Between Môn and Arfon
Angharad price1
Angharad Price
A short story by Angharad Price.

Read the original Welsh text on the Welsh Literature Abroad website.

For more information on Angharad Price and her recent book O! tyn y gorchudd visit Welsh Literature Abroad.

The pilots of Menai River were a breed apart from the average Covy. Only one of them survived until my day. His name was Abram Janeiro Jones. His father had been Mate on the New World II, and the son - strong and rosy-cheeked - was born in the docks at Rio. The mother took ill on the voyage home to Wales from Brazil and died on the Atlantic Ocean. His father had learnt his lesson. He gave up sailing and, like his father and grandfather before him, became a pilot on the Menai. His son was brought up a pilot from the cradle.

That same son, Abram Janeiro Jones, was the last of an honoured line of Menai pilots. A ship may have sailed the world's roughest seas, and have Liverpool dock finally within its sights, but the Menai pilot was always needed to guide it through that final perilous strait between Môn and Arfon.

These days, cargo ships rarely come this way. By now, the Menai's traffic consists of pleasure boats. Janeiro had been idle for years, not wishing to guide yachts. He had fathered no children, as far as we know, and he half taught his craft to a neighbour's son, so that there was someone, at least, to deal with the small, shiny white boats. He spent a year or two fishing for plaice in Caernarfon Bay, but tired of the monotonous shoals and threw his nets to the bottom of the sea at the narrow gap of Abermenai.

He found work, in the end, as Keeper of Caernarfon's Estuary Bridge, where the river Saint carries the mountains into the sea. When a ship signals, the walkers are stopped and the bridge divides in two and swings open to let a boat out of the town's harbour, or into it.

Janeiro lived in the Bridgekeeper's cottage in the half-light of Alun Woods. He sat every day at the door of his house, the boats' masts like a forest in the quay, and the castle's Eagle Tower coming between him and the town square. Whenever a boat signaled, he would get up from his chair and go into his house to press the red button that worked the bridge. When the boat had gone through he would press the green button and the bridge would return to its place to let the walkers cross the estuary.

Very seldom did Janeiro himself cross the Estuary Bridge to the tavern or into town. Indeed, no one knew how he kept body and soul together. Some said they'd seen him wandering Foryd beach in early morning following the laments of the oystercatchers, and that he fed on cockles, periwinkles and crabs' claws. They said he smoked seaweed in his pipe and drank seawater. Of course no one dared approach him. He was a man who liked his own company.

Yet, just as when a boy whose roots lie deep in the land may feel an alien wish to go to sea, I had desired to sail the surge of this ocean-like man ever since I first saw him. There I was, a boy of ten, crossing the Estuary Bridge to the playground on the far side, when I saw the silver buttons of his coat shining in the dim of Alun Woods. I was drawn to them as to a lighthouse.

He didn't see me coming. His eyes were on the sea and had a distant look. Were they blue? Or was it the Menai I saw in them? Only at the last minute did he turn and see me coming, a slight but purposeful figure, between him and the castle. He became very agitated. I shall never forget his roar, nor the sting of the rope's knot as it whipped my naked legs while I was scarpering back over the bridge.

I didn't venture over the estuary for many years after: Mr Whippy's ice-cream van; the Foryd's summer fair; the promise of girls' kisses in Alun Woods: none could tempt me over the bridge into Janeiro's view. But I knew all along that he was there, in the doorway of his house opposite the castle, waiting for me with a distant look in his eyes.

Only when my voice had broken, and a beard was sprouting on my chin, and when we had begun drinking in the Anglesey, did I dare approach him again. It was my final year in Caernarfon. I shone in the geography lessons at Sir Hugh School and my mind was set on going to Liverpool University to graduate in the subject.

My research project during the Easter holiday was the Menai River. I discovered many facts in the town library and in the archives at Victoria Dock. I came to understand the Menai's borders: the structure of its unstable banks; the water's movements at high tide and low; the location of its rockiest areas, the eddies, the places where the deep channels and shallow waters lay, and the peculiar pattern of red and green buoys in a river that has two mouths. I learnt of those who had made a living from the Menai: fishermen, seamen, smugglers, quarry owners, and the flat-bottomed-ferry men of Abermenai, Tal y Foel and Moel y Don. I saw the life it had in it: its mackerel and herring, plaice and crab, lobster, cockles and mussels, and a myriad of creatures and plants which we hadn't yet learned to turn to our advantage...

My work made steady progress. But I somehow felt that something was lacking, a personal touch.
I hadn't yet thought of asking Janeiro. It was Good Friday when I left the town square and rounded the castle in order to reach the quay. There, between the Estuary Bridge and the Anglesey the old seamen gathered to pay tribute to the Menai. I questioned them thoroughly, and they were more than willing to talk of the 'Caernarfon River', especially for the price of a pint. Indeed, they became quite animated in their talk of the Menai, half memory, half rumour of Irish pirates from Carrickfergus; of a smugglers' ship trying to escape the taxman which ran aground on Caernarfon Bar; of the old drunken ballad-singer who used to haunt the Slate Quay; of importing 'soap-waste' from Dublin's shops to use as manure in the gardens of Arfon; of children pulling the ropes to drag the schooners along the quay; of the annual August regatta, and of the days of the 'little steamer' that linked the town with the island of Môn. They talked of the wreck of the Speranza, the Mon Amour and HMS Conway, and the time the Queen of the Sea ran aground near Melynog beach, losing a ton of butter and drowning twenty passengers, eighty pigs, and two cows.

And as they talked the Menai's place-names sounded like the names of faraway places to a lad from town: Mussel Bank, Belan, the Limehouse, Melynog Beach and Wild Beach, Frydan Rock and the Cribiniau, the island of Gored Goch, Pwll Fanogl, the rock of Craig y Pwll, and Pwll Ceris. 'Pwll Ceris!' I interrupted. All fell silent. Little Îf and Sven drank from their beer. Deio started to light matches on his trousers. Eyes and voices were lowered.
'You won't get to the bottom of that, son.'
'Our very own Bermuda Triangle.'
'They say there's a fort at the bottom of it.'
'Ker Is,' said Breton-born Little Îf.
'We use the English name - The Swellies - in any case.'
'They say,' said Paddy, 'that only one man has been to the bottom of the Swellies.'
Amidst their murmuring I heard them mention the name of Abram Janeiro Jones. They all looked up and glanced at the Bridgekeeper's cottage.
'No one dares go anywhere near him.'
'What if I do?' I said, and saw Sven choke on his pint.
'You go to him, mate, and you'll be a gonner!'
'It's safer in The Swellies than with him.'
They all laughed nervously and downed a whisky each.
After the boys had gone home for dinner I ventured over the bridge.

I watched Janeiro looking at me as he approached from the door of his house. I closed my eyes and walked on. When the rope coiled around my legs I stayed my course. When I felt the loop slip onto my leg and the knot tighten around my ankle I stayed my course. And when I felt the sudden jerk, I fell to the ground and struck my head on the pilot's path. I came around to the sound of his voice.

'You've been drinking, haven't you, you little shit?'
The pilot dragged me by the scruff of the neck, not back onto the Estuary Bridge as I had expected, but onto the jetty to the right, where the Danger sign hung and where the town's boys would dare each other to dive.
'Come back when you're sober...' said Janeiro, and before I knew it I was being thrown over. I felt my body fall like an anchor's chain through the air, the Menai's polluted waters coming ever closer.
When I came to the surface, I swam to the steps near the Floating Restaurant, pulled away the seaweed that hung from my ankle, and walked through the Square like a drowned rat. Mother had me taken to Gwynedd Hospital for an injection, and after drying my notebook where the seamen's words had blotted into one, I considered Janeiro's words again.
'Come back when you're sober...'

On Easter Saturday then, I crossed the bridge again and stepped onto the pilot's path.
'Three tries for a Welshman!' he cried dryly from the door of his house.
'You came here years ago, didn't you?'
I blushed.
'I want to know about The Swellies.'
'School work.'
'I see.'
He paused.
'I call it by its Welsh name, myself,' said the pilot. 'Pwll Ceris.'
I blushed again.
'I've heard that you...'
'Come back tomorrow,' Janeiro interrupted me. 'If you're man enough.'
I felt great as I crossed the Estuary Bridge. But half way over, the bridge's gates closed suddenly, stopping me in my tracks. The earth moved under my feet, and next thing I saw the bridge dividing in two. I was moving with it, or rather with half of it, and my view became a panorama, moving from the castle's Eagle Tower, past the Anglesey, before coming to rest on the Menai, and beyond it those two trees in Môn between which the sun sets when seen from Golden Gate on midsummer's evening.

But it seemed there was neither boat nor mast approaching! I turned to the Bridgekeeper's cottage and there in the doorframe stood Janeiro laughing his fill.
'Enjoy the view!' he cried, and disappeared into his house.

There I waited a full fifteen minutes, perched between two banks, the queen's swans gliding by beneath me. Had it not been for the arrival of a bus-load of tourists intent on going for a walk perhaps I'd be there still, but Janeiro was obliged to press the green button and make a free man of me again.
Whilst Mother was in the chapel on Easter Sunday I crossed the Estuary bridge for the third time that week. I could see Janeiro lighting his pipe as I approached, and by the time I'd reached him the smell of seaweed-smoke filled the whole place and the pilot had started to speak.

'Pwll Ceris,' he said, 'has a bad reputation among all who claim to know it...'
He grabbed the biro from my hand and threw it into the woods.
'Pwll Ceris has a bad reputation,' he started again. 'And that's how it's always been. Celts, Romans and Vikings: they all perished there! If the place could be avoided, they'd have done so centuries ago. But the Menai's main channel goes right through the bloody place.
'Pwll Ceris is full of islands and rocks. Some of them are visible, others are hidden. There are patches of rocky shallows, and right next to them deep, deep pools, and this gives rise to the eddies.
'And the other thing about Pwll Ceris is its narrowness. On the one side you have the rocky banks of Arfon. On the other side the Cribiniau and Craig y Pwll rocks that stick up like razors. There is only a narrow gap between them, and the water accelerates like hell over there. And on top of everything else you may get a sudden gust of wind through the trees on the Arfon side causing your boat to sheer.
'Do you understand about the Menai's tides, son? The tide comes in from Abermenai gap on one side. And past Puffin Island on the other and they collide in the Menai not far from Bangor?
'Good lad! These tides also complicate matters. You can only pass through Pwll Ceris during the slack after high tide, when there is enough water in the channel to clear the rocks, but before the flow has turned against you. And even then, there's little time to spare. You only have a few minutes before the tide turns. Do you hear me?
'That's why we are so important,' he went on. 'The pilots. We've known Pwll Ceris for generations! We've been brought up to know where to go and where not to, when to go and when not to, and how much a ship should draw in relation to different tides.'
I watched him use the thumb of his right hand to compress the tobacco in the bowl of his pipe. And I saw the black stain on the thumb when he reached into his pocket to fetch his lighter. He sucked fiercely as he lit his pipe, and his cheeks pulled in and pushed out as he drew the smoke into his mouth.
'Yes, the whole world depended on us at one time! The world's biggest ships used to come through the Menai, you know! The bastards wouldn't have made a cent on the precious cargoes if it hadn't been for us...'
'You were very respected.'
'Were?' he said acidly.
I lowered my eyes and concentrated on the hole in Janeiro's shoe, through which I could see his bare flesh. It agitated me in a strange way.

When I raised my eyes again the pilot had turned to look at the sea.
'Respected? I should say! But any better off? No! Not a word of thanks, just a backhander from the captains and all the blame when things went wrong.
'But, I'll tell you this, my forefathers went to their graves with nothing to their name but their good reputation. And nobody to commemorate them, except me. Here.'
'I'm here too!'
'Yes,' said the pilot slowly.
His face became wrinkled suddenly, as if the wind had stirred the sea. His mouth was open and the pipe hung limply from his lip. I thought Janeiro was about to make a revelation. But in the end the tortured look on his face became too much for me to bear.
'Is that why you gave up?'
'I wasn't brought up to pilot pleasure boats. That isn't why I earned a certificate from the Board of Trade.'
'But to break the tradition..?' I insisted.
'It was broken for me!' he said, losing his temper. 'And anyway, I had no one...'
'Teach me!'
I saw Janeiro swallow hard.
'I'd like to be a pilot!' and I leaned forward.
But Janeiro stood up suddenly, forcing me to pull back.
'The pilot's work is useless today. The Bar's silted up too much to let big ships through.'
'But what I can't understand,' I raised my voice so as to prevent him leaving, 'is why you don't use your knowledge for other things: surveying the Menai, or laying cables across it, or even write about it.... Anybody could do this!'

As I stretched my arm to point to the Estuary Bridge I knew that I had gone too far. Janeiro looked at me, and his words broke over us like a cold wave.
'You little bastard!' and he went into his house.
I waited over half an hour before he returned.
'Somebody said you'd been to Pwll Ceris.'
'Who said that?' said the pilot, still angry.
'The seamen,' I nodded towards the tavern on the other side of the Estuary. 'Paddy, Sven and the others.'
'You've been gossiping with them, have you? Did you see where their backsides had worn the quay wall smooth?'
I looked at him without saying anything.
'And what else did the lazy drunks have to say?'
'Nothing... Only that you'd been to The Swellies.'
'Well, I haven't,' said Janeiro in the end. 'But I know what lies at the bottom.'
He didn't come to sit this time.
'And I'm not telling you, mate, so that you can go and laugh at me with those other devils.'
'I would never...'
'And anyway, why don't you find out for yourself? Surely there's a book or something in that school of yours?'
'I didn't come here to be mocked,' I said.
I struggled to get up and walk away. But by the time I was half way down the path I was regretting it. And when I didn't feel the whip of the rope on my leg, nor the loop tightening around my shin, and when there was no jerk on the knot to make me fall again, I swore quietly. I reached the Estuary Bridge a free man, my heart sinking. But as I was about the step onto the bridge, the gates suddenly closed and prevented me from going any further. I turned back and saw Janeiro smiling.
'It is another world!' he cried, as I approached. 'A world you can't imagine lies at the bottom of Pwll Ceris! A rainbow-coloured world we know nothing of!'
I sat a long time listening. He was in his element, talking of the Menai's wonderful creatures. He talked not only of welks, and limpets, and mussels, and cockles, and types of seaweed, but also of sea scorpions and lobsters, crabs, red-eyed crabs, prawns, prickly sea urchins and jellyfish. He talke

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