It was the postman who noticed it first. As he careened down Llanfair’s one and only street, half in control of his motorbike and half not, he glanced at the small row of shops to his left. The village boasted three shops and a petrol pump. First in line of shops was a butcher, g. evans, ciggyd, the Welsh word for “butcher” in large letters, and then purveyor of fine meats in tiny ones; then r. evans, dairy products. These two had been known locally for years as Evans-the-Meat and Evans-the-Milk, respectively. Only the last store in the line, t. harris, grocer and sub–post office, had spoiled the Evans’s monopoly. But T. Harris was long dead, and his widow had finally given up the unequal struggle of trying to compete with the nearby Tesco’s and had retired to live with her son near London. How she could want to spend her final years among foreigners had been a lively topic of discussion.
And so the corner grocery store had remained vacant for some time. The postman, yet another Evans, naturally nicknamed Evans-the-Post, had been modernized like most things in North Wales. He now made his deliveries by motorbike, enabling him to cover the outlying farms as well as the villages of Llanfair and Nant Peris. He had been riding the motorbike for at least a year now but was no nearer to mastering it. The look of wide-eyed terror in his eyes matched that of the pedestrians who were forced to scramble out of his way. One of them leaped aside now as Evans-the-Post turned to stare at what he had just seen, lost control, and almost mounted the pavement. It was Mrs. Powell-Jones, the minister’s wife.
“Idiot! Fool!” Mrs. Powell-Jones shouted, as she reclaimed her dignity after the leap. “I’ll call the postmaster about you! You’ll end up killing somebody.”
But Evans-the-Post was already well past her and out of hearing range. He finally wrestled the bike to a halt, extracted a letter from the mailbag, and loped toward the front door of a whitewashed cottage across the street. Instead of posting the letters through a perfectly good slot, however, he rapped on the door and waited until it was opened.
“Letter for you, Mrs. Williams,” he said. “From your granddaughter, the one who’s studying in London. She loved that jumper you knitted for her. And the bara brith you made.”
The round, elderly woman smiled, not unkindly. “Thank you, Mr. Evans, although one of these days you’ll find yourself in trouble if you keep on reading everyone’s letters. You’ll read something that’s not good for you.”
“I don’t mean any harm,” the man mumbled shyly.
“I know you don’t. Go on then, off with you, or you’ll be late checking in at the post office and that new postmaster will be after you.”
Evans-the-Post went to leave, then swallowed hard, making a prominent Adam’s apple dance up and down. “Somebody’s moving into the old grocer’s shop,” he blurted out. “I’ve just seen them.”
“No! Escob Annwyl! Are you sure it wasn’t just the estate agent?”
“No, really moving in. I saw them doing carpentry in there, fixing things up.”
“Well I never. I wonder who’s taking it after all this time? I hope they’re not thinking of turning it into something heathen. They turned one of the chapels in Blaenau Ffestiniog into a betting shop, you know. And remember that Frenchwoman who turned the chapel into a restaurant? I’m not surprised the Good Lord burned it down.”
“A café wouldn’t be bad,” Evans-the-Post said. “Especially if they served fish and chips. We don’t have anywhere to eat in the village, apart from the pub.”
“Decent, God-fearing people should be eating in their own homes,” Mrs. Williams said, folding her arms across a vast expanse of bosom. “I don’t hold with all this eating fancy muck in restaurants. It isn’t healthy. They say there’s an obesity epidemic, and I say it’s too much eating away from home.” Since Mrs. Williams could never be described as slim, anyone else would have smiled at this remark, but Evans-the-Post nodded seriously.
Mrs. Williams leaned out her front door and peered up the street. A van was parked in front of the row of shops. Then she nodded to herself.
“I think I might make a custard today,” she said, thoughtfully. “I’ll just pop up to Evans-the-Milk and get an extra pint, just in case.”
With that she put on her coat, tucked her basket on her arm, and started up the street. She hadn’t gone far when she met Mair Hopkins on a similar journey.
“I’m putting Charlie on a diet,” Mair confided, “So I thought I’d get some cottage cheese.”
Together they walked in silence until they reached the shops, each knowing perfectly well the intention of the other, but each being too polite to mention it. The three shops were set back from the street on a broad stretch of pavement. The sound of hammering floated out of the former grocer’s. Mair Hopkins’s face lit up.
“So it’s true what they were saying. There are new tenants in the corner shop. Thank the dear Lord for that. I’m that tired of having to catch the bus down the hill to Llanberis or sending Charlie out in the van when I run out of something.”
“We don’t know that it will be another grocer,” Mrs. Williams said. “I’m just praying it won’t be a betting shop, like that old chapel in Blaenau.”
“A beauty parlor wouldn’t be bad,” Mair said. “Charlie told me it was about time I got my hair done more often.”
“Well, I’d like to see the post office counter opened up again. You should see the line at the post office in Llanberis when I was there to pick up my pension.”
“I know. It’s terrible, just.” Mair Hopkins shook her head.
The two women were about to cross the road to the shops when Mrs. Powell-Jones came flying toward them, seemingly out of nowhere, her pea green cardigan flapping as she ran.
“You’ve seen it then?” she said. “New people at the shop. I went in to welcome them to the village and to invite them to chapel on Sunday, as a minister’s wife should, and you’ll never believe it . . .”
“What?” The two women leaned closer.
“Heathens. Foreigners.” Mrs. Powell-Jones almost spat out the words.
“You mean more English people?” Mrs. Williams asked. “Church not chapel?”
“Worse than that,” Mrs. Powell-Jones whispered. “See for yourselves.”
A man had just come out of the shop. He opened the back of the van and removed a long plank of wood. “Is this the size you wanted, Daddy?” he called.
“No, not that one, the thicker one,” another voice called back, and an older man came out to join him.
“Escob Annwyl,” Mrs. Williams muttered, putting her hand to her heart. The men were dark skinned, and the younger one had a beard and was dressed in a white, flowing overshirt and leggings.
That evening Detective Constable Evan Evans was driving home from work when he noticed a light shining out from the formerly empty shop. Even though he was no longer a community policeman charged with keeping the peace in the village of Llanfair, his curiosity got the better of him. He parked and pushed open the shop door. Two brown-skinned men were bending over a sheet of paper. There were wood shavings on the floor, and sawdust floated in the air.
“Good evening,” Evan said. “Doing some work on the place, are you?”
Both men looked up at Evan’s voice.
“That’s right,” the older one said.
“We’re trying to get this finished in a hurry,” the younger one said in a dialect that came more from Yorkshire than Asia. “So I suggest you leave us in peace.”
“I’m only doing my job, sir,” Evan said pleasantly. “I’m a policeman and I live in this village so naturally I wanted to make sure no vandalism was going on in an empty building.”
“A policeman?” The younger man still looked scornful. “Can’t they even afford uniforms in North Wales, then?”
“I’m in the Plain Clothes Division,” Evan said.
“Then it’s not really your job to be checking up on us, is it? You’re just plain nosy like the rest of them. In and out all day they’ve been, poking their noses in on some pretext or the other.”
“That’s enough, Rashid,” the older man said. He wiped his hands on the apron he was wearing over normal street clothes, then held out his hand as he came toward Evan. “How do you do, Officer. I’m Azeem Khan. I’ve just bought this place.”
“How do you do, Mr. Khan. Welcome to Llanfair then.” Evan shook his outstretched hand.
Azeem Khan nodded for his son to do the same, but the boy was studying the building plan as if they didn’t exist.
“Please excuse my son. He’s going through a militant phase. It happens to most of us when we are students, doesn’t it?” Unlike his son, his accent was still the lilting Pakistani of his forebears. He was clean-shaven, dressed in normal European-style clothes, and his black hair, now streaked with gray, was cut short and neatly parted. “Rashid, please stop acting in this manner and behave like a civilized human being.”
Rashid Khan gave Evan a cold, challenging stare. “I’ve had enough encounters with the police to know that they don’t like us, and we don’t like them,” he said.
“We’re not in a big city now, Rashid,” the father said. “We’re in a small village, and it’s important that we get along with everybody or we’ll have no customers.”
Evan smiled at the boy. “I suppose I should warn you that folks around here are suspicious of any strangers. It has nothing to do with race or anything like that. Any English person is considered a foreigner here. So don’t take it personally. But I’ll tell you one thing, if you’re opening a new grocer’s shop, everyone will be pleased. The older women in the village don’t drive, and it’s a long haul to take the bus all the way down to the supermarket.”
“That’s exactly what we thought when we first saw the place,” Mr. Khan said enthusiastically. “A great opportunity, I told my wife.”
“Did you have another shop before you moved?”
“For a while, yes, but the neighborhood went downhill so badly I was afraid to let my daughter out of the house. And now that my son is attending the university here in Wales, I said to my wife, ‘Why not give it a try? Good clean air and peaceful surroundings.’ She hasn’t been well, you know. Her heart is not strong.”
Evan turned back to Rashid. “So you are at university in Bangor? How do you like it?”
“All right so far. I’ve met other Muslim boys so at least I’ve got mates to hang out with.”
“Good. Well, I’ll let you get back to work then.” Evan turned toward the door. “I live here in the village if you ever need me. Or at least not in the village anymore—just above the village. That little cottage just above the pub.”
Mr. Khan beamed. “I was looking at that place when we first came by to see the shop, and I said to my wife, ‘What a lovely view they must have.’ And of course she said she couldn’t imagine anybody living up that steep track.”
“She’s quite right, of course. That track is impossible on a rainy day. It’s a sea of mud, but we’re getting used to it.”
“So you’ve just moved in too?”
“About a month ago. I just got married, and we rebuilt the cottage in time for the wedding. But I’ve lived in the village for several years. So has my wife. She was the local schoolteacher until they closed the school. Now she has to take the bus to the new school in the valley.”
Old Mr. Khan nodded. “That’s progress for you, isn’t it? Everything changes and not always for the better.”
“Are we going to get back to this, Dad?” Rashid demanded. “I’ve got a paper to write, you know.”
“All right, all right.” Mr. Khan gave Evan an apologetic smile and turned back to the blueprint.
Copyright © 2006 by Rhys Bowen. All rights reserved.