Once I’d woken up the following morning, I could see that I’d been deceiving myself the night before. Professor Richards was still asleep beside me. All around me was the bare room of the English Democrats’ hotel. Through the window I could see the walls of the State Socialists’ hotel, brown and refusing the sunlight.
There was nothing wrong with the breakfast that morning. Bacon and egg and toast and marmalade. Richards said that the bacon and eggs had probably come from the Dyfi valley. There was some comfort in knowing that the pigs and chickens, at least, could still scratch Welsh earth.
Richards paid for both of us, complaining under his breath that a whole week’s pension had gone to pay for one night of accommodation. Old age pensions were terribly small, he said, and if he didn’t have a college professor’s pension then he’d have had to go to one of the Hardship Homes, the more genteel name under which the old workhouses had been revived.
“We’ll take the bus along the coast to Bangor,” he said, “rather than going in a helicopter. So that you get to see the seaside towns.”
If they were anything like what I’d seen already, I said to myself, I’d rather not see them. But I didn’t want to argue. The professor was very kind to take me, and the least I could do was to go along with his plans now. I gathered, too, that the bus was cheaper.
We had to stand in a queue again to wait for the bus. The nine o’clock bus and then the ten o’clock bus filled up completely and left, while we still waited. When we got seats on the eleven o’clock bus, we had to sit separately because there were no double seats available. The professor asked one of the other passengers if he’d be willing to swap places with him, but he flatly refused.
The bus sped along an excellent road towards Machynlleth. I noticed that the villages along the roadside, from Bow Street to Derwen-las, had all been remodelled. Each of them had a ‘frontage’ – a bright row of flats and coffee houses – and then a long steel wall with huge placards on it advertising food and drink and soap and telling people to work hard, and in every village there was a big poster of a stark naked woman and the words “Welcome to Western England.” But behind that frontage in one of the villages I glimpsed – only glimpsed – a pile of ruins….
When the bus turned into Machynlleth – and I wouldn’t have recognised the place, with its big clock gone and all the trees down the high street taken away – and started along the coast road, I immediately noticed the difference in the road. It was better than it had been in my days, but there was no comparison between it and the road we’d come on as far as Machynlleth, the road that went on towards England.
I soon saw that we were heading into another forest. The hills of Meironnydd, the hills that I remembered as agricultural land, were all under trees. Trees regimented in straight rows from the tops of the hills down to the edge of the road, with nothing but a network of tarmac tracks breaking through them. Between the road and the forest ran a high fence, and upon that wer scattered warning notices in fiery letters: ‘Danger: Electric Fence.’ The bus stopped by a pole to pick up two or three travellers – forestry workers, by the look of them – and I had a chance to read the big noticeboard on the electric fence:
Any person found within this forest without an official Government Permit is liable to a fine of not less than one hundred pounds or six months imprisonment or both.
The bus started up again. It didn’t go far, however, before slowing down again and stopping. I didn’t understand why. There was no bus stop, nor any sign of a town or village. The driver and conductor got off, and spent a long time cogitating over the engine. Soon, the conductor came back in and told us that the bus had broken down, and we could go out if we wanted to. The driver was talking through his radio set with the bus station in Aberystwyth and asking them to send out another bus. The conductor told us not to go out of sight from the bus, in any case, as the land either side of the road was forbidden.
Richards nodded to me, and we both went out. As we passed the conductor, I noticed for the first time that he was wearing a belt with a pistol hanging from it. I mentioned this to Richards once we had gone far enough away.
“Yes, for sure,” said Richards. “He’s not a conductor, to tell the truth, even though he gives the tickets out. His official title is Busguard – a type of policeman. Every public vehicle must carry one, since so many troublemakers travel on them. For example, on this lonely road the foresters who travel by bus are a constant nuisance, especially if they’ve been drinking or on drugs. The guard carries a pistol that shoots, not bullets, but T-Rays. A quarter-second of the ray will paralyse a troublemaker for three hours.”
“But what if the conductor is overcome somehow?”
“The driver has a T-Ray gun as well. And if the conductor is overcome, then he has the right to use it.”
“Isn’t it possible that some of the passengers may have such a gun as well?”
“It’s possible, but it’s an offence that can lead to life imprisonment.”
I thought about Llywarch’s Wales’s prison-free legal system, and how much more peaceful and crime-free that Wales had been. We hadn’t gone far when a vehicle came to meet us. It was similar to a jeep from my time, but it was much quieter. It came to a stop alongside us, and the driver stuck his head out.
“Good Lord!” he said. “Uncle Owen! What in blazes are you doing here?”
Richards stared at the young man, and then his jaw dropped.
“Philip!” he said.
There was a vigorous shaking of hands and expressions of surprise. Richards turned to me and said in English,
“My wife’s nephew, Philip Seeward. He works in the forest.”
Not only ‘works in the forest’, said the young man, but was Deputy Chief Inspector for Forest W3 (namely Meirionnydd). He asked us where we were going, and the professor explained that we were on a tour through ‘Western England.”
“Look,” said the nephew in English, “how about coming with me? I’ve got various places to call into today, and that will give you as good an opportunity to see the country as anything. You helped me out financially once, Uncle. One good turn deserves another.”
“But we’d been thinking of going to Bangor.”
“I’ll put you on the bus to Bangor in time to get you there for bed.”
“But… Ifan and I aren’t permitted to enter the forest…”
“So long as you’re with me you’ll be fine. No-one will question you. Do you have bags?”
The professor said our bags were on the bus.
“Jump in,” said the nephew, and once we were seated in the vehicle he drove on to the bus. He showed his papers to the driver, and said he was taking his uncle and me with him.
“This is irregular,” said the conductor.
“Don’t worry,” said Seeward. “I’m taking responsibility.”
He asked me to fetch the bag from the bus, and within a few minutes we were off. Shortly before we reached the place where Pennal should have been, Seeward turned the vehicle towards a big gate. There was a guard by the gate, and when he saw Seeward he saluted, and pressed a button on the wall of his hut. The gate opened, and the vehicle entered the forest.
The professor explained to his nephew that I was from the twentieth century, and that we were travelling around the country formerly called Wales to see if there was anyone still alive who could speak any Welsh. Seeward looked at me with interest, and asked me about ‘the past’. No, he didn’t know anyone who could speak Welsh – no-one gave the matter any thought nowadays. He’d heard of the language, but assumed it had died out centuries ago at the same time as Latin. The professor explained that it was only within the last forty years that it had died, and it wasn’t impossible that there might be some old man or woman somewhere who’d remember hearing it in their childhood. Seeward shook his head. All the original inhabitants of this part of the country had been moved to the towns many years ago, and it was very unlikely that any of them would still be there.
The forest closed in around us, thick and dark, and the only sky we could see was a thin ribbon through the vehicle’s glass roof. On and on we went along the single track road. The road surface was good, but when another vehicle came to meet us it had to reverse hundreds of yards before coming to a concrete square where Seeward could pass it.
“These trees are very close to one another,” I said. “Isn’t there a danger of fire?”
“Firefighting techniques have been perfected,” said Seeward. “We don’t depend on water and sand and earth ditches and that sort of thing any more. We’ve got stuff that’s called Deathwind. I’ve got some in the back of the car. Spraying that on the fire and on the land around it will kill the fire in no time. It’ll kill everything else around it, unfortunately, but only for a few feet. It means we can plant belts of trees much closer to each other, and save space.”
“There are other things that are more of a problem for you today than fire, I expect?” said the professor.
“Yes. Too much radioactivity in the air shrivels the young trees. That’s one thing. And the other is workers’ strikes.”
“Is there a lot of that?” I asked.
“All the time. I’ve seen a whole village of them rising up before today.”
“Wanting more salary?”
“That’s one constant complaint. Wanting better food. More drink. More holidays. Any excuse to kick up. And it’s so easy for them to rebel in these endless forests. The Forest Police can be called by radio from up to fifty miles away, and they’ll arrive within half an hour. But by that time the strikers will have disappeared among the trees, and they can be there for days, hiding in caves and old quarries, before they can be found. It was a mistake to cover such a large part of the country in forest. Men turn wild here, and the occasional weekend of fun in Aberystwyth or Barmouth or Bala isn’t enough to keep them quiet.”
I was glad that someone else besides me could see how repellent these forests were.
“But what if you yourself had to face a crowd of striking foresters?” said the professor. “Do you carry a T-Ray gun?”
“We’re not allowed to, unfortunately. It would be better than some things that we have to use.”
“Oh… some things.”
A chilling silence descended upon the three of us, and Philip Seeward drove on. The long road meandered through the dark forest until we rounded a corner and something looking like an old village came into view.
“What’s this, Philip?” asked the professor.
“It used to be called Abergynolwyn, I think. ‘Ruin 17’ is its name nowadays. We have to number the ruins for convenience; the old names are impossible to pronounce.”
“Would you mind stopping for a minute?” I asked.
“Not at all,” said Seeward, and he pulled the vehicle onto a piece of green unwooded land in the midst of the ruins. I noticed that the piece of land was the old village street. I looked around with my heart in my mouth. The houses had all gone to rack and ruin, since years ago as far as I could see. It was true that some had held up better than others, but there wasn’t glass in any of the windows and their doors were rotten. I went along the grass track between the two rows of ruins, and I saw a ruin that was bigger than the others. A chapel, perhaps? I thought. Its gable end still rose up towards the heavens, as if it were asking forgiveness for the vandals that had driven its worshippers away. But its side wall had collapsed, and its rubble was covered with a thick overgrowth of nettles and dock leaves. A fox darted through one of the chapel doors, and an owl flew up from the pulpit. I turned, and ran for my life.
It was the same story at Tal-y-llyn (Ruin 16), Bryncrug (Ruin 15) and Llanegryn (Ruin 14). Each one was a cluster of ruins, quieter than a graveyard. There is, at least, life outside a graveyard wall. We went out again into the heart of the forest, and came out of it suddenly by another pile of ruins. There, there was a big concrete wall with huge letters above the gate spelling out “War Department Territory: Entrance Forbidden.” Beside the gate stood two soldiers, who raised their guns when they saw us.
“Don’t look at the devils in case they shoot you,” said Seeward, and he drove out of their sight like the wind. “We have trouble with them all the time. Some of the soldiers come into the forest every day to shoot rabbits, and if we so much as touch them there’ll be a horde of their officers at our headquarters in Dolgellau raising hell. We get the same trouble at the camp in Fairbourne, at the rocket range in Trawsfynydd, and at the Llanuwchllyn and Corwen camps. They think they own the place. They’re welcome to it as well, as far as I’m concerned.”
“What happens beyond that big wall, I wonder?” said the professor.
“The War Department’s wall? Goodness knows. They’re so secretive, you’d think they were planning to blow the whole planet to smithereens. If it weren’t for the worldwide ban on weapons that disperse strontium or astrium, they’d have been doing that for years.”
Then we rushed past the wall that surrounded Y Friog, while the sentries who patrolled its gates fingered their rifles. War Department Territory: Entrance Forbidden.
“Who the blazes wants to go inside their camps?” said Seeward. “What do they think they’ve got behind their walls? A funfair?”
Back we went into the forest, along another narrow lane over the mountain. After we’d been for miles without seeing another living creature, except for trees, trees, and more trees, the forest thinned out again and we came to another enormous wall. On this one, again, there was a warning: Vulcan Uranium Mines: No Admittance!
“Here they are again,” said Seeward through clenched teeth. “Who wants to go into their damned mines? One out of every four of their workers is dead within two years. They send the platoons to work in them.”
Seeward had a fit of unprintable swearing. The professor was looking pale, and I must admit that I was feeling sick. Surely this wasn’t Wales? The future had played some dirty trick on me. Soon, the vehicle was standing in the middle of a cluster of concrete buildings.
“We’ll get out here for lunch,” said Seeward. “It’s way past noon, and you must be starving.”
To be completely honest, I couldn’t bear the thought of food at that moment. But I was glad to be able to get out of the vehicle. Seeward explained that this was one of the foresters’ villages, and there were about three dozen houses – if that was the right word for such dull buildings – and a shop, and a slightly larger building, which was perhaps a dance hall. Four men sat on the steps of the hall playing cards, and money was changing hands between them. The men looked slyly at Seeward, and one of them spat once we had gone past.
There was nothing to see around the ‘village’ except trees. But above the trees it was just about possible to see the peak of a mountain or two. I thought perhaps the village was somewhere around Garneddwen. We went into the shop, and through into the back where there were some long metal tables and metal chairs. A small, obsequious bald man brought lunch to us, a pretty poor lunch at that. Two or three men stood in the doorway watching us eat.
“It’s nearly two o’clock,” Seeward said to them. “Hadn’t you better get to work.”
The men smiled crookedly and stayed standing there. I felt their cold eyes staring into my head. Not one of them moved until we got up from the table when we’d finished eating. Nor did they move aside for us to go through the door until Seeward had asked them twice. Once we’d gone out, we heard them laugh. Cold laughter, as cold as their eyes had been.
Seeward called into one of the houses to see the district foreman. The professor and I went towards the vehicle. Before we got to it, I saw two men slinking away from it and into the trees. One of them had a weapon in his hand. When we reached the car, one of the doors had been forced open. A shiver ran down my spine. We went in and sat down.
Eventually, Seeward came. We told him about the door. His faced flushed with terror, and he started furiously searching the vehicle. After searching for a while he said,
“Everything’s here, thank goodness. It looks like the two of you got here before they could take anything. But I know exactly what they were looking for.”
“The deathwind dispenser. Ever since some of the workers in Forest West Five – the Ceredigion forest – turned their dispensers on some of the officers when they were fighting a fire there a few years ago, and killed them, the workers haven’t been allowed to use the stuff. Only the fire brigades and the Forestry officers are allowed to carry it. But the dispensers keep disappearing from the officers’ vehicles.”
“Will you report the men to the Police for breaking the door?”
“That won’t do any good. Even if they catch the men, all that will do is start a strike.”
After another journey through the depths of the forest, we came out at the edge of the ruins of another village. By now the professor had his nephew’s map in his hands and was following it.
“This is Ruin 24,” said Seeward.
“According to the map,” said the professor, “Llanuwchllyn.”
I looked at it. The village of the giants of Welsh culture. Ruins, piles of rubble, and nettles. I closed my eyes tightly so as not to see it. When I opened them again, we were driving along another wall, the wall of a camp. The other side of us – and I was grateful for the sight of something I recognised – was Llyn Tegid. The forest was closing in on it from every direction, a thick blanket of pine trees stretching from the blue water of the lake up to the tops of the hills around. The shape of the lake was the same as when I’d seen it before, but the land around it was no longer Penllyn.
We went out through the forest’s electric fence, after the sentry had saluted Seeward and opened it. Before long we were in Bala. At least, I gathered that this had been Bala years ago. The first thing that struck me was a modern church rising from the trees – Saint Fatima’s Church, said Seeward. Around the end of the lake there was a vast funfair – the new Aberystwyth prom all over again, but even uglier if that were possible. Bala High Street was just two rows of amusement arcades.
“A holiday town,” said Seeward humourlessly. “I’m turning in here. I have an office just here.”
I was shocked when I saw the office. It was none other than what had once been Capel Tegid. I asked, trying to swallow my fury, what had happened to the statue of Thomas Charles.
“The statue of who?” said Seeward.
The professor explained to him that a statue of one of the Welsh heroes whose memory was the most consecrated, had once stood in front of the chapel.
“Oh, I remember now,” said Seeward. “There was a statue here. It as moved years ago because it got in the way of the car park in front of the office. No-one knew anything about the man it had been put up for. I won’t be long.”
For the second time since the day before, I broke down and wept. The professor understood this time, and left me to it. I was crying, not out of fury towards the vandals who’d done all this – it was obvious that they had no idea what they were doing – but out of fury at my own generation, the generation that had held all these treasures in its trust, but had let the swine in to tread them underfoot. I felt sure that the heavens would never forgive the Welsh, nor me, for selling our heritage so cheaply, so blasphemously, frivolously cheaply. When I had calmed down a bit, the professor turned to me and said, in Welsh,
“I’m sorry for bringing you on this journey, Ifan. I didn’t know that Wales as it was had meant so much to you.” And he added under his breath, “Or you might have fought to keep it.”
Turning the knife in the wound. Were my own conscience not condemning me as much as he was, I’d have hit him for being so cruel. With that, Seeward returned.
“Well,” he said, “that’s me finished for today. Now, would you like to see Lake Tryweryn before we go back?”
I stared at him.
“Lake what did you say?”
“Lake Tryweryn. What are you looking at me like that for? It’s close enough, we’ll only be two minutes…”
“Shut up,” I said. “I don’t want to see the damned thing, I’ve seen enough…”
“But it’s only a reservoir, just like Lake Ceiriog and Lake Dolanog and Lake Festiniog and Lake Nant Francon…”
“Shut up you filthy devil!”
“Now look here Powell…”
“Leave him, Philip.” The professor put his hand on his arm. “Ifan’s worked up. He doesn’t know what he’s saying…”
“I should think so, indeed…”
“You and I would be the same if we came back to the world a hundred years from now and saw all the things dearest to us destroyed. We can’t imagine what these things, that have disappeared today, meant to Ifan. Don’t take any notice.”
“Oh, well, if that explains it…” said Seeward, sitting in his seat by the steering wheel. “Oh… while I remember. I happened to ask in the office earlier whether there might be anyone in the area who could speak any Welsh. Everyone looked at me dumbly for a minute, then one of the men said there was an old woman in this street who’s more or less lost her mind, and who raves on sometimes in a strange language. Would you like to see her, just in case?”
The professor looked at me apprehensively, then nodded to Seeward. Seeward drove on a bit; he stopped outside a chip shop, and went in. He came out after a minute or two and nodded to us. We went through the chip shop to a small dark room in the back. There, in the corner, there was an old woman sitting, her head back, dozing. A woman who was about forty years old stood beside her, with a slovenly and impatient look about her.
“I don’t know,” she said. “We’ve always lived ‘ere, but I never ‘eard any of your Welsh. My mother-in-law ‘ere gabbles something sometimes my ‘usband and me can’t understand. You can try ‘er if you like.”
Richards sat directly in front of the old woman and said in Welsh,
“How are you, my friend? Are you feeling all right?”
The old woman opened her eyes and looked at him lifelessly.
“Mm? Who are you?” she replied, in English.
“I’m speaking Welsh to you, old woman,” said the professor. “Can you speak Welsh?”
“Eh? I don’t know you,” said the old woman then, still in English.
The professor made a few tries, but in vain. Then, I asked if I could try. The professor got up, and I sat in his place, and held both of the old woman’s hands. I wanted to hear her speak a word of Welsh more than anything in the world, someone who had lived in my time and spoke my language… I wanted to hear her say something that would show that the vandals hadn’t completely destroyed my Wales forever, especially in Bala…
“Old woman,” I said. “Do you know this? Try to remember.” And I said slowly, in Welsh, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures…” The old woman’s eyes closed. Well, it’s over, I thought. But I kept going. “He shall restore my soul…” Suddenly, I saw that the old woman’s lips were moving. She was saying the words with me. She opened her eyes, and her voice became stronger and stronger… “Yes, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I shall fear no evil…” And when we came to the last words of the Psalm, she spoke them with a strength in her voice and a light in her eyes that I haven’t seen the like of before or since.
“And I shall dwell in the House of the Lord forever… Who are you, my boy?” She turned her bright eyes towards me. “Are you Meri Jones’s boy? They’ve taken the statue of Thomas Charles away from the chapel, you know? Those English did…” She grasped the arms of the chair and sat bolt upright. “They did, with all their noise and their trees and their regulations… they…” (and then in English) “But I don’t know you, do I?” She sank back again and her eyes clouded. “I don’t… know anything now…”
I rose, and left the room. I had seen the death of the Welsh language with my own eyes.