Freya Duncan took part in the Beacons Project at Hay Festival Winter Weekend 2021. The Beacons Project aims to encourage creativity and forge a sense of creative identity amongst young people in Wales. It offers a unique opportunity for twenty Welsh students aged 16-18 to meet and work with exceptional writers, broadcasters and journalists in a highly creative and stimulating environment during Hay Festival.
Phyllis and Co.
Phyllis Wrigley knew she was getting on a bit. She would’ve known without the pitying looks shot her way by lovely young ladies in skirts she privately thought were far too short. She would’ve also known without nice young men offering to carry her shopping back from Morrisons. But what really solidified the fact that she was getting on a bit in Phyllis Wrigley’s mind was when Dr. Singh told her that she had cataracts.
“They’ll only get worse over time,” he warned, peering at her over his glasses.
“Ah well,” Phyllis sighed. Having her suspicions confirmed had been a bit of a blow. Dr. Singh gave her a sympathetic smile, and said he could refer her to a clinic if she wanted to get surgery.
“I’ll manage for now,” Phyllis said, smiling politely as she gathered up her purple leatherette handbag. “Thank you for your help, Doctor Singh.” She had remained firm despite Dr. Singh’s gentle questioning and recommending, insisting that she would manage. She didn’t want to cause anybody any trouble, after all.
She shuffled out of the GP’s surgery, down the blurry pavement, towards her house, and fumbled with the keys a moment before unlocking the green front door and stepping into the hallway. Phyllis was instantly greeted with a snuffling, purring, squawking, and rustling from all around. She smiled tiredly as she set down her handbag on the little table beside the door and stepped out of her shoes.
“Yes, yes, it’s nice to be back too.”
Her dog, Fido, made a growling sound that juddered up Phyllis’ legs through her nylon-stockinged feet. She patted the top of his head gently, scratching behind the ears, before heading into the kitchen to boil the kettle. As she opened a tin of dog food, a loud whistling noise and the feeling of gentle claws on her shoulder announced the arrival of Polly, her parrot, who was coming over for a nosy into what Phyllis was doing. Phyllis hummed happily and brushed a crooked finger over the downy plumage on Polly’s chest. Polly shrieked with a sound very similar to a screaming fox.
“Don’t be greedy now,” Phyllis chided. “You’ll have to wait your turn, you know.”
She emptied the dog food into Fido’s bowl, and the slobbery jowly sounds of him lapping it up echoed around her spotless tiled kitchen. The sound attracted Mittens and Whiskers, both of them bounding over, making the floor quake, to curl around her ankles and meep at her for food. Phyllis struggled with the can opener, then filled their bowls, too. Polly ruffled her feathers as Phyllis finally got to emptying her bird food into an enormous pan for her.
“There now,” she said. “That didn’t take too long, now, did it?”
Polly said nothing, but Phyllis could hear her beak clacking against the side of the pan as she gobbled up the seeds inside. Finally pouring the hot water from the kettle into her mug, Phyllis bobbled the teabag in and out of the water a few times before treating herself to one and a half (or maybe two) spoons of sugar, a splash of milk, and felt her way into the living room. She settled down into her chintz armchair, and turned on the telly.
“Really should get stronger glasses,” she said to nobody in particular as she squinted at the technicolour screen. It was a rerun of an episode she’d seen years ago, so she settled down to watch the memory play out, listening to the poorly acted lines and too-loud dramatic music as she sipped her tea sagely. At some point, Fido stopped wolfing down his food and trotted in to lie at her feet, warming them like a living slipper.
Arthur would have hated having animals in the house. Phyllis had always wanted pets, and it had helped her when Arthur passed on to have some company, especially now the children were all grown up and moved away. She’d found Fido first: he was a rescue, and when she’d gone to the animal shelter to pick him up, the volunteers there had been surprised, even a little wary.
“Are you sure you want him?” One of them asked, looking concerned. “I mean, he’s been here for a while. He’s a bit of a handful, that one.”
“I’m sure I’ll manage,” Phyllis said serenely, taking a handful of forms out of her handbag.
“He won’t take well to children,” the volunteer warned. “Nor other pets. He’s not been the easiest to look after. Mind you, he’ll be great once he gets to a loving home,” she added quickly. “It might just take him some time.”
“I could do with a project,” Phyllis answered, smiling. The volunteer cast her a dubious look, but eventually Phyllis got to take Fido home. She really hadn’t been able to see what all the fuss was about, he was a lovely dog. So well behaved. The only thing that could be called a fault was his disconcerting habit of growling like a tractor, but that was really nothing to worry about.
Once she’d started, Phyllis had found it difficult to stop. She adopted Polly next, a parrot who’d had the misfortune of being a fifth birthday present to a bratty child. According to the volunteer at the animal shelter, the little tyke had deemed Polly ‘too ugly’ and thrown a tantrum. The distressed parents had been forced to give her up for adoption. The parrot, that is, not the child.
“I’d be careful if I were you,” the volunteer said apprehensively as Phyllis stuck a finger through the bars of Polly’s cage. “That one’s been known to bite. Not that she wouldn’t make a lovely pet. But be careful…”
“Oh, nonsense,” Phyllis tutted. “She’s a lovely little bird, aren’t you, Polly?”
Polly had shrieked in response, making the volunteer wince.
Mittens and Whiskers had sort of adopted themselves. Phyllis didn’t think it was possible to domesticate a cat, they just sort of did as they pleased. This was the case with hers, who’d both turned up in her garden and decided to stay around once she fed them. Phyllis supposed they’d used to have owners at some point, but that these owners had cast them out. They were very big, so she supposed she could understand, even if she couldn’t excuse it. The first few weeks Mittens and Whiskers had lived with her, Phyllis’ flowerbeds had looked like a sandpit for an excitable JCB digger.
Phyllis was quite happy with her pets. They were a little odd, she supposed, but she was also sure that she was normal enough for all of them, balancing out their little… peculiarities.
After a few visits to Dr. Singh, Phyllis finally had to admit defeat, and accepted a referral to get her cataracts treated. She climbed up the waiting list relatively quickly, and in no time she was ready to go into hospital. She enlisted the help of the man next door, Mr. Jones, to feed her pets. For some strange reason, Mr. Jones refused to go into the house, although he said he was willing to feed the pets from a distance. They finally settled on putting the feeding bowls outside in the back garden, so that Mr. Jones could feed them quickly, then run away and lock the fence behind him. Phyllis found this very odd indeed, but then again, Mr. Jones had always been a little eccentric.
After the surgery (a very clean and very efficient procedure) Phyllis was in hospital recovering for a while. She received the custom number of get well cards, some of them heartfelt, most of them not, and an array of flowers that made her sneeze. The amazing thing was that the cards were no longer illegible, and slowly but surely, Phyllis found that she could figure out the messages written inside. In no time at all, the nurses bustling around her had let her know that she could go home soon, bracketed between endless loops of ‘dear’ and ‘love’. Phyllis was glad. She missed her pets.
In a heartbeat, Phyllis was walking back down a now-sharp pavement, a Morrison’s bag in one hand and her purple handbag in the other, greeting the pebble-dashed faces of buildings on either side like old friends. She blinked at the greenness of her front door and inserted the key with minimal fiddling, bustling into the hall.
“I’m home!” She called cheerily to the silent house. There was an instant ruckus. Something very large and very hairy came barrelling towards her from the doorway leading to the kitchen, and an enormous swooping shadow descended on her, perching on the edge of the hall table. Two lion-sized shadows bounded down the stairs towards her, curling around her legs. Phyllis’ eyes widened.
“Oh,” she said, looking down at the panting black mass before her, which seemed to be made primarily of teeth and a slavering red tongue. It had enormous floppy ears and a pair of yellowish tusks jutting up towards shiny beetle eyes, winking out at her from behind a mop of matted black fur. It lumbered and capered around her, thumping the floor with its tail, letting out a rumbling growl all the while.
“Oh,” Phyllis said again, watching as the bird - if you could call it a bird - on the hall table spread its wings slightly. It was enormous, and had massive clawed feet, with cruel, curved talons and green scaly skin that disappeared into two bulging pockets of feathers that looked like bloomers. The feathers themselves were a beautiful iridescent green, almost poisonous-looking. What was truly disconcerting was the wings, bat-like towards the edges, with two tiny clawed hands at their very tips gripping the edge of the table. The creature had beady black eyes and a curved beak, inexplicably crammed with row upon row of hap-hazard fangs.
“Oh,” Phyllis said yet again (she couldn’t seem to find any other words at the moment), as she looked down at the twin shadows curling around her ankles. Or rather, around her knees. They were gigantic, the same size and shape as a lion, but strangely transparent, as if they were made completely of smoke. They felt real enough, however, and as one of the creatures butted its head against her palm she felt the silky smooth fur covering its body. Or at least the majority of its body. The animals’ tails were wormy, rat-like, coiling around their legs like scaly whips, and twitching nakedly in the air. Worse was their faces, which were disturbingly humanoid, albeit with whiskers and slit-pupiled yellow eyes.
“Oh,” Phyllis looked at the monsters surrounding her, and then around her perfectly mundane hallway: the popcorn-pimpled ‘70s wallpaper, the slightly grimy mirror, the framed picture of her and Arthur with the children, the cream carpet -
“Oh, Fido!” Phyllis burst out. “Look what you’ve done!”
The black furry creature cringed and let out a whining growl, looking very guilty. Phyllis tutted, her hands on her hips. Her lovely cream carpet was covered in muddy footprints.
“I’ve told you time and time again,” a wagging forefinger made an appearance as she scolded the monster. “You’re not to come into the hall after you’ve been outside! Oh, this is never going to come out properly.”
Phyllis huffed and strode into the kitchen, automatically setting the kettle to boil, pulling the cleaning products ready out of the cupboard under the sink, and getting out a can opener. She looked over her shoulder to see the creatures crammed into the doorway, all watching her apprehensively, as though she might explode.
“Well,” she said, half-impatiently, half-fondly. “I suppose you’re all hungry, aren’t you?”
She opened the tin of dog food, fetched the bowls from the backyard, and set them down on the kitchen floor. The creatures were in the kitchen now, although they were keeping their distance, still eyeing her warily. She ignored them and scooped their food into their respective bowls. When she straightened up, they were still eyeing her.
“Go on, then,” she said. “Eat.”
In one fell swoop they all descended on their food, pecking, licking, and snaffling it up. Phyllis allowed herself a self-satisfied little smile as she watched Fido, Polly, Mittens, and Whiskers eat, and brewed her cup of tea.
Phyllis sighed. “I suppose I’d better get this mess cleared up then,” she said to nobody in particular, picking up her rag and bottles of cleaning liquid, as she went to get started on cleaning the hallway of muddy footprints.
Thanks to Welsh Government for funding the Beacons Project and to Bad Wolf and Screen Alliance Wales for their partnership in creating Jack Thorne's workshop. And finally, thanks to Booths Bookshop for allowing us to film Owen Sheers on location.