After the rain, the last of the daylight came riding over Mynydd Mawr with the crows. The mountain choked on torrents of white water and the bracken smelled of its colour. From the shadows of the sycamore tree, the old horse emerged and nibbled at the edges of the puddles. The world had awakened again just in time for dusk.
‘We’d better go now,’ said Mr Davidson. ‘Before it goes too dark. Do you think the boy’s up to it?’
He was joking, of course, and everyone laughed. It had already been decided that this year he would be allowed to go with Mr Davidson to the woods and then stay up late with everyone. He was twelve years old now. He wasn’t a child anymore.
They crossed the field to the trees and the horse looked up at them, its head and the darkening clouds and the racing crows reflected in the water.
Autumn had passed through the valley like a sickness, turning the bramble fruit into wizened pellets, wilting the hogweed. Everywhere there was a smell of rot and deadfall.
‘Keep your eyes peeled now,’ said Mr Davidson. ‘He’ll be here somewhere.’
‘Who will?’ said the boy.
‘You’ll know when you find him.’
They set off along the fringe of the trees, where he’d watched Mr Davidson earlier in the day scattering red dust into the air. Working methodically, they lifted up the bracken and rooted under fallen branches.
By now, at the Davidsons’ request, the boy would normally have been sent to his bedroom to play with his toys. He had only ever been able to watch from his window and guess what the red dust was for or what Mr Davidson found at the tangled hem of the wood. His mother would never tell him.
‘When you’re old enough you’ll understand,’ she said.
Well, now he was.
They searched for several minutes, Mr Davidson singing to himself, until the boy found a dead nightjar under a thicket of ferns.
‘No, not dead,’ said Mr Davidson. ‘He’s only sleeping. Go on. Don’t let him get cold now.’
The boy wiped his hands on his jeans and crouched to pick up the bird. It was still warm. Its head dangled.
Mr Davidson handed him a tea towel and the boy swaddled the bird and carried it back to the cottage at arm’s length. They all laughed at him when he brought it into the kitchen. There was always laughter when Mr and Mrs Davidson came with their friends. Laughter was good, they said. Laughter was the key. A beacon.
‘Don’t listen to them,’ said his mother, holding him to her chest in a charade of protection.
She kissed him on the forehead and the others ruffled his hair and patted his shoulder. The boy found himself smiling at the congratulations.
‘Perhaps that means it’ll be your turn this year,’ said Mrs Davidson as she took the bird from him and laid it in an enamel basin next to the woodstove.
‘Who was it last time?’ said Mr Davidson. ‘You know my memory.’
A rheumy-eyed mole of a man coughed and put up his hand.
‘And before that it was Ruth,’ said Mrs Davidson.
‘It was Ruth two years on the trot,’ another voice said.
‘Well, that’s how it is sometimes,’ said Mr Davidson. ‘Everyone will get a turn eventually.’
‘Here now,’ said the mole man, touching the boy on the arm. ‘I’ll tell you the story of the nightjar,’ he said and the others moaned like cattle.
‘Now, come on,’ said Mr Davidson, pretending to scold them. ‘He has to tell it, you know that. Tradition is tradition.’
The others laughed and someone poured the mole man a glass of beer.
‘Now see, the nightjar,’ said the old man, cleaning his glasses on his sleeve, ‘he was once a great hunter, better than the hawks and the eagles. He didn’t live in the woods like he does now; he went out over the mountains looking for the hare and the wild cat.
One day, the mole went on, there was a thunderstorm and the nightjar flew down to the woods for shelter and found every creature asleep. The King of the Wood had fallen in love with a beautiful dryad and had dusted the trees with a potent pollen. Then he could dance with her without the Queen finding out. But when he saw that the nightjar was awake and watching, he took away his sharp beak and his talons and forced him to chase after moths in the dusk.
‘But while the nightjar sleeps,’ said the mole, ‘it dreams of what it used to be and still sees beyond what isn’t true. And so can we, if we choose to look.’
He grinned at the boy and lit a cigarette and drank some of his beer. In his younger days he had been in the navy and had tattoos on his hands.
‘Life doesn’t end,’ someone else said, and the rest of the table murmured their agreement in words to that effect, including the boy’s mother, which surprised him. She had never believed in God. Perhaps that was what she’d been keeping from him. Perhaps these people had turned her.
There was a dozen of them around the table. All from the village that sat in the valley below, its roofs like wet coal, the chimneys linked by brown smoke. It was where the Davidsons now lived, the cottage having proven too much for his lungs and her hip.
They were all dressed in their best clothes. The men were clean-shaven and wearing ties; the women clownish with rouge and lipstick that the boy didn’t think they wore very often.
They’d been so kind, his mother was fond of telling people back in Sheffield. Such compassion. Such goodness.
A few years earlier, the boy’s father had died suddenly and while they’d carried on coming back to Llygaid Finiog every October, reckoning on it being nothing more than a quiet pilgrimage of remembrance, these people from the village had become like a family to her and the boy. They were the proof that even the darkest moments in life were only junctures that led to somewhere better.
So his mother said. Without his father here, the boy found it dull and miserable. The rooms smelled like the water that came off the mountain and boredom seeped into everything like damp. He wore the fun out of the toys and books he brought with him after the first day and the picture on the tiny television set was always tugged in the middle, as if someone had drawn their finger through a wet painting. When the Davidsons and their friends came over he both enjoyed and hated the intrusion. He wanted them to leave and yet he wanted to know what they laughed about downstairs.
He’d never quite known what to make of the people from the village. Every year when he and his mother and father had come to stay in the cottage, they’d drift up in ones or twos bringing firewood or horse feed, or be sent by Mr and Mrs Davidson to fix this or that. Or come just to be nosy, his father had said. His mother had called him curmudgeonly but without much scorn in her voice. She knew what he meant. They were odd little people, the Davidsons included. Like him, she’d laughed at the way they’d lent them their tastes along with the cottage – the porcelain dogs, the huge cutlery. But now she was glad they were here, cradling her, soothing her. They’d all lost someone. They all understood.
They ate in the kitchen and they filled the boy and his mother in on what had happened in the village since their last visit. There’d been floods in the spring; Tom Evans’ ram had got loose; Mrs Hurt had cancer. But the boy didn’t really listen and he wasn’t hungry. He was too excited to know what was going to happen. Excited and yet open to the possibility of disappointment. There was every chance that the rest of evening would just be an extension of the conversation around the dinner table and that the hysterical laughter he’d heard downstairs all these years was due to nothing more than the effects of beer and wine. If that was the case he’d know for certain what he’d suspected for some time: that things were never as good as they promised to be.
The dusk fell quickly and mist ghosted across the horse’s field. When it went dark everyone gathered in the small front room and his mother closed the curtains. They talked for so long that the boy felt himself drifting into sleep, wedged and warm as he was between the plump woman who liked to mother him more than his mother and the man with a paste-brush moustache who smelled charred with pipe smoke and spoke no English.
The nightjar had been brought in from the kitchen and lay asleep in the bowl on the hearth.
When the clock chimed the hour, Mrs Davidson took hold of her husband’s hand and the others joined theirs and a circle formed around the room. Perhaps they were going to pray, thought the boy. Perhaps these people were evangelists. He’d once seen a programme on television about a church in America where people laughed and laughed until they fell into spasms on the floor, dribbling with joy.
‘Close your eyes now,’ said Mrs Davidson and everyone did as she asked.
The plump woman’s hand was damp. The man – the Sergeant, the boy called him – had a surprisingly soft grip.
The room fell silent apart from the pop and split of the wood on the fire and the rain that had returned to the valley and caught the windows. He felt the plump woman breathing next to him; the Sergeant cleared his throat.
‘Look for them now,’ said Mrs Davidson. ‘Those that have left our sight.’
Around the room, people shuffled themselves comfortable. They sat still for a long time (were they Quakers, then? the boy wondered), until the silence was broken by the plump woman next to him. Her body was shaking, her hand tightening on his as she began to laugh.
It spread quickly through the others, increasing in volume, coming in waves like the rain; a burst and then a trickle before another barrage filled the room. Still holding the boy’s hand, still with his eyes closed, the Sergeant wiped away tears from his cheeks.
Now Mrs Davidson fetched the enamel bowl and passed it around the circle. Everyone touched the nightjar, laughing harder as they stroked its feathers. When it came to the boy he could feel that it was still as warm as it had been when he’d lifted it from the grass. He pushed his fingers deeper into the down of its belly, feeling its heart softly trilling, the muscles of its wings beginning to stir. And then the bowl was taken from him by the Sergeant who put the bird to his cheek.
While they were all still laughing, Mrs Davidson touched the boy’s mother on the hand and nodded. His mother began to cry and called the boy over and held his face.
‘It’s us,’ she said. ‘It’s our turn this year.’
‘Go on, now,’ said Mrs Davidson. ‘The nightjar will be awake soon. There isn’t much time.’
They went out of the room into the cold hallway. The boy could hear the Sergeant and the plump woman laughing loudest of all.
‘Don’t be frightened. It’s what brings them here,’ said his mother. ‘Wouldn’t you come into the cottage if you heard people laughing?’
It didn’t seem like a question he was supposed to answer and she led him past the ticking clock and the ugly gold mirror.
‘We have to go the end room,’ his mother said. ‘That’s where they always wait.
She felt the boy’s reluctance in her hand.
‘Don’t you want to see him?’ she said, ‘You heard what Mrs Davidson said, there isn’t much time.’
The boy could hear someone howling with laughter. Someone else fighting for breath.
His mother opened the door of the room where his father used to sit and read. The light from the hall found a desk, bookshelves, a chair. Someone was sitting with their back to them. A man who smelled like his father had once smelled. A cotton shirt made ripe by his body and too many cigarettes. His mother went in first and touched the man on the shoulder. He jerked as if he’d been asleep and she calmed him with the same voice she’d used when the boy was small. The man stood up and they embraced one another.
The laughter from the other room rose suddenly as if someone had delivered the punchline to a joke.
A hand moved around his mother’s waist and rested on her spine. His mother cried quietly into the man’s shoulder and, no longer conscious of the boy standing there, confessed all the doubts of her heart and all the longings of her body. But they had fooled her, the laughing people from the village, Mr Davidson and his red dust.
The boy knew that the hand on her back was too small to have been his father’s. And he would never have let his nails grow so long.
Photograph © just1snap