© Ian Marrow
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Note:This is a work of pure fiction, but was inspired by a good friend of mine who moved to Bala after a broken relationship.
CRYSTAL’S STORY - BARE IN BALA
By Ian Marrow
Crystal pushed her tangled mop of curly red hair back from her brow, sighed and surveyed the mountain of packing cases the removals men had dumped in her new home on the shores of Lake Bala in Wales, before making their escape down the winding road back to Manchester.
“Well we made it, Perkins,” she said to her pet parrot, sitting in his cage on top of one particularly large stack: “Bollocks,” said Perkins, followed by a loud wolf whistle.
“Now, Perkins, we have to stop using that language. We’re in God-fearing Wales now.” Crystal inwardly cursed her ex-boyfriend, who spent hours filling the poor bird’s head with various curses and other obscene rubbish.
“Stefan is in the past now, Perkins, and you and I are going to learn lovely Welsh words so we fit into our new home. No more bollocks, pillocks and bastards. Do you hear me?”
“Who’s a twat,” said Perkins, turning his back, and fluffing up his feathers.
Crystal wiped sweat from her face, and looked out over the lake. A slight breeze rippled the slate-grey water of Llyn Tegid. She hoped the move would work out. Not much else had in the past three years, ever since she met the bastard Stefan. Past his best even then, and no great shakes in bed - at least not with her. She'd heard rumours about his roving eye, and noticed women friends avoided sitting next to him. But it was the receipts for the lap dancing club, found by accident in his suit pocket, that were the last straw. She cut up all his underpants and told him she wanted him and his limp dick out of her life.
Still, the break-up and splitting of assets had, in the end, been more or less amicable, and left her with just enough to buy the slightly ramshackle cottage overlooking the lake shore, where she now stood contemplating her future.
It was a spur-of-the-moment decision to buy in Wales, taken after she finally removed Stefan from their Manchester house and planted a For Sale sign outside. Needing a shoulder to cry on she went to Wales for the weekend to visit older sister, Letitia - Tish to everyone who knew her - who lived up the side of a Welsh mountain near Bala, rearing alpacas for their wool.
Crystal poured out her heart to Tish over a couple of bottles of wine. Her sister listening sympathetically, concern showing on her broad weather-beaten face, as Crystal recounted her story: “Mmmm…Mmmm…Bastard…Mmmm…Bastard…What a prick…” intoned Tish between slurps of wine, after each revelation about Stefan’s misdemeanours poured out. Tish drained another large glass of Chablis and helped herself to a refill.
Crystal wiped away a tear: “For God’s sake, Tish, I’m nearly 40 years old - too old for this kind of crap - I just want to settle down…make something of my life. I’d just started to get some decent prices for my paintings - quite a few hundred quid for Nude On A Toadstool. But I’ve not picked up a paintbrush for months…just can’t seem to concentrate and I hate the idea of selling up and living in a rented house again.”
It was Tish who came up with the answer. Come and live in Wales: “Seriously, if you can’t get inspired here, you can’t get inspired anywhere. How about painting Bala Boys In The Buff? In the lake and out. You know, kind of before and after - see how those big boys shrink. Another bottle?”
Both laughed and drank till they were falling off the sofa, but the seed was planted in Crystal’s mind and a couple of months later she walked into the local estate agents on Bala High Street, falling for the little house by the lake the moment she saw the photograph. She couldn’t believe how cheap property was in Bala. Even after giving Stefan his half of the profits from the sale of their terraced house in a fashionable part of south Manchester, there was enough to buy outright.
Now, she looked out over the water, the sun setting red at the far end of the lake, and watched as a man in a kayak paddled slowly past. She felt a sense of inner peace absent when she lived in Manchester: “I think it’s going to be OK Perkins.”
“Up your arse,” replied Perkins.
Day two saw most of Crystal's possessions stuffed into wardrobes, with the overspill thrown in the attic and piled in the spare room: Worry about that later. Nice day. Time to relax and soak up the last dregs of the summer sunshine. Cup of tea in hand and with Perkins rendition of I’m Just A Teenage Dirtbag Baby ringing in her ears, Crystal stepped into her small front garden. The warmth of the sun kissed her freckled cheeks as she sat, closed her eyes, and listened to the chorus of small birds singing in the trees. She drifted gently off to the birds lullaby. The sun had nearly disappeared when she awakened from her slumber, slightly startled by a man’s voice: “Sorry love. Didn’t mean to wake you.”
Crystal opened her eyes and saw a kind-looking old gent with a walking stick standing by the gate.
“You must be the new owner of Bwythyn Maen Melin.” He gestured toward the stone cottage. “Lovely lady was renting it before. Pity about that - but welcome to our little community. Huw’s the name, by the way.”
“Hello Huw. What do you mean pity?”
“Did no-one tell you? Oh dear me. She was trying to throw a dead sheep into the septic tank to get its microbes going again after someone tipped a load of bleach down the drain, and went in herself. There for two weeks she was, before someone noticed a dead sheep in the field, and an awful smell coming from the tank - still open you see. Anyway, they got her body out - the local firemen. Couldn’t get the stench off them for a week, I heard - banned from the local pub they were. Owners decided to sell-up after that, but the good news for you is the tank works like a dream now, so they say. Every cloud has a silver lining.”
Crystal looked at her small home, which seemed somehow darker - less friendly than before. She shivered although there was still warmth in the evening air: “Sorry, Can I offer you tea or anything?”
“No thank you, my dear. Old man you see. Can’t have too many liquids on my walk, or I’d be behind every second tree on my way home. Anyway. Not to worry about the unfortunate accident. What’s past is past. How are you settling in? I believe you already have a local connection - the English lady with the strange animals, up yonder hill.” He vaguely waved his walking stick in the general direction of the steep wooded hillside at the back of the cottage.
“Yes, my sister Tish and her husband live up there. Well, mainly she does. Her husband, George, is away most of the time - works in The City. The animals are alpacas and I’m doing pretty well, thank you.” What a nice old man!
“In fact a couple of the alpacas are coming down tomorrow to eat some of my grass in the field next door, keep it tidy, and it’s a free feed for them. I must admit though, I find them a little odd-looking too.
“I’m looking forward to meeting more of the locals like yourself - and hopefully even learn a little Welsh, try to fit into the community.”
Huw’s eyes brightened, and his wizened face furrowed into a smile: “I can certainly help you there, my dear. Get yourself a pen and paper and I’ll get you started with a few useful words and phrases.”
Half-an-hour later, Crystal waved the old man off. He pottered down the lakeside road into the gathering dusk, muttering something to himself in Welsh, which must have been funny because Crystal caught the sound of laugher as he disappeared from sight. Good, she thought. Something to practice when I go into town shopping. Bore da - means good morning. What a fine start.
Next day, Tish arrived in her battered old Land Rover, and unloaded two alpacas from the trailer. She herded the animals into the field, and soon they were happily munching on the overgrown grass. Children and parents pointed at the spectacle as the miniature Bala Lake Railway puffed past the cottage, its whistle merrily blowing. Some took snapshots of the strange beasts in the field.
Crystal told Tish she was going shopping: “No worries. I’ll just settle down and have a cup of tea. Read the papers while you’re away,” said Tish. “No point in going back home just yet - might as well stay, and then I can take my two big boys back with me. They should have given your little field a good trim by then.”
Armed with her list of new Welsh phrases, Crystal strode across the causeway at the bottom end of the lake, where the River Dee begins its journey to the coast. She headed straight into town to Jones the Butcher, hoping all would go well, after practising half the night to try and get a bit of Welshness into her Mancunian accent.
She joined the queue at the door to the shop and eyed the meat on display, deciding a couple of Welsh lamb chops would be just the thing. Finally she reached the head of the queue: “Bore da,” she said in her best Welsh accent. “ Ydy fy nhin yn edrych yn fawr yn hyn o,” she intoned from memory.
Mr Jones looked nonplussed, but peered over the counter and said: “Not really, but what can I do for you love?”
Crystal was confused - her attempt at Welsh meeting with a similar reaction at every shop she went into - apart from the Co-op, where the assistant listened to her with a blank look on his face, and with a broad Liverpool accent,said: “Sorry missus. I’m from Birkenhead, just helping out with the summer rush.”
Maybe I’m just not pronouncing it right, she thought. Still, plenty of time for all that and she had spotted Welsh language courses for beginners at Coleg y Bala: “Trying to run before you can walk again girl,” she muttered to herself, as she braced against the strong headwind on the causeway and watched windsurfers take full advantage of the breezy conditions to tack back and forth across the lake.
As she neared her cottage, Crystal noticed the alpacas were no longer in the field. Tish must have gone, she thought, but no - the Land Rover and trailer were still there. Then she spotted Tish snoozing in the sun, in a chair on the decking at the front. Maybe they’ve wandered off, she thought, and quickened her pace toward the house.
Reaching the gate she heard Perkins giving a rendition of one of Stefan’s favourite rugby songs All The Nice Girls Love a Candle. Funny, he doesn’t usually sing that loud unless he has company. Oh no, thought Crystal, hurrying into the house. Inside was chaos. Chairs overturned, plates smashed, and two alpacas politely listening to Perkins, who hopped from one leg to another in sheer delight at having such an attentive audience - even if one of them chewed a Moroccan rug while he listened.
“TISH,” screamed Crystal, awakening her sister from her siesta. “Your fucking alpacas have wrecked my lounge, and there’s shit everywhere. Shoo you fuckin’ animals. Out. Out.” The beasts seemed reluctant to leave the musical recital, which by now had moved on to Alouette, but Tish rushed in and soon had them herded outside, and back into the trailer.
“Sorry. Alpacas are very inquisitive you know - must have heard Perkins and gone to investigate. Just nodded off for a minute,” said Tish contritely. “I’d better go. Any consolation, the manure is very good for plants, if strained…” Her voice trailed off as she got a hard stare from Crystal. “Anyway, must dash.Love you lots. Bye.”
“Not a word from you. Not one - or the shit won’t be the only thing buried in the garden,” Crystal, told Perkins as he huffed on his perch.
An hour later, and the lounge was more or less back in place. The rug beyond repair though. Pity, she had bought it years ago on a trip to Morocco, with her then boyfriend. Happy days.
There was a knock at the door. What now? Perkins perceived he was forgiven, and as Crystal opened the door launched into a particularly rude version of a poem about a ship called Venus and its crew. A rather handsome man stood there, with a large package in his hand. Not bad, she thought. Broad shoulders, slim hips and a nice smile: “Hello.” She suppressed the urge to try a welcome in Welsh - that particular experiment didn’t seem to be working very well.
“Noswaith dda,” said the young man. “Good evening. I live in the farm - about a mile down the road - and just thought I’d pop in and say hello. See if you wanted help with anything. The name’s David, by the way.”
“That’s very kind. Would you like to come in for a minute?” Farm boy. Won’t notice the smell of shit - she hoped.
“Thank you,” said the young man, holding the package toward Crystal. “I brought you some fish. Swimming in the lake half an hour ago it was. Brown trout. About 30-minutes in the oven in a bit of foil - go down a treat.”
“Well thank you, David. Let me just get that in the fridge. I’m about to have a glass of wine. Would you like one?”
“Thanks. Red, if you’ve got it,” said David.
Certainly the first time a young man has appeared at my door with a gift of fish, thought Crystal, as she poured the wine. Maybe it’s a Welsh thing? Damn sight more practical than flowers, if not quite so traditional: “There is something you can help me with,” she said, returning bearing two glasses. “I’ve been trying very hard to learn some Welsh phrases, but they don’t seem to be working very well. I’ve got them written down somewhere.” She fumbled in the drawer in the hall. “Ahh. here we are,” she said, producing the paper on which she had scrawled Huw’s phrases.
“Now, let’s start with this: Ydy fy nhin yn edrych yn fawr yn hyn o - am I pronouncing that right?”
David had the same look as the butcher she tried it out on: “Depends what you’re trying to say.”
Crystal studied the writing: “Well I was told it meant ‘Hello, what a beautiful morning it is’. Have I pronounced it wrong?”
David smiled suddenly - it was like the sun coming out thought Crystal: “You’ve been speaking to Old Huw, I bet. Walks with a limp, and looks about a hundred years old?”
“That’s the one,” said Crystal. He was ever so nice, and very helpful.”
David took a quick slurp of his wine: “Thing is, Huw’s a bit of a joker. Crafty old bugger. Likes to have newcomers on a bit. What you actually said is ‘does my bum look big in this?’ He’ll be telling everyone at his local, the Glyndwr Arms, about his latest prank, mark my words.”
“What about the rest of these phrases?” Crystal blushed for the first time in years, as she handed over the notepaper.
“Let’s have a look,” said David. Well this one is ‘it’s not the men in my life, but the life in my men’ and ‘I’m not from round here you know’…and ‘I want to squeeze your’…I don’t think you want to know the rest. It’s a bit… colourful.”
Crystal was seething: “The old bugger.”
“Bugger, bugger, bugger,” announced Perkins from the other room.
“What about the previous tenant of this house? He told me she died in a tragic accident. Fell into the septic tank.”
“No,” said David. “Still very much alive. Went to Wrexham to be near her daughter and grand-children. I don’t think Old Huw means any real harm - just can’t stop himself, and has a bit of a hard time accepting all the new people who are arriving. Anyway, must dash," said David, draining his glass. Farm doesn't look after itself unfortunately.”
After David left, Crystal was still seething, and decided Old Huw wasn’t going to get away with it. A notion began to gather shape in a corner of her mind - until at last she had a plan of action: “He’s picked the wrong one, Perkins. I might cry - but then I get even.”
“Kick him in the goolies,” suggested Perkins helpfully.
“Oh no,” she told him, tickling under his beak. “I’ve got something far better in mind.”
Crystal delved into as yet unopened packing cases, and unearthed her paints, brushes, and all the other components of her profession, to start work on the revenge: Try and make a fool of me would you, Old Huw. Stefan had taken the piss…Old Huw had taken the piss. My turn!
She set up her easel, found a decent canvas and set to work, feeling inspired as the painting on the canvas took shape. Painting Huw’s face from memory - she had never had a problem with almost total recall - she began building the picture. Every brush stroke meticulous as the image built, and her imagination took flight. Finally, after burning the midnight oil for two nights, the painting was complete.
The next day she wrapped it in a large tea towel, and set off across the causeway in search of the Glyndwr Arms. It took a while to find the pub - at the back of the main street, down a small alleyway. A single flickering light illuminating a dingy sign told Crystal she had arrived at the infamous Glyndwr Arms. Tish had told her it was a hotbed of Welsh nationalism, and not one to visit if you fancied a friendly evening down at the pub. It was late morning, and surveying the room she saw it must be a quiet time for the licensed trade in Bala. Two men sat on stools, and a large tattooed man stood behind the bar, his belly protruding from the bottom of a tee-shirt emblazoned with a Welsh dragon. She was aware of the sudden silence as three pairs of eyes followed her as she walked in.
Taking a deep breath - shoulders back girl, best foot forward, as Brown Owl always said - she marched to the bar: “Sorry, I’m English. Don’t speak Welsh, but I’m going to learn. I have a present for you.”
With a flourish she removed the tea towel, and listened with satisfaction to the collective gasp from three open mouths: “Pity Huw isn’t here. After all this is dedicated to him. You may have heard of me. I’m the new woman in the cottage by the lake, who says funny things when she tries to speak Welsh, Huw-style. I’m sure he’s told you all about me.” Their reaction and failure to meet her gaze confirmed that Huw had indeed regaled the regulars about his little joke.
The four of them regarded the painting, and Crystal had to say it was one of the best nudes she had painted. She admired the meticulous detail of Old Huw, naked as the day he was born - every wrinkle and crease on display. He was standing in a field along with a flock of Welsh mountain sheep who looked very worried. About the only thing that wasn’t wrinkled about Huw was his appendage, which hung out from his body and was clearly the principal cause of the flock’s alarm.
“I would be very grateful if you could hang this in pride of place behind the bar. I’m sure Huw would appreciate it - he likes a joke, as you all know.”
The landlord looked unsurely at the painting: “I don’t know love. I have my licence to consider, and some may think it’s a bit, you know, near the knuckle if you get my meaning.”
But Crystal stood her ground: “I’m a well established artist with a good reputation, and I can assure you this is bona-fide art. I’m offering it to you for nothing - apart from a promise that it will hang in pride of place behind your bar, in perpetuity. Could be worth a fortune one day.”
The landlord still looked a bit worried, but one of the regulars piped up: “Come on, Taff. Huw’s always taking the piss - time someone got their own back for a change. Go on boy.”
And they both cheered as Taff accepted the picture, propping it up by the optics: “I’ll hang it up properly later - I promise. In the meantime I insist on buying you a pint. Took some nerve coming in here, and I must admit you’ve got Huw off to a tee. Certainly his face. Wouldn’t like to say about the rest.”
“I’d be delighted to accept,” said Crystal, levering herself onto a stool between the two lunch-time drinkers. “Crisps all round, Taff. I hate drinking on an empty stomach.”
Crystal’s painting of Huw had a remarkable effect on her new life. No longer a stranger on the streets of Bala - the time taken on shopping trips almost doubled as people stopped her in the streets to chat, and praise her for stuffing it to Old Huw. She found many others had suffered at his hands over the years - and wanted to meet the woman who had finally managed to get even. “Made a proper fool of him, you did, and good on you. It’s the talk of Bala. Time someone gave him a taste of his own medicine,” was a typical reaction. “Started a rumour I was pregnant - truth is I like doughnuts a bit too much,” one slightly plump young woman told her. “It got back to my boyfriend - and he knew it couldn’t be him. Very careful he was. So that was that - finished. I cried for a week. I really liked that boy too. Never forgave that old bastard.”
Crystal's growing reputation meant she started to get commissions: “If I give you a photograph can you paint my husband. Nothing too racy, and definitely no sheep, but he’s coming up 60-years-old and I want something special to surprise him,” was one request. “And if it’s not asking too much, can you, sort of…elongate him? He’s a bit sensitive, see. Not a lot showing till he gets interested.”
Crystal laughed: “My pictures do tend to accentuate the positive. I promise you he’ll be happy with the result, and so will he.” Then one day, the inevitable happened - staggering out of the Spar shop with two heavy bags of shopping, Crystal almost collided with Old Huw. She stared him up and down defiantly: “Hello, Huw,” she said finally. I believe you’ve been keeping a bit of a low profile. Been to the Glyndwr Arms recently? I go there quite a lot - very popular I am, for an English woman in a Welsh pub.”
Old Huw smiled, a little sadly she thought: “I have changed my drinking habits somewhat. Sorry if my little joke offended. I just can’t help myself sometimes. Any chance we can call a truce?”
Crystal dumped her shopping on the pavement and contemplated, pausing for a full 10 seconds: “Trouble is, Huw, it’s not just me. I’ve been listening to people - lots of them - and I have to say mostly women. I think you really have a problem. I forgive you - I really do. In some ways you’ve done me a favour, because if there was a way to get known in Bala you’ve certainly helped me to do it. But what about everyone else? Some horrible stories. It’s got to stop. Do you hear me?”
Huw shuffled uncomfortably on the pavement: “I’ll try,” he said. “Started years ago after my wife died, and I was left alone. Nothing to do, you see, and you know what they say - the Devil makes work for idle hands. Must admit though, I enjoyed it, and had a right laugh over the years. But I’ve seen the error of my ways. Promise.”
Crystal felt a little sorry for him, but suddenly had a thought: “Is this all true, Huw. Or am I going to hear that you wife is alive and well and waiting for you at home?”
“No, it’s true - honestly,” said a shamefaced Huw.
“Tell you what,” said Crystal. “I’ll give you something to do. Teach me Welsh - properly this time or there could well be another painting. You have no idea how creative I can be. And maybe we can be friends. Deal?” she said holding out her hand.
“Mae’n llawer,” said Huw, accepting her shake. “I’ll tell you what that means over a cup of tea.”
Three months later and lots of new friends had arrived in Crystal’s life, but she particularly looked forward to visits from David - she had grown fond of the big farmer, and his cheerful smile. A lot cleverer than he let on as well, she had found out. Looking out of her front window she saw him arriving at the gate - rather more smartly dressed than usual and carrying a bunch of flowers.
Crystal opened the door before he had chance to knock: “Hello David. No fish today?”
“No,” said David. “Flowers, now that I’ve come courting, since you have kindly agreed to come out with me.”
Crystal’s brow furrowed: “I like you a lot, David, but… I don’t recall ever saying I’d go out with you. I’m sure I’d remember that.”
“But you accepted the fish” said David. “It’s tradition round here: I ate the trout - you can take me out.”
“Well…I…um,” began Crystal, before noticing the smile growing on David’s face.
“We all like a bit of a joke here in Bala, you know. Sorry, I couldn’t resist. But how about it? I know you didn’t have much of a time with the last chap in your life, but I like to think I could do a bit better - and when the fish are out of season, I have half a lamb in my freezer, and a farmyard full of chickens.”
“Well, in that case you’d better come in,” said Crystal. “And if we get really hungry there’s scraggy old parrot ripe for the oven.”
“ Ti'n Goc Oen,” Perkins piped up from the other room.