I was on a flight home to Wales to be best man in a wedding, when I spotted him. Two rows up and ten years younger, the boy looked a spitting image of myself at twenty: skinny, hung over, shy-till-he-gets-a-few-pints-down-his-neck. I watched him drop his passport, fumble with his seatbelt, and settle the small space that would be his for the six-hour flight. I guessed he was coming off a weekend on the piss, pulling New York girls in New York City bars, where his Celtic accent was suddenly shockingly sexy—Just talk to me, they’d said and he’d done more than talk. I knew; I had the same shirt: You can take the boy out of Wales but you can’t take Wales out of the boy.
My Jewish-American wife, Nora, bought me the shirt, and I used to wear it, but then I got sick of explaining to people where Wales was, that no, it wasn’t fucking England and there weren’t any whales—too fucking cold for whales. I saw my first whale in America, off the coast of Massachusetts. It was massive and sleek; the creature lifted itself out of the ocean, breached, and fell back down again, and I couldn’t believe something so huge could be graceful, but it was. America’s a bit like that whale, full of impossible grace. Even New York City, with its homeless people and honking yellow taxicabs, with its skyscrapers and tongues babbling a hundred different languages, with its constant noise and lights and motion up and down the Avenues, even New York is graceful.
I decided to get as many beers as I could off the stewardess when she came by with her little trolley—there were some benefits to traveling without my wife, who’d recently decided drink was the devil’s work. It had been a decade since I’d moved to America, two years since we had our big international wedding, and more than that since I’d been home. I wondered what it was going to be like to see my best mate, Rhys. Would we have anything to say to one another? It was an odd time for him to get married, after twelve years and two kids. When we were small, Rhys and I and his twin sister, spent every afternoon down the river, catching fish and shooting rats with homemade slingshots. Later, we sat above the river drinking flagons of cider, our feet dangling over the bridge. These days, Rhys and I hardly ever see each other. I was about to be best man to a bloke I hardly knew.
The kid in my shirt was thumbing through a British Airways magazine. I had the urge to talk to him, ask him about the Big Apple: how many girls did he pull? Did he figure out that pitchers were cheaper than pints? What did he make of those revolving doors? A security announcement blared in my ear before I got a chance to ask and then we were taking off. When I looked again, the Welsh kid was snoring, sleeping the kind of sleep that comes after a good night out.
Four hours and three beers later, I was wide-awake with eyelids like sandpaper; I couldn’t concentrate on the year-end tax report I’d brought. My legs were so restless I wanted to kick down the seat in front of me. Worst of all, I was trapped between the window and a fat woman so big she overlapped. Pressing the call button, I ordered another Heineken. Even though I earn six figures, I can’t resist a free drink—almost free, a scolding look accompanied my beer.
British Airways doesn’t fly direct between New York and Wales. The only direct flight between Wales and America is to Orlando, Florida. This says a lot about where I come from. When you leave Wales—which isn’t often—you don’t want culture. You want sun and warmth; you want a place where people smile and tell you to have a nice day, where you can forget about the rain and your auntie with cancer and teenagers who throw rocks at train windows. You want to get as far away as possible from the factory, where you work shifts inspecting windshield wipers. You want to wear big fucking Mickey Mouse ears and have your picture taken in front of the Magic fucking Kingdom. All this to say, that when I fly back from New York, I have to fly over the green, green grass of home, past Wales, to fucking London, where I rent a car and drive back.
I dozed off in my window seat at last, only to be woken minutes later by bright lights and a stewardess shoving microwaved scrambled eggs in my face. Sipping the tea—at least the tea was good—I stared out the window at layers upon layers of clouds. They parted for a moment, and I saw it: the rough jagged Welsh coastline. It appeared and disappeared in an instant. As we flew, I imagined the land below the clouds: green valleys, terraced houses, pubs. Home. Nostalgia crept up on me like a drug and I had to remind myself that I was grateful not to live in that God-forsaken country. “Wales.” I said the name aloud just to hear how it sounded. It sounded familiar, like a friend from childhood, whose sentences I used to finish, a friend I’d lost touch with years ago.
At baggage claim I nearly ran into the scrawny Welsh kid. “Boyo,” I said—I couldn’t resist. “Alright? Where you from?”
“Wales.” He looked stunned. “You?”
“Where in Wales?”
“Rhondda, in the south,” he explained, “valleys.”
“I know the Rhondda,” I said. Fucking hole, I was thinking. But I didn’t feel like driving three hours down the M4 on my own. “I’m going to Aberdare. You want a lift, mate?” It had been a long time since I’d said that word aloud—mate—and it sounded forced.
He looked at me like a foreigner, “Why are you going to Aberdare?”
“I’m from there. Why’d you think?” Already I regretted asking him but it was too late. “Listen, the car’s hired… ’
“Alright, sound,” he said. Smiling, he picked up his bag and followed me through the airport like a happy fucking puppy.
The rental was a Volvo, the kid, duly impressed. “Flash,” he said and I liked him.
There are things I appreciate about my fellow-countrymen: the minimalist vocabulary, the way they don’t hug. Still, I wanted a little conversation, and the kid was quiet as a fucking mouse. After ten silent minutes on the M4, I told him to switch on the radio, “Anything,” I said, “you choose.”
Something called reggae, which was not in any way related to Bob Marley, blared through the speakers making me feel old.
“Crap, init?” the kid said and I liked him more. He switched the station to the Eurhythmics singing about rain. Appropriate, I thought; it wasn’t raining yet, but I knew it would be.
“So,” he said at last, “you don’t live in Wales anymore.”
“How’d you guess?”
“You don’t sound Welsh.”
“Fuck off,” I said.
“Where d’you live then?”
“Wicked,” he said, “I was just in New York.”
“How’d you know?”
I wondered if he was a few sandwiches short of a picnic. “We were on the same plane, kid.”
“Oh, aye,” he smiled. “That’s why we were at the same baggage claim. Must be the jet lag. Good night out last night and all. Think it was last night … no, night before, right? Aye.” He leaned his head back and smiled at a memory of something he wasn’t going to share. “Mad fucking city, init? Crackin’ place to visit. Could never live there.”
“Fuckin’ bonkers, init? Anyways, I’m just a Valley Boy.”
“Me too,” I said.
“No mate, you used to be a Valley Boy. You even talk American, now.”
“Piss off. I remember when I first got to New York—it wasn’t that long ago. I was always running into people because I was staring up at the buildings.”
“Aye,” he said, “and those revolving doors. They do do my head in.”
“You get used to them.”
“You get used to anything. Not for me though. One week’s enough.”
“What do you do, Butt?” I asked. “For work, like?” I could hear my Welsh accent coming back in waves.
“You know how much an electrician gets paid in Manhattan?”
“Not a clue. More than me.”
“$100,000 a year.”
“Swear to God. That’s what the union pays,” I said and he was quiet. I imagined him imagining all the things he could buy with one hundred thousand U.S. dollars.
“I couldn’t live there,” he said at last. “Too fucking dangerous. Too many low-flying planes.”
He was starting to get on my nerves. Dangerous? He was from the Valleys—the Rhondda of all places.
“Awe, Listen!” he said, and turned up the radio. “Tom fucking Jones, welcoming you home!” Sure enough, Delilah bellowed through the car speakers and the kid and I dropped our discussion and sang along out loud. For a moment it felt good to be driving towards Wales singing this Welsh anthem of a song.
When it was finished, I told him a story. “In America,” I said, “everyone’s into their roots, their heritage, cause they got no fucking history themselves. Everyone’s always coming up to me, ‘I’m half Welsh!’ They say. ‘Which fucking half?’ I ask. I met this bloke once in New York, his ancestors were from Wales and he came here for a visit. Turns out, his ancestors were from Merthyr Tydfil.”
“Some fucking heritage,” the kid said.
“Aye. This American bloke, he comes here with his whole family—his Mrs. and their two girls—they fly over, rent a car, and drive to Merthyr. When he gets there, he takes one fucking look at the town center, does a U-ee and drives right back out again. He was too fucking scared to get out of the car. They stayed in Cardiff.”
“Fuck,” my companion said. “He should see the Rhondda. Merthyr’s not even rough anymore.”
“My point is … ”
“I get your point. You’re scared of what you don’t know.”
We listened to eighties music for the next hour as we drove down the M4 towards Wales, and sun gave way to clouds. Just as we crossed the Severn Bridge, the rain began: light specks at first, then big, plump drops as we passed through Newport. By the time we reached the Valleys, a steady rain was falling.
“It’s always the same,” I said. “Every time I fly into London, it’s sunny and every time I cross the Severn, it’s pissing down. Look at this, middle of fucking May and … ”
“Why do you hate Wales?” the kid asked.
“I don’t hate Wales.”
“You haven’t said one good thing about it. Name one, one good thing about Wales.”
“There are a lot of good things; the weather isn’t one of them.”
“Go on. Try. Name one,” he said. He wasn’t smiling.
He’s got cheek, I thought, accusing me in my own fucking rental.
“Alright,” I said, looking around for inspiration. Everything was smaller—the cars, the lanes, the cups of tea, even the trees. “A good strong cup of tea,” I said. “That’s about all I miss. Everything else you can get in New York now. They even sell Cadbury’s chocolate and Jaffa … ”
“Tea? Sorry, mate, that’s not good enough. Fucking tea?!”
“Alright, OK, shut up. Let me think.” I tried to think of the first thing I’d do when I got home to my parents’ terraced house. I’d go out. Down the Rock for a pint with the boys. “My mates,” I said. “I miss the boys—I’ve known them since school. You don’t have friends like that in New York. Friends in New York are here today and fucking gone tomorrow; they say they’re going to call and they never do. Meanwhile, they’re always hugging you, pretending to be close, like.”
This was mostly true. I did miss my mates, but during brief visits home, all they ever talked about was redoing the fucking kitchen, or saving for a holiday for some resort in Spain where they serve English food. They asked about New York but whenever I started talking, their eyes glazed over. Mostly we drank lager and reminisced. I did miss my mates—I missed the mates I had ten years ago when I was still living here and we had something in common.
“Your mates. Good. Name something else.”
“What is this, the fucking inquisition?”
“I just don’t get it.” We were nearing the Rhondda and the sky between the mountains had become bulbous and gray. “Why are you trying to convince me that New York is the greatest fucking city on earth.”
“Listen Boyo, when I was your age, I had respect for my elders.”
“Fuck off,” he said and we laughed.
He directed me from the dual carriageway into his crappy little Valley town. Before I knew it, he was pointing out his mother’s house.
“Right here, mate. Ta very much. Ta ra, Butt.”
Ta ra. And he was gone. I drove off feeling there was something else I meant to tell him. Then I went over the mountain, into Aberdare and forgot all about the kid. It had been two years since I’d been home but it felt like just last week. An afternoon drizzle greeted me as I drove slowly through town letting it all sink in. There were old ladies struggling with their umbrellas in the wind and there were young mothers, teenagers some of them, pushing prams laden with Argos bags. There was Trev the Rev, steering wheel in hand, still driving his imaginary car—he had to be forty now. He used to ask my sister for a lift, back when we were kids, and she usually obliged. I had an image of Trev the Rev driving in Manhattan, down a sidewalk on Broadway, asking passers by for lifts. He wouldn’t last five minutes there; he’d be murdered and left to rot in Central Park, or worse yet, taken off to Bellevue and crammed into a ward with all the other crazies.