It goes without saying that fiction reading is a matter of taste, of personal preference. Some like to read pure escapism, be it thriller, mystery, fantasy in all its forms, comedy or romance. Others prefer quite the opposite: total realism, often grittily so – what used to be called back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, in Britain, Kitchen Sink Drama.
The term was usually applied to cinema: films with themes seen through the unsentimental, brutally honest lens of social realism, tackling thorny and (then) uncomfortable issues such as poverty, interracial sex, homelessness, single motherhood and so on. Often the male protagonist was an ‘Angry Young Man,’ usually working class, railing rebelliously against everything and everybody, especially the Establishment.
This social awareness (although not new; Dickens did it very well) wasn’t confined to cinema of course. A proud tradition evolved throughout the twentieth century of social realism portrayed in literature too – in the British context, think of examples like D H Lawrence or George Orwell with his scathingly critical The Road to Wigan Pier.
And then there’s the socio-realistic portrayal of death. World War One, so topical for Europeans at the moment, was probably a catalyst for new perceptions of dying violently. It was stripped of notions of glory and sacrifice, at least amongst a radical, critical, idealistic readership.
In fact there’s a spectrum, a grey-scale between brutal, uncompromisingly told, warts-and-all social realism at one end and the frothily fantastical, purely entertaining at the other, although I tend more towards the realistic than the fanciful in my writing. Under the justification of poetic license, it’s perfectly alright to exaggerate or stretch credibility for dramatic purposes, it seems to me. But all the same, I like to write about reasonably believable, flesh-and-blood characters; try to enter the psyche of them; do the ‘human condition’ thing, and all that.
But I’m not necessarily talking in this little piece about violent (or even untimely) death, but the painting of the poignancy of the end of life when happening ‘naturally’ (although we’ll all die of something) – the inevitable coming of Dylan Thomas’s ‘dying of the light.’
Here is a scene from my book The One of Us relating the funeral of a proud elderly Welshman. In it I try, hoping to avoid mawkishness, to capture the essence of an occasion that almost all of us have to face in our lives (and ultimately, obviously, certainly do in our death); try to tell it honestly, how it actually is. I try to depict emotional pain. The reference to Thomas above is quite apposite, although I don’t quote from his wonderful poem about his father not going ‘gentle into that good night,’ but rather from Under milk Wood. There is other sadness told in The One of Us; sadness more central to the story, but I can’t, dear reader, divulge that!
At least it was a nice crisp bright spring day, not raining, with a pale sun and daffodils splashing the graveyard here and there with their cheerful summer-anticipating yellow. It seemed appropriate somehow; Wales’s national flower saluting a passionate Welsh nationalist at his leaving. Sioned was amazed and touched at how many people had turned out; it must have been almost the entire village and many others besides. All the older men were attired in their dark only-for-funerals suits and the surprisingly large number of younger ones, if they didn’t possess a suit, had done the best they could, dressing as soberly as their wardrobes allowed. The women were turned out in a monochromatic palette of greys-through-to-black, some even wearing hats with veils.
The women were congregating in a murmuring commiserating group by the chapel door now, while the men, as custom dictated, were at the graveside witnessing the final rites. Sioned had wanted to be there too (she could have left Tomos in the care of Lowri for a little while); she felt she wasn’t properly saying goodbye, somehow. But she knew she couldn’t. It would have offended the sensibilities of many there, and probably even her mam. She breathed a sigh of relief. Well at least it was over now. She’d been dreading today; had thought she’d never fall asleep last night. Mam seemed to have coped quite well though, really. Certainly no hysterics. But she looked absolutely drained, poor love.
It had been a lovely service. Cwm Rhondda had been sung of course (well what else?) and The day thou gavest Lord is ended. It had to be that too. She’d forgotten how wonderful a chapel-full of voices sounded, not having been in one in years; all those Welsh tenors and sopranos and baritones and contraltos with one or two gruff sonorous basses blending in soaring emotional harmony. She been reminded oddly, of that CD that Glyn had played for her when they were courting (and many times since) of Thomas’s Under Milk Wood; of the Reverend Eli Jenkins’ comment: ‘praise the Lord! We are a musical nation’.
And the eulogy had been lovely, and so had Guto’s few words, which he’d struggled to get out before the tears caught up and clamped his throat shut. She’d held herself together, just about, but it had all been too much for Lowri, who’d buried her face in her hands to stifle the noise but you could tell she was sobbing because of the shaking. Well she was twelve years old now and a surprisingly sensitive girl. But Tomos had been fine; as good as gold really. He’d sat quietly on Glyn’s lap, regarding these strange goings-on with his usual solemn expression. There’d been no questions piping up at inopportune moments. They could have left him with neighbours of course, but she’d wanted him to be there, although she couldn’t quite explain why. Obviously, at only three he couldn’t really understand what this was all about or that he’d never see his granddad again. But somehow it just seemed right (although he’d have only a hazy memory of it in years to come) that being just as important a member of the family as everyone else, he should be at the leave-taking too.
Sioned moved to her mother’s side. She was surrounded by a clutch of supportive female relatives: Auntie Marged her sister, Cousin Elin and Cousin Patricia. She hadn’t seen any of them for ages, particularly Pat, who was the daughter of her father’s brother Huw, who had lived in England for years.
‘Well that’s over with then Mam,’ she said, unable to think of anything more appropriate to say but immediately feeling the words were absurdly inadequate.
‘Yes, it is Bach. Indeed it is.’
Sioned imagined that if she felt anything like herself, she’d be feeling very relieved indeed, although her mother looked as though she could easily succumb to tears.
‘Beautiful words from our Guto, weren’t they?’
Annie’s eyes sparkled with moisture.
‘Ay, lovely. He showed me what he’d written last night. So they wouldn’t come as a surprise and upset me too much, he said. He’s such a thoughtful boy.’
‘Yes he is,’ Sioned agreed.
The men were making their way back from the graveside. Guto, looking very smart in a clearly expensive well-cut suit, was in earnest conversation with the minister. They rejoined the ladies. Glyn moved to relieve Sioned of the burden of Tomos. He was a small child but still quite a weight, although Sioned had wanted to hold him. The feel of his little body against her hip was a comfort, in a way.
‘Come along big boy,’ he said as he took the child, ‘you’re getting a bit big for your mam to be holding. Tomos was well able to understand their normal Welsh and a basic vocabulary of English too, although he tended to mix the two with casual abandon (Lowri had been just the same).
The family and the many respects-paying guests made their way to the chapel vestry and the alcohol-free refreshments: the sandwiches and rolls, the dainty pretentious sausages on sticks, the Welsh cakes, the bara brith, the strawberry jam sponge cake made by hand as Dylan Thomas might have said, the tea, the coffee, the pop for children. Idris Evans, late of this parish, would get a good send off.
Later, back at the cottage (known since anyone could remember as Plas Newydd, New Palace, to distinguish it from Henblas, Old Palace, next door), after a wake that had gone on all afternoon, they could relax a little. The anticipation and then the tension of the sad occasion was dissipated. After putting Tomos to bed (they were staying the night) Sioned assisted by Lowri set about cooking dinner. Annie wanted to do it of course, but she was told in no uncertain terms to sit down and take it easy. It had been a trying, draining, emotional day for her and she looked just about spent.
The meal was eaten with spirits gradually reviving and they lingered at table, reminiscing about Annie’s husband and Guto and Sioned’s father. Memories were evoked with sadness but they were fond. Then, after washing up (Glyn and Guto in charge now) they repaired to the sitting room. Annie quickly fell asleep on the sofa. Sioned gently roused her. ‘Come on Mam, have an early night. You look done in.’
Annie opened bleary eyes. ‘Yes Cariad. I think I will.’ She looked fondly from one to another. ‘Thank you my dears; it was a lovely send off.’
Sioned hugged her. ‘You’re welcome, Mam. Yes it was.’
The One of Us is available from Amazon or at discount from the publisher, Autharium
There’s absolutely no connection in it to funerals, but here is the next chapter of my autobiography, Wishing for the Better.
Wishing for the Better/16
By 2006, although there were still more than thirty of them to go, I was beginning to count down the months to happy retirement. I had no wish to work a day after age sixty-five. Not gainful work anyway. Work for my own benefit and pleasure was an entirely different matter. Part – much – of the allure of the retired state was the prospect of moving yet again, but this time to a final resting place: one that I would choose positively and carefully as a place for me, rather than another to do up and sell on as part of The Grand Scheme. It wasn’t that I was particularly unhappy in Llandysul. As small Welsh towns went it was really quite nice. But there was no real emotional bond. It wasn’t as though I’d been born there. I remembered that, like other projects, I’d really only ended up there by default. I might stay. There were a handful of houses that hadn’t suffered death by plastic window or door (which were all too prevalent in spite of the town’s supposed status as a conservation area) and quite appealed as potential candidates for a final project. Or I could seek one somewhere else. It didn’t really matter which. But wherever it was, it was all a bit academic. I wasn’t yet ready to sell.
The trouble was: the town’s one and only estate agent was seductively positioned opposite Llandysul’s then only supermarket, a late-opening Spar, which I visited every evening for provisions. Often I would find myself veering, as if pulled by some invisible force, across the road for a quick look, purely as a matter of casual interest you understand, in the agent’s window. I find estate agents as irresistible as some people find clothes shops or others find bookies.
Just occasionally there would be a property displayed that attracted me, and (as a disgraceful time-waster) I would call in on a Saturday morning for particulars. Of course I was just being a fool to myself, as I had been every other time I’d started looking at the market long before I was in a position to sell my current place. Once, one of the desirable places appeared in the window for sale, one I coveted every morning when I passed it taking Ellie for her walkies. It was a charming unplasticised old house with a genuine-looking year-of-build stone proclaiming 1807, commanding a splendid view over the town and its valley. I was reliably informed that it was unspoiled inside too. It sounded wonderful. Masochistically, I got the particulars and vaguely entertained the idea of ridding myself of Haulfryn as it was. But that would have been stupid, and fortunately matters were taken out of my hands when it came off sale again. The vendor had changed his mind. So I was spared the agony of seeing someone else buy, and quite possibly ruin it.
Then my property market monitoring took a more serious turn, when I discovered the Internet and it occurred to me that both my local agent and all the surrounding ones advertised their wares online. As a bit of a Luddite when it came to technology, this was a revelation. Soon I had every estate agent in west Wales on my Favourites list, and Sunday night became eagerly awaited Property Market Surfing Night, a deferred treat for which I made myself impatiently wait. There was the weekly thrill of logging on, not knowing what gems I might discover. And now of course I could look much further afield than Llandysul and nearby Newcastle Emlyn, the only two local towns where there might be properties of the sort I was looking for on sale. I pored over my trusty road atlas and drew a wider catchment area of interest. It extended westwards beyond Newcastle Emlyn to the Pembrokeshire border in one direction, and in the other covered the (River) Teifi valley as far as Lampeter, where the populated land ends abruptly at the massif of the Cambrian Mountains.
The area then became triangular, taking in the seaboard between Cardigan Bay and the mountains as far north as Aberystwyth. That was the northern boundary simply because of the logistics of travelling to look at places. I needed to be able to spontaneously hop in my van and – still purely as a matter of interest – rush to sneakily look at the exteriors of appealing houses. I wasn’t interested in the country to the south or the industrial areas to the southeast. I wanted to go where the hills were.
Most of what I saw was quite uninspiring. Most places were modern – not what I wanted – and many older ones were modernised and bland, with large-paned plastic windows often combined with tacky quasi-Georgian white plastic doors incorporating ‘fanlights’ within them rather than above. Or, just as bad, inconsistently mated with pretentiously elegant varnished (and probably tropical) hardwood. As I’d been finding since 1996, there were few candidates for doing up or converting. But every so often I’d notice something interesting among the indexed thumbnails and click the link for more details. One such was so historically interesting it could well have been a Landmark. It was one of two cottages that had been converted from the counting house (it was the office and doled out pay) of a silver/lead mine a few miles inland from Aberystwyth. It was a very fine Regency industrial building with authentic windows and door. In the December of ’06, on my way back after Christmas with brother Derek, I stopped off to have a look at it. The complete building was certainly very beautiful and appealing, although the grounds, with a single common entrance, were not divided into individual gardens. And being in a village with a shop, it was well placed practically speaking. But I was still many months away from finishing Haulfryn and retirement, so it was all still theoretical. And then it too came off the market anyway.
Other enticements cropped up. I looked at a chapel and a barn, although the latter, a nice building itself, turned out to share a cramped yard with another house and had no view. It wouldn’t have been a patch on Penrorin. Then I decided to try and increase potential opportunities by enlarging my catchment area. After all, it was so easy looking on the net. I now took in agents in my previous district, the area around Llandovery, and extended the scope northwards up the eastern side of the mountains, encompassing places like Builth Wells and Llandrindod Wells.
This threw up a few more possibilities, including a bare stone cottage like Henblas that was one of a terrace of three near Llanwrtydd Wells, an exquisite (and reckoned to be the smallest in Wales) little town north-east of Llandovery. All three were delightfully unspoiled. But it was soon off the market. Then there was another gem: a single storey cottage, enchantingly called the Crow’s Nest, which was also part of a row, again near Aberystwyth. The entire terrace was listed by the Welsh equivalent of English Heritage, Cadw, who, the particulars informed, rated it very highly. Both would have been wonderful, but both quickly sold.
Now and then something quite unusual (like the lead mine Count House) would come up. There was a boarded chalet-style cottage out in the wilds not far from Llandysul. It looked rather dull – the boards were stained brown and so were the unattractive windows and door, giving an unrelieved homogeneous drabness. And it was tiny. But it was also very cheap, and there’d be enough money to spare from selling Haulfryn to do interesting things with it. Like give it a much prettier identity: one of picturesque Victorian whimsy with elements of Tyrolean folksiness and shades of Hansel and Gretel. It could have a fancy triangular canopy with exuberantly carved barge-boards over an appropriate front door (wooden and painted of course), sweet sash windows and a nice paint job, and be sympathetically extended in the same style. There’d be window boxes of bright flowers and roses sprawling up and around the door, and you could just imagine rosy-cheeked children gambolling outside. It could be lovely. Naturally (and fool-to-myself again) I drew a detailed plan of it. And then, just as inevitably, it too came off the market. Bugger! My daydreaming over that one wasn’t entirely wasted though. It germinated an idea for something at my final place.
But I was still way ahead of myself, and as I kept finding, the nicest places soon had Sold Subject To Contract emblazoned across their pictures. I was torturing myself, and making things worse by doodling, in a hopeless fantasy, how I might restore, enlarge or convert each potential treasure.
However the clock was slowly – albeit too slowly – counting down. As I got to August 2007, a year away from the sunlit uplands (grateful nod to Winston S Churchill) of retirement, I began to dare to hope that perhaps one of these discoveries might, just might, be still available when I was in a position to go for it. My notebook, really intended for the day job, was (like my drawing board many years ago in the design studio) becoming increasingly misappropriated for my little thumbnail sketches of floor plans and elevations. I toyed with these after the discovery of every ‘possibility’. I kept telling myself not to get too carried away, too lost in my daydreams. I must apply calm rationality to what could be my last big life decision. I must act like an analytical designer. Think things through. Use cool logic. Be sensible. Yes. And pigs might fly.
So, also in the long-suffering notebook, I created charts evaluating my discoveries, usually with marks out of ten, according to various criteria such as intrinsic quality of the building, its potential, its environs, and more mundanely, parking space or logistics (how easy or difficult the project would be). And there would have to a project of course: it would be unthinkable to buy something ready-made. What would be the fun in that?
As the months ticked away these charts got ever more elaborate. Writing this, I’m looking again at my notebook of the time. In those last months, still earnestly trying to take a rational, balanced view, I’ve added more criteria, considerations that are also relevant or sensible: potential for a nice garden; nice view (preferably); potential for ‘green’ improvement; shop within walking distance; whether detached or semi. I then get really carried away by my analytical cleverness and add a ‘50% test’, whereby places are given a total based on whether they score at least 50% in each of the categories.
Then a further refinement: another chart that shows which properties score best for each criterion. It also grades the criteria themselves according to the priority I place on each. This gives a complex rating for each house that’s related to the value I place on each criterion, and is still more nuanced (I’ve always wanted to use that word) and responsive to my desires. So, a house that tends to score more often in the higher-graded criteria would have a higher overall score. Am I boring you?
Christmas 2007 came and went. Anticipation and excitement were mounting. Less than eight months to go to retirement now, and – hopefully – less than that to The Final Move. Every spare moment recently, when I wasn’t surfing the net (it had become three times a week now: I was watching the market even more avidly), doodling house plans or figuring complex statistics, had been spent bringing Haulfryn to market readiness. It was virtually finished; I was pleased with it, although not enough to change my mind and stay. The country still beckoned.
The Possibilities list currently consisted of six places – it had been longer, but some entries had been sadly crossed out as they acquired the dreaded SSTC appellation. The survivors were: a house in an attractive village near Newcastle Emlyn. Situated in a deep valley, it had an incredibly steep rear garden and a glorious wooded view to the front. It was good in practical terms, with a pleasant fifteen-minute walk to an adjacent village and shop. Then a double fronted terraced house in a village near the Roman gold mines south of Lampeter. The village was on the edge of forestry, environmentally superb and great for dogs. Then another terraced cottage in a beautiful, conservation village called Oakford. I knew the village, as I’d worked there. The entire, lovely main street was unadulterated by plastic.
Then a potentially gorgeous detached cottage, very old, out in the wilds of Carmarthenshire, with views of the Brecon Beacons a short walk away. Its only neighbours were one other house and an adjacent, isolated chapel that still did business. The upper floor had been used as a chapel vestry reached via an external staircase, and was in fairly good order. The ground floor was completely original, including a cooking range and wooden partitions, and pretty ruinous. Scenically the place was magnificent: logistically it was, well, difficult. Then a part-conversion: a Welsh longhouse. This was an ancient form of dwelling wherein humans and animals virtually shared a single long building, people at one end and creatures at the other, usually without even a partition wall separating them. They were probably quite cosy, in a smelly sort of way. This one had evolved slightly into a visually identifiable cottage-with-cowshed-attached, with a nice arched doorway at the animal end. This part could convert splendidly into the main living quarters of a larger house.
Lastly there was Tanffynnon. I’d spotted it recently on two different agents’ websites. It stood out like a pearl among the dull offerings surrounding it and appealed instantly. Single storeyed, it looked like a typical child’s rendition of a house, with tiny windows – like the chapel-vestry cottage, and the Crow’s Nest seen months earlier. Its quaint steeply pitched roof suggested it having originally been thatched, and it was quite charming. It was in a village just a few miles from Llandysul, and the following evening I was over to see it like a shot. Cwrtnewydd village lies in a secret hollow two miles off the main road to Lampeter. As I approached it down a long hill the settlement was gradually revealed. The landscape heaved immediately up again on the other side of the clustered dwellings, steep, richly wooded and dotted with colour washed houses. It looked not unlike a fishing village on a headland, but without the sea.
A salmon-pink painted house came into view and there, attached to it like a little white suckling calf, was the treasure I sought. An image from the past appeared: the van driving neon sign. It suddenly switched on above the cottage, with a flashing arrow and the words:
I was so entranced, I nearly crashed the van. I forced myself to be sensible. I must be rational about this. Obligingly, a second, more sober, qualifying sentence appeared:
OR POSSIBLY, ANYWAY.
I stopped and parked by the salmon house, and walked into the narrow lane that left the main village street and fronted the cottage. I stood and gazed at it, trying not to appear as if snooping, although there were no signs of life. No parked cars or anything. The sensible side of me noted the nice slate roof that was obviously in good condition. No potential problems there. Indeed, the house looked quite immaculate generally. It was very tidy, as the Welsh would say. The typical-of-me side admired the kitchen/bathroom extension that had clearly been carefully designed, with the same steep roof. It wasn’t a flat-roof horror. It harmonised with the original building very well. And that side of me raved about the tiny wooden windows and absurdly low front door. It was clearly quite old. A shame that it was roughcast rendered, but the extension, as modern- build, really had to be. It would have been build of concrete blockwork. At least the old and the new were consistent. The whole was still beautiful.
I was still uncertain whether there was anyone at home and I didn’t want to knock the door, as it wasn’t an arranged visit. Taking a chance, I crept into the broad drive beside the house and peeped around the rear. It was difficult to make very much out, as the (presumed) bathroom part of the extension protruded and cut off the view. On the opposite side of the drive the garden ran parallel with the lane, inside a severely clipped hedge. All laid down to lawn, the garden had more internal hedging with a topiary arch; clearly a lengthy labour of love by someone in the past. Another partition hedge of laurel closed off the garden’s far end.
After a long time looking, and then investigating the rest of the village, which was quite ‘tidy’ and pretty (I’d seen far worse certainly, although unfortunately the adjoining house suffered from the P affliction), I drove thoughtfully home and added Tanffynnon to the list.
In early January, with the house finished enough to hit the market (final odds and ends could be finished during the wait for a sale), I strode into the Llandysul estate agent. The receptionist gave me a wary look, fearing more time wasting, but then brightened when I said I wanted them to market my house. The agent came, looked around, seemed quite impressed with what I’d done and sat and talked for a solid hour. He clearly wasn’t very busy. Finally (I thought he never would) he brought the conversation around to valuation. After such a long preamble, I thought he’d have a very precise, logically justified suggestion. Not a bit of it. He simply gave me a (quite wide) range and invited me to choose a number from within it.
I don’t know why I was so precise, but I plumped for £146,500, far enough below his suggested top of £150,000 to look as though it was significantly less, without actually being so. He solemnly (and long-windedly) approved my choice. Well, I thought, we could have reached this point an hour ago. The next day he was back to measure up and take notes and photographs. He suggested waiting until February, when the market should start to pick up, to go on sale. Impatient to be getting on with it, I secretly wished we could do it NOW. I had possible new places lined up. I didn’t want to lose them all.
But he prevailed, and we waited. His pictures weren’t brilliant and I suggested doing some myself. I also played around with his draft particulars (written in the usual estate agent-speak), which he didn’t mind either. So the final particulars (and the valuation) were about 75% my work. I couldn’t help wondering what I was paying him to do, but that was OK. Being so self-reliant, I rather enjoyed being involved: I liked doing the words and pictures, as I’d liked doing the subject of them.
On the 30th of January, after pestering from me, the great day arrived. I was on the market! It was wonderful seeing the particulars appear in the agent’s window – as it always had been before – and a sign spring up outside my house. It always felt like the culmination, the purpose, of all my labours. And this time I also saw my house appear on a website, both locally and nationally. Surely, with such exposure a sale would soon come.
I’ve never been a great one for mobile phones. It’s not so much that I’m a Luddite in this: I just never have really had the need for one. And I’m fairly impervious to the must-have-the-latest-stuff culture. I tried several when I began landscaping though, when there was an obvious business need for communication. The first one I bought didn’t work and the shop replaced it. The replacement lasted two weeks, until puppy Ellie snatched it and took it on a tour of the garden. It didn’t survive the shock. The second (insurance) replacement did service for a couple of years, after which it got ever-diminishing call opportunities until the contract expired when the phone company decided I just wasn’t a worthwhile customer, and use stopped altogether.
But now, I thought, I – even I – must be Contactable At All Times (I refuse to say 24/7). So I bought another phone, the cheapest possible, not a fancy state-of-the-art one that does everything including cooking your dinner, so that I could be reachable while at work to receive the deluge of requests for appointments to view that there’d certainly be.
It was hardly that. Throughout February there wasn’t one, not a proverbial sausage. I began to worry, thinking that perhaps the agent had been right to suggest that the market boom was ending. As March turned I dropped the price to a psychological £139,500, and then things began to happen. On the tenth a young woman came, looked, expressed polite interest and left. Then on the nineteenth an elderly woman viewed. She seemed positively interested, and a few days later turned up again asking for a second look. She said she couldn’t manage my asking price but would try to raise a private loan to cover the shortfall. Two days later she was back again, saying apologetically that she hadn’t been successful and didn’t suppose I’d accept £125,000. I had to say sorry, no. It was too great a drop. Apart from anything else, I wanted to trade down a bit but have a few thousand pounds in hand to spend on whichever house I went for. It was a let-down and a pity: I liked her.
Nothing happened then until April 7th, when a young man came. He didn’t seem remotely interested in what I’d done, and told me he was doing the buy-to-let thing. I took an immediate dislike to him. He said he’d go away and ‘do his sums’. Don’t bother, I thought. Thankfully, I heard nothing more: he didn’t embarrass me by making a derisory offer.
Meanwhile I was still Internet surfing, although no new possibilities came up. In fact, my short list was shrinking. Every session became an anxious check that houses were still available. The vestry cottage had left the market, and I’d had second thoughts about the longhouse because of cost. Also, I was less enthusiastic about its position: there was a rather scruffy car workshop next door. Naturally, I was going for a second (not to mention a third and a fourth) look at the places closest at hand. In Cwrtnewydd I’d learned that Tanffynnon was indeed empty, so I could go back and have a good nose around, particularly in the garden with its magnificent backdrop of the trees climbing the hill behind, and cheekily peep through the windows at the rear.
I found out that Eynon House (the one with the steep garden in the deep valley) was an ex-holiday cottage and empty too, so I gave it a fuller look. There was a drawback. The garden was not as large as it appeared from the road. It reared up to higher than the house’s chimneystack and gave breathtaking views across the valley, but then abruptly stopped. There was very little length, I suppose because the house was a holiday let. Peering through a trellis fence at the end I could see more garden beyond, (which would have given an even better view) laid down to grass and fruit trees, but it belonged to the house next door. If I bought the house the neighbours might be persuaded to sell it to me, but then again they might not. Without extra land I wasn’t interested in the house. So it came off the list too.
Then on the 15th of April things really moved. A single man from England, of about my own age, came to view. He seemed interested but (as you do) stayed carefully non-committal. Like me, he was considering several options. Two days later he returned for a second look, spent longer, asked more wide-ranging questions and left, still infuriatingly tight-lipped. The following day there was a call from the agent. He’d offered £130,000. Was that acceptable? As you’ve probably gathered by now, I’m not the most cautious of men. But, atypically for me, I didn’t rush out a ‘yes.’ I said I’d consider it over the weekend. I’d make the buyer sweat a little!
That evening I turned it over and over in my head. It was still quite a lot less than I’d hoped for – certainly a big drop from my original £146,500 – but the market had plateaued months ago and was now probably falling, and there was no guarantee that I’d get any more if I hung on. I looked at the remaining candidates. The asking price for Tanffynnon was £127,500 and I’d have a net ‘loss’, after costs, of about £1,300. I couldn’t really afford a drop like that. Caio (the one near the gold mine) was asking £130,000, so there’d be a loss approaching £4,000. Impossible! Oakford (the conserved village) was £118,000. That was realistic anyway.
Then again, I’d deliberately waited for a sale before formally expressing interest in somewhere else. I was in quite a good bargaining position, particularly in view of the falling market, so any of the vendors might be prepared to drop too. There was nothing for it! I’d come this far and there was no going back. Months of waiting and wishing and daydreaming had brought me to this delicious point: to timidly back down now would be unthinkable. It just wasn’t in my DNA.
It was time to go for it. The following morning, at 9 o’clock sharp, I was on the phone to the various selling agents to arrange viewings. I’d sneakily peeped inside Tanffynnon but hadn’t seen inside the other two at all. It was arranged that I’d see Oakford that morning, with the agent. (it was another holiday place and therefore empty), then Caio later. I’d see Tanffynnon on the following morning, the Sunday, with the vendor. It was tremendously exciting. I know they say that house moving is highly stressful. Not for me, it isn’t. I just love the looking-at-places bit, (and in my case also the following doing-plans bit).
I knew Oakford quite well as I’d done landscaping work there (and been very impressed with its prettiness at the time) so the pleasant frontage was as expected. Internally it was so-so, but could be given the Needham touch. That wasn’t a problem. The unexpected flat-roofed kitchen at the rear wasn’t nice, and – inevitably for a one-room-wide terraced house – the garden was very narrow, and it was hemmed in, lacking a view. For the same reason, the parking at the front, out in the street, was one-car only. But the house was still a possibility.
Then there was a twenty-mile dash to agents in Lampeter to pick up the key for Caio. Yet another holiday let, it was also empty. But in this case I could view it alone – the best arrangement. Presumably lacking a damp course, it smelt worryingly musty when I let myself in. Like Oakford, it was far from immaculate. I’d seen far worse though. It had some quite nice old features. Because it was double-fronted the garden was correspondingly wider, although open to a neighbouring garden on one side, with far reaching views at the end. With the forestry on its doorstep it was dog-friendly and the house itself, in its pleasant position across the street from the church, could certainly become a very nice residence. Again like Oakford, it hadn’t suffered plasticisation. So it too was still a maybe.
But there was still Tanffynnon to have a proper internal look at. The following morning at 10am on the dot, I was there meeting the owner. He and his family had moved out five months earlier because with the birth of a second child the little house had become too small. They were living with his father while they waited for a house to be built. It certainly was small (although plenty big enough for Ellie and me), with just a reasonably sized living room and a second tiny, very narrow room in the original part downstairs with two corresponding bedrooms above. These appeared smaller still because they were essentially attic rooms in the roof space. Because the front and rear walls were mostly the inner slopes of the roof, there was severely limited headroom. I found them unusual and charming though. Being a bit height-challenged myself (5ft 4in), the inadequate height wasn’t a problem for me or my even shorter canine companion.
The staircase was less than ideal too, and certainly not child-friendly. Because it was fitted into a small space with not much ‘travel’, it was extremely steep. I’d experienced some steep cottage staircases in my time but this was ridiculous. It was probably fixable though. I could see why the house was being slow to sell. With the forehead-cracking bedrooms, ladder-like staircase and downstairs bathroom it wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea.
The downstairs felt a bit more spacious though, because of the additional good-sized kitchen which, with the bathroom, had been added as recently as 1995. The seller and I chatted (this was the first time I’d ever visited a prospect with the vendor present) and I mentioned my theory that the house might originally have been thatched. ‘I’ll show you something’, he said. From a kitchen cupboard he produced a biscuit tin. Inside was a remnant of plaited straw. ‘This came from the roof’, he told me. The house had indeed been thatched, right up until 1995, although it had been covered for many years – probably most of the twentieth century – with corrugated iron sheeting.
In 1995 the house had been done up on an improvement grant. The extension had been added, the roof replaced with slate and the house generally ‘modernised’ with tacky plasterboard partition walls, other nasties and French doors to the rear. But at least the front façade had been respected: the original tiny window openings had been kept, with wooden casements, and the wide, low door opening retained – although now with an inappropriate door. Subsequently, without further grant money, the bedrooms were added, effectively as loft conversions. Velux roof windows were used, but they were placed in the rear and so didn’t spoil the front elevation.
So that was the measure of Tanffynnon. Although I could have stayed there chatting all day, eventually I tore myself away, saying I was ‘quite interested and I’d give it some thought’. That was an understatement if ever there was one. I was thrilled by it. It wasn’t perfect, I’d want to change a lot of things (although I’d want to do that wherever I ended up) but it had tremendous potential.
Back home I spent the rest of that Sunday considering all the options. I’d responded most strongly on an emotional level to Tanffynnon, but this was a big decision to grapple with. I didn’t want any more moves if this turned out to be a wrong one. I really must be sensible. I compared the three places I’d seen. Having now viewed them properly, the assumptions I’d made on my dream charts stood. Out of a possible maximum of 90, Tanffynnon scored 61, Caio 52 and Oakford 50. Leaving the logistics of improvement work aside, out of 80 the respective scores were 51, 44 and 42. On the ‘50% test’, out of 9 they were 6, 6 and 6. So that wasn’t very helpful. On my last, complex chart, the one with the criteria themselves given values of priority, out of 45, Tanffynnon got 32, Caio 26 and Oakford only 15.
In the four ‘aesthetic’ categories (potentially best house, best environs, best view and potentially best garden) Tanffynnon scored in three of them, Caio in three and Oakford in only one. And in ‘potentially best house’ there was only one entry: Tanffynnon. But then, logically there can only be one ‘best’. Apart from all this, regardless of scores Caio was probably ruled out on cost grounds. So overall, Tanffynnon had it. It didn’t score in ‘best environs’ – which the steep-garden house would have topped if it had stayed in the race (and which would have been the only one with a shop) – but in the practical things was best by a long way for parking, and was the only semi. Ellie would doubtless have preferred Caio for the forestry, but I didn’t have a ‘best walkies’ category, and as I told her, it was probably ruled out anyway. Beautiful as they are, you can’t let your life be ruled by dogs!
I did one more surf of the websites. No, nothing new had come on since Friday, when I’d last checked. So, doing my utmost to be rational and Mr Spock-like, it had to be Tanffynnon. And forgetting all the above, judging by which one I simply liked the best, the answer was still the same.
This was all very well, but I was cutting things very fine financially. I resolved to try and get the best possible deals on my sale and purchase. The following day at work I got on my mobile to the selling agent. I’d like to try for an improved offer of at least £135,000 I said, sounding more confident than I felt. ‘Leave it with me’, he said. Ages later he rang back.
‘The best I can get out of him is £132,500’, he ventured.
‘Done’, I replied, trying not to say it too quickly.
I got onto the agent for Tanffynnon. I’d dropped a further £7,000 on my sale, and the asking price for Tanffynnon was £127,500, so I reckoned I could justifiably reduce him to £120,000. I offered it. ‘Leave it with me’, he said. Eons later he rang back.
‘Can you improve on that?’ he said, ‘the vendor would like to clear £120,000’.
I thought about it for a nanosecond.
‘£123,000?’ I suggested.
‘Leave it with me’, he said.
An eternity later he phoned back.
‘Yes, he’ll accept that’, he confirmed.
Now if I was the demonstrative sort, I’d have punched the air and bellowed ‘YEEES!’ aggressively; or started jumping up and down like a triumphant footballer; or, if I had a bottle to hand, wastefully sprayed pressurised champagne around like a Formula 1 winner; or with great machismo caught my lady customer, who was standing nearby listening to my conversations, in an exuberant bear hug. But I did none of those things, although the lady probably wouldn’t have minded the hug, as she was a friend. I’d been boring her silly with a detailed account of the weekend’s events whilst hopping impatiently from foot to foot waiting for the return calls. I just grinned stupidly and told her all about it. Bless her; she was really pleased for me.
It was very difficult concentrating on work after that. Like my old mum years ago, I was in great danger of doing things twice over. Lunchtime came, and as I was working locally I went home. Customer Jane could see I wasn’t in the physical world at all, and fearing a major mistake in the work I was doing for her, suggested I take the afternoon off. There would surely be things I needed to organise. I gratefully concurred.
At home, a puzzled Ellie did get an extra fussing though and I couldn’t resist knocking on Shirley’s door and giving her the exciting news too. Later I invited her in to look at Tanffynnon on my computer. I’d resisted showing her until then so as not to tempt fate (although I had of course told her all about it, as I had all the other possibilities over the last months. Poor old long-suffering Shirley: she was very patient). After lunch I sat down with the trusty notebook and revised my calculations. Having gained on both transactions, there was now a surplus of around £5,600 after deducting £123,000 from £132,500 less the costs. That was much better! It made the new project doable. I phoned my solicitor to let her know that I’d both sold and lined up a purchase, and asked her to set the grindingly slow legal process in motion. Now there would be a long impatient wait, but I wouldn’t be sitting around twiddling my thumbs of course. There would be greatly detailed drawings to do, giving excuses for more visits to measure up and remind myself exactly how things were. And much day dreaming.
In fact, I thought, I’d better just nip over there now, to make sure it was still there. It might have disappeared, like a mirage. I got in the van and drove to Cwrtnewydd. But as I dropped down the now familiar hill, it was reassuringly still present. Irrational anxiety was banished. Barring some unforeseen problem, this treasure was soon to be mine! I stood in the garden, gazing around and basking in happy relief, and suddenly found myself being barked at. A woman had appeared in the garden of the house that perched on the hillside just above me, shushing her dog to be quiet. Of all things, it was another springer spaniel. I pointed to the dog and called, ‘I’ve got one of those!’ What a remarkable coincidence: another (future, anyway) neighbour with a springer! The ice broken, we fell into conversation. I introduced myself and said I was to be her new neighbour. It was all falling beautifully into place. Mentally I was already there.
Meanwhile, the work was evaporating away. It was getting ever sparser, and by early June had dried up altogether. Not that, being so close to the happy retirement state now, I was too worried. During my second period back in Stourbridge doing graphic design I’d contributed to a self-employed pension scheme, because I’d rejoined Cyril on that basis. In fact, I’d wanted to continue it after I moved to Wales, but wasn’t allowed to, as I wasn’t then technically a freelancer. So after 1991 it was frozen, only growing by accrued interest return, but nevertheless would still mature to a reasonable annuity – reasonable by my standards, anyway. I enquired whether taking it three months earlier than the normal vesting date would reduce it very much, and found that it would hardly be affected. So in May I took it, and together with residual earnings and the little I had in my deposit account, it was enough.
The legal proceedings followed a smooth but typically snail’s pace. My buyer had the usual survey done, followed by a more focused damp survey. This showed a possible problem, apparently, and triggered another, second-opinion survey. It was getting slightly worrying. The second damp surveyor declared no real problem (it was an old house with no damp course after all) and the buyer accepted his opinion. I breathed a big sigh of relief. At the end of May the buyer called for a third look, as he’d travelled from Kent to arrange all the details of relocating. I was vaguely, illogically worried in case something major cropped up now and he pulled out, but all was well.
He returned to Kent, saying he was ready to exchange contracts (and boy, I certainly was, in every sense), and the next day I paid a second visit to Tanffynnon for another proper look inside, assuring the seller that I wasn’t having second thoughts, it was just to measure various things for sketch drawing purposes. Some people (I believe) buy a house with just one look. Impulsive as I am, I could never do that. Although I’d been over there many times, knowing it was empty, and always peeped in through the French doors, it was surprising how much of the first internal look hadn’t registered. That’s partly why I couldn’t buy with just one: I have a notoriously bad visual memory. I’m sure I’d be a hopeless identification witness to a crime.
Seeing the inside properly again, I noticed now how really rather naff the décor was. The walls were painted in a pleasant enough cream colour, but they had been finished in a deliberately ‘distressed’ manner, presumably the builder’s, or the owner’s, mistaken idea of what ‘olde worlde’ should look like. After being rendered with a skim of cement mortar, this had been trowelled up roughly. However primitive it originally was, I doubt whether the walls ever looked like that. To make matters worse, the roughness had been emphasised by being painted with gloss paint. They were awful. Even more ghastly, the chimneybreast had been similarly skimmed and the render carved into pretend-stonework. The plasterboard internal walls had a sort of stippled finish, and the ceiling between the dark brown stained ‘gothic’ exposed ceiling ‘beams’ (actually modern joists) had been done in artex. So there were no less than four different sorts of surface finish, none of them smooth.
But it didn’t end there. The doors were dreadful cheap white woodgrain-finish panelled jobs, with ‘Georgian’ style brass furniture. The architrave around the doors was moulded and, inconsistently, stained brown, as were the skirting boards. There were ‘Tudor’ style wall light fittings (with tassled ‘Victorian’ shades) and the whole scheme was nicely finished off with dark red velvet curtains. Obviously bought ‘off the peg’ and including valances, they were far too large for the little windows and hung from the top of the wall, leaving a large gap of rough, cream, glossy wall between valance and window. The overall effect was a complete mishmash of inconsistent and incorrect styles, from ‘Tudor’ (far too old) to ‘Georgian’ (much too elegant). It was pure ‘Brewer’s Gothic’: just what you would see in a pub.
But I didn’t mind. It would all be changed. I would treat the little house with some sensitivity and respect: it would be my own little Landmark. I couldn’t wait to start.
A high point in the proceedings came when I received the Land Registry details, with the red-outlined land area shown. I’d already (of course) drawn a garden plan, but seeing an accurately drawn Ordnance Survey map showed me the true shape of the garden. It looked a bit like a supine carrot, tapering away to a point at its farthest end. I scaled it up larger and drew a new garden plan. I browsed my gardening books, chose nice things and indicated them meticulously, thinking to myself that, like conservation architect, this was another missed vocation. I might have been a garden designer. It would probably have been a more satisfying occupation than the sort of designer I actually became.
I got quite carried away (but it was great fun): there would be perennial borders, shrubs, and trees along the boundary with higher neighbours. And fruit trees, and roses. And a Hansel and Gretel-style summerhouse/study/studio, positioned to look out of the garden at the not far-reaching, but nonetheless pleasant view. And a pond with a cascade water feature, which would be appropriate because Tan Ffynnon is ‘Under the Spring’ in English. The topiary archway would lead to some sort of focal point. I might try my hand at sculpture, using oak remnants left from Penrorin. Perhaps a springer spaniel. It could all be lovely.
At the end of May I had my name on the contract for Tanffynnon. But of course, that meant nothing until exchanged. And of course that couldn’t happen until I’d exchanged on my sale. That looked as though it should happen soon too. But on June 6th the buyer rang, embarrassed and apologetic, to say there’d be a delay because of a ‘bit of a problem’ with his buyer. That person couldn’t exchange because he’d fallen out with his solicitor for some reason, who’d then washed his hands of the transaction. My buyer’s buyer was then left not only having to find a new solicitor but reapply for a mortgage as well – with no certainty of success as the 2008 financial crisis was looming. It was infuriating. How stupid was that; upsetting your solicitor on the brink of contract exchanging, just when you absolutely relied on him? It messed my buyer about, and me. And my seller too. Having to tell him, trying to reassure that this was only a temporary hitch, I knew how my buyer must have felt telling me.
Apart from the anger, it was suddenly very worrying. What if my buyer’s buyer had to back out? That would leave my buyer having to find a new one, or me having to. It didn’t bear thinking about. There then followed two and a half very anxious weeks, with me constantly on the phone to my buyer asking if things were getting resolved. On the 14th I signed the sale contract, but that was still neither here nor there. Finally, on the 25th, the idiot at the bottom of the chain sorted himself out and we were all able to exchange. I heaved another huge sigh of relief. Now it really had to happen!
My buyer suggested we complete on Monday July 7th. I was all for that, but fate was to try and throw one more spanner in the works. I’d previously arranged a man with a van to help me move. It could be done without troubling a proper removal firm, as it was only down the road and could be accomplished in several trips. And it was a lot cheaper. But then, following the hitch, I’d had to postpone my helper. When I got in touch with him again after the resolution, he couldn’t do the seventh. Talk about Sod’s law! I couldn’t bear the thought of now having to delay things myself, but what to do? I thought about it. There was one, slightly unorthodox, possibility. I had something rather like a furniture van sitting in the garden. My seller had offered it to me. It was the rear end of a large ex-Royal Mail parcel van. As there was nothing else in the way of a shed to put all my building stuff in, I’d said yes please. One day, on one of my visits, I’d found it in the corner of the parking area. It was huge, very useful-looking and he’d kindly painted it dark green. He’d brought it from his father’s farm by tractor and trailer. How on earth he’d manoeuvred it into position I couldn’t imagine. But it was just the ticket for temporarily storing furniture in. I asked my moving man if he could do me the weekend before. He said yes. Then I asked my seller if he’d mind if I brought my furniture two days before official completion and put it in the container. Obviously it would be at my own risk, but the chances of anything being nicked were pretty remote. (I suppose I could almost have asked him if I could put it in the house as it was empty, but that might have raised legal questions and I didn’t want to push my luck.) He agreed to the container suggestion.
So that was what we did. Sometimes, like I had at Penrorin, you have to use a bit of lateral thinking. My van man and his friend arrived on the Saturday morning, and with me also loading my own van to the gunwales we did several journeys, shifting all the large items I couldn’t do myself. Although he couldn’t have done the Monday, his friend Tony could, so we arranged that he would come on completion day to help me hump everything out of the container again and into the house. On the Sunday I collected the house keys from the seller and moved more of the small items that I could handle unaided. These consisted mainly of boxes of my hundreds of books, and having the keys to the cottage now, I could put these safely inside.
It was good to be able to look at Tanffynnon lengthily, alone for the first time, without someone breathing down my neck, feeling pressured to finish my visit and leave. To be able to just stand and gaze and imagine what I would do to it. The anticipation was delicious. I was virtually there! Just valuables like the TV (not that my ancient set was worth very much), stereo (ditto) and computer, and a few more boxes and some bedding – and of course Ellie – to move tomorrow, and that would be it. There was one thing about this arrangement: with Tanffynnon being empty I’d been able to move my goods and chattels at relative leisure. Although there was an element of moving things twice, there wasn’t tremendous pressure to do everything on the day itself. My buyer wouldn’t arrive until late on Monday evening. His move from Kent was logistically much more difficult than mine, and his removals people were going to have to overnight in Bristol. At such a great distance, it would have been impossible for them to do it all in one day.
My last evening at Haulfryn found me sitting rather uncomfortably on a garden chair borrowed from Shirley, surrounded by my remaining worldly goods, writing a welcome note containing useful information to my buyer. Ellie lay on the floor, looking a bit perplexed and a bit miffed. She wondered where her comfy sofa had gone. As I would never again need to furnish three bedrooms for marketing purposes, I was leaving one of my single beds for my successor. That would help us both: I had somewhere to sleep on my last night before I rejoined my furniture; he would have somewhere to sleep before his furniture rejoined him on Tuesday.
I finished my missive, made a last mug of coffee and thought about my time at Haulfryn. Like other chapters in my life, fortunes had been mixed. There’d been the enthusiasm on arrival, with the relief of escaping Llangadog. Then the upset of losing Bethan but the joy of gaining little Ellie, Then the dismal period on benefit (I’d hated every day of it) followed by the discovery of a way of earning a living. The landscaping had started well but then faltered, but at least it had kept the wolf from the door for the rest of my working life. Then the last exciting and interesting couple of years: the web-searching for a final place. And lastly the ultimate thrill of finding Tanffynnon.
My Grand Scheme hadn’t quite worked out as per my pre-1991 daydreaming. I hadn’t after all lived in the north of England and ended my travels in Scotland. And my eccentric lifestyle had only lasted eleven years before I was forced to rejoin the normal world and a proper day job. But never mind. My modified, slightly scaled down journey had still been an exciting one full of enthusiasm and fulfilment. I had no regrets. Better to have achieved 80% of a dream than not dream at all. As the song from South Pacific has it:
You’ve got to have a dream,
If you don’t have a dream,
How you gonna have a dream come true?
Now the door of the last room of life stood ajar. A brilliant beckoning light streamed around its edges. I just had to make one more bold move and venture through.