The bus groaned its way up from the coast, belching out a cloud of diesel smoke before it came to a halt outside the first house of a small village.
"Llanfair!" the driver called, looking back at the young man who sat behind him clutching a backpack.
"Is this it?" Tommy asked dubiously, peering out through the windshield at the row of slate-roofed cottages.
"This is the closest I'm going to stop," the driver said in a lilting Welsh accent. "Ask at the village. They'll tell you from there."
Tommy stepped down and hoisted his backpack onto his shoulders as the bus roared away, leaving a dark trail of smoke behind it. He stood there for a moment, taking in the unfamiliar sights and sounds--the neat rows of cottages, some whitewashed but most of them gray stone, built, Tommy suspected, with slate taken from the quarry he had noticed farther down the pass. The rows of cottages huddled under steep green slopes, down which ran parallel bright ribbons of water.High above, Tommy could see white dots he knew must be sheep. Two dark specks that sped around them must be the sheepdogs, he decided. He watched, entranced, as the white dots came together into a big white blob that began moving steadily forward. Now that the bus had gone, he could hear distant baas floating down on the breeze.
It was so peaceful here--not at all as he remembered it. No sound except for the wind sighing through tall grasses and the splash and gurgle of rushing water in the stream that flowed under the humped stone bridge. Everything was so clean, as if it had been newly spring-cleaned. It smelled fresh too--a kind of green, moist scent. Tommy was glad he had decided to come after all. He needed to get away from the noise and bustle of the city, and he wanted to put some closure on this whole sad business. He was glad to know he wasn't the only one who still felt guilty about what had happened all those years ago, even though no one could be blamed. He glanced up at the distant peaks etched against a clear blue sky. How different it had been last time--the biting cold, visibility down to a few feet, the wind that took their breath away, and the freezing rain that had turned so treacherously to snow ...
He hoisted the pack higher on his back. It would be good to see old Stew again, and maybe Jimmy as well. He presumed one of them must have sent the postcard ... it had to be one of Danny's close friends in their little gang from hut 29.
He was about to cross the bridge when he noticed that someone was perched on the parapet in the shade of a mountain ash tree, sitting still as a statue. As he came closer he saw the mailman's uniform and was amused to note that the mailman was engrossed in reading the mail.
"Excuse me," he said. "Am I going the right way for the Everest Inn?"
The mailman looked up and stared at him vacantly as if he was a visitor from Mars.
"Everest Inn?" Tommy asked again, wondering if the man could speak English.
The man hastily gathered the letters, shoving them into his bag, before he took off in the other direction with long loping strides.
Tommy shrugged and started up the village street. Not a soul was about. Even the pub seemed to be closed. Of course, they probably still observed strict drinking laws in this godforsaken corner of Wales. He remembered how unfriendly they'd been before, looking up with wary eyes and switching to Welsh the moment he and his mates had walked into the bar.
Across the street was a little row of shops. G. Evans, Butcher, stood next to R. Evans, Dairy Products. Only T. Harris, General Store, spoiled the Evans monopoly. He could see someone moving behind the counter in the butcher shop, so he pushed open the door and went in.
"Bore da." A large florid man wearing a soiled apron greeted him in Welsh.
"Hello," Tommy said in his cheerful cockney. "Nice day, isn't it? I'm looking for the Everest Inn."
The man's face became instantly remote. "Everest Inn, is it?"
"Yeah, they told me it was around here."
"You can't miss it," the butcher said, then muttered under his breath, "Bloody great monstrosity!"
"What's the matter with it?"
"Nobody wanted it built here, did they? Brings a lot of foreigners and too much traffic."
Tommy smiled. He hadn't seen a single car go past since he got off the bus. The man had gone back to chopping up alamb carcass on the marble slab, swinging a murderous-looking cleaver down with rhythmic strokes.
"So how do I find it?" Tommy asked cautiously.
The man didn't look up and continued chopping. "Keep going through the village, past the chapels, and up the hill. You can't miss it."
"Thanks. Cheers," Tommy said, and half raised his hand in a friendly wave. As he came out of the door into the warm, spring sunshine, a milk van had just drawn up and a tall, skinny man in a milkman's cap was coming up the steps. He gave Tommy a little half nod, then called out something in Welsh to the butcher and laughed loudly. Tommy turned back in time to see the butcher wave the cleaver at him with a threatening gesture, yelling after him what sounded like a torrent of Welsh insults. The words echoed from the narrow valley walls.
"Go boil your head, Evans-the-Meat," the milkman called, still laughing. "I was only joking. You take everything too seriously."
"Is that a fact? Well, I don't find your jokes very funny, Evans-the-Milk," the butcher yelled back. "And don't think you can insult me. You come from a very inferior branch of the family."
"Inferior, is it? To whom, I'd like to know!"
"Can you trace your ancestry back to the Great Llewellyn himself? Related to that dafty at the post office, that's what you are."
The rest of the argument was lost as Tommy walked on up the street. Personally, he wouldn't have risked trading insults with a man who had chopped through a lamb carcass as if he was cutting butter.
The street was still deserted. The sign outside the RedDragon pub swung gently in the wind. As he passed the school he heard the sound of young voices and saw twenty or so little kids in uniform skipping in a circle around a slim young woman. She wore a long skirt, a white blouse, and embroidered ethnic vest. A single braid of corn-colored hair hung way down her back, and she looked as if she had stepped straight out of an Arthurian romance. Tommy paused to watch her as she clapped the rhythm and the children skipped and sang. He tried to pick up the words of the chant, but realized that they were singing in Welsh. That was the trouble with Wales--you didn't think it was a foreign country, but it was.
The pack was weighing heavily on his shoulders and the wind was now blowing briskly from the pass as he climbed up the street. As the road swung around, he could see the imposing shape of the inn interrupting the green sweep of hills at the head of the pass. As he came closer, he could see that it was built like an overgrown Swiss chalet, complete with gingerbread trim and geranium-decked balconies. No wonder the locals hadn't welcomed it--it was a bloody great monstrosity.
The last two buildings in the village were both Methodist chapels, as was usual in this part of the world. They were identical gray slate buildings with modest spires and notice boards outside. One announced Chapel Bethel, Sunday School 10 A.M., Worship Service 6 P.M. (Sermon in English). The other said, in Welsh, with a small English translation below it, Chapel Beulah, Sunday Worship 10 A.M. and 6 P.M. Sermon in English and Welsh.
Under these notices were billboards, each containing a text. The text outside Bethel read, "Keep watchful for ye know not when the end shall come." Tommy was amused to see that the text outside Beulah read, "Judgement Day is tomorrow."
Tommy chuckled all the way up the hill until the chill wind blowing from the heights made him suddenly shiver. He paused and glanced back down the valley. He wondered if he was doing the right thing coming here after all ...
High above, the mountain watched and waited.
EVANS ABOVE. Copyright © 1997 by Rhys Bowen. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.