This was a very strong thing in Hold: his belief that a thing should not die or be hurt without purpose. – Cynan Jones, Everything I Found on the Beach
What would you do? It’s a simple enough question. When we watch films and read books we read what other people ended up doing. But what would you do? That’s the question that kept ringing in my ears as I read this book. If this was me, if I’d been asked to do what Grzegorz was asked to do or was faced with the opportunity that landed in Hold’s lap what would I have done? I can ask that question because like Grzegorz and Hold (short for Holden) I’m just an ordinary guy. I’ve had a mostly ordinary life and done mostly ordinary things. There’s nothing that special about me. I live my life, watch my P’s and Q’s, mind my own business and generally get on with it.
But that doesn’t mean I’ve not had opportunities. We’ve all had opportunities. Do I go left or right? Do I go out with this girl or not? Do I cheat on this test? Do I tell the truth no matter what? Do I hand the wallet I’ve just found on the street into the local police station. Loads and loads of opportunities to do the right thing. Or the wrong thing.
If only right and wrong were as simple as they used to be. Stealing is wrong. I doubt there is a society anywhere in the world where stealing is not regarded as a criminal act and probably an immoral act, a sin, but is it always wrong? Are there extenuating circumstances when it would be okay to steal? What if you or your family is starving? Would it be okay to steal then? It would still be a criminal act, it would still be a sin, but that’s why the law takes into consideration the circumstances that lead up to someone acting unlawfully. And most people would agree that starvation would be an extenuating circumstance. But what if you’re not starving? What if you’re just hungry?
This is the fundamental problem that both Grzegorz and Hold have to face – independently, they don’t know each other – and I’m afraid they both make the same decision.
Grzegorz is a Pole who, like many of his countrymen, has moved to the UK – in his case Wales – along with his family in order to try to make a better life for them all. A farmer in his homeland he now works in a slaughterhouse. The job has few pluses but one is ‘free’ meat. Of course it’s not free but the British are squeamish when it comes to butchery and not all the edible parts of the animals are used:
He thought of the feet, the cow’s lips, all the slow-cooked things of his upbringing, with the better cuts being sold. He saw the unwanted organs thrown into bins and dye tipped over them, things perfectly good to eat.
But even though these parts are only going to be discarded taking them still amounts to theft. It is something all the Poles do, however, as a means of supplementing their diet and in the hope that by reducing the amount the family has to spend on food they can put aside a little for the future.
Grzegorz’s wife has just given birth to a son and at the start of the book we see him bringing his wife and the newborn home to where he lives. But they don’t have the luxury of their own place, far from it:
He'd waited at the door for a moment, as if getting his breath, letting his wife go in with the baby to the initial greetings. ‘This is not right,’ Grzegorz thought, ‘it is not right to bring a son into this. He should have a real home, a place better than this.’ He stood in the doorway of the bleak place and looked blankly at the artless graffiti that went across the broken brick wall in front of him. Polish out.
He did not know they would be there for so long, stuck, suspended somehow in this no-man’s-land between Poland and what they had held as an ideal new world. It was more than a year now. The baby, product of that first new vibrant energy, a momentous piece of life that they felt was a sign of the newness and change of everything, came now not with celebration but as an extra weight.
With a poor grasp of English and still suffering from culture shock, Grzegorz is dependent on the agency and his fellow displaced country folk most of whom are in the same state as he is:
‘They are good people; we’re all in the same boat here,’ he thought. ‘All reliant on the agency still, as if they held us in some grip.’
The agency is keen to keep that grip tight providing only the absolute minimum and manipulating the system to their advantage whenever they can, hence the three-week lay off to ensure the workers wouldn’t have a full twelve months’ unkroken work which would make them eligible for benefits and enable them to move out of the overcrowded accommodation (twenty-eight people share the agency house they currently live in) into a place of their own.
The work is unpleasant and poorly paid. To earn a little extra Grzegorz digs for cockles:
He could handle this. This was outdoor work. It was backbreaking, working quickly in the gap of the tide, but against the ache he could always look up from the rucked wet sand and to the sea far out, catching the light with this sense of massive space. It was like the flat fields of home, just this endless, empty plain. It was nice to be amongst things that did not belong to man.
He wonders if he and his family could make it on their own just digging for cockles:
‘This could be the thing,’ thought Grzegorz. ‘You wouldn’t need much. You’d just need a rake, a bucket, some transport and someone to buy the shells off you. A man on his own probably couldn’t do much, but if there was a group of us. Four of five people, two carloads maybe.’
And then he gets an offer he feels he can’t refuse.
Hold is a fisherman. He shoots the odd rabbit or two from time to time but fishing is his main source of income. He used to work with his friend, Danny, in the fish factory, but when Hold takes the blame for something Danny did (locking a guy in the blast freezer for a laugh) he now lives a quiet, frugal existence:
Danny had the wife and family. There was a lot of seasonal stuff about, but work wasn’t easy round here. It was better that Hold took it on.
He doesn’t own his own boat and so, much like Grzegorz, the bulk of Hold’s fantasy life revolves around a time when he can afford his own vessel. In the meantime he works for a man who basically doesn’t know one end of a boat from the other but that is just fine for Hold.
His friend had died three years ago and left a son, Jake, and, Cara, his wife for whom Hold feels a certain responsibility. He has a genuine fondness for the boy, who he takes under his wing, but also for Cara, except guilt stops him doing more there even though he thinks about her in that way from time to time:
He gave up the bedsit and went into the caravan. That suited, with the work they were trying to get done on the house.
The house had been Danny’s grandparents’, and as they had aged they had sold off the land and the bungalow they had built on it but had kept the old house. […] The dream in the family was that one day they could rebuild it and move into it in a kind of reclamation, and it had been Danny’s great hope that he would be able to do this.
Then Danny died. And Hold feels in some way duty bound to finish it for him. As he sat by the bed of “his wasting friend seeming to desiccate before him” he resolved to do that for him:
Since then, any money he had he put into things he needed for the house, and it was coming, bit by bit.
The catch was that Danny’s sister now needed her share of the money from the place. She’d hung out while Danny was alive but following her own divorce she finds she can wait no longer. Hold tries everything even submitting a business plan to the bank but the bank had turned him down flat:
You have nothing. We can’t lend with that risk.
So, like Grzegorz again, Hold is desperate and his back is against the wall. And then his opportunity appears. He’s been out shooting rabbits – he had said he would take Jake but being unable to rouse the boy from his sleep he goes out alone – but it’s not a particularly good night for it and after bagging three he heads off to the beach to check his nets.
Whenever he stood here, he felt some sense of affinity. The shapes [of sea-smoothed fallen shale that stretched under the cliffs to the point] were amazing in that strange light. It was an affinity of place and time. Some gentle sense that he was simply part of a process. Then he felt it, and it was very brief. That he was being watched.
He stopped and listened. Just the sea. The hollow boom of the rocks it moved as it broke and sucked at the beach. The trinkets of sound where the water sheeted down the cliffs, running spare off the fields above. Nothing. Just the white sense of it.
He tends to his nets – there’s a mullet, a bass and a crab – and then he hears something:
He heard the rubber hit the rock, the strange, stretching sound like a creaking floor, and he felt himself fizz with electricity. It could be someone come to poach the nets.
The inflatable was spinning slowly by the rocks. The army of grey of it full and neutral at the edge of the torch beam. It looked unmanned, but it was in the end of the beam, as if it consumed the light. Like something circling the edge of a clearing. He saw a flash of engine, some red perhaps as the boat swung. And then a heap. A dark mass in the belly of the boat and he knew immediately it was a man.
The man is dead. This is no surprise to us readers because in the book’s prologue we see the police discover the body:
The sergeant was on the beach and looked down at the body and the younger policeman. Morgan was with him and it was the first time for him, seeing something so severe.
The body had most of the fingers of one hand off and there was a big wound to the face and out through the back of the head.
What state the man is in when Hold discovers him I am not saying, but he’s not a poacher. Seeing what his cargo is he concludes that the man is a smuggler. The question is: what is he going to do?
Hold is an ordinary bloke like you or me, basically a decent chap suddenly faced with a load of contraband. What’s he going to do? I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t know how to get my hands on an illegal firearm or some drugs and I certainly wouldn’t know where to fence some diamonds. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’d be at least tempted by the prospect of a quick few thousand pounds. And Hold is not only tempted he grabs the goods and makes his getaway.
Which brings us to the big man. That’s all he’s ever known as although as his mother is called Mrs Gleeson it seems reasonable that that’s the big man’s name too. The big man is a criminal. But he’s a criminal in a changing world. As the blurb on the back of the book says, “he’s struggling to keep up, longing for the days when all you needed were a code of honour and a reputation.” He lives, as I’ve implied, with his mammy surrounded by “silly little shamrock ornaments and leprechauns” and symbols of Catholic familial love and national pride.
He’s known as the big man not because of his position in the criminal fraternity but simply because of his bulk: he is a big man. But he still lives in his da’s shadow:
In his da’s day, early on, there had just been the pickpockets and burglars. It had been altogether sleepier, old fashioned. But they took it ahead a level, in the seventies, with the police caught up in the Troubles. They moved it up to armed robbery.
You couldn’t be a so-called Ordinary Decent Criminal any more.
The big man doesn’t feel that big though:
‘I feel like a big crashed down tree floating in the ocean. It’s just too big out here. The world’s too big … I’m floating in it and I have no idea what to do unless someone tells me.’ He knew underneath he was an instrument. He knew ultimately he was one of those men to be wielded, not the arm behind those men.
So we have three men, an Irishman, a Welshman and a Pole. If the three of them could go into a bar they might sit down and joke about the futility of their lives. But that’s not what’s going to happen. And you know it.
Jones's sense of place is acute, and his passion for the landscape – for its colours, its creatures, its textures, its scents – is absolutely magnetic. – ‘On the home front’, The Guardian, 13 June 2009
Although she was referring to his debut novel, The Long Dry, when she wrote that, it also applies to this work. He describes everything in great detail whether it comes to extricating a fish from a net or paunching a rabbit.
paunch (third-person singular simple present paunches, present participle paunching, simple past and past participle paunched)
To remove the internal organs of a ruminant, such as a hare or rabbit prior to eating.
This attention to detail does slow down the action but this isn’t exactly a fast-paced book. For me though, even at only 229 pages, it did feel a little on the long side but regular readers will just have to excuse my intolerance for long descriptions. I’m sure most people won’t be troubled by them and, in fact, relish Jones’s way with words.
In an interview on the BBC Wales site Jones said:
Key to what I write seems to be a sense of place, or else of displacement. So belonging is certainly a major theme. – Mid Wales, BBC
This is certainly true of this new book since none of the three main characters are especially comfortable where they are in their lives trapped by circumstance. I don’t think there will be many people who won’t be able to relate to something about these men. They all end up doing bad things but are any of them bad men? Or have they simply given in to determinism? It was inevitable that Grzegorz was going to accept the offer he was made. He might have kidded himself he was thinking it over but he wasn’t and Hold knew as soon as he saw the contents of the dinghy that he was going to take them just as the big man is reconciled to his role as . . . what shall we call him? . . . let’s go with ‘the muscle’.
There is a lot we never get to find out in this book which may frustrate some but it is realistic. I particularly enjoyed the way the story was told. We jump between the three characters’ stories but also, and it wasn’t until I was well into the book, back and forth in time. I probably should have spotted that earlier but I didn’t. After finishing it I was left with a feeling that each man’s destiny was written in stone and that what happens to the three men was exactly what one would have expected, that any other solution would have been a cop out, but that’s the question that you’re left with at the end: could any of this really have been avoided?
Cynan Jones was born in Wales in 1975. His first novel, The Long Dry, was published in 2006 and went on to win a Betty Trask Award from the Society of Authors. The book has since been translated into Italian, Arabic and French. Italian translations of a further two novellas are to follow. Other short work has been variously published, and the author was selected as the Hay Festival nominee for the 2008 Scritture Giovani project.