Ian Davidson: Angharad and a House

Angharad did demand concentration. We’d walk and talk. She was a purist with little give.
‘She’s got Aspergers, I know it,’ she said, ‘I read about the symptoms in a book.’
She’d just got back from a visit to an artist friend that hadn’t gone well.
‘What are the symptoms then.’
‘Difficulty in social interaction. Selective mutism. She ignored me after the first day.’
‘Perhaps she wanted to work.’
‘I wanted to talk about work. I wasn’t asking her shopping. Another vodka tonic?’
Angharad’s house was incongruous. Despite every plane having elements of verticality or horizontality, and all the permanent surfaces worked smooth, and despite its relatively recent construction, the house looked as if it was falling down. Or the flora that surrounded it was growing upwards to climb over it, making it disappear back into the ground from which it had come. It was one or the other. Long waving grasses, their seed heads exploding, surrounded the house. A badger had taken up residence at the bottom of the garden and lived there undisturbed for years. In midsummer the last rays of the sun shot up the valley to hit the gable end.
Angharad was similarly incongruous. With a thick hank of hair that would be fashioned into a heavy loose plait, it seemed as if she had spent years living in the cold rooms with insufficient protein. She would try to engage me in complex conversations about philosophies of art via text message when I was at work, not realising that it was difficult for me to spend hours hunched over the phone pushing the stupid buttons.
‘Do you think the form of an art work is ever more than its content,’ she’d say, ‘or that the painting has anything to do with the real world.’
I’d struggle with theories of representation in a text message.
We stood in her studio in front of a painting of a house. She’d worked away at the blue until the layers of paint had gained a material form of their own.
‘You’ve three dimensions there,’ I said.
‘Yes, the house becomes a project, it sticks out of the painting. Do you think that means the paint becomes more like itself? Or it becomes more like a house.’
I’d helped her brother build her real house twenty years previously, setting fires over the rocks that were in the way of the foundations in order to break them up. He’d taken four years to build it, smoking home grown weed on a pipe made out of a lager tin with a dent in the top and holes punched in it. Every time I went back there it was like walking through treacle in a place thick with association. I remembered the house when it was a meadow, when it was a hole in the ground and when it was a square of breeze block walls. Ash piled onto ash. The ash from the pipe thrown into the trench and down the cavities of the walls.
‘Why did you paint that house,’ I said, indicating the house on the painting. The real house had faded stain coming off the bargeboards, flaking down into the planters that surrounded it.
‘That house,’ she said, pointing at the house in the painting. ‘I spent three days mixing that blue, trying to get the quality just right.’
The whole painting was blue, with a tree constructing a vortex in the right-hand side. It was nighttime in the painting and a full moon lit the scene.
‘Do you want a Becks? They’re brewed to purity laws.’
She walked slowly to the fridge. No one could stay with her or travel where she was going. It was too rocky; you were likely to break a leg or be left scratching your head on the side of the road. Extremists are hard to live up to.
‘Do you still do the cold baths’ I asked. Angharad had taken an ice-cold bath every morning for a year to build up her immune system. Her knees had never worked properly since. She’d been ok until she combined it with a monodiet of grapes.
‘They’re the perfect food’ she’d said. ‘They contain everything your body needs.’
She’d turned into a ghost of herself. That was some years back but she’d never quite returned. Anyway she was sat in front of the fire drinking Becks now the vodka and tonic was all gone. The fire was low and she added one log at a time, enjoying the thin cold air in the room. When I’d stayed there aIone I’d built the fire up, reducing the log pile outside the back door visibly. The house had been empty of people, but the atmosphere warm and thick, making Angharad suspicious.
I got up and wandered back through to the next room where her painting sat on the easel. There were splodges of paint across the floor, tubes of oil and pastel without their tops and newspaper cuttings on the wall. A sequence of other paintings, pale and faded pictures of water broken only by the flecks of the tops of waves, or still surfaces that threatened to pull a lone canoeist deep underwater, are lined up on the windowsill.
Anghard has come up behind me, Becks in hand, standing close. I feel a familiar rush. Years before in her parent’s house when she’d just come back from art school we’d leant over a map together, looking at the shape of the Swiss Alps, following the curves of coastlines. I could feel her just touching me, as if the material of her clothes held all the times we’d touched, all the times we’d got close but never close enough. It was like static, the years peeling off, like putting my hand out and not sure if it was going to get bitten. But the house on the painting looked back at us, all the layers of paint grinning through, all the blues on blues that she’d tried until the house stood out of the canvas. The house projected into the future, getting shinier.
‘Do you have any plans’ I said, ‘any alterations you are going to make.’
‘I want to live every day as if it is the most perfect day in my life,’ she said. ‘I’m going to work out exactly what I want to do and then spend every day doing it. I always wanted to be an artist and to live the life of an artist. I want to get something right, you know, completely right. But not right so that it knows it’s right, that is self-righteous, but just sitting in itself right.’
You know her mouth was still as full of life as ever, still slightly crinkled, her lips still full as they had always been and words still falling out. Her teeth still strong and white to hold things back or bite them off.
‘But wouldn’t you just get bored’ I said as she shuffled a little closer, trying to hold the moment. ‘How can every day be just the day you want? How can it be perfect unless it keeps changing?’
She had a picture of Nigella Lawson on the fridge.
I went to touch the house on the painting, just brushing her as I passed.
‘Don’t touch’ she said. ‘There are things in the oil in your skin that will contaminate the picture. The oil will just suck it out.’
I made as if to touch the painting anyway, lurching a little with the vodka and Becks. We left the room then and went back to sit next to the fire. She looked at me like I was a child. Eirin Peryglus whispered their way out of a CD player, Fiona’s voice sounding more wan than ever.
It was over two hundred years since John Evans left Waunfawr and went to America to look for the Welsh speaking Native American Indians. Angharad’s girlfriend had done the same, flying out on public money to meet the Patagonians, the few old ones left that still spoke Welsh, in villages such as Trelew.
‘They’re real Welsh out there’ she said, ‘Chapel, high tea and poetry. Not like here, where it’s MacDonald’s, lager tops and t.v. And you know those flasks in a Gymanfa Ganu? Full of whisky.’
I liked that, and so did she. The flask for tea filled with whisky both sustained and subverted the culture. A Maltese woman I’d befriended some years before had always drunk tea in the afternoon and had a Sunday roast dinner, long after the English had turned to stir fry, fusion cooking or chicken tikka masala. She also smoked an endless chain of cigarettes.
‘I wonder if they feel bad out in Patagonia as well, as if they are never quite good enough. Is that real Welsh, feeling like you’ve never quite made it? Or that what you’ve done never quite makes the grade? Or is that just human?’
‘I don’t know’, she said, ‘maybe it’s different not having English on your shoulder.’
‘Do you think Spanish is any different? And what about all those natives?’ Do they feel the same about the Welsh?’
‘I just get angry though. Feels like my life is defined by third rate Brits. That’s why they come to Wales, it’s like the times they sent the third son to the colonies, and then they sit here passing on out of date information and trying to enforce rules that don’t count anywhere anymore. Third rate fucking Brits.’
‘It’s physical what it does to you. You know the words and what you want to say but you can’t get it out. You stammer. The language is irrelevant. It’s a matter of delivery. Words mean nothing in those contexts. And then there’s a shape in your mind and it won’t go into words and you just splutter and your mouth goes dry so you have another drink and try to get the shape but then that too dissolves the closer you get. So you have another drink.’
She turned the Becks upside down in her mouth then poked the lone log in the fire so that sparks shot out.
We’d come around a corner in the car one night just before her house on the way from the pub. I was half drunk driving down a quiet country lane, and there was a woman lying down in the road with a dog sat next to her. As we came round the corner the dog got up and barked. We stopped and Angharad jumped out of the car and ran to her. The dog ran around, wagging its tail. The woman came to and told us she lived in the caravan site at the end of the road. It was a road that went nowhere, so we drove her down there. There would be no police. She tried to give us money, twenty pounds or so, but Angharad pushed it away. The helpful natives get a string of beads. The woman had a Birmingham accent. I suspect she faked her collapse in the road to get someone to talk to, but Angharad was bubbling over with excitement, and the possibilities of our running over the woman.
‘I think her dog saved her’ she said, ‘and I bet she’s done it before. Poor woman, moved out here and now just lives in that caravan.’
The woman tried again to push money on Angharad. It became a battle for control. The dog ran around, excited, and the woman became more animated.
‘Come on’, I said, and we went. As we approached Angharad’s house I realised it had become almost invisible from the road. The steep bank was now covered in grass five foot high and the tarmac strip that wound up the side was under moss and weed. I looked over to Snowdon under the moonlight and, pulling my coat around me, I stroked my beard. I wondered whether, as some believed, there was a doomsday machine under the mountain waiting for its moment to arise, or whether that was simply an updated version of the story of Arthur killing the giant Rhita Fawr and building a cairn over him to keep him from ever rising up again and claiming Arthur’s beard in order to finish his coat. It was a cairn that became Snowdon and the mountain becomes simply a heap of rubble that covers a sleeping giant, rather than a sleeping giant itself.
‘Why is Snowdon Wales’s best friend,’ my neighbour used to ask when I lived in the mountains.
‘I don’t know.’
‘Because it kills a few Englishmen every year.’ He’d laugh a bit guiltily. People froze to death or fell from the slopes, or occasionally walking up the steep sides their heart just gave out. I’d never been to the top.
‘Could you really make a coat out of beards?’ said Angharad.
Mine had gone half white now, like the badger. It would make a strange coat.
Our conversation became so intense it is impossible to write it down. We talked about everything under the sun and following its track would be like trying to reconstruct the temporary arabesque of a cormorant as it dries its wings, or even following the cormorant itself as it constructed underwater pathways during its many dives. Maybe cormorants have street lights underwater, maybe they have houses that project from the bottom of the sea. Who knows. There was no view from the top for us anyway, no clear sight of the patterns of the repetitions of the mountain ranges running off into the sea. We just had the sight of a tangle of old thorn trees and sea holly finding its way across bare ground, or the view from the bare patches under the gorse that the sheep make seeking shelter. We beat our way through, panting occasionally as we sought out new paths to follow, new trains of thought that would provide at least some headway.
‘She bullied me,’ said Angharad, talking about her previous lover. ‘But I’ve worked it out now. The bullies need me more than I need the bullies. They miss me more than I miss them. They didn’t bully me to get rid of me, but to keep me.’
‘My son was bullied. In secondary school. It marked him for years. ‘
‘I was talking about myself,’ she said.
She was working away at the house on the painting, adding layers of the blue she’d mixed the day before. The house was a growth sticking horizontally out of the painting.
Years later I got a text from her. We’d been texting back and forth. I’d just got back from a train journey through harsh winter weather on the Cambrian coastliner and I’d been trying to describe the landscape. It had been an amazing journey, with snow and ice right up to the edge of the sea, and with John Donne’s ‘inward narrow crooked lanes that purge earth’s fretful salt away’ frozen over hard with two inches of ice. As the tide receded over the salt marshes it had left the covering of ice behind to crack and collapse inwards on the multiple cuttings that drained it. I am two fools I thought, for loving you and saying so in whining poetry. The tone of her texts changed.
‘I’m really lucky that a three quarter of an hour queue and several recounts of a hundred Morrison’s vouchers are the means to a creative Christmas!’
I wasn’t sure I understood this entirely, but an image of her holding up the Christmas shoppers while her vouchers were being counted flashed before my eyes. Before I could reply I got another text.
‘…. and I did my bit for the revolution – telling the girl at the till that if she worked for John Lewis she’d be sharing in the profit of working in such a busy place.’
‘Well.’ I texted back, ‘I’m sitting at home waiting for Waitrose to deliver my Christmas.’
‘Why would you want to sit in your lazy boy armchair when you can meet people ready to stop their phone conversation just to tell you that the bus hasn’t passed yet, meet someone who has to go to Caernarfon just to get a bag of coal, someone without anything but is still giving …’
The next text came too quickly for me to reply.
‘I had twenty years of relentless moral persecution from you.’
And then the next.
‘And when you came back from away with your finger pointing at me once more I had supposedly ignored a phone call when all along it was your son to blame. Why? Why was it so hard to say sorry?’ You would have possibly saved the friendship.’
By this time I was drinking with a friend and ignoring the sound of the phone going off in my pocket. She was on a roll. The last text came too late.
‘One way you can help is to tell me why I’m someone people always pick on. What do I do that makes people so angry?’
She’d never know. Perhaps none of us ever know. We were both left asking the same question, ‘What did I do?’. I still drive past the house sometimes and the weeds are higher and the paint a little more peeled. The reeds are no longer tied in bunches like a young girl’s pigtail, but gone long and straggly. Any attempt at an aesthetic is grown over and under. I wonder about the questions she always asked. Is it real? What might it mean? How can it be? What was the reason? They are testing questions, testing you out. I always failed her, as did everyone else. Some more texts arrived, just before Christmas.
‘If I said to you that I’ve had my fill of people telling me what they think of me would you understand what I’m saying?’
I couldn’t reply in time.
‘You’d have been made up with the sisterly dynamic on the mini bus that took us to town yesterday when the real bus didn’t turn up and was stuck somewhere unknown in the snow and never seen again. It’s things like that are important, not people’s opinions.’
I was half asleep by now, watching Pamela Anderson in Barb Wire. I didn’t bother to reply and kept my opinions to myself. The final text arrived the next morning.
‘I have no interest in knowing people’s opinions if all they want to do is snigger because I go to a Buddhist class. They should keep their opinions to themselves. I don’t necessarily express my feelings or I’d have clouted you before now.’

I stopped the car and walked up to the house one day and knocked on the door but she wasn’t there. I looked in through the studio window. The floor was still covered in splodges of paint; she was careful with everything except paint. There were cuttings around the room, some yellow with age and others fresh. Her old work had been rearranged. But on the easel, defying gravity, was the picture of the house, now projecting out of the painting in perfect scale. It could all be seen in one glance. There were figures dotted around the house. They could be rubbed out and placed somewhere else. The furniture could be endlessly rearranged. It wasn’t a picture of her world, but it was her world. Everything was to hand. She didn’t even have to turn her head.


Ian Davidson (b.1957) was brought up and lived much of his life in Ynys Mon and Gwynedd in north west Wales. After employment variously as a farmworker and builder, and some years working in Adult Education, he completed a PhD at Aberystwyth University and became a lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Bangor University. He has since worked at Northumbria University in Newcastle Upon Tyne, and is currently at University College Dublin. When not in Dublin he lives on a smallholding on the West Coast of Ireland. Recent and forthcoming poetry publications include ‘Coming and Going’ in Plumwood Mountain (2020), From a Council House in Connacht (Oystercatcher, 2021), By Tiny Twisting Ways (Aquifer 2021) and The Matter of the Heart (New Dublin Writing tbc).


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