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"See that squirrel up there, Ed?" said my uncle Will.
All I saw were trees. A whole Welsh mountain full of them.
"There," he said. "A red one."
I sat and stared.
"Same colour as Sali's hair, he is."
"What Sali's that, then?" I said, and could have kicked myself. He'd conned me into listening to one of his lies again, and as always there was a woman behind it.
"Sali? Only the woman I wanted to marry, that's all."
It was a shock. He'd always sworn there wasn't a woman born who could make a married man of him.
"Mind you, I was no more than a boy then. About your age."
"Will, I'm twenty-five," I said, and wondered if he knew what year it was.
"Anyway, it was all your father's fault. Him and his daft idea to break away from this place and make some real money."
"But now he owns a..."
"And I hope he's happy where he is," he continued, not minding me in the slightest. "He dragged me off up to England with him to work on the road-building. Unlike him, though, I had the sense to come home where I belong."
He paused, running his eyes over the valley, absorbing for probably the millionth time in his life every slate of every tiny house of the village.
I followed his lead, looking for some nostalgia from a place I'd left before I was old enough to get attached to it. When I looked up he was staring at me. His old hat pulled down over his brow, his eyes studying my face, steady blue searchlights waiting to fall on my slightest show of emotion.
He rasped a bony hand against the stubble of his chin and leaned back against the tree. "You're too young yet," he sighed.
"Too young for what?" I said.
"I don't know. Too young for life. Too young to grow old."
He had that way about him of talking nonsense. I tried to ignore him when he got like that. I wondered about this marriage thing. He'd always been a womaniser, but definitely not interested in marriage.
"How many girlfriends you got, young Ned?"
"It's Edward, or Eddy, but never Ned. I keep telling you. Anyway, what's my social life to you?"
"Get stuffed, then."
"Right." The rain stopped. A silence slid in around us. Will was staring at the sky, pretending not to be watching me. Sly old git. He knew I'd have to know about this great love in his past. "One."
"One what? What you talking about now?"
I groaned, seeing that I was trapped in his game. "One girlfriend."
"Oh, that's nice. I had hundreds. Still got one or two."
I plucked at the grass, rubbing it between my fingers and waiting for the smell to induce some memories. "What about this Sali, then? Have you forgotten you were telling me a story?"
He bristled. His old boot of a face hovered between anger and amusement. There was something about his features that reminded me of my own, which I thought was something worth worrying about.
"No, I haven't forgotten, clever. I was just putting all the pieces together, that's all, or I'd have you moaning that I got it backwards or something."
"Of course. How stupid of me."
"All right, so I was still barely twenty, and never been away from home before. The work was hard and the weather was rough. After a couple of months I started getting homesick. Horrible it was."
He paused as a breeze rolled up the hill and past us into the trees, flipping the grass over, bearing the smells of the sea and the valley and the summers I'd forgotten. When I looked at him he had his head cocked, as if listening.
"But the homesickness was just the beginning. Before long I was having dreams - every night if I was sober - and always about the same thing."
"No. I was here in Wales, of course, but on the beach, fishing off the rocks. Same beach as I used to take you years ago. Before that father of yours moved you up to England to live."
I was eleven at the time. He'd never forgiven my father for emigrating, as he called it. But I remembered the fishing trips: sitting on the rocks in a thick coat, getting frozen to the bone. Pneumonia was never far away from me in those days.
"It was towards the end of summer and the sun was setting; sort of hanging above the sea like it does, all fat and orange and not wanting to go down. And there's nobody there but me and this girl in a white dress.
"I didn't speak to her at first 'cos she was too far away, but after a while she comes over to me… swimming, mind, clothes and all. At home in the water she was. So I set my hat at a real Jack-the-lad angle and I says to her, 'now here's a funny looking fish.' But she didn't laugh. She didn't say anything. She simply climbed out and sat on the rock beside me, smiling.
"And there's a woman for you: smelling of the sea, her hair the colour of rust, hanging down to her waist. And her eyes… greener and more beautiful than anything I've seen. And her dress clinging like that."
He paused and grinned at me, his face brightening.
"And that's all she was wearing, mind. Shameful to admit, but these old eyes wasn't gentlemen that day."
He stopped, no doubt ogling her again in his memory. I waited. I grew irritated by a delay at what was probably the only interesting bit. "Was that it, then? That was your dream?"
"Well what happened next?"
"I woke up."
"You woke up! Amen. I dreamed and I awoke. What sort of story's that?"
"An unfinished one. Can't finish with you butting in all the time, can I?"
I wished he'd never started it. Most of his lies dragged on for hours and didn't have a point. But he knew he had me hooked with this near miss in his one-man war against matrimony.
"Like I was saying, I dreamed about her most nights after that. Always on the same beach around sunset." He looked past me, along the mountain, down the valley to where it all flattened out and the land, sea and sky became one. "One time she was laughing at me because I couldn't swim. Standing in the water with only her head showing, and teasing me so much that I jumped in after her. Then along came this wave and nearly drowned me.
"Next thing I know I'm up on the beach and she's kneeling there pumping the sea out of me and laughing fit to bust. So I said to her, 'Why don't you bring your lovely warm body over by me before I catch my death of cold? Why don't you kiss me, Sal. Then I woke up."
"Exactly. It was all that waking up at the best bits that was driving me mad. Never knew if I was awake or asleep. Not far short of getting sacked on account of I spent most of my time staring at the sky.
"In the end I said to your father, 'Dai, I've got to go home. I've got to go to that beach, find that girl, and I've got to marry her,' because by now I was sure she was real and all I had to do was find her."
"Hang on, Will," I said. "Are you telling me you wanted to marry a dream?"
He stared at me for an uncomfortably long time. He looked a bit annoyed, to tell the truth. I'd obviously hit a tender spot so I noted it for future reference.
"You're a lot like your father, you. He's a bit stupid too."
"You're not listening. I'm not blowing air for the exercise."
"I was listening, honest. I just don't understand how you were so infatuated by a dream, so much so that you wanted to marry it, and all your life you've been chasing women like a dog chasing its tail."
"That's because you're an idiot. I was always in love. Don't you see? You don't see, do you?"
I couldn't deny it.
"Look, you're the same. Different girl all the time."
"It's not the same. I'm looking for the right one. And mine are real people."
"The right one. I was the same. I chased 'em like there was a shortage but I could never find the right one. When I saw Sali, I knew she was the one. I could never love anybody more than her."
He looked toward the sea. He'd lost all the brightness that had flooded his face earlier. It surprised me; for a moment I felt sympathy for his pain where I'd usually say it served him right. This was a new side of the old rogue and I wasn't entirely comfortable with it.
"So what did my dad say? About you wanting to go home?"
"He tried to stop me, I suppose."
"But he didn't."
"Stop you. Are you on medication or something?" He'd lost track again. He was definitely on the road to a nice quiet nursing home. "Look, let's go down now, I think we're due another rain shower. You can finish this in the pub."
"No, sit here a bit. It won't rain yet. I was just thinking, that's all. See, he was trying to look after me, your father, him being older, but I nagged him, and when I packed my things to go - with or without him - he gave in. He needed a break anyway. I still had to pay his fare home, though. Sharp even then, he was.
"So when we got home I went to the beach every day to look for her. But she didn't show up, not for a week, until I fell asleep through having drunk too much in the afternoon. Then along she came. 'Where've you been, Sal?' I said. 'I've been looking for you. I've come home!'
"But she wasn't laughing now. Her lovely green eyes had gone dull. She looked a bit tired, if the truth be told. I could see over her shoulder that the sun was going down, and I knew then that something was going wrong, something bad was happening.
"And the moment the sun touched the sea a wind blew in off the water - one long, slow puff - and it sent a shiver right through her.
"Then she said, 'I'm glad you're home, Will.' I woke then and she'd gone. There was only me and the sound of the waves in the dark. I didn't know what to do, so I sat there. Eventually your father came looking for me and took me home. Mad I was. Muttering about women, fish and all sorts of nonsense."
"Was she a ghost then, Will?" I said, mainly to bring him out of his mood.
"No. Don't be so daft. She was a dream, like I told you."
"I know, but I don't understand."
"That's because I haven't finished yet. Your father had to go back to work in England, but he left me at home for a bit; said I'd been overworking and needed a rest."
"So you didn't go back?"
"Of course I went back. I went a month later. By then I was convinced I'd been ill. But I'd only been up there a week when she returned, all fresh and beautiful again. Every night when I closed my eyes, there she was. I didn't know if I was dreaming about dreaming or if I'd dreamed what happened the time before."
He'd lost me. The hills are alive, I thought, with the dreams of mad Welshmen.
"So I came home to Wales, went to the beach again, fell asleep and she appeared, all tired and a bit sad. We sat on the rocks, enjoying being together, not spoiling those moments with a lot of silly talking. But as soon as the sun set she shivered, said 'I'm glad you're home,' and I woke. This time, though, I sat in the dark and understood what it was all about. Then I was all right."
"You'd gone mad, had you? Too much work?"
He stared at me. He looked more sorry for me than I was for him, which I thought was a bit of a cheek, under the circumstances.
"I thought you were a bit young to understand. So listen, 'cos I'm not telling you all this out of boredom. She wasn't a ghost and she wasn't a dream either. She was sort of both. She was an image - a personification if you want a big word to play with - of my homesickness.
"Do you see? She was the whole roots and ancestry of me. So how could I not love her? What woman could measure up to her?
"Every time I tried to go away after that, there she'd be, dragging me back, because she knew I wasn't happy anywhere else. And when I came home she'd fade away because she couldn't be real and a dream at the same time.
"I tried hard to get away and to love other women, but it never happened. She was always there, never changing, not getting old and worn like me. I've been more than married all my life."
He stopped, pulled his hat low over his brow and leaned back against the tree with a hint of relief on his face. He stared at me, waiting for me to understand.
But I couldn't. I began to see in his face the lifetime of loves and a young man grown old, alone, searching for a perfection that didn't exist.
In the eyes of this unmarried, lonely old man I saw the sun hover fat and orange over the sea, not wanting to go down.
Then I understood.
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