“Gwil James Thomas is the author of the novel Captains of Sinking Ships and a forthcoming short story collection titled Halfway to Nowhere, due to be released later this year in Greece. He likes the ocean and crafting weapons from abandoned wood, he tends to dislike bio statements. After having three forwarding addresses in different towns and countries last year, he has settled in London, England – but is not sure for how long. His written work can be found in a variety of magazines, websites and zines. Any hate mail, questions, etcetera can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org”
My name is Afan. For my entire life nobody has ever got my name. Not really. Some like it. Others can get fucked. Then there’s also others that are confused and need to take a seat.
To their credit I have found when introducing myself to people that it’s been Americans, with whom my name seemed to click with the easiest. My name is Welsh. Wales is a small Celtic country glued onto the side of England. To be fair, it’s not always the Welsh who identify with my name, though they tend to hate me for my English accent. The Welsh who do get it are the old-schoolers who live deep in the beautiful, dense countryside, on mountain and hilltops, in caravans or run down houses, tending to vegetable patches, crafting weapons, bitter with the anglicization of their celtic dirt, as they wait for another invasion. People like that tend to get the name, but then it’s quite rare that you come across them. As the work became scarce, my people left there some time back. Just as Welsh settlers had done all over the world landing in Australia, America and Argentina generations ago.
I was born in England to an English mother and rarely went to Wales, besides camping on the mountains, or forests to scatter ashes. As I grew older, identity became a strange issue, feeling like I had none. I had no spiritual connection with the ground I walked on, or roots that I came from – like I was walking around nameless. It was a feeling that I first noticed in school.
I was sitting there with two others behind that plastic, graffitied desk. To my right was Jimmy – a skinny, dark haired Jewish boy. Jimmy was decent, a good natured person whom nobody was going to stick up for – making him a prime target and an easy calf to pick off from the rest of the herd. To my left, had been Samson – or at least until he’d been moved that day. Samson, one of the only black kids in my year, or school come to think of it. He generally hated every male around, including me, but I actually quite liked him. He couldn’t have cared what anyone thought. There was a tenacity in him. He wasn’t out to achieve, or prove a thing, only to fight back when the world drove itself towards his throat. He’d ask me to be a messenger, trying to get dates from girls in the years above, which of course would never work, but he kept at it and so I’d ask them out for him. I’d heard in the way that business is passed down the grapevine in school that for a few seconds he’d died as an infant and that was how his leg had become amputated – they said it was wooden, but I think it was probably plastic, or even real after all. But Samson had been moved to another table after hopping over to Shane Williams, when Shane had humiliated him in front of some girls that had come in to pass on a message from another class. Now Samson was pissed and out for blood – but more on that later.
Some people thrived in school; it was perfect for some, just not me. It was a fact that I was lazy and not particularly smart either. Though in retrospect I don’t think that was any more of an excuse for a teacher to use than a young student. I’d also been diagnosed as dyslexic, my textbooks were mishmashes of words and numbers. It took me a long time to come to terms with any organization. Of course, it made sense to me, but it wasn’t about me. Not in that sense. I suppose the three of us had been branded for some reason and maybe that was why I’d been placed by the other two, or maybe that’s why they’d been placed besides me. One way or another we stuck out.
Of course there were many other students, stories and school politics involved, but this day, it had been us and them. I probably make it all sound worse than it was; I had my fun there too. But on the whole, it was a meeting place for the offspring of families that had known each other for generations; cider drinking, Wurzel listening, farm and factory workers, who preferred to keep it in the family and didn’t tend to welcome outsiders. But as I said, that day it was us and them.
I stared out of the window beyond the basketball court, towards the factory funnels and cider orchards and fields in the distance, wanting to return to the city a few miles away. We’d been caught trying to escape the school by the entrance, but a friend had got hold of some wire cutters and we’d planned another escape there at the end of the lunch break. Then, over my shoulder came the strident sound of Shane’s voice.
“So how does it like feel to have no dick, Jim? It must be hard to get a girl,” Shane said from behind him.
“I’ve got a dick, do you want me to get it out and show it to you?” Jimmy said.
“Save it for your boyfriends – you try anything like that on me and I’ll knock you out,” Shane said.
“Just get on with your work” Jimmy uttered.
Shane was large, with two older larger, fat brothers. Dave sat next to him, laughing in obligatory union. Dave wasn’t really strong or smart enough do much himself, but that’s why he wanted to befriend Shane. It’s funny how much I saw this bond between opposites repeated throughout my life in various instances.
But Jimmy knew better than to answer back anymore. He’d been stupid enough earlier to tell that them was his birthday and nothing they could do would upset him. So Shane and a couple of others performed a mock crucifixion in the basketball courts and tried to stone him – leaving him to hang there on a piece of twisted metal that had gone through the top of his trousers – no bullshit. In the end the caretaker knocked him off and told him to stop fucking around, blaming him for the destruction of one of the basketball court nets.
When I saw how aggravated Jimmy was getting I too slipped in a laugh, deep down hating myself for it, just another jumping on the bandwagon. This didn’t change much through life either, people were rarely bastards fort the sake of being so. Bastards influencing bastards.
“And what about you Afan, I heard that you tried to get Chantelle to go with you to the meadow,” Shane said.
“You should have taken a fucking camel,” Dave continued.
“You mean sheep – wrong person same crime,” Shane said correcting him under his breath.
“Oi, we’re talkin’ to you Afan,” Shane continued and slammed down his text book.
I turned around.
“Y’know what, Shane? I heard his dad was Welsh,” Dave said.
“My dad lost his job last week to some fucking Welshman. Whole factory is full of them, in my country, my land, your fucking people taking my family’s money,” Shane said.
“Maybe he does a better job then,” I replied and turned back around.
There was silence for a moment, maybe I’d won the argument if you could call it that. Then I felt something strike my knuckle. It was the side of Shane’s metal ruler. Then as the teacher turned around Shane leant over and hit me again. Then the new male teacher came in with a coffee mug in hand, ready to talk about that new Me Myself and Irene film, hoping to score a date with our own teacher. Of course it didn’t matter that he was interrupting – my class was fucked anyway. This time Shane walked past and drew it across my other hand, bringing it down as he passed, splitting my knuckle open as I bled all over my shoe and bag. He stood there waiting for a reaction, anything; that’s what he’d wanted all along. Fuck him. He couldn’t bring it down again, without attracting attention. He sat back down.
I reached out, grasping the text book we were supposed to be studying, stretched back my wrist and flung it straight at Shane – hitting him straight between the eyes. It had felt like I should do something, so I had. Shane was motionless, for a moment, before he got back to work. He ignored Dave’s running commentary. He was far too pissed off.
The bell sounded for lunch, as a surge of students moved out of the room. Dave was there on his own to push past Samson, who headed out of the room on his own, as he knocked open the door still in a mood. Dave turned around and looked back at me, but he was nothing on his own. There was no Shane, he’d been lost amongst the others. Maybe there was no next move.
The Daily Menu consisted of Macaroni and Cheese, Bacon Butties, Cheese Burgers, Hot Dogs, Pizza, all the delicacies and the vegetarian option, boiled eggs with grated cheese. I’d taken my pick, ready to stuff my face. I scanned the heads found someone to sit next to and sat down, still with no sign of Shane.
Soon the whole thing lifted from my mind with the ease of a feather caught in the wind. That had been that. I’d headed beyond the portacabins, planning to play a little basketball before I made my escape.
Then, pacing the grass verge I felt a knuckle strike the back of my head. I bowed my head and tried to step back, but was struck with a broken chair leg. I was then grabbed by two others – followed by Shane, with Dave in his shadow. I was surprised by the numbers, they were all pissed off about something. It was my fault. That I knew.
“What the fuck have the Welsh done for anyone, except cause problems over here,” Shane said like he was highlighting some much broader point he’d wanted to brush on earlier, “Who the fuck’s called Afan anyway? Go back to Wales,” Shane continued and drew his fist into my stomach.
In retrospect he probably would have stopped there and the whole thing would have been over – if I’d have just pleaded with him to stop. But I was stubborn and like any competitive, macho, male bullshit, I knew that’s just what he wanted. The second time he struck me there was less passion; it seemed he was doing it out of principle more than anything. There were better things he could have been doing but he just wasn’t going to back down.
“I’m not even that Welsh,” I said.
“What do you mean that Welsh,” he replied.
As he pondered the thought, I used the moment to break free. I had this moment to take them by surprise. It worked. The other two stayed there, as I pushed him as hard as I could into the thorn bush. His face was a complete picture of disbelief as he fell.
Like some act of god, a fighter plane tore through the sky and everyone’s attention was diverted above, trying to trace the object and lines in the sky. Everyone except Shane and myself. His disbelief had turned to anger, as he rose and hit me in the jaw. Then I saw red and drove my fist into his face, then again. I’d managed to entangle myself in the thorn bush in the process, but suddenly he’d stopped and I didn’t want to do it anymore. I just wanted to leave while I could.
None of the four of them said a word. Shane’s eyes were watering, his lip was bloody, my jaw ached and I knew that this probably wouldn’t be the end of it. Shane tried to get out of the thorn bush but failed and fell back down into it – which with everything aside did look hilarious. And as Dave and one of the other inbred pricks that he’d got to help him dragged him out. I turned as Shane took a breath ready to shout at me.
Then Samson staggered over the hill.
“Coon! What’d you want Coon?” Dave shouted at Samson.
Samson pushed past Dave and the others, then pushed his way past me towards Shane. It was hard to tell whether Samson had been on Shane’s trail the whole time, or if he’d just been close by and noticed Shane. Nevertheless, it wasn’t me he was after that day, it was Shane.
A couple of months back, someone had switched one of the disabled student’s wheelchairs onto a manual setting and had wheeled them off into the village, leaving them there. Any student with a disability was more or less untouchable in the politics of it all. The school couldn’t afford for anymore risks, threats or complaints from parents. The do not touch the disabled children policy could not have been more in effect, and the disabled students enjoyed their long overdue justice. The untouchable aspect got to students like Shane and they’d tried to find other ways to get into the heads of people like Samson. I turned my back as I heard Shane laughing. The basketball court had grown silent. Two slow-moving basketballs rolled along the gravel when something caught the attention of everyone there as they cheered. Even Jimmy was there spectating and smiling. I was still partially involved, but I didn’t look back. I heard that Samson rugby tackled Shane back into that bush.
I headed over to the fence and waited. Not sure what I was defending, or if I had been defending anything other than myself, not feeling much of an attachment to either of the countries that been catalysts for the whole event. Even if it was all by default. But names were funny things like that.
Fair or unfair, it made no difference. Things carried on much the same. I don’t think that everyone was against anyone really, or at least the majority weren’t. Call it weak if anything, but people just agreed with others to save their own skin. People passed business and things down the grapevine, just as they had before. I heard that Samson found god, though it was hard to imagine him turning to any force other than his own, but that’s that. They said that Shane joined the law. I bumped into someone once that was sure that Dave had died in a car accident. I also heard that Jimmy went to university and ended up becoming an established architect. As for myself I got by as much as anyone else. I found some prophecies of woe made by my teachers came true, but then there was a lot that couldn’t have been planned and I found myself pleasantly surprised with. It was all part of life, like fish devouring each other, temples crumbling, melting snow on mountaintops and all the memories, personal accomplishments and disappointments that inevitably drifted off into the ether. I could call it this or that – but what was in a name anyway?