Authors: Malcolm Pryce
‘Where did this man’s remains end up?’
‘On the bus to Aberaeron.’
I gripped my chin gently between thumb and forefinger, pretending to think deeply about the mystery. ‘Did he catch the bus himself?’
‘That would imply that he was alive.’
‘Precisely. His name was Iestyn Probert. He was hanged at Aberystwyth gaol in 1965 for his part in the raid on the Coliseum cinema. This raid is quite famous.’
‘I’ve heard of it.’
‘Indeed, who hasn’t?’
‘Do you have any grounds for believing the man who caught the bus was the same as the man who was hanged?’
‘The bus driver recognised him from the photos.’
I tried to stifle a mounting sense of irritation. Raspiwtin had a disconcerting way of not quite answering questions. ‘Let me put it a different way. How does a dead man perform the act of catching a bus?’
‘He was no longer dead. They resurrected him.’
He paused and stared, his eyes boring into mine with an intensity in which hints of fanaticism glinted. I stared back. He walked to the window and closed the curtains before retaking his seat. Then he leaned forward slightly. ‘Have you heard of the Ystrad Meurig incident?’
‘There have been many incidents at Ystrad Meurig.’
‘This one featured a flying saucer. It crashed. They called it the Welsh Roswell.’
‘Why did you close the curtains?’
He ignored me. ‘I presume you have heard of the Roswell incident?’
‘Yes, in New Mexico in 1947. They found saucer debris and exobiological remains that were secretly taken to Area 51.’
‘I heard it was just a crashed weather balloon.’
‘You wouldn’t say that if you had seen the autopsy footage, as I have.’
‘How does this relate to the dead man?’
‘The raid on the Coliseum cinema took place the same week as the Ystrad Meurig incident. The getaway car drove right through the area cordoned off by the military. For some reason Iestyn Probert was evicted from the car and went on the run. A week or so later he was arrested again. You see?’
‘Not really. Don’t hanged men get put in a canvas winding sheet and dissolved in quicklime?’
‘Normally, yes, hanged men were buried in an unmarked plot inside the walls of Aberystwyth prison; but Iestyn Probert came from the Denunciationist community at Cwmnewidion Isaf, and arrangements were made to return his corpse to them for burial. While his corpse was still in the possession of the prison morgue a most remarkable event occurred. A strange woman turned up and bought the cadaver from the attendant. He described her as elfin with no thumbs and cat-like irises. She paid with a Cantref-y-Gwaelod doubloon. Cantref-y-Gwaelod is the lost Iron Age kingdom that sank beneath the waters of Cardigan Bay after the last ice age.’
‘I know. Strange as it may seem, I’ve had a number of clients with connections to Cantref-y-Gwaelod.’
He smiled, as if this fact lent credence to his tale.
I eyed him over the rim of the rum glass. ‘Perhaps you should tell me a bit more about yourself. Your name sounds familiar.’
‘You are no doubt thinking of my famous cousin Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, former Counsellor to Tsar Nicholas II and physic to his son, Alexei. It was my forebear’s proud boast that he was able to treat Alexei’s haemophilia by telegram. My branch of the family travelled to Wales via the Welsh settlement of Hughesovka in the Ukraine, shortly after the armistice of the Great War. We adopted the Welsh spelling of Raspiwtin to better assimilate.’
‘That was a smart move; the Welsh can be suspicious of foreigners.’
He looked pleased. ‘Indeed. At the age of six I was sent to live and study with the monks on Caldey Island. I applied myself to my studies with great diligence, and because of my quick wit and piety I was lucky enough to earn, at the age of ten, a scholarship to the Vatican laundry. There, for the next eight years, I passed my time listening, and learning, and attending with great solemnity the Hephaestian fires that burned night and day beneath the great steaming wash pots. I became an expert in the laundering of liturgical vestments: surplices, stoles, albs, chasubles, cinctures, tunicles, copes, maniples, humeral veils, birettas, palliums, fanons, faldas, pontifical gloves and, of course, pontifical underlinen. It was from the latter that I first descried the contradictions – the Janus-faced god-beast that is Man – that would underpin my later
. The Vatican laundry is the great university of the human condition, for therein is contained in its entirety the true folly of Man. Gold threads and satin smeared with the pollution that mocks our aspirations to rise beyond the fur that defines us as beasts. Boiled up, distilled through the divine agency of Persil, rising up as a vapour, condensing . . . daily its sweetly perfumed and laundered truth fell as rain upon our eager upturned cherubic faces. I say truly, you can never look at a pope the same way again after you’ve washed his pants.’ He drained his glass and held it out for a refill; I dutifully obliged. ‘It was here that the first stage on the slipway to my spiritual disintegration took place, which would eventually bring me to your door.’
I drummed my finger against the tumbler. ‘So you seek a man called Iestyn who took part in the famous raid on the Coliseum cinema. For that they hanged him. But you say he was seen alive after they hanged him.’
‘You know, a lot of people would say your story was a load of phooey.’
‘I did too. Until I made inquiries regarding this man many years ago and was assured by the authorities that no such person existed.’
‘Because he was dead.’
‘No, no such person had ever existed.’ He paused and looked intensely at me. ‘You see?’
‘What more proof do you need?’
‘That he doesn’t exist?’
‘Evidence of his existence is being suppressed by the authorities.’
‘Not necessarily; lots of people don’t exist.’
‘The Tooth Fairy.’
His eyes flashed in expectation of victory.
‘The giant who owned the cave in Scotland. Someone wrote a symphony about him.’
‘See! You struggle after three. Who has heard of this Fingal and his symphony? There is in fact hardly anybody who doesn’t exist in this precise manner.’
‘Yes, I accept that Neptune does not exist.’
‘I concede Jack Frost also.’
‘You are good at this.’
‘Little Miss Muffet.’
He swung an arm out as if catching a fly and clicked his fingers. ‘You see? You have already run out. The character of Little Miss Muffet is said by many scholars to be an allegory of Mary, Queen of Scots.’ He stood up in triumph and carried the glass over to the windowsill.
‘What makes you think Iestyn has come back to town?’
‘Two weeks ago there was an alien contact just outside Aberystwyth. A farmer reported seeing a flying saucer land in one of his fields. He was approached by the occupants of the craft, one of whom was an elfin woman with no thumbs and cat-like irises. She told him she wanted to make love to him as her race was dying and she wanted the earth-man’s seed to save it. This is a remarkably common feature of accounts of alien contact.’
‘Or of fantasies about alien contact.’
‘These stories occur too frequently and with too much consistency of detail to be fantasies.’
‘You could say the same about people who think they are Napoleon. The details there are usually pretty consistent: they always stick one hand inside their coat over the heart and claim to have a wife called Josephine.’
‘You are too cynical.’
‘You really think they need the earth-man’s seed? Surely after travelling all that way they could think of an easier way to collect it.’
Raspiwtin gave me the condescending smile such people reserve for those of us who err in darkness. ‘You may have a point, but the pertinent thing for our inquiry is this: they also asked for directions to Iestyn Probert’s house.’ He stood up.
‘Is that supposed to prove he is alive?’
‘The aliens evidently thought so. Are you saying they are wrong?’ He walked to the door, adding, ‘I’m staying at the Marine.’
‘This would be his old house, I take it?’
‘That’s right. It seems pretty clear, does it not, that some sort of rendezvous had been arranged.’
‘Where is this house?’
‘Out at Ystumtuen in the hamlet of Llwynmwyn.’
‘How do you spell that?’
‘I don’t know. You won’t find it on a map; it has been effaced.’
‘You are familiar with the narrow-gauge railway to Devil’s Bridge that passes in the valley below Ystumtuen?’
‘If you sit on the left-hand side of the carriage and look out across the valley just before Rhiwfron, you will note a discoloration in the grass of the distant valley side, caused by seepage from the lead mines; some people think it forms the shape of a duck. Iestyn used to live in a house that stood at the end of what those people would regard as the bill.’
‘Talking of the bill,’ I said, ‘this £200 up front that you mentioned. Up front usually means right now, doesn’t it?’
‘So you take the case, then?’
‘Yes, I take the case.’
light had the bright lemony sharpness that you get in spring, the sun still in its original wrapping, not yet weighed down with the weary pathos, the sheer pointless repetitiveness of it all. A few people huddled on the beach; dogs chased things we couldn’t see; a caravan of donkeys plodded across my field of vision, in sharp silhouette against the sea. The man at the front was my father, Eeyore, wearing an old mac that flapped in the breeze, his outline made jagged by lightning bolts of straw.
At the north end of the Prom, beneath the shadow of Constitution Hill, Sospan was leaning on the counter of his ice-cream kiosk, squinting as he stared out to sea, as if the answer to the mysteries of life were encoded in the hieroglyphical waves. He saw me approach, pushed himself up and turned to the machine that dispensed the nectar that attracted us all to the wooden flower of his kiosk.
‘Everything OK?’ I asked.
He replied with a noncommittal grimace and handed me the ice cream. ‘Had to replace a few timbers in the north-west corner of my kiosk, it gets the brunt of the sea breeze there, you see. It always unnerves me, making repairs. We don’t like to be reminded of the advance of decay in our lives, do we?’
I made no answer, but put some change on the countertop with a sharp rattle. He took the money. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a girl appear, walking along the edge of the Prom near the bandstand. She wore jeans and a wind-blown military parka and was taking care not to step on the cracks between the slabs of paving stone. It was Calamity, my partner, who had just come back from a fortnight at Kousin Kevin’s Krazy Komedy Kamp in Pwllheli with her aunt. I watched her approach with a quickening sense of delight. Calamity was almost eighteen now and had been my partner for five years. During that time she had become the daughter I had never had. I had felt her absence keenly. She gave up the cracks-in-the-pavement game and ran the last few steps, skipping up to me and kissing me.
‘How was Kousin Kevin’s?’ I asked.
‘Great!’ A gust of wind blew the hood of her parka up and framed her with a halo of rabbit’s fur.
‘I sent you a food parcel via the International Red Cross in Geneva.’
‘I got it. I shared it out among the other holidaymakers. Did you hear about the flying saucer?’ She looked at me with a bright gaze, as pure and unsullied as the spring morning; her eyes shone and in them was an innocence and absence of guile. It was sometimes hard to believe that when I had first discovered her she had been one of those teenage troglodytes who haunted the caverns of the Pier amusement arcade, kids for whom fresh air was chlorine gas. It was a milieu in which slouching, moping and eye-rolling impatience with the manifest stupidity of adults were the lingua franca. In acting as a father figure to her I had acquired the father’s secret melancholy: watching her do her best to rush through the years of enchantment in the forlorn belief that adulthood was something worth rushing for.