In order to give readers an idea what you can expect from The Artist, here is an extract from the book. Crystal has persuaded David to enter the annual Bala Has Talent competition. I am always interested in feedback, whether positive or not:
(Note: The extract has been taken straight from the original proof, and some of the words, particularly those in italics have come out a little oddly in translation, but shouldn’t affect your enjoyment of the book.)
Bala Has Talent
Crystal nursed a cup of tea and watched from her window as
the last of the autumn leaves blew like rain-sodden confetti
from trees outside the cottage. The remnants of Hurricane
Harry had arrived in North Wales after crossing the Atlantic
from Bermuda, and a fierce wind whipped up the waters of Llyn
Tegid. White peaks topped the waves that ran across the lake and
crashed against rocks lining the causeway, drenching anyone
foolhardy enough to try and walk along the road.
From the upstairs windows of the cottage she could see that
flooding had caused the River Dee to burst its banks in several
places, turning fields into large ponds that had already become
temporary homes for ducks, seagulls and even a stately swan. A
lone windsurfer sped across the lake’s stormy water.
“Look at that daft bugger! Nice and cosy in here though isn’t
it Perkins?” She turned from the bleak scene outside the window.
Perkins squawked loudly, which she took to be agreement. “Only
eight weeks to Christmas. I just hope the cottage survives the
storm intact. First big test of winter weath—”
A large crash, and a flash that lit up the lane outside, interrupted
her and she gasped in surprise as a wooden electricity pylon fell
to the ground in a tangle of sparks and wires. The cottage lights
flickered, and died, leaving Crystal and Perkins in eerie semidarkness.
The TV stopped and the cottage was oddly quiet, as
background noises from Homes Under The Hammer and the hum
of electrical appliances was silenced. For once even Perkins was
speechless, hiding his head under a wing.
“Don’t worry, Perkins. I’m sure they’ll soon come and fix it –
I’ve got my old camping equipment somewhere.” Crystal tried to
picture where it might be in the jumble of belongings still piled
high in the spare bedroom and the attic. “A torch. That’s what I
need. And I’ll bring some wood inside for the log burning stove.
We don’t really need all these new-fangled things like central
heating, electricity and fridges do we Perkins?… shit, the freezer’s
full of lamb from David’s farm. Better ring him on the mobile…
bugger the old days.”
Crystal punched buttons on her iPhone. “Hello, Mrs Owen.
Sorry to trouble you, but there’s a pylon down in the lane and the
electricity’s off. I wondered if David could spare a moment? Yours
is off too – oh dear… Do you want me to ring back? OK. Thanks.
I’ll wait, if you really don’t mind.”
Sounded a bit grumpy, thought Crystal. She probably just has
a lot on her plate with the electricity being down, but she had
noticed Mrs Owen never seemed very cheerful or friendly during
their short conversations.
She heard Mrs Owen’s footsteps cross the flagged floor of
the farmhouse kitchen to the door, and her shout across the
yard, “Dafydd. Mae Crystal ar y ffôn.” Several minutes passed
before Crystal heard the door open and slam shut, and footsteps
approach the phone.
“Hello, David. I know you must be busy, but as I was just
telling your mum, the electricity’s off and all this lamb in the
freezer is going to start defrosting if it’s not back on soon. How
are you doing up at the farm? Your mum said you were off as
“We’re OK,” said David. “Working farm, you see, so we have a
generator. We’re used to this happening in winter. Last time there
was a storm like this, the electricity was off for nearly a fortnight.
Absolute chaos, and electricity cables down all over Wales, so I
wouldn’t be expecting miracles. You could come and stay here for
a while. Spare room, mind. Mum’s a bit traditional you know.”
“We’ll be all right,” said Crystal, picturing uncomfortable
silences. She suspected Mrs Owen didn’t approve of her, and
certainly wouldn’t take kindly to Perkins’ sometimes colourful
language. “We have the log burner, and a camping kettle
somewhere. Suppose I should have guessed there might be
problems when I found a big box of candles left by the last tenant
in the cupboard under the stairs.”
“I’ll come over when I have a minute, pick up the lamb, and
see you’re OK. I’ve got some lamps and I’m sure I have a kettle
if you can’t find yours. The gas hob’ll still be working, as long as
you have something to light it with, so at least you’ll be able to
make a cup of tea and live on food from the top of the stove for a
bit. Look, I’ll be over as soon as I can, but you can imagine, we’re
pretty busy at the moment.”
Crystal put the phone down and shivered – even though the
temperature in the lakeside cottage hadn’t yet started to drop.
“Welcome to winter in North Wales, Perkins. Just have to make
do – tell you what, let’s play a game – you be Bob Cratchit and
I’ll be Scrooge, sitting with scratchy pens in our unheated home,
with candles making big reflections on the wall.”
“Cobblers,” said Perkins, shuffling on his perch – his
composure now recovered.
“Suit yourself, killjoy.”
* * *
David was proved right, and days later the electricity hadn’t
been restored. The local radio news informed Crystal that
engineers were working flat out to mend broken connections
across North and Mid Wales, but with no timetable for when
the electricity would be back on. She almost began to enjoy the
new simple life. There was no television to distract her, and the
log burning stove cast a merry glow over the living room walls
– bit cold in the bedroom, though, even in her fluffy Beauty and
the Beast jim jams and with an extra duvet on the bed. “This is
all of getting me in the spirit of Christmas, Perkins, but if they
don’t get a move on we’ll be cooking the turkey on the barbecue
outside, or in bits in a frying pan. Tish is in the same boat as us,
but at least she can go and live in the yurt outside the farmhouse
if it gets too cold.”
Tish told her the yurt, put up in a clearing in the wood for
holiday lets, was warm in the coldest weather, even if it was a bit
smoky with the wind in the wrong direction. “Best thing I ever
bought,” Tish told her. She had spotted the Mongolian tent-like
structure on the YurtsRUs website. “Didn’t even need planning
permission as it’s not classed as a permanent structure, and the
grockles love it. What with the alpacas roaming round as well,
we look quite ethnic. Bit mixed up, since they’re from South
America, but most people wouldn’t know an alpaca from a yak if
they fell over one, so we just keep shtum.”
She offered Crystal use of the yurt, but Crystal said she would
rather stay in the cottage. It was only a little over a mile into Bala
town, and she could go and get warm, check her emails and
charge up her laptop at the internet café on the high street. The
farmhouse was miles from anywhere up a narrow, rough track,
which Crystal’s little Honda Jazz found hard going – particularly
in winter, with snow and ice on the road. The last time she
had attempted the road in bad conditions, the car had slipped
backwards into a gorse bush, and had to be towed free by a local
farmer with his Land Rover. Her little car still carried the battle
scars, and she didn’t want a repeat performance.
The sound of letters dropping through the postbox jolted
Crystal from her reverie, and when she peered through the
window, Wayne, the postie, gave her a cheery wave. Crystal
waved back, and smiled as she remembered Wayne’s recent visit
as a client. Soon to retire after more than forty years pushing
letters through boxes in Bala and surrounding areas, he had
commissioned her to paint a picture of him, to send out as cards
for his leaving do at the Glyndwr Arms.
Candlelight cast strange shadows on the old postie’s naked
form as Crystal worked her magic – including the signature
‘enhancement’ which most of her male clients requested – and
gave the painting an almost 3-D effect.
The finished result showed Wayne, naked apart from an oldfashioned
postman’s hat and sack, outside a house with parcels
and letters in both hands and a puzzled look on his face as he
pondered how to announce his presence. Underneath was the
legend: ‘THE POSTMAN ALWAYS KNOCKS TWICE: BUT
WAYNE GOES HANDS-FREE.’
She sifted through the letters he had left on her doormat – mostly
junk mail – but also a letter from best pal Freddie in Manchester,
the address written in characteristic looping handwriting, with
a smiley face after Crystal’s name. I’ll read that with a cup of tea
later, she thought. Looking through the rest of the pile she found
two gems in the general litter of leaflets. With an audible sigh of
expectation, she immediately opened the ‘Presents for Christmas’
catalogue from Santas-sack.com. Such wonderfully silly gift ideas
– a large thermal sock that fitted both feet for relaxing in front of
the fire; a 6-foot tall inflatable Santa for the garden; a set of musical
nappies that played a merry Christmas tune when wet (suitable
for all ages); a nose-hair strimmer; a full-face turkey hat and a
pine tree-shaped stopper to re-seal a bottle of wine once opened
– certainly won’t need that one. And that was just page one. David’s
Christmas stocking is going to be really daft this year, she thought,
setting the booklet aside for more detailed research later.
There was also a leaflet that looked like it had been printed
from a home computer, advertising the annual Bala Has Talent
charity show at the old cinema on the high street the week before
Christmas – all proceeds to Children In Need. Contestants
needed. The first prize was a candlelit dinner for two at the Plas-
Yn-Dre restaurant in the town centre and £100 worth of Co-op
vouchers. Now that’s an idea, she thought. What could David and
I do? A Laurel and Hardy double act… no that’s no good – it would
mean coming up with a workable script, and who would play the fat
one? David would insist it be her. Then Crystal remembered when
she and Freddie had wowed all their friends with a rendition of
Sonny and Cher’s ‘I’ve Got You Babe’, at a fancy dress wig party in
Manchester – even if The Bastard Jolyon had unkindly suggested
someone put the cats out. “What do you think, Perkins? Would
David and I be any good?”
Perkins regarded her with a beady eye, but said nothing.
“I’ll take that as a yes. Now all I have to do is persuade
David out of his ‘I’m a strong and silent farmer’ mode, and find
his inner self as a long-haired singer from the 1960s, who – let’s
face it – to our modern eyes looked like a bit of a twat. Just
need some sheepskin to make into sleeveless jackets, a couple
of wigs, and we’re off. If you feel left out, we can always get
you a mini-wig and jacket. How would that be my little Perky
Werky?” she said, tickling him under his beak. He made a
half-hearted attempt to nip her finger, but Crystal laughed and
pulled her hand away.
* * *
That night in bed, Crystal cuddled up close to David, her index
finger casually tracing circles on his chest. “David?” She felt him
tense. Bugger. He was getting to know her too well.
“What? Whatever it is the answer’s probably going to be no,”
he said, defensively snuggling deeper into the duvet until only his
eyes and the top of his head were visible..
“You know you like charity work, helping kids – that kind of
“I do my bit when I can,” he replied – caution in every word
and body signal. “Ran the three peaks last year in a sponsored
race, and this year I took part in the Young Farmers’ sheep
shearing contest. Even came close to beating Myfanwy – would
have but she had a more docile sheep than me. They were both for
charity, and I think they raised quite a bit. That the sort of thing
you were thinking about?”
“Something a bit like that, but not anything nearly as
strenuous, and something we could do together. Please, David.
Please, say you’ll help. Mr Willy thinks I can make it worth your
while.” Crystal slipped her hands under the sheets. “My my,
someone’s already standing to attention, ready to volunteer.”
Sometimes this was just too easy.
“The Welsh are great singers, and all you’d have to do is join
me in a song and dress up a bit – what could be easier?”
“What song? And what sort of dress? I’m not being a woman,
and that’s flat. No matter what you do. Ooooo – stop. OK, tell me
the worst – what is it?”
Crystal produced the leaflet from where she had put it, upside
down, on the bedroom table, and watched as David read it.
“Sonny and Cher – remember them from the old Top of the Pops
re-runs? I think we’d be great. We might even win. You’ve gone
very quiet, David. Speak to me.”
David turned in the bed. “Thank God for that. I thought
I was going to have to be a Pussy Cat Doll or something. You
know what they say – In for a penny, in for a pound. Let’s do
Crystal shrieked with delight. “There are times, David, when
you surprise even me. Come on, give me a hug you big softie.”
* * *
The next day Crystal downloaded a 1965 version of ‘I Got You
Babe’ from YouTube onto her laptop, and began to practice,
singing along to Cher’s vocals and trying to copy her mannerisms.
Bit shaky on the top notes, she thought, but plenty of time before
the show. “God, I wasn’t even born when this was made, Perkins.
Hard to think it was fifty years ago. You not joining in? I know
you prefer something a bit raunchier, but come on. Give me the
old Perkins perch shuffle.” Crystal wiggled her hips to the music.
Perkins regarded her with a cold beady-eyed stare, and a grumpy
shake of his head.
“Killjoy. Get into the spirit, Perkins – it’s nearly Christmas,
and we already have the candlelight – just need the crackers and
the turkey, and a bottle or two of wine… ”
The practice session was interrupted by a knock at the door –
Old Huw standing there cupping his hand to his ear.
. “Come in Huw. I’ll put the kettle on. Any reason for the visit,
or just popping in for a chat?”
“No reason,” said Huw. “I was just passing, and heard what I
thought sounded like someone was in pain. Are you OK?”
“That was me singing, Huw. Cheeky bugger. Perkins and I
thought it was lovely. Didn’t we Perkins? Well, I did anyway. I
was practising for the Bala Has Talent competition just before
“Funny you should say that. I’ve entered too,” said Huw.
“I’m doing my celebrated version of the classic ‘Keep Right On
To The End Of The Road’, but in my native Welsh language and
dressed like the great Harry Lauder – crooked walking stick and
all. First performed for Opportunity Knocks In Bala in 1966 and
in competitions every year since. I have great hopes for a win this
time – fiftieth time lucky.”
Crystal pondered whether she was stating the bleedin’
obvious. “Sounds interesting Huw, but you do realise that Harry
Lauder was Scottish?”
“That’s it. Exactly. Got it in one,” exclaimed Huw excitedly,
his rheumy eyes glowing with enthusiasm. “It’s a sort of Gaelic/
Cymric crossover, if you see what I mean. Leaves people
wondering – makes them think a bit.”
Think, and wonder whether the daft old git’s lost all his marbles,
thought Crystal – but said nothing. If this is the strength of the
competition, David and I have it in the bag – I can almost taste the
“Any word yet on when the electricity’s going to be on, Huw?”
asked Crystal from the kitchen, as she poured boiling water into
what had once been her mother’s stained old teapot, and reached
for the tin of home-made bara brith.
“Still not got past repairing the downed lines in Dolgellau, I
heard,” said Huw. “Fellow in the Glyndwr Arms last night reckons
it could be another two weeks before they get to these parts –
and he’s one of the men working on the line, so he should know.
He’d had a few, mind, but it was the worst storm in twenty years
for damage, he reckoned. Should be back on before Christmas
though, with a bit of luck.”
“That’s reassuring,” said Crystal. “Let’s just hope we don’t have
another little puff of wind, or a flake of snow falling between now
Huw sipped his tea, and wrapped his dentures round a slice of
bara brith. “In the country now, Crystal love. Things happen a bit
more slowly here. Rest of our lives to live – no point in worrying
about little things like a bit of electricity.”
“Need to get some extra staff in – a few Poles up those poles, if
you know what I mean. Be fixed in a week. Rural life is one thing
– I want my leccy back. Go, go, go,” said Crystal in her best Welsh
accent, poking Huw in the ribs. “Anyway, how about giving me a
bit of Harry in Welsh?”
Huw put his cup of tea down, cleared his throat and sang, his
voice filling the tiny kitchen – not exactly Land of My Fathers, but
not bad Crystal had to admit.
On the other side of the room Perkins joined in – bloody
traitorous bird. “Have a bit of bara brith, Perkins. I hope it bloody
chokes you,” she muttered under her breath.
* * *
The day of the competition drew near, and David was finally
persuaded to take it seriously, and join her for an hour’s dress
rehearsal, before leaving to muck out a cow shed or something,
Crystal supposed. Sheepskin jackets, crafted from an old nolonger
fashionable rug, wigs borrowed from the dress shop on the
high street and two pairs of bell-bottomed jeans she had found
online completed the ensemble. Crystal thought David looked
more like a rugby player in drag than Sonny, but kept quiet
in case it put him off – anyway, it added a comic touch to the
performance, she decided.
But for now the show had to take a back seat to work – it
seemed the must-have Christmas present this year in Wales was
a nude painting, and today her clients included an elderly couple
of keen walkers. Beats a selfie in silly hats with tongues hanging
out, thought Crystal, as she consulted her diary. Maybe she would
have to get a waiting room if it got much busier, draft Perkins in as
receptionist. “The artist in residence will see you now. Just leave
your clothes on the chair when you go in,” she imagined Perkins
being trained to say, though he’d have to drop his customary
“bollocks” at the end of the sentence.
Seen more genitalia than the local doctor this month, she
pondered. All shapes, sizes and ages had paraded through her
little studio – now moved from the unheated studio-cum-shed
to the front room until the electricity was back on. The couple,
naturists from Llandudno, were two lovely old ducks – but had
given Crystal quite a task, coping with the nuances of their
wrinkly torsos. Like a couple of Shar Peis, she thought, as she
posed them before the backdrop they had asked for – a picture
of the towering crevices of Cader Idris. Complete with walking
sticks, their tanned but droopy faces were poised over a map, as
if planning their ascent of the mountain that towered over the
market town of Dolgellau. It was a rather surreal scene, thought
Crystal, as she laboured over the canvas to catch every crevice
– on both mountain and subjects. It put her in mind of one of
her favourite Lake District walks, Crinkle Crag. She smiled as she
painted – bit of finishing off needed, but the preliminaries were
almost done. The rest she could complete from memory. “I’ll have
this ready for you in about a week – just need to paint in some of
the backdrop and finish off some of the finer details.”
“That’s fine. We’ll call round and pick it up. It’ll be hanging
over the mantelpiece in time for Christmas dinner with all our
friends,” said the woman.
Crystal pictured the couple and their friends all sitting down
to a naturist Christmas meal – only the turkey arriving at table
with dressing. “You must come walking with us one day,” said
the man. “I saw when we came in that you had a decent set of
boots by the door, and I’m sure you’d enjoy it. From here we could
go on the little railway to Llanuwchllyn, and walk from there to
the summit of Aran Benllyn – it’s about 10 miles of pretty rough
scrambling, but the scenery along the way is spectacular with
views of several mountain ranges, and looking back is Llyn Tegid.
On a clear day I believe you can see all the way to Ireland – not
that there’s many of those. What do you think?”
Both looked expectantly at Crystal, who thought she’d have
to choose a particularly cold day, so everyone would be forced to
dress up warm. She conjured up an image of them striding across
a bleak landscape with no clothes on, everything swinging apart
from the old fellow’s todger – shrunk to nothing in the cold. “That
would be nice, but I’m pretty busy at the moment – what with work,
and rehearsing for Bala’s Got Talent the week before Christmas. I
haven’t even thought about what I’m doing on Christmas Day yet.”
Crystal immediately regretted what she had just said.
“You must come to us,” announced the woman. “We only live
just up the coast, and you can bring a friend if you want – stay the
night, so you don’t have to drive. It would be lovely to see you, and
you can meet all our friends – I’m sure some of them will want
“I’ll have to talk to David, see what he wants to do,” said
Crystal diplomatically, sure it wouldn’t be eating his turkey in the
buff with a load of old wrinklies.
She was relieved when they finally started clambering into
clothes to make their exit – at least they wouldn’t scare the sheep,
who were munching grass in the field next to the house, on their
way to their car.
* * *
The day before the show, and Crystal woke up with the feeling
something was different, but couldn’t quite work out what, as
she lay snuggled under piled-up duvets. Then she had it – it was
warm. In the background she heard the faint metallic click of a
radiator warming up. The electricity must have come back on,
and automatically fired up the boiler.
She felt slightly sad that the adventure was over – her days
making do without the usual home comforts finished – but
was still relieved when she tried her bedside lamp and found it
worked. “Perkins,” she shouted. “As they would say at Houston
space centre – we have lift off. And it’s my special day to watch
Homes Under The Hammer.”
Nearly nine o’clock, she thought, as she clambered out of bed.
Getting lazy. Must be country living. In Manchester the traffic
always woke her as the rush hour got underway, and she rarely
slept past 7am. Here, there was no noise apart from birdsong and
sheep. Crystal found that now she sometimes slumbered on if she
forgot to set the alarm and the dawn chorus didn’t wake her.
“Lot to do today, Perkins,” said Crystal, as she walked to the
kitchen. “Everything that’s been keeping cool outside needs to go
back into the fridge, and I have to finish off that painting. Droopy
and his mate will be back today to pick it up, and I need to do a
final practice for the show tomorrow night. David’s coming over
later, so I need to go into Bala and get something to eat – and
stock up the fridge again while I’m at it.”
Crystal had been living hand-to-mouth for the past couple of
weeks and realised she would soon have to think about Christmas.
The letter from Freddie, inviting her to spend Christmas with her
and Nigel in Manchester was still on the mantelpiece. They lived in
a luxury apartment near the top of Beetham Tower, Manchester’s
tallest building and one of the highest residential developments
in Europe, with sweeping views over the Cheshire Plains. But
Crystal thought she would prefer to spend it in Bala. She knew
David wouldn’t be able to get away for Christmas, unless he had
his widowed mum in tow, and as a traditional Welsh country
woman, Mrs Owen would be decidedly frosty in the company of
Freddie – loud even by Manchester standards.
Freddie’s usual Christmas cast-list of waifs and strays from
the far corners of the city’s louche set were also a virtual guarantee
of disharmony – she even doubted if David would be able to get
along with them, never mind his mother. Mrs Owen already
seemed to regard Crystal as dangerously bohemian, but just about
tolerated her for the sake of her son. Crystal recalled telling her of
their plans to impersonate Sonny and Cher at Bala’s Got Talent,
and got the look that said “Why would I be surprised, dear?”
No, it would probably be lunch at home, and maybe after that
she and David would hopefully have a little time together. “That’ll
be nice, won’t it Perkins?”
“Can it, schmuck,” said Perkins in perfect imitation of a New
Crystal had put the television on for background noise, and
saw that an old James Cagney film was playing on the movie
channel. “I think life was definitely better before the electricity
went back on,” she said.
“Eat lead, sister,” said Perkins.
* * *
The day of the competition finally dawned, and as Crystal enjoyed
her early morning cuppa in bed she saw through her window
that the high winds and rain had returned. Waves again swept
along the lake, and the reed beds on the shore had disappeared
underwater as rivers and streams that fed Llyn Tegid swelled
the lake, and again filled the River Dee almost to overflowing.
Fir trees outside the cottage whipped around like they were in
the midst of a tropical storm and the wind’s melancholy howl
sounded like the agonised cry of a huge beast. Crystal hoped this
didn’t mean another spell without electricity, and she touched the
wooden table at the side of her bed in a superstitious good luck
She and David had practised the song together, and she was
pretty sure they could remember all the words – which were not
exactly complicated. She had the soundtrack to sing along to and
the lyrics written down. They’d be all right, touch wood, but she
might need to hug one of the bloody trees outside for the magic
to really work if David didn’t buck up his ideas, thought Crystal.
She had a bottle of champagne in the fridge in case they won,
and a much cheaper bottle of Spanish Cava, picked up on the
last visit to Aldi in Wrexham, if they lost – in which case the
champagne could wait till Christmas.
Crystal quickly dressed, and sat at her workbench, to put the
finishing flourishes to several commissioned works. The naturist
couple called to collect their painting. She was relieved when they
didn’t repeat their invitation to spend Christmas with them, and
was surprised when she went to the door to wave them goodbye,
to find it was already getting dark. She glanced at the wall clock
and it was 3.30pm, time for a quick snack and to start getting
ready for the competition.
Where had the day gone? David was due in an hour, and the
competition started at 7pm.
Crystal stepped into the shower, luxuriating in the spray
of hot water that splashed over her body. “Thank you, God of
electricity. Long may you be with us.”
Finished, she towelled down, and walked into the spare room
where her outfit was laid on the bed alongside David’s. Quickly
changing, Crystal tied her unruly red locks into a tight bun and
completed the transformation into Cher with the long black wig.
She was applying lots of black mascara to her eyes when she heard
David’s pick-up in the drive.
The door opened, and she heard David’s welcoming call:
“Hello. Where are you?”
“I’m up here,” shouted Crystal in reply. “Come up. I’ve got
your costume ready.”
She heard footsteps on the stairs, and David appeared. “What
do you think?” Crystal treated David to a pirouette.
“Sure you’ll look better than I do,” said David noncommittally
as he struggled into his bell-bottomed jeans, to which Crystal had
added large ornamental metal buttons down each outside seam.
“Must have put a few pounds on since you bought these. I’m sure
they fitted better last time,” said David, struggling with the top
Crystal noticed that, indeed, David’s belly was hanging over
the jeans – crash diet for you, after Christmas, she decided, but
said, “You look fine. Get the wig on and we’re done. Just time for
a quick pint at the Glyndwr Arms – bit of Dutch courage before
“You’re surely not suggesting we go in dressed like this,” said
David, regarding himself in the full-length mirror.
“It’ll be fine. Who’s going to recognise you?” said Crystal.
“Come on – live a little, and stop looking like you’re going to a
The Glyndwr Arms was packed when Crystal and David
walked in. Johnny Cash had lined up pints of lager on the
bar, and his companion Dolly Parton downed a pint of Rosie’s
Scrumpy cider. Elsewhere, Crystal noticed what looked like a
very spotty version of One Direction, and Elvis was leaving the
room – heading in the direction of the lavvy. Old Huw turned
and waved. He was dressed in a kilt nearly down to his ankles and
held a walking stick made from what looked like a sturdy piece of
corkscrew willow. “Hello, looks like we have a couple of hippies
here,” he greeted. “Up from Glastonbury for the day in the VW
campervan, are we?”
“Pot and kettle, eh Huw? You look like a hobbit version of
Braveheart without the blue face. Bilbo MacBaggins. Mine’s a pint
of Brains bitter, and David will have the same.”
She glanced round the pub. “Quite a crowd in here tonight,
and most look like they’re here for the show judging by some of
Hugh scanned the bar, while he scrabbled in his sporran for
his purse. The landlord Taff was already pulling two pints. “What
is it?” He peered over the bar at their outfits. “Mick Jagger and
“Cheeky bugger,” said Crystal. “Don’t you recognise Sonny
and Cher when you see them?”
Taff looked them up and down. “No. Can’t see it myself.
Could be Max Wall and Tommy Trinder in drag though – that’d
be worth watching.”
“Ho ho ho. Very funny. You won’t be laughing when we’re
heading off for a steak dinner with £100 of Co-op vouchers in our
back pockets,” said Crystal, quickly slurping back her pint. She
noticed the bar was rapidly emptying. “Come on David. Show
* * *
Crystal and David entered the old cinema by a back door,
which had a large placard with an arrow and the single word
‘Contestants’ written on it. The place smelled slightly musty, but
the ancient heating system had been cranked up, and at least it
was warm. Crystal peered through the stage curtains, and saw
the auditorium was filling with people – many of whom she
recognised, but there were also quite a few unfamiliar faces.
Turning, she saw the contestants, who had earlier been taking
a pint or two in the Glyndwr Arms, limbering up for the show.
Old Huw had dug out a small flask from his sporran, and was
liberally lubricating his vocal cords with the contents; Elvis was
practising his stance and curled his top lip as if he had something
stuck in his teeth; and Dolly was busy re-inflating her boobs with
a bicycle pump.
Master of ceremonies, Jones the Butcher, dressed in his best
suit for the occasion, looked more nervous than the contestants
as he fingered the collar of what Crystal guessed was a new
white shirt, still stiff and pristine. She thought his stringy neck
sticking uncomfortably out of the collar gave him the appearance
of an ill-at-ease turtle. “OK. Let’s get this show on the road.” He
turned to the contestants with a strained smile, before stepping
through the curtains to muted applause. “Welcome to Bala’s Got
Talent – the show where a star may be born,” he announced with
little conviction and a definite question mark in his voice. “As
always, your applause on the clapometer decides the outcome.”
The clapometer in this case being Mavis, who served behind the
cooked meat section of Mr Jones’ shop.
“Anyway, let’s get started with Huw – who has appeared in
the show in all its guises over the years, and is our most senior
contestant. Take it away, Huw – this could be your year.”
The curtain opened just in time for the audience to spot Huw
hiding away his flask. “Donald, where’s yer trousers?” shouted
one wag, but old stager Huw chose to ignore him as the backing
track began to play.
He more or less ended in time with the music, and earned
polite applause, but Crystal noticed as he stepped off stage that
Huw’s eyes seemed strangely glazed. She realised he was utterly
pissed, and guided him to a chair in the wings, where he sat with
legs splayed apart, oblivious to the world, and began to gently
Next up was a juggler who dropped all his balls. Elvis split his
trousers – and earned the biggest round of applause so far that
night, and Dolly’s boobs slowly deflated as she told the story of
‘The Coat of Many Colors’. Crystal was feeling quietly confident
when she and David were called to the stage.
They climbed onto a couple of tall stools, and as the music
started, began to sing. Crystal gazed lovingly into David’s eyes,
and David stared back cross-eyed. She suppressed a giggle and
managed to keep in time with the music. David sounds pretty
good, she thought. Hidden talents, that boy.
The crowd fell silent, and as the music finished Crystal felt
a second of panic. Then the applause started. Looking round,
Crystal spotted many of the farming community who had turned
up to support one of their own, clapping, cheering and stamping
their feet. David turned and winked at her – crafty bugger.
“I think we’ve got it in the bag,” whispered Crystal, standing
with her back to the stage.
“I wouldn’t be too sure,” said David, gesturing over her
A thin young girl in a wheelchair slowly propelled herself onto
the stage, and reached out a frail hand to take the microphone
from its stand. There was a collective “Aaaahhhh” from the
audience, as the music started and the pale-faced waif began to
sing the Titanic theme song, ‘My Heart Will Go On’.
“That’s us sunk,” said David, as the child’s wavering voice
filled the hushed auditorium. “She doesn’t have that great a voice
but I doubt anyone cares.”
Half the crowd began singing along, and Crystal saw that
many of the women were openly weeping. Even some of the men
wiped away a tear. The child ended her song with a weak smile
and the audience rose as one in a standing ovation. Crystal could
see that even if the clapometer was Mavis – who sold boiled ham
and gala pies to her on a weekly basis – the chances of winning,
for the rest of the contestants, had just been hit by an iceberg.
Crystal and David joined the applause as the child smiled, and
weakly waved a spindly arm before she was wheeled off-stage by a
large woman with peroxide blonde hair and tattoos on her sturdy
arms, who had appeared from the wings. “Come on David,” said
Crystal. “Let’s get out of these clothes. We’re just in time to catch
last orders in the pub. I’ll buy you a consolation pint.”
Crystal changed into her ordinary clothes, rather glad to put
Cher into a Co-op carrier bag, and went to the Ladies to get the
caked mascara from round her eyes.
As she entered, a young girl in a mini skirt and stiletto heels
was applying carmine red lipstick at the mirror, and with a shock
Crystal realised it was the girl in the wheelchair. “Congratulations
on winning,” she said. “What happened to the wheelchair?”
The teenager’s made-up face contorted into something ugly.
“Listen Grandma. It’s about winning – and there’s nowhere in
the rules to say you can’t use props. Just like that old tosser
with a skirt and stick. It’s a competition – get it? Duh,” she said,
pointing a finger to her head in a gesture that clearly meant she
thought Crystal was an idiot. “Out the way, loser. I’ve got my
winnings to collect.” She brushed past Crystal and walked down
the corridor, the click from her high heels echoing off the bare
“It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part,” shouted Crystal, to
a retreating back.
“Yeah, right,” came the reply.
Over a pint, Crystal related her encounter in the cinema
lavvy to David and Old Huw, who had partly come round from
his earlier alcohol-induced snooze and now nursed a pint of The
Reverend James bitter. “Well, I suppose she had a point,” said
David. “I had some mates from the Farmers’ Union over to give
us a cheer, and I suppose you could say that was cheating a bit.”
“God, David – you are always so reasonable. I suppose it’s
why I like you so much – that and the fact that it’s your round.
Same again for me, and I’ll have a packet of crisps. Are you all
right Huw? You’ve turned a bit green.”