Sian Melangell Dafydd in translation: The Third Thing

Sian Melangell Dafydd from Wales Literature Exchange | Cyfn on Vimeo.

An Extract from The Third Thing

This is a sample translation of the award-winning Welsh-language novel The Third Thing / Y Trydydd Peth (Gomer, 2009). This extract comes from Wales Literature Exchange | Cyfn and is translated by the author Siân Melangell Dafydd.

I’ve got this sickly taste in my mouth.  It was keeping me awake.  And there’s no point staying put in bed, like that, is there?  I popped downstairs to make myself some tea and a jam sandwich round about three.  I got up again at a quarter to six as usual and made a touch of breakfast.  Then slept in the chair – until eleven mind you.  Well, I’ve gone a bit weak at the knees.  And you know what I’d done?  I’d eaten the bacon raw.
    I was half way up the mountain – and I thought, then – I hadn’t cooked the bacon.  I’m almost sure of it. 
    The bad taste is still there, as if I had a blackened tongue.  That meant you’re a liar, back when I was in school – a black tongue. 
    I talk about things like the bacon when these doctors and official people call by.  They need provoking.  And then they say, ‘Well, Mr Owens, couldn’t you taste the difference?’ as if it’s the end of the world.
They come here to look for proof that I’m losing my grasp on things.  To ask, ‘What do you know about the Dee on such-and-such date.’  That sort of thing.  They’re only trying to trick me.  And they poke about, ask to see the colour of my poo – ‘excrement’ they call it.  You can’t live without evidence in this world today.  Evidence that I’m old, mad and dangerous, that’s what they’re ferreting for.  It’s quite another sort of evidence I’ve got for them. 
    I tell them: I’m a swimmer, I’m fit, and I go towards that Dee in my swimming trunks to give this body an MOT.
    ‘When?’ they ask.
    ‘When nobody’s looking,’ I say.  I’m only waiting for some fool to accuse me of making the world a more dangerous place.
    They tell me I shouldn’t bring a hornet’s nest about my ears.  Should just keep myself to myself.  Do without love, if I’m hell-bent on living like this.  Plenty of men have lived without love; none without water.  I’ve thought a lot about that recently.  But what did I ever do, other than swim and fight for what’s right?
    Now then, this is what I want to do: introduce myself properly.  Not with notes, (‘Excrement: runny.  Skin: dry.’)  You wouldn’t be any the wiser for knowing.  A real introduction it is, then.  A man carries evidence on his body, you know: where he’s been, what he did, how he loved, his stories – just as well as anything else does.  And these bloody doctors pay no attention to the background.  Right, this is me: George Owens.
    I’m no champion swimmer or anything like that.  I’m tall though, lanky some would say, and always have been.  A good shape for swimming, from the day I was born.  Long babies, us Owens, every one, my children and my children’s children all of the same mould.  And I’ve got an ounce of talent; a ton of energy.  Oh, and a touch of envy too.  Envy of fish.  Or more of the otters, really.  Our cousins, you see, the otters, mammals just like us, but they slip in and out of water, from one world into the next, better than we can.  You can’t help but admire such a singular creature, can you?  Industrious and playful like that.  We need to borrow something from them, understand more.  What does it matter if my muscles hurt, if I’ve knocked my knee against a rock on the river bed? Going is good.  Listen here:
Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one,
But there is also a third thing, that makes it water
And nobody knows what that is.

I heard this years ago, in a bit of a speech by some Patrick something from Bangor University when he gave his address after judging the ’Steddfod here in Llan.  I forget the name of the writer since I was too busy listening.  Such softness he had in his voice too, in the way he waited for everyone to quieten down completely before starting.  Lucky nobody persuaded him to become a preacher, with a voice like that.
    And I’ve been on the trail of that third thing ever since.  Looked at Bala library: no hope there.  Dolgellau either.  Librarians none the wiser.  Until one day, one of Nan’s books fell open when I was unpacking her boxes in the new house, and there it was – D. H. Lawrence – offering itself up to me like that, on the right page.  And maybe all I should have done all those years was ask my wife.
    It’s that third thing I’m after.  Not too much to ask now, is it?
    Back to my description, then: to fill out your picture properly.  My skin is pale, always in danger of burning in the sun, but my hair is as dark as a crow, not red like you might imagine from my skin. But there’s red in the family somewhere too.  Mam’s side.  From the other side of the mountain.  They were all brigands that part of the world, called the Redhead Brigands, Gwylliaid Cochion of Mawddwy, so they say.  But she was a crow like me.  Not a bit of white in her hair when she went: all the white was in her skin. 
    It’s her eyelashes I’ve got, or women’s eyelashes at least: long ones, enough to make them flap against the lens of my glasses round the reel, so it makes me think I’ve got a fly trapped there between the lenses and my eyeball every time I blink.  And it’s jealousy I get from women.  My daughter, her friends, all of them, and a woman on the way to Aberystwyth on the bus, once.  ‘Diawch,’ she said, ‘that’s lucky you are,’ as if I had something really useful like a nose that can sniff out truffles or eyes that see through walls.  And then she offered me a Cola Cube, all stuck at the bottom of her paper bag, and she looked at me every now and again, from behind her magazine, checking, sort of, in case my eyelashes disappeared.  Personally, I can think of more practical things to inherit. 
    And my hands – Nan had a weakness for my hands.  Strange, she was.  I can’t say that there’s anything special about them, myself.
    ‘You don’t exactly have bilberry picking hands, do you, now?’ she’d say, and place her hand on mine like a doll’s hand on a plate.
    No, I certainly do not.  And there she was, quite thrilled with herself since I’d made such a state of my fingers after a day’s collecting.  She’d shake her head silently, watching me make a very, very dark purple mess instead of filling my half pint tin with bilberries, while she filled up her pint’s tin in the same time.  I’d burst just as many spiders as I did berries, too.  Those little things, intent on getting themselves killed.  And so, you see, black sugar gave me miners’ hands.  And then I’ve also got this pike scar on my left hand that makes you think my thumb once hung completely loose from my hand.
    But still, Nan loved these hands.  She married those more than any other part of me.  That’s where a relationship starts: holding hands or holding little fingers like lucky bones.  Placing one on top of the other in the pictures, petting, sharing rings, placing one on top of the other in the hospital, petting.
    Do you see?  Hands are the thing.  And we’d scrub each others’ hands after collecting bilberries, till they were pumping red.  I leave the black creases be, now – those that should predict what sort of future I’ll have – deep black lines – but there’s not much point predicting anything by now.  Well, that’s how it is; nineteen years have passed since I got such a scrubbing.  If I were going to die of a broken heart, it would surely have happened by now.  At least I get a lick of water now and again by swimming.
    There’s one thing I never heard her say, not once: swimmer’s hands.
    And what about the rest of me?  I must say, without my clothes on, I’m shipshape.  You can see the work in me, the muscles.  It’s the swimming – you know about that already – it sculpts you.  And I can walk the Berwyn from breakfast till tea, without flagging, and only a Mr Kipling tart to keep me going, which is quite something for someone who’s just turned ninety-two.  My ankles are thicker than they used to be.  My skin is bigger; my body’s  smaller.  But I’m quite sprightly: enough go in me yet.
    And since 1938, I’ve had one different vein going up my left arm.  A fateful year, that one.  Winter 1938.  I’ll get back to that, later.
    It’s a strange thing, describing myself without my clothes.  It would be less embarrassing to show you, perhaps.  Makes me feel like I’m going through slides of my life, saying: ‘That’s me in Llanfor, and that’s me in Bala and that’s me again.’  That sort of thing.  Forgive me.  I’m usually such a shy one, and oafish.  Talking makes me feel more naked than anything. 
    That vein I was talking about: she’s quite something, lifting hard out of my arm, even if I haven’t been swimming or lifting wool or anything that would make me pump.  And if you look carefully, you’ll notice that she starts at the bottom of my life line on my left palm, like a stream.  She turns into a knotted lump on my wrist like Llyn Tegid, and exactly like the Dee does, turns like a bow through Edeirnion, from Llandrill through ’til Glyndyfrdwy.  She straightens after that, towards Farndon and Chester, splitting into a hundred thousand mini-veins over my muscle where that precious water is lost to sea salt. 
    I’ve looked at her side by side with a map and their shapes are too close to be anything but related.  It’s no wonder, really.   
    They’re doing some kind of research at Sydney University, into the effect of landscape … not landscape, forgive my English – water, water, water-scape!  The effect of that on the human body.  My granddaughter, Ceri, read something in the Sydney Morning Herald and sent it to me.  It seems that all that sunny weather and water sports makes them more aware of their bodies over there.  If I could only live long enough to see the results of the research, that would really be something for my research file.
    Which brings me back to 1938, when the vein started to show herself clearer than clear.  Since then, I’ve been the owner of the Dee river.  Yes, me, George Owens.  According to our country’s laws.  And I’ve got a mountain of evidence to prove the fact.
    It’s more of a hindrance than it’s worth, sometimes.  In the butcher’s shop, once, for example; I’ll tell you about that.  It was sometime in ’92 and I’d only just moved into the house in the village, had made a muddle of my life by anyone else’s measuring rod.  Nan gone – that’s another story.  But gone is gone so there was nobody to tend to me after a swim or to shush a row.  At least I can still go swimming and be with her like that once in a while, in some sort of communion. 
    I was just saying to the butcher, Edi Rwden, that it was a genius, whoever it was who wrote the words, ‘I’d rather be a Hammer than a Nail.’  And there he was, agreeing with me wholeheartedly.  Chirpy as could be.  There’s a way to tell people what they want to hear, isn’t there?  And make them think that you’re the genius for saying so in the first place.  And what’s the point of being crabby in a shop queue, tell me?  We have to be there don’t we?  No choice about it.  I was just blathering to pass the time.  And he, the butcher, was going on and on about Simon and Garfunkel still, like a barber about his dog.
    Things were cheerful enough, standing there in front of some headless chickens under the glass counter, with him slicing beef on the other side.  He was so pleased, he pointed at me, as if he was saying, ‘You’re the boy, very good you are, very good, spot on,’ like that.  But of course, the meat slicer was still in his hand – strange that, how a simple friendly gesture can look like a fierce one.  Everyone on my side of the counter took a step back.  I guess that a happy man with a knife isn’t any safer than an angry one. 
    I’d have been happy enough humming bits of Simon and Garfunkel exactly where I was, waiting my turn.  But the conversation turned to the Dee, as things sometimes do without warning, and ‘How can you own a river, then?  Can you explain that to me?’ he said, ‘Because you can’t, can you – own a river…?’
    ‘You can,’ I said.
    And off we go again.  Oh, I can list a rigmarole of these questions for you.  Because that’s what they do, always: people ask a question that already includes what they think is the answer.  Leaving me no space for my own reply: for a reply of any kind.  And leaving me feeling just stupid.  They can think I don’t understand the game as much as they like, but I do.
He should know better.  After all, who is the butcher but Tom’s nephew – ‘Cigydd Rwden Butcher’ in big red letters on the window.  Tom Rwden, who took a sizeable part in the plot to give me the Dee in the first place, without a doubt!  So the butcher should, more than anyone else, have inherited an understanding of my situation.
    ‘What do you mean by “river” anyway?  The water in it or the land holding it?’  This is what I get from him, for the hundredth time.  And I’m just about to say: chicken; egg!  Chicken; egg!
    ‘Because nobody owns water, and you, sure to God, don’t own any field anywhere.’  So, that’s where he was, telling me, simple as that, ‘It doesn’t make sense, George.’
    I’ll give him sense.  Thinking he can give me a lesson on a river’s nature!  And him not understanding the simplest of things; no, worse, refusing.  This is what I’d like to say, this is what people don’t understand: she moves all the while, a river.  Her direction alters, as if she had a quick left hook some days.  That’s what I’d like to have once in a while – a good swing over the chicken counter.  But that’s what the river does: she wears the land.  And it takes so long for that to happen that nobody around sees the difference one day to the next.  Like watching a clock’s finger.  Did anyone ever see that move?  But she’s the same river, even then.
    What happens in a deep river bend, you see, is the water attacks the bank of the outer side of the horseshoe, as it were, and chafes away at it until it crumbles and falls into the water.  The bend then gets deeper and deeper until, one day, a flood will make the river bust over the neck of the bend; she’ll make a short cut and a lonely little lake where the bend used to be.  That’s a river for you: like one hell of a slow snake moving through the grass over the years, if she’s left to her own devices.  Plays tricks.  Disappears, shifts, swells.  But that’s if.  If left to her own devices, which to be honest, she usually isn’t .  You think about the Dee – you have Horseshoe Falls looking all perfect and symmetrical, steering water from the river into the canal, then Bala sluice gates that control Tryweryn water as it enters the Dee, and the diabolic canals towards the Dee’s end, after Chester.  They’re hardly natural.
    My point is this: a river isn’t just her water.  Not just her banks either.  She’s a composition of the two and a third thing.  It’s nothing to do with water price or grazing rights.  But you try telling that, level-headed, to a man who’s already angry, while people in the queue are waiting for their sausages!
    And more than that, how do you tell a man like that?  I’ve tried; I’ve become quite fed up of trying.  He’s an old lump and nothing more.  He then asks that other question: do I own the water when the water is in the sea?  When the water is cloud?  He’s having fun by then – reciting his science class to me as if I didn’t know better.  River water to sea water, evaporation, clouds, condensation, rain – Oh hey presto – a river – dwr yn yr afon a cherrig yn slic .
Very clever.  The man has passed his O levels and runs a business.
‘How do you know which cloud is yours, next to any other, and which bit of which one?’  He starts some game of pointing out of the window.  Some show, pointing, ‘Look – over there.’ More and more people join the queue.  And he refers to this cumulus and that stratocumulus and says, ‘What do you think, Mrs Patti Huws?  If George here says that he owns that waft of cloud, or that one?’  Not that he gives her a chance to open her mouth, let alone give him her tuppence-worth.  ‘My dear George, you must have such a hassle, keeping track of your Dee!’  He asks then if I go about the place claiming rights to raindrops as post-Dee, ‘Hey, that bit of rain has been down the Dee once, so it’s mine.  Don’t you dare stand in its way.’
    And by then everyone’s stepped clean away from me as if I – not him – were waving a meat slicer, and if I were the one on the verge of bursting.  But they laugh, anyway – into their fists, laughing because the thing is – the butcher’s hot air is nothing but silly and deserves more than a titter.  The idea deserves a mouthy ha-ha, dentures out sort of thing, doesn’t it?  Think about it – anyone gadding about saying that they own the rain?  But he doesn’t see: I actually agree with him on that.  He’s the fool, thinking I’m like that.  Not even understanding what a river is.
    And he says: if I only thought about it thoroughly – me, imagine – there’s only such-and-such amount of water in the world and the whole lot is recycled.  And he, trying to be something of a teacher tells me this, steak down, gloves off, hands out and everything.
    So, ever since the world was created, it stands to reason that every single little molecule of water in the world has made the trip from Duallt to the sea at least once, like blood through veins going round and round a body, he said.  He flicked a drop of blood off the cutting table with the point of his knife and pointed at an old poster of a sliced cow and its insides. 
Water in a river: blood in a body.  Only such-and-such an amount of it existing.  His evidence is good.  But his use of it is skew-wiff.  And his argument doesn’t hold water – mind my language!  He doesn’t even have the first idea about the difference between water and river.  Something inexplicable happens when water meets water.  And when blood meets blood, too, although that has a name: family.  It’s how the world goes round.
 ‘And if so,’ he says, ‘you own all of the water in the world!  All of it, in the whole world, mind!  That is, if you own the water that was once in the Dee, at all.’
That’s it.  Water.  And water in the Dee.  Two quite different things.  Well, he was answering his own question, if only he’d listen.  Somewhere deep down, he knew that you needed more than water to make the Dee.  But he was quite happy to ignore his instinct; a stickler for what he’s supposed to believe.  The kind of boy who’d put his hand in the fire if someone told him it would be fine, even if one little scrap of his brain said otherwise. 
He just doesn’t like that I’ve stopped him from fishing, many times, that’s all.  But I have a perfect right to bar anyone I fancy, just like a pub landlord.  And I don’t like the look of him.

The butcher finished packing my steak, ‘Steak for one,’ he said, and slapped it on the face of the glass counter and looked at me. ‘Like I was saying, Owens.  No sense.’

You can read the full extract and find out more here on the Wales Literature Exchange | Cyfn website.


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