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Magic Amongst the Slag Heaps - a Christmas story
Ebley's and the Apple Tree
Rainy Reunion in Tenby
Dylan’s Daughter, the Walrus and Old Town Aberafan
Once Upon a Star - a Christmas story
Dec. 2012 (listen to the story, 6:30)
|Magic Amongst the Slag Heaps
A Christmas story
When I think about it, of all the memories I’ve found a safe place for, in my sixty or so years, many of the most precious among them are connected with the Christmas celebrations. Of all the occasions I can recall from my childhood--birthdays, summer holidays in Liverpool and London, fairs, school concerts, sports days, going fishing or swimming on Aberafan beach--many of the most memorable and still most vivid took place in late December. This is probably a common experience for many of us, for what could be more exciting than a child in Wales, or anywhere else for that matter, eagerly waiting for Sion Corn (Johnny Chimney). Waiting for his red velvet coat, snow white collar and cuffs, prodigious beard, knee-high boots, and an overflowing toy sack on his back to slide down in front of a lively, festive fire and smilingly give out delights to wide-eyed and mesmerized kids?
The world of late-industrial South Wales had sacrificed much of its natural magic and beauty to coal, iron and two World Wars, yet Christmas had managed to escape the depression, bombs, poverty and bitter strikes. For once, in a year marked by the extraordinarily heroic efforts of mothers and fathers to keep food on the table and shoes on the kids; for once, contentment was wealth, and wealth--true wealth--was prodigal. Need, along with mean-mindedness and those long gray days of cap-in-hand dole queues, had been banished from the whole of Wales. The river Afan, bare valley oaks and beeches would strike up carols of undeniable hope, harmony, good cheer, and plenty, among the broken smoke stacks and abandoned mines--all on a frosty, clear-as-crystal morning.
Tears among the ashes
Having said all this, my very first memory of anything at all in this life was indeed on Christmas day, but was filled with very salty tears and gnashing of teeth. I was about three years old and my elder brother, mother, father and myself were living with my grandparents in Cwmafan, a once-upon-a-time thriving, industrial village, a short, steep climb up from the vale and coastline of Glamorgan. The old stone terrace house on Tyisha (Tee-ee-sha) Row backed on to the river, had gas lights down stairs--none at all upstairs--a slate floor, outside toilet and a coal range in the kitchen for heating and cooking. My earliest memory is of being given a chocolate brown, painted log, on which happy little squirrels were playing squirrel games. It opened up at one end and was full of smaller trinkets and toys. Unfortunately for all concerned, my brother’s gift--the same thing, but shaped like an ocean liner--captured my eye, heart and infant soul, and I made everyone’s holiday miserable by completely ignoring the smiling squirrels and demanding the ship. The tears flowed freely for what seemed like days, and even tangerines, chocolate and plum pudding couldn’t put Johnny back together again. It was boat or nothing!
My second memory is much happier, of being lifted up to sit on the horse-drawn cart by my Dutch uncle "Waggy", while the old household was moved by beast of burden one mile out of the 19th and into the 20th century, replete with indoor plumbing and electric lights, but--in memory--the silly old squirrels still run stronger before my mind’s eye.
"... and the little one said roll over..."
My father got a job in the steelworks, down the valley in Port Talbot, on Swansea Bay, and, like many post-war families, we moved into a brand new, all mod-cons "prefab" (manufactured home). This was the beginning of the Baby Boom, and British Tommies returning home from the holocaust in Europe and the East were making hay and a great many babies--including yours truly--while the occasional Welsh sun shone on their mainly optimistic, enjoyable lives. To meet these burgeoning needs, prefabricated houses were the order of the day and very nice, thank you, for growing families.
Now, with advancing years, the grandparents tended to come to us for Christmas, along with uncles, aunts and cousins from around the isles. Beds were in great demand, with the folding camp variety and sofas helping out. The most glorious memory I have, even better than the decorations, wind-up gramophone, Christmas crackers, tantalizing all-night smell of turkey, and rosy-cheeked, very happy aunties and uncles coming home from the pub bearing gifts of crisps and pop. Better than even stirring the huge bowl of pudding mix, my most glorious memory is of lots of head-to-toe kids, laughing, making up and playing children’s games--often being warned to keep the noise down in case we scared off Santa. We kids, who rarely needed sleep, bundled and tumbled around an overflowing wonderland of a hot-water-bottled, goose-feather bed. These were the best of times that we cousins still laugh about more than half a century later. Times wealth could not have improved on. There was always just enough, be it gifts, warmth, love or discipline.
Other memorable Christmases come to mind, like the time we all got leathery brown soccer balls and togs (cleats), which came up over our ankles. We kicked, headed and tackled our way over every inch of the festive housing estate, park, waste ground, school yard and sea front. Or when it snowed, and all the woolen scarf and gloved, local kids rolled a giant snowball over the sand dunes down along the tide, until it was too heavy to move and cracked in half like a giant gob stopper.
The Ghost of Christmas Past
Those Christmases of very early childhood are unparalleled in my book of days. Nadolig or Y Gwyliau (The holidays), as it is known in Wales, is a festival of and for children, and I feel very blessed to have been able, at an early age, to have experienced not only such treasured times of warmth, but also the remnants of ancient social tradition. Of doors being open to everyone, and hospitality a matter of course and pride, especially at Y Flwyddyn Newydd (New Year).
Wassailing is basically a movable feast, pasties, pork pies, pints and people, laughter and song, migrating around the neighborhood from door to door in increasingly "happy" circles. Christmas Eve, at one time, was only the beginning of several weeks of celebration, of no manual work (with the plow being stowed under the kitchen table of the farm, and wetted with beer from time to time). The whole thing culminated by bringing in the new year with the right sort of observances to ensure health, good crops, marriage and happiness.
There were all sorts of taboos on New Year’s morning, about who should cross your threshold first and about borrowing money, for example. These were all intended to ensure a good, healthy, debt-free twelve-month to come. In my own time, a form of the Calennig tradition was still being observed. Calennig is a New Year’s gift, of wishing everyone a "Blwyddyn Newydd Dda" (happiness in January and beyond). Children carrying a piece of coal--for some ungodly reason considered lucky in South Wales--would go from door to door in the older neighborhoods. You got sweets (candy), a penny, thrupenny bit, sixpence or even a shilling--if you were really lucky. The original tradition was much more elaborate, involving decorated fruit, spring water and sung verses, with mid-day being the curfew on the well-wishing. Then everyone gradually turned back to everyday lives, whether miserable, miserly or carrying the magical spirit of the season into spring.
And speaking of well wishing, I hope that all of you remember Christmases as precious as mine, if not, you might watch the very young this season. They could just wave their wands, rustle angel wings and shake up the tinsel on long-forgotten trees.
Nadolig Llawen a
Blwyddyn Newydd Dda i chi i gyd!
|Cunard Terrace, Cwmafan, where
my grandmother moved to, from Tyisha Row.
|Down the valley, in Port Talbot, on my brother's street.|
|Ebley’s and the Apple Tree
There’s a very old and discerning Welsh proverb that just about everyone, no matter their origin, can agree with Chwedl a gynydda fel caseg eira (a tale increases like a rolling snowball). Whether by virtue of poetic license, willful exaggeration or the convenient hazing over of details caused by fifty full years of high and low tides and worldly voyaging, the story that follows aims to be reasonably faithful to the facts, without being too encumbered by the gospel truth.
And talking about haze, that late-summer Friday afternoon on Aberafan Seaside railway station, a young family was standing waiting for the tubby little steam train to wobble its way ‘round the bend on Baglan moors and puff, hiss and creak to a well-earned rest. Alan and John, not yet quite in their teens, David, a baby in the pram, their mother Vi and father George, with an unexpected Friday off from the Steel Company of Wales, skipped lightly aboard the carriage. The boys stood at the smoky open window the entire short trip under Beach Hill, through the crossing gates by the river bridge, and up the gentle incline to the verdant valley of Cwmafan. They were to stay overnight at grandma and grandpa’s house, where there was always the promise of unconditional grandparents’ love, a shilling, sixpence or thruppenny bit for the sweet shop, and a story from grandpa about the army in India or deep underground in the local coal mines. Oh, and don’t forget being met at the door by the incomparable aroma of grandma’s ever-ready, hot-out-of-the-oven, apple, berry and rhubarb tarts, pasties, fruit cakes and lavishly buttered, thick, homemade bread that would, if mishandled, endanger a youthful, sandaled foot.
And the valley weather? Well it was one of those glorious, late Indian summer afternoons--Haf Bach Mihangel (The Little Summer of St. Michael)--when the heavy smell of cut lawns was intoxicating and songbirds hadn’t even thought about a winter getaway to France. Black and yellow striped bumblebees were as busy as ever. Rainbow trout were drowsily dreaming in leaf-shaded pools, skimmed by dipping dragonflies. Redolent ferns, gorse, bracken and rampant blackberries were relentless, rapidly covering over the scars of a century of industrial earth and stone works. It could be no finer. The warm scented breeze overflowed with birdsong and ambient summer sounds. The silver river--clearer than in living memory--shimmered her venerable way back down past Aberafan sands, to re-join the waters of the world in Baglan Bay.
The boys’ grandparents--or Nana and Grumper to them--lived on Cunard Terrace, opposite Tips Gwyn. They had moved the short distance from Tyisha Row a number of years before by horse and cart and now, for the first time, had indoor plumbing and electric lights! Tips Gwyn (The White Tip) was a fairly high slag and industrial tipping site that came from the Meadow coal pit and surrounding works. The considerable chalk-like content had given it its name, even after the volunteer grass and wild flowers--fertilized by the ubiquitous Welsh sheep--had reclaimed much of it. The Tip, like many similar, was removed years ago, and the boys had felt the loss of one of their favorite playgrounds, where cardboard boxes became sleds on its "snowy", alpine slopes. The fenced, flooded mine shaft behind was a forbidden but irresistible place to count the seconds before a stone would hit the water level, far below in the mysterious, goblined shadows.
Teatime meant a short trip with a note and half a crown or so down to Care’s Chip Shop. The boys took an earthenware mixing bowl and tea towel with them for the lavishly salt-and-vingered chips. The Evan’s pies, rissoles and fishcakes they brought back, deftly wrapped in newspaper, and the smell of malt vinegar, rock salmon, chips, et al., was a pungent delight in itself that would find a permanent home in the memory of the savory senses. The table had been laid and Nana's best floral china plates and teacups, lace cloth and silverware added to the specialness of the meal, but there were other things on the boys’ minds. Ebley’s cinema in nearby Depot Road was the main course on Friday evening’s menu.
Bread and butter, HP Sauce, Grumper’s garden peas and cups of PG Tips vanished in record time. The boys, hands and faces sanitized, pocket money in khaki shorts’ pockets, set off at a lively jog. Don’t want to miss the Pathé News of the teeming, healing post-war world, or especially the Looney Tunes cartoon. One or other of the two would start the shows.
Jogging past Doctor Hughes’ house by the side of Tips Gwyn, past Vi Lane’s sweet shop and Parc Y Llyn where Grumper was park keeper, after his mining days were done. In no time at all, on Depot Road, they climbed at the double the couple of steps leading into Ebley’s wonder world and Cinema. And world of wonders it was to many a young and not-so-young soul. Mr. Ebley’s family had owned a traveling road show that circulated the thriving South Wales Valleys in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Wayfaring becoming difficult after the outbreak of The First World War, they put the horses out to graze in the meadow and settled down, building the cinema themselves in, what was at that time, the industrially unbridled Afan Valley. The carnival feel of the traveling show must have survived the sea change. Ebley’s on a Friday night was always jumping!
Nine pence for kids to get in, there was always enough left over for a bottle of dandelion and burdock pop, a choc ice or a lollipop, and as you bought your ticket and goodies, the feature posters in the foyer promised all kinds of star-studded, exotic exploits. The fare was as tasty as the ice cream: Groucho, manic eyebrows, one-liners and smoking stogie creating mayhem on board ship; John Wayne, as very Irish as a very American can be; the Roadrunner, outsmarting Coyote for the hundredth time, on a lonely Nevada road; or innocent love briefly flourishing on a smoky station between changing trains. Even The Flying Scotsman itself--monarch of the railway steam age--might be the star of the show, and of course, the sheriff and posse would arrive just in time to ask, "Who was that masked man?" It was indeed a wonderful world!
Mr. Ebley, impeccably dressed in waistcoat, suit and tie and those distinctive black, round-rimmed glasses, was always there as a figure of smiling authority. But Dewi, with his torchlight at the ready to illuminate bad behavior, kept tenuous control of the over-exuberant, prepubescent clientele in the wooden front seats. Sometimes he’d threaten to stop the film and, more than once, the film itself would break and the screen would become a disappointing pale gray. Dewi would have plenty to do, especially when the bad boys, as the lights were dimmed, would run over to the emergency exit door, hit the breaker bar and let friends in for free. The scattering of young bodies to the four corners of the auditorium would bring frantic torchlight into play, but the naughty boys were quick and usually melted into the dimly lit crowd.
The interval would bring the usherette, with her uniform and tray, down one aisle to the front of the stage. For some reason, everyone clapped! A remnant of silent-film days, the theatre organ would play some popular march or old waltz, signaling time for the boys’ room and, pocket change allowing, more sweets. The balcony and plush back seats down stairs were for the adults and courting couples, taking first shaky steps on the tight rope of innocence. Ebley’s must surely have kept St. Michael’s and All Saints’ wedding calendar busy over the years. Indeed, the old place was more than film stars and features; more than cheeky fun and misbehaving schoolboys. It was many a generation’s social focal point. A place to meet, laugh, play, be entertained in an age just a few short years before the first onrush of television. That soon-to-be household essential would change the social landscape into something a little less embracing, a little less encompassing and yes, a lot less communal.
Back to the big picture. The cavalry--bugle blowing, stirrups flying--would ride ‘round the bluff under a bigger-than-life sky and save the day. Battle-worn soldiers--against all odds and under heavy fire-would climb and claw their way up and take the hill from the Hun. The star-crossed lovers--locked in eternity on separate trains--would part forever, and the music would build and swell into a rapturous, symphonic paroxysm, as the picture show came to The End.
In the most organized event of the night, young and old would stand, take off caps if need be, and sing the National Anthem with hwyl (with gusto). And as "O bydded i’r hen Iaith barhau" ("O long may the old language survive") resounded across the aisles, the youngsters, as disorganized as ever, would rush the exit by the side of the screen, hit the breaker bar and tumble out into the starry night air, in the back alley behind Depot Road.
John and Alan ambled their way along that alley, back up towards Parc Y Llyn, in no particular hurry to get home and end this glorious summer evening fun. They stopped by the back garden wall of one of the houses in the lane, as they had done a number of times before. The rest of the kids had vanished by this time, and under the shadows of a moonlit night, Alan cupped his hands, twtied down, John stepped in and, like a rudimentary circus act, was boosted up to sit on top of the wall. Looking around to make sure no one had seen them, our fledgling acrobat reached out and twisted a perfectly ripe, red, delicious apple from the gloriously spreading tree, and passed it down to his brother below. Another would follow the same route quickly, and off they would run, up along the back alley, with a little tinge of thrilling guilt to finish off the trip home.
Well, that’s the way it usually went, but as the wise old saying goes, Dwyn wy, dwyn mwy (steal an egg, steal more)! This particular night, ambition stepped in. They picked a veritable bag full of apples that Alan hid in his shirt. When they arrived at Nana’s house, holding his appled belly, he ran straight up the stairs, feigning an upset stomach, to hide the swag under their overnight bed. So much for the plans of mice and wayward, young men. The first part worked like a charm. Alan ran up the stairs and shut the bathroom door quickly. John, a picture of innocence, went into the living room muttering something about too much chocolate, and then and there the clever subterfuge came clattering down.
All was well until a sound like the muffled banging of a big bass drum came from the landing above. "What was that?" the grownups said in perfect unison, looking straight at John, who was unsuccessfully trying to pretend he was somewhere very far away and unreachable by voice. George, the boys’ father, looking very stern, climbed the stairs two at a time, demanding "Alan, open this door! Now!!" The jig was well and truly up. The forbidden fruit had fallen from the tree. The boys stood next to each other, hands behind their backs, looking down at their sandals; the apples, very prominent in a line on the table. Tears freely flowed when the police station a little further up Cunard Terrace was mentioned, and thoughts of striped suits, bars, bread and water were much on delinquent minds.
They sobbed their way to sleep in Nana’s feather bed, and woke to the reality of having to take the apples back to their rightful owner, which in some ways was worse than the threat of a night in the Cwmafan police cell. The lady of the apple tree house couldn’t have been nicer, and said that next time they should just ask, and she’d give them all the ripe, red, delicious apples they could eat. Lesson learned, for sure, and although they went to Ebley’s many a time after, and walked home along the moonlit back alley, past the gloriously spreading tree, the apples were left for other hands to pick.
The old cinema was knocked down some time ago and replaced by some new, attractive, nice-as-can-be houses. It is as if Ebley’s had never existed but, with the right eyes, ears and dusted off memories, you might overhear a whispery echo or catch a shadowy glimpse of a once-upon-a-time little corner of the South Wales that was. If indeed, some summer evening towards dusk, in the right frame of mind, you walk along Depot Road, you can still hear distant, lingering laughter, ambient on the Cadbury-sweet evening air and fragments of theater music spiraling up, up into the diamond night sky. You may still see the faint reflection of courting couples’ faces, antics of misbehaving youthful friends, and even the likes of Alan and John, dream-spilling into the alley on some glorious Friday evening of a Haf Bach Mihangel. Some precious things--though age must and will have its way--are for always... as long as there’s a little bit of forever in our hearts.
|Rainy Reunion in Tenby
The yearly cycle turns around Glangaea, the old Welsh New Year, at the beginning of November. The ancients would fix their gaze on Caer Arianrhod--The Corona Borealis--hoping to catch a glimpse of the entrancing goddess, as she sat at her silver spinning wheel, gracefully spinning their earthly fate. Spirits were abroad and the long winter darkness, already manifest, called for bonfires, ritual and reassurance, in a fragile, often casually temperamental world. They would look again to the skies around Glanmai--Mayday--but this time with much greater hope in their hearts at the promise of lengthening days of life-giving light. If, like the spinner, they could have travelled time, in that early November sky, they might have fleetingly caught a different silver glimmering, the very distant, outstretched wings of a Boeing 747-400, as it imperceptibly lowered its nose, after passing over Taliesin’s Rheged--Strathclyde. Making its way south above the ancient kingdoms of Elmet and midland Britain, it safely touched down in 21st Century Heathrow Airport.
A speedy London Underground run, then the familiar Paddington-South Wales train, seemed to quietly and smoothly anticipate the waiting family the other side of Cardiff, on Port Talbot Parkway Station. Making good time to and through the tunnel and, although bathed in rapidly fading evening light, the characteristic and comforting hills of Gwent, then Sir Forgannwg held out welcoming Welsh arms. Home was now a reality, hireath--homesickness--a remnant of then. Croeso i Gymru--Welcome to Wales!
The advantages of living six thousand miles away from your origins are legion, as are the disadvantages. One of the more interesting advantages is the built-in ability to time travel. Yes, seriously! No need of the teeming imagination and mechanical aptitude of H.G. Wells. No need of magical caves, dream worlds, psychedelic tunnels or worm holes; just five or more years of separation and the ebb and flow of human tides. Now, read on for the revelation.
As we observe, so we are observed, with the inevitable process of aging, gracefully or not, easily read in the open pages of our tearful, smiling faces. To see someone beloved and be seen by them, with intervening years, is to indeed travel time. Reconciliation with a long estranged close relative is heartwarming, yet the ravages are sadly shocking enough to insist that you yourself look into the mirror and hope it will show more compassion. Even more striking, to see new family additions: a babe in arms with familiar features, "Doesn’t she look a lot like..."; a slightly older child, "Reminds me a lot of him when he first..."; "She’s got the attitude of a young so and so!"
Sometimes those too-rapidly-growing cherubs go to the same school and even the same classroom where you yourself window-dreamed. Yes, the wheel is always in spin but, even for a brief spell, you become that smiling, sing-song rhyming, chiming child in the playground again, vicariously young. Perhaps a six-month-old infant’s casual gesture, facial expression, outstretched hand is a duplicate of an older uncle or aunt. They are, in a sense, one and the same, just at different points on the curve of our earthly continuum. And so it was this time, as it has always been and always will be, an opportunity for all to visit with the great sweep of generations, in the comfortable front room parlour of a small industrial town.
Even the rain is somehow familiar here, in this smoky old borough. It reminds the prodigal visitor that November on the coastal plain of Bae Abertawe--Swansea Bay--has a geographical signature; characteristically lashing the gray stone walls, windows and slate roofs devoid of wise Jackdaws. But, solace for a traveller’s flagging soul, on a bacon, fried bread and black-puddinged morning, during a steak and kidney pied lunch, or haddock and chipped Friday teatime treat, all is warm, well and beyond reach of re-gathering gray clouds and threatening gales.
Intermittent gusts and squalls were certainly there, the following rainy Monday in Tenby Town. Dinbych y Pysgod--Tenby of the Fish--is a Norman-walled town, replete with castle, smugglers’ caves, squabbling gulls, nets, boats, anchors, ropes and enough mythic and poetic license to be itself a tall tale. It is a place to engage all the senses; salty to the taste, it had the smell, touch and ambient sound of a wind and rain swept Pembrokeshire sea town. It is ever a harbour for those long at sea, the perfect place for reunion.
The last time of meeting this long lost friend was his twenty first birthday in Ynysybwl, Cwm Rhondda. Growing up, there had been many occasions of music making, larking, drinking cider, laughing and day dreaming... you know the kind of things teenagers did forty odd years ago, and yes, still and will always do. Sitting in the bay window of The Buccaneer Inn, with the wood fire keeping out the chill, there was a sense of "What will it be like to see and be seen down the wrong end of a telescope?" The sixties were a lifetime before; washed away, gone, almost as if they had happened to someone else. Something dreamt, scenes from a subtitled foreign film. Would we recognize... know each other? Would we like what we saw... the look of one another? What would be said? What was there to say?
After a long tearful embrace, fears went the way of the fallen rain, guttering down to the invigorated sea. Age certainly showed its fascinating and frightful imprint, but friendship--true friendship--showed no sign of weakening, let alone disappearing. Maybe it had even enlivened with time and travel. Conversation was as brisk as the keen wind off the bay, while the two hour run of our brief encounter was spinning at the speed of the goddess’ wheel. First there were the fifteen-minute, forty-year personal digests, then the "Do you remember such and such... so and so?"; "He did well"; "V married W"; "X retired years ago"; "Y made a big splash in London Town"; "Z was never the same..." Email, network and mobile numbers exchanged, promises made, and just like that, the bay window looked out on an empty, rainy Tenby cobblestone street. The world had silently turned. Time had moved on... once again.
Looking out of another window at around thirty five thousand feet, heading back over Rheged, shell-shocked head spinning, you might have wondered if a time-travelling Taliesin had caught a glimpse of the Boeing from the ground, as he scanned the sky for a sighting of Arianrhod at her wheel. Then the realization would dawn. Glangaea or not, and even though you can, there is no need to time travel, if you have never left the May Day of your days. The spirit of Glanmai is, after all, at home in the heart--in the abode of the soul--and beyond the ceaseless turning of the silver spinning wheel.
|Dylan’s Daughter, the Walrus and
Old Town Aberafan
Based on a legend heard in John's youth.
Did you ever walk out along the old wooden pier near the mouth of the River Afan? It was pulled down a long time ago, but do you remember before it was rebuilt of concrete and steel after a century of September high tides had almost washed it away?
Well, early one fair summer morning, cyn codi cwn Caer, before the dogs of Chester had risen, I should have been at school learning about Pythagoras and geometry instead of discreetly skipping down the riverside path, past the Little Warren and mud banks on my way fishing. A short time after casting the line out, as I was whistling my lucky fishing song, I heard something unusual. Well, in truth, I heard a string of sounds perfectly imitating my song–note for note–but faint and bittersweet, as if a quiet and sad, pleasant echo. Strangest of all, it wasn’t a whistling sound answering, but something like the sound of a flute–for it was indeed a flute–materializing like a musical apparition a stone’s throw past the end of the old pier; harmonics rising like a sea mist from somewhere deep beneath the play of the waves! For a good while, time stood Sunday still and then imperceptibly, the seagull cries and the rise and fall of the sea licking the barnacled pilings washed into my ears again. I tried whistling a couple of times after that without hearing any answering melodic dialogue from the sea, but now my lucky-charm song was a tad more pensive.
That evening, as I lay in bed, flashbacks of that fair summer morning made me wonder if I’d been adrift on some sort of tidal daydream or if there had truly been music and magic in the tide and I had witnessed a real life wonder. I didn’t say anything to anyone, but the next day, cyn codi cwn Caer, before the dogs of Chester had risen, when I should have been in school studying Pythagoras and right-angled triangles, I was standing outside the town library waiting for the key to turn in the lock and the ‘Closed’ sign turn to ‘Open’. There was a genuinely surprised look on the librarian’s face. “Good morning Sioni, no school today?” she asked. “No Miss Jones, I need to take a look in the local interest section for stories about old Aberafan Town and mysterious sounds coming from under the sea. I’m writing an essay for the Calan Gaeaf, Halloween issue of the student’s magazine” I casually lied without blinking an eye. “Oh” said she, “you’re so lucky. Just arrived yesterday is the book collection of old Mr. Dafis, Cwmafan. He was a sailor, but when he retired he had taken an interest in the history and stories of the Afan district, until recently–in extreme old age–he went to live with family in Abertawe, insisting that his books and manuscripts stay with the people of Aberafan Town. Come along with me.”
Well, inside the dusty basement, down the back stairs behind the main reading room, were mound upon moldy mound of very old and threadbare, graying books; some tied together with string, others in cardboard boxes, but the majority scattered sang-di-fang, willy-nilly, all over the shop. “Sorry about the mess” she said “I don’t have time to keep up with all the kind gifts from the Friends of the Library. Over there under the window, on the wooden table are Dafydd Dafis’ books. Oh! And there’s also a sea chest llawn dop, full to bursting with his papers and bric-a-brac. Lwcus Da, Good luck!” said Mrs. Jones over her shoulder as she climbed the stairs leading back up to the neat and well-lit main reading room.
After a couple of minutes staring in a fog over the rolling hills and dales of books and papers, Pythagoras and the square on the hypotenuse were beginning to appear a lot more attractive than usual, but as my mother always said “Deuparth gwaith ei ddechrau. The start is two parts the work”. I sat at the wooden table and began going over the landscape of frail and fragile, venerable books in the weak light of the street-level window half way up the damp basement wall. After an hour or more, at the point of rhoi’r ffidl yn y to, hanging the fiddle in the eaves, in a dark corner by the radiator, I came across the travel-weary sea chest–a story in itself–smelling of untold sea-voyages, salt-sea spray and memorable midnights in exotic sea ports. Unfastening the weathered leather straps, inside I came across seemingly numberless bundles of handwritten, yellowing papers tied with brittle green, blue and red ribbons. Toward the bottom of everything I found some kind of small white flute; a flute made out of bone or ivory, covered with mysterious scrolls and shell-like scrimshaw and discolored by perhaps hundreds of spindrifting years.
Putting the flute in my pocket and untying yet another crumbling blue ribbon I read: “Tales and Beliefs of our Forefathers, collected by Capt. Dafydd Dafis, Cwmafan.” Once again Pythagoras didn’t have a hope in Hades; not a friend in the world. I began reading the old Captain’s prologue:
Generation after generation have heard these stories from their grandfathers and fathers until I heard them in my turn at my own father’s knee. Having neither daughter nor son, I must entrust them to fortune and fate and the rip-tides of time and hope that, like driftwood, they’ll wash up on a welcoming shore.There were lots of appealing stories in the collection, but one chapter was especially bell-ringing: “Bedd Dyfrllyd yr Hen Dref, Watery Grave of the Old Town.” Well, I was ar bigau’r drain, on tenterhooks, anxious and hopeful of solving yesterday’s harmonic mystery. I read on …
Amser maith yn ôl … A long, long time ago, when dear old Wales was still at play on the unhurried playing fields of her youth, our local coastline would have looked extremely strange to you and me and anyone familiar with Aberafan today. To tell the truth, there was no coastline there at all, but a long green valley leading down away through meadows and glens through the old Afan Wood then on to the distant beach and the sea; a slender quicksilver thread glinting cheerily in the far, far beyond. In the middle of the valley, on the river bank, was Old Aberafan Town with its round thatched houses, simple wooden church, little school hut, earthen market square and our forefathers busily going about their daily lives in sunshine and rain. An ideal picture, isn’t it? But without warning everything was about to change … forever.
Well, after skipping flat pebbles out across the chuckling shallows, impatiently waiting for what seemed like a lifetime, not far from Hafwen’s tidal pool, of a sudden a mountain of water rose frighteningly close to Jac on the shore. It would have been very easy to lose heart, turn, and run back to the town, but when Hafwen herself swam to the water’s edge, somehow all was becalmed and well with Jac again. “Don’t worry” she said smiling, “my father is anxious to thank you.” And with that, from the middle of the liquid hill, there was Dylan Eil Don–Dylan of the Second Wave, Arianrhod’s son–striding toward the shore. Even after returning home to Old Aberafan Town, it was just about impossible for Jac to describe Brenin y Weilgi, The King of the Deep. His face, hair, beard and his entire enormous body was like seaweed or a shoal of fish flowing and churning constantly in eddies. Only his penetrating blue-green eyes stood solstice still. He was Arctic, Antarctic, Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans incarnate; the embodiment of the salt crystal empire that circles the world; the aquamarine and pelican gray that balances the earthen and apple green hills.Aberafan was rebuilt twice more over the years; each time further inland, away from that mischief-maker Tide. And despite the little walrus tusk flute having been faithfully passed down from generation to generation, finally washing up in a weather-beaten sea chest, next to a radiator, near a wooden table in the weak light of a street-level window, in a dusty basement downstairs from the reading room of the new town library–despite all of this–nevermore would the flute player be master of the prankster tides of Ynys y Cedryn, Isle of the Mighty.
But, if you ever walk out along the pier at the mouth of the River Afan, cyn codi cwn Caer, before the dogs of Chester have risen, on some fair morning of a harvest moon, when you should be at school learning about Stephen Hawking, Space-Time and The Grand Design, instead of squandering your own precious time pondering simpleminded legends like this; perhaps you’ll see a young lad sitting by the barnacled pilings, from time to time casting out into the giggling Tide, sometimes playing a soft and sad, lonely song. And a strange thing, you may hear a sound like a flute–for a flute it will be–answering his song–note for note–rising like a melodic sea mist from many fathoms deep beneath the play of the waves.
|Once upon a Star
A Christmas story
They say don’t ever look down when you’re climbing, and I’ve heard you never can step in the same river twice, but it doesn’t matter anyway as everyone knows, you can’t go back - in time that is. Though when the serene evening sky keeps its promise of snow; when long awaited visitors are heard unlatching the garden gate and the star - the one that’s been seen near Solstice for generations - reassuringly shines in its wine-violet setting, I feel a gentle tug at my sleeve; find myself drawn quietly back; willingly led along the gray-green shadow of a pencil-traced path, through the old-growth, mistletoed wood; time after time out of mind falling like acorns, mile piling on mile like leaves littering the rhyming river run. And then, at last, to arrive in sight of the gas-lit, silver, terraced street, to cross that scalloped, shoe polished step; on through that ever open front door that gestures toward the welcoming hearth, warm hands and vivid living vision; restoration of many a long-lost late December; long gone but unforgotten.
In and out of the tub, soap scrubbed, shampooed and towel rubbed dry, pajama strings tied by patient, practiced hands, giggling brothers and sisters chase their little cousin up the apple-and-pear stairs to share beds top-to-tail, lying like sardines in their feather-lined tin. Slowly, wriggling and jiggling crest fall and ebb; tired rag dolls take their rag doll rest; dreaming toy soldiers loose the battle for sleep. And the old stone house settles down to its well-earned ease.
Listen. Come closer to the hearth. These many-a-winter weathered walls, ancient, oak eaves and rooftop tiles made with good Welsh slate will tell you tales; tales gathered from bygone and aging generations.
Smoke from the embering, overnight fire silently climbs inside the blackened chimney bricks, coils up, up and out of sight and sound and lightly is lost into this clear, crystal night: A once-upon-a-time metaphor for those good lives and lifetimes, once upon a star.
You can also listen to "Once upon a Star".
And how about you? On the evening of the eve, did it ever snow, make for a doubly-enchanted new day? Did you write your name, draw pictographs on ice-laced, foggy window panes? Did the lake, starting at its wintery, frogless edges, glass over overnight? Overnight, did unseen hands make frozen fingers out of twigs on leafless lifeless trees? That morning, did you and your school friends leave a thousand footprints on paths and pavements on the way to the park? Play winter Olympic Games on playing fields a million miles from fleetingly completely forgotten schools, their gates forever locked, except for times like these? Or, when the weak winter sun helped clear the streets, with scarf and thick breath streaming like a steam train over hunched-over shoulders, did you peddle like the Devil on your bright new bike; make rutted, pimpled tire tracks through muddy puddles of slush; bell ringing, wheels singing, friend following friend, stumbling and tumbling all over the chattering town?
Listen. Come closer now. There’s still the after image; echo memory of that rushing river of voices as it washed along back alleys and flooded light filled lanes. Listen! Come closer to the fire, the old house is settling down to listen to your tales.
And do you remember those early-teenage late Decembers; last day of school before the mid-winter holidays, when even the grimmest, grumpiest teacher couldn’t help a wry expectant smile as the final bell rang? On the eve of celebration, did you go down to your tinseled caroling town? Wade waist high through full tides of crab-legged shopping bags, bursting with pearls of expectation; everyone swimming in a goodwill sea, while holiday money held in a warm, gloved hand smoldered in your pocket. And did that week of Saturdays never end, waiting for the evening of that anticipated party with its presents, pop, puzzles and games of close encounters; the jewel in the golden crown an innocent kiss under the mistletoe; first kiss that sometimes lasted a lifetime. And if it would only snow, surely the prince would fearlessly scale the impossible tower, rescue the princess from the Ice Queen’s palace, and young romance would grow and grow into sky high drifts: “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”
And I know you shouldn’t look down when climbing and no one can step in the same river twice, and everyone knows, you can never ever go back. But when the serene evening sky keeps its promise of snow, long awaited visitors unlatch the garden gate, and that special star shines on a wine-violet Winter Solstice; after listening and thanking you for your wisdom of words and admitting there is surely something lacking in me, you’re going to hear me say: “Nos Da. Good Night. I’ll be on my way back now.”
You can also listen to "Once upon a Star".
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