up, beaut’,” said Petra, eventually. She seemed cheered up herself. “Maybe tonight’s the night. The night your story starts. The once-upon-a-time night.”
You can catch up on previous extracts here. We’ll have another exclusive extract next week.
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