From TALES FROM THE TINKER’S DAM Daniel Gabriel FIRST DRAUGHT It was cold and blustery the

day Gerry Culhane first saw the place. He‟d left the Irish coast the night before under heavy skies and a rushing sea wind, and docked with the ferry at Fishguard just after dawn. A new land, he thought. A new home. Wales . . . or maybe, more properly, he should be thinking Britain . . . or, come to that, the United bloody Kingdom. But that line of political sovereignty only stirred within him a carefully repressed Irish Republican anger, and Gerry had always prided himself on an affinity for Celtic unity, so back he went to thinking of it all as Wales . . . or should it be, strictly speaking, the Vale of Glamorgan that he was about to fall in love with? The miles whizzed by. Carmarthen, Kidwelly, Llanelli. Glimpses of cottages, mill towns, distant heaths. Swansea, Porthcawl, Ogmore-by-Sea. Bloody hell—Ogmore-by-Sea? Where‟d he gotten to now? Then he rounded a headland. A wet wind blew in off the Bristol Channel and speckled the windscreen of the hired car with a fine salt spray. St Donat‟s Castle on his right. Nearly there now. The shops in Llantwit Major were all but deserted. Gerry aimed the car down a backstreet past the Welsh Methodist chapel and out along a country road that ran inland between two tall hedges. It made him think of the hedges along the lanes of southern Ireland, heavy with the reds and corals of fuschia blossoms that splattered the roadway with the blood of what his countrymen called „God‟s tears.‟ Just for a moment, a remorseful song of home pushed into his heart and to fight it off, he began to sing another. One more in keeping with his profession. I‟m a rover, seldom sober, I‟m a rover of high degree. It‟s when I‟m drinking, I‟m always thinking, of how to gain my love‟s company . . . Gerry sang every verse twice through and had just started over again when the road dipped abruptly to the right. He came to a crossroads, where a farmer trudged along behind his cattle, and there, nestled up next to the roadway verge, stood The Tinker‟s Dam.

He braked with a squeal and pulled off into the car park. The Herefords, plodding past, gave a collective „moo‟ of acknowledgement. The farmer stopped at Gerry‟s car door and Gerry, cracking the window, called out, —Top of the morning to you! —More like the bottom fell out, you ask me. The farmer wore a wide-brimmed hat and a shapeless suit coat with one sleeve ripped off above the wrist. He sniffed in towards Gerry and said, —Can‟t go in there, you know. —And why‟s that? —Shut up, it is. Been so for months. Dreadful old place anyway. You want to try The Duke, down the town. —I don‟t want to try anywhere, said Gerry. —It‟s The Tinker‟s Dam for me. He made to get out of the car, but the farmer‟s well-planted wellies obstructed his exit. —You‟re after wasting your time, said the farmer. —Ah, said Gerry, beaming through the rain. —That‟s where you‟re wrong. I‟m the new owner, you see. The farmer looked up sharply. —New owner, is it? He spat tobacco juice into a puddle along the verge. —Poor bugger. He turned and trundled off into the teeth of the wind, moving at the same weary pace as that of his cows. He didn‟t look back. Gerry sat inside the car for a moment, squinting through the rain at his investment. The building straddling its corner of the crossroads was a jumble of side exits and slanting roofs. A battered keg lay fetched up out of the wind in a tiny crook beside the cellar door. Water spewed from a rain gutter. It had seemed simple enough when he‟d signed the lease. A sprawling public house at a Welsh crossroads—how could it possibly fail? The Vale, people said, was the kind of place the Rhondda valleys had been once, before the mines: green pastured fields, brick cottages, and the ruins of medieval castles sprinkled into the hillsides. Bridgend, the market town, was only five miles away. Cardiff, the capital, was only twelve. Gerry leaned his head back on the seat and dreamed of weekend excursioners out from the towns, flooding his pub with clinking glasses and the sharp chirrup of an opening till. The Tinker‟s Dam, he thought. Mr Gerry Culhane, sole proprietor. Nice ring to it, that. He‟d have to get a proper sign made up. That rusted lettering above the door would never do . . . and an account at the cash-and-carry. Then there was the bar staff to think of. Hired help these days was always dodgy. . . . He‟d need to order a case of Jameson‟s straightaway for private stock . . . and suss the draymen‟s fiddles . . . and

even through the rain he could see that the place needed a spruce-up something fierce, but wasn‟t that why he was here? He swung his legs out of the car, and sheltered under his copy of the Daily Mirror as he dashed for the door. The keys took a bit of jiggle and a well-placed kick to work, but once inside Gerry felt a quick surge of pride well up inside him. It was followed by a rush of nausea. Three cats ran past and disappeared outside, but the stench lingered thickly. Gerry put a handkerchief over his nose and eased open the door to the Gents. The brewery had done their bit, he reckoned. Kegs were in place under each of the optics. No spares in the back cellar, but he could put in an order in the morning. Odds and sods of spirits left—plenty of gin, some brandy, a vile-looking bottle of Advocaat. Even a large container of a Mexican drink called tequila, with a tiny woven poncho thing wrapped around the bottle. To keep it warm, Gerry supposed. But there was no food at all, and the kitchen—located, for unknown reasons, on the far end of the building beyond the upper corner of the lounge—hadn‟t been cleaned in months. The cooker worked, just barely, and the icebox had hummed optimistically when Gerry plugged it in, but as for dishes, pots and pans, shelving . . . it was as if refugees had fled the place, taking everything useful on their backs. If only that had included the cats. Much later, as evening dampened the drizzle into a fine mist, he emerged in the front doorway, begrimed from wrist to elbow and wiping futily at the shaggy remains of a bar towel. An odor of cat litter and fermented urine clung to his shirt like sweat. A car whizzed through the crossroads, and then another. Across the road, a street light blinked intermittently, pale beneath the fog. Gerry smeared a line of grease across his forehead and looked at his watch. Opening time. An hour which brought joy to the heart of every drinking man. An hour which, in Ireland, meant downed tools, quick farewells, and the steady scraping of boot heels on public house door sills. For just a moment, Gerry wished he were back behind the bar of The Munster Kings. Back with Liam and Neill and the lads from the Liberties, all dry and thirsty and already wiping away the froth. Opening time at The Kings had always . . . but it was no use. Even old Flaherty‟s weekly fiver-in-the-hand had scarcely made up for Irish wages. Six years in as many pubs had left Gerry no nearer his freedom than the day he‟d left his father‟s

house. But Wales, now. . . . Ever since Trevor, the bloke from the Irish and Midland Bank, had hinted that his employers had a wee property just off the South Wales seacoast that was going begging for want of a landlord (financing almost guaranteed), Gerry had had his eye set on ownership. Beholden to no one. Make his own rules. Well, except for the brewery ties, but that was a given. Drink his own drink at his own time. A can‟t miss proposition. Or so it had seemed. . . . He looked hopefully down the road, waiting for a customer. Another car went by, sending a slice of mud across Gerry‟s knees. He threw what was left of the bar towel into the ditch. Then he went back inside and switched on all the remaining lights. Outside there was only silence and the occasional „whoosh‟ of passing tyres. Gerry returned to the doorway with the remains of a bottle of third-rate English malt and tried out “I‟m a Rover,” but the words refused to come. He‟d had time now to reflect on the state of things. It could have been worse, though he was having difficulty thinking how. The upstairs flat which was to be Gerry‟s living quarters was as much a shambles as everything else. Two connected rooms and a tiny bathroom with perpetually singing toilet and no visible heating device. Aside from a table and two chairs—missing a leg and a half between them—there was nothing but a mattress frame and a broken lamp leaned into a corner. The stairs down from the flat emerged into the front entryway. Pay phone on the right; lavatories to the left. From the entryway there were two doors. One—plain wood, scarred with cigarette burns and heel-high gouges—led straight ahead into the public bar, whose main feature was a long oaken counter and a dusty dart board still clinging to the back wall. The other door, its brass „Lounge‟ label rubbed smooth by the years‟ caresses, opened into a series of plush-seated booths edged with leaded windows, and then beyond, down a brace of steps cut into a thick stone wall to cozy circles of tables clustered around a grated fireplace and a smaller wooden serving counter, deep-hued and nearly undamaged. On the far side of the lower lounge, in yet another off-kilter abutment of the stone walls, were a set of French doors which opened onto a flagstone patio, chipped in places, and a scattering of wrought iron chairs and love seats with a view of the old chapel in the field beyond the roadway. Gerry had visions of late summer evenings on the patio with the happy sound of patrons‟ laughter soaring on the breeze, or crackling fires in

the lower lounge, with the entire room singing “Good King Wenceslas,” or whatever it was that Welshmen sang. Then he took his nose away from his glass and reality rushed back in. The rooms were still empty. The mist had blown free of the treetops when Gerry, eyeing the last swig of English malt, heard voices coming down the back lane to the crossroads. —Three quid, they want. Three bloody quid! —An outrage, I‟m sure. —For a little bit of tie—and you‟ve got to have it back straightaway the following day. —Ah, but that‟s capitalism now, isn‟t it? Always take advantage of the working man. A third voice joined in, low-pitched and slurred. —Wish to hell I were a working man. —They know you‟ve got to have the bloody thing, see. Can‟t get married without a tie, can you now? The first voice broke off. —Hang about—there‟s a light in The Dam. —Never. It‟s—by God, man. You‟re right. —Me for a drink, said the third voice. Gerry straightened up in the doorway. A moment later three pairs of heavy-soled boots strode into the circle of light cast from the lamp above the door. —Saint David himself preserve us. Are you open for business, like? The speaker was a squat, black-haired man with a naval pea coat pulled up around his ears. Gerry said he was. —Sod the Old Swan, said the man. —I‟m for a bit of warm-up. —Good on, and —Me for a drink, said the others and Gerry threw open the door to the pub with a triumphant flourish. The four of them stepped inside. —New landlord, are you? God, what a hell of a stink—been keeping cats here? —I‟ve just come in today, said Gerry. —Still tidying up. —I should hope to think so, said the squat man. —Never host a wedding reception in a state like this. He stepped into the public bar and the others followed his muddy footprints. —Ha-ha-ha, said Gerry. —Not much call for that, I shouldn‟t think. —That‟s where you‟re wrong, mate. —Aye, that‟s where you‟re wrong. The slurred voice belonged to a

chap with pointed ears and a bowl-chop haircut who‟d taken a spot at the end of the bar counter and stood snuffling into his sleeve. —Trust Neddie to second my opinion, said the squat man. —We‟re brothers, right? By the by, name‟s Dick. He stuck out his hand. —Gerry, said Gerry. He gave one quick pump and edged back around the bar. —But it‟s right, you know. Young Owen‟s getting hitched on the Sunday. Young Owen, who had gone red, said, —And three bloody quid just for a tie. You can imagine what they‟ll be wanting for the shoes and coat. Dick, the squat man, said, —Three pints of Welsh bitter here, and as Gerry started to pull them off, added, —Starting half four should do, eh, Owen? —Aye. Sarnies all round, of course. Couple of bottles of the best for the parents, like—and we shall need a cake. Do you do cakes? Gerry, still adrift in the conversation, found himself saying —Could do, and —What was that time again? and writing down „Wedding Reception‟ on a little pad, as if he had the faintest clue as to what it was all about. It was only months afterwards that Gerry took time to wonder what would have happened if he‟d said no. Told them he couldn‟t cope just yet; that he needed time to sort the place out. The Talbots, no doubt, would still be talking to the Wynnes, and the rumours of botulism would never have reached the local press. That his efforts had been noble, none could deny. But nobility, these days, had fallen on hard times. What he had first envisioned as a glamourous foot forward into local society had passed off with about as much panache as trodding on something soft at Cheltenham track. But then, Gerry reflected, the same could have been said about a good many of the undertakings assayed at The Tinker‟s Dam . . .