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About the Author
PETER HO DAVIES’s novel, The Fortunes, won the Anisfield-Wolf Award and the Chautauqua Prize and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He is also the author of The Welsh Girl, long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and a London Times best-seller, as well as two critically acclaimed collections of short stories. His fiction has appeared in Harpers, the Atlantic, the Paris Review, and Granta and has been anthologized in Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards and The Best American Short Stories.
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The Ugliest House in the World
Rellies are relatives. Grumblies are patients. Gerries are geriatrics. Ash cash is the money you get when you sign a cremation form.
A full house is when someone comes into Accident and Emergency with every bone in their arms and legs broken. I once saw a woman with a full house. She'd been fighting with her husband in the car and told him to stop. When he wouldn't, she opened the door and jumped out.
Accident and Emergency is called A&E. I did my last job in A&E, but I couldn't afford it, so now I'm working on a gerry ward. Gerries are the grumbliest grumblies of them all, but the ash cash from a job on gerries keeps me in food and drink all week, which means I can keep up the payments on my student loan. You don't get any money when they bury a patient, because if they have any doubts about the cause of death they can dig the body up again. But with cremation someone has to take responsibility. That's what they pay you for. Fortunately, cremation is more popular with gerries by a ratio of three to one.
A taff is a Welshman. Everyone in the doctors' mess calls me taff or taffy. Mr. Swain, the mortuary attendant, calls me boyo, especially during the rugby season when Wales lose badly. Last winter when Wales were touring Australia and losing each game by world-record scores, I'd order a lager in the mess and everyone would shout, "Make mine a Fosters, mate." Once, Mr. Swain actually welcomed me into the morgue wearing a bush hat with corks dangling around the rim. Last winter I had to visit the mortuary on an almost daily basis to fill out crem forms.
I'm not really Welsh. I don't speak Welsh. I've never lived in Wales. But my father is Welsh, and since he was laid off last year he's moved back there and bought a cottage with his golden handshake. He was fulfilling a promise he made to himself when my mother died. The cottage was three miles from the place he was born and ten miles from the chapel where they married. When I said I wasn't happy about it and that I'd been hoping to see more of him, he said, "It can't be helped. I've been promising myself this for twelve years. It's not as if you haven't had warning. I always kept my promises to you. Now I'm going to keep one to myself."
A golden handshake is what they give you when you've been working for the same company for thirty-five years and they lay you off with a month's notice and before your pension comes due. "Golden handshake!" he said. "Makes me feel like King Midas." My father's handshake was worth twenty-five thousand pounds, and he spent it all on his cottage. I told him he could have had it for less.
"What about the Welsh nationalists?" I said. "What if they start another arson campaign against holiday homes?"
"So?" he said. "I'm not a tourist. This is my home."
"But what if you want to sell? This is a holiday home. It's too small for a family. You could only ever sell it to tourists. If they start burning holiday homes again you'll never get twenty-five thousand back for it."
"I won't be selling," he said. "This is my home. This is where I plan to live from now on."
He certainly could have had the cottage for less, but he liked the idea of spending the whole sum on it. He liked the neatness of that. I think he could have knocked them down a couple of thousand on what they were asking. A couple of thousand would pay off about half my debt. A couple of thousand is about six months of ash cash on gerries, and about a year on any other ward.
When I go into the morgue to sign the form for Mrs. Patel, Mr. Swain is there as usual, sitting at his desk in the bright windowless room. He's reading a thing in the paper about Neil Kinnock, the leader of the Labour party and a Welshman. "Dr. Williams," he calls out when he sees me. "Have you read this?"
"I don't have time to read papers, Mr. Swain."
"It says here that if Kinno wins the election he's going to do to the country what your people have been doing to sheep for centuries."
Mrs. Patel is so pale I hardly recognize her. She'd been one of our best patients — quiet, clean, and uncomplaining. The staff would have been quite sorry to lose her if it wasn't for her rellies, who were so demanding and suspicious of the hospital that everyone was glad to see the back of them. I sign the form and hand it to Swain.
"I hope you don't mind a joke, doctor," he says as he passes the receipt across.
"No," I say. "As a matter of fact, I'm going to Wales this weekend."
"Ah, a romantic getaway?"
And Swain, who lays out bodies every day and talks to them and reads to them from his paper, blushes. The roll of fat at his neck goes bright red against the collar of his white coat.
"I'm so sorry," he says.
My Father Fishes With His Bare Hands
On the morning of the funeral, I look out the window of my father's cottage and see him up to his ankles in the waters of the stream. He is crouching over rocks and encircling them in his arms. From this distance it looks as if he is trying to get a grip and heave them out of the streambed, but I know he's just running his fingers around them, feeling for trout. I watch him for ten minutes as he moves from rock to rock, wading unsteadily through the water. Then I pull an anorak over my robe and push my bare feet into my shoes and go out to fetch him.
He calls it trout tickling. It's an old poacher's method. "No rod, no line, no hooks, no nets. No incriminating evidence," as he says.
I don't want to go all the way down the field, but I don't want to shout to him. It's too early and I don't want to hear my voice ringing off the stone walls and slate roofs of the village. Besides, he'll accuse me of scaring off the fish. Everything I do always scares off the fish. Standing on the bank, my shadow on the water scares them off. Running beside the stream as a child, my footsteps scared them off. Little grains of earth rolled down the bank and alerted them. "My setting foot in Wales scares them off," I tell him.
"You'll catch your death," he says when I get close. He doesn't turn round. He has his head cocked, looking away into the distance, concentrating on his fingertips under the surface. I look at his feet in the water. They are so white they shine. I wonder what kind of feeling he can have in his fingers. He closes his hands and draws them out empty and dripping.
"Look who's talking. You better come in. It's time to get ready."
"Another ten minutes," he says. "%u used to be able to pull them out of here in a bucket. But I know there's at least one bugger left. I saw him with the boy."
He looks back at the stream, choosing another rock.
"Come on. I'm freezing my bollocks off here." He begins to bend down. I look around and go over to the nearest molehill and scoop up two handfuls of loose earth and throw them in the water upstream from him.
"What the bloody hell are you doing?"
"Out," I say. "Now." 1 clap my hands together and the dirt flies off them.
"You're worse than your mother," he says, but he wades to the bank and I give him my hand.
"You're a sight." Standing on the bank with his old trousers rolled up past his knees and his shirtsleeves pushed up past his elbows, he looks like a child who's grown out of his clothes.
"You can talk," he says. I pass him his shoes and socks and let him lean on my shoulder to pull them on. I put an arm round his waist to steady him, but he shakes it off.
"I can manage."
I don't want to start anything this morning. Last night, I arrived and heard the kettle whistling from the street. When I went inside it was glowing red-hot and the whole cottage was full of steam. I ran through all the rooms thinking he'd had a stroke, and then I found him sitting on the wall out back looking down toward the stream. "It's only a kettle," he said innocently, and I said, "The last time it was only a microwave."
I start back toward the cottage, picking my way around the piles of sheep droppings scattered everywhere. "I'll never understand why you let their sheep in here. We could repair the wall in an afternoon."
"They keep the grass down."
"They fertilize it so it grows more. Sheep aren't as dumb as they look."
"Your grandmother used to pick up horse droppings in her handkerchief and bring diem back in her handbag for her roses."
I stop and put my arm on his shoulder. "Don't give yourself any ideas."
The Ugliest House in the World
THE UGLIEST HOUSE IN THE WORLD — 100 YARDS is a sign on the road just before you reach my father's village. The story of the ugliest house is that there was once a law in Wales that if you could build a house in a day and sleep a night in it, an acre of land around it was yours. The house had to be stone just to make things a little harder. That's why the ugliest house is so ugly. It's little more than eight feet high, with higgledy-pig-gledy walls of granite and slate. The walls were originally drystone, which means they were built without cement. Stones were just balanced one upon the other, with smaller rocks wedged between them to stop them rocking.
Six years ago, Mr. Watkins, the farmer who owns the ugliest house, decided to open it to the public in the hope that he could make some money from tourists. The name came from his daughter, Kate. She called it that when she was a little girl The farmer had to pay to put a new corrugated iron roof on it, and the council made him pour wavy lines of concrete between some of the looser rocks. The effect was to make the house even uglier.
There is a plaque inside and a single light bulb by which to read it, since the ugliest house has only one small window. The plaque tells the story with a few embellishments. No one actually lived there except for that one night required by law. The family who built the place had a perfectly good home in the village and they just wanted the land for grazing. In bad weather their sheep were penned in the house. Between the wars it was used as a shelter for tramps, and the plaque mentions a rumor that George Orwell spent a night there researching Down and Out in Paris and London. Since then, the house has been a shelter for climbers in the area and then from 1955 to 1966 a bus shelter for the White Star line.
Farmer Watkins hoped that the ugliest house would provide an income for Kate when she came back from Liverpool, pregnant at the age of sixteen. She learned the plaque off by heart and sat at the door with her child for a whole summer to charge admission, but the takings from that first season weren't even enough to pay for the roof. The farmer made one last attempt to have HOME OF THE UGLIEST HOUSE IN THE WORLD added to the name signs at either end of the village, but the council refused to even put it to a vote.
Mr. Watkins stood up in the meeting and shouted, "Fascists! Communists! Tin-pot dictators!" But the leader of the council shouted him down: "This meeting does not have time for frivolous notions and will eject any time-wasters from these proceedings. Sit down, Ar-wyn, you bloody idiot." Kate went to a technical college in Caernarfon instead, and learned hairdressing, and Mr. Watkins abandoned his front room to the smells of ammonia and peroxide.
The Watkinses are my father's nearest neighbors. Their farm has several acres of land turned over to sheep. The ugliest house lies between the two properties and they share the stream in which my father fishes. The name of the village is Carmel and on the hillside above it are others called Bethel and Bethesda — all named from the Old Testament.
The Second Ugliest House in the World
Before walking up the street to the chapel, I polish my father's black shoes and help him on with them. His feet in his socks are as cold and smooth as stone and I rub them hard before I slip the shoes on. They feel like they've been worn down by the stream. He sips his tea and looks out the window while I rub. Afterwards, he looks at himself in the mirror while I brush the dandruff off his shoulders.
When we step outside, I can see mourners emerging from all the houses of the village, making their way to the chapel. Kate and her father are being helped up their path and I tell Father to wait. We hang around in front of the cottage, stamping our feet and blowing on our hands.
I call my father's cottage the second ugliest house in the world. Inside it is bright and cozy, but outside it is finished in pebble dash. Pebble dash is a traditional style of decoration in North Wales. It is literally what it says it is. When the plaster on the outside walls is still wet, handfuls of tiny pebbles — gravel, really — are thrown at it. I suppose it gives added insulation. In general, the style calls for the walls to be whitewashed and then the effect can be quite pleasing. Unfortunately, the tourists who owned the house before my father had the bright idea of redoing the pebble dash with multicolored gravel like you find at the bottom of fish tanks. They let the field grow over with heather and long grass, and the moles undermine it; they let the boundary walls collapse and the gate rust; but they did over the house.
Every time I visit my father, I offer to whitewash the whole house. He always says, "I'll get to it. What's the rush? I'm a retired gentleman now." Since I found out he was living off sausages and baked beans I always bring a couple of bags of groceries when I come to visit him, but once I set four tins of paint on the kitchen table. He got angry and said, "I'll do it. I don't need your bloody help. Your heart's not in it anyway."
He means that I don't approve of his moving here. He's right.
"Why do you come, then?" he asks me whenever I bring it up.
"Because I want to spend some time with you. Is that a crime?"
Kate says it best. "The average age in North Wales is fifty-three. Unemployment is at thirty-nine percent. The population has fallen faster than the population of any other region in Britain in the last ten years." Kate puts copies of the Economist and the New Statesman on the table in her kitchen when she wants to turn it into a waiting room for her customers. She offered a skinhead cut, dyed red at half-price during the last election. She charges girls to pierce their ears, but she offers one free ear to boys. She calls Wales "the land of the dead, an old folks' home the size of a country."
Kate hates it here. She tells me how much she envies my life. "Why?" I say. "Because you're not stuck here," she says. "You're not stuck," I tell her. "Oh no," she says. "Not at all. A twenty-two-year-old hairdresser with a six-year-old son. I'm very mobile. I'm so light and flighty I'm surprised I don't just float away."
Gareth, Kate's son, had a lot to do with the success of her business. The old ladies who came to her most often never opened one of her magazines. They spent all their time gazing at Gareth. They used to leave a separate little something for him after they'd tip Kate.
Ian Rush Walks on Water
Gareth was a six-year-old Liverpool fan when my father moved in next to the ugliest house in the world. He wore his red team shirt everywhere, and when Kate wanted it to wash, he kept pestering her for the away-team strip. In the end, his grandfather bought it for him. "Forty quid those shirts cost," Kate told me. "And he grows out of them every year. We spoil him rotten."
Kate hated that Gareth was a Liverpool fan. It reminded her of his father. "He was a wanker," she told me once. "But he was a way out of this dump. I wouldn't have minded if he'd just left me. I could have made do. I could have found someone else. But when he left me with Gareth, where else could I go?"
Gareth and my father used to play football in the garden of the cottage. They moved two stones from the top of the drystone wall marking the boundary between the two properties and used them for goal posts. I used to watch them, sometimes with Kate. Gareth was too small to shoot from a long way out. He had to get close to the goal before he could kick the ball far enough to take a shot, but then my father would come charging out like an old bear and bundle him over and take the ball. He'd hold him off with one arm until Gareth got tired trying to run around him. They would both be laughing and panting. When the boy began to kick his shins my father would drop-kick the ball into a far corner of the field. He used to find that funny. He didn't like it when I called him a cheat. "If I didn't cheat," he said, "I couldn't play with him."
"He loves you," Kate said.
"Did you use to cheat like that when you played with me?"
"I honestly can't remember."
"As your doctor, I'm telling you, you should take it easy out there."
As Gareth got closer you could always hear him talking to himself breathlessly. At first it was just mumbling, but as he got closer you would hear this running commentary on his own game: "He passes to Rush. Rush beats one man. He beats two. Still Rush. He turns. Shoots. Scores!"
Ian Rush is Liverpool's star striker and a Welshman. Kate told me that Gareth was once sent home from Sunday school for carving graffiti into the desks. He carved "Liverpool AFC" and "You'll never walk alone" and "Ian Rush walks on water."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Ugliest House in the World"
Copyright © 1997 Peter Ho Davies.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
THE UGLIEST HOUSE IN THE WORLD,
I DON'T KNOW, WHAT DO YOU THINK?,
THE SILVER SCREEN,