Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections: Dexter Petley

Dexter Petley | 16th January 2021

It’s time for the annual musings known as Shadows and Reflections. Since so many of our lives were lived in thematic overlap in 2020, we’ve asked our contributors and friends to focus on the small, strange and specific as they look back over the last 12 months. Today it’s the turn of Dexter Petley.

Let’s leave 2020 for the diarists, find a better year in a worse place, the shinier gloom of Mid-Wales in the winter of 1993.  


Man and boy, bent forward against rain, hanged by rain.  Even when it’s dry Vic and Dylan walk in that flinch, hatless, like their world is the edge of a Victorian postcard.  A century later we pass them in our cars as they tramp along the verge, black bin bags over shoulders instead of gunny-sacks.  It’s like we are the ghosts; they never see us, and we agree not to see them from our side of time. 

Tre-Taliesin was like a village remembering its dead.  Black gleam of roof slate in acid rain, two centuries of bronchial winters weighed down on slick wet roads, back-lit parlours draped in Oxfam velvet, neighbours who’d lend you their last rites.  Gwelfor was a lead-miner’s cottage, one in a long row facing hills, mugged in estuary smog October to March.  The sea was out back, a mile away, a thin strip of horizon if you stood on the toilet seat upstairs.  A renter’s garden, housing benefit game reserve like a flood just subsided.  Flattened by ebbs of neglect, wrappers blown over, clinging to dead weeds, briars flailing across the flag path.  Indoor life had to bear some weight.  The cheese on toast, worn typewriter ribbons, a splintered block-board cupboard full of pots and pans the last tenant hadn’t scoured.  Carpet mould, sash windows sticking in a swollen frame, flaking paint, no milk today thanks, a half-used bag of Polish coal crushing the rosemary.  

I first heard of Dylan when he scratched his name on the Land Rover door. Winter had begun. Drizzle off the sea like the daily catch. The lane to Borth dipped away beyond the last house, a long flat causeway across yellow pasture. It rose to a knuckle before dropping back to marsh and coastline.  Horses in padded vests watched the River Clettwr run to flood, licking through the upstream flats.  Fields strewn with windborne plastic, a thousand gulls in black and white cumuli flapping like the bags.  Two boys bunking school waded through mud with air rifles, shooting at ducks.  You could hear the smack of pellets half a mile off.  One of the boys squealed.  I knew it was Dylan.  The squeal of his duck was imagined.   In the dip was a cul-de-sac, a row of cottages, Taliesin Villas.  On the lane in red paint it said: DYLAN + MICEKY. 

Two legs appeared, grey cord turn-ups flopping over split trainers.  The man cleared his throat. If you want something, he said, I suppose you ask the Bank Manager. I eased my head out from under the Land Rover and looked upwards into a stog of bloke.  A bonehead with a chin like a box of kitchen matches.  Baggy cords like clowns wear over stilts.  Too big for his porous bomber jacket, tight wavy hair like a shrunken wig.   Not God, he said.  You don’t ask God.  We ask God, see. No, I said.  I don’t really ask anyone.  That’s a pity. We think you seem a nice kind person.  We think you’re a Christian, see.  A damp-wall-leaky-trainer cough, he was building up to something, to tap me for a tenner, a lift, a cheap stereo.  Two fists like sheep’s heads hung under his pockets.  We live down there, he said, on the end.  He cocked a head at Taliesin Villas.  Ah, I said, you’re Dylan’s dad.   That’s right. You know ‘im then, do you?  We’ve not met.  He did that, I said, standing up and pointing at the signature on my door.  Bonehead didn’t seem to notice. Who do you ask, like, when you want something? he insisted. What do you want? I said. It’s alright, I don’t want anything. In the field behind, magpies were fighting over spaghetti, a marmalade cat chased rabbits, the sheep were eating bread.  I’m Vic, he said.  We go to this church in Borth, see, a group of Christians like.  Would you be interested in joining us? No, I said, sorry. Are you going that way? Which way? I said.  To hell or what?  Borth, he said.  Dylan’s gone off with his cousins, without a coat or anything, on that road too.  You know, Nelly’s worried.  Worried about what? That he’s got your air rifle?  Or he’s scratching his name on more cars?  No, he’s not a…a you know.  He’s not always like that.  We try an’ be Christians, in a good Christian house, see.  No, I don’t see.  When you ask God for something, I said, do you get it?  Vic’s crumpled smile, backed by national health choppers like a draught excluder rammed into a gap.  If you don’t ask, see, you don’t get it, he said.  You can’t, like, have it, can you? 

Weary sunlight on a freshly broken window, the front door ajar. I checked over my belongings, which were few and short-lived.  Downstairs was knocked into one room, four rooms in the days of lead, to sleep sixteen.  A house where the men died at 30.  There’d always been someone on a death-bed, or dying in labour. It was cramped and dark even now, kitchen in the corner behind an L-shaped counter, stairway turning sharp as a tower onto a landing. Carpet bugs, two boxed bedrooms, a bathroom with that view of the estuary from the toilet seat.  My binoculars were missing from the kitchen table, along with a large fossil used as a door stop. The French windows opened onto a garden of weeds flattened by heavy frosts.  Fifty feet of teasel, broken necked thistle, hedged in elderberry and buddleia. The bottom boundary was the back wall of a jerry can-and paint pot-shed with asbestos roofing. The corner had crumbled and gave way with a simple delinquent’s hop onto a path, stomped grass and a broken fence.  It descended the edge of the field, emerging onto the lane at Taliesin Villas.

I could see Nelly through her window, feet up, watching adverts.  There was no front garden, just the pavement running along their wall to the front door.  A spile gate at right angles, a side garden with a cinder path between scruffy plots where Vic grew cabbages among a clutter of dropped flower-pots, a fridge door, a pile of galvanized chicken feeders, metal shuttering, the porcelain resistors off old telegraph poles.  Nelly opened the door a face wide, squeezing into the vestibule, pulling a curtain behind her, once a blanket with a St John’s Ambulance insignia.  

Oh, she said. I live at Gwelfor, I said.  Oh, that’s nice.  Are you looking for Vic?  She had a voice like a glove puppet, a cat frying a pan full of eggs.  Even blocking the room from me, she conducted the smell of fried eggs like she’d sprayed it from a can.  No, I said.  Oh, but he went to meet you see, it’s ever so nice of you to help ‘im.  Help him what? Fetch Dylan with his cousins.  No, you’ve got the wrong end of the stick, I said.  I was just wondering if Dylan had found my binoculars.  Her sigh was resignation, her face an egg dropped on the floor.  The curtain flammed shut, the door left open.  I put my ear to the curtain, expecting muffled voices telling Dylan to stay hidden till the man had gone.  But the curtain was dragged aside and Nelly stood there holding a green plastic watering can and a red petrol can. Is this it? she said. The curtain was open properly now. My binoculars were on the table beside someone else’s chainsaw.  He didn’t write that on the back of your car, she said.

Vic tapped on my door, so softly the cat only raised one eye.  The rain was louder than his knock.  A door-to-door self-pity seller, the rain streamed off him.  He was a broken gutter, like standing in the shower with his rag and bone clothes, a bubble of snotcher hanging from his nose.  Dylan was never at school.  Tramping, sloshing, nuddling with Vic along the coast road.  They slogged by in the mornings, lingered in the road outside, ten minutes thumbing by the gate, their eyes on my window.  Now he wanted a ride into Aberystwyth.  He had to open up the Boys Club.  He even showed me the keys, like I ought to recognise their slowly rusting authority.  Dylan waited at the gate in darkness, keeping the rain off with his bin bag, still as a horse in a downpour.  I can’t let the boys down.  We keep them out of trouble, see.  It was a quarter to six.  Boys Club was half-seven.  The village drivers had run out of patience.  Vic stood by their cars of a morning like a dog beside an empty bowl.  Nelly was the same.  I’d seen her with a full trolley at LowPrice, accosting shoppers in the car park for a lift home.  Dylan and I were still strangers.  He shied his gaze, like avoiding slaps as well as rain.  I’d learned to shut the door in Vic’s face already.

Winter hardened.  Frost thick as cardboard.  The water in the diesel froze and the Land Rover was a pig to start.  At the bus stop Vic asked me for the bus fare. Dylan still dressed like it was June, Vic in four season sackcloth and ashes.  Shutting the door on Vic and Dylan had become an act of daily life.  You shut it on pure sulk. The sobbing door. I dug deep for sympathy, but Vic and Dylan kept a tab on you.  Whatever you were doing when they knocked, it went sour. You said no and lived with it, but I too had the knock which turns an evening sour.  Nelly answered the knock.  This time she tugged at the door in her nightdress. The house was dark, a red speck from the freezer light, a wall of sweat and rissoles.  Sleep still hung on her face like it had just been thrown at her, washing off in a blink of moon as the clouds swept on.  Her face was a luminous dial, a low watt bulb in a nightlight. What is it, we’re all asleep.  Where’s Dylan? I said.  My rage was extinguished by the draft of the opening door.  Sleep came hard to Nelly, you could hear that in her voice.  It accused me of spoiling it till dawn.  I don’t know, she said.  What d’you wan‘im for?  It wasn’t late enough to apologise, not even drinking up time, but I fell short of accusing Dylan.  I knew the despair of being woken when you needed sleep, the despair only bad sleepers in bad families can feel.  Someone’s tried to steal my Land Rover, I managed to say.  A bad hotwire job, the starter motor still jammed on when I’d found it.  There’s nothing I can do about it, she said.  If only you knew.  You don’t know what I have to put up with.  What do you want me to do?  Go back to sleep, I said.  I’ve not got a fancy man, she said.  They say I have, but I haven’t, see.  I waited in the cab with the window down.  At eleven, as the owls wheeped, the trainers came.  Down the long empty lane from Borth, murmuring into the cul-de-sac, Dylan’s weak wet cough, the first time I’d ever heard him voice his presence. Footpads, night squelchers, they whispered like grave robbers.  Queasy, I could feel them emptying their pockets, rubbing the plunder under a thirty-watt bulb with big black-nailed thumbs as Nelly wrung her hands in grief.

A crab’s leg on a wet wall, like a snapped crocus dropped by a gull.  Sessile oaks rooted like tooth decay under rock and stone.  Fallen beeches and mountain ash over the Clettwr as it tumbled down the gorge towards the Dovey. A bare hedge running along the comb of a hill like hair dragged from a drain hole.  The ewe was upside down, wedged in the corner of the field.  Her dead lamb born as far as its neck, a broom-head grin bubbling in the corner of its mouth.  The ewe was cast alive, inverted in its own blood and droppings, days of rain, eyes rolled back to the bone so you could see its past.  Below the field was a cottage.  I waved at the old farmer there.  He came up on his 4-trac, shook his head and said nature was a funny thing, blamed the rain, then asked me what I wanted him to do about it.  I said shoot it.  Too much trouble fetching the gun, he said, scratching his ear.  First time he’d seen a thing like this in 60 years.  He rocked an old fence post from its hole.  The first blow slipped off and shinned an ear.  The ewe griped, the second blow broke the fence post over its head.  He broke another two posts before it bled through its nose and its gassed up, purple balloon belly stopped pumping.

They were in the lane outside Taliesin Villas, arguing about where to go, Borth or Aber.  They drifted and sucked like bored fish, clouds of smoke instead of empty thoughts in a cartoon.  One of them jerked his chin my way for Dylan’s benefit.  Miceky was there too, a cousin from Borth on Nelly’s side.  There were two others at Dylan’s back, shunting him forward, older boys, black hair slicked back with gel, smoking roll-ups.  They dressed like their granddads, caps and padded shirts, their olive skin was filth, bags under eyes big as shiners.  I stood by the Land Rover and waited.  Dylan, squint-limbed and shruggy, tried to swagger.  My first chance to see his face, hear his voice.  The face I’d imagined, grinning like a skull, a dazzled-by-headlights-face, fluttering eyelashes which seemed too long.  He stood twenty feet away and his voice was like Nelly’s, but more pleady. Can we have a lift please?  No. I’m not going anywhere.  The tallest boy was about fifteen.  He turned on his heel, tugging his brother by the arm, disassociating himself from Dylan and Miceky.  Miceky was a pancake faced generic boy, dying to say something but biting his lip and taking a breath. Conrad said ‘e’s gonna steal your toolbox.  Who’s Conrad? I said.  Him, he said, pointing down the road.  Was that Conrad hot-wired my van?  What will you give me, if I tell you? Dylan said.  Miceky piped up:  Yeah, an’e nearly drove it.  Dylan stamped on his foot. Whatchew say that for, Micky?  Hey, they’re goin, Miceky said. The brothers were down on the straight, walking towards Borth.  They’re goin’ without us, Dylan said.  Come on.

 December cloud hung belly-down in the road, washed in from flat seas at high tide.  Starlings flocked early in the afternoon. My boots left footprints on the lane to Borth, like walking on sponge the air was so wet.  The horses were drenched like they’d swum up the dyke, half lame with their thatched manes and coats of mud.  As they stampeded through bog, I felt the ground quiver like jelly.  The high tide ran up the dykes and the sheep were eating sugar beet which looked like mud pies.  Back outside the house, clouds still drifted along the pavement under streetlamps.  This time Nelly was distraught at the sight of me.  Baked beans down her front, tea spoiled.  An army of beef burger smell to back her up.  Now what you accusing him of?  Whatever ‘e’s done, call the Police!  Even Vic’s ‘ad a word with him.  We’ve ‘ad the Police round Lord knows ‘ow many times about those other boys.  They’re the ones who break into them old men’s houses and steal their clothes you know.  I can’t get them to go to school can I!  Is it Conrad? I asked.  What could I do, she said?   About what?  They threw ‘im out for drinkin.  ‘E’s only sixteen, poor mite. It’s ‘is bloody father’s fault, brewin that pocheen and keeping ferrets in the front room.  I can’t put ‘im out on the street, can I?  They ain’t said a word to me.  They don’t pay me you know.  I ‘ave to feed ‘im, not that ‘e eats nothin much.  Was Dylan like all those unreal children in fiction?  The kids of Saroyan, Salinger, Pynchon?  Kids displaced into contorted roles, totally immune to adult injunction. Like them all, Dylan was marooned outside of any common centre with guardians or grown-ups.  He obeyed his own logic, modified the behaviour of us all in Taliesin.  The village lived in perpetual reaction to him.  You delayed the arrival of simple events in ordinary life till cleared to do so by Dylan’s non-intervention.  He wasn’t fiction, or autistic, or intelligent.  Saroyan, Salinger and Pynchon wouldn’t have bothered writing about him. They’d have called the Police, like everyone else.  

At midnight, a weak tap on the front door, half scratch, like a branch in the wind. It was Nelly, hugging her M&S raincoat tight over her telly and eggs dress, wet pillow-grease hair in her eyes.  She stepped backwards when I stuck my head round the door. I’m ever so sorry to bother you.  I’m out of my mind with worry, see. Come in, I said.  No! she almost shouted it.  Is it Dylan? Yes. They’d left Borth on foot after their tea and hadn’t arrived home.  Nelly was trying to cover her household failings, like not giving them tea herself and Dylan not having proper shoes. Why can’t Vic look for them? He’s hurt his foot. What do you want me to do? We took the Land Rover and crawled down the lane in a thick, sea mist.  The steam coming off Nelly was like a boiling kettle.  I couldn’t wipe the windscreen quickly enough before it steamed over. She stank like the back of her cooker.  I made her open her window before she set off on her small-gauge train of self-pity.  I’m ever so sorry, you don’t know what it’s like.  He’s Vic’s son, not mine.  I’ve got a girl, Bethesda, and it’s not right.  Where is she? I asked.  It was the first I’d heard of a daughter. Asleep, Nelly said.  She’s only twelve.  I’ve locked her in. We were over the knuckle when we saw Dylan, struggling to hide an equestrian saddle.  He dragged it a yard then gave up and stood in my headlights.  Conrad kicked it into the ditch.  I braked and left full headlights on them. Where did they get that?  I said to Nelly.  Go and help him with it, Nelly said, as if he was in trouble. You’re joking, I said.  He’s burgled the stables and you want me to help him?  You don’t know that.  People ask him, well, you know, to sell things for them.  ‘E’s good at that. ‘E is good at something, you know.  She called him through the window, like the saddle was now a piece of rubbish found at the side of the road. Leave that now, Dylan, and come in.  Yer dad’s already in bed. I stepped out and slammed the door.  The saddle was filthy and badly grazed where they’d scuffed it along.  I threw it in the back and told them they could get in or stay there, I didn’t care.  Conrad stank of Vodka.  At Taliesin Villas, Dylan tried pulling the saddle out after him.  Oh no you don’t.  I’m taking that back to wherever you nicked it.  We didn’t steal it, did we Conrad.  I nearly shut the door on his fingers.  You’ve stole it now, he said to me.  Nelly, tell him to give it back.  Get Dad.  My dad doesn’t like you. Don’t be silly, Dylan.  He didn’t say that. I don’t care.  That’s my saddle. Where did you get it then? My sister used to ride. Have you got the reins then? I’ll bring’em round, he said.

I could feel Dylan smothering the air come Spring; I could see him in the Clettwr after flood, in high tide bushes hung with sodden rag and paper.  Dylan formed that perfect line three feet above water level.  In the village, you could see where he’d washed through, beheading, flailing, the anti-vernal. Flowers slaughtered in their beds, lopped, uprooted. Daffodils, crocuses, tulips; their heads kicked in, their petals stripped.  He was in the lane with Miceky, meandering towards me with daffodil heads in their hands.  They threw them away when they saw me.  Dylan held a walking stick.  A girl I guessed was Bethesda hung back fifty yards behind, hair like her mum’s, white slacks like sheets on a clipper billowing out under a dowdy mac two sizes too big. She turned her back on me. There were pellets of builder’s putty in the road with the flower heads, and putty stuck on every car windscreen in the village.  My own windscreen had a muddy footprint beside the putty.  Dylan hoisted himself up on a junction box beside the lane and waited for me to walk up. Wanna buy this?  He held the stick out and I snatched it off him.  The Police are looking for you and Conrad.  Everyone knows you burnt Wilf’s shed down.  Conrad’s ol’ man used to be a boxer, Miceky said.  In his teary whine, Dylan said: Wha’m I gonna say? Tell’em Conrad did it, Miceky said. Oi wan a foiver? Dylan said. For the stick. It’s not yours. No it aint, Miceky said. Dylan sulked and pulled the putty from his pocket.  I snatched this off him too.  You stamped on my windscreen.  No I never. I wanna foiver or I’ll kick your cat.  It was like an exorcism, a speaking voice coming out of a baby. I hurled the putty at his head.  He’d made a hundred little balls of it and lightly tacked it back together. The force of the throw scattered them all like lead shot.  He started picking them up.  I looked at the stick.  The silver handle was engraved. To Lady Price Master of the Bow Street hounds from Lord Wyndham Master of the Hunt, 1938.  

The dead ewe was still there, eyes pecked out, legs stiff and v-shaped like a vaulting horse.  The grinning broom head just a skull sticking out of its mother.  Old Pugh was dead too, the farmer, just dropped like a stone in the mud.  I’d last seen him back of the churchyard up among the trees, where a gravestone said:  he had once owned the world’s oldest ewe.  It was 31 and earned him a place in the Guinness Book of Records.  Pugh was sheeting up his hay, two dogs asleep in the back of his Land Rover. His Welsh cob stood in the barn, a pair of kites rose in the field and away over the valley.  Pugh cocked his ear as he’d said: someone should ride that horse in the Talybont show.  I’d get a box and make her pretty, come top in her class she will.  He was already buried near the man with the record ewe. His plastic sheet still flapped in the wind, picked at by sheep on their hind legs.