As his would-be rescuers peel away his flannel wrappings, he sits ‘gazing out at them from his chair as though in mild surprise at this intrusion into his comfortable retreat. His deep-sunk blue eyes were frostily clear under arched white brows. He looked like one awakened from restorative slumber, an expression of judicious independence fixed on his spare face. His hands rested on his knees, like a Pharaoh.’
To ‘celebrate’ this as a Magnificent Horror Moment, in the wording of our series, may seem insensitive, given the very real difficulties faced by those in hostile weather, particularly the old. I am mindful of that.
Yet this is a fine piece of writing in an often powerful story.
Writing, simply expressed, gives this passage its power. And then we have that superb simile, ‘like a pharaoh’.
While at first glance it may seem incongruous, it’s one of those comparisons that, after a moment’s thought, seems so very right – showing Evans, who the authorities are so keen to remove, as independent, strangely magnificent, lordly.
The comparison also casts the reader’s mind in the direction of tombs.
Have not Nurse Baldock and Vicar Pryce been excavating their way into the hidden world of the cottage, like Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon and team (albeit in a rather different clime) in Egypt?
Davies has been called a ‘Welsh Chekhov’.
This story certainly has a Chekhovian feel.
Nurse Baldock is clearly concerned more with her own elevation as the doer of a good deed than the welfare of Mr Evans. She is notably keen to press home the importance of the council and what she refers to as the ‘State’ in looking after the old man (who, to her frustration, it seems, has been rather more intent on looking after himself).
Great play is made by Nurse Baldock of the attractons of a care home where we sense she has been hungry to place Mr Evans (and become matron). She is particularly proud of a diploma (hard won by her, of course).
Mrs Evans (her death having been known for several days) is placed in a coffin in the crowded van for the journey from the cottage back to apparent civilisation.
The corpse of Mr Evans, in a darkly absurd image, is placed on top of the coffin, still in his seated, deep-frozen, Pharaoh-like position.
As this odd party moves away, Rhys Davies observes of the cottage: ‘Already it had an air of not belonging to anyone.’
Appropriately, all of this has an echo of Chekhov’s own death: his coffin carried to Moscow in a refrigerated railway car normally used for transporting oysters.
The endings of Chekhov’s stories veer from closures that are intentionally perfunctory to those that are much more imagistic.
Here, Rhys Davies opts for the latter, and we see a hare achieve a flying leap, distant, beyond a bridge that crosses a frozen river.
In considering the animal, one can’t help but think of John Evans and his defiance: his Pharaoh spirit, free and unchained from the plans of the hectoring Nurse Baldock.
Davies’s story isn’t perfect, being over-long, in my view: the over-writing (not huge, but significant) coming in the passages in the van to and from the cottage.
But it is probably among his best, ranking with another perhaps better-known tale, ‘Nightgown’, which concerns the life of a male-dominated coal-mining family.
His theme here of care and – importantly -dignity for the elderly is as relevant – and some may feel unresolved – as ever, nearly sixty years on.
Finally, and briefly, I’m reminded of Hemingway’s story ‘An Alpine Idyll’ (a peasant keeps his dead wife in a barn until the snows permit him to bring her corpse down from their mountain home).