He has been to the end of the earth and back.
Now he is standing ten feet from his house and there is his son, crouching down low, picking something up, a stone or a piece of rubble. Any moment he will raise his small, filthy head and see him, and together they will have to navigate this moment, which feels as perilous as when the boat was carrying him away across the wide, blank sea.
The boy’s face is less round, as if it has been rubbed away by an invisible hand. The same hand has stretched him out so his legs are two long, thin sticks with bulges at the knee. His face is dirty, almost black in parts and then in others it is a translucent white. His knitted smock is unravelling at the sleeve. He, Huw, takes all this in in one second, one heartbeat. They are suspended, the two of them, as though time is running the opposite way that it should, the last three years gone by in a rush and now this tiny moment stretched out like an elastic band before it goes slack.
His son looks up. His face is blank. And then he calls out, ‘Mam’, and again ‘Mam. Mae dyn yma’. Not da then. Just a man. And then there is Gwyn at the door, thinner too, and he knows that she has seen him and that in the same slow split second she has seen his shoes, held together with string, the ragged ends of his trousers splattered with mud and horseshit from the road, the hunted look of him. And she knows.
He walks towards her, as he cannot very well walk anywhere else, and they wrap their two pairs of thin arms around him awkwardly and around the big bag on his back. He sees her eye it hopefully, just for a moment, but then without having to ask or speak at all she looks away, for what man makes his fortune in gold then walks the seven hours home from Swansea with his shoes flapping in two pieces.
She turns and walks in out of the stench of the narrow passage between the houses where a child is pissing, and he follows her inside. He sees the shape of the chairs, the stove, the familiar wrinkle of their bed. He stoops under the low ceiling and places his bag down to the floor with a thump.
His son is chattering now, a bullet spray of questions, about Australia, what it is like, about what trains he rode, and about what creatures he saw, and he sees that Gwyn has told the boy stories and that some of them are real and that some are as fantastical as fairy stories. And he sees the distance between himself and Gwyneth is not any smaller now than it had been when he had been on the other side of the world. He is the only one who knows, who will ever know, what the reality is of that place, what the scope is of the world. A great wave of something washes over him, a feeling so strong that for a second he thinks he might vomit and he realises that it is homesickness. He is nauseous with longing for his tent on the edge of the Ballarat river, his brother David, for the flags on every corner, the brawls and gunshots at night and the music, the accordions and fiddles and guitars all playing their own, clashing song at a hundred thousand fires across the squalid camp. For the heat and brightness and the sun beating down on his head and arms. He wonders if he is the first man ever to walk into his own home and become instantly homesick.
His wife looks at him again, weighing him up. Instinctively she reaches out and touches him on the arm where the sun has burned it a dark leathery red, as if she can’t quite believe it is him, or perhaps it is only that she can’t believe that a person could be such a colour, and then pulls away again and turns to put the water over the stove.
He stands there, watching his small, tough wife lit by the glow of the stove, and an image comes unbidden, unwanted into his head, of a girl in Ballarat, an obscene thought. He pushes it down so hard his head gives an involuntarily shake and his son, who is loitering now in the doorway, looks at him, wary.
His brother had not wanted to come home to this hellpit, and had no one to come home for, his family all dead from the sickness five years ago. Characters from a distant drama now. But he, Huw, has these two thin strangers, these two survivors, and so here he is, back in this place so dark and grey that it is as if they are living inside the rock rather than on top of it. ‘We are men of the earth, Huw,’ his father used to say. ‘Men of the soil’. But their father had been a farmer, so his soil was living and fertile, close to the air and the sky and things that breathe. Not the grit and the static depths of Merthyr, with its people all working day after day burrowing down towards hell. His life is metal, not earth, he thinks; he follows it like a magnet, first to his house standing here on the iron slag heap, then drawn to the gold and pulled back across the world to the iron again. ‘For God’s sake, stay,’ David had said. ‘There’s nothing for any of us there. It’s a little hell. It’s a little fucking hell.’ But they had both known he was powerless in the pull of it.
They have still not said a word, he and his wife. She straightens up from the stove and stands with her arms folded, her expression unfathomable. Her shoulders hunch in a way they didn’t use to, as though his failure sits perched on them. Huw reaches into his pocket and takes out the small parcel of handkerchief and string that he has carried halfway across the world. He unfolds it while she watches him, and there they are, the two flashes of gold lying on the cotton. Two little earrings. He stands there with his hand outstretched, offering the handkerchief and its contents.
It is all he has to show for his three years; the sum total of his little yield which had flowed from the claim next to his, because his own claim was a dud, and went down to the river bed without touching the seam of gold. So for months he had worked, knee deep in the mud, sifting and panning with the heat beating down on his head, his hands by turns like puffed white sea creatures in the water then stiff and cracked at night, splitting down their seams when he bent his fingers. And only these crumbs of gold had glinted in his pan, each one bringing a second of euphoria, of hope, of a kind that he had never known. But instead of the luck of the Irish, he has the luck of the Welsh. If he had known that in the end it would be a game of luck, all this, like the games he played when he was a kiddie, which way will the stone land or flip a coin, he would not have taken the boat.
They only had come to Merthyr for the work, he and his brothers, twelve years ago, before he was married. They had made their homes in the dark sweep of the mountains, not in the stone houses for the wealthier men, but in two small rooms crowded in among the workers, hoping to make their way up. They hadn’t. It was his luck again. The eldest, Tom, had done best, finding a place at the steelworks, but even he came home at night with his body shrunken from its hours in the sheer white heat. It was no way for a man to live. So they were not bound to Merthyr in the way that people become bound to places. No one was. It was too new. And then David came back from Swansea with the newspaper.
They had looked at it, he and his wife, at the great colour picture on the front page with the man looking out to sea, and at the words beneath, at the promises made. They had sat with it and talked into the night, and the colour had rubbed off on his hands, not just the black of the ink, but the vermilion and rose and vivid blue of the Australian sky. They had settled it. He would set off with David and leave Gwyn and his son to the care of their eldest brother. And he knew even then, before the adventure had even begun, that the payment that he would have to make for this miraculous escape would be the moment of return.
She looks at the earrings, his wife, then nods, tightly, and he sees there are hot tears in her eyes. Gwyn doesn’t cry, not even for their dead children, for her dead mother. Not from hunger, from pain or childbirth. She is as hard as the rock they are standing on. He wants to say that he is sorry, that he has brought the earrings as a gift because of how sorry he is, but he can’t make his mouth form the lie. He has brought his gold home for himself, because he could not give it up. Before leaving Ballerat, he had taken his tiny collection of nuggets, painstakingly kept, to the smithy’s, and there he had had them fashioned into these two plain earrings instead of selling the metal for a modest amount. He had hesitated over the sale, going back and forth down the street and turning to change his mind again and again but when the time came he could not hand it over. He had clung on to it so long, his minute haul, guarded it so jealously, nursed it so fiercely, that he could not let it go. So now for all those months, those years of absence, he has these two small dabs of gold lying in his palm. He had thought that they might show her something of where he has been, of what he has seen, but of course they can’t do that. He had thought they would be better than nothing, but now, holding out his handkerchief in the gloom of the room, he feels they are worse.
He closes the little gold balls into his fist, and moves towards her. But she turns away again and busies herself with the tea, telling the boy to bring the chair over for his da. He can’t imagine how he will take off his clothes and climb into the bed beside her when it gets dark, or put his arms around her, or find any way down the winding path back towards their intimacy when his failure hangs like this in the air between them.
He sits down heavily on the chair his son brings, and presses the earrings into his palm and closing his fingers tight around them so that when he opens his fist again they have made two livid red marks in his skin. His wife brings him a mug of steaming tea and turns back to the stove. He cannot think what will happen next, or of anything to say.
When he looks up, he sees his son is watching him. For the first time they look properly at each other, weighing each other up. And then his son takes a few steps across the floor to him and in one sweep Huw pulls him up on to his knee, although he’s too big for that now really and his feet reach the floor. His hair smells musty, of sweat and wood smoke. They sit there together, both of them with their thin noses and sloping foreheads and uncertain gait, small and large versions of the same basic man. He leans back and closes his eyes and thinks about Ballarat, about the sunsets exploding across the horizon, in colours he had never seen. Unreal beauty. The way the world was there. The sea. The air. He doesn’t have the words for it. And the men together, skin like leather under the sun. They sit there together in the dark room, and he puts one arm around the warm weight of his son and his other hand rubs over and over the little pair of gold balls, back and forth, as if they are a magic lamp from the story his wife used to tell their children, and his mug of tea cools slowly in the dank air.