A Prologue

Rain slants across the valley. The sky black as a valley floor, weighty as valley walls; granite outcrops and scarified trees forming a blistered horizon between mirroring hemispheres.  The scene outside is as familiar as a broken tooth worn smooth by use.

But inside, the kitchen fire is strong and bright. As Gwennie stretches to ease the ache in her back, her view shifts, bringing the fire’s reflection swinging across the window to blaze in the sodden garden outside. She squints again into the early dark; where are they, her man and her boy? She twists her shoulders, arches back from the swell of her belly and rubs her lower spine in a gesture she remembers from carrying her first babby, and earlier from watching her mother over the years grow fat and thin, fat and thin, until there were three younger siblings to share her bed and two little graves by Capel Gwrhyd, and Mam just grew thin and thin again.  Her mam had rubbed her back in just such a way. Was this the way of it then: men dig and sing and fight, dogs hunt rabbits and bark at the full moon, women rub their backs and produce babbies.  Our Gwennie fears that it is.

She pushes away from the windows, turns to the stove and bends awkwardly to move the heavy pot.  The door bangs, open and shut.  Blowing and stomping and flinging rainwater, her two men stamp through the boot room and push into the kitchen like bulls entering a showground. Gwennie laughs with relief, love, pride. ‘Watch your wet selves with the mess now’ she scolds, and takes a cloth to the boy, rubbing his wet hair til it stands all awry like wheat sheaves in a summer storm. The man leans over the stove and flicks his hands across his head, shedding water; the stove spits back.

The cawl has been dished and eaten, and each of them is wiping the last shreds of meat and grease from their bowls with bread, before Gwennie looks hard at her husband. ‘How’d he do then, tell me Dafydd’. She doesn’t turn to the boy, she senses him become still and watchful.

Her man, Dafydd. New husband of a long year, ugly as an old goat but strong and spry and wicked funny in drink, in company.  Not the boy’s father but took him on for a kindness to Gwennie when he took her to wed. Dafydd leans back in his chair and looks at the ceiling thoughtfully, like he’s discussing a stringy calf brought to auction, like he’s reviewing the losing play of the local team last week, like he’s assessing a load of doubtful hay from an unknown travelling man. ‘The boy here? This boy Ifan, now? Well… He did good, you know he did’, says Dafydd. ‘First day out with the men, you did good, Ifan bach[1]‘ Dafydd smiles at the boy, who blushes red and stares smiling at his empty bowl.

Her chair creaks with the shifting weight as Gwennie relaxes from a tension she only now notices. The boy is a farmer too, now then. They were going to be alright. ‘I’ll make us a tea’. She rises to move the big old kettle onto the fire but Dafydd reaches out, catches her by the thick folds of skirt at her hip.

‘No tea now, the boy’ll have a thirst on him. I think this night we’ll have a beer’. He takes the candle from the table and moves towards the scullery. In the shifting lights and shadows, Gwennie looks open-eyed at Ifan and sees the huge grin on his 12-year-old face, shakes her head in that other gesture of mothers everywhere, breathes deeply. Dafydd is a good man. They are going to be alright.

In future years, Gwennie will remember this night. She will remember how the candle cast such shadows, and the fire cast such light, and the light and the shadows flitted across her raw-boned young son so he looked like something fluid, no longer the child she had held through her young widow’s years. Gwennie will again hear Dafydd clattering in the other room, grabbing for a bottle of his mam’s brew; hear the wind and the rain outside, and the shuffling of Ifan on his chair, itchy with pride at his step-father’s words, and itchy with the pleasure of being a man waiting for a beer.

Rain slants across the valley. The sky black as a wet dog by a cold hearth, black as ashes.  The woman rises, peers out the bedroom windows at the familiar hated bloody landscape, sees a cool light flow like hot metal across the horizon. She draws back the curtain to get what light she can on her needle and thread while babby still sleeps. She will never be called ‘Gwennie’ again.

There is no teasing hand to grab her skirt in passing now, were she to be quick by his chair or slow in polishing his boots. There is only the work. Tired to her heels, Gwenllian feels all the blood of her has drained away. She stitches a narrow hem round a tiny black bonnet. Drops the needle again in a moment and hurries to the boy, thinking she hears him call. Stands helpless in the doorway by his narrow bed. The only movements in the silent dawn are her small tears, and the slight rise and fall of his crushed chest. Ifan is breathing his last day’s breath.

It would have been understood, an accident at the mines. A cave in, or flood, or the stink gas could take out three generations from one household. A siren from the mine head; a flume of dust or rush of mud from the ridge;  the tired stumbling of off-shift workers running in unlaced boots; and every miners’ wife, the hard and the soft of them, would stop in their kitchen or garden and hold their heart still, waiting to know whether their role would be to give or receive comfort.  Waiting to know if they could breathe again.

But Dafydd had been a farmer and they should have been alright.  Certainly farmers were as like as anyone to risk accident or illness or infection; missing fingers, ears, toes, teeth, scarred bodies were the lot of working people. But to lose the fight when you were above ground, this wasn’t the deal. Not this.

Not to bring a new babby into the world only to have the father taken out of it, as if there was a quota, like a turnstile at a fairground ride her heart had an imposed maximum of riders. She looks again at the boy and wonders how she can remain standing.

In the room above, someone is walking slow and heavy now; Mother-in-law has come to stay. Elizabeth she is; up from Ponty and visibly pressing down her own cares, for care of the new mother. In days and years to come they will hold each other’s hearts, careful and tender. But for now there’s a valley’s span of cold air between the old widow who has just lost her son and the new widow who is about to lose her boy. Awash with their separate griefs they are marooned; the old mother had mistrusted the young widow and her baggage of another man’s child, as a bad risk for her beloved son. The young bride had shied away from her new family’s hard gaze. 

Elizabeth comes quietly down the narrow stairs and in her arms the infant girl her granddaughter.

Elizabeth had come to help with the lying in, that morning when things were still alright. She had gone home. Then the news from the road had run down the hill like fire through a field of gorse and Elizabeth had thrown a shawl around herself, pocketed her own newly-minted grief still hot, and come back up the valley. She had cwtched[2] the babby, fed the mother, warmed the house. “There’s little can be done for Ifan but wait and see”, said the doctor brought up from the Miners’ Welfare, so Elizabeth has waited, and seen, and stayed.

She sees that Gwenllian feeds the baby. She sees that Dafydd’s body is washed and clean and laid out, and she sees that money is kept aside for a smaller coffin, in case. She sees a neighbour farmer take the flock, muttering the usual terms of a deathbed arrangement with the clumsy grace of those accustomed to death and business but not made heartless by it. She cuts down an old black dress to clothe the baby in mourning, and watches Gwenllian cut out a tiny black bonnet for her fatherless, unbaptised daughter.

There is little talking; the two women move through this day like drugged dancers stepping their paces to an invisible orchestra. Even the baby is quiet, sucking her fist and staring out with ignorant blue eyes at this pavanne of mourning.

Outside, bright daffodils push up through the mud and wave in at Babby from their place on the hills. She smiles but does not yet know how to wave back. She’ll learn.

Sunshine slants across the wall and catches the woman by the eyelids as she moves against the pillow; she raises an arm to cover her eyes, squints out the small window into the light already high in the valley at this time of year. Babby in her cot gurgles and Gwenllian slides across the half-empty marriage bed to sleepily touch the little girl. But in her mind Gwenllian is elsewhere; some nameless dream that she can’t wake from and doesn’t want to.

She picks the child up and starts to nurse. At the end of the bed is the cleaned christening gown that who knows how many babbies have shared before now. Over the milky scent of her feeding child Gwenllian smells the lavender and cedar of her mother-in-law’s linen press where this gown had sat since … she shies away from the thought but not quickly enough to avoid sharply remembering Dafydd again.

A good smell comes up from the kitchen; eggs and potatoes, bacon and laver bread.  Gwenllian realises she’s been hearing Elizabeth busy downstairs while lost in her own thoughts.  She tucks the sleepy girl back in the cot, twists a shawl around her own thin shoulders and focuses on entering the kitchen with her misery carefully shawled against the world’s noticing. So she thinks.

‘I let you sleep’ says Elizabeth carefully. The table is fresh scrubbed and still damp; Elizabeth has been up for some time.

But then, who can afford to sleep in such a year as 1869? The farm, paying back the absent farmer’s care, had been generous: the fields yielding good hay; the apple orchard blushing like a fecund young bride; the kitchen garden pitching berries into the sunlight faster than they could be picked it seemed. Harvest has filled the pantry and the apple loft, and the money tin was heavy with coin from agisting the neighbours’ flock. The baby had stayed in a basket in the shade while the two women had farmed alongside the men. At dusk they had gone in late to their cawl and bread like any labourer – except of course the women had to cook and clean and launder, put up jars of preserves and lay down brews of beer and cider, while the men their neighbours went to the pub or had a nap by the fire. It had eased the pain, being so busy, and the women had moved quietly together as they worked.

As they clear the breakfast plates away, the capel bell startles babby awake; before she can make a noise, Gwenllian is there, plucking her from her bedding like a ripe strawberry and hurrying a damp cloth across the babby’s belly and legs, then pins a dry napkin. Babby is placed carefully in the pillows while the woman throws on hose, boots and Sunday dress and puts an inadequate comb to her hair. They are going to be late! 

Elizabeth enters still buttoning her own dress, draws petticoats and gown over the girl’s head and ties it all in place with new silk ribbons. Babby lies on her stomach and lifts her head, kicks her fat little legs, the bows at her shoulder blades flapping like cherub wings. The women laugh, stop surprised at their noise, laugh again.  Babby is wrapped in the best shawl, and they are downstairs and out towards the capel, where the bell hums as it comes to rest. The room echoes the sigh of their rushing skirts, a single dark hair curls as it drifts down through the slanting sunlight.

After the hymns and sermon and the rolling poetry of the preacher’s voice, the three approach the font. Babby is nearly 7 months old, awake and curious in her mam’s arms – but they look a small and unbalanced group with no man to join them together. Instinctively several neighbour farmers get up, offer themselves as godparents and Gwenllian, lightened by the earlier laughter and puzzled by her forgetfulness, accepts. She looks around the congregation, people she has known all her life, as if she’s just returned home from a long absence and a great distance and a deep illness. Which of course she has.

“What is the child’s name?” whispers the Reverend.  Gwenllian looks at him and frowns, then looks anew at the smiling child in her arms, sees something familiar in the eyes, the chin, the turning head; as if waking from a bad dream she looks sharply at the old woman her step-mother.

“Elizabeth” she says, and holds the solid old woman’s quiet gaze. “Her name’s Elizabeth”.

The women will count the agistment money one evening by the kitchen stove, at the table with pencil and paper, and curling figures in rows, and careful sums in columns; there is enough to buy two pregnant ewes, and half a dozen hens if they are careful.  They will be careful.

[1] ‘little one’ a term of affection for men, women and children.

[2] The Welsh hug

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