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Torfaen Tales

The Presence of Crows

Crows are more clever than you may think ...

Louise took a large swig from her glass of wine and laid back on her sun lounger, adjusting the straps of her top to avoid tell-tale white marks.

"Umm, I can see why you like it here, Janey. Even though there are no decent shops for miles around, I could get used to the slower pace of life. And the natives seem friendly."

Jane smiled smugly, taking a sip from her own glass. She'd worked like a demon preparing her home for Louise's visit. The paint had barely dried in the spare bedroom. She'd been up until the wee hours sewing curtains and cushion covers, and had been out at dawn putting the finishing touches to her courtyard garden, potting up bedding plants hastily bought from the local market.

She sent a silent prayer aloft that the excellent spell of weather would continue for the next three days until Lou returned to London. In particular that Saturday night would stay fine as she'd invited some friends around for a barbecue.

Jane and Louise had worked together in London. They'd remained loosely in touch by telephone and e-mail since Jane had upped sticks and moved to a village in South Wales, not far from her parents' home. After more than ten years away Jane had found herself visiting her folks more regularly, casting her eye idly over estate agents' windows and making favourable comparison of property prices.

It had been the incident with the aggressive windscreen washers that had pushed her over the edge. It seemed that practically every major set of traffic lights in the suburbs had its quota of bucket-toting opportunists who seemed to have selective understanding of the English language. To Jane, London seemed to be turning subtly from a cosmopolitan metropolis into a hostile and foreign environment. One in which teenage lads didn't hesitate to dump a bucket of dirty, soapy water through the car window of an undeserving victim. So she took the plunge, put her flat on the market, her tail between her legs, and headed back home to the far friendlier valleys of South Wales.

Some days it seemed like she'd never been away. Her parents had left her bedroom untouched despite her departure for the big city. She'd outgrown Barbie and My Little Pony, but her parents' sentiments were in the right place.

Jane was soon absorbed back into the close-knit community of her parents' village, and Uncle Ron conveniently found a vacancy in his garden centre for another sales assistant-cum-plant waterer. Jane soon adapted to the change of pace from working all hours in an up-beat advertising agency to the unpressurised atmosphere of part-time employment in the Happy Gardener, and as her flat had found a buyer within days it wasn't as though she needed much in the way of income. Once the sale went through she calculated she'd have enough to pay off her present mortgage, pay cash for a modest house and still stash a few thousand back into the bank.

Sure, South Wales had changed in ten years. The bank and post office in her parents' village had closed. The bank was still boarded up, but the post office had become a pound shop. But the important things were still the same, in particular the sense of community. Most people still looked out for each other.

Jane had soon found a gem of a little cottage in a nearby village. Sure, it was shabby, but she knew that with time and effort she could get rid of all the fussy pink floral wallpaper and decorate it to her more minimalist taste. The main thing was it was structurally sound and the price was right.

Louise wasn't the first visitor from her London circle of friends. Jules and Robert had popped in just after Christmas for a couple of days with their twin boys, Oliver and Oscar. She hadn't bothered much about the spare room at that time as she knew from their own shambolic home that Jules and Robert didn't set great store by the standard of facilities. All that mattered to them was an abundance of food and the proximity of the pub. With a fridge full of good grub and a pub opposite Jane knew that despite the grey, wet weather Jules and Robert would enjoy their stay. And thus it had been. As an added bonus, young Oliver and Oscar had awarded Jane their version of four Michelin stars for her cheese-topped baked beans on toast.

But having Lou as a guest was a different matter altogether. Her flat in Putney was a testament to eclectic taste, and she liked all the good things in life. Jane agonised over having agreed to Louise's planned visit, but it would have been churlish to feign a prior engagement. At least she had her former colleague to thank for spurring her on to put the finishing touches to her new home.

The visit seemed to be going well. Lou had particularly enjoyed her breakfast in the garden this morning, watching the fit fellow next door building a fence at the bottom of his garden clad only in a brief pair of shorts, showing what a proper Welsh suntan was like. And now that the floor show was over, Lou had settled into a good book and a couple of glasses of wine.

Louise looked up at the roof and wrinkled her perfect little nose.

"I don't much care for those birds up there, Janey. Are they crows?"

"Uh, yes. What's wrong with them?"

"They look kind of menacing, like they might fly down and peck my eyes out."

"Don't be silly, Lou. Crows are intelligent, they're not mindless vandals. Why, one very hot day in London I came home and found a crow standing on my doorstep. It didn't fly away when I approached, and when I opened the front door it hopped into the porch. I gave it a drink of water and it rested a while before flying away."

"Well I don't like them. Where are we going this afternoon?"

"I've arranged for a friend to take us into Cardiff. It's only about 20 miles. We can do some shopping, then have a meal this evening and check out some of the clubs. Then another friend will pick us up at one a.m. and bring us home on his way back from work. So we can both have a drink and not worry about driving."

"Sounds good. I'd better go and get ready."

Jane knew the bathroom would be occupied for the next hour. Luckily she'd already showered, and only had to slip into a change of clothes.

Louise was just about ready by the time Len called for them. He was a friend of Jane's father, a representative for a vending machine company who travelled a lot in his line of business.

"No trouble at all for me to run you two lovely young ladies into the city," he said, casting a lecherous glance over Louise's tanned legs beneath her filmy mini-dress.

"Now that is a bit of a blot on the landscape," pronounced Louise as they passed a factory just a few miles down the valley.

"I totally agree with you," said Len, nodding his head sagely. "The environmentalists have been trying to get it closed down for years. Look at the filth belching out of that chimney! They say it's full of all sorts of chemicals, and that statistics show the incidence of cancer among local children is increasing as a result."

Jane wished Len would shut up. Sure, the factory was unsightly, but there was plenty of attractive scenery to make up for it.

Len rambled on about the state of the environment for most of the journey to Cardiff, pointing out all manner of unpleasant sights and going on about the state of the world today. Jane felt quite dismal by the time they bade him farewell.

"I'd love to offer you a lift back home, ladies, but I'm, er, otherwise occupied tonight," he said.

Louise pulled a face as Len's car disappeared round the corner. "Goodness me, he should be captain of the team that bores for Wales. But never mind, Janey. I think it's nice here. One ugly, smelly factory isn't the end of the world. Now, where are the shops?"

Jane smiled, relieved that Len hadn't totally undermined Louise's opinion of Wales and the Welsh.

A pleasant couple of hours pottering around Cardiff led into a lively meal in a tapas bar, which led into a round of pubs and clubs around Cardiff Bay. They only just managed to rendezvous tipsily with Jamie on his way home from work.

Although they didn't realise it, they passed Len on their way home. Len didn't see them either. He was otherwise occupied with Mandy from the chip shop, parked in his car in the lane behind the chemical factory.

Some time later Len dragged on a cigarette while Mandy repaired her make-up. He glanced at his watch, wondering whether he had time to pounce on Mandy again. What excuse could he give to the wife this time about coming home at such an hour? Maybe a spot of car trouble, having to wait ages for the RAC. Something like that.

A dark shadow crossed the moon, and Len flinched. Was it a bat? He didn't like bats. He shuddered, and watched the creature for a few moments before turning his attention back to Mandy's soft, abundant and exotically perfumed flesh. She surrendered with hardly a murmur.

Jane didn't remember getting to bed that night, or rather that morning. Somewhere in her drunken stupor she thought she had heard a loud bang followed by a prolonged wail of sirens, but surely she'd imagined the whole thing. Or else she'd been dreaming.

From the sight of Louise's mascara-ringed eyes, she suspected her guest was equally as hung-over as they surfaced just before midday. Coffee and bacon sandwiches in the garden seemed to be the best remedy.

Keeping half an eye on the bacon under the grill, Jane turned on the television to watch the lunchtime news.

She could hardly believe her eyes. The news bulletin showed live coverage of the local chemical factory, totally levelled by a mysterious explosion around four in the morning. Luckily no-one had been injured as the explosion had occurred before the workforce had arrived. Nobody seemed to know quite what had happened.

Jane vaguely remembered the loud noise she'd heard, followed by the wail of sirens. So she hadn't imagined it, and it hadn't been a dream.

"Did you hear anything?" Jane asked Louise when she emerged from the bathroom.

Louise shook her head. "I was unconscious the instant my head hit the pillow. They make a mean pina colada at that last place we went to. The Dragon's Nest, or something similar. It was a great night out, babes."

The reporter at the scene of the devastation suggested that it may have been the work of Plaid Cymru, due to the foreign ownership of the factory. Or maybe one of the environmental groups which had campaigned about the pollution emanating from the factory. But no-one had come forward to claim responsibility for the damage. Maybe it was something to do with the gas supply?

The reporter was interviewing local residents. Everyone seemed to know someone who'd had a narrow escape, or else they had a theory as to who was behind it.

"Ooh, look, Janey! There's what's his name, your father's friend who gave us a lift yesterday."

Sure enough, it was Len. Jane reached for the remote control and increased the volume.

" That's right," said Len, smoothing his combed-over hair into place in an effort to conceal his bald patch. "I was in the lane behind the factory late last night. I remember I looked up and saw something that looked like a bat. It was carrying something in its claws. It flew up onto the factory chimney, and it must have dropped whatever it was down the chimney because it wasn't carrying anything when it flew off. That's funny, I thought."

"Thank you, Mr Watkins. Interestingly, preliminary investigations of the site suggest that the explosion was caused by a chemical reaction. Material appears to have been introduced by way of the chimney which reacted in the furnace causing it to explode. Information from other local residents seems to suggest that crows may have been to blame. An increase in the number of crows in the locality has been noted in recent months. What Mr Watkins thought was a bat may well have been a crow dropping something into the chimney. Other people have noticed crows dropping what looked like stones into the chimney. We'll bring you more on this fascinating story as soon as further details are known."

Meanwhile, Jane had a barbecue to organise as soon as brunch was out of the way. She reached for the paracetamol to chase away the remains of her hangover before heading for the supermarket. Louise opted to keep an eye on the garden while Jane went out in search of supplies. Jane was glad it was summer and they could barbecue instead of going for the full-blown dinner party option. She knew she'd be able to palm off the cooking on one of her male friends. There's something primitive in cooking over coals that seems to appeal to most men.

The evening went well. A laid-back gathering was just what they needed, and the weather remained perfect. Rhys tended to the barbecue, and to Jane's surprise Louise was later found helping Jerry with the dishes, flirting outrageously. The way she was batting her eyelashes the crockery was probably fan dried.

Of course the main topic of conversation all evening was the explosion. Some thought the crow theory plausible, and others found it simply ludicrous. Still, it made a change from the usual banter.

On Sunday morning Jane dug Louise out of bed after she'd finished clearing up the debris from the night before.

"Why don't we take a gentle stroll down the canal? There's a decent pub not too far away which has tables by the water."

"Sounds good," said Louise, stretching like a cat. She certainly didn't look as though she'd had two late nights, whereas Jane knew she had bags under her eyes that would hold a week's shopping. How did Louise manage to look so fresh?

The sun shone once again out of a clear blue sky as they walked down the lane which led to the canal. Yellow irises nodded at the water's edge, and they disturbed a heron which shot up into the sky like Concorde, circled lazily and then alighted on the opposite bank.

They'd worked up an appetite by the time they reached the pub, so they ordered ploughman's lunches. The ducks helped eat the bread.

Before long it was time for Louise to think about hitting the road for the long slog back to London. She'd sensibly kept to mineral water with her lunch while Jane downed a pint of cider purely for medicinal purposes.

Louise clasped Jane's hands in hers as she bade her friend farewell.

"It's been a super weekend, Janey. I'll think enviously of you as I'm slogging off to work in the big city tomorrow morning. You've got a super little place here."

Jane gave Louise a hug and they exchanged air kisses. Jane felt a sense of satisfaction knowing she'd moved away from the false, showy affection of her city friends. None of her local girlfriends went in for air kissing, just like the menfolk didn't favour air guitar. Life in the Welsh valleys was real, although the incident with the crows had added a surreal twist.

Waving farewell as Louise turned the corner in her shiny new car, Jane felt a calm satisfaction that everything would be reported favourably back to her former colleagues. Plenty of plus points to Jane for leaving the rat race.

News of the eco-warrior crows was reported world-wide over the next couple of weeks. Thorough examination confirmed that the crows had without doubt caused the explosion. Just how they knew what would cause a reaction sufficient to blow the factory sky high was a total mystery, but it proved what Jane knew already. Crows were clever.

The chemical factory's owners announced defeat: rebuilding the factory would not be financially feasible. And so the only major blot on the town's landscape would soon fall into local legend. A woman who recently won nine million on the Lotto offered to donate whatever it would take to turn the factory site into parkland with a playground for the children. Everyone seemed doubly pleased that the source of pollution had gone and that the ruined building would not just sit there forever, crumbling slowly into oblivion. The media had a field day, wringing every last morsel out of the story. Television crews hovered eagerly until the story was completely done to death.

Unfortunately Len Watkins hadn't been so clever in showing his face on television. His wife subjected him to serious cross-examination regarding what he was doing behind the factory past midnight. Jane's Dad said Thelma Watkins' bellowing made their windows rattle from three doors away. Len's been keeping a low profile ever since. Jane saw him meekly pushing a trolley in the supermarket one Friday morning. Word has spread that Mandy from the chip shop may be pushing a pram in about six months' time, but for Len's sake everyone hopes it's just an ugly rumour.

By Karenne Griffin

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