The story of Revenant runs along two interleaved timelines: the "present" of the novel follows the characters as adults retracing the steps of a fateful journey to the beach they took as teenagers. Each of the places they visit along the way is imbued with powerful emotions and memories for the group, and their experiences of them in the "present" of the novel prompt the flashbacks and recollections which form the second timeline, which follows the characters as young teenagers. This interwoven narrative structure enables Hughes to explore the ways in which places can be powerfully charged with memory and emotion. As a trio, Ricky, Steph and Neil each visit these locations in an attempt to redefine their relationship with them.
The George and Dragon
On Ricky and Steph's return to Beaumaris, they meet in the George and Dragon, the pub where Neil works. This seems to be loosely based on the real pub of the same name in the town. Neil has worked here a long time, and over time his perceptions of the place appear to have changed. He explains that when he first moved to Beaumaris from the village of Llangoed, he was pleased to have found somewhere to work in the town; while Ricky was determined to move on, Neil 'was happy just to have a present, with my feet firmly fixed on the dry land of the George and Dragon.' p. 41. However, after ten years working here, the pub becomes through Neil's world-weary eyes a place cloaked in perpetual darkness, hidden from the changes of the world outside:
There are a few places where the seasons don't come – deserts, equatorial islands, polar caps – and the George and Dragon is one of them. Outside I know it's spring. I've seen it this morning. […] But inside here you'd never tell it. p. 21
For Ricky, returning to the George and Dragon after so many years feels entirely natural, as though he has never been away, though he seems to resent its familiarity:
When I think of all the shit I've been up to the last five years and suddenly I'm here in the George again and it's like I only nipped out for a leak. p. 44
For Steph, returning to the pub seems to be difficult: she seems almost repelled by it: 'With the George and Dragon's sign in sight I make a detour.' p. 50
Baron Hill Mansion
The first site that Ricky, Steph and Neil visit is Baron Hill, a ruined mansion that lies on the outskirts of Beaumaris. This was once the extravagant home of the Bulkeley family, but now lies in ruins. Listen to Tristan Hughes talk about the significance of ruins in his work in his interview with Literary Atlas.
On his visit to the mansion as an adult, Ricky notices how rapidly the building has deteriorated:
It's amazing how fast things fall down. I've not been here for ten years, tops, and it doesn't take long to notice the two front columns gone horizontal on to the grass; the big staircase collapsed halfway up, stranding the upper storeys; the extra slates that have vanished; the floorboards that have become ragged stumps against the walls, splintered reminders of rooms. p. 66
Yet despite the ruinous condition of the mansion, it is only Ricky who steps inside when they return as adults. As if in deference to the building and its history, Steph and Neil choose to stay outside:
The others won't even come in this far. Steph's standing by the stables, near the entrance to the drive, which is so over-grown it's almost a tunnel. Neil's staring up at the crumpled railings of the balcony as if he's expecting some lords and ladies to walk out on to it and throw him a penny. p. 67
The characters' interactions with the physical space seem to reflect their personalities – perhaps even their class. Steph, from a middle class family, seems to maintain a respectful distance from the building which once housed an aristocratic family. Neil, of working class origins, seems to play the peasant; Ricky imagines him accepting charity from the mansion's inhabitants. Ricky, however, the outsider of mixed parentage, has no qualms about entering.
The Candyman's House
Following their visit to Baron Hill, the characters venture further through the woods to the mansion gatehouse, where the "Candyman" once lived. Ricky has no disturbing memories of the place; he only recalls the peculiarity of the man who once pointed him in the direction of the mansion: (p. 82) 'he was only a harmless old fucker I suppose.' Ricky describes the gatehouse in its current state of dilapidation – a space that local youths have made their own:
They've made a hell of a state of it. The papers and books and crap they've just ripped up and chucked on the floor. But the paintings, well, they've drawn all sorts on them – moustaches on the posh birds, cocks on the old fellers, and then some trippy magic mushroom nonsense on the landscape stuff: swirls and circles and weird scrawls. p. 83
Ricky doesn't seem to understand Steph's grave reaction to this dilapidated house. He notices the look on her face: p. 82: 'hard as hell, like yesterday's concrete'. Indeed for Steph, the house is haunted with traumatic memories [see the Teenagers on the Island plotline]. In an act of revenge, she resolves to burn it down:
By the time I get to the doorway she's already standing in it, with her back to me, looking in. And I know then that it was her who started it. Because she's looking back to make sure it's good and started. And there's no fucking need to really, 'cause the second wind's in full blow now, it's whooshing out through the windows and it's picked up some flames on its way, little pale orange fingers that clutch at the window sill, and then bigger gouts of it, great dragon's belches of the stuff […]. p. 88
While Steph's childhood home was in Beaumaris, Ricky, Neil and Del grew up in the (unnamed) village of Llangoed, a few miles north. Ricky is not fond of his home village, and notices that little has changed since he left:
The moment my feet touch the street is the moment I know why I got shot of this place to begin with. There's the same old fellers standing around outside Spar and the post office; there's the same old pebbles clinging to the walls of the houses; there's the same new kids sitting in the bus shelter, staring into their phones, not waiting for buses. But everyone's waiting for something and I remember this feeling clear as crystal: everyone's waiting for something and they don't know what it is and it's never going to happen, it's never going to turn up. p. 95
However, walking through the village, something does happen; the three come across Mr Jones, a retired schoolteacher who had bullied Ricky. The encounter infuriates Ricky, and causes Neil to panic. The sensitivity of Neil's character is reflected in a poetic narrative voice that often describes scenes and locations in an unreal, impressionistic way:
My feet got stuck on the bridge. I could feel the cold water flowing beneath its stones, chilling the soles of my shoes. When Mr Jones said how are you, my mouth didn't work again.
I knew Ricky wanted to hit him. p. 123
Ricky's altercation with his abusive schoolteacher in the village leads him to lead the group on a pilgrimage to his old school. Perhaps because of the intensity of Ricky's feelings about this space, it is Neil who narrates this visit, and he notices the ways that memories, like places, do not always stand the test of time:
The school sits on the brow of the hill, looking down on to the folds and creases of the island's ancient face, where the houses cling like white flakes of lifeless skin. The school building has shrunk – as I suppose they all do when we leave them – and become another place, a heap of remembered pieces that no longer quite cohere, just as memories will not […]. p. 151
The visit to the school ignites Ricky into a rage as he recalls the unfair treatment he suffered there as a child. [See the Teenagers on the Island plotline]. He resolves to exert his own influence over the space:
Ricky hardly bothers to wait for Miss Roberts to get on to the road before kicking over the desk in front of him. As it hits the floor the dust explodes, leaping up as if it'd been wanting to all along. Then Ricky moves on to the next desk, and then the next, sending them each toppling over in their turn. […] He finishes with the desks and moves on towards the walls, pulling the bookshelves on to the floor, scattering the trays, and then tearing down the old crayon drawings and the posters. p. 159
Neil's Grandparent's House
Following Ricky's outburst at the school, the group begin to make their way to their final destination: Penmon beach. On the way, Neil decides to visit the cottage in which his grandparents once lived. Steph notices a change in the cottage: the ways it has been tidied up, sanitized by its new owners.
The barbed wire and the walls that lined the track have gone; they've turned into tiny wooden fences that smell faintly of preserving chemicals. The thistles in the fields have gone. The hay barn is gone too. There's horses in the fields and stables in the yard. […] The windows of the cottage have grown into a glass conservatory and the bushes around them have shrunk into little plants in pots. They sit on the paving stones that now circle it. p. 205
Despite the changes to the house, it still carries powerful memories feelings for Neil. Visiting provokes him to try to unearth things that had long been buried in the garden. But the new owners have built a patio over the patch. Ricky recounts Neil's furious reaction:
And then he's on his knees and he's scraping at it with his fingers. Great! The evil eye's popping out of its socket now. It's got mental asylum and police written on it. Steph's trying to calm her down but what's she going to say? Sorry, my friend would like to dig up your patio with his hands. I'm sure you'll understand. p. 208
On the route to Penmon Beach is the small village of Penmon. Situated in this village are striking landmarks that are important sites visited by the characters: St Seiriol's Well, a medieval holy well situated on the grounds of the ruined Penmon Priory; and Penmon Dovecote, an unusual structure built by St Richard Bulkeley around 1600. The characters pass these on their route to Penmon Beach.
Eventually Ricky, Steph and Neil reach their destination: the beach at Penmon. This is a site of powerful emotional resonance for the characters, and each character attempts to articulate their experience of the place in their own way. In a rare moment of calm, Ricky observes Steph and Neil walking towards the beach, and notices the beauty of the scene. Listen to Tristan Hughes read this passage from Revenant.
Yet the location brings back painful emotions for Ricky:
And how do you explain how scared you get that you've lost it? That there's days when your stomach begins hurting for no reason and there's this place that you love but you're suddenly afraid to go there. It's sick and aching and you're thinking how maybe five inches became a billion fucking miles and you won't be able to get back. And something takes all the roads and borders and electricity in your head and squeezes them into a molten fist that bruises and burns you. p. 243
Steph is somewhat calmer than Ricky; she carefully observes Neil, seemingly in a state of detachment:
Neil walks with me down towards the edge of the water. It laps the stones, quietly and gently, and I stop just before reaching it. He looks sideways at me for an instant, but he knows this is as far as I'll go with him. He pauses, clenches his bag, stares at his feet, and then he walks into it, moving so slowly that it takes an age for it to climb over his shoes and cover his ankles. p. 244
It is Neil who performs and narrates the final act of the novel. After the emotional difficulties he has battled, at the novel's close he is now able to calmly let go of what has happened:
This time when I opened my eyes the bay was in front of me. The lighthouse stood off the shore and Seiriol's Island waited in the distance. I walked out further until the water pressed against my ribs. […] For a second I'd wanted […] to let myself slip from the stones beneath my feet and go with them to wherever they were going. But I didn't I turned around and came back. p. 250
Ricky, Steph and Neil's retracing of the fateful journey to the beach they took as teenagers prompts powerful memories in all of them, and woven into the "present" of the novel are vivid flashbacks to earlier times in these characters' lives.
On his visit to Baron Hill Mansion as an adult, Ricky confesses that his interest in the place came from his hope as a child that his estranged father might live there:
You see, I used to think he might live here. My dad. I know it sounds absolutely fucking stupid, but I did. p. 66
His return to the mansion brings back memories of the first time he visited the site, only to be distraught that it was empty. Listen to Tristan Hughes read this passage from Revenant.
The Candyman's House
The characters' visit to the Candyman's house as adults prompts Steph to recall the trauma she experienced there. We discover that Steph had been sexually assaulted by the "candyman", having been left alone there by Del. As in many other points in the novel, Steph's narrative voice switches to the present tense to convey the urgency and intensity of her memories of the space:
The air has become unbreathably warm. It can't get in and it can't get out. I try to breathe but it's sticky, like the strands of caramel that hang from the edges of Del's lips. Behind her I can see his hands which are snakes tongues, flicking and lapping the too warm air. p. 85
Later, Ricky is shocked to find Steph stumbling through the woods, but too absorbed by his infatuation with her to understand what has happened:
She kind of magically appears out of the branches, batting them away with her hands as though they're out to get her. And it looks like some of them have got her too 'cause she's ruffled up a bit, hair all over the place and clothes sort of askew. p. 174
Walking through the village as an adult, Steph recalls her visits to Del's house here as a child. Coming from a middle class family in Beaumaris, she recalls feeling alienated in the working class village, and remembers willing herself to see the place through the eyes of her well-to-do mother:
Later, as we walked across the road towards the bus shelter, I tried – in rebellion against the slow creep of my envy – to see the village as my mum would. I sneered at the pebble-dash on the houses, arched a disapproving eyebrow at the couple in tracksuits who were arguing on their doorstop, looked up at the woebegone coal smoke coming from the chimneys and the dreary wet fields in the distance, and thought how dull and tacky and awful a place this was. It was a nondescript nowhere, in the back of a boring beyond. p. 101
Ricky's outburst at his old school on his return as an adult – and perhaps much of his other behaviour – is explained by his recollection of the treatment he received from one of his teachers at the village school. Mr Jones despises Ricky due to his mixed parentage:
I'd have to stand there and open up my hand while he got his cane out from the corner. And as he lifted it he'd glance over at the rest of the class as if to say, this is what happens when you break a ruler, but it wasn't really saying that at all, that glance, what it was saying was this is what happens when a nice girl from the village lets a gyppo tinker pikey into her pants, this is what happens… and then down it'd come, thwack, onto the flesh of my hand, not because I'd broken a ruler from thinking the world was going to end but because my dad didn't have the right fucking genealogies, didn't speak the right fucking language […]. p. 121
Neil's Grandparent's House
We discover that Neil's panicked behaviour on his return to his grandparents' house was triggered by memories of an important plot in their back garden, now paved over. This was not only the site where his grandfather had buried his pet pig, Bill, but also where they had buried his mother:
I looked at the box that they said was my mother, watching the muddy water rise over the wet, dark wood, waiting for the bubbles that didn't come. I watched it approach the edge of the lid, and then my mouth opened, forming a wide silent 'o', out of which nothing came either, not a single sound.
Two weeks later a flower opened on the plant. It was a light, delicate pink. It's a rose, my nain told me. A wild rose.
And I thought Bill would come back then. And I thought she would too. p. 190
The village of Penmon, located on the route to Penmon Beach, is an important location for the characters. It is the site of several striking landmarks of historical significance, which for the young teenagers seem to lend the area a sense of gothic mystique. Led there by Del, Neil is clearly struck by the scene:
We come to where the road forks and follow it allow the shoreline. The moon had made a landscape out of silhouettes, shapes cut out of dark – Carnedd Dafydd, Carnedd Llewellyn, the Orme, the dovecote domed like a minaret, a church on a hill with nothing left standing but its steeple, topped with a black cross. Out of sight, beneath the yew boughs, the waters of St Seiriol's Well are slumbering on a pillow of gold coins. The line of moonlight seems to follow us, sliding along the straits, keeping pace with our every step as though it were trying to catch our eyes. p. 112
Steph describes the area in similarly gothic terms when remembering her first visit there with Del:
To begin with, there was the usual blur of lanes and hedgerows and fields and cottages, and then we'd come upon the ruin of a church on a hill; it looked like a shipwreck, an abandoned Ark, except that instead of a mast and a figurehead it had a steeple with a cross on top. A few hundred yards past it there was another, intact, church, and beside it a strange, squat building with a conical roof of interlocking stones. p. 130
Ricky, however, is unmoved by the mystique of the location:
I have to admit I've got a guilty secret about that well. When I was a kid I nicked a load of coins out of it. You couldn't blame me, they were just lying there and I needed a few pennies to buy a pack of pickled onion Monster Munch. At the time I didn't feel guilty at all. I mean, Seiriol didn't need them, did he, sitting up there in heaven with Cybi? And who else was going to use them? It dropped out of my head about as fast as the coins went over the counter in Spar. p. 241
It is not until a few weeks later that he starts to feel guilty about this, and the act still haunts him as an adult as he passes by:
If it'd make a jot of difference I'd go over to that well right now and chuck a hundred quid in it. But I don't think it works that way. p. 242
On their return to Ynys Môn as adults, Ricky, Steph and Neil make their way to Penmon Beach, the site of a trauma shared by them all. The journey their triggers memories of their earlier experiences here. The beach is, for all the characters, an unsettling space. This is perhaps related to the peculiar geography of the real beach, hidden as it is in a quiet corner of Ynys Môn. Indeed, despite the prominence of Seiriol's Island, the beach itself is well hidden from the rest of the coast of Ynys Môn, as Steph articulates on her first visit here:
After a few hundred yards we crested a slight hill and came to a beach of white stones, which had been swept into undulating peaks and troughs, petrified waves, as though the sea had heaved itself ashore and uncovered a Medusa's head. When I looked to my right I saw a lighthouse. And then an island. For a second I didn't quite believe they were there. Across the straits I could see the familiar outline of the mainland, familiar from the town at least; the shapes of the mountains told me that the town wasn't very far away and I tried to picture the view in this direction from the pier: there was the curve of the shore, a headland jutting out in the distance – but no lighthouse, no beach of white stones, and certainly no island. p. 131
The beach is an unsettling space for Neil, too. He remembers a day when his mother had tried to teach him to swim, and the scene explains his fear of water:
She pulled me to the water's edge and put her own feet in the water to show me it was all right. It's not even cold, she said. […] My mother's head was there and then it wasn't there. And then it was there again. I got up and shouted out to her but she only waved. And then it was gone again. Apart from the cries of the gulls it was quiet. I wished I was with her out there in the water. I had never felt so alone. p. 186-8
Despite her absence, Del is a constant presence in Revenant. She is present in the events recalled by Ricky, Steph and Neil as they visit important locations on Ynys Môn. But she is also present in a spectral sense: at various moments in the novel's "present" timeline, Neil appears to catch glimpses of her.
In the novel's first chapter, Neil describes Beaumaris on a spring day, just as the elderly tourists arrive. He narrates the scene with a world-weary cynicism, complaining that p. 4 '[a]fter a few minutes of looking it was as if my eyeballs had fallen into some gloopy, stagnant pool.' Yet, looking out at the town green, he is stirred by a vision that reminds him of someone:
And then I saw movement. Only a glimpse at first, a furtive whirl of cherry-blossom pink that tumbled suddenly from behind the ice-cream booth by the entrance to the pier and reeled along across the edge of the town green. There were several cars parked on the grass and it bobbed between them, flickering in and out of view, stopping and starting, crouching and jumping, until finally it made a frantic dash onto the open spaces of the green and resolves itself into the hyperactive blur of a young girl's legs. p. 6
Baron Hill Mansion
Visiting the ruined mansion with Ricky and Steph, Neil notices someone up on a high balcony:
'Come up here, Neil. Come on.' She's already on the balcony, leaning against railings that I sense are about to topple. Come down, Del, is what I want to say; we'll be safer on the ground. But she's not afraid of anything. p. 69
The Monkey Woods
Walking through the woods surrounding Baron Hill, Neil sees Del once again:
Del's hiding behind the tree trunks. She's flickering around them like candlelight. I wish she wouldn't play hide and seek like this. p. 87
Hurrying through village on their way to Penmon, Neil looks back for a final look at the village:
I'm past both of the houses and I've nearly made it onto the bridge before I make the mistake of looking back. At first glance all I see is two boys loitering inside the bus shelter, smoking and playing with their phones, but after a second I notice that beyond the shelter's far wall a figure is moving. It's shuffling from foot to foot, impatiently, as if it's waiting for the boys to hurry up. But neither of them looks up from their phones. And then she turns round and stares right at me.
Her lips are mouthing silent, familiar words; telling me, asking me. And I want to say no, this time I want to say no.
'Come on, Neil, let's get the boat. From the Robinsons' yard.'
How can I hear this? Why can't I stop hearing this? p. 110
Neil's Grandparent's House
Finally, Neil sees Del again when visiting his Grandparents' house:
I was trying to find them but Ricky wouldn't let me. I could see you waiting for me in my taid's yard. You were doing cartwheels and I could see the white triangle of your knickers, tern-white and wheeling in circles. And I was scared you wouldn't wait for me […]. p. 212
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