‘Dark… richly poetic’
‘THE WORD’ by Matthew G. Rees
Reviewed by EURON GRIFFITH
Nick Drake has a line in one of his songs about the fact that sometimes we feel safe and secure amongst ‘the books and records of a lifetime.’
It’s certainly true that ‘stuff’ has a potency – it can trace our history, our lives. A diary of sorts.
Objects of all kinds can be Proustian keys to certain periods when we were happy, sad, suicidal or ecstatic.
So, in light of this, it’s a brave soul who decides to chuck it all away – to ‘de-clutter’ their homes and to kick the habit of acquisition and dependence. It’s a bold statement that underlines a need to start anew, to scrunch up the roadmap of the past and take a step into the unknown.
Well, it’s certainly a ‘thing’. The lifestyle gurus in the glossies and the Sunday supplements have all, in their time, advocated this latest trend. And, if the task is too onerous or too painful, worry not – there are people who will do it for you. Slip them a few quid and they’ll turn up in a van and denude your shelves and rooms in just a couple of hours.
The main character in Matthew G. Rees’s dark and richly poetic story is such a figure. Cynical and unburdened by sentiment he and his partner Cat prowl the ‘borders of Wales, the Somerset levels, the moors of the North and the East Anglian Fens’ searching for that elusive glint of gold in the huge piles of personal belongings people have decided to throw away. These areas have been specifically chosen for their perceived unsophistication. London and the big cities may have got wise to the habit and ‘stuff’ may have been pre-pruned by valuers and experts. Here, as the unamed protaganist tells it ‘Time has stood still’ and ‘possessions had stayed put, sometimes for hundreds of years.’
Such a place is the remote Welsh farmhouse ‘Y Gair’ (which translates as ‘The Word’). Initially turned away by a protective daughter, our professional de-clutterer is unexpectedly called back to the windswept holding by its owner – Old Man Llewelyn – and instructed to strip the house.
‘“We want it gone,” he said with finality. “All of it,” like he was expelling a ball of phlegm.’
The sheer ‘otherness’ of Old Man Llewelyn and his world – a world expressed for hundreds of years through the medium of Welsh (a language which is here represented almost as something dangerous – it is ‘barked’ or ‘snapped’) – is beautifully rendered in almost gleeful Dickensian rapture:
‘All afternoon I splashed back and forth, arms laden: horse brasses, mantel clocks, books that spoke of Livingstone and Stanley as if they still lived, silver-backed brushes, pewter plates, prettily-painted china, stuffed songbirds under glass, the masks of foxes and badgers…’
The relics of a world which has vanished forever and which will now be only valuable to the eyes of the auctioneer and the collector. Even the harp is taken – ‘the wind drew a faint sound from its strings as we carried it over the yard’.
The only item our hero or anti-hero holds on to after this exercise (if only out of curiosity since the austere Welsh text is incomprehensible to him) is the family Bible, which he also removes from the house.
And, a week or so later, whilst lounging in his houseboat in Camden, he reaches for it after reading in the paper that Old Man Llewelyn had taken de-cluttering to a more extreme level by expunging not only objects from his life but also his animals and his family.
The news of this rocks our protaginist’s world (quite literally!) and suddenly the old family Bible with its curious and ancient doodle of a serpent (which some long-dead member of the Llewelyn clan presumably scribbled on its pages a century or so earlier) takes on a peculiar life of its own.
One may try to de-clutter and disown the past, but sometimes the events and happenings of our lives which these objects signified are indelibly etched onto our memory. And, sometimes, creepily, on our very bodies.
‘The Word’ by Matthew G. Rees has been published by Three Impostors press, Newport, Wales, as part of their series of short stories The Wentwood Tales.
Guest Reviewer Euron Griffith (left) is the author of three Welsh language novels: ‘Dyn Pob Un’ (2011), ‘Leni Tiwdor’ (2013) and ‘Tri Deg Tri (2016). His English language prose and poetry have appeared in various periodicals including ‘Ambit’, ‘Poetry Wales’ and ‘The New Welsh Review’. His first short story collection in English, ‘The Beatles in Tonypandy’, appeared in 2017 and was adapted for BBC Radio Wales. His next novel will be about Beelzebub and a stolen pie. He lives in Cardiff with some cats.