Vulcans have an inner eyelid.
In one of the episodes of Star Trek, Mr. Spock is invaded by a fatal parasite on a remote planet. Exposure to high-intensity light appears to be the only cure—a treatment that would blind humans. Because of Vulcan physiology, however, a hidden ocular membrane descends to shut out intrusive rays, and Spock emerges intact, undamaged by his contact with an alien world.
It turns out that y Cymry (2) have an inner eyelid as well. More like an obfuscatory veil than a solid barricade, it allows the Welsh to see out, but effectively shades the inner self from the eyes of the inquisitive, casting all that is behind it in shadow. It is a dusky lookingglass, presented innocently enough to the stranger, deceptively luminous and reflective, its transparency clearly controlled by time and measured, in nanobytes, by trust.
Take the matter of the sandwiches.
Some time ago, I was writing an article on our postmaster Timothy who also happens to be a world class tenor (3), and whose longstanding habit was and is still to have sandwiches sent in (a rather grand term for one of the postmen walking down the road two hundred yards and picking up a paper bag) from The Sosban Fach (4).
“Sosban,” as most people call it, is a tiny restaurant in our village, staffed by a bevy of ladies (in aprons patterned with teapots) with exceptional Cymreictod (5) and an uncanny radar for the “news” so cherished by our postmaster. Every morning someone from the post office phones in an order according to the number of people on duty that day, and at about 11:20, someone, usually Alun, picks it up.
In trying to inject a little human interest into this article, and to round out the very limited information I had theretofore been given, I sat down with these formidable ladies late one afternoon, in the post-lunch lull, with a cup of tea, to elicit what I mistakenly assumed to be some innocuous information on our mutual friend (6).
It doesn’t take much to get a story out of a Welshwoman. Or man either. The oral tradition is strong. So, I prepared comfortably (and somewhat smugly, I see now) for the cornucopia of tales my simple query, “Can you tell me a little about Timothy?” would undoubtedly engender.
“Lovely voice, hasn’t he?” is the first comment—soon to become a refrain.
“Yes,” say I, “Extraordinary. But what would you say, apart from his voice, are his main characteristics? I’d like to know more about his personality—how you see him.”
“Oh, he’s lovely, really, isn’t he?” is the next response—met by a general chatter of agreement and vigorous nods.
“Like, how?” I ask.
“Very good to his mother, he was,” one of them says, sagely.
As a number of vicious criminals have been documented to be good to their mothers, this doesn’t seem to be anything significantly illuminating to put into an article, but the little silence that follows this in deference to his recent loss makes me hesitate. In their silence, my own silence rises to enclose me, my connection to Timothy reforms and I once again feel his grief.
My heart beats more slowly. More heavily. More insistently. More collectively. I feel myself losing identity. One or two of the women stare at me as if to absorb—or as if to detach—me from the group. I am not sure which. No one yet knows my identification with Timothy. I decide to keep neutral. I shake myself free.
“Yes, I’m sure he was,” I say briskly, as if that knowledge and that loss weren’t beating in my veins, “But I’m trying to describe him in himself so to speak—do you know what he feels strongly about—either positively or negatively?”
“Oh we haven’t got anything negative to say about him,” says one. They all shake their heads firmly.
“No—no—I don’t mean that. I mean does he have strong feelings or opinions for or against anything that you know about?”
“He likes glass. He has a lovely glass collection. Pink. Have you seen it?”
“No, but that isn’t quite what I meant.” Still, I make a clear tidy note on my pad: collects pink glass? “You see, that’s the sort of thing I can ask him about, actually, but thank you for telling me,” I try to clarify, though I am beginning to see that they all know exactly what I mean. “I need your impression of him—any stories you can tell about him that would show what kind of a man he is.”
“Cranberry,” a voice at the corner of the table sings out. It sounds like “Crrrrrrahnbuddy”—a musical, multi-textured sound that seems to consist of many more syllables than it actually has. I stop for a moment—take pleasure in this small Welsh song and then say:
“Glass,” she says, again with multiple resonance. “Cranberry glass. He collects it.”
“Look . . .”
“He was on Sunday Request yesterday,” Bronwen interrupts. “I put down my brush straightaway and sat right down there in the kitchen and listened. Gives you a lump in the throat, doesn’t he?”
Having had to stay inside for a whole day while my swollen eyes returned to normal on more than one occasion after listening to Timothy sing, my “yes, he does” seems inadequate, but I know if I recount my own experiences, then the conversation will dive into waters I would prefer to stay out of at the moment, so I just add, “I want to know what he is like as a person—not just a singer. Does he have any passions or causes, or personality traits that you would think of in describing him?”
Silence greets that little question. I think it must be the word “passions” and I instantly regret my vocabulary.
They all look into their teacups.
“Well,” comes a voice from the middle of the group. “We don’t know him very well.”
This is a bit much for a Californian who is used to five-minute friendships. Ten-minute commitments.
“Come on! You’ve all known him for decades—you talk to him almost every day! You know his family, friends, the organizations he belongs to—his church, the town—his interests. I’m not going to say anything bad about him. I just want to know what he is like—quiet, funny, energetic, political . . . that sort of thing.”
They raise their heads. In six pairs of eyes, that inner eyelid has descended. Almost translucent, but filtering out any real visual communication, a cloudy opacity has replaced the usually warm, communicative, merry eyes of my companions. Oddly, they all seem to have turned into one collective person.
“He’s not quiet,” someone says timidly. I am not sure who.
“But not a loud man,” someone else replies. Again, though I am right there in front of them, I can’t quite distinguish individuals from the group. It is uncanny.
“No, no,” they all agree. “Not loud. He’s lovely, really. Lovely voice.” This produces a chatter of agreement and a launch into a discussion about who likes what song best and why.
“You know the one I like,” Rhiannon says, briefly emerging from the crowd. “The one about Ceredigion Bay” (“Hen Fae Ceredigion”). She starts to sing it. one or two of the others join in. The rest close their eyes and hum along. I have to admit, they can sing, and I am lulled into this atmosphere of cohesive, peaceful harmony for a moment or two before trying to resurrect my sinking interview.
“Okay,” I say. “You all know me. I’ve been coming here for almost three years. We’ve spent more time together than I have with some of my actual friends back home. Look at me. Look at my face. Do you see anything in it that says I want to portray Timothy in a bad light? Do I look like I am here to harm this man? I love this guy. I’d marry him tomorrow if I could. Today. Here. Right now.”
There is a little squeal and a flurry of shifting attention.
“Could we be bridesmaids?” Marlene pipes up.
They are all instantly diverted and suddenly the mood changes. This is no longer “an interview.” It’s fun. It’s “the girls.” It’s a hen party.
“What should we wear?”
“I want to make the cake.”
“Oh I love a good wedding cake. I made my Betty’s cake, you know.”
“I did. I went to Price’s, got those little stands . . .”
“Oh wouldn’t she make a lovely bride then for her postmaster?”
“Lovely couple,” someone says.
“But who would we get to sing at the wedding?”
They all collapse in laughter.
“I’m not kidding,” I say. “It’s not a joke. He’s a rare person.”
“Oh we know,” says Gwawr. “I’d marry him just for the voice.”
“You’re a pretty rare person, yourself,” Bronwen says. “Thank God. We wouldn’t want a lot of you loose, would we?”
A shout of laughter follows this, over the detailed recipe that someone is giving someone else for wedding cake. I catch “two dozen egg whites and one yolk”—think to myself, “that can’t be right”—and then: “I’d marry him for the glass,” Marlene puts in. “Well you can’t have him,” I say, crossly. “He’s mine. Besides, you’re the bridesmaids. Look,” I entreat them, “Let’s get back on track. We all love him. And we want everyone else to love him too when they read about him. So—can I get some opinions from you—his friends, neighbors, acquaintances, fellow villagers, about what he is really like? That’s all. Nothing bad. I wouldn’t do that. You can read what I write about you before I send it to the magazine if you like.”
“Oh we know, bach (7),” the most motherly of the group reassures me. “You wouldn’t do anything like that. But we really don’t know anything that you could write about. Nothing interesting. You’ll be sure to mention the Sosban, though, won’t you? How much he likes our sandwiches?”
“Well, I’m not writing an ad for the restaurant, but okay—I’ll mention the name if I ever find anything to write about.”
In the absence of any other information, at least I’ll have to have some words to fill up the space. That gives me an idea. Perhaps I can ease into a more informative conversation another way.
“You do have great sandwiches,” I say truthfully, but a little too brightly. “I like the Coronation Chicken. What’s Timothy’s favorite?”
They look at each other, then at me, and it is clear that the hen party is over. In unnerving unison, the inner eyelids descend once again.
“Oh, I don’t think we could say, bach,” Gwawr says. “It wouldn’t be right.”
“What?” I feel like Alice in Wonderland—confronting six waning Cheshire Cats.
“We really can’t say,” Blodwyn echoes.
I don’t think I have heard right. I think of the intimate details I have heard from relative strangers in America—not to mention the talk show mentality and the general prolific “sharing” that seems to be culturally requisite these days in so many societies. There’s no point in going there, so I just make mild protest.
“But why not? People order things in restaurants in public all the time—out loud. Everyone can hear what they order.”
“He doesn’t,” they say. “It’s on the phone, see?”
“It wouldn’t be right,” someone repeats.
Now it is my turn to be silent. I truly cannot think of anything to say in the face of this otherworldly delicacy. This time warp into ancient tribal reticence. This great collective cloud of irrelevant privacy.
“It’s only a sandwich,” I end up protesting feebly, but I know I have lost. “How can it hurt anyone to know what kind of a sandwich a guy likes?”
I wish they would talk to me about this man’s beauty—his incandescent voice, his whirling white glowing personhood—the feel of his presence in the town—the something inside him that they know I see—that I know they see and that has drawn us together in mutual appreciation at this very table. It is of course, that exact something that makes them unwilling to talk about him—even so simple a thing as his sandwich. I need to write about this—this what? Modesty? Clannishness? Protectiveness? Mistrust? Cultural reluctance? But I can’t. Not yet. They won’t tell me anything. They won’t even confirm what I already know.
“Well, but we don’t know—do we?” says Gwawr, breaking my silence and vigorously nodding at the others. “There’s an order put in, see, for all of them. We don’t know which sandwich he would eat.”
That remark seems to meet with great approval around the table—its cleverness and spontaneous parry are admired, as indicated by the appreciative glances in Gwawr’s direction and a peek at me to see if I am swallowing that one. I’m not.
“Okay, ladies. I’m finished here. I know that you know and you don’t want to tell me and that’s okay. No problem. I’ll just ask him myself.”
This admission of defeat is greeted with generous, supreme relief, another round of tea, and the lifting of the veil, so to speak. The unclouded eyes reappear, conversation perks up, we exchange news and gossip on every subject except Timothy, and we have an excellent visit.
When I see Timothy next, I ask him, not that I’m interested, what his favorite sandwich is. His eyes start to cloud over until he remembers he knows me better now, and suddenly, they clear up. I watch this transformation and reversal, fascinated. And very pleased. But apparently he doesn’t know me quite well enough at that point. “Well,” he says, slowly, “I don’t like cheese.”
No one ever asked why I couldn’t marry him, by the way. But there is a reason: Timothy already belongs to me, to my race of opacity and denial, to my heritage of heads in the sand, to my bloodline of hope and first stars in the night sky. He is my kinsman, my comrade, my brother, my friend. Marriage would be a lesser bond between us. We are the shielded, the tender, the trusting, the blank-faced children in rooms of adult construction, easily bruised, easily frightened, easily led by pipers onto imperfect paths—Hansels, Gretels, Pinocchios, babes. This is our tribe.
We do not burst into the world unafraid, unreluctant, resilient, cheerful, impervious, as some do. We come unwilling into the light. We look back. And unless we are transformed by fortune or misfortune, or stay close to our origins, we wither in the noonday suns of the worlds outside or go mad. Our skins are too thin. We cannot take much light. And so we shield our eyes.
It is true that my Timothy, born and bred in Wales, and I, from a separate realm altogether, cannot claim common kingdom. But in the order of taxonomy, our species is the same. What he shares with his compatriots is residence behind the smokescreen. What he shares with me is why. For unlike those lovely ladies of Sosban Fach, it is not that we wish not to be seen. It is that we wish not to see.
We were all born with those eyelids. I lost mine long ago in a land of midnight sun, transformed by necessity and the acid tongues of the English. Timothy, still living in the house where he was born, kept his intact. He still uses them when needed. Thank God, no longer with me.
This is the trouble with writing from the outside: meeting the shells of others with the shell of oneself. The truth is, I don’t care about the information I seek at all. It is meaningless. Sandwiches, birthdates, glass, other people’s opinions about someone I know as intimately as a pregnancy, as privately as a birth. Stories, tales, incidents, facts.
I know next to nothing about Timothy. But I have never believed that knowing about anyone was of any value. He knows next to nothing about me. And what he does know is misleading. Facts mean nothing. They knew that, the ladies of Sosban. They all know it. I asked for facts. They gave me facts. Not the ones I asked for, but facts all the same. They are all interchangeable, these little blocks of information. One person likes chicken. One dislikes cheese. “Facts, facts, facts, Mr. Gradgrind.” What do they mean?
There is a world of difference, or rather a difference of worlds, between what is outside and what is behind these eyelids we were given to use or to lose as our separate lives unfold. One is the world of knowing about. The other is a world of knowing. This is the difference between Wales and everywhere else I have been. This is why I am here.
What all this means, then, is that I ended up with an article of almost no factual information. And yet, it contains more actual information than any other article I have written. This is it:
My first interview with Timothy Evans consisted of his telling me absolutely nothing for as long as possible while looking at me nonstop with bright, round, heartbreaking eyes over a mug of milky coffee. He answered no question with any relevant information, asked nothing of me, even when invited in desperation to do so to give us something to talk about, and never took his eyes from my face, while seeming not to look at me at all.
I started with a list of forty questions. After one look at his face at the fourth question, I slipped it into my briefcase and just sat and stared back. A few minutes later, largely to deflect the attention of other diners, I tried spontaneous questions, directly related to the amorphous comments I had received from him thus far, and somehow that didn’t work either.
I’m not sure how he did it, even to this day, three years and a lifetime later when we have become so intrinsic to each other, except to say that generations of Welshmen beat in his blood and if you know what that means you know he could have done nothing else. Not then, anyway. I see now, of course, that that little I-Thou session set a precedent for the future. We still don’t talk much. But we share a lot of silence together.
My name is Harrison Solow. I come from Los Angeles and I’ve never seen, met, known, or heard anyone in the world like Timothy Evans. And unless you live here, in this remote and somewhat implausible Welsh village where Timothy and I live, then neither have you.
Timothy is our postmaster. He sells stamps, issues various baffling permits, collects payments for bizarre things like television licences and road tax and other nanny-like little punishments which the British government delights in inflicting upon its citizens. (By the way, never mistake “Welsh” for “English.” It’s far worse than mistaking a Canadian for an American, and in my opinion—having lived for some years in Canada—with good cause.) Timothy makes tea for his employees in the back room every morning, wears what appears to be the same sweater every day, and goes home to an empty house every night.
He goes home, as well, to acres of soft emerald fields full of the Shetland ponies, Torwen sheep, and Bantam hens that he breeds and cares for single-handedly every morning, some noons (during lambing), and every night of his spectacularly mysterious life.
He also has a voice that comes pretty close to what “Let there be Light” would have sounded like had it burst forth from the lungs of an anthropomorphic god in the act of creation. And pretty close to Light itself.
Let me say at the outset that this is not an objective account. I am absolutely committed to celebrating this man’s voice. It is flawless, haunting, and irrefutably magical. You won’t be the same after you’ve heard it. No one else is. And you will have probably wept through every unblemished note. Everyone else does. Of course, right now, “everyone” doesn’t constitute a lot of people. This voice is one of the best (and deliberately) kept secrets in the world, as is so much about Wales. But that’s about to change. I’m about to do a little “let there be light” in America, myself.
Wales, it is true, is known for its musical contribution to the world—Tom Jones, Bryn Terfel, Charlotte Church, the famed Welsh men’s choirs, and to be accurate, almost every Welsh man, woman, and child you will ever meet inside Wales or out. They seem to be genetically programmed with music. But this—this is a voice beyond music. This is incandescence.
And lest one think that this is just the hyperbole of an isolated crank, esoteric music-buff or besotted fan, let me hasten to offer prolific, dispassionate, expert, and critical proof:
There is an astonishing tradition in this land of “mists and mellow fruitfulness” called the Eisteddfod. Pronounced “eye-steth-vod,” it hails from 1176 when the great bards of Wales would gather in the halls of their kings to praise the virtue and valor of these leaders in poetry and song—and it is still in full flower today.
Of course, there are other things to praise these days, and the Eisteddfod system (local, regional, national) is now a much broader arts competition, open to all Welsh speakers, but the tradition is the same: literary and musical excellence. Excellence, by the way, means “Excellence.” The standards are extremely high. Judges are severe and winners usually go on to make their mark in the world.
Poets, writers, and musicians are crowned after an exacting elimination process, and as they take their place on the Eisteddfod chair, they are honoured by a host of children who dance before them in praise. The first time I saw this, I was struck as silent as Timothy in his first interview.
I worry about Wales, actually. It is such a small country, so overshadowed by the England that has historically sought to absorb, assimilate, disempower, and eradicate it as a separate culture; so invaded by the rising influx of non-speakers of its language, dismissive of its heritage; and so eroded by bland blanket EU policies that take into account nothing that is unique or culturally significant about its mighty Celtic identity. But when I saw the Eisteddfod, I stopped worrying. “A country that cherishes its language this much—a country that sends its children to dance in homage to a writer and to sing to the land—to recite love poetry to their grandmothers and to cry over lost miners—all in an astonishing flowering of talent—will survive,” I wrote to a friend. “My heart is at rest after seeing these children. They all have Timothy’s face.”
This is not simply sentiment. The dedication, the discipline, the talent, and the sincerity of these performers are all astounding. But what is more astounding, what is, in fact, strangely powerful is what they sing and write about: their mothers, their fathers, their families, their land, their history, their princes and bards—their farms and rivers, birds, air, and butterflies—their God, their homes, their children, their language, and their wild, rolling seas. And the most powerful thing of all is that these subjects of which they sing are all the same entity. None is separate from the other. I don’t know how I know this but I do.
This is Wales in secret flower. Very secret. There is no video you can buy to relive these shining performances. There’s nothing much on the website that gives anyone a real understanding of the magnitude of this event. It lives in the silence and memory of its people who return from their brief glory to take up their lives again in the farms, schools, businesses, industries (and post offices) they came from. It’s a Welsh thing. Daily life is just more important.
There are of course consequences of extraordinary performance. People win real honors: writing is published, musical careers are launched. But by and large, it is an ephemeral cultural celebration. For the people, by the people, and of the people of Wales.
Then there is the International Eisteddfod, which is quite a different thing: open to all countries and all languages, it gives rise to some of the best international performers in the world.
Luciano Pavarotti competed in and won the International Eisteddfod in Wales one golden year of his life. So did Timothy Evans, which, by the way, is not his only resemblance to the Master with whom he is perpetually and favorably paralleled. Of course, Timothy has won every award for which he has ever competed. His house glitters with silver cups and prizes, including the most prestigious and coveted one: Princeps Cantorum. Colloquially translated as “The Best Singer” or “The Eisteddfod Voice,” this means not that he earned first place for a tenor in a competition with other tenors in his minute country, nor that he won first place in a competition among the tenors of the world. No.
Princeps Cantorum (literally “First Cantor” or “Foremost Poet”) is the honor that goes to the single best voice—out of every soprano, tenor, bass, baritone (and all other variations) from every one of the forty-seven competing countries of the world. The fairest of them all. Timothy stopped competing after that.
Unlike me, Eisteddfod judges are dispassionate, exacting, experienced musicians without a shred of empathy for anything but perfection. They found it in Timothy Evans. All I have is the desire to do something about it. Unlike Timothy Evans.
Naturally, Timothy has been besieged over the years by offers to manage, train, market, and sell him to the world outside Wales. Unnaturally, he has refused every offer. If there was one question in my first interview with Timothy that I hammered to death, it was, in response to these refusals, “why?” And if there was one question I didn’t even think to ask in our last interview, it was “why?” After living here for three years, I know why. And it is as unfathomable a question for me now as it was for him then. Still, I should at least record what he said:
He said, “Because I like it here.”
That was the Chauncey Gardener answer (in toto) that he stuck with for about eight months. When he felt he knew me a bit better I got the second (Alice in Wonderland) half:
“Because if I went somewhere else and did other things, I would end up not being me, wouldn’t I?”
I have to say that Welsh answers like these, which are really not answers at all, are one of the reasons I make my home here. Answers like questions, silence that speaks, empty houses that are simultaneously full, and an entire country that is hidden from view even while you inhabit it are the stuff of dreams for a writer.
I confess that I threw in that “empty house” deliberately. For, Timothy has never married. He lived, from birth, with the woman who bore him: his mother, his friend, his lifelong companion, until he lost her not long ago. And so, that house is truly empty for him. It has an echo now, not unlike the resonance in his voice that preceded his grief. There is, in Welsh, the untranslatable word hiraeth (hear-eyeth). It is not emptiness, exactly. It is not quite longing. Nor does it exist outside a Welsh heart. It is more like the heart that surrounds longing—that organic hungering vessel without which emptiness would not exist. I wanted that word “empty” to say something. I wanted to indicate by merest of allusions where this voice comes from. It has always come from hunger. It has always come from emptiness. It has always come from hiraeth.
What I mean by this is that there has always been a singular purity in his voice, an enigmatic otherworldliness, the consequence of a great deal of time spent in an unfilled space, alone. Timothy’s world is essentially a world of one.
For me, however, when Timothy is home, the house is full. When he is in the village, the village is full. When he sings, the world is full—of beauty and of something else that has no name. He has a quality of extension that admittedly takes some receptivity to feel, but once felt, is never forgotten. And he doesn’t even have to be there to do it.
Not long ago I sent a CD of Timothy’s songs to a colleague, an entertainment manager in Las Vegas. Her job is to say no to ninetynine percent of the professionally prepared bios, promos, packages, reels, DVDs, and CDs that cascade over her desk daily. Only because we are friends did she patiently (and I am sure skeptically) agree to listen to Timothy’s lone CD (sans bio/photo/video/hype), one of his six locally produced recordings with a selection of twelve mostly obscure (to Americans) songs sung entirely in Welsh. What happened when she did so astonished her, puzzled Timothy for the thirty seconds he put his mind to it, and didn’t surprise me at all. She cried, of course. But that’s not all.
When she closed the door to her office one winter afternoon and put on the CD, somehow, at about the sixth song, this sophisticated, critical entertainment professional found herself reaching out to the CD player with her hand as if to find him, touch him—to make some connection with something that has no name. She rested her hand on the CD player in a kind of self-comfort until the last sweet notes faded away.
She said afterwards that when she realized what she had done, she felt a little lame. Shaken. Odd. She called him “gorgeous and rare.” She said there was something in his voice that she had never heard before. She said she wants him but doesn’t know what to do with him. (I know what she means.) Then, like the rabid researcher she is, she immediately sought out and listened to six CDs of worldfamous tenors—some of whom she has booked for full-blast Las Vegas concerts—just to make sure—just to compare her reaction to them with her reaction to Timothy Evans.
There was no comparison. For as successful, popular, famous, and supremely talented as these tenors were, she found that, in her words, she “understood them.”
“I know where they are coming from, who they are singing to. They’re singing to me. But I don’t understand Timothy. Who is he? And who is he singing to?”
The answer I gave her, without consulting Timothy, who would have said what he always says (nothing), was this: He is singing to that empty house and to those emerald fields that surround it. He is singing to himself and to the country that no outsider sees. He is, above all, singing to Wales itself.
The very reason for his magnetic effect on people is that he is not offering an I-Thou personal relationship to his listeners—he is offering transport to another world. He is the key to a secret garden, a rabbit hole, a yellow brick road, a starship, the door in the wardrobe, the back of the North Wind. An audible alchemist. A Gabriel at the gates. He isn’t singing to you or to me. He’s singing for us—on behalf of us, because we can’t sing ourselves into a wonderland on our own.
The fact is, Timothy isn’t even there when he sings. He told me once, in a whisper, that he sometimes “goes away” when he is singing. “Sometimes,” he said, “It frightens me a little.”
This is our postmaster. In a village of twelve hundred people. Selling stamps.
I can’t stand it.
And so, I went to Timothy last month and asked him if, despite his having turned down everyone in the music industry who had contacted him in the last two decades, he would let me bring him to America to sing (in English) if I could find a suitable venue. He said yes. Just that. one word. “Yes.” A few minutes later he produced his only caveat. “If you’ll bring me back.”
Nobody understands why after all this time he has changed his mind. Of course, no one really knew what was in his mind to begin with. Least of all me. But it has something to do with his empty house, something to do with me, and something to do with the revolution of the spheres, for lack of a better phrase. It’s just time. He knows it. That’s Timothy.
He seems unperturbed about this volte face. He knows he can sing anything that a lyrical tenor can sing. Anything. Anywhere. Anytime. For anyone. From opera to Christmas carols, from “Love Changes Everything” (“Serch Sy’n Newid Popeth”) to the love theme from Titanic to ancient, contemporary, arcane, and traditional Welsh songs. He already has. He has that supreme confidence of the pure of heart, the sublimely talented, and the very young. Whereas, in fact, he is nearer forty than thirty, stout and fair, with a touching, untouchable dignity and lungs like a lion.
I should have said earlier that he was trained in his youth, or rather in his earlier youth, by Gerald Davis, the principal tenor of Covent Garden. Although it probably wouldn’t have mattered if he wasn’t. This voice was born, not manufactured.
Our entire village, by the way, acts as a collective and very protective chicken with one amazing chick. Timothy is known to and beloved by a vast, complex network of neighbors and relatives who consider him their personal property—so much so that when I first asked to interview people about Timothy, they all agreed, all kept their promise, all were warm and friendly, and all said nothing worth recording about him. No actual information passed their lips.
Timothy has hundreds of cousins, thousands of admirers, and one perfect best friend, Alun, who works with him side by side, day by day in the post office. Alun (pronounced Ah-lin) is another treasure in our village. If I weren’t writing about the voice of an angel, so to speak, I would most certainly write about the heart of one—and it would be Alun’s. He is also the only person out of all the people I interviewed who would actually tell me anything about Timothy. He said one thing, and that was that Timothy was “the kindest person in the world,” which says as much about him as it does about Timothy. But it illustrates something about what people think is important here. Trust, privacy, cohesiveness, friendship, solidarity, kindness, family, work, moderation, repetition, economy of expression certainly—and, of course, daily life.
I suppose now is the time to explain what’s in it for me.
Basically, nothing. I’m here writing a book about Wales and lecturing in the University in our town. It’s just that Timothy is my childhood sweetheart. And you do things for the inhabitants of your childhood that you just don’t do for anyone else. It was Timothy of course who came up with this wacky label, in his quiet, uncanny way:
“I think we are childhood sweethearts,” he announced one day over tea, apropos of absolutely nothing. He looked at me thoughtfully for a moment, smiled with exceptional sweetness, went back to his tea and said no more. I was instantly riveted of course. Diverted. Enchanted. Prepared, as writers are wont to be, to discuss this fascinating concept, this emotional connectional time-warp in all its delicate intricacy. But you can’t have a conversation with Timothy when he is finished talking. Or listening. So that was about it. Anyway, I knew what he meant.
Ours is one of those decorous, old-fashioned, inexplicable relationships that develop at times between kindred spirits and have nothing to do with sex, something to do with romance, and everything to do with love. We know each other too well from a past we never shared to be called merely “friends,” and we are too chivalrously attached to one another to be anything else. Almost all women will know what I’m talking about and I won’t speculate about the perception of men.
And it doesn’t matter that we were born on two separate continents in two different decades and met only three ancient years ago. It’s not our fault. So “childhood sweethearts” it is. But even if we were merely on nodding terms, even if I did not like him at all, I’d still do my best to see this voice launched into the wider world. It would be criminal not to.
Not unexpectedly, Timothy maddeningly has no website, no email address, no promotional package, no music manager, no publicist, no lawyer, no long-term contracts—almost everything is done by word of mouth on an individual basis as is often the (barely believable but nevertheless true) custom here. He just has me. But he’ll go where he is meant to go, because things happen that way in this land of King Arthur, Merlin, and magic. And so we will come to America.
I don’t know how he will fare, this Pan, this man-child, this Adam before the apple, this Innocent Abroad. We’ll have to make sure that he doesn’t “end up not being him,” although I think he’s pretty safe. It’s not that he hasn’t been on tour before. He has sung the length and breadth of Wales in halls that resound not only with his voice but also with the response of his audience, awash in tears. His concert diary is as full as he wants it to be. And he still turns down most requests.
He has also sung in other countries on several tours—to sell-out crowds—but always to Welsh-speaking venues, for Welsh expatriates. Each time he has stayed in his hotel room until curtain time, sung stunningly on stage, and gone back to his (empty) room. Each time he has opened a door to a land of enchantment for others. This time, I want him to open it for himself.
(1) Bendithion means “blessings” in Welsh, though without a particularly religious connotation. It is the title of my forthcoming epistolary novel.
(2) Y Cymry is pronounced “uh Cumree” and means “the Welsh people.”
(3) Implausible but true. Long story.
(4) Fach is pronounced vahch with the “ch” as in the Hebrew “challah” or the Scottish “loch.”
(5) Welshness (pronounced “come – rike - toid.” Sort of.)
(6) I use the phrase “mutual friend” with some reservation, since there are minute and invisible gradations of friendship and none of them have anything to do with the sort of tribal connection that the people in my village have with/to each other. My connections are more diverse, isolated. I am not part of that matrix. My connection to Timothy is explained elsewhere.
(7) Pronounced like the surname of Johann Sebastian. It literally means “little” but is colloquially an endearment—“little dear,” “little darling,” etc.
Harrison Solow, originally from California, now lives in Wales, where she teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Wales, Lampeter, and is associate director of the new Welsh American Academy at Trinity College, Carmarthen. She placed first in the 2006 Abroad International Short Fiction Competition and was first runner-up for the 2005 Faulkner Award for Short Fiction. Her work has been published by The University of California Press, Simon & Schuster, and Harper Collins UK, among others. She is currently writing an epistolary novel about Wales and a series of poems, Postal Codes, about Timothy Evans. Harrison is a member of the Welsh Academi. (10/2007)