Old Iolo Fflint was a smallholder of many years, each day braving the jagged rocks of Bolera Ceilliau and the silent slopes of the high Carneddau above in order to silently observe his cottage, his garden and all the comings and goings of the people who lived within in his once pleasant hamlet. It hibernated between the crook of three great mountain peaks and the shores of a small mountain lake which sat under the shadow of an ancient and brooding fortress, guarding the valley from a lofty outcrop and protecting it like a beautiful and ancient god. Mr Fflint, as he insisted upon being called, had seen many changes in his time here and he had watched them all from his position high on the slopes. He had seen the cottages of the hamlet grow and change and he had watched as the folks he had known in his youth passed on or moved away and were replaced by strangers with odd ways and new ideas that he didn’t much care for. He remembered the old lord of the castle, a kindly soul with a wise head on his shoulders who always had time for those who crossed his path. Mr Fflint recalled vividly the night of his death and the dreadful men who had descended upon the village to commit the atrocity. He remembered how the sons of the old lord had worked hard and had attempted to uphold their father’s legacy. And they had done a reasonable job too. But there had been too many children, Mr Fflint thought. There had been too many unruly and wild children running about the place and causing mischief and he especially loathed that little ginger one. He was no end of trouble and it was a frequent occasion when Mr Fflint would trudge up to the castle in order to make his complaints known, not that they did much good in the end. The child had gone away in the late seventies, New York somebody said, but ten years later he came back all grown up and as sensible and wise as his grandfather had been, though still with that hint of mischief he had during his childhood. Mr Fflint had liked him then. He had been a good man.
Then, one morning about twenty years ago, Mr Fflint awoke to find the village swarming with police and reporters and all manner of gawkers. Allegedly there had been some sort of murder up at the castle and since that day nothing had ever been the same. That day had been the beginning of the tourists and the hikers and the casual day trippers, the people who gawped and stared and took photographs of everything they could. Iolo had watched them swarm in by the busload and he had watched them stop outside his cottage and stare and take pictures. And with the tourists had come the tacky souvenir stores and the tea shop and the luxury bed and breakfast, places that Mr Fflint despised and felt had no place in his village. Many of the other folks who had been here before the murder felt the same but now they too were fading and one by one their homes were being snatched up by strangers and city folk who only came here for the occasional weekend.
Inevitably every visitor would wander up the road to the castle only to find it decayed and abandoned, the gates padlocked and the windows all boarded with ply. Nobody had lived there for many years after the murder but the place had been religiously tended to by a middle aged lawyer from Bethesda, name of Rutherford, who visited several times a week. Sometimes, it was rumoured, he would take tourists on specially arranged tours around the castle for an exorbitant fee. Mr Fflint had never found any basis for the rumour but he knew for a fact that there certainly wouldn’t be any tourists taking tours anymore, not now that it had been reoccupied. Mr Fflint was not yet sure of what to make of the new owners, a young fellow and his fiancée from Bristol, but when they first arrived they had invited the permanent residents of the village for lunch and they seemed nice enough. They wanted to remove the scourge of the tourists and the weekend city folk for one thing. They wanted the village to return to the way it had once been, quiet, and Mr Fflint respected that; not that he expected to live to see it happen.
He was worried for his health and he found he was becoming more and more forgetful. One morning he climbed up the Bolera and then back down again three times without realizing and another day he had boiled himself a pot of potatoes only to start peeling some more as they were boiling. And his neighbours were noticing this sudden forgetfulness too. Last Christmas Mr Fflint had given his neighbour, Mrs Blencoe, two Christmas cards and it was on her advice that he made the decision to visit his doctor so that he may discover if his forgetfulness was just a sign of his age or something more serious. This irritated Mr Fflint for the sole reason that the doctor’s surgery no longer made home visits, at least not unless it was an absolute emergency, and they construed this as not being an emergency. It meant that Mr Fflint had to travel eleven miles into Bangor (thirteen miles by the bus routes) in order to keep his appointment. There was a surgery in Bethesda, only about eight miles by road, but when Mr Fflint had attempted to register there some years before they had rejected him on the grounds that he was outside their catchment area. The same was true of the Betws-y-coed surgery. It meant that he (and all the other villagers) had to register for a surgery in Bangor or Conwy. As Conwy was even further away than Bangor (at least twenty six miles by road) Bangor was the preferred option. The trouble was the journey itself. Not only was it a long trip that would take most of the day but he would have to change busses in Bethesda and no doubt have to wait a long time between them too. Still, there was no use grumbling and Mr Fflint would just have to make the most of a bad lot. He would treat himself to a new flat cap whilst in Bangor, he reflected. His current one was starting to look a little worn and the thought of a replacement would be just the thing to keep his spirits alive on the long voyage westwards.
He dressed in his old, worn flat cap and long brown mac-coat and set off at nine in the morning on the day of his appointment, walking the mile long road from the village to the nearest bus stop on the Ogwen road. It took what seemed like an age but along the way he was able to pause and admire the mountain scenery; the black hump of Tryfan and the pyramid of Ole-Wen guarding the road that would take him west to Bethesda. He was not long in waiting for his bus and when it arrived he greeted the driver with a friendly ‘bore-da,’ flashed his bus pass and seated himself towards the front of the bus. It was empty barring a couple of hideously orange faced teenaged girls who were sat next to each other and yet, at the same time, more interested in what was on their mobile phones. Mr Fflint gave them the attention they deserved, none, and for all the journey to Bethesda he stared out of the window at the never changing mountain scenery. Things out here were eternal and constant. The seasons still came, one after the other, Llyn Ogwen still glimmered under the sunlight and the rocks still cascaded down to its northern shore from the high mountains above. The hikers and the tourists still came with their cameras and their sense of wonder. And all this landscape would still be here long after Mr Fflint, and all who knew him and came after, had ceased to be a memory. It would never age, never weary, and it would all go on forever. Mr Fflint liked that and he clung to it as a certainty, knowing that no matter how far he travelled or what happened to him this scenery would always be here waiting for him when he returned.
It was some fifteen minutes after boarding the bus that Mr Fflint alighted in Bethesda outside The Victoria. He watched as it pulled away down the busy high street before then checking when the next bus to Bangor was due. It was half an hour and Mr Fflint soon came to the idea that he would spend the time visiting his old friend Dimitri at the world renowned Queen Elizabeth Inn down by the river. The place wouldn’t be open yet but Dimitri would still be there and he would be more than happy to let his old friend inside for a short chat before his bus came. Mr Fflint set off on the short walk at a brisk pace and turned into the first road he came to, wishing a ‘bore-da’ to a young woman he passed on the corner. He had walked to the bottom of the road and turned towards the pub when he found that the place was rather conspicuous by it’s absence. It just wasn’t there, not even a trace. Instead of the slightly ramshackled, three storey high pub with cottage type windows and black slate roof there was only a dull and empty car park which left Mr Fflint deeply confused. He was certain that the pub had been there the week before, he even recalled sharing a whisky with Dimitri in the lounge behind the bar. Mr Fflint stood in the centre of the car park, dumbstruck by the absence, until he was forced to move by an angry, middle aged lady in a white Fiat.
“Oy… Move out the way you crazy old git,” she shouted from her window. Mr Fflint shuffled to one side of the car park so that she could drive past him. He stared at her, dumbstruck, and then followed as she climbed out of her car.
“I’m sorry but I’m looking for the Queen Elizabeth… I was sure it was here,” Mr Fflint informed her. The lady glared rudely and then snorted.
“The Queen Elizabeth? Never heard of it!” She snorted again and then wobbled away towards the high street. When she had walked on Mr Fflint looked around again, certain that the pub should have been there, and finally returned to the high street in confusion.
And then he noticed that something else was wrong. This wasn’t the Bethesda he knew. It was Bethesda but it was a drab, grey Bethesda full of tired looking buildings painted in neutral colours and odd looking, unfamiliar shops. Mr Fflint’s Bethesda was a bright and colourful town with buildings painted in deep, vibrant and garish hues. It was full of life and people, quarrymen making their way to work or students hightailing it back to Bangor after a night of sin. Clearly Bethesda had changed and it disturbed Mr Fflint a great deal.
He thus walked back to the bus stop, shaking with utter bewilderment. On the way he passed a lady of his own age and so he stopped her to ask what had happened.
“The Queen Elizabeth?” she said with bemusement. “Oh no… The police raided that place and had it torn down over twenty years ago!”
“Tore it down?” Mr Fflint gasped with horror.
“Yes… The same day Thatcher resigned as I recall. Almost completely destroyed Bethesda it did. Without the pub and ‘the trade’ there was nothing to keep the place alive. If it weren’t for the quarry we’d probably be a ghost town by now.” She casually walked on, leaving Mr Fflint as dumbstruck as he had been whilst standing in the car park, hardly believing the news he had heard.
“The Queen Elizabeth raided and torn down?” he whispered to himself. “Good god!”
Back at the bus stop he began to shake all the more. The news of the Queen Elizabeth had hit him quite hard and it disturbed him greatly. Looking around, just from the bus stop, he could see the damage that had already been done by its absence. The town had gone from a full, colourful and vibrant place to a shadow of its former self, a pale nowhere sort of town that lay forgotten and forlorn at the edge of the Welsh mountains. Yes, it may have been on the decline since the late sixties but it had been kept alive by the Queen Elizabeth. That pub had kept visitors coming thanks to its world renowned reputation, its lovely girls and its fine food and drink. And with the visitors came the money that had allowed the town to struggle on. Whilst it was there Bethesda had lived. It was faded yes, but it still held on, dreaming of past glories and the hope that it would one day rise again. And now, Mr Fflint knew, it never would.
He continued to wait in silence until the bus to Bangor arrived and when it came he half heartedly climbed aboard and paid for a return ticket without saying much at all. The driver looked at him queerly but eventually shrugged and drove on. This time the bus was full and Mr Fflint was forced to sit next to an elderly gentlemen who smelt strongly of haddock. He just wrinkled his nose and put up with it for the duration of the journey, which was uneventful. Mr Fflint just sat facing forwards, hands on his knees and not thinking about much at all other than what had become of Bethesda.
It was a full twenty five minutes before the driver pulled into the bus concourse at Bangor. Mr Fflint was hardly paying attention, still thinking of Bethesda, and he was only alerted to the fact that they had stopped by the prodding of the man seated next to him. Not understanding what was happening Mr Fflint made his apologies and then carefully moved himself from his seat to allow the man to pass. He then stood forlornly in the aisle of the bus, wondering why it was now so empty, before he became aware that the driver was observing him. Mr Fflint sat back down but the driver continued to stare and eventually he coughed.
“This is Bangor mate… End of the line,” he informed in that hard but still polite tone that bus drivers use when explaining things to their passengers. Mr Fflint gave a puzzled expression but he understood what the driver meant and he hurried off the bus, wondering what on earth he was doing in Bangor.
Once on the pavement he crossed the street and headed towards the clock tower but then he stopped dead still. As earlier in Bethesda something was incredibly wrong. Certainly, this was Bangor, he could see the clock tower ahead of him and he recognized the buildings beyond but all around him he found a strange world he was sure he had never seen before. There were people, so many people, for a start. The centre of Bangor was always busy for sure but there had never been so many people as this. And they were all dressed in strange, unfamiliar clothes and they all looked positively alien. And leering above these folks were several new, unfathomable buildings and shops all made of startlingly white concrete and glass. Mr Fflint stared for a while at a nearby cafe with metal tables outside. They were advertising some sort of sandwich in the window for what Mr Fflint considered to be the ludicrously expensive price of two pounds. A sandwich should cost no more than one and six in his opinion and a whole two pounds was nothing short of daylight robbery. He eventually grunted with unbelieving distaste and turned around to gaze agog at the towering form of a Debenhams on the opposite side of the street. The very size of it sent a chill through his bones and it made him wonder how anyone who ever ventured inside managed to find their way out again.
Feeling he was growing colder, Mr Fflint stumbled on in horror of all that now stood in place of the city he once knew. He turned at the clock tower and then spied some benches set around a nearby series of brick planters. Frightened by what he saw around him, Mr Fflint made his way over to them and sat down, wondering what on earth was going on. What was he doing in Bangor? Why had he come here and why had the place changed so dramatically from that which he knew? He couldn’t understand any of it and it all left a swirling vortex of confusion in his mind.
He sat for half an hour staring at nothing and only reflecting on the confusion until he felt a hand on his knee. He started only to notice a concerned young woman kneeling before him. Her hair was of the black variety and hung about her face in an untidy way whilst being simultaneously tied back into a ponytail. She must have been in her late thirties but it was clear from the way in which her upper lip was stiffened into place by the use of botox that she was not one who liked to show her age.
“Mr Fflint? Mr Fflint?” she cooed. “Are you alright Mr Fflint? It’s Jenny… You used to live next door to my aunt… She died last year… Mrs Blencoe?” Mr Fflint showed no sign of recognition and he looked the strange lady up and down several times.
“Do I know you young lady?” he asked uncertainly.
“It’s Jenny… Mrs Blencoe’s niece… Do you remember me? I used to come and stay with my aunt during the summer holidays and you’d shout at me for sneaking into your garden and stealing your strawberries.” Mr Fflint did indeed recall such a girl, blackbird he called her on account of her wayward tendencies, but surely this lady could not be her. Blackbird was just a child; a naughty and wayward child but still a child nonetheless.
“We met last year at my aunt’s funeral…” Mr Fflint stared at her blankly. He couldn’t remember the last time he had attended a funeral and he was sure this young woman wasn’t who she claimed to be. He looked away from her and around at the strange place he found himself.
“Mr Fflint?” Jenny shook his knee to attract her attention but he ignored her. He didn’t know her but he was sure she would go away eventually…