by Mihangel




This story is copyright 2002 by Mihangel. It was first hosted by It's Only Me from Across the Sea. If you copy it, please leave his web address of present, and the credits, and my email address of All feedback is very welcome.

The town of Blaenau Ffestiniog – may it ever flourish – is no fiction, nor are the places which surround it. It is therefore all the more important to stress that the characters who inhabit it in this story in no way reflect its real inhabitants past or present, or for that matter anyone anywhere. And within the town I have taken slight liberties with its geography.

A word about Calvinistic Methodists. It would be quite unfair to tar them all with the same brush. Like most sects they have their fundamentalists, such as those portrayed here, but they do have their moderates too. The same holds true, in reverse, of the Anglicans.

FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat was first published in 1859 and over the next thirty years went through five editions, each different from the last. I have quoted verses in the form which pleases me most, regardless of which edition they appeared in. I have also ventured to modernise their archaic ‘thou,’ ‘thee,’ ‘didst,’ etcetera.

Various drafts of what follows have been read by RAL, Grasshopper and Neqs, and I am hugely grateful for all their criticisms. Everything spoken or written in Welsh has been translated, except for exclamations and endearments whose exact meaning does not matter.

This story is dedicated to Jamie, in respect and gratitude.



Although the events chronicled here took place half my lifetime ago, only now is the time ripe to set them down in black and white. I have had to delve deep into my memories to recover the relevant detail, and in the process I have dredged up a great deal that I have not thought about in years. Why bring it all to the surface now? Well, if you struggle through this tale to the end, you will understand.

When I was thirteen, we’d moved from south-eastern England up to North Wales, where Dad had landed a job as an engineer at the Dinorwig pumped storage power station at Llanberis. I’d enjoyed it there. I necessarily learnt Welsh at school and had reached the stage of being able to hold my own, but I wasn’t confident in it, and much preferred my mother tongue. Mum and Dad picked up no more than a smattering, and we spoke only English at home.

Then in 2002, after two years of Llanberis, Dad was promoted to a better job at the Ffestiniog pumped storage power station, well over an hour’s drive away by the circuitous mountain roads. So we moved again, to the former slate quarrying centre of Blaenau Ffestiniog. There wasn’t much for youngsters to do in the town. It was commonly condemned as grey and wet (which it was) and depressing (which, being surrounded by mountains, it wasn’t). But it was depressed, and had been ever since the quarrying industry had collapsed. Houses were dirt cheap, and we found a splendid one, at the end of a terrace and flanked on one side by a square which pretended to be a public garden, with a few bedraggled shrubs and flowers and a bench or two.

Our house, alone in the street, had a loft conversion, with big windows projecting from the roof both front and back. It was allocated to me, and I was in heaven, for it offered superb views. In front it looked out over the house opposite and down the valley beyond, and diagonally to the mountains on either side. At the back it looked up at the precipitous crags of Carreg Ddu which beetled above the High Street. My hobby was birds – of the feathered kind, I hasten to add – and there promised to be a good variety visible from my eyrie, from the humble sparrows and blackbirds and occasional tits of the square to the hawks and falcons and buzzards of the crags.

Mum found a part-time administrative job at the plastics factory, and we moved at Easter, ready for the summer term. School was handy, little more than a hundred yards away. For an ordinary kind of boy, who was neither macho nor a complete wimp, I found my feet happily enough. Some of the kids there were pretty rough, and some were none too tolerant of the English. But I soon learned to steer clear of both sorts, and I got on reasonably well with the rest.

I’d been aware of my orientation since before we’d come to Wales, and had already come across a number of boys I’d gazed at and yearned for. I’d dangled a few very cautious pieces of bait, but no fish had risen to them. I didn’t dare try anything more. The atmosphere both at Llanberis and Blaenau was not encouraging. Straight sex was fine – you could be as promiscuous as you liked. The message for gays was equally clear – one false move and most of the kids, not to mention the staff, would be down on you like a ton of bricks. All I could do was look, and lust, and hope.

From my very first day at my new school, one boy in particular caught my eye. We were the same age, fifteen and a half. But whereas I was below average in height, English-fair and young-looking, he was taller, with dark hair, strong regular features, an austere but gentle manner and, I noticed the first time I saw him stripped in the changing room, a body to die for. The sight of him, the thought of him, stirred my young hormones as they’d never been stirred before.

His name was Isaac Evans. He was very Welsh, hailing from South Wales as his accent told even me, but perfectly tolerant of incomers and entirely ready to talk in English, his being vastly better than my Welsh. He lived directly opposite us in Ty Capel, and next door to it was the chapel where his father was the minister. I’d already brooded on its bleak architecture, and the plaque on the gable frowned its curt statement at me whenever I looked out of my front window:


– Tabernacle, Calvinistic Methodist, built 1867.

One evening very soon after we arrived, Isaac was in his bedroom, which faced mine over the street, when he saw me leaning out, binoculars to eyes, trying to identify some distant birds of prey that were wheeling against the backdrop of Moel yr Hydd. He called across, asking what I was watching. When I told him, he said that he knew a bit about birds, and because he couldn’t see them from where he was, I invited him to come up. He brought his own binoculars, and took a look.

"Ah, yes. Peregrines. They nest in the cliff above Wrysgan quarry. You can tell from their flight that they’re not merlins."

That led on to a discussion about the difference between the various falcons, and it soon emerged that he knew more than a bit. I showed him my books, which interested him – he didn’t have many – and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds website, which fascinated him, as he had no computer. So began our friendship.

Many an evening and weekend day we went out together, watching choughs in the old quarry pit up at Rhosydd, buzzards on the moors above Maenofferen, tree-creepers in the ancient forests of the valley side, waders on the Dwyryd estuary. Once, having taken the Sherpa bus to Nant Gwynant, we saw red kites, which were beginning to move up from the Berwyn and to re-colonise Snowdonia.

Isaac was a serious boy, much more serious than me, with a strange wry humour but little chit-chat and no sense of mischief at all. He welcomed me, it seemed, for the companionship, for my computer which gave him access to ornithological websites, and because I took him seriously and could meet him on his own specialist territory. I liked to think he welcomed me for other reasons too, but I was afraid, even at the time, that I was being over-optimistic. He seemed to have no other friends. The kids at school did not pick on him but, while treating him respectfully, kept him at arm’s length because of his religious views. These I found puzzling and difficult. He never tried to force them unsolicited down my throat, that I will say for him. He only talked about them if asked, or if the subject cropped up of its own accord.

The first time it did, we were walking home from watching wagtails in Cwm Bowydd when Isaac asked why I was interested in birds.

"Oh, all sorts of reasons. Their variety. Their habitats. Migration. How they communicate. They live in our world, but yet in their own, if you see what I mean. Just a wonderful part of nature. Why do you like them?"

He gave me a considering look, as if weighing up my limited ability to understand. "Much the same as you, and more. Because, as a wonderful part of nature, they’re part of God’s creation. You know about Genesis?"

Condescending, I thought, and I was a trifle miffed. I’d read precious little of the bible, but I was just about up to the creation story. I nodded, but he still spelled it out for me.

"On the fifth day God made the fish and ‘the birds that fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.’ All creation is good, and we should praise it. And all creation should praise the creator, as far as it can." There was more than a hint in his words of what I guessed was pulpit-talk. "Know Psalm 148?"

Er, no. I couldn’t run to that, and had to shake my head.

"Part of it goes: ‘Praise the Lord on earth’" – he was clearly translating in his head as he went along – "‘you dragons and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling his word, mountains and hills, fruitful trees and cedars, wild beasts and all animals, reptiles and winged birds, young men and girls, old men and boys, praise the name of the Lord.’ Everything that God created is good, and everything that praises the Lord is good – just listen to that chaffinch, Tom. And all God’s goodness deserves studying. But a single person can’t study the whole of creation. So I’ve chosen birds."

Oh Lord, if that wasn’t the wrong phrase. Agreed, studying birds was a large enough hobby, or duty if you had to call it that. On top of studying boys, in my case. But that chaffinch, I reckoned, wasn’t praising the Lord. It was chatting up a lady chaffinch, with rather different motives. Mind you, if God really had created birds and boys, not to mention all the rest, he’d also created sex, and that was good. He must surely have considered less enjoyable alternatives, and rejected them. So I’d happily praise the Lord through sex, given the opportunity. But I didn’t know Isaac nearly well enough to say so, and I strongly suspected he wouldn’t see it the same way.

Meanwhile, I found his assurance hard to swallow. "You go along with everything the bible says, then?"

"Yes, of course. It seems you don’t, Tom. But it’s God word, so it must be true."



I’d heard of people like him, especially in the American south, but I’d never expected to meet one. I recalled that he wasn’t doing biology or geology or anything at GCSE that might prove contentious. Deliberately, maybe. I was already embarrassed and out of my depth, but I had enough spark in me to protest.

"No, I don’t go along with it. But you say it’s God’s word. You can only believe that. You can’t know it."

"Oh no, Tom. I do know it." It was the first time I’d met that certainty which goes beyond logic.

"But what about Darwin, and evolution, and fossils, and the Big Bang ten billion years ago or whatever? How do you explain them away?"

"Tom, can you prove Darwinism, and that the universe started with the Big Bang, and all those things? Prove them?"

"Well, um, no, I suppose not." I’d be a Nobel prize-winner if I could, but I was reluctant to admit it.

"So they’re only theories, not fact. You can only believe in them. You can’t know them." He was throwing my words back at me, and I felt as if I was banging my head against a brick wall. "But the bible proves itself. One day I’ll show you how, if you really want to know, but there isn’t time now."

Just as well, perhaps. We were already in our street, and there outside Ty Capel was an ancient Cortina with his Tad and Mam climbing out. Isaac introduced us. His Tad was a wiry man, bible-black, dour, lantern-jawed, with thin lips barely covering the large teeth behind. His Mam seemed wispy and ineffectual, definitely second fiddle to her husband. We’d already heard about them from Rhiannon our next-door neighbour, who from the moment we’d arrived had been joyfully putting us in the local picture and keeping us there. She called Isaac’s father the Parch, short for Y Parchedig, the Reverend. So, therefore, did we. She had no good word for him. "That old vulture! He was at the back of the queue for the milk of human kindness. Not a patch on the vicar, or old Glyn Williams up at Moriah. And his poor asen! What she has to put up with!"

The Parch fitted my stereotyped image of the killjoy fundamentalist. He had other MC chapels on his beat, and on Sunday afternoons and evenings he’d be off in the battered Cortina to keep them in line. So there was usually only a morning service opposite, and from my window I’d already watched the small band of elderly worshippers filing in and, much later, out, looking as dour and killjoy as their minister. Congregations were rapidly falling off in those days, and chapels were being demolished left and right, or converted into other things. It didn’t look as if Tabernacl would last much longer.

I’d just experienced Isaac exuding a temporary aura of righteousness. The Parch, I found, exuded a much stronger one, full-time. On this first meeting he was as gracious as an iceberg might be, and looked at me with that pitying smile which the man who’s convinced he’s heading for heaven reserves for someone who he’s convinced is not. Accuse me of giving a dog a bad name, but I never found cause to change my opinion.

To jump ahead, although Isaac was quite a frequent visitor to my room and my computer, only once did he eat with us. No more, because I think he disapproved of our family frivolity. Laxity, he’d probably have called it. A meal not preceded by grace, and accompanied by open laughter, affronted him. Once, in return, I was invited to tea at Ty Capel. It was a poor house. I don’t mean that disparagingly. The Parch’s stipend, I gathered, was microscopic, the house was shabby and the furniture threadbare. No blame for that, only sympathy. The sole luxury, if it deserved the name, was an aged TV set on which the Parch watched rugby. Out of character, an outsider might think, but to Welshmen rugby is a religion: the one religion which unites them all, or almost all. What the household was missing was humanity and fun. It gave off a miasma of pious rectitude which I found stifling.

But in this realm, I had to admit, I was in totally foreign territory. I wasn’t religious or churchy in any sense at all. We were an ordinary family, lower middle-class if you insist on labels, which just didn’t talk about such things. I suppose they all seemed irrelevant to Mum and Dad. I was an ordinary boy, and they’d never seemed remotely relevant to me either. Except for occasional family weddings or funerals, I’d never set foot in a church, or a chapel. Until Isaac, I’d never met anyone who professed strong views either way. I’d met some church-goers, sure, but they didn’t wear their beliefs on their sleeve.

That evening, with Mum and Dad, I raised the subject. "I don’t understand all these chapels. Why are there so many of them in Blaenau? What’s the difference between them?"

"Search me," said Dad. "I don’t understand them either. They’re for people who don’t like the Church of England. Or the Church in Wales, here. But what the difference is between Methodists and Baptists and things I’ve never fathomed. A year or so back I was in Caernarfon with Tegid – remember him? That supervisor with a wart on his nose – when we saw another chapel biting the dust. So I asked him what happens when a chapel closes down. Does the congregation simply shift, lock stock and barrel, to the next one down the road? ‘Oh, good heavens, no,’ he said. ‘Can’t do that. Different God.’ But he didn’t explain any further."

"Hmmm. Then you don’t know anything about Calvinistic Methodists in particular?"

"Fraid not, except they seem to be the most common sort round here, and they’re strict, I’ve heard. If you want an insider account, you’ll have to ask Isaac or the Parch, though you’ll probably get a sermon you didn’t bargain for. If you want an outsider’s view, well, I dunno."

"Tell you what," said Mum. "There’s the old professor. Wil Davies, next beyond Rhiannon. Were you there when she was telling us about him? He’s over eighty, lives by himself, a tiny little man. Rhiannon does for him, and she says he knows everything worth knowing. I gave him a hand with his shopping back from the Co-op today, and we talked about the history of Blaenau. Or rather he did, and I listened. He’s a lovely old boy. Ask him, Tom. He’ll be able to tell you. You’d like him, and I’m sure he’d like you to talk to. I think he’s lonely."




I hadn’t seen him so far. But next Saturday afternoon I was going up into town when he came down the other way, carrying a couple of Co-op bags which, in combination with his walking stick, made an awkward burden. He was indeed tiny. His face was very Welsh: straight steel-grey hair flecked with silver, bushy black eyebrows, and a wrinkled leathery complexion. His brown eyes were small but alert and twinkling, his nose was beaky, and his wide mouth was mobile with humour and wit. There was no mistaking him and, unusually for a boy who wasn’t particularly outgoing, I had no hesitation in starting a conversation. His eyes were on the ground as he navigated the rough paving stones, and he didn’t see me until I stopped beside him.

"Let me carry your bags for you, sir." I wasn’t sure why I said ‘sir.’ I never said it to anyone else, not even at school. In his case, it simply seemed right.

As he looked up at my face, his eyes widened and he swayed visibly. I was concerned, and reached out a hand to support him. "Clouds of glory!" he exclaimed under his breath. I didn’t understand, but was visited for a fleeting moment by a faint and elusive memory.

"Let me help you home, sir. I know where you live. Next door but one to us."

He gave up his bags without protest and, carrying them both in one hand, I put the other round his arm and walked him slowly for the last hundred yards to his house. On the doorstep, he scrutinised me again, for longer this time, his mouth slightly open. "Thank you, ngwas. Thank you very much." He fumbled in his pocket for his key, and tried without success to put it in the keyhole.

"Let me, sir." I got the door open and stood aside to let him in. "I think you ought to sit down."

"Yes. I do believe you’re right." He turned in to the front room, and I dumped the bags in the hall and followed him. It was a study with a large desk in the window and, most extraordinary to me, every wall was lined with laden bookshelves: a hundred times as many books, I guessed, as we had in our whole house. The mantlepiece carried a number of framed photographs of people, one of whom, to my passing glance, rang a faint bell. He sat down heavily in the leather chair at the desk.

"Sir, may I suggest a cup of tea?"

He gazed at me again, and nodded. "Please, yes. And one for you too. You will find milk in the shopping bag."

"Would you like me to put the rest of your shopping away too?"

"That would be very kind."

Picking up the bags on the way, I found the kitchen. The layout was the same as in our house. I filled the kettle and plugged it in. Mugs were on a shelf, sugar and a carton of tea-bags were on the working top, spoons were in the obvious drawer. No problem. While the kettle boiled, I stowed away his purchases in the fridge and cupboards. Again, all pretty obvious: there wasn’t any great variety there. As I made the tea, there were sounds of movement from the study, but when I carried everything through on a tray I’d found, he was back in his chair. He looked better, and after a few sips of sweet tea looked better still.

"I’m very grateful to you, my boy. I’m sorry about that, I had … a bit of a turn. Tell me, is your name … Tom?"

"That’s right, sir. Tom Robertson. My mother helped carry your shopping the other day." She’d talked about our family, presumably.

The old man nodded as if he’d been proved right. "And how old are you? When were you born?"

"1986, the seventeenth of September. So I’m fifteen."

His face dropped, I couldn’t imagine why. Then his fingers moved as if he was doing sums in his head. The answer seemed to cheer him up. "Yes. So tell me about yourself, Tom," he said. "You’re clearly not local. Where do you come from? What about your family? What are you doing at school?"

An outline of my uneventful life, my small family, my scientific bent, didn’t take long. "And what are your hobbies? Your interests?"

I could hardly say boys, or Isaac, but I did tell him about ornithology. The bushy eyebrows rose. He asked where I’d been bird-watching locally, and was impressed. "You haven’t been here long. That’s a very good start."

"Well, I’ve made friends with Isaac Evans from Ty Capel" – I nodded across the road – "and he knows the birds round here far better than I do. He’s taken me to most of these places."

"Ah! I see. I wonder if he knows about the ravens on Craig Nyth y Gigfran. Yes, there really are ravens there" – the name means Raven’s Nest Crag – "but they’re difficult to see close to. Let me show you the way I used to get there." He got up creakily and moved behind the desk into the bay window, where I followed him. The crag loomed in full view over the town to the west, and with a claw-like finger he pointed out his recommended route.

For a moment his gaze swung to the left, to the diagonal prospect of the Moelwyn. "My favourite mountains," he said softly. "They lived in my mind’s eye all the years I was away."

He came back to birds. "And then there are the red grouse beyond Cnicht, round Llyn yr Adar. I’ve not been up there for years – it’s hard work to reach it – but I expect they’ll still be there." He rummaged for an old 1:25,000 map, and showed me where.

I was grateful, and said so. "But I’m afraid I’ve got to go now, sir. It’s nearly our tea time. Will you be all right by yourself?"

"Thank you, Tom, I am all right, and I will be all right. Thanks to you."

"That’s OK, sir. I’ll just wash these up." I picked up the tray, and as I left the room I noticed that the photograph which had caught my eye was no longer there. I rapidly rinsed the mugs, and stuck my head into the front room again to say goodbye.

"Just before you go, Tom, two things. First, you call me ‘sir.’ Don’t you think that’s a little formal? I’m all for informality."

"Well, what should I call you? I mean, ‘Professor Davies’ is quite a mouthful, and I can’t possibly call you, er, by your first name." I couldn’t, not possibly.

"No? Well. Plain ‘Professor’ sounds very dry and academic. Ah! I have it! A compromise, but tending towards the informal. What about ‘Prof’?"

He grinned at me, almost like a boy, and I grinned back. I liked it. "Right. Prof it is." And so it remained.

"The other thing is this. We still have much to talk about, so I hope you’ll come back to see me."

"So do I, sir, I mean Prof." He’d already captivated me, I couldn’t say why or how, and I wouldn’t dream of letting him go. "There’s something I want to ask you. If I may."

"Of course. Do you have anything on tomorrow morning? Do you go to church or chapel?"

I shook my head, rather more vigorously than I’d intended, and he smiled at me again. "No more do I. And you won’t be going out after birds with young Isaac either, because he will be in chapel. May I suggest eleven o’clock? That’s when I have a little tipple, a naughty survival from my Cambridge days. A glass of madeira, you know. Would your parents allow you that?"

"I expect so." They were pretty laid back in that sort of way.

"Well, make sure you check with them. I’d hate to be accused of leading youth astray. Thank you, Tom. You’ve given an old man a new lease of life today. Excuse me if I don’t get up to see you out. Till tomorrow, then."

"Goodnight, Prof."

I was only seconds late for tea, and told Mum and Dad all about it. "You’re right, Mum. The Prof is a lovely old boy. There wasn’t a chance of asking him about chapels, but I’m going to see him again tomorrow morning. And he says, am I allowed to have a glass of madeira, whatever that is?"

"Don’t see why not. It’s a fortified wine, bit like sherry."

"And Mum, Dad. I had an idea. Could we ask the Prof in for lunch tomorrow? He seems to cook for himself, and he hasn’t got much in his fridge or cupboards."

"That’s a good idea, Tom," said Mum, looking at Dad for confirmation. "Yes, do that. It would be nice and neighbourly. One o’clock, as usual."




Next morning I presented myself at the Prof’s on the stroke of eleven. "Good morning, Tom. And do have you permission to join me in my tipple?"

"Morning, Prof. Yes, I have."

"Good. Come you in, then."

"But before I do, Mum says would you like to come to lunch with us today?"

"That’s a very kind thought, Tom. Well, if your mother’s quite sure, yes, I’ll be delighted to accept."

I nipped home to tell Mum, and came straight back. He’d put out two glasses and a decanter of dark brown stuff, which he poured out. We sat sipping it: smooth and sharp at the same time, and rather good.

"Well, Tom, what was it you wanted to ask me?"

"It’s about all these chapels. I’ve talked to Isaac, who’s a Calvinistic Methodist of course. But I don’t begin to understand the difference between them. Why are there so many, and so many sorts?"

"Well now. That’s a very large question. It’s a matter of history, and of human nature. Even a modestly detailed account would take a week. Where do we start? Yes, you’re right, there are a lot of places of worship in and around Blaenau, and there have been many more. About forty altogether, they say, twice as many as there were pubs. All for a population of eleven thousand odd, at the peak a century ago. One denomination might have several chapels, simply serving different parts of the town. That’s straightforward enough.

"But why so many denominations? Well, you understand the difference between Roman Catholics and protestants? How the Church of England, the Anglican church, was established at the Reformation, breaking free from Rome for political reasons as well as religious ones?"

I nodded. I did know that much, if only in outline.

"In Blaenau, the Anglicans are still around, of course, though they’re called the Church in Wales here. And there’s a Catholic church which is fairly new, set up mainly for the Irish navvies who built the pump storage and the nuclear, and stayed. That’s fairly straightforward too.

"Now. After the Reformation, as time went by, some people became disenchanted with the Church of England, for various reasons. Splinter groups sprang up which developed into full-blown churches in their own right. They’re called nonconformist because they didn’t conform, or dissenting because they dissented. Thus you have the Bedyddwyr, the Baptists. The Annibynwyr, the Independents or Congregationalists. The Wesleyaid, the Wesleyan Methodists. And the Methodistiaid Calfinaidd, the Calvinistic Methodists, the MCs we call them for short. They parted company from the Anglicans only in 1811, and despite the name they’re poles apart from the Wesleyans. Some of these churches broke away mainly for organisational reasons. The Baptists and MCs broke away more for doctrinal ones – let’s not go into that, not yet, anyway.

"They’re all represented here, and elsewhere there are many more varieties again, and have been even more in the past. Splinters of splinters, and splinters of those. Set up when someone had a slight difference of opinion with his original church, often because he thought it too soft, and who peeled off with his followers to start a new one. Everybody thought that he alone had the true answer and that nobody else did. Nowadays, things are simpler. Fewer and fewer people feel that religion means anything, so the denominations are all shrinking. They tend to amalgamate now, not multiply – the Wesleyans and the Anglicans, for instance, may soon reunite. There’s more tolerance, on the whole. But there are exceptions who retain all the fervour of their ancestors. Like some of the MCs. So, does that answer your question? Or begin to answer it?"

"Yes, thanks. It’s clearer now. I’d no idea it was so complicated."

"I hope I’m not disillusioning you. You don’t belong to any church, do you?"

"No, I don’t. Do you?"

He smiled gently. "No. Not now. The more I thought about it, and the more I talked to ministers and theologians and suchlike, the less sense it all seemed to make. Do you know that lovely verse of Omar Khayyam’s?

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and saint, and heard great argument
About it and about; but evermore
Came out by the same door where in I went.

I was actually brought up as an MC – here at Tabernacl, in fact. When you’re a child, you don’t question. But when I was a young man, I had a … crisis. I was in a quandary, and the MCs rejected me. Even today they’d reject a young man in a similar crisis. My only complaint about this house is" – he gestured abruptly over his shoulder – "that it faces Tabernacl. I tried other denominations, but it was the Anglicans who offered me a refuge, though I didn’t need it for long. For many years now I haven’t subscribed to any creed. Not even the Anglican.

"But when I go, I’ll be buried by the Anglicans. They seem to me the least intolerant of them all. And intolerance is so demeaning. Do you remember what the Wee Frees did to Lord Mackay?"

I was lost, and shook my head.

"No, of course you wouldn’t, you’re too young – it must have been ten years ago. Let me explain. The Wee Frees are a Presbyterian sect which splintered off from the Church of Scotland. Their views are extreme. To them, the pope is antichrist. Lord Mackay was the Lord Chancellor – you know, the senior legal eagle in the government, and speaker of the House of Lords. He was a Wee Free. One day, as in duty and friendship bound, he attended the funeral of a legal colleague. No harm in that, you say. Every harm, said the Wee Frees. This colleague had been a Catholic, and his funeral was in a Catholic church. For that … sin, they expelled Lord Mackay."

"But that’s … obscene."

"And that’s intolerance, Tom."

There was a pause as I absorbed it. "But you’ve finished your madeira, Tom. Would you object if we adjourn to the square and continue our discussion there? I like to sit in the sun when it’s warm enough."

We walked the fifty yards to the nearest bench. I’d now been reminded of another question. "Prof, Isaac was telling me that the MCs believe the bible is true. Literally true. And therefore evolution is wrong. That God did create the world in seven days, just as it says. In fact he said he didn’t believe it, he knew it. How can he know? I don’t understand that."

"No more do I, Tom. Well, perhaps I do. Yes, the MCs – these MCs – are creationists and yes, they know they’re right. In the sense that they won’t admit that other people are entitled to different views. In the sense that their own beliefs are so ingrained that they can’t conceive they might be wrong. But they can’t prove that they’re right, any more than I can prove that they’re wrong. So creationism is only a theory. An opinion, to which they are entitled. You, in contrast, are a scientist. You know all about the theory of evolution. That is only a theory too, isn’t it?"

"Oh yes." I was much happier to admit it to the Prof than to Isaac.

"And as a scientist, what do you do when confronted by rival theories?"

"Well, I look at them, and see which is more, um, likely. And I try to think of experiments to test it. To prove or disprove it."

"Exactly. And evolution looks vastly the more likely to you. Who knows, one day you may contribute towards a proof that it is correct. Do you believe in God, at all?"

"Well, no, I’m afraid not."

"That’s nothing to be ashamed of. And you never have?"

I shook my head. "No, never."

"I did believe, once. But my faith changed. First to doubt, and then to what the MCs would call perversion and heresy." The Prof’s face was not exactly bitter, but definitely sad. "I came to believe not that God created man, but that man created God. Voltaire said that if God didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him. That was centuries ago, and it was probably true then, and always had been. Man was still wallowing in the dark and needed light. Man needs to be able to explain what goes on around him, and the notion of a mysterious all-powerful God was a satisfactory way of explaining what he couldn’t understand.

"But science has now shed so much light of its own. It can’t explain everything yet, not by any means, and some scientists do believe in God. But God isn’t a necessary factor in any scientific explanation. Not yet. But he might be, one day. One of the largest questions, I understand, is what triggered the Big Bang. At present nobody has any real clue, but one day a clue may emerge. And, who knows, it may be a clue that surprises science. What does all that say to you, as a scientist?"

I thought very hard. "That I don’t believe in God, but I admit he might exist. But that there’s no need to assume he does exist until there’s some evidence for it."

The Prof beamed at me. "A man after my own heart. A logical and open mind. Whereas young Isaac’s is closed."

I had to give acknowledgement where it was due. "Prof, if it is open, it’s because you’ve opened it. I’ve never thought about things like this before."

"All I’ve done is introduce you to a new concept. Your mind was already open, or opening. Scientists can’t afford to have closed minds, can they? You’re at the age, Tom, where childhood’s acceptance gives way to manhood’s questioning. For the most part, children accept what they’re told. But they can’t grow into fully-fledged human beings if they’re not encouraged to question. So keep your eyes and your mind open, Tom. Open to everything. Don’t be like Isaac. Keep asking questions. I suspect his parents don’t allow him to."

I pondered on what I knew of them, and agreed. About the Parch, anyway. Isaac’s Mam probably didn’t get a look in. Which reminded me …

"Prof, when Rhiannon was telling us about them, she called him the Parch – I understand that – and called her his poor asen. What does that mean?"

"It means a rib. A facetious word for a wife."

"Oh. Why?"

"That takes us back to the bible and creation. Look, Tom, run to my study and get a bible." He told me where to find it, and gave me the key.

"There are two different accounts in Genesis," he said when I got back. "Two different creation myths. The MCs must accept both of them as true, by definition, but I don’t recall how they reconcile them. In the first chapter – look, here – on the sixth day God created both man and woman. ‘Male and female created he them.’ But in the next chapter it’s different. At first only Adam was created and put to live in the Garden of Eden. But he was lonely, so God took out one of his ribs and from it ‘made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.’ Hence Eve. Hence wife."

I hadn’t heard of that one. "How gross. Reminds me of those manky spare ribs from the Chinese takeaway. You know, sweet and sour."

"Oh yes." The wrinkles on the old face deepened as he smiled. "Yes, I did try those once. Never again. Red dye, tasting of nothing but monosodium glutamate."

Mention of ribs had put me in mind of lunch, and I looked at my watch. Nearly one. "We’d better go and eat, Prof, but I’ll just take the bible back first." But I was still feeling mischievous. "Do you think God created monosodium glutamate at the same time?"

The Prof’s small frame rumbled with laughter. "Now, now, Tom, you’re being naughty. What would the Parch say if he heard you?"

He almost had. As I passed Ty Capel, the Parch himself came out. He gave me a glacially condescending smile, which slipped ludicrously into surprise when he saw the very obvious bible in my hand. Pink with suppressed laughter, I restored it to its shelf, returned to collect the Prof, and told him. Giggling like children we went to my house, where he sobered down with an effort. Mum and Dad welcomed him, and installed him at the table.

"I do confess my diet is a trifle monotonous," he said to Mum, "so your invitation is even kinder than you imagine."

"Not our invitation, really," replied Mum, "though we should have thought of it. No, it was Tom’s idea."

"Yet another feather in his cap, then. I’ve already discovered quite a number. Like punctuality. He made sure he was home in time for tea yesterday, and that we arrived on time today. I approve of that. Has he always been punctual?"

"Oh yes, nothing to complain about there."

"So he was punctual even in arriving in this world?"

Mum and Dad both laughed. "He arrived on the dot," said Dad. "It was a joke between us. Tom, we haven’t told you this before, but you’re plenty old enough to hear it now. When your Mum found she was pregnant, it was pretty obvious you’d been conceived on Christmas Day. I was on a temporary job up in Scotland then, and only had Christmas Day at home. So I told Mum that if you didn’t arrive on the dot, I’d know she’d been having an affair with the milkman."

"Get away," said Mum, laughing. "The milkman had red hair and looked like Lance Percival. Wouldn’t have touched him with a bargepole. And you don’t look in the least like him, dear. Not that you look like anyone in our families either. We sometimes call him the changeling," she explained to the Prof, who was comparing our faces with interest.

I’d long been aware that I was different. They were both quite tall, I’d always been short for my age. They both had curly dark hair, mine was straight and fair. Their eyes were brown, mine blue. Our faces were utterly different. I was totally unlike either of them, or my grandparents or great-grandparents. It didn’t bother me a bit, being called a changeling. I knew Mum and Dad were my mum and dad, I loved them, and they loved me, so what did it matter?

"Tom the changeling," said the Prof, savouring the name. "And may I ask why you called him Tom?"

"Well, that’s an odd thing," replied Dad. "He should have been Peter. When we first decided to go for a child, we’d agreed on that, if it was a boy. But once he was on the way, we changed our minds. Dunno why. Tom suddenly seemed the right name, to both of us. Didn’t have to argue about it."

I hadn’t heard that before. But I approved. I liked being Tom.

Talk turned to Welsh names, and then to the Prof himself. He was a native of Blaenau. He’d attended the local school – mine – and in 1938 had gone up to Cambridge with a scholarship, in those days the only possible way in for the child of a poor family. After a year, the war broke out and he was called up, serving mainly in Egypt. On being demobbed, he finished his course and progressed from fellowship to lectureship to the chair of English Literature. He’d published many books and articles, but his real joy, he said, had been the company of the young men and women he’d taught. Like most Welsh expatriates, he’d never forsaken his origins. When he retired in 1985, Wales called him home again, back to his old house which he’d kept on when his parents died. He had never married, and was now eighty-two. Rhiannon next door went in once a week to do his cleaning and washing, but he remained fiercely independent in everything, like shopping and cooking, which he could still manage.

I was able, as the weeks went by, to flesh out those bare bones of his present life. He spoke his native Welsh by preference, but he always used English with me because I found it easier. He was well respected: as he sat in the square or did his shopping, older people would pass the time of day with him. But they rarely called at his house and, to his disappointment, the generation gap and his long absence meant that he knew few youngsters. So he lived a solitary existence, and I began to see why he relished my company. But in one sense he’d never retired. He continued to write, and he remained in touch with his academic colleagues. He had a computer and knew how to use it, and he had what sounded like a large email correspondence.

In other respects he was quaintly old-fashioned. Whatever the weather, his dress was the same: black shoes, grey trousers with turn-ups, baggy tweed jacket, velour or knitted waistcoat, and tie. For reading, he used heavy horn-rimmed glasses. He was old-fashioned too in his breadth of knowledge. He could talk about anything, at the drop of a hat. He was informed, but not opinionated. He had his own views, and he would spell them out on request, but he was expert at making you think for yourself. It was all enlivened by a gently sparkling wit and humour. Kids of my age tended to see the elderly as boring and condescending old farts, at best to be humoured, and I was hardly an exception to the rule. Now I saw how wrong I’d been. The Prof astonished and delighted me. Mum’s phrase ‘a lovely old boy’ might be very simple, but it was spot on.




Lunch over, the Prof thanked us nicely and excused himself, saying it was time for his nap. When I’d cleared the table, I crossed the road to collect Isaac. I was always surprised that he was allowed out at all on a Sunday, but he was. Presumably he wasn’t profaning the Sabbath because he was praising the Lord through his works, namely birds. In that case I wasn’t profaning the Sabbath either. I was doubly praising the Lord by studying not only birds but Isaac too. He seemed particularly attractive today.

I passed on the Prof’s recommendations about interesting bird habitats. Isaac gave me a sharp look. "Have you been talking to him?"

"Yes, what’s up? He’s great."

"My Tad told me never to speak to him."

"Why ever not?"

"He wouldn’t say. But he must have good reason."

"Well, you’re missing out. He knows a thing or two about birds."

But Isaac was ready to accept his advice at second-hand. Because Llyn yr Adar involved a whole day out, we plumped for Nyth y Gigfran today. We tackled it by the direct route from below, an inordinately hard slog in the hot sun up the interminably long incline. Above the old quarry shelf we zigzagged upwards as the Prof had suggested. The ravens’ nest was clearly visible, its tall stack of twigs whitewashed with droppings. The birds were disturbed by our presence, but we found a point where we could look down on the ledge with their nest and its chicks, and by lying very still we calmed the parents’ fears and they resumed feeding their young. We couldn’t talk, but Isaac was clearly delighted, and threw me smiles of pleasure which made me cross-eyed with desire.

To distract my thoughts, I turned my binoculars on the town spread out in front of us and inspected our street, a good five hundred feet below. As I watched, the Prof came out of his house carrying his stick and a newspaper, and a moment later the Parch emerged from Ty Capel and got into his car. The Prof reached the road round the square, looked left and right, and began slowly to cross. As he did so, the Parch started his car and drove towards him, screeching to a halt with only feet to spare and blaring his horn. I could hear it from my perch nearly half a mile away. Not just bad driving, I thought, but deliberate intimidation. The Prof ambled on, to all appearances unfazed, and installed himself on the bench.

I was disturbed, but Isaac, his binoculars still on the ravens, was blissfully unaware of the little drama. When he had had his fill, we carried on upwards as being easier than climbing back down, and on reaching the ridge we cut round to the left and descended fairly gently into Cwmorthin. As we walked back through the square, we found the Prof still sitting on his bench, reading the Observer. He raised a hand to both of us impartially, but Isaac walked straight past him with a muttered "See you tomorrow, then, Tom." Ashamed of him, I slumped down beside the Prof. Gratefully, too, for I was sweating and knackered.

"Prof, Isaac says he’s not allowed to speak to you, but doesn’t know why. Do you?"

"Oh yes. His father’s never spoken to me either. It can only be because of the MCs’ – let’s call it – disagreement with me. Wil Davies is persona non grata to them. It must have been passed down from minister to minister for the last – what? – fifty-seven years."

"But that’s … sad."

"Isn’t it? Both in the sense you mean, and in the other."

"Prof, I saw the Parch nearly run you over."

"Not for the first time, either. Don’t worry, I’m sure he wouldn’t really. But how …? Oh of course, you had a bird’s eye view from Nyth y Gigfran. How did it go with the ravens?"

I reported, and he was pleased. But I didn’t linger. I stank to high heaven and needed to get home for a shower.

Next day, Monday, was May Day bank holiday, when Isaac and I had agreed to check out the red grouse at Llyn yr Adar, weather permitting. It did permit, and we trekked up Cwmorthin to Bwlch Rhosydd, then across country and over the Cnicht ridge to the Nanmor side, the best part of two hours. Above the lake we found a knoll where we parked ourselves to watch. For an hour we saw nothing but black-headed gulls on the water, a few sandpipers along its shore, and occasional snipe in the tussocks. Llyn yr Adar was only partially living up to its name, which means Bird Lake. We passed the time absorbing the view, a wide panorama of mountains round from Snowdon itself, via the Glyder and Tryfan, to the distant Carneddau and Siabod. Finally our patience was rewarded. Three grouse came into sight, strutting singly through the heather and pecking as they went. They weren’t a great rarity, according to the book, but were uncommon in these parts, and neither of us had seen any before. We watched their solemn antics for quite a while.

On the way back, beside Llyn Cwmcorsiog, we lit on the partly-eaten remains of a rabbit which some bird of prey had carried up from the valley and abandoned. Maybe our arrival had disturbed its mealtime, though we’d seen nothing. Isaac, though curious, knew little about the insides of animals. But I was doing biology for GCSE, and seized a good opportunity. I fished out my pocket knife and completed the dissection, rather crudely as the blade was none too sharp. But I pegged back the skin with heather twigs, opened the ribs, and gave Isaac a conducted tour of the heart and lungs, the liver and spleen and kidneys – such as had not gone down the raptor’s throat – and the stomach and intestines. Which brought us to the excretory and reproductive organs. It was a male rabbit, and I was able to give a fairly comprehensive guide to that department.

To see on this small scale, our heads were close to the rabbit, and close to each other – sometimes touching – and I felt his warmth and his breath on my face. I was very much aroused and so, I could see, was he. To any other boy, I’d probably have made overtures there and then. But not to Isaac, who so obviously lived by different rules from me. I’d pave the way as best I could, but the first open move had to be up to him. Given his background, it couldn’t be otherwise. So as I pointed out the rabbit’s testicles and sperm ducts and penis, I was careful to use those clinical words. His interest was obvious, and so too was his ignorance. Several times he started to ask a question, but dried up. His face was red, and in the end I took the bull by the horns.

"Come on, Isaac. What are you trying to ask?"

"Tom, I don’t really understand what happens when you, er … you know."

"Hasn’t anyone ever told you? What do you know?"

"Well. My Tad talked to me about it once. But he wasn’t … um, very specific. He just said that when a man marries, he lies with his wife and plants his seed in her, and if the seed grows it becomes a baby and is born nine months later. That’s about all." For once he had none of that slightly superior air.

Oh Lord. Would you believe such innocence, at his age? Not even the birds and the bees. I had to start at square one, drawing sketches in my field notebook or using the rabbit by way of illustration. The difference between male and female anatomy. Ovaries, eggs, womb, vagina, clitoris. Testicles, sperm, semen, prostate, penis. The mechanics of erection, intercourse, ejaculation. Fertilisation and what followed. I was still using clinical words, most of which were clearly new to him. So I translated, with words like cunt, prick, balls, hard-on, shag, come. He’d heard some of those at school, but hadn’t always known what they meant. I ended with contraception. Thinking that abortion might be a taboo subject with him, I omitted that. He listened intently, his eyes on my face except when I pointed to my sketches or the rabbit.

"Thank you, Tom. That’s taught me a lot. I’m glad to know all about it at last."

"All about it? That’s only the basics, Isaac. Of reproduction and, oh, let’s call it mainstream sex."

"Mainstream? What do you mean?"

Hmmmm. We were moving into even more interesting territory. "Well, sex for reproduction. There’s sex for love and pleasure too, straight and gay."

His creed probably said that sex should not be pleasurable. If so, his curiosity overrode it. "Pleasure?"

"Well, yes. Sex ought to be fun. Isaac, haven’t you ever, er, even, er, played with yourself?" Dammit, I hadn’t a clue what words he might understand. Let’s be bold. "Masturbated, jerked off, wanked?"

He looked at me solemnly. "Yes," he said quietly. "I know what you mean. Yes, I have, a few times. But it was wrong."

"Wrong? Wasn’t it, er, fun? Didn’t you enjoy it?"

"Yes." Very quietly now. "That’s what made it so wrong." Oh dear. Hair shirts next?

"Well, I can’t see anything wrong with it. You’re not harming anyone. Even yourself."

"Oh, but you are. It’s displeasing to God. Isn’t that what Onan did? Genesis 38:9. He spilled his seed on the ground, and the Lord slew him for it."

I was flummoxed. I had no answer to that.

"And what do you mean, straight?"

Lord, again. What an innocent. "Straight? It means heterosexual. Opposite of gay."

His creed probably also said that gays were an abomination, but again he overrode it. "I have heard about gays. But, Tom, what do they do?"

Again I had to explain, in the clinical and the vernacular. A different attraction, gaydar. Mutual masturbation. Fellatio, blow-job. Sixty-nining. Anal penetration, fucking. Again he listened, watching me inscrutably.

"Yes, I see. That’s sodomy, isn’t it? Remember how God rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire out of heaven? Genesis 19:24."

I had no answer to that, either. I was utterly frustrated. I’d been rock-hard for hours. So, by the look of it, had he. Did he never let his urges rip? The answer, it seemed, was no.

"Tom, how do you know about all this?"

"Oh, my parents, partly. Kids at school, partly. But mostly from the net." Mum and Dad were laid back enough not to monitor or block my computer, and I often visited porn sites. I was as well-educated in that respect as he was ill-informed.

"I see. And have you, er, done any of this yourself?"

"Well, no. Apart from wanking, of course."

"But you’d like to?"

Could that be the beginning of an offer? "Yes, of course."

"Well, don’t, Tom, please. As far as I can see, it’s all fornication. All offensive to God, except in marriage."

I gave up. I wasn’t going to get him. Unless I’d sowed temptation enough to reap a harvest later. But not now.

Isaac came from a family where every penny mattered, and he asked tentatively if the rabbit would be all right to eat. Why not? It was fresh, and the meat hadn’t been spoiled. So I skinned it for him, hacked off the head and feet, gutted it but naughtily left the penis and balls in place as a reminder of his sex lesson, washed it in the lake, and crammed it into my lunch box. We left the residue as a consolation for the disappointed raptor, and walked home companionably if not talkatively. What little talk there was concerned birds.




Life in Blaenau rapidly settled into a routine. I would often go out with Isaac. But whereas he remained a solitary, I came to make other friends, and with them I’d kick a football around on the playing field or take the bus down to the cinema in Porthmadog. At weekends Mum and Dad might take me, and sometimes a few of them, to fun places like the dry ski slope at Rhiwgoch or the white water centre on the river below Llyn Celyn. I was just an ordinary boy. The only things that made me at all unusual were my secret desires, and my interest in birds, and my one very unexpected friendship.

Over the next few weeks I often saw the Prof, although we had no hugely profound conversations. We were getting to know each other, talking in his house or on the bench in the square or, occasionally, over the meal table at our place. He was patiently opening my mind to all manner of things that had never entered it before, and encouraging me to form my own opinions. Never once did he take a superior attitude. He treated me as a friend and an equal – a young friend, to be sure, but not one to be talked down to. He fostered my self-confidence, and his stability and broad-mindedness were a marvellous balance to my uneasy and narrow relationship with Isaac. Although I barely appreciated it at the time, I now know that his gift to me was priceless.

To repeat, I was a very ordinary boy, not well-read, not well-informed, with a schoolboy sense of humour but no sparkling adult wit. What could I possibly have given him in return? Companionship, certainly, as an antidote to his loneliness. And my own young brand of friendship which became more familiar as the days went by, and even, when the occasion was right, gently teasing. He saw me, I thought, as the son he’d never had. I saw him not so much as a father figure – my own needed no substitute – but as a very special friend. At all events, to put it very simply, we clicked.

One afternoon, on the way back from school, I rang his bell and there was no answer. He should have been in, and I was worried. I made my way round the back via Rhiannon’s garden and peered through his bedroom window – he slept on the ground floor – and there he was on his bed, curled up, face screwed in pain and looking at me with pleading eyes. Urgent action was needed. The back door was locked, so I found a lump of slate and broke the kitchen window, through which I could reach to unlock the door.

"Prof!" I cried, on my knees beside him. "What’s wrong?"

"Bol," he muttered. Stomach – one of the few occasions he ever used Welsh with me. It was obvious enough: he’d vomited and lost control of his bowels.

I flew to the phone and called the doctor, who came round commendably fast. A bug that was going the rounds, was the verdict, compounded by the Prof’s age. Not a hospital case, provided he could be looked after carefully for the next few days. Luckily it was Friday, and I was free full-time for the weekend. Rhiannon got the prescriptions made up at the chemist before it shut, and rustled up a commode. Meanwhile I half-carried the Prof to the bath where I cleaned him up. A foul job, but yet a privilege. He took his medicine and sat in his dressing gown while I removed the bedding and replaced it, and by the time Mum and Dad got in from work he was clean and reasonably comfortable, with a hot-water bottle for his stomach, and had been persuaded to drink. Mum, bless her, dealt with the bedding, and Dad with the broken window. Nobody questioned my self-assumed role as chief nurse.

I spent the next five nights there, in a sleeping bag on the study floor, alert for sounds from the bedroom, helping him to the commode at decreasingly frequent intervals, doing intimate things for him that he couldn’t do himself. During the day, Mum kept up a supply of food, while I sat and watched the Prof as he dozed – and sometimes dozed with him – and talked to him when he awoke. I encouraged him to drink often if little, and he made a good recovery. By Monday morning he was safe enough to be left by himself, which was fortunate since I had to go to school. Mum, who wasn’t at work that day, looked in from time to time, and I took over again once I was released. By the time I arrived on Wednesday afternoon he was up and more or less back to normal. I found him tapping away at his computer, catching up on his backlog of emails. He ate a reasonable tea with me, and I took the dishes back home and returned to him. He told me to sit down.

"Tom, keep my front door key." We’d commandeered it while he was ill. "I have a spare. Let yourself in now, whenever you want. Don’t ring. And Tom." He fixed me with his beady brown eyes. "I’ve been wondering what I could possibly give you by way of thank-offering for all that you’ve done for me. No" – I’d started to protest – "I know you. You’ll say you don’t want anything, because you did what you did out of fondness. And I believe you. You’ve acted entirely in character. So I’ll give you nothing. Nothing tangible. Only my thanks. And these words, from John Clare:

Love lies beyond
The tomb, the earth, which fades like dew!
I love the fond,
The faithful, and the true.

Their surface meaning is obvious, but you won’t understand what’s beneath them." He was right. "Don’t ask, Tom. Just remember them." He said them again. "Promise?"

"I promise," and I repeated the verse back to him. It is a promise I have very carefully kept.

We sat and looked at each other in deep togetherness, the old man and his surrogate son, the youngster and his guide, philosopher and friend. Neither said another word. In the end I touched his hand, went home, and collapsed into bed, knackered.