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When the Light Came

by James Hanley


My village is a bent man with legs of stone, around which the wind whirls when the mist has gone. The hill cuts into the horizon like a knife, and between tufts of grass one may stare down to the sea. It wears age like an old cloak, and under it the past is as warm as a new-laid egg. But tomorrow it will be different. Tomorrow it will be raised up, bannered, will explode with light, for at last, at long last, the bright men from the town have found it. It is on their map, bright red. I can hear them talking about it: “That village is dying, we must come to the village.”

Their talk and their words are as bright as buttons.

“Its eye is an old stopped clock, the street is crooked, people go about in quaint, unfashionable clothes, and a farmer or two drowns under an old sack too heavy for his shoulders. And look at the children, their eyes full of blackberries.”

“Heaven alone knows with what their ears are stuffed.”

“Hay, without a doubt.”

“We will carry the light to the dead eye.”

“And when it begins to shine the crooked street will straighten itself.”

“Even the church clock will begin to strike properly, though I shan’t prophesy upon old ears.”

“Nor anyone else.”

These voices travel down on the wind, and the village that is bent with age can hear them. They must come then. Let them come. And they have come, this very day, and under its empty stare these men seem even brighter. Came in a fast red car, a sizzling, mechanical insect, and threw themselves out of it, urgent, talking fast, looking tremendously important. They are standing in the square, between the chapel and the post office, and they are talking at speed. Tongues like razors and eyes like flints, and butterfly hands that are full of cunning, without a doubt. I hear their talk, their rehearsal for the acts.

“Light for your cottage, Mrs. Vaughan?”

But will she hear it with her ears full of hair?

“What is that?”

Light. For your cottage.”

Curved and shining words out of a new language, but they break like stones at an old woman’s feet.

They come nearer. She bends.

“What light?”

“Electric.”

“What is that?”

Light.

“I do not want it then.”

An aged hand is too slow for the door, and now it will not shut. A bright man’s eye is on her, but his foot is like a spade.

“You see. Take that room above. Dark. We will fill it with light.”

“Daylight is cheaper. I always said it.”

The foot withdraws, the back turns, in disgust, in hopelessness. What can a bright man do in this village? Do they not know what progress means? They lean to the bridge, watch the water swirl by; they confer.

“Just look at this street. Look at it? Curving like an old fox smashing bone in the trap. Twisted old cottages as dark as sin, not a clear eye among the lot of them.”

“After the light is lively on the line, everything will be different. The village will rise up like Lazarus."

“We will try the first shop. There are three shops in this village.”

“Well, here it is,” the bright men said.

And so it was.

“Smell?”

They smelt, groped, amongst the boxes, the sacks, the crates, the piled tins.

“Cabbage.”

“And perhaps they’re a hundred years old, and you wouldn’t know it. So dark.”

They wait, watch. Mrs. Jones will come soon; she has the hare’s sharp ear, and is as tall and fine as a needle.

“Good morning, Mrs. Jones. Christopher Columbus bringing you the light. Electric, you know.”

“Light?”

“Light.”

“Well, indeed,” through shining teeth, “and nearly time too. And can I have that lighting they have a Gwern y Brenin?”

“Indeed yes. You will have it, missus. Any colour of the rainbow you like, man.”

“Thank you. When then?

“Friday. Yes indeed.”

“Thank you very much. Good morning.”

And the door closed, made darker what was dark. The bright men are smiling.

“Such a silly old place it is, really, well, isn’t it?”

“By damn, yes, but Middle Shop’s got sense, I think.”

“And now to Bottom Shop, one lot name of Hughes it is.”

Their feet are like nails, tearing towards the bottom shop.

“Funny little bell.”

“Well, what is it then?” asked Mrs. Hughes, round as a barrel, formidable, colourful as a flag, and eyes like bluebells.

“Electric. We are bringing the light to the village, Mrs. Hughes.”

“What for indeed?”

“To make the village lively. Tacks about like an old boat under the wind, very old-fashioned, Mrs. Hughes, very old fashioned you are. We will put you on the map, in the world. And then you will be like all the other villages. Very nice, very bright indeed.”

“Thank you very much, I have a lamp.”

“Old fashioned, silly, and dirty too.”

“It is bright enough for me, not wanting anything, thank you,” and in her face lies a whole continent of indifference.

“Who built your mad street?” the bright men asked.

“Richards out of Pwllglas that was here then and isn’t now. A long time ago it is indeed.”

“Probably drunk at the time,” the bright men said.

“My husband and me are not wanting, thank you,” Mrs. Hughes said, “and good-day to you.”

The two men seemed crowded in the doorway, they hesitated, wondering, perhaps at the last moment she might change her mind. Silly woman, and a sillier husband without a doubt. But Mrs. Hughes’ wooden stare was master of their patience, of their goodwill, their miracles.

“Let’s go,” they said, and they banged the door, the reverberating bell perhaps shattering the defiant woman’s ears.

“Very backward here, isn’t it?”

“Very.”

“And it is now twelve o’clock. There is in this village one pub only. We will talk there. Surely he will want the light.”

“We can try his ale at the same time.”

And they walked crusadingly to the inn.

A dark tavern, and a most resounding floor. And silent. A coin will thunder on the counter.

“Hello! Hello there! Anybody in?”

Everything’s dark here.”

“You said it.”

Stamping feet on the slate, cobwebs in the corners, spiders walking the beams. A vast smell of ale. A fist down, and an empty bottle rolling like a ship. A dark shadow in the doorway.

“Mornin’.”

“Mornin’. What’s your best ale, mister?”

“I has no bad ale here.”

“Two pints that is good then, and one in a bottle also that will be as good. We are the Electric.”

“Indeed! I have heard of it. Come today then? What will you do?”

“Fill an old village with light, set fire to it.”

“Two shillings and fourpence, and there will be tuppence on the bottle.”

“Nice beer.”

“I was at Ty Coch last Wednesday, and I met old Emrys out of Domen, and he was tellin’ me that the devil was comin’ this way. Will the poles be high, mister?”

“Higher than the top of Zion, mister. Where is your light?”

“There she is. Hangin’. Bright at night it is, like a lighthouse. Missus keeps it shone up. Very good old lamp she is.”

“When you have the electric you’ll be able to count the spiders for the first time.”

“Laugh at your own silly jokes, mister,” the licensee said.

“And you’ll be the only one perhaps that hasn’t got the light.”

“And then you’ll look funny.”

“Will the electric go into the Chapel then?”

“It will shine in God’s house.”

“Perhaps old Moses Roberts will be happy with it when he’s preachin’. Find more sinners than ever before maybe.”

“Maybe.”

“But I will not have it yet, misters, I will think about it all.”

The bright men are tireless.

“When it shines like the sun in your village, you will have it.”

The licensee guffaws, spits.

“You are nearly as bright as my lamp, misters, but not quite. I am no frog and I will not hop to your fashion or fancy. Good-day to you.”

A screech from the kitchen.

“Who is that, Aled?”

“Electric lot.”

“What is that then, I can’t hear you, Aled.”

And a roar over the stones. “Light, woman. They’ve gone now.”

“Dinner then.”

“Comin’.”

The bright men sit on the wall, scratching their heads, chewing their fingernails. Children run from the school, stop at the bridge to stroke and circle the ageless mongrel. “Nice doggie.”

And for the thousandth time it turns its tail to the sun.

“Queer old place this village.”

“Very backward indeed. No progress, you know. Pity indeed.”

“At Bwlch y Cibau they had the bus, and the electric.”

“Sensible Bwlch then. Who said this village was dying? It’s dead.”

“So stupid they are.”

“Not a straight bone in the whole village, full of rheumatics, and so old, so dark, man.”

“They seem to like it.”

“Not right, man. They shouldn’t.”

“But they do.”

“We’ll see.”

“I’ll have another belt at them next week, I think. That’s it. Nothin’ to lose.”

“Never is.”

“Turn around man, look at it. That steeple, like an old mast when the wind’s up. Look at this huddle of old stones. They call it a school. You’d never straighten this street except with dynamite.”

“No, indeed.”

They cross the bridge, they climb into their car, they vanish in a flourish of blue fumes. But they will be back next week. The village telegraph flashes from house to house.

“Electric’s gone.”

The village is quiet again, it closes both eyes, settles down.

“Comin’ next week again,” they said.

And the village waits, unable to make up its mind about what is progress, about what is bright. The dog barks, and the children run to the school, not caring.

 

James Hanley is the distinguished author of more than fifty books of fiction, drama and autobiography. He lives and works in London, and is presently completing a new novel. Horizon Press will issue first American editions of his novels Against the Stream and Hollow of the Sea this year. (Spring 1981)


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