To tell you true, mother, I will entrust myself to the slender lad. Wealth I shall leave to misers, and entrust myself to him who is the flower of the shire, with his white face and his golden hair, and in his cheeks are two roses. Happy whoever sleeps the night in his arms.
“Yr hogyn main,” Welsh folk poem, 17th century
By now I was in a brittle mood.
The church stood on a knoll surrounded by the half-reclaimed marshland where seventy years ago Uppingham had played football. The building was uninspiring, rather like the one at Garreg, typical of its high Victorian age. I pushed open the door. Inside was an ancient lady doing the flowers, who seemed surprised to see a visitor. She smiled enquiringly and asked, in English but with a good Welsh accent, if she could help.
“I’m, um, on a pilgrimage,” I replied in Welsh.
She too switched to Welsh. “Oh! So you aren’t from Uppingham!” — as if English pilgrims from Uppingham were the only strangers expected at Borth.
“No. But it’s the Uppingham connection that has brought me here.”
“Then this is what you’ve come to see. It was given by the school as a thank-offering.”
She led me towards the east window above the altar. It was, frankly, hideous. At the top was the school crest and in the three main lights were conventional figures of Christ, Moses and Abraham. But at the foot was an English text in gothic script:
Thou shalt not be afraid for the pestilence that walketh in darkness nor for the sickness that destroyeth in the noonday.
How appropriate, how wholly appropriate, for a school under threat of death from typhoid. And how appropriate for Stan, under threat from tuberculosis. To my horror I felt tears on my cheeks.
“You’ll know that verse better in Welsh, no doubt,” the old lady said, eying my face with interest. “Na rhag yr haint a rodio yn y tywyllwch na rhag y ddinystrio ganol y dydd. But somehow there’s more beauty in the English.”
She switched her gaze to Abraham, under whom was another text:
He went out not knowing whither by faith he went.
Again, how appropriate. Both the school and Stan had summoned up the full measure of faith required to flee into the unknown.
She was reading my mind now. “The faith that brought them here!” she exclaimed. “I like to think we lived up to it. When they left, they wept. So did we. They had shown us endless kindness.” She gave a little chuckle. “I was only a small girl, but I remember them well. Mr and Mrs Thring lodged with us and slept in our best bedroom. One night there was a great storm which piled up the shingle outside until it was level with the window, and they climbed out without using the stairs. All next day the boys and the masters helped unstintingly with our sea defences. And they set up a generous fund for people whose homes had been flooded. Borth will never forget them.”
It was humbling that the village retained a corporate memory of the school from so far back. Could it possibly retain any memory of the one member of the school who interested me?
The old lady was eying my face again, more intently than before. “But the window,” she said, “is not really what you’re here to see.” It was a statement, not a question. “Come with me.”
She led me outside into the churchyard and stopped in front of a headstone with a small bunch of fresh flowers at its foot. It was of slate, similar to most of the others, and there was nothing remarkable about it, except for the inscription:
Er serchog gof am Rhys Jenkins a fu farw Medi 20ed 1878, yn 15 oed.
Arol drycin hindda.
In loving memory of Rhys Jenkins, died 20 September 1878, aged 15.
After the storm, fair weather.
The date fitted. This was surely Taid’s Rhys. Once more my eyes filled with tears, and once more she noticed.
“He was a fisher boy, you know,” she said. “And unhappy. He wanted friends, but nobody seemed to want to be friends with him. He was lonely. Until he discovered fulfilment with a very good soul. Sadly, though, it did not last long. He was coming home from a fishing trip when a storm blew up and he was drowned off the beach. But he died loved and happy. He had found his redemption.”
It looked as if Taid’s secret was less of a secret than I had supposed. And was it perhaps a good thing that, once he had found his redemption, Rhys did die? In those days, after all, how could a fisher boy set up with an earl-to-be? Quite apart from the social gulf, how could they fit together intellectually? It could not possibly have worked.
I found I had uttered that last sentence, which was meant for myself, loud enough to be heard.
“But,” she said simply, “it did work.”
I stared at her. “Did you know him, then?”
“My name is Richards now,” she replied. “Mrs Bronwen Richards. But my maiden name was Jenkins. Rhys was my brother.”
I continued to stare.
“He had an unusual nature,” she went on slowly. “Our father … let us say that he abhorred it. I’m afraid he was very cruel. But when Rhys was thirteen Tad died at sea, and Rhys was befriended by an Uppingham boy who was bonheddig but not crachfonheddig.” That was a play on words, beyond punning translation — a gentleman but not a snob. “And our mother understood Rhys. She knew what he needed, and she had no objection. And when this … friend was rejected by his own family, she took him in. For a year and a half he and Rhys lived together, in our house, sharing a room. He came from a noble family and was well educated, Rhys had little schooling and could hardly read. Their backgrounds were miles apart. But it didn’t matter. They accepted each other as they were. Until the tragedy struck, it did work. It worked happily, because both had found their redemption. And it was no secret. Not everyone approved, mind you. The ministers thundered, but here in Borth we have an independent streak, and many people simply thumbed their noses at them. Do you know who this friend was?”
“Yes. I do.”
I drew the book from my pocket and handed it to her. It opened at the title page.
“Ah yes,” she said. “Uppingham by the Sea. I have a copy.”
“Look at the flyleaf.”
She turned back. “Oh! In fond memory of my beloved Rhys, lost at Borth 1878. Reginald Page. Do you know, I remember him buying this very book, in Aberystwyth. It was published at exactly the time when Rhys died. So Reginald was your grandfather?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
Mrs Richards handed the book back. “I can see his face in yours. And you are very like him in manner — polite and modest and gentle. And not only that … I think you are on the same path as he was. Look.”
She pointed to the next-door headstone, which I had not even noticed. Apart from the personal details and the final words, it was identical to Rhys’s, and at its foot were also flowers. The inscription ran:
Er serchog gof am Reginald Page a fu farw Rhagfyr 5ed 1908, yn 48 oed.
Aduno o’r diwedd.
In loving memory of Reginald Page, died 5 December 1908, aged 48.
Reunited at last.
I bowed my head. It looked as if my secret too was even less of a secret than I had supposed.
“A month or two after Rhys died,” she said, “Reginald left us. We understood. There was nothing now to keep him here. He had to make a fresh start. We were sad to see him go, just as we had been sad when the school left, and we wept again. But he kept in touch. He told us when he married and when his daughter Mary was born. And when he knew he was dying, he told us he would like to be buried beside Rhys. He told his wife too, and she also understood. So we helped her to arrange it. She kept in touch as well, until she died. She told us when Mary married, and when she had children. You must be either Madog or Dewi.”
That was painful. “Madog was killed in the war, three years ago,” I said. “So was Tad, five years ago. I’m Dewi. But everyone calls me Dino. Short for Dinogad, as in the Llyfr Aneirin.”
She smiled a little in appreciation, and we both stood in silent thought. My heart was warmed by what I had learned, but my head was puzzled. Was it pure coincidence that had brought me here while she was in the church? She had clearly not expected me. Mam, though no doubt she knew about her, could hardly have forewarned her. It seemed uncanny, as if fate were taking a hand.
“You will not find your path straightforward,” Mrs Richards said suddenly, raising her head and giving me the full benefit of her pale old eyes, “any more than Reginald did. But happiness can be attained. Mr Thring himself wrote some nice words about that —
“That medley of ruin and safety, fear and fun, which passed from risk and danger — which seemed almost impossible to be faced — to a happy ending.
“He was talking about the school at Borth. But it proved true for Reginald. And it can be true for you as well.”
Her eyes dropped to the twin gravestones.
“Mind you, happy endings demand much work as well as much faith. Remember the saying, Gobaith heb gais, mordwy heb long.” Hope without effort is a voyage without a ship.
She paused to let that sink in.
“Now that you’ve found us,” she continued, “please keep in touch. Efelwen, Borth, will find me. And when I’m gone it will find my family.” She held out a gnarled hand, which I gently and gratefully shook. “May God be with you,” she said, and went back into the church.
Lost in my thoughts, I headed for the village. The lodging houses of Cambrian Terrace were still there. So was the Cambrian Hotel, now called the Grand Hotel but run-down and far from grand. I bought a dog-eared sandwich from a run-down cafe and ate it on a bench on the seafront. For the time of year the weather was warm, calm and bright. The tide was out and the little black specks of the forest just broke the placid ripples.
My mind wandered. The infant Taliesin found Moses-like by the king’s son. Gwyddno’s pleasant realm drowned by a careless drunkard. Herring shoals netted from fishing boats in Michaelmas storms, though neither storms nor boats were in evidence today, any more than were Elffin or Seithenyn. Rhys Jenkins perishing almost within arm’s length of land. Uppingham boys playing ducks and drakes when the sea was a millpond, fighting it with flimsy barricades when it was furious. The horizon bloodied by glorious sunsets rather than paling into the fragile distance of this autumn afternoon. But my thoughts refused to crystallise.
Finally I made for the station and caught the next train back. Once again it was a case of changing at Dyfi Junction, which is in the middle of nowhere. There, as I spent an hour watching the oystercatchers and wimbrels officiously pecking in the mudflats, my thoughts at last began to clarify. Then the Pwllheli train pulled in and I boarded it.
For some parts of the journey, where the line runs level and crosses broad estuaries on timber viaducts, the engine chugged along without seeming effort. In other parts it had to labour hard, where the line climbs until it is painfully bottlenecked onto absurdly narrow shelves as the mountains meet the sea, perched high above the jagged rocks below, clinging to the cliffs as it were by its finger-nails.
I saw that railway as a metaphor of my life.
But I saw it with a serene mind, more serene than it had been for months … for years … ever? I had at last come to terms not with my vice — because it was not a vice — but with my nature. I had come to terms with myself. Like Taid, like Rhys, I was within reach of my redemption. I saw that the step I was about to take was no more than the end of a long process. Time, over the last few years, had not after all been rushing past. It was me who, inch by painful inch and all unknowingly, had been moving on.
“The faith that brought them here!” Mrs Richards had said of the school. “I like to think we lived up to it.” So too with me. I was ready now to live up to the faith that had brought Stan into the unknown, the faith that had brought him to me. I was ready now to show faith in return.
The omens were good. The lesson of history was not that Stan would meet a Rhys-like end, but that with us it would work. With Taid and Rhys it had worked. If Borth could accept such a thing seventy years ago, Croesor could accept it now. Just as Rhys’s mother had understood his need, so Mam understood mine; indeed it seemed she had recognised it long before I had. And I saw that I had been more proud than was good for me. I saw now that I was in no way superior to Stan. I saw now that Stan, like Joe Gargery, needed no helping on. And behind me I sensed Taid giving us his support.
The last level stretch, the last timber viaduct, and the train coasted into Penrhyndeudraeth. There I had the luck to bump into an acquaintance from Beddgelert, who gave me a lift as far as Garreg. Outside Y Ring, Lowri was sweeping the yard and smiled her sly inviting smile which tempted me not a whit. Because no traffic seemed to be going my way and the day was drawing to a close, I set out to walk. But as I approached Plas Brondanw a car tooted behind me. At the wheel was Clough himself, and he, I realised, ought to be told. Bending down to the driver’s window I asked if we could have a quick word.
“Of course we can, Dino. Let’s have it on the terrace and enjoy the sunset. Wait a moment until I get the car inside the gate.”
So we stood on the terrace looking west across the Traeth. The sun had just sunk behind Ralltwen. Distant clouds were now gathering, tinted a deep and resplendent red. To the east, Cnicht glowed pink with the reflection.
“Never the same twice,” said Clough, drinking it in. “That’s one reason — one of the many — why I so love this place. But you’ll know exactly the same from up in your eyrie. So where’ve you been, Dino, that you’re walking home?”
“I’ve been to Borth.” I was feeling too emotional to say more.
“Ah! And what did you find there?”
“I found my Taid. And I found myself. You were right, in that lecture you gave me last year. I’m not alone in what I need, because there are others. And there have been others before. Like my Taid.”
Clough, to my surprise, was not surprised. “Yes,” he said gently. “Like your Taid.”
I gazed at him. “You know about him, then?”
“Not only do I know about him. I knew him.”
“In 1908,” he went on, “my father handed over Plas Brondanw into my control. It had long since been converted into tenements for quarrymen and I planned, as one by one the flats fell vacant, to restore it to its former glory. One of the tenants was your Taid. He had recently married and your Mam had just been born, but he was on his deathbed with silicosis. We talked a great deal, as long as he had breath enough, and he told me his story. It wasn’t common knowledge. But his wife, your Nain, was well aware, and she sympathised.”
“And Nain must have told Mam, when she was old enough. And surely Mam told Tad.”
“Yes. She did.”
“So why haven’t they told me? Or why haven’t you?”
“They wanted you to grow up without any preconceptions. They wanted you to discover your own nature, whatever it might be, without any influence from the past. When your Tad joined up you were … what? Eleven? You were still too young to have discovered it. After he died, your Mam talked to me, and she asked me not to tell you either. You were still too young.”
I had had no inkling that Clough took that sort of interest in me.
“But yesterday,” he continued, “she came to see me.”
So that was where …
“We debated whether the time was now ripe. I said I thought it was, and she agreed.”
“But she still didn’t tell me. She just gave me a book to read and suggested I go to Borth.”
“I think she felt it would be best if you found out as much as you could by yourself. That way, it would persuade you better than she could that any difference of upbringing is wholly irrelevant.”
I pondered. It had certainly done that. Mrs Richards had said exactly the same — ‘their backgrounds were miles apart. But it didn’t matter.” Taid and Rhys could no more discuss history or geography or Victorian literature than could Stan and I. But it did not matter. Come to think of it, Taid’s and Nain’s backgrounds were also miles apart. Although by the time they met he had become thoroughly Welsh — just as Stan was becoming thoroughly Welsh — they could not discuss such things either. But it still did not matter.
“You were right too,” I said at last, “about the time being ripe, because I’ve discovered something else today. Not that there are others like me in the world — you taught me that. But that I’m no longer alone as myself. No longer alone as Dino. Because now I know who I love. Who I would like to live with.”
“Good. And does he know that yet?”
“No. I’m on my way to tell him. Well, to ask him.”
Clough smiled. “I don’t think he’ll need much persuading. But do you see any practical problems?”
“Not with Mam. After all, she’s engineered all this. She must approve, or at least not object. But two things do worry me. I’m seventeen, and soon I’ll have to do National Service. We’ll be separated, and what happens to the farm then?”
“But Dino, that isn’t a problem at all. Neither of you will do National Service. They’ll reject you both, you because of your finger, Stan because of his history of TB.”
I gaped. I had not thought of that.
“Oh God, if that’s true it’s an almighty relief.”
“Believe me, it is true. And what’s your other worry?”
“Stan. He’s been with us for over five months now, just as a guest. All right, he brought his own ration book, but we’ve got no formal responsibility for him. If something goes wrong, we’ve no authority to act on his behalf.”
“The solution to that is to get him into your guardianship — or rather your Mam’s — until he comes of age. Would his family play ball?”
“I think they would. His brother’s wife is on his side. And his brother Ernie thinks he’s an idle good-for-nothing who’s best out of the way. But Ernie’s in prison now, anyway.”
“Yes. Your Mam told me about that.”
“But how do we get guardianship?”
“Through a solicitor. Go to William George in Porthmadog — that’s right, Lloyd George’s brother. Tell him I sent you. He’s a clever man. He could get Satan into heaven. And get Stan into heaven too, for that matter, though I think his place there is already reserved. All right?”
“Oh God! Thank you!”
“Not at all. No other problems?”
“Not really a problem, just a question. In the church at Borth I found an old lady who told me everything I wanted to know. How on earth …”
Clough interrupted with a chuckle. “Nothing magic. When your Taid died, I helped your Nain arrange the funeral from this end. Bronwen Richards helped her at the Borth end. So I know her. And I would guess that she’s the only person alive who knew your Taid when he was the age that you are now. So you had to meet her. When your Mam was here yesterday the question arose of how to make sure that you did. But neither of us had her address, so I phoned the vicar of Borth. And he said that Bronwen could be found in the church doing the flowers every Friday morning, regular as clockwork. She did not have to know you were coming. It was as simple as that.”
I put out my hand to him in gratitude, but he gathered me into a hug. “Good luck, Dino. I told you I respected you. I still do, more deeply than ever. But you’ve a lot of learning to do. You’ll both have to give and take, you know, like an old married couple. I’m half of an old married couple myself, and that’s a tip from the depths of my own experience. You’re both young and you can’t be married, but you’ll still be a couple. You’ll still have to give and take.” Clough patted my shoulders. “Let me give you a lift home.”
I accepted with some trepidation, for his driving is notoriously erratic. But he took me safely up the funnel of Cwm Croesor. Hovering low over the village, however, was a layer of cloud, not the sort that slinks stealthily in from the sea but the sort that slides silently down from the mountain. It was hardly fair, in these conditions, to expect Clough to deliver me to my door, and I suggested he drop me at the post office. Having waited until he had turned round without hitting the telephone box and his lights were dwindling down the road, I felt my way up the track towards Garth Llwynog.
Fog, dense fog, visibility ten feet at best. Until — another metaphor of my life — I rose above it and looked down at the white carpet spread out below. The yard lay ahead. In every sense I was at the end of my journey. It was almost dark enough for the first stars to appear, but Cnicht still reflected a faint and benign glow of pink. Apart from the distant bleatings of sheep all was quiet, until Giff and Gaff, recognising my scent, began to bark excitedly. The back door opened and Stan looked out, silhouetted against the light, silently waiting. He had been waiting, with unbelievable patience, for far too long already. Gone now were the days of fumbling in the solitary gloom of my past. Quickening my pace, I strode out towards the shared light of my future.
I called to him, and he came to me. We met in the middle of the yard. My arms opened of their own accord, and he fell into them. After a moment we were both in tears. Beyond him, through blurred eyes, I saw Mam at the door, smiling her blessing. Above her Cnicht was smiling too. And in my mind’s ear I heard a voice. Somehow I knew it was Taid’s.
“Bechgyn da,” he said. Good lads.