from The Ensemble
‘Chroesawa at ‘r caravan!’ the large man shouted. ‘Dydy da at canfod a newcomer!’
‘Oh. Welcome to the caravan. I’m Owen.’
Just out of her car, Elizabeth was slow in understanding that this man was using ‘caravan’ in the collective sense, including in the term all of the little homes on wheels that nestled among the sheds, not just his own. A caravan of camels, a caravan of Bedouin — that was the sense he had in mind. Quite how he conceived such imagery out of this farmyard — gravelled and low-lying, damp — was beyond her.
‘Thank you,’ she said, looking around. Surely he wasn’t the boss. The man she had talked to on the phone, when arranging this job, had spoken with an English accent.
‘Sheep’s heart. In the stew.’ Large in the doorway of his caravan, he seemed to almost consciously — if that was possible — make his eyes twinkle. ‘A proper hearty stew. Come over when you’re ready.’
She was fatigued from driving and long used to cooking for herself. This man looked some years older than her, a hale man, one that might enjoy surprising his friends with rambunctiousness, with unexpected and rowdy hugs at parties. Hardly a worthy target for her patience.
But dusk came down. She had unloaded her car and was sitting opposite her caravan’s two-ring cooker, looking at it for a long time as it grew dark. This was not her first night in Wales, but it was a new job. That man would be a workmate by tomorrow. She decided to go across, entering his caravan, that private space that was at once a kitchen, warm with food smells, and a bedroom.
‘Is this . . . what is this?’ she said, when he reached a meal down to her side of the table. She was struggling for the name of the dish, mentioned once before to her, but now lost.
‘Oh, no. You’re thinking of Lob Scows,’ he said. ‘No, it’s not Lob Scows — too much meat in this thing. It’s too thick. I like it too meaty.’
He served her vegetables too and fruit which he said he was entitled to tax off the farm because he’d worked there so long.
‘So,’ he said, ‘you like working in the rain? That’s what we do here.’
‘I don’t mind my share of work, if that’s what you mean,’ she said, shoving some stew in her mouth, perhaps more grimly than she needed to. It had become automatic, this little ritual of self-assertion at a new farm. Perhaps she should be fairer to this cooker of stew. ‘How long have you worked here?’ she said.
He held first two palms up, then one, flashing their thick fingers.
‘Fifteen years?’ He appeared too big-bordered, too much, she suspected, the lover of raucous sociability to have been contained within the parameters of this caravan for that long. ‘Are you the foreman?’
‘Oh God, no. There’s nothing like that. I’m just on the hourly rate, like everyone else.’ He smiled. ‘You play the fiddle?’
She put her hand to the curtain beside her, pushed it away. He must have watched her unloading her car.
‘The viola. It’s lower toned.’
She watched his face registering this adjustment. Clearly, his experience of music was that of many people local to these villages: even those who’d never picked up an instrument in their whole lives seemed to have this inborn acquaintanceship with the fiddle — not the classical violin, but the instrument of foot-stamping sessions in the corners of pubs.
‘Well, come on,’ he said, ‘play.’
‘Oh no, I never—’
She stared at him. He had actually banged the table.
‘Come on now, play me a tune. I fed you a sheep’s heart.’
It was inevitable that she would blush, but she was startled by his smile. It was an exuberant showing of big teeth and high gums. He was by no means a handsome man — his face was round and red, of the scrubbed type that would never tan; that mouth was big — but in these quarters, that unusualness, coupled with some gravity that was at work between them, had an influence on her. A quite unexpected laugh popped out, she smiled, there was a lessening of that defensiveness that always came over her whenever she was asked to play.
‘Your stew,’ she said, placing her finger carefully on the edge of the table. ‘It was very kind of you to share.’
‘Ah! Stew’s stew. Where’s this viola?’
Her first attempt was a Bartók arrangement, a bad choice for a first hearing. ‘Sorry,’ she said, stopping after the first page. ‘I’m no Paganini.’
But the piece’s oddness had clearly appealed to him — perhaps, she thought, the squawks and missed notes had improved even Bartók’s intended discords. It was supposed to be colloquial music; nothing could get more colloquial than her interpretation.
‘Well,’ said Owen, as she placed the instrument between them, in amongst the plates of leftover stew and potatoes, ‘You surprised me there. I thought I’d hate that music.’
‘Bartók would have hated it. Right now he’s spinning a quite regretful folk dance in his grave, I guarantee you.’
‘Bartók,’ he said. ‘Now that’s not a Welsh name. Not Welsh like Elizabeth.’
At that, she wondered how long it was since he’d slept with a woman and, despite herself — and quite contrarily — what he thought of her currently quite gorse-bushy hair, and because then she was both a little disconcerted and stuck for a rejoinder, she lifted her bow and attempted the Bartok again. After that, she still felt unsettled so she went out to her car and brought back the box of cassettes that went everywhere with her.
She leaned over the table and explained what made each composer distinctive, what mood Owen could expect to find uncurling from each cassette. By ten o’clock, tired by his work-day, or perhaps because she had dominated the discussion, or because he had no interest in classical music, Owen was drooping into sleep at the table, his jersey bunching up toward his ears as if resuming a long habit of comforting its owner.
She took the opportunity to look around his caravan. It was neat, neater than she would have kept it, but made busy by the accoutrements of his life, like the wet weather gear that projected out from a nail near the door. You would brush by that coat each time you went out to work. That noise would remind you of rain, even in summer. Gold sports trophies and cups on the bookshelf intruded too, announcing themselves: after closer inspection, she grimaced — this man was apparently a player of darts.
But, turning at the door on her way out, she felt the twinge of an unexpected, a quite illogical desire — a readiness to renew this cloistered give and take. It had been rare to be in such a space as this caravan, exchanging talk about the viola, architect of the close systems of chamber music.
Just before she closed the door, she saw in the caravan’s far corner, three black cases, the type with velvet lining inside and the component parts of wind instruments.
The next morning her suspicion about that line of his — ‘Oh God no, I’m just like everyone else’ — was validated.
‘Now folks, that’s Elizabeth,’ he said, when she came across the yard to meet the others. All the workers were gathered in a circle, waiting for the boss to come with the day’s instructions. ‘I can vouch for her. Even though she’s come across the border.’
The greetings of the others were murmurs, nods, and as she responded in kind, she wondered what accident or design had cast her up against this little community’s most vibrant personality.
‘Don’t worry about this lot,’ he boomed. ‘In fifty years time, they’ll invite you out for a beer.’
Then he slapped some of them and they laughed in the tones of townsfolk tolerating a character.
Elizabeth had worked at that farm in Wales for two months before Owen showed her the feeding. It was something he didn’t want to share with her at first, claiming the eels should not be disturbed by visitors.
Finally, one Saturday morning, he opened the shed and walked her toward the first tank. There he lowered his hand, feed cupped inside the palm. As it dipped to the water’s surface, eels came up from below, rising to meet his hand’s shadow over and into the water, disturbing the feed he held by swimming through it, then whipping back to swallow the grains that floated up in a column. It was a quick disturbance of water, the eels whirling in a gyre at the end of Owen’s arm, and then they were gone, descending to the tank’s floor again.
‘Look at that,’ said Elizabeth, naming it. ‘That’s grace.’
‘Mmm,’ said Owen. ‘Perhaps.’ He scooped another handful of feed and eels drew up again, as if his hand had some magnetism. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘You can put your hands in the water. Feel.’
Elizabeth noted his stillness, savoured it for a moment, before reaching her hand down beside his into the water.
‘Be careful,’ he said, ‘when you touch them. Their skins are very sensitive.’
‘Yes,’ said Elizabeth. ‘You told me.’
She did not yet have experience in the eel sheds. She was employed, along with most of the farm’s other workers, to labour in the vegetable fields and orchard outside. The eel farm was a new part of the business, but already a very successful one, and Elizabeth had noticed how Owen hid his pride in the role he had played in that success, covering it under social clamour and jokes, which were often at the expense of the boss, Michael.
Now, her hand underneath the surface, she sensed one of the creatures turning close to her hand — it was a quick pressure, little more than a displacement of water — and then nothing more. ‘I don’t think they like me,’ she said. ‘Maybe I smell a bit different.’
Again, his laugh was that quiet one. Standing beside him, she watched the surface of the water still. The eels had gone down. In the ponds further over too, she could sense them all at the bottom of their tanks, waiting for the dusk to steal into the shed and bring Owen back, his arm moving out over the water again, pocking its surface with the pellets he would throw. Here the smell that pervaded his clothes hung over the tanks — a dank stink of heavy water in a state of stillness. This odour breathed out the fibres of his jerseys at night, when he lifted a pot down for cooking, or reached a plate from her side of the table to his. It was in his skin too.
‘Better leave them now,’ he said, replacing the pail at the side of the shed near the door.
They went out into the sunshine, and Owen became loud again. ‘Ah!’ he said, stretching his arms up, ‘Now I feel like sinning! How about some hanky panky? Let’s rock the caravan.’
Elizabeth was not shocked. ‘I won’t be sinning,’ she said, setting out across the yard.
‘It’s a shame, that,’ said Owen. ‘It seems a lovely day for it.’
Already halfway between the sheds and her caravan, she turned. ‘You were going to show me Newborough beach. Shouldn’t we set off soon?’ It would be quite a walk, through Brynsiencyn village and the pine forest.
‘Well that depends, you see,’ said Owen. ‘What’s in the picnic?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Elizabeth. ‘What is in the picnic? Have you made one for us?’
‘Aha,’ said Owen, ‘I see what you mean now — no.’
After locking up their caravans they stopped to pick early apples from the farm’s top paddock, the one nearest the road, and some raspberries. Owen ate some of these as they walked through the village, claiming that he, as the expedition’s captain, was entitled to do so. ‘The tour leader has the right to gorge the picnic en route,’ he said, popping a berry into his mouth.
The sun had spent all day pouring richly down on the whole island, and when they caught glimpses of Menai Strait beyond the paddocks at their left it shone back at them, as if made more full by the sunshine, puffed up by it somehow.
‘God that’s gorgeous,’ said Owen. ‘Look at this place. Paradise.’
Then they were moving through the pines. They didn’t speak but he swung his arms boisterously. She was aware too of the way the chest of his jersey barrelled out around him into the air of the forest, as if it wanted to take up more space on the road.
At the seaside a wind got up, putting sand in her eyes. Elizabeth didn’t swim, but took her boots and socks off and rolled up her trousers, enjoying the play of the breeze on her skin while Owen ran to the sea and dove under with the abandon of someone twenty years younger — and much lighter. He surged to and fro in the water, parallel to the beach, doing freestyle. Then he found some younger people he knew somehow from the village, and they all kicked a football around in the waves and made jokes. The sounds of their banter came over, Welsh.
At one stage one of the friends punted the ball up toward Elizabeth. Owen crashed up the sand and lifted the ball from near her feet without letting their eyes connect, then booted it back down-beach with a long string of Welsh words at high volume.
He was a long time there, busy in the athletics while the stiffening breeze and occasional sand blew over Elizabeth. When he returned from that sport and sat down, she went down onto her back, resting on her elbows beside him, not touching but close, in the lee of his large body.