From a Land Down Under

In which The Author finds his soulmate – and immediately loses her again

A Tragedy in Eight Days

Prologue

The very first time I saw your face
I thought of a song and quickly changed the tune.
The very first time I touched your skin
I thought of a story and rushed to reach the end too soon.

The Cure, ‘Primary’, 1981

SUNDAY

It was the brief hot summer of 2001. I’d just come out of a short-lived and very unstable relationship with Gema, and wasn’t on the lookout for anyone else. In fact, all I wanted to do was get drunk with my mates whenever possible. On 24 June I spent the early part of Sunday afternoon drinking with L— in the Conway. When he went home, I went around to the flat in town where my friends Chris W. and Helen R. were living.
Helen was Gema’s best friend, although they’d fallen out at the time. It was Helen’s birthday, so I wanted to give her a card. She was working, so I left her card with Chris and went back to the pub. I guessed that she’d be out in town in the evening, so I decided to buy her a drink then.
We started off in the Market Tavern. It was always a bad idea on a Sunday night. There was a ‘DJ’ there – a middle-aged bloke with a strictly limited record collection, who played the same rock staples every weekend, regardless of the age group of the customers. However, it was price promotion night. Helen, her friend Wendy, and I had a couple of drinks there before it started filling up. Afterwards, we headed for the Black Lion, where there was a band playing. I wouldn’t normally have gone to the Black Lion at all, let alone on band night, but it was Helen’s birthday so she was calling the shots.
We’d been there for about twenty minutes when my old friend Gareth L. came in, with his girlfriend Anne L. Actually, ‘girlfriend’ is a bit of a misnomer. She was twenty years his senior, and had recently returned to the UK from Australia. I’d only met her a couple of times before, but she seemed nice enough – if a bit odd. She liked books and history and mythology, so we’d had some interesting conversations. Anyway, Gareth and Anne waved across on their way to the back room, and I carried on talking to Helen and Wendy.
A bit later on, Helen pointed out a tall, slim, but not especially pretty girl standing at the bar.
‘She looks your type,’ she whispered.
The girl she’d spotted was dressed entirely in black. She had curly red hair tied back. So far, so good. And (this was the kicker!) she was wearing a studded dog collar. By now, Helen knew me well enough to know that a girl in a collar represented the Holy Grail for me. I was also wearing a collar, so it seemed that the redhead and I might have something in common. I had another quick look at the new arrival as she walked past and returned to our conversation. She took her drink into the back room, and I carried on watching the band with Helen and Wendy.
After a while, I had to visit the toilet. On the way back, Gareth and Anne called me over to their table. The redhead was sitting with them. She turned out to be Anne’s daughter – Emma L. It was short for Emmanuelle, and I did my best not to refer to early 1970s soft-porn films.
Practically the first thing Emma said to me was, ‘I didn’t think I’d meet anyone else in Aberdare who was into collars!’ She said it was one of her fetishes, and she’d been wearing them since she was young. Instant contact! She then asked me to join their table. How could I refuse?
I went back to Helen and explained what had just happened. She said, ‘You’d better go and talk to her!’ I picked up my drink and went back to sit next to Emma.
I can’t remember what we talked about for the rest of the evening. We moved into the quieter room when the band became unbearable, and stayed there for a while. I remember trotting out a couple of bad jokes about Australia and Australians, and Emma laughed at them. That was a good sign.
Emma was 19, and had grown up in a town called Maleny, on the east coast of Australia, It was to Brisbane what Aberdare was to Cardiff – a backwater town with a thriving city a fair trek away by public transport, and no real nightlife. Even so, it was a bit of a hippy hangout, and there was a strong goth/punk/alternative subculture amongst the young people. I’ve looked it up in tourist guides subsequently. It sounds like a cross between Brecon and Glastonbury, only with marginally better weather.
Emma was over here on a six-month tourist visa, travelling around after sitting the Australian equivalent of A-Levels. She’d been killing time while she decided what to do next, before coming down to visit Anne and Gareth. Her last stop had been helping out at the Youth Hostel in Corris. She’d been in Aberdare for about a fortnight, but it was her first time out and about apart from a couple of visits to the Full Moon, my friend Alun G.’s pub.
We moved on to the Conway for a quick drink, before heading for the Boot. It was Dad Rock Disco there too, but it opened till late. We stayed until last orders. Gaz was there already, and he could see I was keen on Emma. Unusually, he took a back seat and let me concentrate on her. I had work on the Monday morning, so I didn’t intend to stay out late, but I didn’t want to let this girl slip through my fingers either. After we left the Boot, we found ourselves in a taxi heading for Gareth’s house in Cwmbach. He’d been nagging me for ages to watch the Coen Brothers’ film The Big Lebowski. He had it on tape, and somehow talked me into going back to his house to watch it.
However, when we got there, the film took second place to Emma. We talked non-stop through the first quarter of an hour, and eventually Gareth sent us outside in disgust. At the end of his street is a low wall, and we sat there for ages, talking about everything and nothing.
Emma was the polar opposite of Gema. Gema’s small and a little bit chunky, with thick dark hair and a very pretty face; she smokes heavily and drinks heavily, used to do as many drugs as she could, has a history of self-harming, and goes critical at a moment’s notice. She’s sex-mad, and after a great many flings, she’s finally in a relationship with another woman. She’s boisterous and unpredictable, and sometimes you can wish you’d never met her.
Emma (not being unkind) would never have won Miss Australia. She was almost my height and a bit slimmer, with curly red hair that she wore tied back. Nobody could ever have called her beautiful – but she was striking. Heads turned when she walked past. But she was quiet in comparison with Gema; a born-again non-smoker, drug-free (after a brief involvement with the scene), and not a big drinker. She’d had romantic involvements with both sexes, and thought nothing of it. She was a musician – she played piano and harp – and had studied Performing Arts. She loved books and films and plays and art. Gema also liked these things, but (again, not being unkind) I could never have had a deep discussion about them with her.
Emma and I sat in the night air, talking for what seemed like hours, until it dawned on me that I’d have to walk home. I reluctantly said ‘goodbye’ to Gareth and Anne (who were still waiting for Emma to come back inside!) In fairness, they offered to let me stay over, but I needed to get ready for work in the morning. On the doorstep, I kissed Emma goodnight and gave her my phone number. Emma was temporarily without a phone, but she promised to call me as soon as she’d bought a new one. I set off on foot for my house. It was about three miles at the dead of night, but I didn’t even notice. I don’t know what time I got home, but I didn’t sleep anyway. All I could think about was the amazing girl I’d met out of the blue, on a friend’s birthday, in a pub I wouldn’t normally have gone to.

MONDAY

When I got to work, a few of the gang remarked on how cheerful I looked. I told them about Emma. Most of them were excited and pleased for me. Only wise old Laurie tried to bring me back to reality.
‘Just don’t get your hopes up,’ he cautioned me over a lunchtime pint. He reminded me that Emma was only going to be around for a short while. Even though I knew he meant well, I wasn’t really listening. All day I kept willing Emma to phone me, or text me, but nothing happened. I told myself that she still hadn’t sorted a phone out. I reminded myself that even if she’d lost my number, Gareth and Anne knew how to get in touch with me. I couldn’t get her out of my head.

TUESDAY

The breakthrough occurred mid-afternoon. A text arrived, apparently from Anne’s phone – just the single word hello?
I texted back, ‘Is that you, Anne?’ and waited. A few minutes later came the reply I’d been hoping for. It was Emma! Even better than that – she wanted to meet up! She explained afterwards that she’d got fed up of looking for a cheap phone to tide her over. Anne had gone back to using her old phone, and given her new one to Emma.
We arranged to meet up in the Conway when I got back to Aberdare. I had to go to the pub anyway, as I had a book for K— which I wanted to give him.
Now, here’s a classic case of tragic mis-timing. The book was a self-help guide to quitting drinking. I’d already mentioned it to K— a few weeks before. He’d been hospitalised earlier in the year, and he knew full well that he had to give up the booze before it killed him, but he didn’t know where to start. I’d told him that I’d buy him the book as an early birthday present, to give him a bit of encouragement. I knew that K— would more than likely be in the pub when I got back from work, so it seemed the obvious place to arrange to meet.
I walked in at my usual time and ordered a pint. Irene asked me if I’d heard about K—. It turned out that he’d been rushed into hospital earlier in the day, with almost total system failure. I showed Irene the book I’d bought for him, and we toasted dumb luck. Rather depressed by this turn of events, I went and sat by the window and waited for Emma to arrive.
To be honest, I couldn’t clearly remember what she looked like. I’d been fairly pissed on Sunday night, and while I could remember just about everything we’d talked about, I couldn’t visualize her face. As I’ve already said, she wasn’t a great beauty – but I’ve never gone for conventionally good-looking girls. Even so, I wondered whether I’d still like her with the beer goggles removed.
Then Emma strolled in, gave me a faint smile, and sat down beside me. I told her what had happened to K— earlier that day. She told me that she’d also had a pretty shitty day – mostly at the hands of Anne.
It seemed that she hadn’t stopped talking about me for two days, so Anne had also offered her some cautionary words, largely about the age difference (I was 35, she was just short of her 20th birthday). Emma had rounded on Anne, confronting her about her own ‘toy boy’ (although she didn’t use those exact words) and they’d had a row. At this point, Emma had texted me asking to meet up.
She was wearing a very sexy outfit, a sort of tight black tunic with slashes all the way down, with black jeans and her collar. She told me she’d bought the top in New Look the previous day.
‘There’s hope for this place yet,’ she said, ‘This is pretty kinky by Aberdare standards.’
She looked great, and I told her so. She relaxed a bit and I bought her a drink.
I asked Emma if she fancied a walk up to the Cross Inn. I always used to meet up with my father for a drink on Tuesday evening, and I knew he’d be on his way there by this time. She agreed straight away, so we walked up to Trecynon, chatting all the way. It felt great, just having a girl to talk to. It was the way I’d always wanted it to be with Sam, without every conversation having to be ‘about’ something.
Dad was in the pub when we arrived, and he liked Emma immediately. The three of us had a good chat, and it was clear that Emma was different from all my other girlfriends. Dad was able to throw some obscure reference into the conversation, and Emma knew where he was coming from. She was educated and intelligent in a way I hadn’t encountered since Lisa – but we were drawn together physically as well. It was almost too good to be true. I hadn’t mentioned her to anyone in Aberdare (apart from Irene) at this stage, but I think the guys in the pub could see that we were keen on each other. Dad went home on the 9.00 bus as usual, so we went into the other bar (the Welsh Harp) and had a chat with some of the lads for a while.
At about half past nine, I asked Emma if she wanted another drink. She said she’d rather have a coffee instead. We finished our drinks and walked round to my place, less than a minute’s stagger from the pub.
As soon as Emma walked into the middle room, she cried, ‘Oh, wow – hundreds of books! I’m in heaven!’ In the kitchen, I realised that I was out of milk, so I had to run down to the shop before they closed. While I was making coffee, Emma asked me where the bathroom was. I directed her upstairs, but she must have opened the wrong door on the landing and walked into the back bedroom instead.
At the time, it was just a storeroom-cum-workshop, and I had a recently-completed DIY project in there. Unfortunately, it was a pillory, which Gema had challenged me to try and make a few months before. I imagine most girls would have run straight out of the front door at that point, never to be seen again. However, Emma came back downstairs with a smile on her face.
‘I thought the faux fur was a lovely touch,’ she remarked.
We’d already established that she had fairly kinky tastes while we were talking on Sunday night – things were getting better and better.
Emma told me more about her plans while she was staying in the UK. She wanted to go to the Edinburgh Festival. She had friends who were performing on the fringe that year, so she was going to stay with them for a while. She was also composing a piece of music, and asked if I knew anyone with a piano for sale. She asked me about the possibility of renting my back bedroom on her return from Scotland – she was finding the situation with Anne and Gareth a bit claustrophobic. She asked me about my previous girlfriends, and whether I had any children. It seemed as though we were laying the foundations for something solid and long-lasting.
We talked until nearly midnight, when it suddenly dawned on Emma that she had to make her way back to Cwmbach.
‘If I’m not home soon, Mum’ll kill me!’ she said.
I phoned for a taxi. The car was available within a couple of minutes, so we stood outside until it arrived. As it pulled into the street, Emma kissed me, and then casually dropped the bombshell:
‘If you’d asked me to come home with you on Sunday night, I would have.’
I just sighed and said, ‘Now you tell me!’
The taxi stopped outside, and Emma got in. I waved her off, and sat up for a little while, hardly unable to believe my luck.
I texted a few friends, telling them that Emma and I were officially an item. It was stupid o’clock, and I know I woke Rhian up because she told me afterwards. It was the best thing that had happened to me for years. In barely three months I’d gone from a self-destructive relationship with a screwed-up Bi-Psycho I’d met while we were both pissed, to a bolt-from-the-blue romance with a lovely girl from half the world away.
I should have listened to Laurie after all.

WEDNESDAY

Nothing much happened. I went to work as usual. It was an average day, one of those routine days that make up a dull existence. Customers came and went, books came and went, trains ran late, the sun shone, babies were born, people died, politicians lied, and in the evening Emma phoned me.
She was on the phone for over twenty minutes. I don’t think she realized at the time that a mobile-to-mobile call cost 35p a minute – she spent at least £7, just so we could hear each other’s voices. She and Anne were planning a trip to the museum in St Fagans, and they wanted to know the best way to get there. We agreed that we’d meet up after work and travel back home together. Emma said that they’d call into the shop when they got back to Cardiff, and that thrilled me. At last the gang in work would be able to meet the wonderful girl I’d been raving about all week.

THURSDAY

The early part of Thursday was a disaster verging on farce. It’s worthy of a chapter in its own right. I’ll pass over it here, and skip straight to the afternoon.
Emma and Anne arrived in the shop just after 4.30. They had a browse around until I finished. I think Emma knew everyone was checking her out, but she kept cool and acted like a customer. Anne and Emma both loved books, so it was their idea of paradise and as far as they were concerned I had the ideal job.
Laurie – the perfect boss, in my book – had agreed that I could finish early, so that Emma and I could spend as much time together as possible. We caught the 5.00 bus back to Aberdare. Emma wasn’t herself. She was subdued and quiet, and I guessed that a whole day in her mother’s company might have got to her. We sat on the upper deck so that Emma could see the best aspects of Cardiff and the valleys landscape on the journey up.
Anne showed me a sepia-toned photo they’d had taken in St Fagans, of the pair of them dressed in Victorian costumes, posing in that very formal way that propriety used to insist on. I teased Emma by asking her if it was one of those seaside ‘put your head through the hole’ contraptions. It turned out that the clothes and furniture were authentic. I thought Emma looked great in the picture – she had the features and stature to suit that kind of pose. Emma told me that she’d enjoyed the dressing-up, but not the bit where they’d had to sit for the photographer.
She hated having her photograph taken. I’m the same. I kept my LRT photocard from October 1984 until I got mugged, well into my thirties. Having new photos done broke my heart. Emma even objected when I asked to see her passport photo, just for fun. Eventually she let me have a look, but put it back in her pocket quickly.
On the way back, Anne phoned Gareth to tell him that we were heading home. Gareth had made chicken curry, and they invited me back to their place. I don’t eat chicken, so I declined, and said that I’d probably pick up some fish and chips around the corner from my house instead. Emma seized on this like a drowning woman clutching at a straw.
‘Actually, I fancy fish and chips as well!’
Job done!
When we got to Aberdare, Anne tried to persuade Emma to go back to Cwmbach, but by now she was determined to have fish and chips. We walked to Trecynon and called into Love’s on the way to my house. We ate our supper and Emma asked if she could have another look at my back bedroom. As I’d suspected, the situation at Anne and Gareth’s house was getting to her. She told me that she was looking for a place to stay when she got back from Scotland, and asked me again about renting out the room. I said it sounded like a great idea. It would be a tax dodge for me, and solve a problem for her as well. (I decided not to push things too far by telling that she’d be more than welcome in my bedroom instead.)
After we’d eaten, we decided to make the most of our evening together. Anne had asked me if she could borrow one of my books. I grabbed it from the shelf and gave it to Emma to pass on. We walked back to town through the park and headed for the Conway. It was acoustic night with Rob P. and some of the other lads. Emma was a musician, after all, so I thought she’d enjoy meeting some of the local guys. Irene was working again, so we had a chat by the bar until the musicians arrived. Ally, one of the regulars, spotted Emma when she was on her way to the ladies’ toilet.
‘She looks a bit gothic,’ he said to his mate, deliberately loud enough for Emma to hear. It upset her, and she came back and told me what had happened. I just took her hand and we walked over to the jukebox together. When Ally spotted me, he realised that he’d pissed me off by pissing her off, and made an apologetic gesture.
Emma started complaining about small-minded people in small towns, and I knew exactly what she meant. It was just another one of the reasons why I knew she and I should be together.
When Rob arrived, we chatted to him for a while, and then – without any warning – Anne and Gareth walked in. They never came to the acoustic nights. In fact, they hardly ever came out in the week. They said hello, went to the bar, and sat around the corner out of the way.
‘I think they’re trying to keep an eye on me,’ Emma said in a low voice.
‘Fuck ’em, you’re an adult,’ I said. ‘You can do what you like!’
Sure enough, a couple of minutes later, Anne called Emma over. She returned with a rather downcast expression.
‘We’ve been invited to join them.’
It was like an invitation to a royal garden party. We couldn’t politely decline without major diplomatic repercussions. It meant not only that we couldn’t see the musicians from where we were sitting – but also that we’d have to endure Anne and Gareth’s company, when really we just wanted to be together. Emma and I ended up sitting on opposite sides of the table, holding hands rather self-consciously as Anne and Gareth played chaperone.
By now, Anne had realised that Emma and I were more than ‘just good friends’ – and she wasn’t entirely happy with the idea. Talk about irony! She’d suggested that we should meet up in the first place! In fact, it was the first time that she saw me wearing a collar, weeks before, that made her think of it.
‘Oh, my daughter likes things like that,’ she’d said. ‘You two would get on well!’
I don’t think she knew at the time just how well we were destined to get on.
After a while, we got fed up of not being able to see what was going on. I suggested going to the Full Moon, where another bunch of musicians met up to jam on a Thursday night. We walked down together, Gareth and Anne lagging behind while Emma and I walked on, still holding hands. We didn’t want to let each other go, not even for a moment.
James T. was working behind the bar, and Alun G. was drifting around. They already knew Emma, because Anne and Gareth had taken her there a couple of times. I’d even suggested that Alun might be able to offer Emma a bit of bar work, off the books so as not to jeopardise her visa. Emma had also visited Alun’s studio to have a small lizard tattooed on her leg.
While we were there, Emma asked if any of the boys knew anyone with a piano for sale. At that point, it seemed that she was pretty determined to stay around.
We left the pub after stop-tap and walked back into town to get a taxi. Gareth had been to the toilet before we left, and we’d accidentally left him behind. He had to wait for Alun to unlock the doors and let him out. I waited for him to catch up, and Emma and Anne walked on ahead. On the way up, I told Gareth that I really liked Emma, and I’d appreciate his advice on how to take things to the next level. He suggested that I should send her some flowers. Apparently she’d complained that nobody had ever sent her flowers before. I made a mental note of Gareth’s suggestion.
There was only one car on the rank, and Gareth and Anne got in. Anne held the door open for Emma.
Emma just handed Anne my book and said, ‘Don’t forget this!’ before closing the door.
And with that – and without my even asking her – she was going home with me instead. Ironically, we walked past Helen’s flat on our way through town. Gema was sitting outside on the front step, a bit pissed and stoned, and I introduced her to Emma. We chatted for a minute before we carried on, and to my surprise Emma said, ‘She seems really nice.’ (It’s not a word which most people readily apply to Gema on their first meeting!)
When we arrived at my house, Emma turned down the offer of coffee. We sat up talking for a while, before she asked me if we could go to bed. It took me a bit aback, to be honest. I’d only ever met one girl before Emma who’d made all the running in so short a time. She was a friend of my brother’s, who’d come on pretty strongly to me in the Globe in Cwmaman a couple of Christmases before.
I said, ‘Come on, then,’ and we went upstairs hand in hand.
I should explain that I can’t sleep without something over me – even on the hottest nights of the year, I usually have an empty duvet cover on the bed. It was a very warm night, and the bedroom window had been closed all day while I was in work. This was where the fun started.
I undressed, and Emma stripped to her knickers. I didn’t try and persuade her to undress completely. It would be good enough for me to just cuddle up to her for now. We got into bed, and immediately Emma started rolling herself up in the duvet cover. I started trying to repossess enough of it to cover myself, and we began a tug-of-war over it. The ensuing conversation went something like this:
‘I’m cold!
‘You can’t be cold, woman! It’s nearly July – we’re in the middle of a bloody heatwave!’
‘Where I come from, we have barbecues on the beach on Christmas Day! I’m cold!
And then the fight started. Not a real fight, you understand – just a pillow fight. But I had the home advantage. The curtains were closed, so it was dark in the bedroom, and I managed to steal Emma’s pillow and give her a double-handed pummelling before she admitted defeat. Then I grabbed her and put her over my knee, as I’d threatened at the start.
At that point I discovered that it’s true what people say about young Australians: that their tone of voice rises at the end of every sentence, like they’re asking a question even though they’re making a statement.
Emma lay across the bed, giggling and shouting ‘No? No? Don’t spank my arse?
I administered a few decent smacks to her bottom before we fell laughing into each other’s arms. We kissed each other and lay side by side. It was pretty obvious by now that I was turned on, but still I didn’t try and get Emma to go any further than just kissing and cuddling. After a while we went to sleep, still lying in each other’s arms.

FRIDAY

My radio alarm went off at 6.15. We hadn’t had very much sleep, between talking until stupid o’clock, and then the pillow fight and messing about afterwards. I really didn’t want to disturb Emma, but she was awake anyway. The radio was tuned to Radio 2 as usual. At that time of the morning, Sarah Kennedy plays a recording of a spiritual homily before a brief piece of classical music. We didn’t listen to the content of the spoken item, but then we heard the opening bars of the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Emma sat bolt upright and said, ‘Oh, Steve, turn it up!’
That was a major revelation. All my previous girlfriends would have asked me turn the radio over, probably to Radio 1 or some awful commercial station. But Emma wanted to hear the Beethoven chorus. We sat with our arms around each other, as the sublime, almost superhuman music washed over us. She had angel’s wings tattooed on her back, and I kissed her shoulders and her back, running my fingers over her tattoo.
I knew at that moment that I was totally, absolutely, unquestionably in love with Emma, and I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. We’d been born sixteen years apart, on opposite sides of the planet, but somehow Fate, or the Goddess of Chaos, or the stochastic movement of molecules in a non-linear dynamic system (or whatever you want to call it) had intervened to bring us together. After spending a little over three and half decades on this planet, I’d met my soulmate at last.
I got dressed and went downstairs to make Emma a cup of coffee before I had to leave for work. I could hear her moving about upstairs, and had a quick vision of how great it would be if she actually did move in. Emma was wearing a studded leather band on her wrist when she came downstairs. She told me she’d found it on the floor beside the bed, so she’d decided to borrow it. I didn’t have the heart to say no.
Neither of us said very much as we had breakfast. I think both of us were feeling a bit down. I knew that if we’d made love, then I wouldn’t have let her go. I would have phoned in sick and spent the rest of the day with her. We both knew we’d missed an opportunity, but it didn’t matter. It was Friday, I had the weekend off, and there’d be plenty of chance for us to spend time together.
We walked to the end of the street and caught my regular bus. The driver was Wolfie, an old school friend, and he used to pick a couple of us up in Trecynon on the way to Cwmdare to start his first run of the day. It was a misty morning, and as we went past the upper section of the Country Park, Emma told me she’d never seen snow. I found it incredible that someone could live for nineteen years and never see snow. I told her to stick around until the winter, and then she’d see some. At that point, we both assumed that she’d be moving into my house as soon as she returned from Scotland.
Emma jumped off in Aberdare to get the bus to Cwmbach. Wolfie had already done a double-take when we got on; now the regulars gave me some quizzical looks as they boarded. Julie and Diane, in particular, gave me twenty questions on the way to Cardiff, but I didn’t care. I’d spent the night with the most wonderful girl I’d ever met, and nobody could take that away from me.
After work, I rang Emma to see what she was doing in the evening. She said she didn’t feel like coming out. She said she’d ring me in the morning, and I left it there. She’d had a couple of quite late nights already, and it was about time she spent an evening with Anne and Gareth, if only to show willing.
I went to the Conway and the boys from the tattoo studio were already there. I joined them, and they immediately asked me how things were going with Emma.
Alun said, ‘I hear you’ve stolen the heart of our Australian visitor,’ and the rest of the boys agreed. It turned out that while Emma was having her tattoo done, she’d done little but tell Alun and Deno how much she liked me. I told them briefly about the previous night – including the pillow fight – and they were very impressed that I hadn’t tried to push things too far. They were quite disappointed that she was staying at home, but not nearly as disappointed as I was. I stayed out for a while, but didn’t feel like a late one. I went home and tried to read for a bit, but I couldn’t concentrate. There was only one thing on my mind.

SATURDAY

I called into my brother’s house mid-morning. I was talking to him and a couple of our mates when Emma rang me. She sounded extremely down, and I asked where she was. She was walking into town from Cwmbach. She hadn’t even bothered waiting for the bus. I teased her by telling that Wales had beaten Australia at rugby earlier that day, so she wouldn’t be lynched as soon as she walked into the pub. She said she wanted to talk to me face-to-face. It didn’t sound like good news.
I walked into the Conway and Emma was standing by the bar. She had a half of Guinness in front of her, and I offered to buy her another one. She said she’d rather go for a walk, so we left the pub and strolled through town. On the way, Emma told me that she was going back to north Wales, and from there to Edinburgh as planned. As I’d suspected, her daughter’s overnight stay at my house had been the final straw as far as Anne was concerned. She and Emma had had a huge row when she got home on Friday morning. Emma had spent the whole day arranging a rapid escape from Aberdare, and wanted to say goodbye before she left.
We stopped off at a small music shop at the top of town, and Emma bought some sheet music. I offered to treat her, but she insisted on paying. I started trying to persuade Emma to stay, but she was adamant that she needed to get out of Aberdare. She said she didn’t know when – or even if – she’d come back.
She told me she felt like some sort of exotic creature, and it was getting to her when everybody kept grilling her about who she was, where she was from, what she was doing over here. Everywhere she went, people gave her the full interrogation – or (like at least one guy I know) just tried to get into her knickers.
We wandered aimlessly up the path behind the library and eventually made our way to the Country Park. I remember at one point Emma pointed out a clump of foxgloves growing at the side of the path.
‘Oh, I love those purple flowers!’ she squealed.
‘Don’t touch them!’ I warned her. ‘We may not have funnel web spiders or blue-ringed octopus over here, but those buggers will kill you just the same.’
Emma laughed, and for a minute it seemed that she might be cheering up a bit. We carried on walking until we came to the cascade. Emma was very impressed by the scenery, and we both said we should have brought a camera. I’d had mine with me for a couple of days in the week, but I hadn’t picked it up. As a result, and as much because of my carelessness as her own insecurity, I haven’t got a single picture to remember her by.
At the top lake, Emma walked out onto the little jetty and showed me how she did poi. At first I thought she’d said ‘poise’ and assumed it was some variety of acrobatics. I’d never heard of poi before, but now it’s catching on over here. She’d learned some circus skills while she was studying Performing Arts, and this was her favourite.
She had two tennis balls, covered with coloured fabric, and with a length of cord attached to each one. She swung them in patterns as I sat cross-legged and gazed at her. It’s rather hypnotic after a while, like a hybrid of yo-yo and juggling.
‘If I did this in Cardiff, do you think people would watch?’ she asked after a few minutes.
‘I’d sit and watch you all day,’ I said truthfully.
I can still see Emma in my mind’s eye. She’s standing in the middle of the jetty, in her tight black jeans, festival t-shirt, and dog collar, with her hair tied up, twirling her poi with the lake in the background. Occasionally she lost coordination, and one of the tennis balls whacked into her body. I told her she’d be black and blue in the morning, and she told me that her bum was already bruised after Thursday night. I felt a bit guilty then and apologised, but she said she’d enjoyed it.
We walked around the lake and back down the path, across the fields and along the river until we came to the road leading to St John’s School. I suggested picking up a snack on the Gadlys and going into the park for a while. As we were walking down Glan Road, a chap was walking towards us from the pub.
He must have picked up on Emma’s accent, because straight away he pointed at her and cried, ‘One-nil!’
Emma looked blank, and I reminded her about the rugby match earlier that day.
We called into Lidl and bumped straight into Jon R. and Claire B. I said hello and we carried on up the aisle, leaving them wondering who she was. We bought a chilled quiche and some orange juice and set off for the park.
On the way we met Phil coming from the shop and heading in the same direction. I was hoping he might have brought the dog with him. Emma was mad about animals, and dogs in particular, and I knew she’d fall in love with Tubbs. But Phil wouldn’t go back to the house and fetch her, so the three of us walked as far as the bandstand. There was a brass band there, and it felt perfect to be sitting in the sunshine in the grass listening to them playing.
Again Emma started telling me about her music, her interest in the theatre generally, and asked me whether the Royal Opera House building in Aberaman was just a weird valleys joke. I told her it was where the scenery, props and costumes were stored between productions, and she asked me how she could get a job there. Even at that point it seemed that she was planning to return to Aberdare after her travels.
At about five o’clock Emma announced that she had to go back to Cwmbach, as she was under orders to take some chips back with her. I felt completely deflated. I’d hoped we might at least have spent the rest of the day together. I walked into town with her and we called into the chip shop on the way to the bus stop. Neither of us said very much while we were waiting for the bus to come in. But it seemed only fair that I mentioned the studded ‘wristband’ Emma was still wearing. I would have let her keep it, of course – but it was actually my cock ring. As soon as I told Emma that, she looked shocked and gave it back to me hurriedly. When the bus eventually arrived, I took Emma’s arm, held her back for a few moments, and kissed her full on the mouth.
‘Emma, go and see the country, and have adventures,’ I told her. ‘And when you come back, I’ll be waiting for you.’
‘What makes you think I’m the One?’ she asked, a bit surprised.
I said, ‘I know you’re the One!’
Then she got on the bus and I walked away. I didn’t want to hang about and wave her goodbye – I had a more immediate target in mind.
I must have been halfway to the Conway before the bus even pulled out. It was all I could do to control myself until I got inside.
Irene was at the bar, and she looked worried when I walked up to the bar.
‘Are you all right?’ she asked, ‘You look like you’re going to cry.’
‘It’s just hay fever,’ I lied. ‘I’ve been up the Country Park all day.’
Irene’s not stupid, she knew something was wrong, but she didn’t press me any further. I bought a pint and sat at the back, away from everyone. I knew the boys from the tattoo studio would be in soon, and I really didn’t want to face them again.
I’d been there about ten minutes, doing my best to hold it together, when Rhian came in and spotted me. She brought her beer over and I broke down completely, sobbing on her shoulder as I told her all about the events of the previous week. It was unbelievable. I was 35 years old and I was crying like a jilted teenager.
I got very pissed that night, and made my home after the pub closed. I couldn’t get Emma out of my mind, and I felt angry that everybody had made her feel so uncomfortable in Aberdare. I’d never been so much in love in my life. None of my ex-girlfriends came anywhere close.

SUNDAY

I went to the pub early, and texted Emma on the off-chance that she might fancy coming out in the afternoon. She replied that she was busy. She had to finish her packing – she was leaving for Corris on Monday morning, on the first coach from Cardiff. Gareth and a couple of his mates had promised to take her to Cwmaman in the afternoon, so she could tell her friends that she’d visited the place where Stereophonics grew up. I knew then that I wouldn’t see Emma until she came back to Aberdare – whenever that would be.
I texted her back. I gave her my address, and asked her if she’d if she send me postcards from interesting places. My plan was (and still is) to get a big world map to go on the stairwell in my house, and stick all the postcards from my friends around it. She said she’d be honoured to help out with my project. I knew she had a few months still to run on her visa, so she’d undoubtedly be back in the autumn. I could look forward to postcards from Corris, Edinburgh, and who knew where else in the meantime. And if Emma could secure a place at a UK university, there’d be nothing to stop her coming back on a long-term visa.
And as the day wore on, I got more and more drunk, more and more angry, and more and more resentful of Anne’s involvement in our embryonic relationship. I think I rang Emma at about 9.30 and babbled something incoherent down the phone at her. I can’t be sure. Eventually, at about 10 o’clock I texted Gareth.
I can’t remember the exact wording now, but it went something like, ‘I hate you and Anne for introducing me to Emma and then driving her away. I don’t want to know you any more.’

Epilogue

It’s a thin line between love and hate.

The Pretenders, ‘Thin Line Between Love and Hate’, 1984

On Monday morning, it pissed down. Not just torrential rain, but the full climate change works – thunder, lightning, hailstones, flash flooding, structural damage, you name it – the great British summer …
By then I knew Emma would be on her way back to Corris. I texted her from the bus on my way to Cardiff. I told her that we were in the middle of a terrific storm, and I was just wondering what the weather was like where she was. I got no reply. I tried to reassure myself that she’d run out of credit, or the battery had gone flat, or she was in a mobile dead spot. In spite of my stupidity the previous night, I hoped that she might still have some feelings for me.
As soon as I got to work, I went to the travel guides and got the details of the Youth Hostel in Corris. I wondered whether to try phoning them in the evening and asking to speak to Emma. I doubted whether she’d answer her mobile to me if she recognised the number; and even if I called the hostel she’d probably guess who it was. At least I had their address. That was a good start.
By lunchtime the rain had eased off a bit, so I walked over to the florist in Castle Arcade. I asked how the Interflora service worked. I asked if they could deliver to Corris, and she said the flowers would be made up in the nearest Interflora agent and sent from there. The cheapest flowers were £20, but it would be worth it if Emma appreciated the gesture.
I went to the bus station and picked up the TrawsCambria coach timetable, wondering if I could turn up unexpectedly in Corris and tell Emma that I loved her and wanted her to come back with me. I think I’d seen too many chick flicks.
I didn’t take it any further. I think I already knew that I was backing a loser, and I couldn’t afford to spend £20 on a bunch of flowers, never mind a coach ticket to North Wales on a fool’s errand. I could have written to Emma, but there was no guarantee she would still be in Corris when the letter arrived.
I knew she had an email address, as she’d mentioned checking her emails at one point, but I had no idea what it was. It could have taken me weeks to track her down. I wasn’t online at home at the time anyway, so I’d have been relying on the computers in the library, or going round to friends’ houses. I texted her a couple of times during the week, but there was still no reply.
I left it until the weekend to text again. This time I got a reply, which Emma sent overnight and which I received early on Saturday morning.
It said something like, ‘Why do you keep texting me? Leave me alone. I’ve got a boyfriend, I don’t want anything more to do with you.’
And so it came to pass that I crossed the thin line at last. Love had turned to hate.
It all made sense at last. She’d had a guy waiting for her in Corris all the time she’d been down here. It was no wonder she’d been so desperate to escape from Aberdare. It was no wonder she’d gone just so far, but not all the way, the night she’d stayed over. I felt stupid, demoralised, hateful – and used. Gema had used me simply to get back at her boyfriend when she thought he was ignoring her. Now Emma had just used me for company until she got back to her boyfriend, a hundred miles away at the other end of the country.
Even so, I couldn’t get her out of my mind. I wrote a bad poem which I sent to the Cynon Valley Leader, and which they printed (including the compulsory typo, or course) on the Letters page. I hoped that Anne or Gareth might spot it on the off-chance and mention it to Emma if she phoned them. I saw Anne once or twice around town, and she even smiled at me, but I just ignored her and walked past.
I’ve completely cut myself off from them. It’s a shame. Gareth was a really good friend. We were working on a writing project together, but as long as Anne’s on the scene I really don’t want to speak to him again. I know that if we did have a beer together, sooner or later, Emma’s name would turn up in conversation – and it would kill me to know what she was doing.
I was in the Cambrian several months later with my mother, my brother, and a gang of our mates, watching one of the Five Nations games. Anne and Gareth walked in, looked around, and my mother nudged me.
‘That woman just gave me a really nasty look,’ she said.
I rolled up my sleeve and showed her my tattoo of the Eye of Horus, an ancient charm against the Evil Eye.
‘No, she gave me a really nasty look – but it bounced off that and hit you,’ I replied. I had to tell her then who Anne was, and the whole story came out again.
A while later, I was in the Conway and Rob P. told me that Emma was coming back to Aberdare. I don’t know how he’d got wind of that – he didn’t know Gareth that well – and I suspect now that he was just trying to gauge my reaction. Irene asked me what I’d do if Emma did, in fact, walk into the pub when I was there and say hello.
‘I would hope that I could be nice to her,’ I said. ‘More likely, we’d have a blazing row and both get chucked out.’ And then I looked at Irene seriously. ‘In reality, I’d probably say, “Sorry, I think you’ve mistaken me for someone else,” and go and sit down again.’
When Ross D., one of my oldest friends, came back from London a couple of years ago, I broke down again. Dad had passed away a few months before, and Ross had emailed me his condolences. But he didn’t know about Emma. I’d cried about Dad in private, but he’d been ill for so long that we’d all expected it. And months later, Ross and I were in the pub, talking about Dad – when suddenly I dissolved into tears. It wasn’t even the thought of losing Dad that had triggered me off – it was the thought of losing Emma! And I cried again, some five years after the event.
For a little while I thought that maybe she’d come back and we could pick up where we’d left off. In the meantime I had a week-long dalliance with a fucked-up religious freak, and since then I haven’t even kissed a girl.
Not a single day has gone by when I haven’t thought about Emma at least once. One lunchtime, walking around Cardiff, I even followed a girl with wings tattooed on her back down Caroline Street, until I heard her speaking with a local accent. I’ve seen Gareth about half a dozen times since – mostly staggering from the pub with his mates from college. I’ve been told that he and Anne are married. I’ve also been told that Anne played a major part in breaking up another relationship – between two good friends of mine. Nobody in Aberdare has much time for her.
Since then I’ve tried all sorts of things to get back in touch with Emma. I’ve looked on Friends Reunited – but where do you even start when you don’t know the name of the school? Is there a website called Spank Buddies Reunited? I’ve browsed Facebook numerous times – there are dozens of women with the same name (most of whom don’t have photos on their profiles) and I can’t go poking random women until I find the right one.
I’ve Googled her name, and found a reference to a St David’s Day concert in Brisbane, at which a harpist named Emma L— played Celtic music. I’m 99% sure it was her. I’ve even logged onto a webforum based in Maleny and asked anyone who knows her to pass on a message – that I still miss her and I’d love to see her again.
Nix. Nada. Nichievo. Not a sausage.

CODA

That’s my story – the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.

Dexy’s Midnight Runners, This is What She’s Like, 1985

Except that it isn’t. Not quite…
On 17 March 2009 I found myself in Wetherspoon in Aberdare. I never go to Wetherspoon if I can avoid it. But it was Hannah W.’s birthday, so she was calling the shots. I ended up talking to a girl named Jenny, who’s quite a lot younger than me. She’s a tall girl with red hair, who’d had relationships with both sexes, who’d done the drugs thing and was now into alcohol, who loved books and music and films. She thought I had the best job in the world. I was wearing a collar. She liked it and told me she wished she’d worn hers as well. At the end of the evening, we all ended up at Hannah’s mother’s house. Before I went home, I gave Jenny my phone number.
What the fuck was I thinking …?
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