Originally published as "M&Ms and M&M Night" in the Bangor Uni newspaper. Later edited and published in the 2012 Knickerbocker. Also won the 2012 Central College short fiction contest.
Angie and I, Americans studying at Bangor Uni in Wales, were having an M&M (Mexican and movie) night. It was every Monday after our Witchcraft and Wizardry class. While Professor Radulescu ranted about Christian propaganda against pagans as baby-murderers, she texted me “U pumpd 4 2nite?!!!”
I waited until the professor turned his back then replied, “Yes ma’am, ROFL!”
She cooked tacos and quesadillas, and I ate a bag of nachos sitting on the counter beside the cutting board. “Anything I can help with?” I asked for the tenth time.
She pointed at me a butcher knife that dripped cow’s blood. “I got it, okay? I bought way too much so if you want to help, finish those chips or they’ll go stale before our next night together.”
“When will that be?”
“I don’t got anything going on tomorrow,” she said in her country Iowa dialect.
When the beef was brown we made our tacos over the litter bin. We topped the beef with mounds of lettuce and cheese and whatever fell off tumbled into the bin. Salsa dribbled down her thumb and she sucked it clean.
After the first bite she said, “This doesn’t taste right.”
“It’s the salsa, not your cooking. It’s like eating catsup. The Welsh just don’t have the right spices.”
We ate sitting on her quilt. It was white with colored circles and I’d occupy the orange blob at the foot of the bed. She didn’t have any plates so we ate from paper towels on our laps. She warned me, “If you spill you’d better only stain your pants. This quilt was a present from my boyfriend’s nana. She loves me more than Jeremy. But c’mon, who wouldn’t?” She brushed her crumbs to the carpet. Then she set the laptop on a purple circle and tilted the screen. “Can ya see all right?” She wriggled closer so our knees touched. I could smell the salsa on her breath.
During a horror flick called The Strangers, country music played while Liv Tyler crept through the cabin looking for her cell phone but it was melting in the fireplace.
Angie grabbed her plush bear Jimothy and peered between his ears. She was so focused on Liv Tyler lighting up a cigarette that she didn’t notice the man with a potato-sack mask in the background. When she did, she flinched and banged her head on the wall where she’d taped postcards of castles and cathedrals in Dublin and Cardiff.
Someone pounded at Liv Tyler’s door and she went to answer it with a steak knife in hand. She stopped when she saw the smoke alarm on a chair—she hadn’t put it there.
Jimothy wasn’t enough to quell Angie’s fear so she clutched my shoulder. Her fingernails dug in.
I snickered at old Liv as she fell to her knees and hyperventilated.
“You’d wet yourself if that happened to you,” Angie said.
“I’d invite the guy in for tea and we’d have a chat while waiting for the water to boil. I’d ask him how he got into this business and he’d tell me how his mother used to scrub him with steel wool in the tub. And when the teapot whistled, I’d take it from the stove and bash in his head.”
“He’d gut you and I’d help,” she said. Her hands were still clutching my shoulder.
Old Liv heard metal clanging outside the cabin, as if someone had whacked the wind chime with a stick. She grabbed the curtains, ready to throw them open when—a grey box blurred the movie and a message popped up saying “You have watch 72 minutes online. Please wait another ten before you continue your viewing.”
“Why they gotta do that?” Angie asked.
“Probably bandwidth restrictions.”
“Something technical,” I said.
She shut the laptop and gave me a tour of her room. Seated next to me she waved her arms like Vanna White. “The litter bin’s under the desk. The desk is where I study. Over there’s the toilet. Gotta potty? Do it now.”
“Awful tour. Give me some history.”
“Okay, you’re sitting on my bed and I haven’t had sex in it yet.”
I got up and looked at the photos on her desk. A frame sat on the wrinkled and grease-spotted syllabus for PSYC 2024: Children in Crisis. I picked up the frame and a Diet Coke can rolled onto the crumbed carpet. I looked at the photo of a chubby pug in a bee costume and asked, “Is this Jeremy?” On its head were springs for antennae with yellow balls at the tips.
“That’s my dog.” She snatched the picture from me. Our hands touched. She handed me a photo of a guy in a sinking kayak. “That’s my boo.” The water was to his waist and he had the paddle over his head but still he grinned for the picture.
I set it on the top shelf of her bookcase where she couldn’t reach.
“Did I ever tell you how we got together? It’s a terrible story so don’t go judging me—I was young,” she said. “I dated this guy Perry through high school and I thought I loved him. I realize now that I just didn’t want to be alone. Perry and I went to different colleges so we were doing this long-distance nonsense. It never works. One night at a party I was lonely and there was Jeremy, getting destroyed at beer pong. After the game I promised his friends that I’d get him home safe. Instead I took him to my room. Even smashed out of his mind, he was respectful and didn’t want to have a fling. He said he couldn’t jeopardize my relationship with Perry, but I won him over. But no judging! I was young and stupid then. And flings are fun sometimes. They’re even better if they turn into something meaningful. You know what I’m talking about.”
“I’ve never had a fling before.”
“You oughta try it. Find yourself chippie while you’re here,” she said.
I looked at her other photos.
“That one’s my mommy. She looks like me, doesn’t she?” She held the photo by her ear so I could see them side-by-side.
“She’s very pretty.”
“Aww, so that means you think I am too.”
I stuffed a cold taco in my mouth and sputtered that she was gorgeous but she just asked, “What?”
“Have any photos of your dad?”
“We’re not close,” she said, staring at the photo of her mom. She wiped at a stain on the glass but her thumb just smudged it. “He was always yelling. I’d wake up at midnight and hide under the bed with Jimothy and my little sis. Once he threw Mom against the wall so hard it knocked over the TV and broke it. That’s why we kicked him out.”
“Sorry. I didn’t know.”
Through the walls we heard the neighbor girls stumble into the kitchen and slam the fridge. One yelled, “Wer muh crisp at?” And the other shouted, “Dunno!”
The baseboard heater popped and hissed and wouldn’t turn off. The thermometer read thirty Celsius—it was boiling. Angie stripped off her fleece and I got a peek at her bellybutton—it was an innie. I sweated in my hoodie until she noticed my flushed cheeks.
“Why don’t you take it off? You could put on a little show for me.” She sashayed and laughed and grabbed my hood drawstrings.
“No thanks. I’m fine.” I shoved up my sleeves though.
“You just have to ruin my fun,” she muttered.
“How much do I owe you for the tacos and stuff?” I asked and tossed my napkin in her litter bin. She had lined it with a plastic ALDI’s bag. She lobbed her napkin at it too, but missed. I threw it back at her and she chucked it at my face. It went back and forth until she hopped up to spike it like a volleyball player. We collided and the napkin ended up in her suitcase with folded clothes. To balance myself, I gripped her by the waist then jerked my hands away.
“The whole thing cost about eleven quid. I tried haggling but they wouldn’t budge,” she said.
I patted my pockets for my coin purse but had left it in my flat. “All I have is a ten,” I said with my wallet open.
“I don’t got any change. That’s too much for the tacos but not enough for the night.”
I insisted she take the ten and pay me back when she had change.
“Naw, I’ll forget. Just pay me on our way to Clan-whatever this weekend.”
“Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogo-gogoch?” I had been practicing that word since I first saw it on a road sign, and I was happy for the chance to show off.
“Yeah, over on Anglesey,” she said. “You better have another three tacos or we’re never going to finish everything. I don’t want it rotting in my litter bin.”
“I can’t eat any more,” I said. I had a half-eaten quesadilla in my lap.
“You’re the man. It’s your responsibility to eat whatever I fix.” She shoved her taco towards my mouth. The salsa ran down cheek.
I shoved the taco away but she kept pushing so I grabbed her wrist. I aimed the taco at her mouth but hit her nose. She leaned back and yanked me with her. She squirmed under me and shook loose the beef from her taco which landed on her quilt. “Lemme go!” she squealed.
I did, thinking she was serious. And I rolled off her and her bed and snatched up the fallen beef. There was no stain.
She ran her fingers through her hair and sat against the wall. Her head banged the taped-up postcards. “It’s probably better you leave,” she snapped.
When turned on, the overhead light buzzed. I always thought it might’ve been the Uni’s way of annoying students into using natural light. But at this late hour there was no natural light and the nearest street lamp was half a block away, by the laundrette.
“Sorry,” I said.
She got up to throw away her taco. “Get out already!”
“I need the toilet first.” I had been holding it all night but too many sodas had ruined my plan to wait until I got back to my flat.
“Use it and get out.” She undid the bow around Jimothy’s neck then retied it until it choked the bear.
There was hair in her sink and the tile floor was still wet from her last shower. Her room was small and the toilet was separated only by a plastic door. I did my business, careful not to aim at the water so it’d be quiet. I washed my hands with her raspberry soap that scented the bathroom. I walked out taking a whiff of my hands.
“I could hear you, ya know.”
Two weeks later Angie allowed me to join her in the trampoline club and afterwards we went to a pub where she found a broken needle that some druggie had left on her stool. That was where we planned a three-day getaway to Edinburgh. It was reading week so we wouldn’t miss classes.
“We could get a bed and breakfast,” I said
“Let’s just go to a hostel. They’re cheaper.”
We stayed at a hostel called Globetrotters. It was clean but our other roommates were a Pakastani kid with B.O. who chattered in Spanish on his phone, a Chinese couple who whispered in English but yelled in Mandarin, a cute Polish girl Lechsinska who slept in the bunk above me and an old man who made Angie uncomfortable. One morning she woke up and swore he’d been staring at her, with his hands under the covers doing God-knows-what! I asked if she wanted to exchange rooms but she said she’d be fine. She insisted on being out of the hostel until three in the morning. Usually I carried her back after she had lost a drinking contest.
So today we were hiking in the Pentland Hills, just south of Edinburgh. After an hour we were high in the heather, and the clouds looked like we could hit them with a rock. We took a break for photos. I already had three hundred good ones and she had more.
I had a pebble in my shoe and I leaned on her while I yanked off my shoe.
She caught me staring at her chest. “Hand me my water bottle, will ya?”
I pulled it out of my rucksack.
She squirted some in her mouth then across her forehead. It sprinkled her glasses so she had to wipe them on her shirt. Usually she wore contacts. She bit the nipple of the bottle and let it dangle in her mouth while she yanked her hair into a bun. That hair-do was her lazy look. “Sorry if I’m gross but I’m not showering at that hostel. They ought to have separate bathrooms, one for delicate ladies like me and the Queen and another for creepy geezers.”
“That Pakistani kid hasn’t showered since birth. And this morning I ran into Lechsinska in the bathroom but she was just tweezing her eyebrows. I haven’t seen anyone else in there.”
The nipple popped off the bottle and fell in the dirt. She rubbed the bottle clean against my sleeve. “If I went in there that geezer would follow. I know it. Stick this back in your sack, will ya?” She thrust the bottle at me.
I plotted our course on the map. The trail split and one path went around the peak then down while the other went up without a single switchback. I hiked ahead but she hooked my waistband and yanked me back.
She sniffed and said, “If it weren’t for this head cold I’d run up the mountain.”
I spread out my map that had folds like an accordion. The breeze rustled it in my hands. “We want to go up,” I said.
She groaned. “You picked the harder trail, didn’t ya? I’ll shove you in the reservoir if you did.” After I stuck the map in my rucksack she asked, “What peak is that anyway?”
I waved my hand over the southwestern corner of the map which covered six peaks and the inn we started from. “I think that’s Scald Law.”
“Wrong. These mountains need names like The Diaper or The Devil’s Erection.” She snapped a photo of the hills with the Walter Scott Monument in Edinburgh just a pin on the horizon, then she took a close-up of me. “Did I tell you my dad wants to pick me up from the airport in December? I guess Mom let it slip when I’d be arriving home. He wants to ‘make amends’ or some crap.”
“So just tell him no.”
“I told him Jeremy’s picking me up, which isn’t a lie exactly. Jeremy wants to. But the first family I want to see is my mommy! I miss her most, except maybe my dog,” she said. “He’ll show up anyway, whether I give him permission or not.”
“Jeremy or the dog?”
“No, my dad,” she grumbled.
I hiked on with our water bottles knocking together in my rucksack, but she didn’t follow. She fell back and snapped a few pictures of the trees below to show how far we had hiked. She looked at them on the digital camera’s LCD screen and said, “They don’t capture how steep this mountain is. Everyone’s going to say ‘What lovely scenery.’” Angie slipped on a wet patch of grass and landed on her stomach. She clawed at some heather as she slid and when she stopped three or four feet downhill, she was still clutching it. “Why didn’t you save me?”
Two hundred feet below a soldier trudged uphill with a backpack and a beret. Whenever we stopped, he’d trek ahead, bent at the hips, with his thumbs hooked in the shoulder straps, closing the distance between us until I could see his camouflage pants tucked into his black boots. He was the only other person out there.
Angie sneaked behind me and wrapped her arms around my neck. She dragged me to the grass. “Carry me!” she demanded while she lay on me.
I tried to do a push up but I couldn’t lift both of us. Grass poked up my nose. “I’d be okay spending the rest of the trip like this,” I said.
The army guy passed us while we were on the ground and Angie said, “Hello! Great day, isn’t it?”
He nodded and trudged on.
Her phone vibrated and I could feel it on my thigh. She slid her hand into my butt pocket as if she thought it was hers. “Oops,” she said with a laugh. Finally, she got out the buzzing phone. “You all right?” she asked to the caller. “No, Jeremy. I’ve already told ya—it’s a British greeting. It’s like asking ‘How you doing?’. . . . Philly dragged me up the hardest trail of these awful mountains. . . . I’m pretty sure we’re lost too.”
I could see the bus stop from here, past the Flotterstone Inn at the base.
“. . . . I told you about Philly. . . . Yes I did. I swear! We’re still in Scotland!” she said. “I told you last week we were going. . . . You gotta listen more. Look, I need to hang up because the sky is about to drop a flood on us. It’s been threatening all day and I just heard thunder and I felt a drop in my hair,” she lied. “. . . . I don’t want this phone shorting out while you tell me about Attila the foreman at work. I’d love to hear it but later, okay? I’ll give you a call tonight after our pub crawl.” She clicked the button and stuffed her phone in my butt pocket. “Crap. I forgot to get him a souvenir. Do you think he’d wear a kilt?” She rolled over so she was sitting on my back while a bee hovered around my nose.
“I don’t know the guy. Anyone who wouldn’t is just insecure,” I said. I blew on the bee which zipped back and forth. “Get him a purple kilt.”
She probed in my butt pocket for her phone and dialed. There was a long silence. “. . . . Jeremy? I just had to ask, if I got you a kilt, would ya wear it? Without undies or anything? That’s the traditional way. And I don’t mean just once. I’m not blowing twenty quid on something you’ll wear once. . . . C’mon! It’d show off your calves. . . . You do not have knock-knees. . . . Maybe a little. . . . Philly would wear a kilt—he’s secure in his masculinity. . . . All right, how about I just get you a shot glass with your family crest on it? Your mom’s Scottish, right? McIlhenny or MacSomething, right? . . . . Mallard? I don’t think that’s Scottish. I’ll check but I might just get you Farquharson. . . . It’s a funny name—that’s why! Okay, now I really have to go. I’m getting soaked. . . . Yeah, talk to you later. . . . I’ll be sure and call. . . . Right, love you too. . . .Okay, I gotta go!” She ended the call. “Sheesh,” she groaned.
“How about you get off my back?” I said.
“You’re not comfy?” she asked. “Maybe if I got you on your back.”
The soldier disappeared over the peak and seemed to continue down the other side, so we were alone.
In the two-weeks that followed our Scottish excursion, Angie called me up a few nights to help her study Welsh or to keep her company during Bloody Valentines or whatever scary movie she chose. We always ended as we had in the Pentland Hills. Once after I walked her home from the pub she told me she was a concerned for her safety since there was no rifle in the house.
“My mom keeps one in her closet and another in the truck,” she said.
“Has she ever needed them?” I asked.
High Street in Bangor was wide enough for cars but blocked off so pedestrians could tour the clothing boutiques. Angie and I hurried past the shoppers in the drizzle. She wore a full rain suit that swished with every step. I carried two pizza boxes over my head as a makeshift umbrella but they didn’t block much of the rain and I was drenched.
“I told you it’d rain today,” Angie said.
“I didn’t think it’d start until after we got back with the pizzas.”
She wore her hair down past her shoulders instead of her usual bun. She smelled like strawberry and vanilla and she wore blue eye shadow. I thought this show was for me. We didn’t have anything special planned but the past few days she’d been extra affectionate. She even held my hand now in the street and we were a nuisance to the other shoppers who weren’t interested in playing Red Rover.
I stared at the brick pavement to keep the rain out of my eyes and I bumped into a woman near the clock tower. She and others crowded around a bum who was playing “Sweet Home Alabama” on his Pan flute with his wet collie panting in time. Whenever someone dropped change in the bowl, the dog tried to lick the charitable hand.
“You think he’ll let me feed his dog?” I asked Angie. “I could donate a slice of pizza for the pup.”
She squeezed through the crowd and I had to jog to keep up. The pizzas bounced in their boxes. “We gotta hurry to the train station.”
Rain trickled down my neck and I shivered. “Are we picking someone up?”
We passed Cadwalader’s and I peered through the window at the buckets of ice cream, but Angie didn’t stop and her hand slipped from my grasp.
“I was chatting with Lechsinska on Facebook and she said she might visit. I suggested you had room on the floor or she could stay at my flat while I bunked with you. Is that who’s coming?”
But Angie didn’t answer or slow down. A baby carriage blocked her path so I caught and grabbed her wrist. “Why are we going to the station?” I asked.
She pulled a pizza box from my head and took out a slice. She plucked off a bit of sausage and ate it but it tasted like SPAM so she spat it out. “Jeremy’s coming,” she said, flicking sausage off the rest of the pizza.
“Doesn’t he know?”
I had to wait for her to chew before I got an answer. “I still gotta tell him. We were fighting over how often I went to the pubs and I reminded him he was always getting drunk with his buddies! It seemed like the perfect chance to end this long-distance crap but he said he’d bought tickets to fly here. I didn’t want him wasting his money!”
“So when he gets back to JFK or wherever, you can send him the text ‘Thanks for visiting. That was real sweet of you. Also we’re over.’ That’s awful.”
“Don’t pretend you’re looking out for him.” She covered her mouth when she spoke so I wouldn’t see her chew but it muffled her words. “I don’t know what else to do! He’s been planning this surprise visit and it’s too sweet not to let him do it, ya know?”
“I’m going to tell him about Scotland.”
“You can’t!” she yelled. “I’m going to tell him eventually. For now I’ll just be distant. Maybe he’ll realize we’re too different now that I’m a world traveler and he’ll break up with me.”
I ducked into the Peacocks’s entrance so the overhang shielded me from the rain but the doors were already locked for the evening. It was only six. The rain blew under there.
“I’ll tell him I’m on my period.” She walked towards the train station but I stayed under the overhang—I wasn’t getting any wetter for that guy.
“He’s not flying the Atlantic to hear ‘No.’”
When she passed Redskin Tattoo and kept going I chased after her and got in front. She circled around me and hurried toward the end of High Street where cars splashed the murky puddles.
“I’m not meeting this jackass,” I said.
“You don’t gotta. But if you’re there he won’t try to snog me.”
“He also can’t do that if you don’t show up.”
She trudged to the street called Allt Glanrafon, nicknamed Bitch Hill. It had a twenty-grade incline.
“Let him visit Caernarfon Castle on his own. He’ll meet a British chippie and she’ll cheer him up.”
She stopped. “What do you mean he’ll meet someone?”
“What’s it matter?”
“He’s dating me though!”
“And you’re dating me,” I said.
We had hung out most days but it was always at her suggestion. When she was in the mood for a scone we’d head to the pier. She’d drag me to The Academy when she wanted to dance or to the Tap and Spile when she wanted an authentic Welsh Pub. But if I was ever lonely, she was busy.
“I can’t leave him at the train station,” she said.
She walked up Bitch Hill with one of the pizzas and I walked back to my flat in the rain to eat the other.
The study abroad program required the Americans to travel to important Welsh sites like Cardiff or Chester in England which still had a law that a Welshman seen on the Rows after dark could be shot with an arrow. This weekend we were only three miles from Bangor Uni at Penrhyn Castle, a folly built in the 1820s in the style of the 12th century Normans. It had ramparts to guard the pie room and confectionary, and slits for archers to fire from if the Uni students rioted and attacked.
Jeremy joined us on the bus. He was easily six foot six but his athletic days on the high school lacrosse team were over and he was flabby from too much beer, potato chips and loafing. He had a thick mustache and he hadn’t shaved for a week, probably to give him a tough look. He wore a yellow Lakers jersey so his arms showed—they were big but had the definition of marshmallows.
His home town was Tipton in Iowa and he preferred to go by his last name Soltys. Only Angie called him Jeremy. He had graduated from a mechanics school but after a month at an auto shop, he quit because he liked cars as a hobby but not as a greasy profession. Now he worked at Nudo drywall factory, feeding slabs into a machine that chopped them into panels. He was friends with a supervisor and sure he’d get promoted to forklift jockey.
The Americans scattered to the garden to admire the giant stalks that looked like rhubarb, leaving Soltys, Angie and me in the great hall. There was no electric light except the lamp for the pianist who played one of Chopin’s nocturnes. The floor was slate mined by the slaves of Richard Pennant, the first Baron Penrhyn in 1820. He made his fortune flogging slaves in Jamaica but when that became immoral, he paid the workers enough to afford porridge each morning. The slate floor was covered in fake Indian rugs from China—anything from the East in those days passed as ‘Indian.’
Soltys didn’t have any British pounds so Angie paid his entry. He said, “Let me pay you back. What is it—ten dollars?”
“Quid,” I muttered. “We’re not in the States. They don’t use dollars here.”
Angie shoved me into a rope that kept us from tramping across a rug. Soltys caught me before I tipped over. “Don’t worry about paying me back,” she said. “Philly, you got that fiver you owe me for the tacos?”
I didn’t check my wallet. “Not on me.”
Soltys used his camera phone to snap a picture of the pianist at her grand piano until a tour guide told him, ‘No pictures.’ But Soltys pretended he was texting while he photographed the stained glass.
He strolled through the great hall, admiring the end table with brochures. Angie grabbed him by his sagging jeans. “I gotta use the loo. Be nice to him,” she barked at me.
He pointed his camera phone at the timber ceiling that arched into an X with a carving at the center. “Why’d they put in this stained glass? Isn’t England rainy like ninety percent of the year?” He tapped one of the red panes of the window.
“This is Wales,” I said.
“When did we get in another country? Was I supposed to show someone my passport?” He peered at the top of a marble column so his head bent back and his Adam’s apple jutted out.
“England conquered Wales under Julius Caesar, around Arthur’s time,” I explained. “Llywelyn the First was the last prince of Wales and he died in the Battle of Hastings against King Arthur.”
“I bet it was a bloody one,” he said.
“Knights in their armor shining with God’s protection clashed with the pagan Welshmen. It pitted Sir Percival against the vile Peredur son of Efrawg. A lot of Arthurian literature is based on the battle. Even Shakespeare wrote about Llywelyn in Doctor Faustus.”
“What about that Prince Henry or William? The one that just got married. Isn’t that dude the Prince of Wales?”
“After Arty conquered the heathen Welsh, he held up his crying babe and said, ‘This boy was born in Wales and knows not a word of English. He shall rule you as the Prince of Wales.’ It was all done tongue-in-cheek, of course.”
While Soltys soaked up my B.S, he sat on a floral-print sofa that didn’t sink even under his weight. Then he hopped up in a panic. “Oh shit! Is this couch like from the 1600s or something? I didn’t mean to sit on an antique.”
“It was a gift from Simon de Montfort to Anne Boleyn.”
He rubbed the fabric. “It isn’t even faded. How do you know so much about the place?”
“Angie and I came a few weeks ago. She made me promise to build her a castle like this. I told her, ‘Yours will be bigger.’”
Soltys lumbered up the stairs and wandered down a hall. Somehow he wound up at the stairs again where he waited for me. I led him to the Upper India room which was once Lord Penrhyn’s bedroom. The wallpaper was red. The bed had a red wooden frame with a red “duvet” and red pillows. The plaque near the entrance said “A notable feature about the room is the crimson theme.”
“Maybe on your ride from the airport, you noticed all the sheep. Wales has eleven million of them but only three million people. Have you heard the English slander that the Irish and Welsh have sex with sheep?” I asked.
He stopped examining the room and turned to me.
“In the fourteenth century, serfs would steal sheep from their lords. If a guard saw them, the thief dropped his pants and pretended he was giving it to the sheep because the fine was less for bestiality than for stealing from a nobleman.”
“Glad I’m part Scottish and Croatian. I don’t want any sheep-fuckers in my family.” Soltys leaned over the rope to get a better look at the room. On the bureau was a teddy bear beside a vase with daffodils.
“In 1502 Pope Pius V and Mary Queen of Scots had a lovers’ spat and the British outlawed Catholic priests. It also said absolution was considered treason and they’d draw and quarter clergymen for it. The situation was so tense that the pope was afraid to sail to Britain. But Penrhyn Castle actually housed some of the Catholic priests since the lord of the castle was a devout Catholic like Welshmen.”
He said, “Makes me like the guy even more. I’m a Catholic myself.”
A door next to us opened to a closet-sized bathroom. Its toilet used running water, the first of its kind in Wales. Soltys stepped over the rope barricading the room, but he had trouble turning without bumping his elbows on the sink or wall.
“The Welsh have always had a rebellious nature. Scholars say it stems from their language. When the Treachery of the Blue Books was published in 1437, it stated that ‘The Welsh language is a vast drawback to Wales and a manifold barrier to the moral progress and commercial prosperity of the people. It is not easy to overestimate its evil effects.’”
“Angie said she was taking a Welsh class. I ought to warn her.” He pulled out his phone to send her a text but he had no signal, so he took a picture of the tiny toilet instead.
We walked down the stairs and into one of the kitchens which had plastic lobsters on the table. He picked up two and bopped them together like they were fighting.
“This castle was once taken over by the Welsh, around 1090. The castle was only fifty years old but the roof was leaking. So some rebel scum knocked at the gates and said they were there to fix the roof. Once they were in, they slaughtered everyone, even the royal hound. I think it was a corgi.”
“People are dumb.” Soltys grabbed the steel pestle but needed two hands to heft it then he let it drop and it clanged in the mortar. “The castle looks new. Shouldn’t it be crumbling?”
“Most castles aren’t furnished so they look old, but this one got handed down from father to son. Someone was always living here to maintain it. When I came with Angie last time, we actually saw Frank, the latest Lord Penrhyn sleeping in the Slate Bedroom. How about we check that out next?”
Angie was just coming from there and met us outside the door. “You guys getting along?” she said, rubbing Soltys’s back. She was shorter than his shoulders so she had to reach up to scratch the skin around the neckline of his jersey.
“He’s been teaching me stuff about history.” He grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me. “I see why you hang around this little genius.”
The next day I took my morning run. I had joined the Uni’s boxing club and the coach told me to run this three-mile route through the hills every morning. I was halfway done, stomping across Garth Pier that stretched into the Menai Strait, with wooden floorboards rattling under each step. I sprinted until I reached the shack that rented fishing rods and lobster cages. The keeper poked his head out and yelled, “Don’t be knocking over the postcard rack!”
I leaned over the rail and dry-heaved. Any more of that and I’d have abs of steel that could handle any Welshmen’s body-shot.
The air was ten degrees Celsius and I was comfortable in my fleece. In September when I got off the plane in Manchester, it had been ten degrees and now the first of November it was still ten degrees. I bet December would be the same. At least the sun was shining.
The Seaside Tearoom was at the end of the pier, a round building with a point at the top, maybe inspired by the Kremlin. Behind it was a silver Ascari sedan.
“You’re here?” Angie said from a table outside.
“Just out for a run.” I stood near the rail and watched a guy cast his line into the water. “Where’s Soltys?”
Her plate was covered with crumbs and empty jelly packets. “Jeremy’s sleeping. He’s still got jetlag.” Under the plate was a postcard with some scribbles on it.
“I never felt that.”
Her teacup was full. She had never gotten used to tea but ordered it anyway because it seemed sophisticated. She always scoffed whenever I got cocoa, like it was too childish for Britain.
A white hotel across the strait stood out in the midst of the dark forest on Anglesey.
“Usually you call me when you want a scone,” I said.
A bee landed in her jelly—it seemed stuck. “Jeremy told me about your little history lesson. You told him the Welsh pretended to have sex with sheep to get out of paying a fine?”
“That one’s true.”
She jabbed at the bee with her knife and lopped off its stinger. “I should text him and tell him you’re here. He wants to rip out your lungs.”
“Go ahead. This is an easy place to find, but he’d wind up in London before admitting he was lost.”
Wind from the Irish Sea blew through the strait and took Angie’s postcard from under her saucer and toward my foot. I stepped on it and left a footprint on the text. I picked it up and skimmed what she had written. “Jeremy flew here after giving me a day’s warning. Yeah, it was sweet but I deserve some space! He’s too big for my bed so I told him he had to sleep on the floor but the next day he whined about his bad back. He’s just like Dad sometimes.”
She snatched it from me before I could read the rest. “Do you think if you embarrass him enough I’ll dump him? I love him, okay?”
A pair of kayaks paddled under the pier but the girl in the second one couldn’t stroke the water without spinning.
“You were about to end things with him.”
Angie leaned over the railing with me and stared at the ebbing strait. “You were a mistake.”
“My older sister tells me the same thing,” I muttered. “You know, I haven’t really missed home until this week.”
The fisherman next to us struggled with his arching rod but when he reeled in the line, the fish had escaped. He cast it again.
“Don’t tell him,” Angie said. “Even if you do and he breaks up with me, I’m not getting back with you.”
The coast of Bangor was hilly and green. I couldn’t see the sheep but I bet there were some. It all faded into the distance. “I don’t want you back.”
She bumped her shoulder against mine and I could smell her jasmine perfume and the tea on her breath.
“ I’m not stupid enough to hang on.” I had been up all night sweating, because my heater sputtered to life at three. I twisted the knob to off but it still chattered, grinded its gears and spewed heat.
A seagull landed on the street lamp. The panes of glass were covered in soot. The gull swooped down to Angie’s table and pecked at the crumbs on her plate. “Shoo!” The bird hopped off the table and took a hundred tiny steps. When Angie came back to the railing, the gull fluttered up to her table. She ran back but he just hid under the chair, twisting his head to look at his tail feathers.
“Remember our first week here?” she asked. “None of us knew each other so everyone clung to the nearest person or whoever smelled nicest or looked the friendliest. I got stuck with Kep and Betty and those girly-girls who wanted to jet off to Belgium for beer and chocolate. British piss and waffles are fine by me and I didn’t have the cash for that excursion. While they were gone I was bummed by myself and you hid in your flat and walked down High Street by yourself in the rain. I noticed you for the first time on this pier. You were picking at a scone and dipping the bits in hot chocolate. It was just too cute and I wanted to come over and say something, but I didn’t remember your name. So I asked what you were sipping on. I introduced myself again, saying ‘I don’t know if you remember me but I’m Angela. You can call me Angie.’ I figured you’d re-introduce yourself, you know? But you were too awkward for that. Instead you spat crumbs while saying ‘Hey.’” She leaned against me so her hips were against mine. She laid her head on my shoulder and smiled.
I stepped away and she stumbled. “I’m still not interested,” I said and left before I did something stupid. The floorboards rattled under my steps.
She yelled after me, “Don’t tell Jeremy.”