Review: Cofiwch Olchi Dwylo is an arresting array of stories set in Ceredigion over the testing times of Covid
It’s not often that a collection of stories deals with matters so contemporaneous that the reader is still living through the times it describes. But Geraint Lewis manages to do precisely, courtesy of a tightly-knit array of stories set in the testing time of Covid. The characters share the trials and tribulations we have all shared.
The very title ‘Cofiwch Olchi Dwylo’ reminds us to wash our hands, a public health graffito which now seems to belong to a far-off age, especially as the pandemic seems to have set time itself on a crooked spindle. What day is it? Which month is it? Other story titles bear a similar burden of lockdown messaging. ‘Shop responsibly’ we are told – even though the people who crowd the story’s supermarket are irresponsibly hoarding toilet rolls – ‘keep your distance’ we are advised and, in a more localised version, ‘Peidiwch Nofio yn yr Harbwr,’ don’t swim in the harbour.
It’s thus a book about rules laid down and oft-times unheeded or ignored. In this sense the tales are vivid, highly-relatable documents of a pandemic age we have gone through and are going through, such as the weekly show of solidarity for the NHS when people made a loud noise on their doorsteps. But the neighbours-on-doorsteps in this collection don’t necessarily get on that well, as a London couple has decamped to west Wales to avoid the lockdown restrictions, bringing a touch of Barnard Castle style-resentment to Ceredigion, not to mention their very noisy and public love-making.
Just as the American author Elizabeth Strout conjures up life in small town America by deftly interconnecting her short tales – wherein characters’ lives touch and weave into a portrait of a place – so too does Geraint Lewis. While Strout conjures up coastal Maine Lewis here depicts coastal Ceredigion, locating the tales in Aberaeron, or at least somewhere very like the harbourside town.
Here live redoubtable nonagenarians, wayward youth, its Liverpool football fans, Brexiteers and hard-working mams. Some characters live in their own worlds, or own heads, such as dope-toking stoner Teifi who is visited by a parade of historical figures. These apparitions include Owain Glyndŵr, Irish rebel Michael Collins, a drugged-up Iolo Morganwg and R.S.Thomas in an early version of himself, during the period in Manafon when he conjured up his peasant alter-ego Iago Prytherch. Thomas, we are told, amusingly, is wearing full vicar’s kit, looking the spit of Father Jack in the comedy series ‘Father Ted.’
The opening story introduces us to a hard working mother of two, Donna whose husband is in prison following a fatal hit-and-run. Her father thinks it was the shame of the resulting court case and its aftermath that brought about his wife’s premature death. It’s one of the many testing family dynamics at play here. Tensions simmer in so many of these tales, especially as time lurches on and as tourists flood into villages, leaving the old people who are shielding feeling extra vulnerable and doubly alone. Donna’s son, Nathan, for instance, finds himself wrestling with notions of infinity, as he deals with his grandfather’s death in terms of his beloved ‘Toy Story’ and ponders what it means to go beyond, like Buzz Lightyear.
The stories are alert to what’s going on around their small cast of characters. ‘Annibyniaeth’ introduces us to a character being persuaded by the case for Welsh independence and deciding to join ‘Yes Cymru,’ while the story ‘Mae Bywydau Du O Bwys’ presents a brief episode in the life of a black, Welsh-speaking, frontline health worker who is persuaded to do an interview for S4C news and in so doing becomes a spokesperson for the BLM movement.
Yes, these are stories so much of the now that they have the immediacy of, say, TV bulletins or Instagram shots. Thus there are white supremacists, a pint-glass-bearing Nigel Farage and ‘ultra Welshie twats,’ defaced Tryweryn walls and painful last farewells to loved ones via iPads. In another story someone samples the recorded telephone message that proclaims “your call is important to us,” even though that call is seldom answered, to be woven into music to which dancers move on the harbourside walls as if in celebration of spring yielding to summer and lockdown rules relaxing a tad.
This is Lewis’ third collection of short stories and he clearly delights in and is very comfortable working within the constraints of the form. He writes unfussily, with little adornment or description: these beautifully wrought stories purr along quietly on engines of plot, incident and event.
In one of them two Liverpool fans getting stuck into the beer – and not for them the hooligan’s cans of cooking lager but rather small batch, craft ales – his TV scriptwriter’s ear for dialogue is very much to the fore. It is perhaps no coincidence that Lewis is an actor too, well used to inhabiting other people’s words and stories. But what distinguishes these concatenating tales most of all is the simple human warmth they carry, an undertow of community and mutual care such as those that have buoyed up many people as they face the challenges of this ongoing pandemic.
‘Cofiwch Olchi Dwylo’ is published by Gwasg Carreg Gwalch. You can buy a copy here…