The Chimes of Graig Trewyddfa

The Chimes of Graig Trewyddfa

Rhys Owain Williams

Illustration by Joseph Gough


Sometimes Jamie thinks about what he’d do if he inherited his nan’s house, which walls he’d knock down. He’d probably have them all go, strip the wallpaper and put that laminate flooring all the way through. Make the downstairs open plan, like they do on those TV shows where the people have too much money. He knows it’s not nice to think like that because it’s imagining what he’ll gain after his nan has passed away, but sometimes your mind just goes there. He would never inherit the house anyway, must be about seventh in line after his father, uncles and older cousins. Still, all this dog walking can’t be hurting his chances. 

It’s been six months since Grandad died, the day he finally gave up the fight feeling both like yesterday and years ago. Nan seems to be doing alright though, says she’s glad of the nights getting lighter again—the reflected sun staying a bit longer in that dark living room at the back of the house. Jamie’s started visiting more often these last few months, now he can drive himself. She tells him he doesn’t need to come by so much but he can see she appreciates it, especially him taking the dog out at night. It’s a chance to see his Uncle Peter too, who always seems to be there fixing something or emptying the dishwasher. Jamie’s dad is happy to just send Nan a text to check if she’s alright. Even Jamie, with his generation’s aversion to phone calls, knows that’s not on. Not for someone of Nan’s age, who can’t make out the words on the screen with her bad eyes.

He calls in every Thursday after football training up the AstroTurf—it doesn’t finish until eight but Nan doesn’t seem to mind, she’s always been a night owl. Has some microwave meal warmed up waiting for him, or homemade soup from the freezer. Then three desserts: fruit and ice-cream, a piece of cake, and finally a bar of chocolate to eat while he takes the dog for a walk. A yappy little Yorkie named Ziggy: the name given to him at the kennels they got him from two months after Grandad died. Nan said the house was too quiet, that she kept listening out for Grandad moving around upstairs. Uncle Peter sings lines from the song whenever the dog walks in the room: ‘Ziggy my boy! So where were the spiyyduzzz…’ Nan doesn’t really get the reference but as soon as Ziggy starts howling she smacks Uncle Peter with the paper, tells him to stop winding the poor dog up. You can see the grief hasn’t left them yet though, even in these lighter moments. Jamie’s felt sad, but he reckons it sits heavier on Nan and Uncle Peter. You sort of expect to lose a grandparent, most of his friends are down at least one. He can’t remember crying, not even when his father sat him down to say that Grandad had finally gone.   

As soon as Jamie finishes the last bite of his microwave lasagne, Ziggy starts jumping up at him, his claws scratching across his bare leg. The little dog hasn’t been around very long but already the Thursday walk has become a ritual, and Ziggy knows that as soon as Jamie puts his knife and fork down it’s time to go. Nan tells him to let his food go down a minute, so he watches a programme about some posh flower show with her before finally giving in to the yapping, scratching dog. 

Bored of the same circular route down to Vicarage Road and then back up past the school, tonight he turns right, drags the dog past some unfamiliar scents to a set of steps that leads to the housing estate behind Tan-y-Lan Terrace. Nan still calls it the ‘new estate,’ but it must have been here at least fifty years now, if not more. At the top of the steps he’s met with a row of pebble-dashed houses, a terrace of sorts but not like his nan’s. Joined together in groups of five, these houses stretch the length of the quiet road, continuing around its curves at each end. He guesses there’s forty or so identical houses, with more beyond them. Old enough to remember it not being here, his grandad held a grudge against the estate being built on Graig Trewyddfa until the day he died. Used to go rabbiting up there, he said, when it was all fields—‘catch something for my mother’s pot.’ But then the diggers came, dug up the rabbits and made a human warren instead. Jamie never really understood what his grandad meant by that—a ‘human warren’—but walking through the estate now he begins to see what the old man was getting at. It’s a maze, he thinks, every house and street looks the same. Dark too, the old streetlamps not yet replaced by new LED ones. The whole estate is washed in a dim yellow glow.

It’s not late-late, but there are barely any lights on in the houses—just the colours of television screens bouncing around darkened living-rooms. Through an open window Jamie hears the beeps of the ten o’clock news intro and realises he should get back soon. Ziggy only needs a short walk at night, and Nan worries if he’s out with him for too long. He can hear her saying ‘I thought something had happened to you’—the same line every time, never clear if she’s being serious or not. Jamie wonders what she would think if she knew about him coming home from town in the early hours of the morning. She couldn’t though, not even his mother knows what time he really gets in. He’s mastered the quiet turn of the key in the lock, the climbing of the stairs using only the outer bits of the boards. 

Him and his mates are meant to be out again tomorrow, so he checks the group chat to see if anyone’s posted any plans. Just a link to a football quiz from Lloyd, and an audio message from Lewis. He’ll play it when he’s got his headphones in later, not wanting to subject the quiet estate to whatever Lewis has sent him. It’s probably that sex-noise prank again, the one he once tricked Lloyd into playing out loud in Geography class. He posts it in the chat at least once a month. Lewis knows Jamie visits his Nan on a Thursday and he wouldn’t put it past him to be that sick. He gets off on the embarrassment of others. Jamie opens the football quiz and answers the first few questions before getting bored and closing it down. He’ll have another go when he’s in bed later.

When he looks up from his phone Jamie realises he’s kept walking in the opposite direction from his nan’s house, so he turns around and starts making his way back towards the steps. As he does, the sound of an ice-cream van’s chimes echo across the estate. It’s gone ten o’clock. He stops in his tracks and finds himself saying ‘bit late for ice-cream’ out loud, before feeling stupid when the only response is Ziggy’s identity tag clinking against his lead. The little dog looks up at him expectantly, before turning away and exhaling loudly through his nose. Do dogs get exasperated? The chimes continue playing at intervals, somewhere behind him towards the top of the estate. Jamie knows the song is ‘Yankee Doodle’ because his grandad used to sing the words as the van went past the house when he was little: Yankee Doodle went to town, a-riding on a pony, stuck a feather in his cap, and called it macaroni

He expects someone to come out of one of the identikit houses, see what’s going on. He knows Grandad would have been straight out on the doorstep, ready to have a go at whoever was disturbing the peace. But nobody on the estate seems bothered. In fact, the houses are in complete darkness now, the television screens turned off. Jamie suddenly feels very alone, exposed. As he starts walking again the chimes get slightly louder, as if the van is descending the estate toward him. He feels the muscles at the base of his neck contract, each downy strand of hair standing on its end. This is stupid, he thinks, it’s just an ice-cream van—its driver returning home after a long day at some event. But still he finds himself picking up the pace, Ziggy breaking into a run to keep up. 

Then the chimes stop, right in the middle of the verse, and the estate takes on a deathly silence. Jamie thinks of the chapel of rest he visited his grandad in, the way the cushioned walls dampened any sound. Just him and Grandad in the room, his younger brother waiting outside the door for his turn. The way that he felt silly talking to the shrunken, jaundiced man laid out in the coffin, the man who couldn’t talk back. And not wanting his brother to hear what he was saying, so each word coming out quieter than a whisper—so quiet that the words were barely being said at all. He feels it again now, that absence of sound. The whole world on mute.

Jamie reaches the steps back down to Tan-y-Lan, or at least where he expected them to be. But as he turns the corner towards them he’s met by a chain-link fence instead, stretched across fir trees and fly-tipped plastic. He brings up the Maps app on his phone, but only the square he’s currently in will load. No signal. All of the houses around him look the same, there’s nothing he can use as a landmark. He retraces a little up the road, hopes to see the steps jammed in between two groups of houses. But they never appear, the gaps only leading to pitch-black back gardens. He must have walked further into the estate than he thought, not realising the winding route he was taking. He decides to carry on past the fence and the fir trees, walk round the curve at the other end of the road and hope it spits him out somewhere helpful. 

Around the curve the street extends steeply upwards, until it ends with another street crossing it at the top. It feels wrong to be heading up an incline when he knows Tan-y-Lan Terrace is below him, but he can’t get back down to it without the steps. He keeps checking his phone to see if the signal has returned, but it’s still only showing the tiny square he’s currently in, little uniformed blocks of houses either side of his pulsing blue dot. He stops to see if he can zoom out on the map, but outside of his square it’s just an infinite unloaded screen. He turns the phone off to see if that’ll fix it. 

As the phone powers down Ziggy lets out a low growl. At first Jamie thinks the dog is just tired, that he’s ready to go home, but as he looks up the street he realises it’s because there’s a man stood at the top, facing away from them. Jamie begins walking towards him, thinking he’ll ask him for the way out, but the estate is silent and there’s no one else around. Those ice-cream chimes have put him on edge. He hangs back for a minute, weighing up the pros and cons. There’s something odd about this man, about the way his silhouette looks just beyond the yellow lamplight. He’s wearing a hood for sure, but it’s oddly-shaped – a baggy triangle. . The man’s sleeves billow out, and as he begins walking Jamie sees the lower half of him trail behind like a long skirt. He can’t help but think of the stories his grandad used to tell him about the robed monk that haunts Graig Trewyddfa, how Grandad and his friends would see him walking towards the old church in Llangyfelach if they stayed out rabbiting too late. Used to be a monastery up there see, Grandad said, built by Saint David himself. 

Jamie watches the strange man walk across the top of the road and disappear behind the house on the corner. He realises he’s been holding his breath. Fucking ridiculous mun, he thinks, it’s just some bloke in a tracksuit that’s too big for him. Still though, he isn’t sure if he’s glad or not when he reaches the top of the street and the man is nowhere to be seen. He must have gone into a house, he thinks, but just like the street below there isn’t a single light on. Jamie imagines the man crouching behind a garden wall or an electric box, waiting to jump out at him, and so walks off in the opposite direction. He turns his phone back on but the map still looks like the blank grid paper they give you in school. At the end of the street is another curve—upwards again, away from Tan-y-Lan. It’s almost half-past ten now. Nan must be readying a search party. 

Just as the road he’s walking up begins to plateau out, the ice-cream chimes spring back into life, resuming at the point in the verse where they’d abruptly ended: —a pony, stuck a feather in his cap, and called it macaroni. They’re below Jamie now, and somehow ahead of him, as if the van is coming towards him from a different angle. The jangling chimes echo down the gaps in between the groups of houses, amplifying the thin tune. He isn’t really sure why, but Jamie turns to walk back the other way, disregarding the hooded man who might be hiding in wait for him. But as he turns the chimes seem to move too, and now they’re above him again, somewhere at the top of the estate. Yankee Doodle went to town, a-riding on a pony, stuck a feather in his cap, and called it macaroni. No matter which way he turns the ice-cream van seems as if it’s coming towards him. Jamie has this odd unshakeable feeling that he shouldn’t let the van find him. That if he sees it turning a corner, driving towards him, something awful will happen. 

Just as he’s about to pick a direction and start running, the chimes stop as abruptly as before. Only this time they aren’t followed by a deathly silence, but instead by the sound of the final note reverberating across the estate, breaching each opening it can find. Jamie isn’t sure how echoes work, but this elongated sound feels wrong. Out of place. Suddenly he wishes he’d paid more attention in Physics class, tries to remember something—anything—about sound waves that can help him. Does the long note mean the van is moving away from him or towards him—or that it’s stopped moving altogether? Does it mean anything at all? Hoping his subconscious will come good with a key bit of info, he decides to keep on in the direction he was heading before the chimes returned. If the street he’s on doesn’t dip down again towards the steps then surely it must climb up and out of the estate. There has to be another way out of here, some link to a main road. He doesn’t care how he leaves the estate, just as long as he leaves it.

As he reaches a fork at the end of the street the note finally stops reverberating against the houses. The deathly silence returns. Jamie isn’t sure which is worse: a sound that feels wrong or no sound at all. There’s no time to decide though, his need to leave the estate is beyond desperate now. He lights up his otherwise-useless phone, sees it’s almost eleven o’clock. He’s been out for over an hour. Nan must be going frantic. Jamie wonders if she’s worried enough to ring his mother, admit to her that she’s lost her little boy. Still a baby at times, in both his nan’s eyes and his mother’s eyes, despite the fact he’s old enough to drive, drink, vote—even move out on his own if he wanted to. He has to find a way off this estate, can’t stand the thought of the drama he’s causing in the house somewhere below him. But each street he walks down looks the same, the only difference being whether it curves up or down at its end. There’s still no sign of the steps. As Jamie frantically strides across the estate in search of them, Ziggy starts whining, pulling back each time he jerks the lead to hurry him along. He knows he should pick the dog up really, but remembers the little nip he gave him when he carried him past that big Alsatian a few weeks ago. Ziggy will just have to put up with this for now, he’ll make a fuss of him later. 

Jamie’s legs begin to feel hollow, two empty stalks carrying him past rows upon rows of sullen houses, an unabating stream of pebble-dashed yellow. The repetition of checking down each dark gap is making him feel sick. Still no signal on his phone, but each time he checks it another chunk of minutes have disappeared. 11:08. 11:14. 11:21. Ziggy pants heavily at his side. The situation feels hopeless. As he turns down another curve he begins looking at houses rather than gaps, deciding which one looks the most welcoming. He’s seriously considering it now, knocking on one of the darkened doors and asking whoever’s inside for directions, or to use their phone to call his nan. As he settles on a front door flanked by rainbow pinwheels and garden gnomes—the first burst of colour that’s penetrated the dim tungsten glow—he spots them. Suddenly, finally: the stone steps emerging from a larger gap between houses. His escape from the dark estate. As he powers toward them the tinny nursery rhyme strikes up again—louder, and somehow quicker than before. 

Yankee Doodle went to town, a-riding on a pony, stuck a feather in his cap, and called it macaroni.

Yankee Doodle went to town, a-riding on a pony, stuck a feather in his cap, and called it macaroni.

Yankee Doodle went to town, a-riding on a pony, stuck a feather in his cap, and called it macaroni.

Yankee Doodle went to town, a-riding on a pony, stuck a feather in his cap, and called it macaroni.

The song surrounds him, echoing off each flat surface of the estate. The distance between him and the steps seems endless. And he hears another sound now too: the low rumbling of an old diesel engine. He doesn’t need to look around to confirm that the van has finally found him. He can hear it turning slowly onto the street, the sound of its squealing axles tightening the muscles in his chest, making the follicles on the back of his head prickle. Then, as the van’s headlights hit the curve at the other end of the street, he sees him. The hooded man. Illuminated briefly, Jamie catches a glimpse of the face beneath the hood. It’s shrunken. Jaundiced. Familiar. The man begins walking towards him, towards the steps, slowly but deliberately. Jamie considers turning around, facing the ice-cream chimes head on instead, but the safety of Tan-y-Lan is so close. He can outrun him. He picks Ziggy up, the small dog whimpering in his arms as he runs full pelt for the steps, the hooded man and ice-cream van closing in on him from opposite ends of the street. He reaches the steps just as the man’s face is about to come into better view beneath a streetlight, races down them as the sound of a diesel engine rises above the deafening ice-cream chimes behind him. He doesn’t look back, keeps running down the steps and up Tan-y-Lan Terrace until he reaches his nan’s house and only when he’s on her doorstep does he stop to put Ziggy down, try to catch his breath and compose himself. The song has stopped playing, or at least he can no longer hear it. Neither of his pursuers have made an effort to follow him down from the estate. 

Tan-y-Lan is quiet, but not silent. Jamie can hear a television somewhere in the terrace, see lights on behind drawn curtains. When he finally opens his nan’s front door she’s standing there waiting for him, and that’s when the tears come. Pouring out of him, an unstoppable flow. Nan puts her arms around him, asks him what’s wrong but he can’t get the words out. Doesn’t actually know what started him off crying. And getting lost on the estate, the ice-cream van, the hooded man—it feels like it didn’t happen now. Or that it both did and it didn’t. He drops the dog lead and Ziggy walks off into the house with it trailing behind him. Uncle Peter must have gone home because Jamie doesn’t hear him singing David Bowie as the dog trots into the living room. He can’t stop crying—the tears seeming to come from deep within him, rising up his back and collecting in his shoulders. His nan just keeps holding him. ‘It’s OK love, it’s OK,’ she says finally, ‘I miss him too.’ 

Eventually the tears come to an end. Nan makes him a cup of very sugary tea and he drinks it in silence on the sofa. ‘You should go home now cariad’, Nan says, ‘Your mother will be wondering where you’ve got to.’ Jamie nods, tells her he’ll just use the toilet first. At the top of the stairs he opens the bathroom’s airlock, steps into a room filled with the smell of lavender soap and talcum powder. And, ever so faintly, the scent of a man’s aftershave. While he washes his hands his phone lights up, the signal finally returned. A message from his mother checking if everything is alright, and another from Lewis asking what the plans are for tomorrow. As he dries his hands he avoids looking at his swollen face in the mirror, though as he turns to leave he catches his reflection in the bathroom window. The window is closed and double-glazed, but as the toilet cistern finishes refilling he’s sure he can hear it above the bathroom’s new silence. Faint and strained, yet unmistakable—that familiar song still playing somewhere behind the house, on the darkened mass of Graig Trewyddfa. 

Story By Rhys Owain Williams

Rhys Owain Williams is a writer from Swansea, Wales. His short fiction has appeared in magazines and anthologies, including New Gothic Review, The Lonely Crowd and A Flock of Shadows: 13 Tales of the Contemporary Gothic (Parthian Books).

Illustration By Joseph Gough
Joseph Gough is an illustrator based in New York. His illustrations have appeared in a number of online and print publications such as The New Yorker, The Poetry Foundation, The Believer, Hellebore Magazine and many more.