You might still be wondering, what is Cath’s favourite story in The Second Penguin Book of Welsh Short Stories? Seems like she may have been watching too many Netflix series, the way she slipped that tantalising hint into the end of her Welsh short stories post three weeks ago. Darn it, does this mean there could be more cliff-hangers?
No. Relax. This is a two-parter. Paula Bardell-Hedley’s excellent hash-tag dewithon 19 only lasts to the end of March. It’s been fun reading along, but for me, it ends today with Catherine Merriman’s, Barbecue.
The story was first published in The New Welsh Review, in 1992. If that seems a little dated, I should mention that The 2nd Penguin…Welsh Short Stories was published in 1993, so it was pretty contemporary at that point.
Here’s a gang of bikers, cruising the Welsh mountains in their leathers, all counter-culture and looking-like trouble. They’d certainly raise some wary hackles if they came cruising through most villages or small towns.
Not a soul on the mountain but we can’t open up the bikes for the hordes of sheep dawdling on the tarmac, bleating and giving us the idiot eye. They’ve got half a county of moorland to roam across, up here, but as usual they’re ignoring it. Mitch reckons it’s definite proof of over-civilization, when even the sheep are scared of getting lost.
Do you see that? Mindless thugs, or maybe not quite who we expected?
At the start it’s not clear where the story will go. There’s a barbecue being planned, ‘back at the field‘, by Dai. Earlier though, before the story started, Jaz was beaten up by a couple of lads from Tredegar who are after his Guzzi, as compensation for a bike-sale that went wrong.
Sharp little face, Jaz had, when they last saw him. Looks like a plum pudding now.
Then the other half of our narrator’s gang turn up. They’ve been staying in their bus at a festival, and got into trouble coming back through Bristol. The driver, Wayne, says:
‘This publican, he won’t serve us ‘cos he says we’re a coach party. So I backed over his fence, accidental like, on the way out. The cops had us for criminal damage. Got a conditional discharge.’
Jaz wonders how many hospital visits it takes to cure a conditional discharge and I tell Wayne how Dai….wants the bus back pronto.
The story is packed with information, coming in from all angles, but it’s clearly told. There’s a nice mix of conversation, description and action. So I settle on the back of the narrator’s Z1000 in the Saturday sunshine, taking in the scenery, as…
We set off up the mountain and at the top I’m in front, revelling in the way the Z1000 powers up the gradients, when I see a dead sheep, lying at the side of the road. Fair-sized corpse, but definitely a lamb, not one of the scrawny ewes.
I flag the others down. There’s no one else on the road.
‘This fella weren’t here when we came across,’ I say. ‘Did you see him?’
‘He weren’t here,’ says Mitch. ‘We’d have noticed.’
Jaz props the Guzzi and squats down to take a dekko. Barbecue, I’m beginning to think.
‘How long you reckon he’s been dead?’ I say.
Once the three lads have established how fresh it is (and really, you have to read that bit!), it’s only a question of how to get the body home without anyone noticing.
We can’t cruise into town with a dead tup behind us, even with a jacket on it won’t fool anyone.
Our boys may operate in the shadow of the law, but there are rules.
Wayne and the narrator seem to agree that something needs to be done for Jaz.
…it’s out of order to thump a lad, and want his bike off him as well.
Jaz, it turns out, is feeling rougher than we noticed.
He’s suddenly looking very weary. He’s holding his shoulders funny, and where the side of his helmet’s been pressed against his cheek-bone it’s made a dent in one of the purple bruises.
It’s not accidental that it’s taken until now for that to sink in. Our narrator has been delivering such a lot of other distracting material, all at the same time, that we may have become as complacent as he has been.
I’m not giving the game away if I say the two lads from Tredegar are perfect villains. They are focused on their goal, forcing our protagonists to act. I’m so caught up by the stylish narration, by the swift shifts in tone and the vivid dialogue I accept them.
This is a story where style carries us along. The narrative voice is chatty, and layered with humour.
The question of how to convey class or background through speech is tricky. Make it too colloquial and it creates difficulties for the reader, taking attention away from the story as we struggle to make sense of abbreviations and implied intonations. Merriman uses the arrangement of the sentences and some strongish language, rather than dropped consonants or vowels.
To tell you more would deliver spoilers. This is a tightly woven story, a mere ten pages long. It never falters. The pace slows and speeds, but doesn’t hesitate.