When railway signalman Harry Price suddenly suffers a stroke, his son Matthew, a lecturer in London, makes a return to the border village of Glynmawr. As Matthew and Harry struggle with their memories of personal and social change, a beautiful and moving portrait of the love between a father and son emerges.
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By Raymond Williams, Dai Smith
ParthianCopyright © 1960 Raymond Williams
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As he ran for the bus he was glad: not only because he was going home, after a difficult day, but mainly because the run in itself was pleasant, as a break from the contained indifference that was still his dominant feeling of London. The conductress, a West Indian, smiled as he jumped to the platform, and he said, 'Good evening,' and was answered, with an easiness that had almost been lost. You don't speak to people in London, he remembered; in fact you don't speak to people anywhere in England; there is plenty of time for that sort of thing on the appointed occasions – in an office, in a seminar, at a party. He went upstairs, still half smiling, and was glad there had been no time to buy an evening paper; there was plenty to look at, in the bus and in the streets.
Matthew Price had been eight years a university lecturer, in economic history. He knew of nothing he more wanted to be, though his anxiety about his work had become marked. He was generally considered a good lecturer, but his research, which had started so well, had made little real progress over the last three years. It might be simply the usual fading, which he had watched in others, but it presented itself differently to his own mind. It is a problem of measurement, of the means of measurement, he had come to tell himself. But the reality which this phrase offered to interpret was, he could see, more disturbing. He was working on population movements into the Welsh mining valleys in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. But I have moved myself, he objected, and what is it really that I must measure? The techniques I have learned have the solidity and precision of ice-cubes, while a given temperature is maintained. But it is a temperature I can't really maintain; the door of the box keeps flying open. It's hardly a population movement from Glynmawr to London, but it's a change of substance, as it must also have been for them, when they left their villages. And the ways of measuring this are not only outside my discipline. They are somewhere else altogether, that I can feel but not handle, touch but not grasp. To the nearest hundred, or to any usable percentage, my single figure is indifferent, but it is not only a relevant figure: without it, the change can't be measured at all. The man on the bus, the man in the street, but I am Price from Glynmawr, and here, understandably, that means very little. You get it through Gwenton. Yes, they say the gateway of Wales. Yes, border country.
It was a long bus-ride out, and it was dark when he got off: town dark. The lamps had been lit among the bare trees, and shone down into the little front gardens. There were trees and gardens all along this street. When, soon after their marriage, Matthew and Susan had seen this street, they had felt they could settle in it. It was suburban, whatever that might mean, but this was little enough to pay for trees and a garden. Theirs was the end house: grey, single-fronted, with a wide bay window. At the gate stood a laburnum, as he had learned to call it except when it was in flower, when it was a golden chain again. On the gate had been a panel announcing 'Laburnum House', but this had been burned. Collecting the names of houses had been one of their earliest pastimes, before they married. Susan, the daughter of a Cumberland teacher, had been one of Matthew's first students. They had married two months after her graduation. While she was still his student, they had walked, endlessly, around a London still strange to them both. Their direction, always, was from a large street into a smaller, until they were virtually lost and had to ask their way back. They had found this street on one of these walks, and since they had settled in it a new line of shops and a new junior school had been built nearby. Their two boys had been born and would grow up here, and would think of it as home.
As Matthew pushed open the door, there was a shouted protest. Harry, just inside the door, was jumping to tap back a limp red balloon, which had to float between the door and the stairs as goals. He missed it as the door opened suddenly, and the balloon floated down under Matthew's feet.
'Anyway, that's not a goal, that's interference,' Harry shouted.
'You were missing it, anyway,' Jack shouted back furiously, his hair loose over his eyes.
'Half-time,' Matthew said, punting the balloon away and closing the door. 'Anyway, where's Susan?'
'Getting tea. Anyway it's no good, all its wind's going.'
Matthew walked through to the kitchen, first stumbling on a heap of marbles and cursing. Susan opened the kitchen door and there was a further scuffle as Rex, the collie pup from Glynmawr, tore out and jumped up at Matthew. The telephone rang.
'Not again,' Matthew said. 'They time the bastard for when I get home.'
'Say no anyway. We don't want a drink with anybody, we don't want coffee, we can cook our own supper.'
'They can't hear you, Susan. And I'm not answering it.'
He took off his coat in the kitchen, and closed the door, but the ringing went on.
'Are you sure it's not work?'
'That would be important, of course. Some tidy little committee.'
'It sounds as if they're serious,' Susan said, as the ringing continued.
'These social types always are.'
They looked at each other, anxiously, seeking reassurance. The boys opened the door and Jack asked, 'Are you ever going to answer that thing?'
'All right,' Matthew said, and went quickly out. He picked up the receiver and said, impatiently, 'Price.' Susan had followed him, and was watching his face as he listened. There was a sudden tightening to attention, and he glanced up at her.
'Yes who is that exactly? ... I see ... When? ... Yes ... Yes, thank you.' He was pushing the receiver tightly into his face, as if he could not understand what was being said. When the call ended, he got up and stared at Susan, saying nothing. She watched him, intently, while the boys shouted as they ran past.
'Tell me, love.'
'No, some kind of stroke. It was a bad line. They can talk endlessly but they couldn't make it clear.'
'They want you to come?'
'Could you get through tonight?'
'I don't know. I simply don't know.'
'I'll pack your things. You ring inquiries. You must get as far as you can.'
Matthew nodded, but moved away from the phone. The dog was barking as the boys played with it in the passage.
'All right,' Matthew said, standing quite still.
'Ring inquiries,' Susan said, facing him.
They looked at each other for a moment, as the boys and the dog rushed past them; then each turned to what had to be done.
'He's a proper collie,' Jack shouted, 'only of course he's got to be trained.'
'We know that,' Harry said.
Abruptly the rhythm changed, as the wheels crossed the bridge. Matthew got up, and took his case from the rack. As he steadied the case, he looked at the rail-map, with its familiar network of arteries, held in the shape of Wales, and to the east the lines running out and elongating, into England. The shape of Wales: pig-headed Wales you say to remember to draw it. And no returns.
The usual photographs were at the sides of the map. On the far side was the abbey, that he had always known: the ruined abbey at Trawsfynydd that had not changed in his lifetime. On the near side was the front at Tenby. A railing horizon, in the wide paleness of sky and sea; then, making the picture, two girls smiling under cloche hats, and an Austin drawn up beyond them, the nose of its radiator in the air. Like the compartment, the photographs were more than thirty years old: nearly his own age. Damp had got in at the corners, irregularly staining the prints.
The wheels slowed, and the train passed under the gaunt footbridge and drew up at the platform, past the line of yellow lamps. A scurry of rain hit the misted glass. He jerked at the window strap, and reached out to open the door. No one else got out. He stood alone on the dark platform, looking around. Starting as late as he had, there had been no useful stop after Gwenton; he would have to walk the five miles north to Glynmawr.
The light rain swept his face, and he moved away, quickly, under the wooden awning of the station building, glancing up at the fretwork pattern of its edge. The engine whistled. The guard was already back in his window. As the train pulled out, for its next thirty miles, Matthew turned up his collar and re-lit his pipe. He waved, briefly, to the guard as he passed.
Down first into the town: that was half a mile of the walk. For here was the station, by the asylum: both on the outskirts, where the Victorians thought they belonged. The wind was blowing from the dark wall of the mountains, rattling a hanging sign.
As he walked to the gate, a porter came out of the lamp-room, and held out his hand. Matthew gave him his ticket, looking past him at the gaslight of the lamp-room, and the red wall of its fire. He smiled, and the porter looked at him strangely. Then they separated, Matthew returning the good night. You come as a stranger: accept that.
As he walked down the station approach, a car drove towards him, raking him with its headlights, in which the rain drifted. The driver blew his horn, but Matthew ignored it. He walked on, steadily, turning his face from the wind. So much of the memory of this country was a memory of walking: walking alone, with the wind ripping at him; alone it seemed always, in memory, though not in fact. The car was turning behind him, but he took no notice. Then farther down it overtook him, and drew in close to the pavement.
'Where you off to then?' a voice called from the car.
'Glynmawr,' he answered, abruptly.
'Glynmawr? Where's that then?'
'About five miles north.'
As soon as he had answered, he walked on. He was set, now, on the walk. He wanted to come back like this: slowly, with obvious difficulty, making up his own mind.
'You'll get wet, you know, Will,' the voice said suddenly. Matthew stopped, and swung round, arrested by the name. Always, when he had lived here, he had been Will, though his registered name was Matthew, and he had used this invariably since he had gone away.
'I'm sorry. Who is that?' he asked, walking back to the car.
'Come on, mun, get in.'
'Oh, I see,' Matthew said, and walked round through the headlights and opened the door. Morgan Rosser sat behind the wheel, heavily coated, his bare grey head stiff and poised, looking forward.
'I'm sorry,' Matthew said. 'I should have recognized your voice. Only sometimes we only recognize when we're expecting it.'
'You thought we'd leave you to walk then?' Morgan said, looking across at him.
'I expected to walk. Nobody knew the time of my train.'
'I've got timetables. Get in, Will. Don't stand in the wet.'
Matthew hesitated, and got into the car. Morgan leaned across him, heavily, and pulled the door shut.
'Your Mam rung me,' he said, settling again in his seat. 'She said Mrs Hybart rung you a quarter past five, you said you'd get the first train.'
'Well, thank you, anyway. I didn't expect it.'
Morgan did not answer, but with a hard movement sent the car forward. Matthew jerked back, then steadied himself. It is like that, this country; it takes you over as soon as you set foot in it. Yet I was sent for to come at once.
Rain had made the glass in front of him opaque. He looked down, then across through the fan of the driver's wiper. They turned out of the approach, then down the long road into the town. Nothing moved along it, except the bare trees in the wind. Again, in the town, the narrow main street was deserted, as they turned past the Town Hall to the market, and then up the long pitch to Glynmawr. He stared out at the empty town. It was years since he had sat beside Morgan Rosser in the car, along this same road. The last time had been before he first went away.
'How are you then, Will?'
'Not bad, thanks. And you?'
'This is bad though.'
'He's been too good a man, Will.'
Matthew turned and looked at him. The good-looking face was set and calm, under the thick grey hair. The eyes looked forward, at the narrow road.
'It's what we ought to have known, Will. The strength, yes, and that's what he showed. But now this, always.'
'We'll see,' Matthew said, and Morgan glanced at him, and then back at the road.
They sat in silence until they were into Glynmawr, with its intermittent groups of houses and the fields between them. In the headlights, along the road, every feature came up in its remembered place. By the school the road had been widened, and the corner was less dangerous. The headlights beamed along the banked hedges, and cut quick swathes through the gateways to the fields.
'Anyway, it's good to see you again, Will. Even if you did think we'd leave you to walk.'
'Aye, only then after all you were late, see,' Matthew said, quickly. He felt the older man stiffen, and then the relief. 'Fifteen seconds, mun. At most. And then you come out of them gates with your head down, so I nearly run you over. Even then I had to stop and ask you the way to Glynmawr.'
'Well I told you, accurate.'
'Aye, near enough.'
'And the rain, see. Wouldn't you keep your head down?'
'Aye, I suppose.'
It was easy at last, and enough had been re-established. They relaxed as the car slowed and the headlights shone back from the headstones at the first chapel, above the river. The car turned into the lane, and now the trees were arched overhead, and it was suddenly darker, the lights of the car isolated. Matthew stared out at the wet red earth of the banks, as the car rolled and slipped on the rutted pitch. Then the pitch flattened, the houses came up into view, and at once they were among them.
'Should remember this house, anyhow,' Morgan said, as he stopped the car.
'You're coming in?'
'You go on, Will. I'll come after. I've got you here.'
'All right,' Matthew said, and opened the gate to the house.
He walked round to go in by the back door. But the door was opened before he reached it, and his mother stood waiting just inside the kitchen. He leaned forward, and quickly kissed her cheek.
'You got here then, Will.'
'Yes, and the lift.'
'I been listening for the car. I knew Morgan would do it. He's very good.'
They moved together into the kitchen, and as Matthew put down his bag Morgan came in behind them, closing the door.
'You'll be hungry, Will.'
Matthew had turned away, and was taking off his coat. He hung it on the line of pegs beside the door, where the working coats hung. The pegs were laden, and he had to push at the other coats to hang up his own.
'And you, Morgan, you'll have something.'
'No, no, girl, I haven't come for a meal.'
'It's all ready, look.'
There was a dark home-cured ham on the table, and cut bread and butter and a bottle of wheat wine.
'Only first ...' Matthew said, and hesitated, watching his mother's face. It was too like an ordinary home-coming, with his father at work. It needed an effort to think of him lying upstairs.
'Well, yes, you'll want to see him. Only leave it a bit, Will. He's sleeping heavy.'
Matthew looked past her, across the kitchen. As a rule they needed to put very little into words, but now with nothing said he felt himself hardening. Some things at least must take precedence.
'Has there been any change?'
'No, Will, I don't think so. You'll have to see. Look, sit down, the both of you. Sit down at the table.'
'I won't stay,' Morgan said, but sat on the edge of the hard chair between the table and the sink. Matthew, still standing, felt suddenly awkward. He seemed too big to be standing there, close to his mother.
'He's sleeping, is he? Shall I go up and look?'
'No, I'll go up. In a minute. It's the injection, Will, he's very heavy.'
'Morphia, isn't it? The doctor's been twice.'
'Evans, he's a nice chap. He's taken over from Powell.'
'What did he say?'
'He said coronary.'
'Thrombosis,' Morgan said. 'It's the blood to the heart.'
'I want to know how it happened,' Matthew said. His voice seemed loud and sharp in the hushed room.
'Sit down and eat then,' Ellen said.
Excerpted from Border Country by Raymond Williams, Dai Smith. Copyright © 1960 Raymond Williams. Excerpted by permission of Parthian.
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This was a reading group book. I enjoyed it more than expected and got quite emotionally involved with the characters. The story of a father and son in the border country of Wales and their relationship over the years. The father knows his own mind but never communicates while the son is torn between his academic London life and his home life as a Welsh working class son. Worth a read.