– Dyma ‘ch oena
– Niolch, said Lily, smiling to the big, blonde woman who had brought the dish of lamb with herbs and vegetables.
– What did she say?, Rulo asked
– I’ve no idea…
– Well, what did you say then?
– That makes sense, said Valeria. You can’t go wrong with that. Valeria spoke very good English, just like her partner Oso, who was pouring some more Malbec for everybody as Lily served the lamb.
They were sitting at an old inn in the Cwm Hyfryd, the “beautiful valley” in Chubut, where Tre Felin, the “mill town” is located. The Argentine name of the town is Trevelin, and Rulo’s aunt Valeria had bought some land and moved there years ago.
Rulo and Valeria, being just a few years apart in age, had always been very close. Back when she was married, Valeria had lived in Mexico for about a decade with her husband and kids, Rulo’s cousins, and Rulo had very fond memories of all the times he had been there, visiting. Valeria’s husband had been a powerful CEO type, born in Argentina of English parents, and the American company he worked for had sent him to Mexico to be their regional director there. A large fellow, very blond and with a pinkish face like some Englishmen have, the general consensus in the family had been that he was the perfect husband. After about 20 years of a seemingly great marriage, though, Valeria had gone and divorced him, a messy one. Raúl had never had any problems with his uncle Bob and in fact considered him a great guy, but he respected his aunt’s decision and supported her, even as the rest of the family didn’t; after that, they had grown even closer.
An attractive, smart woman in her early 50’s (Lily and Rulo were in their early 40’s at the time), Valeria had met a new partner a few years before, Oso, a French-Argentinian without as much money or as good a career as Bob, but with a big heart and a joie de vivre that infected everybody around him, and she had been in love with him ever since. They had sold their places in BA (she had been back from Mexico a while) and put all their savings into a farm in Welsh Patagonia, where Rulo had taken Lily for a visit, driving from Bariloche and stopping at sites of interest along the way.
– ¿Te acordás del chile habanero?
– English, Vala, English…
– Unless you know any Welsh!
– I think Lily is the only one here who knows Welsh
– Oh, hardly… I used to speak it when I was little, then by age 7 my family sent me to an English-only school and I lost most of it. It’s only recently I’ve started trying to re-learn it a little bit. I know a word here and there… but what was that about?
– The first time your friend came to visit me in Mexico, I think the very first night there I took him out to dinner, to a traditional taco restaurant, and disregarding my warnings, he ate a whole raw habanero pepper, the hottest in Mexico, which is saying a lot.
– I almost died. Seriously. The pain…
– What’s with the hot spicy food? I traveled a lot in Asia, and they are very keen on the stuff there as well…
– I still like it, to a point…
– Yeah, but I mean, c’mon, some of that stuff is just painful…
– Well, from living there such a long time, in Mexico I mean, my theory is that on the one hand, they’ve been using that stuff so long, for so many generations, that it is somehow ingrained in their genes… you see young moms and dads giving stuff that would make us cry to their little kids, so they get used to it from a young age, too. Now, the ultimate reason for it though, I think has to do with how much faster you fill up if you’re eating spicy stuff, I mean even a bowl of sopa de tortilla with nothing but hot chilies seems very filling. Most of them are not rich, so…
– I see the point. Yeah, you could be right. Interesting.
The big woman approached again, smiling.
– Alla ca ‘ch mwyach gwin?
– Oh, I’m sorry, Lily said, you’ll have to say that in English, unfortunately I don’t know Welsh that well…
The woman gave her a blank stare; she hadn’t understood a word Lily had said.
– ¿Perdón, qué dijo?, Valeria asked the woman.
– ¡Ah! Pensé que la señora hablaba galés. Les preguntaba si querían más vino, nomás…
– Si, si, por favor, está todo buenísimo, gracias.
– No way! Valeria, don’t tell me they speak Welsh and Spanish here, but no English… it’s too much! Wow! Amazing!
– Well, I’m sure some of them do. But you know, they are not very fond of the English here! Or at least weren’t, back in the day, when they first started settling here, in the 1860’s.
– What’s the deal with that? Why not?
– You know how, for the longest time, the English tried to suppress regional and national identities, and the Welsh were no exception. And they were poor, a lot of them were very poor back then, they had no future in the UK, they didn’t feel they had any place for them there, so they started looking for new horizons…
– A certain minister Jones, a fanatic preacher, was their leader at the time, -Rulo interrupted- whose mother had been evicted by a great landowner, Sir Watkin Williams Wynn. In those days landlords could evict farmer tenants on a whim, and were notorious for their rigid interpretation of the game laws. Catching a rabbit for the pot on one of the great estates, even if you were starving, could be a very risky activity. Like many other religious leaders of his day Jones looked to emigration as a solution for the problems of his flock. He had come to realise that in the second generation Welsh emigrants to America tended to lose their language and some of their national characteristics, so decided to locate his flock in Patagonia which was thought to be fertile and known to be sparsely populated.
– The ‘Mimosa’ right?
– Right, that’s the ship the first settlers sailed to get here, get to Puerto Madryn, their first town, on the coast, named after Madryn Castle in North Wales… Lily and I were talking about that yesterday, guys, it’s in a Susan Wilkinson story published by the “Buenos Aires Herald” back in ’98 that I found…
– Your friend is probably boring the daylights out of you with his learned chatter there, right Lily? He’s just like his dad, my brother, that way. Give them an inch, they’ll go on and on and on about stuff that very few others care a hoot for…
– Oh, no, Valeria, not at all. I enjoy his stories. These stories, especially. This is all so very interesting, it gives me a different perspective of my background. Back when I was little in the 70’s and 80’s to say Wales was to say housing projects, unemployment, the dole queues. Dreary, bleak and dreary. Alcoholism, drugs, hopelessness, hooliganism were rampant. It makes me proud to think of some of us, way back in the past, saying screw it, let’s find a new country where we can be masters of our own lives, speak our language, without having to pay taxes to some blueblood twit when our children are going hungry.
– How do you like Patagonia so far?
– It’s wild, just wild. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a place like this before. Maybe just the interior of Australia, the Outback they call it. But to travel miles and miles, days and days, and not see anyone at all… nothing, no human presence whatever. If you could make a giant stamp in the shape of the whole UK and start stamping Patagonia with it, you could do it ten, twenty times, and I reckon the population here is maybe… what, Rulo… maybe 5% of the UK population?
– If that.
– So that’s amazing, the terrain is incredible as well, especially the Western parts on the mountains. It looks like Switzerland, really. I don’t think a lot of people in Europe expect to see snow covered Swiss chalets and pine trees and kids with sleds in South America… it’s so surprising in so many ways…
The conversation went on and on over the remaining wine, then coffee and dessert, dulce de leche custard. The snow kept falling without interruption. At one point, a pair of elderly gentlemen approached their table, and asked Lily something in Welsh that she was actually able to understand and answer:
– Ofwyi? Chan ‘r ‘n Gyd Brenhiniaeth?
– Do Dwi.
– Ach Cymraeg?
– Dwi, namyn buchedda i mewn Caerludd.
– Da, iawn da… muy bien, muy bien! Very good!
They lingered for a while and exchanged niceties in bad English and perfect Spanish before settling on another table and ordering their dinner. Of course, Rulo, Valeria and Oso’s eyes were set on Lily, questioning her. She was positively glowing. Maybe it was the good Patagonian lamb, maybe the nice Argie Malbec, or maybe -Rulo knew this was why, and smiled to himself- having been able to have a conversation with these old timers in a language she thought she had lost a long time ago.
– WELL?, Valeria finally asked, and all 4 burst out laughing.
– Not much really, they asked me if I’m a visitor from Britain, and if I’m Welsh, I explained that I am but live in London now.
– Bravo, Lily! This calls for a nightcap! Do you want to order it in your gibberish?
– Gibberish my arse! Don’t mess with an old and proud people!
– Holy shit, she’s gone tribal all of a sudden!
– I’ve embarrassed myself enough, you order it in Spanish…
– Not for me R, Oso said, I’m driving.
It was a long drive in the snow, in Rulo’s relatives’ old beat up Land Rover, to their farm, almost on the Chilean border. They were all very tired, so after saying good night and hugging, Valeria and Oso went to the main farmhouse, and Lily and Rulo to the guest house. The rented Land Cruiser was outside, and Rulo grabbed a few logs from a pile leaning against a wall as Lily fumbled with the door. In no time, they had a nice fire going, and they were cuddling on the old couch next to the fireplace, covered in blankets.
– Hey, my aunt told me she left some weed here for us.
– Oh, Rulo, I don’t know… I haven’t smoked in so long…
– Same here. But I thought we could maybe celebrate your newfound or shall I say, rediscovered fluency in Welsh…
– I’m not fluent at all, I just got very lucky there, somehow the words popped up and I just had to let them come out.
– Oh, c’mon… a few tokes for old time’s sake… we don’t have to go anywhere tonight. I won’t smoke alone, I’ll tell you that.
– Allright then. Just because I’m happy. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t happy and enjoying myself.
– I know you’re happy. I could see it there. I’m happy you’re happy. Hold on, let me see if I find the stuff…
He came back with an ashtray, a lighter and a thin joint. She went to the kitchen for a couple glasses of water, and to put the kettle on. They lit up and smoked in silence for a while, passing the smoke back and forth, staring at the fire.
– So you know, this guy Mr H…
– What about him
– Part of that whole ethos, that whole zeitgeist or I dunno what to call it, of hopelessness that you were describing earlier, what Cardiff and the UK generally were back in the day. Being a football tough, living this double life while he was with you.
– I’ve been thinking about him, because I was kind of like him once. Not a hooligan. I was never into that, although Argentina is probably the one place in the world where passions run as high as in the UK when it comes to football, we have our share of that here too… but it never attracted me. I was attracted to other stuff. Coke, and speed, and punk rock concerts. So I could totally relate or understand what you were talking about earlier, because I had a girlfriend at the time, and she was the bomb. The perfect girl. You know who she was?
– The same woman who years later would be sending me tapes and letters to Christiansands, the same that came to meet me in Greece after, to nurse my wounds and whatnot, and finally had to leave because I was impossible to deal with at the time. And this has to be about the same time your thing with Mr H was going on, 17, 18. She was insanely pretty, insanely smart, everything. And I enjoyed being with her and all. But I was always thinking, in the back of my head, when am I going out with the boys? The boys were mostly in my rugby team. We were the worst rugby team ever. Everybody there was a junky. Nobody would sleep the night before games, everybody was up doing coke and drinking all night, going to whores and discos and gigs and drug dealers, then it was straight to the game, smoking cigarettes and pot on the bus, still high. Terrible. Then Saturday night after the game I would see her, and I would be so tired, we’d have one quick fuck, and I would fall asleep right away, sometimes. No fun at all.
– Yeah, this guy, I don’t think he was into drugs or anything, I think his thing was the violence, the adrenalin of following the team and bashing a few skulls in now and then.
– I get it, yeah. But you said he went to school after, and got himself a degree, and started writing stories… so he seems to have had other layers to him besides the football, right…
– That’s I think one of the reasons we’re still in touch. I wouldn’t even be in touch anymore if he was a one-dimensional character, especially if his one dimension was being a football tough… please. But you’re right, nothing’s as simple as it seems.
– In my case, if you’d met me back then, maybe you’d have assumed I was something different than what I turned out to be. I guess your story about this guy made me real sad, because… first of all, because you must have been so beautiful at 18. I know you were at 24. You are now. But I never saw any pictures of you at 18 or so, this guy was probably madly in love with you…
– That’s why he requested the song.
– Right. Another dimension your story got me thinking of is, how coldly you let him go, like dead weight. And about what attitude is better when you are loved but cannot love back with the same intensity: you say you didn’t want to waste anybody’s time, his or yours, because you knew there was no place for him where you were going. Mine was more like, time was created to be wasted, if she enjoys wasting hers with me, let’s do it for a while longer. She’s a good fuck, and into literature and classical music, she’s beautiful, why not. And in later years, or rather, after you told me your story and your reasons for being cold and cruel to this fellow, I thought maybe you have a point there, maybe if I had told M. to fuck off at 18, she wouldn’t have been following me to Europe when we were 24, to be hurt again.
– But think of this: she will always have memories of great times, and of fucked up times too, with her great love, intense memories. Not just the bad Saturdays, there were a bunch of good ones too, good lays, good trips together, good long talks about the things that interested both of us over coffee and smokes at random bars at 3 in the morning. A lot of them. Many many good times. A lot of the bad too, granted. But if I could have a say, I would have chosen to have more time, intense time, good and bad, with you back then. So she got that. And also this: after she finally gave up on me in Greece, she went and found the man who would become her husband in Belgium right away, a handsome, rich, smart guy there. So she also has me to thank for that, right? I triggered the random series of circumstances that ended in her finding a guy to marry and have her kids with. You never know, right…
– You never know… it’s true…
– I just felt for this guy when you told me the story the other day. Really felt for him. Obviously I could relate and everything, I had my own Tel Aviv moment as he had his Cardiff one where I had to see you go and not a damn thing to do about it. Did he have a chance? Did you ask him to change his ways, quit the hooligan thing, or did you just take that side of him as a good excuse to dump him? You know what… I’m not making any sense here. I’m stoned. I don’t know what I want to say anymore. Except I understand this guy a bit, we seem to have a couple of things in common, and we both had to see Lily go at some point, which is… painful.
– Ohhhh, well… but you never know… you never know, you said it… because here we are, right? We are here under the blankets, snow outside, a warm fire… having such a good time… so, you see, yeah, I won’t talk about him now because at this point I know you more than I used to know him, but you… you are finally having the times you wanted, and I’m here with you, and this is turning out to be one of the best trips ever for me as well, so… ‘it’s all well that ends well’…
– Right, you’re right. It’s working out great, and I’m so happy life gave us this second chance… why do I love you so much?
– I have no idea, but it feels nice to know.