Let me confess straight away that I really don’t have one. I’m a fully paid-up member of the Society For The Protection Of The Physically Cowardly. A total wimp when it comes to heights. I put it down to an overactive imagination; an excess of the ‘But what if . . . ?’
In my younger days I loved mountain walking, but I stress walking. I enjoyed the views from the tops of them after puffing up easy, safe, relatively non-scary tourist paths with boots planted reassuringly on terra firma. But put me on the end of a rope and send me up a high, sheer, possibly even overhanging rock face? Forget it!
Likewise skydiving. The very thought of leaping out of an aircraft into thousands of feet of nothingness (even supposing you could get me up there in the first place), placing my faith for survival in two flimsy parachutes, makes me positively nauseous. I’ve never been an adrenaline junkie, thanks.
I don’t even like tall buildings, to be perfectly honest; least of all the idea of standing on the observation platform of something like the CN Tower in Canada, or one of those ridiculously high pinnacles in Dubai. Nobody needs buildings that high.
On a much more modest scale, although still pretty hairy in my timid opinion, is the Thomas Telford Pontcysyllte (pronounced something like ‘Pontcusuckty’; apologies to Welsh speakers reading this) aqueduct near Llangollen in North Wales, which carries the Llangollen Canal 126 vertiginous feet high over the River Dee.
The reasonably intrepid can walk across it, along the towpath beside the canal, which is carried in a massive iron trough, in complete safety, psychologically and otherwise, because there’s a high railing. You can either keep your eyes firmly averted from the side and look straight ahead, or peer down into the abyss, according to personal bravery-quotient.
But if you take a canal boat trip and are vertigo-prone, be sure to cop a seat in the saloon on the towpath side, because there’s no such reassuring barrier on the other, just the lip of the water trough. Of course it’s perfectly safe – the water can never rise above the lip and overflow, plunging to the river far below taking a boat with it, but if you sit on that side you have the distinct sensation of flying. If you are really intrepid you can navigate your own hire boat across this aerial waterway, but that of course has to involve standing outside at the controls with a yawning chasm on one side. It really wouldn’t do to lose your footing; it isn’t for the faint-hearted.
I mention all this because the Pontcysyllte aqueduct features in chapter two of my new novel The Flautist, a story of unusual love, music, kindness and rescue from despair. Here it is, for your delectation and sampling. The book is published on Amazon.
Leah stood at their hotel bedroom window gazing out at the foaming River (no, Afon, give it the Welsh word) Dee burbling busily and surprisingly noisy below. She sighed happily. ‘Isn’t this just gorgeous, honey?’
Shay moved close behind her, pressing groin to bottom (as he often did when they were naked, when it was wonderful); wrapped his arms around her waist. Rested his chin in the nape of her slender neck. ‘Yeah, very nice.’
He was getting over his irritation that there was no car parking at the Glyndwr Hotel at this tiny back-of-beyond place, Llangollen, in North Wales, a part of Britain he’d barely heard of. To his amazement, there was only parking for the proprietors and delivery trucks and they’d had to leave the car in a municipal parking lot and tote their suitcases themselves without so much as the offer of a bellboy to carry for them, over a precarious-looking chain suspension bridge to the riverside hotel.
But Leah thought it divine. The perfect place to be in the fall, with the leaves yellow and russet and ochre on the trees, clinging stubbornly on for a few final glorious days before they’d be stripped away by the next strong gust of wind or rain shower. Along the river high hills rose sentinel, receding like huge green open egg boxes into the distance. They’d flown over the previous day, after the wedding, direct to Liverpool airport from JFK. She would have liked a quiet, no-fuss wedding somewhere really romantic in Britain, but had been outvoted. And as Mom and Dad had paid for it all, and they, Shay and Shay’s parents had wanted a New York venue, in a proper Synagogue, it was fair enough, she supposed.
They’d overnighted in Liverpool and then, in a hired car, driven south today, crossing the border into Wales with its cute bi-lingual Croeso y Gymru sign soon after Chester, then done a right at Ruabon into wonderful hill country and onto an absurdly narrow single carriageway B road, as the Brits called them, past the soaring stone arches of a high, elegant and dramatic aqueduct over the Dee. It carried a canal (another British quaintness; they must have been a painfully slow means of travel, at the walking pace of the towing horse) over the river to shadow its northern bank westwards to Llangollen. The crossing was called Pontcysyllte, according to her guidebook, a name that looked impossible to pronounce.
And then the arrival here, and Shay’s little temper tantrum, barely concealed, because there were no flunkeys waiting to bow attendance. But he seemed to be over it now. She turned to face her new husband and wrapped her arms around him too. ‘Okay; I know you would rather we’d just gone to somewhere hot and exotic, but this is different, a new experience, don’t you think?’
‘Well, yeah, it’s that all right, I’ll grant you,’ Shay conceded. ‘I hadn’t realized Britain was so . . . varied, I must admit.’
‘That’s the nice thing about it. I know it hasn’t got really spectacular sights like our Grand Canyon and stuff, but for a small island it packs a lot in. So my guidebook says, anyway.’
‘I suppose it does, if you like sightseeing. So what are we going to do here then? This is your part of the honeymoon. It’s up to you.’
That was certainly true. They’d haggled over where to go. Leah wanted it to be something like this: getting to know her adoptive (if only for a few years) country. She wanted to explore it. Shay on the other hand just wanted a beach somewhere expensive and select and wall to wall sunshine to work on his tan. So they’d compromised. Leah would choose the first five days and Shay the second. Poring over road map and guidebooks, she’d devised a mini-tour of Britain, beginning at Liverpool and going south into Wales (hence Llangollen now, because it looked interesting); then further west into Snowdonia; then back into England and down through Shropshire and Hereford and Worcester to Stratford upon Avon and sampling a little Shakespearian culture: overnighting there and taking in a performance at the theatre the following day. Then overnighting again before heading for the golden-stoned, chocolate-box Cotswolds region of Gloucestershire.
Then on to the Vale of White Horse in Wiltshire to see the chalky stylized Celtic figure at Uffington before joining the M4 motorway for the final leg back to London and their penthouse apartment in Canary Wharf. Then a short intermission there before boarding their flight to French Polynesia and Shay’s sea and sun. That was the plan. It had something for each of them.
‘Okay,’ Leah said, ‘well I thought we might do a canal boat trip this afternoon; what do you think?’
‘Hold on, Lee! It’s twelve o’clock now.’ Shay looked down at his watch. ‘Twelve-fifteen, and we’ve only just got here; can’t we chill a bit?’
She snorted dismissively. ‘It’s okay, there’s plenty of time. I checked. There’s a trip leaves at two o’clock. They do lunches on the boat, so we can eat then. We can have a look round the town while we’re waiting.’
‘Well, all right then; I suppose so,’ Shay said, sounding rather doubtful. He thought she was trying to pack too much into the first days.
‘Oh, come on! It’ll be fun!’ Leah cajoled, her voice high like a little girl’s. ‘It goes back along the canal, the way we came in, and goes over that high aqueduct we saw: Pont . . . thingy. It’s quite an experience going over there, apparently. Then the trippers return by road, in a bus. Or you can get a bus to the far end and the canal boat back. You’ll enjoy it!’
Shay smiled, conceding defeat. ‘Okay, let’s do it. Anything to keep Mrs Goldstein happy!’
They left the hotel and wandered into the little grey stone town. Fall might have arrived but it was still alive with a generous sprinkling of tourists, probably because of the mid-term school break. This would no doubt be the final spasm of commerce before winter exerted its chilly grip and the shops closed for the season though. The village was remarkably spick and span; it was clearly quite a tourist honey pot. Leah could see why. Apart from the scenery and the canal, it boasted another attraction: a conserved steam railway. She would have liked a ride on it too, but the tight itinerary didn’t allow it. There were other delights in other places planned.
With fifteen minutes to spare they found the wharf, from which the feeder canal fed water into the main one. A brightly-painted narrowboat (as they called them) was tied up at the quay and tourists were already taking their seats aboard, as if fearful that it might leave without them. They found the ticket office for the boat tripping. The smartly-uniformed young woman behind the glass asked for their booking details.
‘Oh,’ ‘We haven’t done. We only arrived in Llangollen a short while ago,’ Leah said, alarmed, mangling the strange name horribly, ‘we thought we could just turn up.’
The booking clerk sighed patiently. ‘It does say in our brochure and on our website that trips are pre-booked. So is lunch, if you want it.’
She consulted a list. ‘And I’m afraid the two o’clock outward trip is fully booked anyway. Sorry.’
‘Oh,’ Leah repeated. ‘Dammit.’
The young woman suppressed a smile and looked apologetic. She was used to this. She consulted at her lists again. ‘But I could book you for the return trip. It’s still got some vacant seats. It means taking our courtesy coach to Froncysyllte, at the far end, which is included in the price. It leaves here at three fifteen. Would you like to do that?’
Shay opened his mouth to speak but Leah beat him to it. ‘Yes, that sounds good. We’ll do that. Thank you.’
‘Good.’ The clerk beamed. ‘Can I have your names, please? And would you like to order cream tea?’
‘Oh, yes please!’ They’d only lived in England for four months but Leah knew what that quaint British custom, with its scones with cream and jam and cakes, involved. She gave their names and they left the booking office.
‘Great; so now we’ve missed lunch!’ Shay grumbled, looking around hopefully, as if a McDonalds might suddenly appear. He could murder a hamburger.
Leah shushed him with a dig in the ribs. ‘Come on now, misery-guts. It’s not a big deal. We can go and find a café and get something to eat to keep us going. There’s bound to be somewhere still open.’
So they returned to the town and found an eating place, and ate burger buns (with ham for him and cheese for her) and buttered Bara Brith, a Welsh delicacy: dark treacly fuity bread, and drank enormous mugs of strong milky tea, in the British style, although Shay would have preferred something alcoholic. Then after more time-killing wandering around the town, they returned to the wharf, to climb aboard the coach, joining pensioners and (distastefully for Shay) families with noisy excited children, for ferrying to the unpronounceable Froncysyllte.
Finally they were aboard the boat, the same one they’d seen back in Llangollen, according to its nameplate: Thomas Telford. It must have arrived before them. Obviously it plied back and forth between Llangollen and . . . the other place but return trips were not on offer. The punters could only sample its stately delights as a one-way trip, starting at either end, with the coach used to complete the return (or deliver travellers to the start).
They ensconced themselves in the saloon, sitting at a table across from a family of three: a slim middle-aged man with hair as nut-brown and curly as his (presumed) plump, Mediterranean-looking wife’s was jet-black and straight. Against the window opposite Leah sat their presumed child, a girl eight years old or so who had clearly inherited her raven hair and almond eyes from her mother. Leah fished out her guidebook again as they waited for the boat to set off. She’d read something about Llangollen being famous for an international music festival. She found the item again. Yes, it happened regularly, apparently. ‘Hey, Shay,’ she said, ‘This sounds interesting. They do a big music gig in Llangollen (horribly mispronouncing it again) every year. “The Llangollen International Music Eyestedfod” Or however you pronounce it. It’s another of those pesky Welsh words.’
The fellow-tourist across the table smiled a friendly smile, the margins of his hazel eyes wrinkling quite fetchingly. He spoke. ‘Close. It’s Eisteddfod. “Aye-steath-vod.” Something like that.’ He pronounced the ‘th’ hard. ‘And it’s “Thlan-gothlen.” Approximately.’
Leah laughed. (Shay scowled.) ‘Ah right: thanks for that! I’m just a stupid American tourist, so what do I know?’
She tried copying the man’s pronunciation tips, repeating the words several times. The stranger laughed too, as his (wife?) glowered bad-temperedly. He prompted her again, several times, until she was making a reasonable fist of it. ‘That’s it!’ he said finally, ‘you’ve got it, pretty well!’
Leah was enjoying the lightened mood. ‘Thanks again! But you don’t sound Welsh, not that I’m any expert in accents. Er . . . are you?’
The stranger chuckled again. ‘Good grief no. Otherwise I’d really get the pronunciation right. I’m a fellow Celt, but from across the water. Another branch of the family, so to speak.’
‘From Ireland,’ he added, as if to make it crystal-clear.
‘Ah, right. Yes, I can tell now you say so.’
They regarded each other, smiling. It was nice to be chatting to someone personable, after Shay’s grumpiness. Leah said, ‘And do you know anything about this, er, Eisteddfod thing, then?’
‘No, not a lot, except that they have musicians and singers performing from all over the world. It’s a big event. Very colourful, because it’s traditional folk music.’
‘Sounds wonderful!’ Leah enthused. ‘I’d like to see it sometime.’
Her travelling companion regarded her steadily. ‘Are you a musician then, by any chance?’
Leah laughed, wryly. ‘Well, I try to be. It’s getting the work that’s the hard part though. I’m a flautist.’
‘Oh, really? A budding James Galway, are you?’ There was a teasing undertone to the question, but it wasn’t offensive. Just banter. What did the Irish call it now? ‘Joshing’, was it? Something like that. It was fun, anyway.
‘No! For a start I’m not Irish and for seconds I’ll never be as successful as him. So I’m told, at least.’
The stranger looked sympathetic. ‘Well, there’s a world of difference between commercial success and good musicianship and fulfillment, I would have thought, sure. No disrespect to our James, of course, but he had a load of luck as well. It’s achieving what you want from life that measures success though, and not necessarily huge wealth, isn’t it?’
‘Well it’s pretty important as far as I’m concerned, my friend.’ Shay put in aggressively.
The Irishman shrugged, raised his hands in a peacemaking gesture and said no more.
The engine of the canal boat suddenly burst into throbbing life and they were cast off. The Thomas Telford began its leisurely progress, slowly picking up speed. Further conversation forgotten, Lea gazed out of the window, drinking in the lush scenery as it slid slowly past. An automated commentary began, welcoming them to the trip and giving information about canals in general and the Llangollen waterway in particular. And (demonstrating the correct pronunciation) about Thomas Telford, the Victorian engineer who had overseen the building of the amazing aqueduct they would soon be crossing, over two hundred years ago. The voice rattled off statistics: third iron viaduct to be built in the world; at one thousand and seven feet long and one hundred and twenty-six feet above the River Dee, the longest and highest in Britain. And so on. Then came a warning that passengers of a nervous disposition or suffering from vertigo might prefer to sit on the right-hand, towpath side of the boat where there was a railing, because there was nothing at all on the left, no visual or actual barrier, just the low lip of the iron trough that held the water. Although, the narrator assured, it was perfectly safe.
Leah’s heart did a minor nosedive. She and the child were by the window. On the left. Oh well; as the commentary said, it was perfectly safe. The boat couldn’t possibly fall off and plunge to the river below. Irrational feelings of insecurity were all in the mind. Really, they were. And sure enough, three minutes later an ornate iron railing appeared outside the window, at right angles, and then the ground was dropping rapidly away, down, down into the river valley. Ahead, through the front windows, the canal with its towpath on its right was die-straight into the distance but there was no land on either side. Just a void. It was as if the canal had suddenly leapt into empty space.
Now her chest was jolted by an adrenaline rush. Ohmygod, it was scary! And then the child noticed the disappearance of terra firma too. She took a stricken look out of her window, hesitated for a moment, the colour drained from her face and she screamed. Hers wasn’t the only voice as people suddenly found themselves apparently airborne. There were squeals of delight and mock-terror all around. But hers was pure panic. Her eyes widened in terror and her scream became constant. On the other side of the Irishman, the Mediterranean woman complained impatiently, ‘Stai zitto, Bella! Non essere sciocca!’
The father turned to her. ‘Hey, hey, It’s all right, love! You’re quite safe!’
But the panic had really taken hold. She wouldn’t be quieted. She was still staring masochistically into the void, and now the river, far below. Leah impulsively reached out a hand to cover one of hers. ‘Yes, come on, honey. It’s okay! Just don’t look!’
But still she continued. The Irishman pulled her onto his lap and clasped her face into his chest, so that she couldn’t; stroked her hair. ‘Come on now. Calm down. Deep breaths now. Come on.’
Leah said, ‘You’re all right. Imagine you’re not here. You’re safe home, with your dad. He’ll keep you safe. Think of something really nice.’
She began singing, softly, something her Grandma Ruth had sung to her when she was little and frightened about anything (like her parents fighting): ‘Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens.’
After a while the little girl’s screaming became intermittent, then it stopped. She looked across at Leah, interest in the singing winning over her fear. Leah sang Maria von Trapp’s song all the way through to the end, ‘. . . and then I don’t feel . . . sooo bad.’
Beside her, Leah sensed Shay heaving a long sigh of relief. He was probably embarrassed by the commotion. The Irishman had been watching her intently, an unknowable expression on his friendly open features. He let go of the child for a moment to theatrically applaud. ‘Bravissimo! There, wasn’t that nice Bella? Being sung to by the nice lady?’
Bella nodded shyly. Leah held her attention away from the heart-stopping drop outside until they reached the end of the aqueduct (quite honestly, she wasn’t very keen on looking to her left either). Courage regained, the child scrambled off her father’s knee to resume her seat by the window, glancing at Leah now and then with a tiny timid smile.
The catering staff brought their cream teas: a proper china pot for the tea and scones, both English-style and flat, disc-shaped ones (‘Welsh cakes’, their Irish companion informed), pots of cream and strawberry jam and a plate of assorted fancy cakes. Embarrassment threatened when Leah thought they’d have to eat watched by their travelling companions, but fortunately they had ordered refreshments too. Bella had regained her composure fully now, and ate her own and half of Leah’s share of the cakes.
An hour and a half later they were back at Llangollen (Leah knew how to pronounce it now) Wharf. It was time to part from their ships-in-the-night companions. They hovered uncertainly. The Irishman looked Leah steadily in the eye. He had a disarming way of doing that. ‘Well thanks for what you did with Bella. That really was very kind of you.’
Leah smiled. ‘Oh, it was nothing, really. My pleasure.’
He smiled again. ‘Oh but it was. You should be a music-therapist! I appreciated it. Right then; enjoy the rest of your trip; ’bye.’ His wife smiled too. Bella grinned cheekily.
‘’Bye then,’ Leah replied. The trio turned and left them, heading back towards the town.
Shay cheered up at the prospect of an evening meal in the hotel. As they were still in post-wedding celebrating mode, and it was their honeymoon after all, they ordered a bottle of the best champagne the establishment had to offer. It wasn’t comparable in quality with what they were used to, but it was fizzy and boozy, that was the main thing.
At ten o’clock, having also polished off a bottle of Chablis (and in Shay’s case three whiskies too) in the lounge bar, they stumbled unsteadily to their room. A full moon was hanging in the sky, as if specially ordered, perfectly positioned outside the undrawn drapes to cast its silver beams into the room, and they left them undrawn and fumbled urgently out of their clothes and into each others’ arms, and slightly too quickly, Shay trembled and groaned and his embrace became a bear-hug of orgasm, and he gave up his seed.
Later they climbed beneath the duvet and lay entwined, a cat’s cradle of overheated limbs. Leah sighed. ‘Well that’s day one of the rest of our lives over, Mr Goldstein. How was it for you?’
Shay grinned in the moonlight. ‘Okay, yeah, pretty good.’ He was feeling extremely mellow.
‘You weren’t too bored, were you?’ Leah asked, just a tad anxiously.
He hesitated, but only briefly. ‘No; the ride over that aqueduct was quite white-knuckle. Not sure I’d want to be standing on deck on that boat, steering, though. Wouldn’t do to lose your footing and fall off the thing on the one side, would it?’
Lea laughed. ‘No; me neither. No, it wouldn’t!’
‘Shame about that kid screaming her head off though. The parents shouldn’t take them if they’re going to do that.’
Leah looked at her husband, shocked. ‘But she was only little. And she was really scared. I don’t blame her, really. Poor little mite.’
‘Uh! Well she shouldn’t have been on there then, should she?’
‘Ah, come on Shay! I don’t suppose her parents anticipated how heart-stopping it was going to be any more than we did. It’s one thing reading about it in a tourist brochure but a different thing in real life!’ Leah felt a faint icy finger stabbing her chest. Shay wasn’t showing a lot of empathy.
‘Yea, well you certainly fixed her with your singing that God-awful song, didn’t you? Perhaps that guy was right; you should use your musical talents doing music therapy for disturbed kids, or something. I hope none of our kids are such wimps.’ He grunted. ‘Okay, let’s get some sleep, shall we? I suppose you’ve got another action-packed day lined up for us tomorrow.’
He untangled his arms and legs and turned his back. Soon he was snoring, leaving Leah staring up at the moonlit ceiling. Angrily, she got out of bed and drew the drapes across. The romantic mood was over. She returned to bed and tried to settle to sleep too, feeling just a tiny irrational twinge of loneliness.
The next morning they set off driving westwards, to Snowdonia. No, the planned activity wasn’t as energetic as Shay had slightly sneeringly suggested. Leah would have liked to walk to the top of Snowdon, Wales’ highest mountain, but that would have involved buying a lot of proper gear: walking boots, rucksack, correct clothing and the like. More importantly though, she would have had to persuade Shay. She knew he wouldn’t be interested. She didn’t want to push her luck. But there was a narrow-gauge railway that ran right to the top of the mountain, according to the tourist literature. He surely wouldn’t object to that.
But it was slightly disappointing. The mountains of the Llanberis Pass were majestic, the beetling heights impressive and the lovingly restored diminutive steam locomotives of the Snowdon Mountain Railway cute, but halfway up the train found itself in low cloud and the promised spectacular view from the summit remained just that. The tea-and-snack taken at the summit café and the return journey in the company of more children, some of them fractious and disappointed, were largely uncommunicative affairs, as Shay sulked and cast frequent glances heavy with mute I-told-you-so accusation.
The hotel stay was fine though (at least Leah thought so) and the weather fine (for which she gave silent Heavenward-directed thanks) for the journey back through the mountainous spine of Wales to the hilly east and over the border into England. And the sun stayed with them through the verdant western counties, on through the pretty towns of Ludlow and Leominster and Worcester, to the Bard’s magnificent half-timbered birthplace: Stratford-upon-Avon.
And the hotel in Stratford was certainly up to scratch, Shay confirmed approvingly. He put on a cheerful face looking around the town the following morning and driving to Warwick eight miles away in the afternoon to see the castle. He indulged Leah in the performance of Macbeth back in Stratford in the evening. And the final leg: the picture postcard Cotswolds and the White Horse, were to his satisfaction too.
Back in the apartment at the end of that final day, they collapsed into bed almost too tired to make love. But that was fine. Tomorrow they could relax; return the car to the hire company, do laundry, sort clothes and pack for honeymoon, part the second.
Leah lay in the huge feather-soft (it probably was one) bed waiting for Shay to come out of the shower to join her. She’d done nothing all day except lounge by the pool in her new bikini, basted with sunscreen. They’d opted for the most expensive villa. Well, Dad was paying. She had to confess; the hot weather and the glamour and the exoticism certainly did things for your love-life. Stimulated it big time. Shay came out of the en-suite, naked, rubbing his hair dry. It was only day two and already he was bronzed like a god and achingly desirable, except of course for a narrow vee beginning only just above his pubic hair.
He pulled the thin white sheet aside and climbed in beside her. He lifted his left arm to invite her to snuggle in. She did. He sighed contentedly. ‘It’s quite a place, this, you’ve got to admit, Lee.’
Leah sighed too, although hers was not entirely one of contentment. Yes, the sex was terrific. And the luxury. But to be honest, she was a little bored. But then this was what marriage was all about, after all. Compromise.
She swept the sheet away and straddled him, as his hands reached for her and he quickly stirred. ‘Yes, honey.’ She said, suppressing a second sigh, ‘it is.’