A Stranger in Y Gelli, Part 2

This is part 2 of a 6-part short story I wrote a while back. It’s written from the perspective of Bala Davies, a fictional woman living in the Welsh town of Y Gelli. Please read part 1 first.

***

Years ago, I fell in love with a man who harvested wind.

Growing up, I knew little of men or love. Thus is the solitary life of a widower’s daughter. When I came of age, I said goodbye to my father and bid farewell to the quiet life of a farmer in Dovey Valley. England was my original destination, and I almost made it that far, but not before I met one Kyffin Davies.

Three stones lighter around the waist and a spark in his eyes that I only see now when he looks at Elsi, Kyffin owned a wind farm on a dubious patch of land along the border that neither Wales nor England wished to claim. As a result, he operated his business tax free, and half the town of Y Gelli paid their electric bill to Davies Air. I hadn’t seen much of the world at that point, so when Kyffin took me to the top of one of his turbines and showed me what the Black Mountains look like at sunset, I was swept off my feet.

Our romance was short and intense. We spent most of our time snogging and talking about the vast wind farms we’d pepper across the land. I was drawn to him even by the taste of his tongue, which reminded me of freshly tilled soil (now, not the least blind in my love, I realize that it’s really more of a musty flavor). We were married just over two weeks after we were engaged. The future was so bright, so different from the direction my life had been heading in the Valley. Then we lost everything.

Richard Booth will deny it to this day, but I swear to you on my mother’s grave that he paid the conservationist groups to destroy our farm. The groups hailed from Cardiff and Swansea, big cities that couldn’t give a midge’s ass about the view from the east side of Y Gelli. But the self-proclaimed “King of Hay” had deep pockets at the time, and he paid them to lobby against the turbines from afar. Kyffin was too loyal to his country to turn to England for aid. The great winged machines, once working so furiously to provide for the town, soon lay on the ground like the perfect, white trees of heaven.

That was the end of Kyffin as I knew him. And in some ways, it was the beginning of me as I know myself. I took out a loan and bought the Reed and Thistle, then just a dilapidated bed and breakfast, and created an identity independent of Kyffin in the town. While he stumbled from pub to pub, ranting about what he’d do to Booth if he saw him on the street (which he did, quite often, and never laid a hand on him), I filled my shop with pots and plants and fertilizing tinctures and started a ladies gardening group to build customer loyalty. Kyffin eventually sobered up, but not before his hair, once so thick and masculine, thinned into sleek, glistening rows. His washboard stomach mushroomed over the belt of his trousers, and his hands, once so sure of themselves, quivered incessantly while trying to grip a pen or a fork. He reminded me of a tomato that had been left on the vine for too long. He had gone soft, and the whole town knew it.

At least he has his business, despicable as it is. Minus the girl, I’m almost happy for him.

It wasn’t until late Wednesday morning that the young American returned to my shop. “Mornin’,” he said, holding up a few of the books he had paid for the previous day.

I smiled and ushered him to the chair in the back. “Like some tea?” I asked. For some reason I felt nervous around this foreigner. He wasn’t that much younger than me, but he seemed to possess something I had yet to find. A peace of sorts, a calm about his place in the world. So far from home, and he seemed more at ease in that overstuffed chair than I did in my own town.

“Tea would be nice. Thank you kindly.”

I brought him a steaming cup with a few cubes of sugar on the saucer. I suspected he might try to pay me for the tea later, but I would have none of that.

Usually I made myself a sandwich in the morning and stow it in my desk so I don’t have to leave my perch for lunch. But every now and then I shut down the store for an half hour or so and go out into town for a bite to eat. On this particular afternoon, my jam sandwich seemed bland compared to the foreign gentleman to my right—my vantage granted me a view of his right half—so I ventured to the back of the store to let my one customer know where I was going.

“Pardon me,” I said. I must have walked up to him quietly, because jerked to attention. “Oh, I’m so sorry to startle you,” I rushed to say.

He waved his free hand at me—the other was tucked in the middle of a volume about insectivorous plants. “No worries,” he said. “I just get so…engrossed.”

I blushed, as if he were complimenting my books, and through them, me. “I’ll ring the bell next time.”

“Oh, are you closing?”

“No, no. It’s time for lunch. I was going to pick up a sandwich at Spar. That’s the convenience shop down the street.” Feeling bold, I took a breath and exhaled the next sentence. “You could join me if you’d like.”

At first he seemed remise to leave behind the books, but a low moan emitted from the depths of his stomach convinced him otherwise. “Yes, thank you—that would be nice.”

“Why don’t you look after the store for a minute while I grab a few sandwiches and crisps? We’ll eat on the steps when I return.”

When I returned with perfect white triangles of egg salad and ham and cheese—they seemed American enough—the young man was waiting by the door. I waved him outside and we sat on the steps. The cobblestone lane in front of my shop was quiet, but every now and then a passerby walked past us. I wonder what they thought about Bala Davies, breaking bread with an American.

I waved away his attempt to pay me for the sandwich. Sensing my stubbornness, he offered me his name instead. “I’m Nate.”

“And I’m Bala. Pleasure.”

He nodded, as if pleased with the exchange.

“You’re American,” I said.

“Is that okay?”

I nodded. “I like the Disney movies.”

“Yes,” he said. “Yes.”

We ate in silence for a few minutes, the only sound the cackling of the bags of crisps as we pulled them open. Finally, Nate spoke again.

“Was that your husband last night?”

“That was him all right. I’ll introduce you next time.”

Nate nodded, digesting the offer. “He seems a bit gruff.”

“He’s harmless. Nothing but an old coot. I’ll introduce you.”

I’m not sure why I was so insistent upon introducing my new American friend to Kyffin, who I knew would either try to employ him or outright dismiss him. I could care less if them formally met. But it seemed like the proper thing to do.

We exchanged only a few more words for the rest of lunch, and then Nate gathered the rubbish and thanked me again for the food and the chat. I told him he was more than welcome, and we reclaimed our positions in the shop.

Midway through the afternoon, Kate Amberly tapped on the window and entered the store. “Bala!” she exclaimed, spreading her rail-thin arms in my direction. I’m told that Kate was once short and squat, but that her frame had stretched upward to its current height in secondary school. She wavered in front of me like a top-heavy stalk of corn.

“Kate!” I said, embracing my friend. “What has it been, three days?”

“If that,” she replied. “I feel like I just saw you. Weren’t you at the inn the other night?” Kate and her husband, Dylan, ran the Old Black Lion, just east of here. I made a point of having a drink in their front room at least once a week, if not just to get a good laugh at Kate slouching under the low ceilings. The inn was built in the 1500s, before people knew how to grow over a meter and a half.

“You’re right. Indeed I was. Time’s just slipping away from me.”

“Oh, Bala,” Kate sighed. “You’re the youngest 30-year-old I know.”

I tried to deflect the compliment by asking, “What brings you to the Reed?”

The expression on Kate’s face switched from cheery to serious. That was Kate’s manner—she fully committed to her current state of mind. And with such immediacy. I had seen her switch from an all-out tongue lashing of her youngest son to greeting a guest with a smile in the blink of an eye.

“I need two packets of pumpkin seeds, a trestle, and a spade,” she said, checking off a mental list. “For autumn.”

“Of course.” While I was gathering the requested items, I said over my shoulder, “How’s Dylan?”

“Oh, just fine. His shoulder’s healing fast.”

Kate’s husband had an unfortunate incident with a ram several weeks ago. He refused to share the details of what happened with anyone in Y Gelli, saying only that “Curly can sweat out the summer for all I care.”

“And the boys?”

“Dirty. Always dirty. I think they must be carting in dirt from Glasbury, because we can’t possibly have that much in Hay-on-Wye.”

I dropped her items on the counter. “Did you just call our beloved town ‘Hay-on-Wye?’ I can’t even say it.”

Kate rolled her eyes playfully. “If I answer the phone and tell foreigners we’re in Y Gelli, they think they have the wrong town. And may I remind you that you can’t speak a lick of Welsh.”

I ignored that last comment, true as it was. “Next thing you know, we’ll have a McDonalds next to the clock tower.” I was teasing, but I lowered my voice, just in case Nate was listening.

Kate inquisitively hooked her eyebrow at me.

I pointed my chin toward the back of the shop. “American,” I mouthed. “But he’s nice.”

Kate stooped to look at Nate through a gap in the bookshelves. “He’s cute. Young, but cute.”

I shrugged, hiding my delight of having Nate in the store. “We had lunch today.”

Kate gave me a look. “How long is he in town? You should set him up with someone. Emily Jones likes the foreigners.”

I shrugged again. “Might be leaving tonight for all I know.”

Perhaps sensing my forced aloofness, Kate switched back to business. “So how much do I owe you?”

After sending her off, I buried my head in a book, trying not to think about Kate’s suggestion. Something about it rubbed me the wrong way.

Before I closed the store that night, I went upstairs to see my husband, who hadn’t come down all day. I tested my weight on each rung of the rickety ladder that led from the second level to the attic. “Kyffin?” I called out, the top of my head at floor level. I knew better than to surprise him at work. It was a strict reversal from the days of surprising each other at the top of the wind turbines for spontaneous—and extremely uncomfortable—lovemaking sessions. I couldn’t remember the last time he’d lain with me.

I heard some papers rustling. Either he had fallen asleep or he was protectively hiding documents from sight. I could care less.

“Ba?” he said. His voice was sticky. He had been sleeping. “Come on up.”

I took a step up and looked around the attic. It was one big room, unfurnished save a table with a bench and bar stools by the north and south windows. The roof slanted at a sharp angle on either side; Kyffin could only stand up straight in the middle of the room.

“You come down to meet someone?”

“Who?”

“It doesn’t matter who. Come down.”

I stepped down and waited to the side, hoping I wouldn’t have to yell at the man to get him to oblige. Fortunately, those oversized boots appeared after a few seconds.

“Man can’t have some peace and quiet,” he muttered. His hands were shaking as they gripped the railing. I rolled my eyes.

Nate was still in the chair as we descended into the shop. I peaked around the corner of the bookshelf to his left. “Nate? I’d like you to meet my husband.”

Kyffin came around the other side and extended one hand while he tucked in his shirt with the other. “Kyffin Davies. Thanks for stopping by.”

Nate stood up and shook his hand. “Pleasure to meet you.” He paused and looked at me. “Closing time?”

I nodded. “You better get over to Gilliam’s.”

He smiled. “You were right about dinner over there. He smoked some sort of pheasant last night that I’ll never forget.”

I was hugely pleased that Kyffin was standing right there but wasn’t included in the conversation. Not wanting to ruin too much of a good thing, I stepped aside to let Nate out. “See you tomorrow?”

Nate held up his books. “Plenty more where these came from.”

By chance, Elsi was entering the shop as Nate was leaving. He held the door open for her and nodded when she purred her thanks. I felt a slight twinge as my new friend looked over his shoulder at the girl as he stepped out of the shop. Sure, she’s beautiful, with those cascades of silky hair and high cheekbones, but he’d think differently about her if he knew what she did for a living.

“Elsi!” Kyffin exclaimed, embracing the girl. “Good day?”

“Good for a Wednesday,” she said, patting the satchel cradled in the crook of her arm. She flicked her big brown eyes over to me. “Evening, Bala.”

I nodded. “Elsi.”

Kyffin shifted impatiently from one foot to the other. “Should we…?”

“Yep, let’s go.” Elsi led the way up the stairs.

“Dinner in thirty minutes,” I yelled after them. I had found that if I didn’t give them a time limit, they’d be up there for hours. At least I knew he wasn’t drinking.

That girl. I shook my head. She’d take him for everything he had, given the chance.

***

Part 3 is here.