Ralph Mag: Thoughts and Happenings is a hell of a lot more fun than one might expect.
Date: May 15 2015
Thoughts and Happenings is a hell of a lot more fun than one might expect. An undertaker who is juggling two young women? Wilfred, that poor dummy, has gotten caught up in the mesh of small town morality and womanly wiles, but when he realizes that he's been caught in an invisible net (one of his ladies is with child), the reader wants to come to the rescue. We get trapped too, and we're not even pregnant.
He can be charming, that Wilfred. For instance, as he's preparing the funeral of Melbourne Edwards, he blurts out that he might have tea later with Flora Edwards, Melbourne's daughter. He's just fallen in love with her, after having disavowed Grace.
But you don't invite strange women to tea when the old man has just popped off. Especially when pregnant Grace is hovering around back there somewhere.
"I hoped a modest change of scenery and an anteprandial refreshment might provide somewhat of a relief to your daughter during these exceedingly sad times," he explains to Mrs Edwards. No? "Well, I shall say Auf Wiederschen to you both,' remembering the dictionary words he had picked up that morning." He's reading the dictionary all the way through, starting at A's --- just to make himself more respectable.
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Even as we are getting into the sticky problem of Wilfred and his pregnant, possibly jilted Grace, and the lovely Flora, we find ourselves with Wilfred in the funeral home, in his own parlor, in fascinating conversation with another client. Her name is Mrs. Thomas. Her fingernails are dirty. Disgustingly so.
"'What was it with his customers,' he wondered. Mrs. Howell Thomas's fingernails, poor bugger, hasn't seen a nail brush for a while."
It was hard washing a corpse's hand. Some cooperated but others lay there like a sack of potatoes with a lack of consternation on their face, lika a small child who didn't like being washed.
"Peering into Mrs. Howell-Thomas's coffin, he realised he wasn't going to be able to get that damn ring off. He looked more closely at her fingers which were already purple and bloated, and wondered if Howard Carter*** had had this problem with Tutankhamun."
"There was a tomb that Tutankhamun had!" he remarked to Mrs. Howell-Thomas. "Absolutely magnificent!"
"What are you talking about in there, Wilfred?" said his da, who was sitting on the flowerbed wall, drinking his tea. "Are you talking to a corpse again.
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The triumph of Wendy Jones' novel is the art of turning a slightly comic, slightly dotty character into one that we feel great compassion for: even raging with him that a woman can be so graceless as to pin her baby on his lapel to drag him into a marriage he doesn't want, with a woman he doesn't love, using wiles against which he has no defenses whatsoever.
Who is the villain? Who gave Grace the innocent babe? Alas, dear reader, you'll have to find out on your own by reading Thoughts and Happenings. And I envy you. Don't we always envy someone who is picking up, for the first time, a book that we doted on? A book with a sweet butter-nut sauce atop the pound cake: the whole is accomplished using a writing style that puts the reader firmly back in 1924, in the village of Narberth, where, when you look carefully, you can see that "The sky was playing with the clouds. We stood there in their small yard with the pissabeds, the bellybuttons, the moss and the ivy, the vegetable patch and the overgrown and unkempt flowerbed that was a mass of green plants and small flowers."
Or Wilfred looking out on "the green hills beyond, the hills that curved so confidently and easily, like a well-fed woman."
Sometimes Wilfred wondered if under those Welsh hills there were great women, giantesses, who had lain down on the earth in ancient times and fallen asleep, and then the earth had crept over them, over their breasts and their hips and the dips of their waists and tapering up their strong thighs. And then the green grass had grown over them, covering them with a fertile blanket of fresh plants that kept them warm and hidden.