The Write stuff: Misericord by Wayne Price

Welcome to the latest of The Scotsman’s regular feature showcasing the talents of Scotland’s best writers. Every Saturday we carry a great piece of poetry or prose from household names to up-and-comers, all reinforcing The Scotsman’s place as the home of Scotland’s best writing

Illustration: Grant Paterson

It was a local man – one of the younger farmers I sometimes fell in with at the beach front bars when they came down from the fields on a one-night tear – who told me about Pugh’s farm at Fynnon-wen, high up in the Rheidol hills. One of the two middle-aged sons had hanged himself in the barn, just a month before, he said. There was work on the place for sure, he reckoned, if I could get along with that mad old bugger Pugh – a long-time widower – which he doubted. He laughed as he said it, but I wrote down the directions, and his name as a kind of reference, and the next day, a Sunday, I waited at the gate of old man Pugh’s yard at noon, ankle deep in mud, until the frantic barking of his dogs drew him out of one of the low, rusting sheds. Tall, completely bald and stooping in the fine, blowing drizzle amongst his yapping dogs, he seemed as if he’d stepped straight out of the nineteenth century: above his high, caked boots he wore a narrow black suit, shiny with God knows how many years of use, and a grey, collarless shirt that must have been black too once, buttoned tight at the neck. His white face was long and horse-like, sprouting even whiter, very sparse whiskers about the chin, and his pale, watering eyes looked as if they’d been soaked and stained in some antique wooden wash-tub with his shirt. I wondered if he was still dressed in mourning for his son, or if this was his Sunday outfit, but in fact through all the time I knew him, occasional changes of shirt or the addition of a black, tent-like rain cape aside, I never saw him dressed differently.

He stared blankly towards some far-off point behind me, somewhere in the steep green woods across the deep cut of the Rheidol valley, as I gabbled about needing a few months of work, and my competence at labouring, basic handiwork, electrics and so on. I’d given it up as a wasted journey by the time I’d run out of things to say, but when I finally mentioned that all I needed was enough money to feed myself through the week and a place to sleep, his eyes locked back into focus and he shifted his dull, watery stare full on to my face.

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Twenty pounds, he said, then shifted the wet gravel in his throat and spat. Twenty pounds a week.

I didn’t reply. I hadn’t hoped for much, but even in those days the amount was barely enough to live on.

And breakfast, see. He made a slow, sideways chewing motion with his long chin. And supper, maybe, he added doubtfully, if you make it for all of us, and it’s not some kind of muck you serve up. Cawl, we like.

I nodded. In the months since I’d left home I’d picked up through trial and error the basics of frying and boiling things, though the dark inside of an oven remained a more exotic mystery to me. Where would I stay? I asked.

He grunted and jerked his head back towards the shed he’d emerged from, then turned without opening the gate and stumped towards it.

My heart sank, but I unbolted the heavy steel bars and followed, the dogs swirling around my legs and almost tripping me into the filth. To my great relief he carried on past the ramshackle hut and led me through a screen of hazels to a narrow, sheltered patch of grass where a bulbous little caravan sat, once white but greening over now with a thin skin of mould.

Old Pugh halted before it and waited for me to catch up.

I stopped at his shoulder and we both gazed at the fat tin mushroom as if it had just fallen from the moon. God knows how he’d managed to set it there: I could see no clear path through the stunted trees all around. It might have sprouted up in the rain that cool wet morning. The dogs had vanished along the way. I hadn’t noticed them going, but it was very quiet now, the rain too soft to make a sound on the roof of the caravan.

It’s not locked, he said.

And so I worked as a farm-hand, or a shepherd as I liked to think of it, through the spring and early summer of 1985, in a place hardly touched by three quarters of a century, rounding up stray ewes on the bald hills, or coppicing the tangled blackthorns and hazels with a rusty blade from the barn, or sweating over another bubbling pot of mutton or rabbit cawl in the gloomy, brooding evenings. Sometimes the remaining son, Meirion – a stupid, silent brute of a man – would be set to work alongside me on the heavier jobs, but most days old Pugh kept us apart. I was glad: once, hammered awake out of the caravan’s damp bed in the early hours to help with spring lambing in the barn, I watched Meirion kneel beside a panting, glassy-eyed ewe that was struggling to give birth, force his huge thumb a little way inside the bulging vent and break the newborn’s trapped neck with a single sharp press. Marw-anedig, he grunted to the old man who was busy with another birth, and leered up at me when he heard his father groan and curse. I knew he’d have been more than happy to do the same to my own spine, and turned away and said nothing. I suppose he wanted the farm to fail – or at least wanted the old man to finally give up and sell, and free him into some other imagined life. Or it was an impulse, and there was no more sense in it than in the way he would wander the boundary hedges some evenings, thrashing at the birds’ nests in them with a heavy sickle.

It was late June of that year, a warm day of tall blue skies, when I first met Jenny. It must have been a Sunday because I had the whole afternoon and evening to myself – Sunday was the one night in the week I didn’t need to brew up more cawl because of the heavier midday meal – and as usual on any day off that was fine I’d walked the mile or so downhill to Devil’s Bridge where I could catch the bus or hitch a ride into town. From the promenade I’d climbed Constitution Hill and meant to follow the cliff-top path to Clarach Bay, but the sound of talk and laughter lured me down like a siren song from the main path to a small rocky cove where six or seven young men and women – students I supposed, finished with their exams – were sunbathing and swimming from a long dark platform of stone. I remember being surprised at myself, embarrassed in fact, for needing company, or even just the spectacle of it, so badly. But the truth is I was growing strange in the pale little capsule of Pugh’s caravan: often when I found myself needing to interact in the simplest ways with people outside the world of the farm or the solitude of the hills – buying a bus ticket, say, or the rare luxury of a newspaper – I’d be suddenly tongue-tied, overcome with a sense of trying to communicate through a wall of glass, or from underwater.

I must have sat watching them, drinking up the sound of their chatter and banter, for a good half hour. They noticed me of course, but paid no attention. I’d closed my eyes and was drifting into a half-sleep when Jenny, maternal even then, touched me on the shoulder and laughed when I startled. She was holding a half-full bottle of wine, and pushed it towards me as my eyes adjusted to the sudden dazzle.

Are you finished too? she said.

Oh. No. No, I’m not a student, I managed to answer.

That seemed to interest her. She eyed me more closely and gestured with the bottle again, though all I could think about was the light cotton skirt fluttering against her legs, almost transparent in the sun, and the cups of her pink bikini top above it, filled to over-brimming with the cream of her perfect, heavy breasts. Go on – have a drink, she insisted and then, when I finally took the wine from her, eased herself down to sit next to me. She spoke with a warm, thick valleys lilt, and I was amazed at the wave of homesickness – all its choking mix of loneliness and loss – that the sound of her voice sent crashing through me. I sat and listened like a child.

About the author

Wayne Price was born and brought up in the south Wales valleys but has lived and worked in Scotland since 1987. He has won a number of awards for individual poems and short stories published in the UK, Ireland and America and in 2011 he was recipient of a Scottish Book Trust New Writer Award. His first book-length collection, Furnace, published by Freight in 2012, was nominated for the Saltire Scottish First Book of the Year. He teaches at the University of Aberdeen and is currently completing a first collection of poetry, a second collection of stories, and a novel from which this extract is taken.