The Long & the Short – Peaches by Dylan Thomas

A series analysing short stories

young-dogThis story comes from the autobiographical collection Portrait of an Artist as a Young Dog first published in 1940.

The story starts with the young narrator sitting on a cart in a laneway while Uncle Jim goes into a pub leaving the boy alone in the growing dark. As the lane gets darker, the men he has seen through the lighted window playing cards turn into grotesques:

… the swarthy man appeared as a giant in a cage surrounded by clouds, and the bald old man withered into a blank stump with a white face.

We have also seen a glimpse of ‘a pink tail curling out’ of a basket the boy’s uncle takes into the pub.

There are further scary intimations on the slow ride home, with Uncle Jim stopping outside a house and telling the young Dylan that ‘a hang man lived there’.

The only comforting things are Dylan’s own imaginings—‘A story I made up in the warm, safe island of my bed’, the steady clop of the mare drawing the wagon on: ‘the old broad patient nameless mare’, and running into his Aunt Annie’s arms when he arrives clutching his ‘grammar school cap’. This latter gives the clue that he is visiting the farm for holidays.

To Dylan’s over active imagination the farmyard in the dark is nightmarish:

The cobbles rang, and the black empty stables took up the ringing and hollowed it so that we drew up in a hollow circle of darkness and the mare was a hollow animal and nothing lived in the hollow house at the end of the yard but two sticks with faces scooped out of turnips.

The next day everything seems more normal, although it is apparent the farm is terribly rundown and life there threadbare, until we meet the unsettling cousin Gwilym. Gwilym is a young man studying for the church with a disquieting propensity to mix up sex and religion.

Dylan gets on reasonably well with Gwilym although his description of him suggests a critical distance: ‘a thin stick of a body and a spade-shaped face’, but when Gwilym uses an unused barn as a chapel and a cart as a pulpit, and preaches to Dylan, the boy goes along with it, letting his imagination run as it always does.

Thomas (the writer) has now set up the story. All is not well in the trope of child goes to farm for holiday. Uncle Jim, we suspect is a drunk (Dylan finds out from Gwilym that he is surreptitiously selling piglets for drink) and Thomas uses the wonderful predatory imagery of a fox to describe him: ‘Uncle Jim came in like the devil with a red face and a wet nose and trembling hairy hands’. Gwylim’s preoccupations are worrying, and, although Aunt Annie is well-meaning, she is downtrodden. Despite all this, Dylan is not threatened in reality—they are his relatives and he is accepted there—he is only threatened imaginatively, through his night fears and his overactive imagination.

At this point in the narrative Thomas introduces a new element. Into the world of Gorsehill Farm comes Dylan’s best friend from school, Jack Williams, dropped off by his wealthy mother to spend the holidays with Dylan, and here we also encounter the peaches of the title.

The peaches are in a can left over from Christmas and kept for a special occasion by Aunt Annie. Mrs Williams, of course, can’t wait to get away from the ‘good room’ with its dust and bedraggled stuffed fox and refuses the offer of the peaches. When she bends down to kiss her son goodbye he tells her she’s wearing perfume, a clue to why she’s dumping Jack at the farm for two weeks.

The boys start off in high spirits playing games and running around but when Dylan initiates Jack into the mock chapel in the barn things go awry. Gwylim tries to get the boys to confess their sins, and Dylan goes through a litany of them in his head from stealing from his mother to beating a dog to make him roll over but, when pressed, can’t admit them:

‘Go on, confess’

‘I won’t! I won’t’

Jack began to cry. ‘I want to go home,’ he said.

Dylan has suffered a lack of imagination in being able to make up a sin and caused Jack to want to go home. Back in bed that night, however, the boys do confess to each other and then Dylan goes on to says he’s killed a man—his imagination running free again symbolised by the sound of a stream he thinks he can hear running next to the house.

But just as Jack’s fears are assuaged, Uncle Jim comes home drunk and there is a row downstairs. When Jim hears about the peaches he lets fly:

‘I’ll give her peaches! Peaches, peaches! Who does she think she is? Aren’t peaches good enough for her? To hell with her bloody motorcar and her son! Making us small.’

The next day Dylan tries to play with Jack but Jack won’t talk to him:

Below me Jack was playing Indians all alone … I called to him once but he pretended not to hear. He played alone, silently and savagely.

Jack calls his mother from the post office and she comes to pick him up. Dylan waves his handkerchief as they drive off but Jack ‘sat stiff and still by his mother’s side’.

Dylan’s way of dealing with the threat of the adult world around him is to see it through the filter of his imagination which can be both threatening and amusing. The reader can see how parlous the situation at the farm is, but Dylan is matter of fact about it—everything can be made different and interesting by seeing faces like spades and his uncle as a fox eating piglets and chickens. We feel sad when Jack won’t go along with it. When Jack sees the threat from Uncle Jim, he leaves, breaking the compact with Dylan. Both boys have to deal with their own situations as best they can, and Dylan’s fantasy world can only ever be particular to him.

© 2014 Helen Richardson

One Reply to “The Long & the Short – Peaches by Dylan Thomas”

  1. Very good review. Am reading this book as part of a wider attempt to write some non-fiction. Never read any Thomas before, and it takes a little concentration to get your head around initially, but very enjoyable otherwise.

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