Our trip to Wales was flawless. We pulled into the station right on time. It was a tiny, brick kiosk that seemed indistinguishable from those that had preceded it. Only the small white signs at either end of the building set it apart from the others. Haverfordwest, the signs said.
The platform was deserted except for our fellow passengers (all five of them). There was no sign of Greg Pickersgill or of anyone who might presumably be his significant other, Catherine McAulay. Lynn and I had played host to Gregory during his own TAFF trip in 1986, but had never met Catherine -- so she could have been anybody. I didn't want to look foolish by going home with the wrong Welshman. But since there wasn't anybody waiting for us the point was moot.
It was a warm and bright afternoon in August and Lynn's pale blue hair seemed to be in competition with the cloudless sky. As we stepped out of the station I wondered if we'd look out of place in this little village so far from home. Was this going to be the start of a grand adventure or a pitiful humiliation? Would I regret something as impulsive as this one-day trip to Wales? What if Ed McMahon came to our house with that big check for a million dollars and we weren't home? That would just be my goddamn luck.
Moments after hitting the sidewalk in front of the station a small red car stopped in front of us and Greg Pickersgill got out. He looked much like I'd remembered him, with a touch of grey thrown in for drama. Catherine was behind the wheel and greeted us so warmly that I immediately felt a kinship with her.
She explained that they had been delayed because they hadn't been able to decide whether to walk or drive to the station. Their house was so nearby that driving seemed silly, but not knowing how much luggage we might be packing, the car was the logical choice. I was happy to ride to the house, but soon came to understand their debate. The actual trip took no more than two minutes and once we got there I could actually see the train station from their front door. Driving did seem silly. Fortunately for everyone involved, I am a very silly person.
Their house at 3 Bethany Row is actually two houses joined by a common wall. They had always been two separate homes until Gregory and Catherine moved in (Greg had actually lived in one side of the house as a child), but since so much room was needed for the library and the computers and the fanzines and the other collections, they moved into both houses. A brilliant solution that provided them adequate space, a big lush garden, separate offices and, luckily for us, a guest room.
The only real drawback is one of access between the houses. The landlord refused to allow Gregory to put a door in the wall that divides them, which means that one must step outside into the back garden to go from one side of the house to the other. This proved to be something of an annoyance for our hosts, but was only a minor inconvenience for Lynn and I. In fact, we ended up having one of the houses (the right side) to ourselves -- the guest bedroom being in one house while Catherine and Greg's room was in the other. Hospitality is one thing, but nobody has ever put us up in an entire house before. I was impressed.
After a few minutes of exploring the house(s) and meeting the cats, our hosts led us on a guided walking tour of their town. We wandered past the train station and down the hill into Haverfordwest. The streets were narrow and would probably be described in Fodor's as "quaint and charming," but I couldn't help noticing a quiet sadness about the place. Too many storefronts were closed down and the only people on the streets seemed to be the young and the elderly. Our journey took us along many picturesque canals and over several old stone bridges that seemed remarkable only because of the presence of an unusual number of shopping carts that lay at the bottom of the shallow water. A testimony to the boredom of Welsh teenagers, no doubt.
The highlight (literally!) of the afternoon's tour of Haverfordwest was our visit to the impressive ruins of the 12th Century Norman castle that dominates the local landscape. Built on a bluff that overlooks the entire countryside, the castle defended the shipping interests of several different conquerors over the centuries. Today, the great skeleton of a fortress is a tourist attraction -- when there are any tourists -- whose thick stone walls belie any concerns I might have had about the demise of the people of Wales. (As long as that castle stands, there will always be a need for at least one person to cut the grass and pick up the cigarette butts.)
In spite of my cynicism, I was impressed by the ruins. I always get a special feeling when I make contact with aged things and this was no exception. I sometimes imagine that I can detect the latent energy left behind by the centuries of mankind's passing parade. How many feet had walked up the steps of that 800-year-old fortress before mine? How many sets of lungs were left breathless by the incline before mine?
Next to the fortress is another old building that had once been a local prison. (It now houses offices for lawyers or the government or some other appropriately ironic agency.) By coincidence, I had also taken Gregory to visit a local Virginia prison during his TAFF trip. Apparently he had decided to return the favor -- though this time we didn't see any sign of E.B. Frohvet's favorite ex-con. I wonder how many other TAFF winners have visited (if you'll excuse the expression) penal facilities during their TAFF trips?
Visiting castles and prisons always gives me a powerful thirst. When I noticed the specks of white foam in the corners of Greg's mouth I knew it was time for a beer. Everyone agreed and Catherine led the way down the hill from the ruins and took us down winding streets to an acceptable pub. Along the way we passed several other establishments that were rejected by our hosts.
"That one's a fucking shithole," said Gregory.
"Yuppie Wine Bar," said Catherine at the next.
"Wannabe Biker Bar," said Gregory about another.
We ended up in a pleasant, but mostly empty pub in the midst of Haverfordwest's shopping district. The booths were comfortable and the drinks were cold. Greg and I gossiped and lied about everyone we could think of. I asked him what Chuck Connors' problem was and he asked me what was wrong with Guy Lillian. Gregory told me about Don West and I told him about Andy Hooper. We talked about fanzines and fandom and all the great things that were going to get done just as soon as one of us won the lottery. I'm not sure what Lynn and Catherine were talking about, but it probably had something to do with what pathetic dreamers fanboys can be and how small our printruns really are. You know, girl talk.
We moved on to another local bar after a short walk along the length of Haverfordwest's impressive Aquatic Shopping Cart Exhibit. It had been an unseasonably hot afternoon and we all welcomed the opportunity to get out of the sun. By this time any apprehensions we'd had about getting along with our hosts had disappeared. We had gotten through the awkward perfunctory conversations -- and several pints of Guinness -- and found that we still had plenty to talk about. In fact, we didn't shut up until we got back on the train the next morning.
Dinner that night was superb. Catherine's skills in the kitchen elevated her to goddesshood with every bite I ate. Fresh Cockles and Sea Trout, New Potatoes served with freshly-made Mayonnaise, Salad, and several home-made Pizzas. It was the most memorable meal of our trip, though there were others that I shall never forget.
Gregory and Catherine's house is a treasure trove of fannish delights. Everywhere I looked there were books and fanzines. The walls of the bedroom we slept In were layered with interesting Piles 0' Stuff. Over by the window was a set of British SF Book Club hardcovers. By the door a probably complete run of the slick music magazine, Q. On the nightstand a conveniently located pile of Hyphen sat basking in the shadow of a life-size replica of Jophan's Shield of Umor.
Orderly stacks of fanzines huddled on shelves in the hallway that passes Catherine's office. The mixture of dark wood shelving and loud book jackets gave the sitting room a warm, inviting glow. Gregory showed me several paintings by D. West, a man known in some circles for his yellow fingers and his pink eyes.
"This painting proves that Don is really fandom's only true renaissance man," I marvelled.
"Yes, it's true," Greg sighed. "But I just wish he wouldn't go around town in those bloody tights all the time."
"There are some things that man was not meant to know," I agreed.
I met the entire membership of Haverfordwest fandom that night when we were joined by David Redd. noted author and third wheel. He arrived carrying an eight-pack of ale that never seemed to run dry. Before David had arrived we'd finished off a bottle of wine and many bottles of lager, but once he'd joined us the real drinking began. Empty bottles began piling up in the corners. At one point Catherine produced a bottle of locally- made Mead for our consumption. It was astonishingly good. Usually I dislike overly sweet wines and liquors, but that bottle of honey Mead went down like ambrosia. Periodically David would pull another bottle out of his eight-pack and offer it to one of us. Before long his feet became obscured by the pile of little green ale bottles, and yet there was always another lurking inside the box.
David talked about the reality of being a very slow writer while trying to raise a family and the necessity of having a job in the real world to make ends meet. I explained that it was much the same for would-be artists like myself. Between gulps of beer we discussed the frustrating way that working for a living interferes with Real Creativity. Catch-22. David talked eloquently about unfinished short stories and how they are like bouts of unrequited love. I talked drunkenly about unfinished comic strips and how they are like piles of expensive paper sitting in the corner gathering dust. Lynn looked at me like I was crazy, but handed me another beer anyway.
It was 4:00 a.m. when David took the last couple bottles of his ale and vanished into the night. Greg and I had been sprawled on the floor for several hours by that point, but continued our discourse whenever we made eye contact over the mountains of beer bottles.
We discussed how important it can be to separate a fan's creative endeavors from his often peculiar and sometimes offensive personality. We discussed Richard Bergeron's brilliance as a faneditor and fanzine packager in contrast to his more disappointing personality flaws. Greg talked about getting his copy of Warhoon 28 long after the brouhaha known as Topic A had taken place. Despite all that distasteful unpleasantness, he was utterly astonished by the scope and quality of the book he held in his hands. It exhibited none of the bile and bias that, unfortunately, Richard Bergeron Is known for today. It was a work filled with love and respect.
"What a fucking waste," Greg sighed. "What a loss to fandom."
"Yes," I agreed. "But you know what this means, don't you?"
"You mean?" Greg asked from somewhere behind a great pile of empties.
"Yes, that's right," I answered. "There's still hope for you and me."
We exchanged many important theories about life that night, and if either of us had been able to remember them the next morning this would be a better world to live in.
We left the next day after a couple cups of coffee and about five hours of sleep. Before leaving I was granted access to Greg's fanzine preservation project, The Memory Hole, and allowed to liberate duplicate copies of many fine fanzines for my own collection. This kind of generosity made me appreciate Gregory and his love of fanzines all over again. His belief in the legitimate power of fanzine publishing inspired me and left me feeling, at the same time, like I was playing out of my league. I have yet to adequately repay him.
As we pulled out of the station for our return trip to London I turned to my wife and smiled with satisfaction. I could hardly believe our good luck. Haverfordwest fandom had welcomed us with open arms and drank with us until we were legless. No one screamed at anyone. No furniture was broken. No one pointed and laughed. No one vomited. No one was glad that we were leaving. It was hard to believe that we'd been in the UK for less than three days.
Our trip to Wales was flawless.