When I first moved to the little Welsh town of Aber-Where, it was quaint and loveable with its humble town centre containing a hint of modernisation that included a Greggs, an Argos plus a Tesco supermarket with a clothes store in it.
‘What more could you fucking want?’ a local once asked me, in a somewhat angry manner which suggested he didn’t want an answer.
For although I am Welsh, moving to this unheard town as a young man in his early twenties, who resembled a Quentin Blake illustration, was like moving to a new country.
At first that was.
In time, I wondered if I had in fact moved to a new plain of existence altogether.
The town was some forty miles from the capital city, but it was an insurmountable distance in the minds of many a local.
Times had changed with industry moving away and the coal mines all but closed. The locals of Aber-Where had been left behind and deprived of the opportunities afforded to previous generations.
By the time I had arrived there, this brave new world had left the town looking a little shabby and neglected but with a welcome cosy curiosity.
The land itself was lush and vast. Valley’s, vibrant and alive with growth, flanked many of these small hidden towns and provided stunning views. On train journey’s through the valleys, I often marvelled at their scale and sheer beauty.
They made me feel relaxed in my own inconsequential skin, knowing that they’d outlive our own trivial lives.
However, its occupants were not always as luscious and teeming with life as the landscape.
On the train journey’s that I took back and forth, a gradual lifelessness, inhabited passengers whenever we approached Aber-Where on the return leg of the journey. The mists of fine grey would descend from those valleys and somehow infect passengers instead of inspiring them.
Within a few months I understood why.
I had moved to Aber-Where for work reasons. It was an assignment.
A wealthy local, by the name of Brian Davies, was looking to invest in property in the Capital before moving there himself. He claimed to have grown tired of the valley’s and wished to embrace the year two thousand and beyond.
Aged fifty-five and in good health, it seemed a wise move.
I myself, was living in the capital, but found the rickety train's commute an unwelcoming prospect and decided to take up the offer of a house there in Aber-Where.
I was employed by a property developer and estate agent partnership, who offered me a house (with Mr Davies’ recommendation) on a temporary basis.
I would stay there until business was concluded.
They found me a suitable home in a little cul-de-sac, a new build house tightly squeezed into the corner of a newly laid street. I preferred to be out of sight if possible.
The whole area was being developed with new red brick houses dropped into place as quickly and easily as shoe boxes. While there were issues in the semi-detached house with various fixtures and fittings, it was all that I needed in the short term. Although, my immediate neighbours were noisy, incredibly so.
The mother figure had a bell in every tooth and seemed forever to be shrieking with laughter or vitriol. There was no middle ground. The entire family were so loud that they had to turn up their own television set, which they in turn competed with, rendering the walls of these respective homes as effective as tissue paper.
Mr Davies had been incredibly welcoming upon my arrival, ferrying me to the local supermarket or into town for supplies, introducing me to the ‘odd’ local (in both senses of the word) and even setting me up on some dates which I had not asked for but which he had done anyway.
However, I had a life I wanted to get back to. Friends and family were not far away but as time dragged on, the distance of forty miles started to feel like a chasm.
I attempted to speed Mr Davies up on his purchases and the sale of his own home.
By month five it seemed to me everything was ready to go in terms of confirming a deal, but he was reluctant to dot the I’s and cross the T’s. “I’m not ready to be swallowed by the city just yet boy,” commented Mr Davies one afternoon. He seemed to be regarding me as the enemy as opposed to a means of getting his business completed.
It was as if I had been summoned to force his hand into moving as opposed to him hiring me via head office.
Head office told me to be patient, sit tight and get it done.
I tried dating a few of the locals that Mr Davies seemed keen for me to meet just to distract myself as much as anything.
When I talked of moving on once business was concluded, a cloud would settle over my dates. Some would tell me they couldn’t leave their Mam or Dad’s or indeed the town itself. Not ever. What’s out there anyway, a bunch of stuffy weirdos is what. One asked if I was a ‘poof’ soon as I mentioned returning home. I couldn’t see the correlation between where one lives and sexuality, but apparently there was one.
Not leaving Aber-Where it seemed was a theme for a lot of the locals.
Indeed, one night after meeting with a girl named Sian, I got to meet a few of the local lads who knew her. Everyone knew everyone here in Aber-where.
I used to like that fact to begin with, but no longer.
I was a curiosity, but one brought here by Mr Davies.
When I had taken a girl back to the house, they’d tell me of my status as a mystery man in the town as they looked through my music or film collections with furrowed brows, or leafed through books with little to no recognition.
It was if outside cultures had ceased to infiltrate the local bubble some twenty years ago.
This included the fashion.
The men were huge, broad, all arms and knuckles with stout little legs. Their fashion sense seemed to be loosely taken from the gay scene of the nineteen eighties. It was out of time and ill-fitting, but it hypnotised me all the same. More so when I discovered the local women found the look attractive.
There was nothing like seeing a local rugby lad, big and strong, carrying a not to be fucked with attitude, striding down the road wearing a tight fitted shirt come blouse with huge frilly sleeves flapping about like mini capes trying to escape its owner. The jeans were always tight and pale blue with one or two sporting leather stripes. Some wore white shoes with a Welsh flag on. Nearly all the men had gelled spiked hair and smelt as if they had recently survived an accident involving truckloads of aftershave.
The women for their part, seemed to be of a hive.
I must admit, it was hard to differentiate who I’d dated after a few months. Dyed blond hair with black streaks or vice versa, blushed cheeks and identical dresses bought from the same shop.
It was as if the Children of The Damned had grown up but forgot their purpose entirely and resorted to this life, having themselves been gradually worn down and brain washed.
I couldn’t compete with the local men and didn’t want to.
The night at the pub with Sian underlined this. I was on the receiving end of various questions from the lads, such as, “Where the fuck you from butt?” to “Our clothes shop not good enough for you is it, posh boy?”
The posh boy tag was sticking. I’d never been thought of as posh previously, so I enjoyed the novelty for the briefest of moments despite the growing threat.
My insistence on speaking in sentences seemed only to irritate them further, so I politely let Sian know I was going home. She didn’t seem to mind or notice but that might have been down to the fact she was walking off hand in hand with a chap nicknamed ‘Meaty.’
He was quite meaty to be fair. He had the rolls of flesh at the back of his neck where one could crush peanuts or store a set of darts.
I watched the pair stroll off drunkenly from the bar, his pink tight shirt sleeves pinching his absurd forearm with his other trunk of a limb draped protectively over her. He turned back and shouted, “Better luck next time city boy!”
I sincerely hoped not.
When it came to concluding business with Mr Davies, the challenge I soon realised was not one of paperwork or red tape, but attitude.
He was not quite ready to move on from Aber-Where it seemed.
When we first chatted, he was enthusiastic and energetic about the prospect of leaving Aber-Where and the valley’s generally. But the closer we were getting to D-Day the more his enthusiasm waned and even a level of passive aggressiveness had taken hold.
‘City boy,’ had crept into his language and he started to treat me with a confusing mixture of hope and resentment.
It had been nearly six months since I’d moved to Aber-Where and I can remember the day clearly where I hoped to reach a conclusion. I was walking to Mr Davies’ home which was just twenty minutes away on foot.
The day itself was beautiful, clear sky and tranquil chirruping of birds surrounded my stroll to Mr Davies’ home.
My mood was light, and I felt sure with the sun on my back and a growing optimism, that today was the day he’d sign the final papers for the properties in the city.
He too had a red brick new build house, but it was the twice the size of my temporary residence. This was an achievers red brick house, he had plastic looking pillars either side of his front door to prove it.
As I reached the house, I spied him out front watering his garden. He was sporting union jack shorts and nothing else. His substantial belly drooped over his waistband. He saw me coming, “Hiya Rob!” he yelled. “Come on over boyo. Beer!?” I was by now stood right next to him, “No..no thank you Mr Davies. Bit early for me,” I laughed as I looked at my watch.
It was eleven in the morning.
“Aww bollocks to that boy, never too early to drink mun. Come on, come inside,” he replied as he ushered me in. He placed a hairy arm over my shoulder and guided me towards the entrance.
He smelt of sweat, beer and freshly cut grass. As he herded me indoors my face was pushed a little too close to that belly of his. My senses were overwhelmed as I pictured him diving into a pool of his own sweat.
We went into the kitchen, he already had two pints of lager poured with both sat neatly on his breakfast bar. “Pull up a stool Robert butt, let’s talk.”
I did as he suggested and watched him slowly clamber onto a stool that wobbled slightly before he righted it. “Well, Mr Davies, I have here the final key features of the deal so I’m hoping I can just ask you to…” I was cut off.
“Aww fucking hell mun Rob, let’s have a bit of fucking foreplay first is it. Christ, what’s the rush mun? First, let me tell you what happened last night eh?”
I didn’t get chance to confirm whether I wanted to hear about what had happened as he burst into his story.
“So right, bored as fuck last night so I got on the web. I’m a member of this site see for single people of my age, bikers and biker girls and that. You’ve seen my motorcycle, right?”
I nodded with false enthusiasm. I didn’t care for motorbikes or even cars. They were purely functional to my mind.
“Right, well, so I hook up with this bird off the net. About my age like. So, I go pick her up, she lived two valleys over but fuck it I thought, could be worth it. We had a spin on the bike then came back here. Guess what happened. Go on?!”
The morning’s heat was making its way into the house, intensifying the smell of his sweat and now what smelt like sex. A damp cloying fishy aroma suddenly reached me. I wrinkled my nose at the thought.
“Yeah! You got it. We fucked. I fucked her! On the stairs, on the breakfast bar then in the lounge. I put some porn videos on, and we got juiced up alright watching them. Oh, do you want to borrow some porn vids boy? I got Biker Sluts, Big Sluts, Cum Sluts, Sluts in Boots…”
“All the sluts then. Great, but no thank you,” I replied as I shook my head.
“No, I thought not. Well anyway, my dick was like this boy!” he continued as he held his forearm aloft, straight and erect. I tried to look out the window.
I looked to Brian, “I said, my cock was like this?!” he repeated his erect penis mime.
“Yes, very impressive Mr Davies.”
“I fucking exploded all over the place. I tell you, if I were you, I would not go upstairs,” he warned.
I smiled politely and resolved that I would resist the urge to go upstairs.
“So, what you think of that then?” he enquired.
I really wasn’t sure what I was supposed to say at this point. That it was the most romantic thing I’d ever heard? That it was an erotic mystical encounter I didn’t dream possible. That he stank and a minute longer in his company might lead me to do something atrocious?
“Your living the dream Mr Davies. Stallion you,” I found myself replying.
He stared at me in response to the sarcasm and a silence hung over the sweat filled room, growing in intensity, before he burst into raucous laughter, “Shit yourself then boy! Uh!?”
“If we may get onto business Mr Davies, I have another appointment today you see and need to…”
“With whom?” enquired Brian Davies.
“Oh, well that is..”
“None of my fucking business is what that is. It’s alright boy, I don’t care. One of your fancy friends back in the city no doubt,” he added with a dismissive wave. “Look, leave these papers with me alright and I’ll look through them and come back to you. Alright son?”
“Sure thing, Mr Davies. Can I just ask, how long you think it’ll take you to look over them and confirm?”
“Listen, I do not like to be rushed. I got all the time in the world and summer has just started so, you know, take it easy. I’ll look them over when I can and get back to you. Alright?”
I nodded in silence, biting back the desire to tell him to confirm either way and do it now, so that I could get out of this shit pot town.
I made for the door and he followed, “Now, you sure you don’t want to borrow some of those porn vids?”
I refused the generous offer and made my way home.
It was now twelve thirty and I had a whole day of nothing ahead of me. I wandered towards the cul-de-sac and my home and noted that just about every neighbour was out, watering their lawns, staring at me with suspicion while wearing harsh downturned grins. I could feel the resentment in their gaze and quickened my walk before feeling a dull anger throb in my temples. I made eye contact with one or two as I passed, wondering if I’d get a hello or even a nod. There was nothing bar the sneering looks.
I heard myself laugh aloud, bitterly so, as the back of my neck slickened with sweat. Getting out of this place was paramount. The need struck me in this moment harder than at any previous point. The general toxicity, whether imagined or cultural, was starting to infect me.
In fact, everything in this town was starting to get to me I realised, as I wandered around my kitchen finding no food present. This did not improve my darkening mood.
Hunger forced me to take the walk into town.
I mock sauntered down the road past my adorable neighbours, most of whom were all still outside watering their lawns with the same slack jawed expressions. This time they shouted pleasantries across the street to each other and over me, as if to make a point.
The day was turning into some sort of event that I wasn’t aware of. A grand plan was afoot. I was a goldfish trapped in a bowl made and stayed in Aber-Where.
I reached the bottom of my street and turned the corner. Town was about two miles on foot and all down-hill, I needed the walk and would get a taxi back.
But just then I heard a beep and a car idling behind me. I turned to face whoever this was only to realise it was Brian. He wound his window down, “You need a lift Rob? I’ve said to you before, if you need anything in town, just call me and I’ll take you,” with that he opened the passenger door. I could smell him again, “No it’s ok Mr Davies I really could do with a walk and I’ve,” but he was not going to take no for an answer, “Fuck’s sake mun. Get in its on my way!” he interjected.
Within moments we were heading to town and I was winding my window down to let the air out.
We bobbed along in his jeep, Mr Davies beeping and shouting pleasantries out his window at passers-by, such as “Hellooo Billy!! Hiya Carol! Meaty yer big prick, you get you’re end away with Sian? Wahey!!” I assumed Meaty’s thumbs up and hip thrusts were confirmation.
“You could have had that Sian if you’d been a bit sharper boy. Never mind, you’ll learn the ways eh,” he confided in me as he gave my thigh an excruciating slap. “Right, where in town Robbo, supermarket?”
I was too hungry to do the shopping first so asked Brian to drop me off by a café, he found one named ‘Maria’s.’
I’d not been in this establishment before, but he assured me it was cheap and cheerful, and he knew the owners, neither of which were named Maria.
It was a small modest looking café, little polka dot covered tables with a counter and a choice of up to four places to sit. I was only the customer today it seemed.
I took a seat as the radio played another song by The Stereophonics. They were on a loop around here, same tunes over and over. I glanced at the menu and the waitress or owner came to take my order.
I asked for a ham and cheese baguette, Maria not Maria, did not look impressed with my choice, “A what?”
I repeated my order, she looked across to her partner and co-owner and he shrugged by way of a response. She turned back to me stupefied and it then dawned on me that they perhaps didn’t deal in baguettes. “Oh, you want a bap! A ham and cheese bap mun! Drink?”
I was about to ask for a latte or mocha but thought better of it and requested a coffee. “Coffee it is, do you want fags with that or what love?”
“Fags?” I enquired.
“Aye, we got twenty Lambert and Butler’s or Silk Cuts. We haven’t got Benson’s in, but the chippy is selling them down the road or the ice cream man starts his rounds again at three o’clock and he normally does them, don’t he John!”
The co-owner now named John, nodded.
“Uhh, no thanks just the bap and coffee are fine.”
“Right, be five minutes or so ok love.”
I ate up quickly and downed the coffee as Maria not Maria and John stood in the kitchen, mumbling and occasionally peering out at me.
When I left, I heard them murmuring ‘A fucking baguette, little city prince,’ before giggling followed.
With the echoes of their tittering stinging my ears, I made it to the supermarket.
It seemed to me that everybody was staring or looking at me, stopping whatever it was they were doing to take a gander at the odd one out. The alien in Aber-Where. The outsider.
In the supermarket itself, after a paranoid infested shopping experience where I resorted to grabbing random foods in a hurry, I found Mr Davies waiting for me by the sliding doors.
“You all done Robert? I’ll give you a lift back.”
I was about to order a taxi, but the heat, anxiety and need to get away from prying eyes, made Mr Davies a ticket out that I did not refuse.
As we bounced our way home in the jeep in silence, I contemplated whether to mention again to Mr Davies the need to get business concluded. I needed to get out of Aber-Where, quickly before my sanity took a hike.
Mr Davies saved me the trouble. We pulled up outside my temporary residence, “Robert, we need to talk my young friend. Mind if I pop in?”
We sat in my sparse unhomely lounge, both nursing a coffee. “Mr Davies..I..”
“Don’t you love this place Robert?”
“It’s not the kind of house I’d choose on a permanent basis no.”
“Not the house mun. I mean this place, all of it, Aber-Where itself. I fucking love it. I do. I thought perhaps in time you’d grow to love it too.”
“Mr Davies, I mean I like it, to a point, albeit a virtually non-existent point, but I have a home already and I really do miss it. I miss my family, my friends and just, well just being me. I...don’t feel myself here and let’s be honest, the locals don’t like me at all. I mean I’m half expecting a lynching, or worse.”
Mr Davies looked shocked, “Well hang on there, son. I like you an awful lot. I know we’re all a bit different to what your used to. Our ways are not you’re ways. Listen,” he leaned forward conspiratorially and whispered, “We get scared. I know that because it’s happening to me now. I’m...I’m bloody scared Rob.”
His manner had changed dramatically from earlier that day. He was humble, calm and free of bravado.
“What you are saying Mr Davies? I came here only to help you complete a deal to leave. This is not where I want to be or am meant to be. I’m here for you and work but I can’t keep trying to force this deal.”
“I don’t think I can do it Robert. Sell up that is, leave. Since you’ve moved here to broker this whole thing, I’ve felt so much pride and affection while showing you around the town. I know you think its shit, course you would coming from the city, everything you need at yer fingertips. But that’s why people here can be a bit funny. It’s not because we don’t like you. More that we get scared a newcomer doesn’t like us. That you’d want to go. It reflects badly on us. This is our home, despite everything we’ve lost, regardless of the world moving on as quick as it has, we know it in our blood that this will always be home. I, we, just wanted you to feel the same. A lot of us just don’t know how to show or deal with it, that’s all.”
I found myself speechless, ashamed.
In my desperation to return home and anger at a forgotten community I barely knew, I’d mistaken fear and insecurity for malice.
I could see it all now, a flurry of reflections accompanying Mr Davies’ own commentary. There was no small-town conspiracy to do away with me or to keep me here at all costs, or to persecute my stay. Mr Davies had simply fallen back in love with his home and I’d been an unwitting conduit to his rediscovery.
“I am not going to sign for the sale or purchase of any properties Robert. I’m going to stay here. You are welcome to leave whenever you want to. I am so sorry for wasting your time, I really am butt.”
I of course told Mr Davies no such apology was necessary. I meant it too in amidst my utter relief that this would soon be all over.
I decided to leave within days but before I did go, Mr Davies surprised me with a leaving party at the local rugby club. A fair few turned up and we drank while locals shouted merrily over and around me. I spent most the night drenched in beer and spit, punctuated by back slaps, and I loved every second of it.
I was going home and with that clarity, I could see these people for who they really were. They were just like any of us. Living for moments of joy through fear and worry while needing a home to base their heart’s.
This was their home, and that night I was a part of it.
Mr Brian Davies is now seventy-five years old.
He owns many properties in Aber-Where, selling and renting to newcomers and first-time buyers alike.
Brian Davies specialises in Aber-Where hospitality and became central in the small-town strategy of bringing in newcomers, of modernisation, while preserving tradition and all the home comforts that make Aber-Where unique.
Mr Davies and I set this up shortly after I left.
It was all his idea although a small amount of advice was required. He asked me upon putting his proposal forwards to my employers, “What should I not do Robert, when it comes to new folk and making them feel at home?”
I kept it simple.
Don’t offer nasty porn videos to relative strangers over a pint of lager at eleven o’clock in the morning. Or tell them of your sexual encounters in excruciating detail. Wear a shirt. Discover baguettes and offer a variation of coffees. Cigarettes are not to be offered as a side order and most of all, don’t worry.
People will stay, if you let them be.