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August : A Novel - Gerard Woodward

Paperback Published: 1st August 2008
ISBN: 9780393332711
Number Of Pages: 320

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Little did Aldous Jones know when he careened over his bicycle handlebars back in 1955, landing next to farmer Evans's field, that it would turn into the idyllic start to a series of camping holidays in that same field. With Gerard Woodward's deadpan wit and poignant evocation, August encapsulates the portrait of the Joneses and their growing family. Strangely enough, the rural site seems to change in conjunction with their city life, creating a parallel universe instead of a getaway. The Jones family also is featured in I'll Go to Bed at Noon and A Curious Earth.

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The coastal plain to the north of Aberbreuddwyd seems, at first sight, to do little more than fill an awkward gap between the sea on one side and the mountains on the other. It is a thorny strip, a mile and a half wide, of marshy fields, small tenant farms, clumps of Douglas firs, abandoned aerodromes, toppled cromlechs and disused sheds of black tin. By the sea the land rises to a lengthy range of dunes tufted with marram grass, providing shelter for the broad acreages of caravans, tents and mobile homes that tessellate the seaward fringes of the plain. Further inland a single-track railway cuts a dead straight path across the land, accompanied by a small bundle of telephone wires mounted on crooked poles. Still further inland, where the densely wooded foothills of the Rhinogs begin, the coast road carries an exhausted straggle of cars and lorries past the unfrequented roadhouses and small stone villages between Aberbreuddwyd and Brythwch.

Llanygwynfa is one of these villages. It consists of three buildings - a chapel dedicated to St Hywyn, a farmhouse (built, according to some, in a single night) and, half hidden behind beech trees on the opposite side of the Aberbreuddwyd road, the gatehouse of Llwydiarth Hall.

The chapel and the farmhouse, both marked by the pretty plague of yellow lichen that freckles all the stonework in the district, stand side by side next to the main road, and bear a twin-like resemblance to one another. The chimney of the farmhouse is the stumpier sibling of the chapel's bell cote, and both buildings are squat, sturdy and square, like loaves from the same tin.

The tenant of the farm is Hugh Evans who, with hiswife Dorothy, tends seven fields between the road and the railway. They have twenty-three sheep, a flock of hens, assorted cats and dogs, and eleven cows. Hugh is with the eleventh cow and her mother in the first field, where he is trying to encourage young Cochen to take her mother's milk. He is strong, surprisingly strong, for a man so tall and lean, but he is having difficulty moving Cochen, who seems more interested in the hem of Hugh's mackintosh than her mother Frochwen's bloated teats where drops of milk are hanging like grapes. Often she tries suckling at the wrong end of Frochwen, poking her pale tongue hopelessly at her mother's breastbone, which would have been correct had she been a human child. Hugh has to turn Cochen around, picking her clean off the ground, and steer her like a wheelbarrow towards her mother's milk. Each time he does this he straightens up afterwards and wonders at how a creature so young can possess such weight.

People who know Hugh Evans only by sight are uncertain about his age. His toothlessness gives his face the sunken, hollow look of the very old, and his voice has the whistling timbre of the grandfathers of the parish, who speak as if to the accompaniment of invisible flutes. Yet he can lift a young cow off her feet, or spend a day dry-stone-walling, or bale hay so that any of his younger farmhands has trouble keeping up. Then there are his children, the twins Gwen and Barry, who can't be more than ten. But then there is Hugh's white hair flowing from under his cap and his fondness for banana sandwiches, and his memories, which seem to reach back to the previous century.

Having regathered some of his strength Hugh prepares for one more lift of his clueless youngster. Before he bends he notices a black-coifed human head sailing along the top of the wall at the higher end of the field, which borders the Aberbreuddwyd road. The head is travelling with the smooth nonchalance and speed that only a cyclist's head can possess. Hugh encircles Cochen's girth with his powerful arms for the final lift, pulling her clean off the ground, but the child struggles and kicks. Hugh drops her and falls over backwards. Frochwen walks away haughtily.

Then, from the distance, comes a noise - a grinding of gears, a spurt of exhaust, a howling scrape of tyres on tarmac, the dull crunch of metal against stone and a shout that sounds like the word 'Ouch!' yelled at full force, an 'Ouch!' that seems to fill the countryside, bouncing off Rhinog Fawr and Rhinog Fach, skimming the choppy tarns of Y Lledrith, resounding from the walls of Brythwch Castle, the cliffs of Cadair and out to sea.

Hugh leaves his sulky mother and child and runs towards the source of the noise. Nimbly climbing the wall in the upper corner he leans over and looks down upon a scene that makes him tip his cap back off his head, then hold it over his mouth.

William Vaughan's pride and joy, his freshly waxed Armstrong Siddeley Star Sapphire Saloon, is askew to the road but parallel with a cyclist and his bike, its off-side headlight crushed against the chapel wall. The cyclist is lying on his back, his eyes closed. Hugh recognizes the black-coifed head he noticed only a few seconds before. He seems to be smiling, this man (he'd thought him a boy before), as though in the midst of a pleasant dream. The front wheel of his bike is twisted into a figure eight. Bags and leather-strapped panniers are scattered about him. It reminds Hugh Evans briefly of the burial he saw uncovered when the archaeologists came from the university to dig up one of the mounds on his land. There was a man lying in much the same position, just his bones, with pots and swords all around him.

The cyclist laughs suddenly and grows from his nostrils a moustache of blood. In his right hand he is holding something very tightly. Hugh thinks it might be a pocket watch. What the hell's time so important for? he thinks to himself.

William Vaughan, a handsome young man with hair scraped back and heavily Brylcreemed, steps out of his car and runs his fingers lightly over his damaged headlight. He moves a piece of chrome bumper gingerly with his foot then goes over to the cyclist, his feet almost cradling the wounded man's head, like a footballer impatient for the kick off.

'Can you believe it?' he says to Hugh, whose much higher head he has just noticed. 'I was on my way to see a buyer for my little darling. A man in Shrewsbury. He's promised me x amount of pounds, and I've told him it's in mint condition. Spent the whole bloody morning waxing the bitch. Now this happens.'

Hugh Evans has known William since he was a baby. He is now the sole occupant of Llwydiarth Hall, the last scion of an ancient family that once owned nearly all the land in Y Lledrith and some beyond. Hugh is a tenant on his estate, as was his father and his father before him. But times are hard now for the Vaughans. In the nineteenth century half the estate was bought up by the Wynns of Wynnstay and a wing of the Hall was turned into a farm. The elegant courtyard became a muck-splattered farmyard. Small portions of the estate have been sold off regularly ever since. There isn't a great deal left now and Hugh is hopeful that he can buy the freehold of his tenancy before long. William has been wooing him recently to this end.

'I was going to ask you, Hugh,' he says, stepping over the body of the cyclist, 'if you and Dorothy would care to come up to the Hall one evening next week for supper. I realize you must be busy with the hay . . .'

Hugh, who has never been keen on William, not since he once caught him bending back the fingers of his boy Barry when Barry was only four, nods towards the cyclist, shocked at William's lack of concern.

'You're going to let that man bleed to death are you?'

William turns.

'Sorry,' he says to the still recumbent cyclist, 'but you did come out of nowhere, sort of thing. I always have trouble with that turning. I keep telling them they need one of those mirrors there, but they expect me to pay for it. You should tell the bloody council. Actually, better not. Just cuts and bruises isn't it?'

He reaches inside his jacket for his wallet.

'And your front wheel. Shall we call it twenty pounds?'

The cyclist coughs, sending up a spume of red bubbles.

'Call it thirty shall we?' William goes on, extracting a third note.

The Brythwch bus, perfectly on time, steers carefully past the jutting rear end of William's car. On board three men are standing with their six hands flat and white against the glass. They watch carefully as they pass.

William bends down and stuffs the money into the cyclist's breast pocket.

'We'll say no more about it,' William smiles, reaching out for the cyclist's hand, lifting him up.

'You nearly got your wings there eh? The way you went flying. Did you see the way he went flying Hugh? Like a bloody bird.' He describes the cyclist's flight path with his right hand, a graceful arc through the air. Then he offers him his hanky. The cyclist holds the crumpled white thing to his nose. William brushes some dust off the man's jacket, thinking he looks like he's dressed for church, then makes the flying gesture again, accompanying it this time with a quiet, whistling noise. Then he says 'What's that you're holding?' noticing how he has something tightly gripped in his right fist.

'A coincidence,' the cyclist replies.

'What? What's that? What's a coincidence?'

'What I'm holding.'

The cyclist seems mad. William shrugs, smiles nervously at him, then at Hugh, who is still watching over the wall.

An awkward silence falls upon the three. The cyclist, recovering himself a little, dabs at his face with William Vaughan's hanky, then looks at his jacket elbows to see if they are torn. Hugh Evans, who hasn't changed position throughout the conversation, continues to observe, motionless, from his vantage point. William pokes and prods his headlights and fenders, strokes his chromium beading, rests a while his hand on the sphinx that reposes on his bonnet, tuts, shakes his head, mutters the words 'mint condition' quietly to himself several times, sighs and then, with a final repetition of his invitation to Hugh and his wife, skips into his car saying he doesn't want to be late for his 'coincidence' in Shrewsbury, and scoots off.

The silence that follows is broken by a cackle of laughter from the cyclist, who then copies William's flight gesture, and says, 'Whoosh!'

Hugh wonders if he has suffered some damage to his head. He looks like a fairly normal middle-aged man, a little overdressed for cycling, perhaps, in his grey suit, grey pullover, white shirt and blue corduroy tie, but sane, one would have thought.

He is still gripping the thing in his fist which he now brings to his mouth, as if to eat it. An oyster? thinks Hugh as the cyclist sucks it in.

The cyclist, as if noticing Hugh for the first time, smiles broadly at the farmer and clicks his teeth together quietly. Perfect teeth.

They weren't there before.

ISBN: 9780393332711
ISBN-10: 0393332713
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 320
Published: 1st August 2008
Publisher: WW Norton & Co
Country of Publication: US
Dimensions (cm): 21.1 x 14.0  x 2.0
Weight (kg): 0.25

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