Davies, Anna, and Daniel have been as close as three people can be. But now Davies is dead in a car crash, and the two that are left must “take on the case”: Davies' life, their own lives, and the whole of their shared past. Who, and what, was Davies? Did they know him at all? And why is he still, even now, hiding from them?
In this extract, from chapter 7, Daniel recounts a story told to him by Davies. Through the details and ambiguities of the recounted story―an allegorical folk tale of the Rhymney Valley and the surrounding area, where they spent their childhood together―Daniel attempts to “locate” his friend again, feeling himself both possessed and enriched by Davies' spirit and by his “bequest.”
It was a story about light and enlightenment. About a man called Cristo. The name is significant, of course. Christ reborn, resurrected in the Gwent Rhymney Valley. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, when the Church was enjoying one of its periodic peaks, the spirit of the 1859 Revival still roaming the land, sprouting and branching, taking hold in pockets of new life. Cristo was a wandering preacher, a missionary in the barren lands, trying to turn the flame that had already been lit into a burning fire of feeling. (And I always used to think how apt his name was. If Christ were to come back to the world now, and to this part of the world in particular, the people around here would greet him as though he were a face from the pub: “'Ey, Christ-oh! All right, butt?1“) I used to think of Cristo as being an incongruous figure even then. Anachronistic even. Wearing a long cloak that stretched down to the mud around his feet, known by everyone as an eccentric―but a fervent eccentric. He'd walk for miles on end just to get to a chapel service, or to preach in a village square. I can imagine the people of the time seeing him walking the streets in some town or another, recognizing him at once, and turning to each other to say, “Ah, there's Cristo again, in his long cloak,” or “There he goes, on his travels as usual. I wonder where he's preaching today?” And sensing, even then, in that period of steadfast credulity, that he was descended from a different world somehow, that he was of a different time, a different background, and that his purpose, as a devout minister, was alien to their experience of religion and God.
Cristo lived in an old outhouse of sorts on a farm up on Blaen Rhymni mountain. A shed or a shack, to all intents and purposes, but he was never there long enough to feel the lack of any conveniences that might have made the place more homey―he was always out of doors, in all seasons, in all weather. And one night in particular a fierce storm was whipping the mountain. Rivulets forming in the ground as the rain scythed through the soft earth, lightning exploding through the firmament, lighting the trees for instants at a time so that they looked like skeleton fingers, thunder announcing the Day of Reckoning. Davies used to say that it had been a night to try the faith of those Great Revivalists―as if he knew for a fact that godly men the length and breadth of the old county had suffered terribly that night.
At the farm by Cristo's house the farmer's wife had been out to check up on the animals. The sheep had been in the top fields, but when the storm came, the farmer had brought them down nearer the house. It was his wife's turn now― he'd taken his shoes off and gone to sit by the fire, before heading finally to bed. And she only had to go out into the yard at any rate. But outside it was obvious that the animals were agitated. The sheep, normally so docile, tame even, to her trained touch, were stamping their feet insistently against the hard gravel, hitting forcibly against the sides of their pen. The sound punctuated the thunder, a natural accompaniment, like some base and primal spiritual: the thunder calling, the feet shouting out their response to the prayer, in rhythms of fright, as though the sheep had been somehow enchanted. In the beginning Davies didn't know whether the farmer and his wife had been caught up in the revivalist zeal of Cristo's preaching. But when he told us the story in later years, when we were all just a little bit older, the pair had developed, or perhaps mutated, into superstitious Christians, a naïve mix of habitual chapelgoers and blind believers in all manner of dark meddling. Toying with his audience, I suppose. Choosing his effect. But there was one thing that had stayed constant throughout all the versions of the story, and that was what came next. A moment when any doubts that I had, or would have, about Davies were decimated. What was it, I wonder?The power of the all-insistent instant? The force of his personality in that instant? I don't know, and I can't tell why this one moment makes me so sure (and sure of what exactly I don't know either), but it transcends a mere impulse in my brain. It affects me bodily, entirely-as though I were seeing him now not with my own slow and failing eyes but in his fast image.
He always emphasized this moment. Out on the yard the old woman, suddenly and inexplicably, had been overcome: fear gripping her body, reaching down into her tired, wizened core. She'd stiffened in an instant, but her eyes continued to dart all over the scene before her: scanning the gap between the kitchen and the outside toilet, the loose slate on the roof that channeled the wind into a groan, the farm gate rattling as though some beast were trying to force its way through. Threatening, dark places, right there in her own yard. The thunder deafening by now. But she was a farmer too, and despite her superstitious nature, she'd seen enough storms to know that they weren't the devil's doing. She listened for a second. Frozen to the spot. It wasn't the sound of the wind that so unnerved her, or the loose roof tile, or even the gate. It was the hooves. Her flock. Beating against the ground, intensifying with every passing second, their rhythm getting ever more precise, like a marching army, until it was impossible to discern the sound of individual feet. The noise getting louder, louder, the hooves hitting the ground with such ferocity that she'd have to make sure the animals weren't injured. The woman went over to the pen and the first shock was seeing that every one of the heads there was completely still. The muscles in the necks, for example, or in the upper back area showed no sign of the fury in their feet. As though they were automatons, only their feet working, like pistons on a train. Then she went closer still, right up to one of the silent faces, to see if she could see any sign of the regimented movement in their brains. She looked deep into the eyes but the animal didn't even notice her presence-it just kept staring straight ahead. And in the eyes was a look of pure terror. And in the next sheep's eyes, and in the next one after that. And, on seeing all the familiar faces before her, these familiar, innocent, dumb faces, as familiar as her own husband's, as innocent and dumb, these faces she'd seen thousands of times without recognizing in them anything that even remotely resembled feeling, she imagined their skulls, scattered across the fields surrounding the farm, and holes where once their eyes had been.
I've often wondered, getting to this point in the story, how people in those times saw themselves, in relation to the wild nature that enclosed their lives. I used to lie awake for nights on end thinking about the farmer's wife and the look in the sheep's eyes. I spent hours trying to imagine what terror there might have been, trying to discern its dimensions, and the way in which the sheep foretold the rest of the story. What had they seen? And did the wife experience the same vision in, and through, their eyes? A night to try the Great Revivalists. The Devil afoot. Was it common, I wondered, for animals to react in this way? Country wisdom says that they're always the first to sense a change in the weather, or in atmospheric pressure. That might have explained the flock's apparent hypnosis. But the farmer's wife would have known that as well as anybody. So why did she have such a fright at that moment? And why was that fright, that same electric fright, transferred to her husband, standing in the exact same place, later that same night? These people hadn't seen fifteen hundred murders by the time they were twelve. They had no precedents for fear. No fundamental mistrust of the dark. In America the light bulb was being invented. New York would be floodlit by 1882. But what did the farmers of Blaen Rhymni know of that? Being afraid of the dark didn't exist until Edison took that darkness and made it the basis for his worldwide market. Until then there was nothing lying around in a farm yard, or in an animal's pen, or up on the high ground at nighttime that hadn't also been there by day. I don't want to say that these people were any less capable of feeling fear than we might be. I don't believe that just because somebody knows the land, works the ragged terrains, that this makes him somehow “closer to nature” and therefore farther away from the realm of fear. They were superstitious people after all, and stories about awful things telegraphed the counties and mountains just as television carries those stories now. But just the fact of working with and depending on nature as a beneficent, generally benign force. You know that the whistling wind is just the whistling wind- whether it's dark or not. And that twigs and branches get shaken to the ground without there necessarily being forked hooves around to snap them maliciously. That is to say that I can't help thinking, that night in particular, that the sheep's eyes, and the fear that spread throughout the yard like a petrol fire, held special significance. And the fact that light was on its way, electric light, the light of the world . . . As though the world had been surrendered en masse to darkness. And while the farmer and his wife huddled closer to the fire, the world outside the window was coming alive.
A few hours later, in the early hours of the morning, the farmer was woken up by the still-raging storm. He pulled the blankets all the way up to his ears. He thought about the house-about how it withstood the wind, so brave. He thought about it as though it were a living person. He wondered whether it knew fear, standing there on its own, no other house around for miles. By his side in bed he sensed that his wife was still awake. Her legs were heavy underneath the bedclothes. He turned on his side, trying to get back to sleep, but try as he might to block them out, he was still listening for sounds from outside, as though he were being willed out of bed. He got up after a while, telling his wife that he was going to check on the sheep.
Outside, the animals had forgotten their earlier enchantment. They were jostling each other in the pen, bleating occasionally, but generally quiet enough, as though they were completely at ease with the storm by now and were just waiting patiently for it to pass over. The farmer was about to go back inside. He was tired, and regretted having come out at all-he could have made sure that the animals were safe from the bedroom window. But he looked around nonetheless, the conscientious action of a man who depends on himself to be as rigorous as he can. He looked over the yard, down the dark corridors between the buildings, where his wife had felt such foreboding those few hours earlier. He looked along the roofs to make sure that none of the slates had been blown down in the wind. Everything seemed to be in order, everything was where it ought to be. Then he looked up to the hills above the sheep in their pen. His heart gave a little leap when he saw in front of him, worming its way up the mountain through the rain, and no more than fifty yards away, a shadowy figure climbing toward the mountain shack. He was carrying a lantern, and every now and again, as the wind took hold, the cloak would cover the flame, causing the dark figure to melt into the wider dark of the mountain. Cristo. The farmer saw the long cloak again; he recognized it now and relaxed a little. Cristo would pass by every now and then, calling in to see them, sitting down occasionally for a cup of tea or to talk, or to pick up some eggs and milk that the farmer's wife would set aside for those rare occasions when he was at home. The farmer formed the name carefully on his lips, “Cristo!” But barely louder than if he were talking to himself. He called again, louder, “Cristo! Cristo!,” his own voice scaring him as it entwined itself with the wind. But Cristo wasn't answering, wasn't giving any sign that he'd heard the farmer's shouts. He tried again, but the lantern continued its progress through the rain, up the mountain to the outhouse. He would have heard the shouting that time, wouldn't he? There wasn't that great a distance between them, and the wind was blowing through the yard and up toward the flowing cloak. He looked at the lantern. He saw the flame flicker inside its glass casing, about to go out.
A sudden calm fell. The rain stopped-maybe only for a few seconds-and the wind eased until it was no more than a gentle murmur in the trees by the house. The farmer shouted, determined to make Cristo hear. And on the mountain the lantern stopped, as though the shadowy figure had turned in the direction of the shouting. The farmer would say later that he'd been able to see the cloak billowing out behind the man and that the body he'd seen was more square, somehow, than Cristo's; more strong-looking.
But in those seconds of calm, when the rain had faltered, the farmer was sure that he'd managed to attract the man's attention. He was about to call again, “Cristo!” just to make sure, and to ask him if he wouldn't prefer to stay in the house for the rest of the night, to have somewhere warm to lay his head, and to have a good breakfast in the morning. He'd filled his lungs and was about to shout, when for some reason, no reason perhaps, or no reason that he could easily explain, he turned his head to look back toward the house. There, in the bedroom window, was his wife. Her face was pressed hard against the glass. She was wearing her white nightdress and the light coming from the candle she held in her hand made her seem like an apparition. The muscles in her face were tight-so tight that the farmer could see clearly the shadow of her jawbone, and the skin on her cheeks, tight as a drum.
He looked back in the direction of the lantern. It had stayed stock-still. The farmer could feel his wife's gaze burning the back of his neck, but he kept his eyes trained on the mountain, the lantern holding him in awe, as if it had telepathic power over him. But then the light starting moving again. On the same journey, in the same direction-toward the outhouse. The farmer didn't shout this time. He walked quickly back to the house and went up the stairs to bed, to his wife.
It was a funny thing but Davies never offered any details about these two petrified souls after this point. He moved the focus onto other aspects of the story. And this was surprising in a way, because you would have expected his main interest to have been in the details of what they did next. What did the husband and wife do when he got back to the bedroom, for example? Had they been able to sleep? Or did they stay awake, until the morning light crept into the room again, to discuss the quiet, wordless terror they'd shared? And knowing what Davies said about the events that followed, or about what those events suggested, did she tell her husband what had been in her mind? Or did they turn away from each other in that big farm bed, carved minutely from local oak, never to mention it again? Davies must have been caught up so much by what followed that he'd forgotten how to make these things concrete; forgotten that narratives of life and soul depend entirely on ordinary lives, and on the conversation between a farmer and his wife over breakfast.
So from there, when the farmer went back to his wife in bed, these two characters retreat into the background. Cristo didn't come down to the farm the next morning, as he often did-and this would surely have made them recall the night before, the flickering light and the unholy recognition that came both to the wife and the farmer in turn. And as they led the sheep out of their pen and guided them back toward the higher ground, the farmer must have been stopped by thought for a second, and his wife must have remembered seeing them lying dead on the mountain. That is to say when strange things happen you expect to see their effects revealed in everything.
But I think Davies had moved on by then, in his own mind-tripping over himself with excitement at the thought of getting to the good stuff. And I said that the story's power, and the nature of the fear we felt, had changed from what it had been when we were children. That's maybe only partly true. Because the part that always caused us the sleepless nights when we were young, that made us unable to stay upstairs on our own, or to think that we were being followed every time we came down the stairs and rounded the corner into our living rooms, was the part when the policemen arrived at the farm to tell the farmer and his wife that Cristo was already dead when they saw him walking home. That he'd died in the storm, hours before his light had appeared on the farm and many miles away too-on the Black Rock between Brynmawr and Abergavenny. He hadn't been near Blaen Rhymni in days. And what shocked us out of our wits when we were children was this sense of the unearthly. Children know life for what it is. It's a particular power, a gift even, like prelapsarian goodness. As though the world were self-containing only within the life of a child, and that anything else is pretence. And the Cristo story shattered that balance. The fragile balance between “believing everything” and “knowing instinctively what constitutes human life.” The Cristo story belonged to both sets at once. And if I say now that the fears that arise from the story are somehow more developed than they were when we were children-as you'd expect in an educated, not unclever adult-then that's true, only that we've lost, potentially, what made our responses human in the first place. That is to say, we've lost what made us young.
And as I try and take up the story again I can't remember now which bits Davies used to tell and which ones I'm inventing as we go along. But seeing that this part of the story was more or less all conjecture anyway, I don't suppose that matters too much. Only that it demonstrates clearly the interchangeability: Davies and me, me and Davies.
But then again I wonder just how interchangeable we were, in actual fact? Even though we grew up in the same society, in the same setting, with similar influences and moral codes, and the same absorbed ideas about man and work. And about suffering and martyrdom, the evidence all too visible around us. How similar? Davies' father had died. And what vortices took hold in his mind when he tried to imagine the man laid out on a cold slab? Or when he imagined himself-he wouldn't be able to remember it-looking at the coffin in the front room, the best room, that was only used for visitors and death? When he could hear other boys playing football outside on the street? When did he try and remember his father? Or think about how different he might have been if he'd been there to raise him? When he ordered food in cafés, perhaps. Or an unsettling notion that he was being observed when he was drunk and speaking in thick tongues. Or when he kissed Anna and imagined the tightness he'd feel in his chest when they lay back in the dark after making love. Or would his father be there in the long, heavy sigh? The sigh that would make her think that she'd had nothing on her, around her, inside her other than his bare, lonely body-at the same time as he felt his lungs about to burst with love?
Hours before the farmer saw him. That meant around midnight, if Cristo had appeared on the farm in the early hours. The spirit of Revival was in the land. But on the Black Rock that night the devil had come up to the world. On that enormous rock mass, its roots reaching down to the igneous depths, he had emerged to harness the wind and the rain, the thunder, the lightning and the darkness-the darkness above all else; to tempt the righteous and to tell them, “You are weak; unable to lift your tired legs to walk another step. But ask your God; tell these stones to become bread so that you may eat of their strength and yet walk away.”
The devil left Jesus to await once more his opportunity, and where the Heads of the Valleys road now runs, that opportunity had sprung. Drive along that road yourself: you can feel an energy there, a power; it seems to pull you through the place, as if the ground itself were unwilling to let you linger there; as if there were to this day, a portal there on the mountain. And Davies and I agreed thus far. According to the evidence of the story there was nothing that could account for what came after other than the presence of the devil. Cristo might have died in the elements, his life at the mercy of the storm, the cold spreading to his bones, the rain dripping in his lungs, but that didn't seem likely. He was a revivalist, a missionary, and God cares for his earthly messengers. And besides, those people that die naturally, or by accidental hands, their spirits don't roam the countryside to be seen by others. You have to be killed.
I always went for the Christian-tinged version of events. (And I wasn't ever any more than tinged by Christianity, despite many best efforts along the way.) Midnight. Cristo had been tempted by the devil; he'd writhed beneath the terrible hooves until his backbone had snapped in two and he'd been offered the world in return for his soul's attention, his adulation. But he'd refused. And the devil had appropriated God's creation and had led a lightning-bolt right through his heart. And on that rock, where the lightning had struck, a fire had been lit under Cristo's body, the ground bone dry for many feet around, despite the torrenting rain. But Cristo had lived on. His soul had triumphed, and in that fire the beast had been pushed back into its fiery berth. To await again its opportunity, certainly, but to consider also what a willed being was man. How unyielding! I'd always intended to go and look for the place, on the mountain, to see if I could find a rock that had burned with such white heat that the scar might still be visible, even after a hundred years of South Wales rain.
And from that rock, after seeing to the devil's expulsion, Cristo had risen. His spirit had left his body, had taken up again the interrupted journey and had followed that same path back to the shed at Blaen Rhymni. And he was on that path when the farmer saw him. People used to say that the light was some kind of compound of marsh gases, that kind of thing, or that there was a physical, natural explanation for the phenomenon. I used to think, I liked to think, that it was Cristo's soul that had lit the yard, and that the fact that he had stopped in his tracks on hearing the farmer's shouts was crucial; as though he were showing them the way. This farmer, tending to his sheep; his wife, watching the scene unfold from her upstairs window. He knew the farmer was petrified. He knew that he'd run scared-unseemly for a grown, hardened farmer man-back to the safety of his four walls, back to his bed and wife. He knew that the greatest lesson he could teach them, as a messenger on earth, was that they would never be closer to God than they were in their own good home. That home is every blessing. And so he went back to his shack, to his own communion with his God, happy to know that even in his bodily death, these two lambs had been led back to the flock.
But . . . But . . .
Half the world away Edison was experimenting with filaments. Woolen ones to begin with, rolled and pulled tight. But wool burned too quickly. Hair-thin strips of metal then, carefully threaded and plaited. And slowly but surely, things start to fall into place, and the world-famous inventor begins to feel like an alchemist of this new age, as though he could tease light from the filament simply by rubbing his ordained fingers along it. Experimenting with the gas in the bulb-more, less, different strengths and concentrations. Working all night, by candlelight. “If I can make the filament burn for an hour,” he says, “I can make it burn for a week.” Until he finds the optimum resistance-the white heat metal in the glass. He waits. The moment. The course of history. Humanity. In Blaen Rhymni the devil stirs, sensing a new world of opportunity. He sees the lone wanderer on the rock ahead, battling his way through the elements with only his old lantern for company. I will set the night on fire. Once man was blind but now he sees.
Fear, like feeling that the dead can read your darkest thoughts and use them against you. If Cristo's purpose was so holy, then why the fear? Following his every footstep, seeping out into the sodden land? I think about the devil coming up to the world that night, as Davies had thought. What had Edison done except prepare the ground?-sell half our lives, half our thoughts, half our consciousness? For a device that makes the darkness even darker. And after killing him, leaving him stranded on the rock, the devil grabbed Cristo's lantern as the mark of his victory. He walked the mountain path to his house and there, in the milieu of this most holy of lives, the preacher's soul was desecrated. He wrote on the big, heavy copy of the bible, easily the most expensive thing in the house, far more expensive than the simple bed, the rusting pans and the blackened kettle, “I am the Light of the world” and “What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight.” I thought about the farmer, and his notion that the body he'd seen was somehow more square, more strong-looking. Of course. The diabolical form. And when that form stopped to look around and saw the man standing in his yard, on his own land, his wife watching from the window, and when he saw the fear already gripping his heart, and when therefore he started walking again toward the shack, he knew that the farmer and his wife were already taken. The fact of their having seen him was enough. And that night the farmer carried his candle all the way upstairs, not daring to snuff it out until he was safely back in his bedroom. And where previously he would have trusted the muscle memory in his legs to carry him up the well-trodden staircase, here he was now unable to see past the flickering glow, his eyes fixed on the floor in front of him. Out of the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of the window that overlooked the yard, but the reflection of the candlelight in the glass only reinforced the darkness that lay beyond.
And it isn't so much the story that is important here as it is the inference of unity: death and light, Davies and Cristo, Davies and me, Davies and the devil, the devil and Thomas Alva Edison, Edison and the boyhood friend who drowned in the river by his house when the pair were maybe six or seven years old, Edison and the drive that compelled him ever after to create and invent where only loss existed. I thought about the seconds that preceded the physical death. Is it the same for godly men? The body languid and hypothermic on the open rock, the spirit walking on, the miles as nothing as gravity relinquishes its hold on these earthly feet. The devil's shaft, Trecatti dump,2 Dowlais and black holes, miners and ironworkers. Why doesn't the devil rise again through the Trecatti hole, I wonder? Maybe even he draws the line somewhere: industrial waste, sheep's bodies, old fridges. They say the brain produces its own opium in the face of death. A shot of something strong, to sleep through it all. The light-white like salvation. The brain's instinct is death: climbers settle down to sleep in the snow, leaving their companions to go on ahead, happy to face the end in a dream. Because by then the mind has assumed control. The mind-contracting until everything has been folded up into it: brain, skin, blood and nerves, ears that listen, mouths that taste, and those blue, blue eyes that observed and attracted and became sad. A universe imploding.
1People of the South Wales valleys say “butty,” rather than “buddy,” and shorten it to “butt.” 2A landfill site situated at Dowlais Top (near Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales), the small town where much of the novel is set.