‘Are you blind or something, woman?’
‘Well, thank you very much, that’s charming’, that is.’
My brief was to interview Welsh-gold prospector, Tom (Digger) Johns, back at his cosy cottage. Never, in my wildest nightmares, did I imagine myself conducting it straddled across a flamin’ rock, nowhere to stuff my digital recorder for safe keeping, with an icicle dripping from the end of my red-raw nose.
Not a particularly glamorous look, especially when your editor has instructed you to make a good first impression. Quite apart from insulting my eyesight, he now expects me to hang on to him by his ankles.
‘Come on, now, Kate,’ Tom nudges me hard. ‘Let go of that tree stump and show me a bit of your English metal.’
‘I’m not showing you… a bit of my English… anything.’
‘Whoa, slow down, lady, we haven’t even been out to dinner yet.’
Tom reckons he’s spotted a gold nugget, lodged just out of his reach in a rock crevice, right by the edge of the river. I guess it must have glinted in the one, measly ray of sunshine we’ve had this morning, but I can’t see it, despite the fact that Tom is leaping up and down on a rock and pointing, frantically.
‘There it is, Kate! Look! There!’
‘No!’ I shrug my shoulders. ‘I can’t see anything.’
‘I thought you journalists were supposed to be observant.’
‘You should ask for your money back from the charm school,’ I tell him, but he isn’t listening. He’s too busy scrabbling about, trying to find the easiest route to reach the object of his desire.
Truth is, I am afraid to lean over the edge of the rocks to get a better look and this is the closest I’ve been to water, especially the fast-moving variety, since I was ten-years-old. If it was down to me, the nugget would have to stay put, no matter how valuable and rare it might be.
‘What’s your hurry?’ I ask Tom. ‘If it’s been lodged quite happily in its little hidey hole for the past several thousand years, a few more hours won’t hurt, will it? Can’t you wait till one of your fellow prospectors comes to help you?’
He looks at me aghast. ‘Oh, aye, those philistines will be all for chucking it straight in the crucible and melting it down.’
‘Well, yes, isn’t that the reason you come up here searching for gold?’
‘That would be bloody sacrilege, Kate, with something as rare and beautiful as a butter-yellow, Welsh-gold nugget.’
And, to think, it had all started out so promisingly earlier on this morning…
My ancient Citroen 2CV had skidded his way up the steep farm track to Tom’s remote cottage. It was a nightmare of a drive and George’s exhaust pipe – yes, my much-loved little car has a name – grated over several hidden rocks, which seemed to be dotted like booby traps all along the path.
I might be a townie right down to my bones, but even I had to admit to myself that the sight of the snow-covered mountain peaks stretching away into the distance, took my breath away. Please don’t tell anyone I said that.
I can just hear my stepfather. ‘You, Katie Hartley, taking time to look at scenery, that’ll be the day. You were never interested when I’d take you up to Godley Gill, were you? Used to say it were boring, if I remember rightly, and then you’d sit and sulk all day wi’ a face like a wet kipper.’
I hope that I’ve grown up a bit and matured since then.
Despite being labelled the world’s worst navigator, I knew I’d found Tom’s cottage. Well, there was nothing else for miles around, unless you counted the small flock of goats terrorizing a poor shepherd in a field. They must be a formidable breed up here… even his black and white collie was backing away from them.
The normally chatty woman on the Satnav had given up telling me to ‘turn around when possible’ and had taken to filing her nails, the little directional arrow on the screen just floating around dejectedly in a vast, uncharted sea of emptiness.
The name, Bryn Mawr, etched, with a hot poker, I presume, on a lump of wood nailed above the cottage door, was also a bit of a giveaway, as it matched what I’d scribbled down on the front of my notebook. The sign had broken loose from one of the two nails that secured it and was whizzing round in the tumultuous wind like a propeller on speed. I reckon it powers the electricity up here.
Any visitor with expectations of finding a chocolate-box cottage at the end of their epic climb would be sorely disappointed. Think Heathcliff meets the Adams Family. My mum used to love that celebrity house programme on telly. Who lives in a dump like this?
Parking George in the lea of a stone wall, I crossed the icy yard, my feet slithering in all directions, like Bambie. A wretched gust of wind threw my unruly hair right over my face, just as Tom opened the door. Actually, it took Tom a few hefty tugs on the heavy, wooden door before it relented and scraped across the lino’. I pulled my hair to each side of my face with both hands, like a nosy neighbour peering at him through her curtains and Tom gave me a cheeky, schoolboy grin.
‘Oh! I wasn’t expecting a visit from an auburn-haired Yetti this morning,’ he said. ‘You must be Kate Hartley?’
I resisted the urge to make a wise-crack, like, ‘no, I was just passing’, and said instead, ‘Y…y…yes, h…h…ello,’ or something equally impressive and worthy of a proficient, cool, calm, well-travelled, journalist.
At first sight, Tom (Digger) Johns didn’t look half bad for a slightly older man and the tall, slim, tousled-haired guy, late thirties, it said in my notes, standing grinning at me from the doorway, was better looking than I’d imagined. In fact, I was momentarily struck dumb, which doesn’t happen often.
Sadly, I’ve changed my opinion of him since this morning and can now add obsessive nutcase to that list of attributes.
And, the obsessive nutcase is here, on his belly, hanging over the edge of the rocky riverbank, a little metal instrument in his hand resembling a hoof pick, with me holding on to him by his ankles.
‘Daddy’s coming to find you,’ says Tom, inching his way down to the nugget.
What was it that Martin Foley, the magazine’s editor, said to me, back in his centrally-heated office? ‘Never allow your interviewee to take control of the situation, Kate.’
Well, thanks to laughing boy, here, that particular piece of advice has now gone right out of the window, or, should I say, out, over the foaming, peat-stained waters of this raging river, the Avon Mawddach? I can’t even bring myself to look at the Devil’s Cauldron, as the sight of the huge whirlpool in front of me is making my stomach churn around in sympathy with it.
Let’s just say, I am definitely regretting that extremely greasy fry-up I had for breakfast down at the Drovers’ Trudge Inn this morning.
I’ve pushed my frozen feet deeper into a drift to get a better grip, but some snow has fallen inside my wellingtons. I can hardly let go of Tom in order to free up a hand to scoop it out again, which means my trendy, but inappropriate, calf-length wellies feel as if they’re now stuffed with ice daggers.
‘Are you going to be much longer, Tom? I’m freezing me wotsits off.’
I might as well save my breath, because, Tom can’t hear me above the clamour of the waterfall, which is just up-river to our left, here. Annoyingly, we’re positioned close enough to the thing for wind-blown spray to soak right through this hideous, bright-orange ski outfit that Tom persuaded, no, bullied, me into wearing.
‘You should have come better prepared for our Welsh weather, Kate,’ he’d said. ‘That jacket won’t be anywhere near warm enough.’
I’d wanted to say, ‘Yes, but I’m only here to interview you, I wasn’t planning to grab myself a pick and shovel and have a go at gold mining.’ Perhaps Tom was labouring under the misapprehension that we’d be starring in an outdoorsy programme on television and that I was prepared to get my hands dirty, like one of those overly-enthusiastic presenters.
Right! I’ve had just about enough of this fiasco with the nugget. I’m beginning to think Martin Foley was right and it’s about time I took control of this situation.After all, did I not make a pact with myself in front of the mirror last week? ‘I will not allow anyone to push me around anymore. No one will hold me back from my hopes and dreams. I will be one of life’s achievers and afraid of nothing.’ Don’t know about that last bit.
‘HEY!’ I tug on Tom’s trouser leg. ‘YOU DOWN THERE, ARE YOU LISTENING TO ME, TOM (DIGGER) JOHNS?’
‘Watch what you’re doing, woman,’ Tom shimmies backwards a bit and twists his head to look at me. ‘You’re nearly pulling my bloody trousers off. What do you want?’
‘If you don’t get back up here within thirty seconds, then I shall let go of your ankles and push you in the river. Got it?’
He’s giving me a look as much to say, ‘Yeah, right,’ and is now slithering back over the edge of the rocks to resume his treasure hunt.
I have never seen such a smug grin on a man’s face, since, well, hmmm.
Tom scrambles back on to the riverbank and opens his palm to show me the peanut-sized nugget. ‘Just look at that, Kate,’ he breathes, his eyes shining, triumphantly. ‘Isn’t she beautiful? Worth the wait, wasn’t she?’ he adds, pointedly.
‘It’s… stunning.’ I’m trying my best to sound enthusiastic, although, if I’m honest, the nugget is downright mingin’, as my kid-sister, Sam, would say. I suppose I must show a bit of journalistic interest. ‘How much is it worth?’
‘How much is it worth?’
‘Well, it’s a bit misshapen. Will that affect its value?’
Tom’s mouth drops open.
‘When you sell it, I mean? Will that affect it?’
‘Let me just get this straight.’ Tom is agog. ‘You think I should… sell it?’
Oh, dear, what’s that saying about nails and coffin lids?
‘Well, you just said it would be sacrilege to melt the nugget down, but it’s not pretty enough to be put on a pendant, is it?’
‘Put on a pendant?’ Tom looks as if he’s about to burst a blood vessel in his neck. ‘Good God, woman!’ His laughter is bouncing around amongst the rocks like a ricocheting bullet. ‘Pendant, she says.’
‘I was only… trying to make conversation,’ I say to his retreating back, as he slopes off towards the waterfall, still laughing. ‘Hey, wait for me,’ I call after him.
‘You stay there!’ Tom’s voice reverberates back from the opposite bank. ‘She thinks you should be attached to a pendant, my darling!’ More whoops of laughter.
‘Oh, why don’t you just… get married to the flamin’ thing and be done with it?’
Tom stops in his tracks and turns round.
‘Aye, that would be a great idea.’ He puckers his lips and kisses the nugget. ‘Come along, my lovely. Let hubby-to-be put you somewhere safe until our wedding day.’
I said the guy is a nutcase.