1. Slightly Different: South Wales +1
The sound of the samba drifting up from Aberdare’s Latin Quarter filled the bar with its contagious rhythm. It was hard to stop my feet matching the beat, but this was no time for dancing. Someone was trying to kill me.
With an outward calm that concealed my pounding heart I studied my surroundings. The bar was all greasy neon and steam shrouded duct-work, dingy and dark despite the swarm of plasma screens overhead. They pumped out a bewildering torrent; W-Pop, sports news and frenzied Welshperanto coverage of the mardi gras below. On one big screen a holographic Tom Jones gyrated his hips, as a line of dancers in shawls and stove-pipe hats twerked themselves into a frenzy. For once I had to disagree with Uncle Tom, this whole thing was most definitely ‘unusual’.
The bar’s patrons appeared unimpressed by the show. Not big fans of the samba, blurry x-rated tattoos and thatched body hair seemed more to their liking. They sat nursing kaleidoscopic drinks and perfecting an air of barely suppressed menace. Some of them were very good at it.
In one corner a group of druids in full ceremonial dress sat hunched over their mead muttering through thick beards. One of their number must have been communing too deeply with the spirit world – he lay face down in an ornate cauldron bubbling over with green foam. No amount of mistletoe waving by his sniggering friends could seem to revive him.
A group of gaudy party-goers stumbled through the doors, clad in nothing but thongs, feather boas and jaunty smiles, blowing whistles and clicking castanets. How they managed in this climate I didn’t know. The rain tumbling from the granite sky was the only familiar thing from home. Gwen had told me the Mardi Gras was an annual event, the biggest this side of Fishguard. It celebrated The Revolution, and the liberation of Patagonia which came soon after. That didn’t make it any easier to accept – that it took place at all, here amidst this nondescript dead-end town. Except of course, it wasn’t.
I don’t mean the carnival wasn’t carving its colourful, nipple strewn path along the boulevard somewhere far below. I sat in the towering jungle of steel and glass comprising the gleaming Upper-City only too aware of the delirious fiesta taking place beneath my feet. I only had to glance up at a plasma screen to witness the vast beached-whale of an event, driven by explosive sexual tension and crowds resplendent in bulging lycra and day-glo face paint. And the women weren’t much better. What I mean is this wasn’t the Aberdare I’d grown up in. In fact it wasn’t anywhere I’d grown up in or ever hoped to visit. I’d never understood the term ‘culture shock’, but it seemed I’d signed up for a crash course. This place would do that to you – Under Milk Wood meets Bladerunner, but with more rain and sequins. No, this wasn’t the Aberdare I was familiar with. This Aberdare was slightly different.
In a vain attempt at distraction I cast my eye over the cocktail menu. I didn’t like the sound of the Tonnapandy Hand Shandy, so had ordered another Leek Daiquiri instead. At least four parts Brains Bitter, to which I had developed a passable tolerance over the years, it came with a real leek stirrer, and a miniature parasol in the shape of a witch’s hat. Gwen got it for me, before disappearing into the night to ‘organise the next leg of our journey.’ Where had my mysterious guide vanished to? The first drink had left a ringing in my ears and a coating on my tongue like industrial disinfectant. At least it took my mind off the surroundings.
In a nearby booth a fight broke out. Insults where thrown, then drinks, finally punches – the traditional sequence of escalation. The drinks were likely the most dangerous part. Few other patrons paid the brawlers any heed, just another day in the life and death of Aberdare. Some things never change. With a start I realised I had company.
‘Here ewe goes dalin.’
I thought for a second she had brought me a female sheep, before noticing my frothing drink now had a twin. The waitress was built like a brick privy and wearing traditional bonnet and shawl. The fishnet stockings and basque were no-doubt traditional too, but I couldn’t think where – maybe Sodom or Gomorrah, which if I remembered were up just past Brecon. She gazed at me suggestively and grinned a jowly grin. Some of her teeth might have been her own. I hoped she only wanted a tip.
Before I could fumble in a pocket for a coin (which would likely get me locked up over here), her eyes went wide with fear. She gazed at the opposite side of the booth. Her puffy face grew somehow paler still, before she bolted, leaving just a whiff of stale sweat and a hint of eau de Cwmbran. Slowly I turned to see what has spooked her.
‘We meet at last Senior Jones.’
The guy opposite was dressed to kill, no-doubt on my behalf. But I hardly noticed his lilac suit and matching feather topped hat. Even his rapier thin moustache and blazing indigo eyes barely registered. What drew my attention was the infeasibly large gun he had pointed at my head, a cluster of barrels each as big as a sewer pipe and as menacing as the grave.
‘Wait, you’ve got the wrong man.’
‘Amigo, I am thinking I definitely have the right man.’
‘No, I’m just . . .’
His face creased in a smile which got nowhere near his dead shark-eyes. He must have shared a dentist with the waitress. ‘You have no idea what you are. How significant your death with be.’
‘Wait . . . please . . .’
He cocked the hammer with a ring-encrusted thumb. ‘You die today for the greater good of mankind – well . . . some of it, anyway.’
I closed my eyes and the carousel parade of my life flashed by. I had been working on getting this movie up to an 18 rating, but have to admit it was a stretch to call it a PG – a straight to DVD release over before it began. When I met my maker I intended to have a few choice words. That meeting might be very soon. Before I could compose myself my world exploded in a bolt of blinding light and a deafening roar. Everything went black.
2. The Quiet Life: Aberdare Zero
Today was not turning out to be a good day, at all. I’ve got to be honest – I’m the sort of person who places a big emphasis on their own survival. Some might mistake this for cowardice, I prefer to say I have a well-developed sense of my own safety. I like the quiet life. I wouldn’t exactly say I was risk-averse, but why leave the safety of your house unless strictly necessary? Much like me, you’re probably wondering how I got into this mess. My first meeting with Gwen would have unbalanced even the best of us. If you think you would have fared better then please let me know. Perhaps I need to backtrack a little.
I’d been living back home with Mum for a while, getting my thoughts together after college and planning my next career move. Courageously I’d not gone gently into the dark night of paid employment, instead raging against the dying of my right to do whatever I wanted on a daily basis. Five and a half terms at Telford Art School could take their toll on any guy and despite what some might say I was no different to most. I was due some well-earned down-time.
Perhaps this preparatory stage had stretched longer than intended, but I’m nothing if not thorough. Sure, Aberdare was a quiet sort of town, but its dreaming spires and derelict charity shops let me get to work on my graphic novel with none of the distractions you get from big-shot agents or salivating Hollywood producers. If anything I was doing too well in this respect. I was finding the gentle rain which washed in off the hills every day, watered the rich loam of my imagination in a way California sunshine never could. Plus my Mum wasn’t asking for any rent.
Our lives had settled into a comfortable routine. Mum went off to work at the council offices and I’d hold the fort at home, conserving my strength at keeping abreast of popular culture through the medium of daytime TV. Us creative artists work best when our feet are firmly grounded in the rich manure deposited by the common man. I was diligent in this respect, it wasn’t easy, but we all have our crosses to bear. Mine was to be a sophisticate amongst simpletons. If I felt adventurous I’d stretch to a trip to the library. As you can tell I’m not one to complain, unless you’ve got someone to complain to and they stay put while you unload.
Several times a week I’d visit Grandad up at the care home. Gafr Rhywiol was a pleasant enough place, but basically a warehouse for those on their way out. It sat at the top of the hill behind our house, overlooking the valley and smelling faintly of disinfectant. When Gran died Mum moved him up from the coast to be nearer to us. He wasn’t as with-it as in the past, but there was still enough of his old personality left to keep the nurses on their toes. He’d tell me endless tales of his time in the Air Force and what he’d done in The War. It was sad to see him go downhill, but I owed it to him to give something back for all the time he’d spent with me growing up. He seemed happy enough.
Most days by mid-afternoon I was ready to start work. And what work it was. There is a deep abiding satisfaction which comes from knowing you’re engaged in your finest labours, maybe the finest of your life. The Windy Ninja wasn’t my first venture into the graphic novel market, but I knew with a certainty bordering on the divine it was my best. I’ve always had a deep respect for Japanese culture and, despite what my philistine school-mates might say, this didn’t begin and end with my massive collection of hentai tentacle porn. There is a profound spiritual meaning at the heart of Japanese civilization which combines deep universal truths about the human condition with compelling images of young ladies in knee-socks and tartan skirts. I’m unsure which elements first drew me in, but I knew my contribution to the cannon was coalescing daily at a heart-warming rate.
The Chronicles of the Windy Ninja twas a tale of darkness, betrayal, redemption, hope and yet more betrayal, set in Muromachi Era Japan (1336-1573). Betrayal and extreme flatulence played a big part in the plot. It was as if Sergio Leone had Akira Kurosawa had spawned a bastard lovechild who got betrayed and chopped people into bits while farting a lot. Through this they gained redemption. It was packed with symbolic meaning, intense bloody violence, body parts and betrayal. And redemption.
Marketing could wait until my baby was fully formed, but Mr Watkins who ran the church newsletter promised to take a look as long as it wasn’t ‘too packed with filth’, as I freely admit my previous efforts had been. Every auteur is destined to encounter censorship – small-minded roadblocks on the path to creative nirvana. If anything these made me more certain of my convictions. Exhausted after a long day at the creative coal-face I’d pack up my pens and ink at four-thirty ready for Mum to cook my tea when she got home. I’m lucky enough to have inherited her sense of humour. She was always joking and pulling my leg.
‘When you going to get a proper job you lazy worthless scrounger,’ she’d sometimes shout, before heading off to the bingo. I knew she didn’t mean it, like all our family she disguised love behind insults and jest. Most nights, I’d continue my research down the pub. That’s if my Job Seekers allowance would stretch to it.
Just as in my school-days perhaps I remained a fish out of water in Aberdare. When I explained my plans to people they looked at me in wonder, unused to meeting someone as driven and focused as myself. Some of my peers where still around, those who hadn’t hit the big time and moved to Swansea, the good natured ribbing had changed little from our younger days.
‘Kevin, you’re full of shit, you are!’ they’d shout across the street, before running back to their safe mundane lives of quiet desperation and forlorn hope.
‘Sticks and stones’, I’d shout back, before they’d reply with sticks and stones. I cared little once the bruises had faded. They’d laugh on the other side of their bloated tear-streaked faces when I collected the Oscar. Revenge is a dish best served cold, while sitting in your Malibu condo via video link. It was ironic considering the central themes of my magnum opus. Ok so I hadn’t technically suffered much in the way of betrayal, but I sensed the fates were already carving me a big slice of redemption from the bulging pie of life.
So those years had been the best of times, and the worst of times, as they often are in situations like this. Admittedly, mainly ‘the worst’, but they must have wrapped back around, at least a little. Aberdare wasn’t what it had been, and it hadn’t been much to begin with. Our house had been broken into, but the intruders couldn’t be bothered to take anything. Even the care home had been raided, causing Grandad to speculate some reverse tooth fairy was building a castle out of dentures and surgical truss. But Aberdare was the town I called home and it was into this heady, bittersweet mix Gwen first crashed unbidden – a beautiful iceberg in the path of my surging Titanic.
Like most afternoons when I wasn’t with Grandad I was reading the papers in the library. It was a vast Victorian pile in the centre of town, built back in the days when the local miners’ collective harboured dreams of liberating the masses through the works of H. G. Wells and William Morris. It was run with Stalinist efficiency by Mrs Abergavenny, a fearsome old trout who’d rolled-in out of nowhere the year before and swept away the ancient regime in a blaze of lavender breath mints. She was small and compact, a geriatric pitbull who dressed like an Edwardian jumble-sale and swore like a Milford-Haven docker. Ours had been quite a first meeting in its own right.
‘Boils my piss, it does! You bloody kids, always on your phones. Hand it over before you disturbs the peace of my serene fucking establishment.’
I’d cast a sceptical eye over the dusty halls around me. The only one disturbing the peace of this deserted tomb was the smouldering pocket-battleship in front of me. Still, I handed over my phone without a fuss, she was scaring me. Like I’ve said, I’m no fool.
For many weeks that was the procedure on arrival – I had to check-in my mobile at the desk. It was draconian, but I learned to play the system. As long as you avoided overdue charges you were safe from the gulag. I became her favourite; perhaps she sensed a fellow seeker, a burgeoning man of letters. Either that or I was her only customer. After a while she even let me keep my phone, as long as I kept it out of sight.
Shortly after that the fateful day arrived.
It was a slate grey afternoon at the end of a wet and dismal summer. My spirits were low. I’d hit an impasse with The Windy Ninja and couldn’t think of fresh ways for my protagonist’s unruly bowels to land him in hot water. Little did I know it but destiny had me in her sights and was about to pull the trigger. I sensed a presence and looked up.
And there she was, backlit in the doorway and the pouring rain. An angel amongst devils, moisture clinging to her chestnut hair as if it couldn’t bear to be parted. She was the sort of woman who fires and explosive harpoon through your heart before slowly reeling you in. Fortunately I’m more resilient to such charms than most ruggedly handsome guys my age. So far I’ve avoided the bang.
She looked down at a small hand-held device, then carefully back at me. You could have lost continents in her big brown eyes. I wanted to warn her about Mrs Abergavenny, but my lips had stopped working. She had a modulated lilting Valley’s accent, as if well-travelled.
‘Kevin Gwydion Jones?’
I couldn’t take my gaze off her. ‘Yes,’ I think I rasped, my mouth was very dry. ‘Are you here for The Windy Ninja? It’s not finished yet.’
She looked at me blankly. ‘I know nothing about Ninjas, windy or otherwise – but you have to listen if you want to live. We have to get going. We don’t have much time.’
I was more than ready for a pretty girl asking me if I wanted to live. I won’t lie to you, I had been wondering for some time if my life in Aberdare constituted any sort of living at all. And here she was, ready to whisk me away to a life of A-list parties, loose drugs and hard women. I pondered her proposition sagely, as was my way.
‘Too bloody right I am! When do we leave?’
This seemed the reaction she was looking for. Her head swept the room eyes wide open – perhaps she’d been warned about rogue librarians after all. She needn’t have worried, the place was deserted.
She nodded in satisfaction. ‘Tidy. But there’s no time to explain. You need to come with me now.’
‘But what about –’
‘No time for that.’
‘No time for that either.’ She gripped my forearm. Her hands were warm and soft but oh so very strong. It didn’t strike me as a grip which would be easy to wriggle out of. Which was beside the point – I would have followed her to the gates of hell if she’d asked me. I couldn’t have resisted if I’d wanted to. I didn’t want to.
I thought at first we might go to a waiting limousine or to a helicopter – either that or at least the bus station. Instead she led me further into the musty depths of that ancient library. It was the first time she took me by surprise, it wouldn’t be the last.
‘What’s your name?’
She walked fast, scanning all around as if in search of danger. ‘I’m Gwendolyn, but we don’t have time for any of that nonsense right now.’
I had so many questions, like was she single? And what did she look for in prospective husbands? But we were already at the dented service lift doors – the one the pearl-necklaced gestapo used to bring trolleys of books up from the stygian depths below.
Perhaps foreshadowing emotions to come I was mightily confused. ‘Are we looking for inspiration downstairs? I can tell you now the manga collection here is not extensive.’
She looked at me stunned, no-doubt impressed at my ability to think three steps ahead. ‘Something like that, yes.’
Gwen slapped the big red lift recall button. With a creaking and a groaning that made my teeth vibrate the elevator arrived like a bicycle passing through a mangle. The door clanked open and she bundled me inside. Just what Mrs Abergavenny would say I shuddered to think. The lift wasn’t for use by the great unwashed, or any lacking the mystic sacrament of a senior librarian. Inside twinkled an oddly modern control panel mounting just three buttons. The library had a ground floor, a first floor and a storage cellar I was dimly aware of as a concept but had never visited – a bit like Nandos. The age-worn doors clanged shut.
Gwen took great pains to position herself in front of the panel, then cracked her fingers like a concert pianist warming up for a performance. I’m unclear exactly what she did next, but it involved pressing the buttons in a bewildering sequence interspersed with carefully timed pauses.
‘Doesn’t do to get the programming wrong.’
‘Programming? How hard can it be, there’s only three floors.’
Her job done, Gwen pinned herself against the back wall. ‘Brace yourself.’
My stomach joined my heart in my mouth as we plummeted like a stone – a stone attached to a cord of elastic stretched down a very deep well. My rising scream couldn’t get past the log-jam in my throat. I don’t know how far the cellar went but we must have passed through it in the first few seconds. In defiance of all logic, not to mention physics, we kept accelerating hellwards. I don’t like lifts at the best of times, this definitely wasn’t the best of times. My feet lifted gently from the floor.
‘What have you done you mad bitch!’
Gwen looked at me sideways but otherwise remained calm. ‘You might want to suck one of these. It will help with the nausea.’ Straining against the g-forces she offered me a mint.
Okay, I’m sometimes a slow learner. The lift didn’t so much come to a shuddering halt as squirt sideways through a crack in reality, bungeeing between this world and the next like a conjoined twin. It felt like my constituent molecules were stripped from my being, then randomly reassembled by some mad laughing demi-god. The fillings in my teeth hummed and my eyeballs itched. I could taste my breakfast, but not in a good way.
Gwen helped me to my feet. ‘Next time, take a mint.’
‘There won’t be a next time, no if I have any say in the matter.’
She looked at me flatly. ‘You don’t have any say in the matter.’ She handed me a packet of mints.
There was only one thing of which I was certain – I needed some new trousers. Gwen pulled a large gun from her jacket and held it at the ready. She looked at me and smiled.
‘Shirley Bassey might recon diamonds are forever but I prefer .357 magnum hollow-point ammunition.’
She placed a long finger under my chin and eased it shut, as the creaking doors slid open. They revealed the new improved reality I’ve already begun to describe; Aberdare+1 – the one with the Mardi Gras, levitating cars and freelance cathedral enthusiasts. The familiar library was gone, we were in the bowels of some vast high-tech hotel. Things only went downhill from there. Typically I soon found myself in a bar. Ah yes, we must get back to the bar, and my new moustachioed, gun-toting friend.