Mam and I have lived alone ever since Da died. I remember that day almost twenty five years ago as it were yesterday; there was a terrible storm and Da was outside fixing the tarpaulins covering the hay bales when a freak gust of wind uprooted the ancient oak tree beside the barn. Da was crushed under timbers from the barn and died a few hours later in hospital from his internal injuries. No one knew how old the oak tree was; it had been a feature of the farm for as long as anyone could remember and it was almost certainly several centuries since it had been a sapling. The heart had long since rotted away and I used to hide in the hollowed out trunk when I was a little girl. Da was always saying that he ought to get it cut down, but he hadn’t the heart to finally do it. The barn was almost certainly as old as the tree, and the timbers may well have been cut from its parent. Most of the beams and trusses were still as sound as the day the barn was built, but in the corner by the tree the slates had slipped and some of the timbers showed the typical signs of death watch beetle infestation.
We had to sell the farm after that. It was a very sad day since the farm had been in the Gwynedd family for two centuries or more, but Da was the last in the line, and he had no sons to carry on after him, just me, a daughter. Mam and Da had married in their early twenties, and Mam had moved into the farmhouse to live with Da and her in-laws. I know that Mam found it very hard. As far as Da’s Mam was concerned, her daughter-in-law was a disappointment — how could a girl from the city ever understand the life of a farmer’s wife — but she and Da were devoted to each other, and she could do nothing wrong in his eyes.
Mam never complained, but Da could see she was unhappy and he scraped together enough money to buy a derelict cottage further up the valley. He spent every spare moment of the next few years restoring and modernising it, and after eight years Mam and Da finally moved into their own home. Although they tried hard, no children came along, and after ten years they had become resigned to the fact they would never be parents. Then by some miracle — perhaps it was something they ate — when she was nearly forty Mam discovered she was pregnant. Because I was an only child Mam and Da did everything they could for me and when I showed signs of musical ability they arranged for me to take piano lessons with old Mrs Jenkins in the village. Da even managed to find a beat up old upright piano which took pride of place in the parlour.
I loved our cottage with its strong grey stone walls and dark slate roof — it looked as if it had grown in the valley rather than something men had built. It was a warm and cosy house with its large open fireplace in the parlour and the old fashioned range in the kitchen. The house always seemed to smell of freshly baked bread, and this is a smell that always takes me back to those happy days of my childhood. Mam was a bit of a gardener too, and the garden up to the house from the gate in the dry stone wall that ran along the road for miles was always a riot of colour. Mam didn’t go in for fancy plants, just those that had always been a part of the traditional cottage garden — hollyhocks and delphiniums, Michaelmas daisies and foxgloves; and roses of course, not the modern hybrid ones but old fashioned English rose bushes covered in masses of white scented blooms all summer, and plump red hips in the autumn. The back of the cottage looked out onto the mountains of mid Wales, mountains that changed colour with the seasons from the yellow of the gorse in spring to the purple of the heather in late summer and autumn. Da grew vegetables and soft fruit at the back, and to my mind there is nothing finer than freshly dug new potatoes, peas straight out of the pod, and fresh mint leaves — to go with Welsh spring lamb of course. I loved the summer in particular, with fresh raspberries dripping with juice picked from the vine, although the autumn with its blackberries and new apples in a pie topped with a crusty pastry comes not far behind.
When Granda died we moved into the farmhouse and let the cottage to visitors from the city, but it never really felt like home to me. Grandmam went to live with her daughter in Swansea — she had married a doctor and they had a large house which also housed his surgery. Auntie Megan was her husband’s receptionist and looked after the books, and she said that Gramdmam was a godsend. Grandmam of course was in her element and was allowed to run the household as she thought best, although I think what she enjoyed most was gossiping about the patients with her new friends at the Methodist chapel.
I went to the local primary school in the village, but when I was eleven I started at the comprehensive school in the town about twenty miles away. It was a long day as I was picked up by a bus every morning at 7:30am and I didn’t get home again until after 6:00pm. I was a bit of a loner and I didn’t join in the usual rowdy games of the other children on the bus, but buried my nose in a book. I particularly enjoyed historical romances and books of myths and legends. As I grew older I also began to read fictionalised biographies of the great composers, which helped when I got to college, although it took me a while to disentangle the facts from the fanciful inventions of the authors. I was fairly proficient at the piano and I had a pleasant soprano voice, and I was a member of the church choir and sometimes took the choir practises when the organist was away. At secondary school my music teacher suggested I might like to try the violin and I discovered I had a natural affinity for it, so by the time I was seventeen I had passed the grade 8 examinations. It seemed natural therefore that I should go to college to study music, and having obtained the necessary results at A level I was accepted at Bristol University. Da said it was a pity I hadn’t got into Cardiff, but Bristol was still close enough to go home for weekends.
When Da died I had just graduated, and I had been thinking of trying to get into one of the second rank of symphony orchestras. I had also started composing a bit at college and had had one or two part songs performed at the Eisteddford in Llangollen. Da’s death changed all that since I would have to be the main breadwinner for Mam and me. It’s not that we were poor — we had a steady income from the money from the sale of the farm plus Da’s life insurance, although we had had to pay for rebuilding the barn which wasn’t insured, and Mam would soon have her old age pension when she was sixty. Mam and I moved back into the cottage and I insisted on spending a little more of our capital on modernising the kitchen — I had not inherited Mam’s culinary expertise, and a microwave was an absolute must — and in installing oil fired central heating. By good fortune a teaching post came up at the local primary school where I had been as a child. I shouldn’t really have got the job as I hadn’t done the necessary years teacher training, but the headmaster was an old friend of the family so he bent the rules a little.
Mam and I got on famously, like an old married couple, although she was always saying that I ought to find a nice young man and settle down and raise a family. But there was no way I was going to find one in our village, and truthfully it would have killed her if I had moved away. It’s not as if I was a virgin, and I had had several lovers when I was at college. One of them dropped in one day, as if by chance, and more or less invited himself to stay for a week. We went for long walks in the hills during the day, catching up on old friends, and made love every night in front of the fire after Mam had gone to bed, and again in my big double bed. We rumpled the bed clothes in the spare room, but it never looked as if someone had slept in the bed. Mam never said anything, and I think she was hopeful something would come of it, but when he was leaving he told me he was getting married in a few weeks. I was irritated and perhaps a little shocked by his confession, but he added that his fiancé had gone to Ibiza with her friends and was probably fucking every available piece of arse. I told him rather sharply that I didn’t think having a final fling was exactly the best way to prepare for marriage, and I heard many years later that he and his wife had divorced. To be truthful I was more disappointed than annoyed; he had a really nice bottom and was really rather expert at pleasing a lady — unlike the callow and inexperienced youth I remembered from student days. There was also a married teacher at the school with whom I went to a number of concerts in Cardiff, but when he suggested that I accompany him to a weeklong teachers’ conference in Birmingham, and that we could use the opportunity to get to know each other rather more intimately, I told him politely to push off. He left the school at the end of the summer and I have never heard from him again. Like many other sexually frustrated single women I suppose, I bought a vibrator at a sex shop in Cardiff and consoled myself by reading slushy romantic novels — the kind that are commonly known as bodice rippers.
Everything was fine until five years ago when Mam fell and broke her hip. She had been growing increasingly forgetful and eccentric but after her accident she started to show alarming signs of dementia, and a couple of years ago started to spend most of her time in bed. We couldn’t afford to pay for a full time carer, and reluctantly I was forced to give up work to look after her. The cooking and cleaning were not too much of a chore, but I have never got used to dealing with her incontinence, nor her sudden rages. The only time she achieves some sort of peace is when I play and sing to her. I still have some income from teaching the piano to young hopefuls from the village, and when I can get a babysitter I occasionally play in a folk band in the local pubs. But I am really marking time until Mam dies, by which time I will be on the shelf and sadly condemned to a future of spinsterhood, which is not the life I had mapped out for myself.
What I am going to relate will probably strain your credulity, and you may believe that it has all been a dream. Goodness knows, I have always loved the old Welsh folk tales but I am not in any way superstitious, unlike many of my forbears, and I know that my story sounds incredible, but I am utterly convinced that everything that has happened to me is as real as the paper I am writing on.
It was a wild autumn evening two years ago; the rain was lashing down and the wind was whipping the branches of the trees into a frenzy — the sort of night when a good book by an open fire was even more desirable than usual. I had had a difficult day with Mam and had to change the bedsheets twice — senile dementia is cruel, and especially hard on the career. I pray every day that I don’t go go the same way as Mam and think I would much prefer to die in an accident whilst I am still in full possession of my faculties.
I had just made myself a much needed cup of tea and put a ready meal in the oven when there was a hammering at the front door. I muttered a curse, wondering who would be foolish enough to be out in this weather. When I opened the door I was greeted by the sight of the strangest man I had ever seen. He had a dark weatherbeaten face with a strong slightly hooked nose and long black hair under a battered old felt hat with a wide brim like the drovers used to wear. The rest of his clothes were just as old fashioned — moleskin trousers held up with a necktie knotted round his waist tucked into long leather boots, and a dirty white shirt with long baggy sleeves under a long unbuttoned gabardine which was flapping about his legs in the wind. It was as if he had walked out of a photograph from long ago and nothing like the brightly coloured clothing and sensible boots of the walkers who often called at the cottage in the summer asking for a drink of water before they went on their way.
When he asked if he might come in out of the rain his speech was just as strange. It had a soft Welsh lilt and as he spoke he would occasionally use Welsh words as if English was not his usual language. I showed him into the living room and took his coat and hung it up to dry before going into the kitchen to pour him a cup of tea and to put another meal in the oven. Hospitality to strangers is still important in the Border country and I had already decided to offer him a bed for the night. It was when I went back into the living room where he sat with his long legs stretched out to the fire as if he owned the place that I noticed his piercing blue eyes under hooded brows — sharp intelligent eyes that were almost hypnotic in their intensity.
I sat down opposite him and for some reason apologised for my unkempt appearance as if he were some smartly dressed city gent. He didn’t say anything in reply but a ghost of a smile crossed his lips, and then as if drawn by some invisible power I just poured out the story of my life to him. When I spoke of the importance of music in my life and my faded dreams of a career as a performer he asked me if I would play for him. I said that I hadn’t picked up my violin in weeks, but he was gently insistent, so after tuning the strings and checking the tension in the bow I began to play a piece by Paganini, thinking to impress him with my virtuosity.
He stood and put a hand on my arm to stop me. “Not something by a dead composer who never knew this land,” he said, “let your spirit be free and play what is in your heart, not your head.”
It had been a long time since I had composed anything, but I put my violin to my shoulder, closed my eyes and without thinking began to play. I don’t know what force possessed me, but melodies poured forth from my bow — wistful melodies full of the colour and majesty of the hills; the music of generations of my people and their lives of toil on this land; tunes full of sadness and gaiety, and songs of love and death and rebirth. These were the pictures that I sensed on the screen on my mind as my fingers summoned sad beauty out of the air.
When I had finished he asked if he might see Mam and although he was a total stranger I led him upstairs to her room. She was awake and restlessly muttering unintelligible words to herself, but when he sat by her bedside and took her hands in a firm but gentle grip she immediately calmed down and within minutes for the first time in many months, fell into a deep and peaceful sleep.
After we had eaten our simple meal at the scrubbed oak table in the kitchen we went back into the sitting room and sat either side of the fire illuminated only by the flickering flames. Neither of us said anything but just sat sipping our mugs of ale — wine didn’t seem appropriate — and words were somehow unnecessary, but there in the comfortable darkness the stranger spoke to me of the generations of my ancestors who had farmed these hills long before the Saxons, or the Romans before them, came to this land. As the night wore on the room faded away until all was aware of was his eyes holding my gaze and the way the firelight and shadow accentuated his chiselled features, which seemed to grow younger and more handsome with each minute that passed.
It seemed quite natural when he took my hand and led me up the stairs to my bedroom. Without demur I let him undress me before undressing himself and lying beside me on the bed. Wordlessly he began to make love to me, caressing my breasts and body gently before entering me and filling me with his hard manhood. This was lovemaking of a different order than the sex I had had with other men. The feel of his muscular body in my arms as he slowly rode me was oddly familiar, as if this was not the first time but a joyful expression of love and desire we had shared many times. When my climax came it was intense but at the same time warm and deeply enriching, and I knew in that instant of mutual pleasure that I belonged to this man and had done so since the moment of my birth.
I fell asleep in his arms happier and more content than I had ever been as if I had come home from a foreign land. When I woke I was alone, but on the dresser was a single sovereign and a gold wedding ring, old and worn with wear, which fitted my ring finger as if it had been made for me.
Over the next few days I often thought about the mysterious stranger, and about the deep emotions he had stirred up inside me. The overriding feelings, however, were regret that I had lost something wonderful, and at the same time, the contrary sense that something momentous was about to happen. Logic told me that this was rather silly as well as highly unlikely, and was just the wishful thinking of a middle aged spinster trapped in a dull and unfulfilled life.
Whilst I felt increasingly restless, Mam, on the other hand, remained calm and peaceful as if the stranger’s touch had healed something in her mind, which was a miracle of sorts. ‘No point in crying for the moon,’ I thought, and then, ‘Thank goodness for small mercies,’ and got on with life as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened at all. Eventually the events of that strange and wonderful night took on the quality of a pleasant dream, which is what I increasingly came to believe it had been.
About a week before Christmas the postman delivered a small package wrapped in brown paper. Inside was a plain wooden cube about three inches across, but no note to indicate who had sent it. It felt as if it ought to be a box, but hard as I looked I could see no sign of an opening or a catch to open it, so I put it on the mantlepiece and forgot about it.
On Christmas Eve I arranged for a neighbour to look after Mam so that I could go to the late night Communion Service at church. When I got home we chatted for a while, and after she had left, I made myself a cup of cocoa and sat down in front of the fire for a while before going up to bed. Something drew my eye to the box sitting on the mantelpiece and as I looked it seemed to start to glow with a faint inner light. I got up from my chair to pick it up and once I had sat down in my chair again, I held it in my hands to examine it more closely. In the light of the fire I thought I could see a very fine crack running round four of the sides. Idly I ran my fingers along the crack and suddenly what appeared to be the top came loose from the bottom. I gently separated the two parts and inside was an opalescent glass globe which was emitting a pale silver light.
As if drawn by some irresistible force I stared into the globe and imperceptibly the light brightened and expanded, enclosing me in a cloud of shimmering grey. The effect was rather like being lost and alone in one of the mists that are a feature of still autumn days on our hills. Then just as strangely the mists cleared and I was back in my room. But it was no longer night-time and the late afternoon sun was streaming through the window; and everything else had changed. It was clearly the same room; the door and the windows were in the same place, but the walls were lime washed and the fireplace was larger with hooks hanging from an oak beam where the mantlepiece had been. All the modern furniture and the television and hi-fi had disappeared. In their place were two old fashioned wooden settles either side of the fire and a scrubbed wooden table under the window on which was a simple earthenware jug with a spray of spring flowers. The only familiar detail from my home was a violin case on a small table in the alcove.
The room looked exactly like a set from one of those period dramas on television, and I thought at first that I must be dreaming. I rubbed my eyes but when I looked again nothing had changed, and it didn’t feel as if I was asleep. I should have been frightened but my feelings were entirely the opposite, and if anything I felt blissfully happy and contented. I had been standing there for some minutes trying to collect my thoughts when the door burst open and in strode a man in the prime of life. It was all very perplexing but strangest of all was that he looked just like a young version of my mysterious visitor. He strode across the room and took me in his arms and kissed me on my forehead.
“You look very thoughtful my darling,” he said, “I hope you are not worrying about tomorrow. Everything is done that needs to be done and even the weather looks set fair. We have finally finished the roof of the barn and the tables and benches are all in place ready for our wedding breakfast.”
I didn’t say anything in reply, still trying to digest the news that I was to be married the next day to a man about whom I knew nothing, not even his name. In my confusion however, fragments of memories began to drift into my consciousness as if from a great depth. He continued to hold me and as I stared into his face, a single name suddenly swam into view. His name was Huw, I was absolutely certain of it.
“My dear Gwen, where has my little chatterbox gone? The cat certainly seems to have caught your tongue today,” he said, laughing, “so why don’t you get me a jug of ale while I make myself comfortable, and then you can make your fiddle sing for me.”
“Oh Huw, I’m sorry, I can hardly believe that tomorrow we will be husband and wife at last. I have to keep pinching myself to be sure it’s not all a dream. Of course I’ll play for you tonight, but tomorrow I will expect you to join me with your pipe in a duet to celebrate our new state of wedded bliss.”
Then, as quickly as they had dispersed, the clouds returned and moments later I was back in the twenty first century sitting alone in my familiar room in front of the dying embers of the fire.
I didn’t take the globe out of its box for many weeks after that. I often pondered the strange vision, and the only rational explanation I could come up with was that in some magical way I had picked up ancient memories buried in the stones of the cottage.
It was a bright sunny morning in early Spring when the globe called out to me again. The previous day Mam had been admitted into hospital following a stroke which had left her speechless and paralysed on one side. This time the transition was sudden, like a light being switched off and on again. I woke — that is the only way I can describe it — to find myself standing in front of the altar of the church with Huw beside me. He was holding my hand and slipping a gold ring — the gold ring — onto the third finger of my left hand. He leaned forward to kiss me and I heard the voice of the vicar pronouncing us man and wife.
The rest of the day passed in a blur. I remember us playing a duet at the wedding breakfast as I had asked and a choir singing old songs about love and marriage. Then I was lying in a large bed between fresh linen sheets smelling of violets and roses and Huw was walking through the door dressed in his night shift. All my apprehensions vanished like mist in the morning sunlight when he removed his shift and stood naked before me in the soft flickering light of the candle. He was so beautiful, his hard workman’s muscles rippling effortlessly as he slipped between the sheets next to me and took me in his arms. Our lovemaking that night was glorious and passionate, tender and joyful, and when I eventually fell asleep it was with a feeling of utter contentedness. I was home and this was where I belonged, and all thoughts of my previous life were no more than a half forgotten dream.
This time the vision did not fade and many months passed before I returned to the future one last time for my mother’s funeral. I am now an old woman with half a score of grandchildren to delight my final years. Huw and I sit by the fire in the evening in contented togetherness, reminiscing over our wonderful life. It hasn’t always been easy without the benefits of modern life and two of our children died in infancy. But we have both been blessed with good health and our lovemaking has always been a mutual celebration of an intense and lasting passion. My fingers are too stiff now with arthritis to play my violin, but I occasionally take it out of its case and run my fingers across its strings and it sings to me of the joy and completeness that true love brings. I have left it to my eldest granddaughter in my will along with the small box containing a simple glass globe that sits on a shelf above the fireplace. She has often asked me about the it, but all I have told her that it is very precious and that it contains a mystery which maybe she or her children or grandchildren will one day understand.
In the grim back alleys of the city,
Mean streets devoid of all signs of pity,
Amid the piles of decaying refuse
And slimy pools of darkly noxious ooze,
Frequented only by the scuttling rats
And noisome tribes of scabby feral cats;
Here, slumped in doorways, human flotsam lies,
Just filthy piles of rags crawling with flies.
In such surroundings one would not expect
To find evidence of beauty’s rare spark,
Yet with more careful eye one may detect,
Delicate flowers glowing in the dark,
Rare signs that life defeat will never know,
And even in midst of death hope will grow.
There was once a man whose name was no one,
A man without hope, marked by death’s shadow,
Wasted by booze and drugs, his cheeks hollow,
With sunken eyes from which all spark had gone.
His dissolute life had stolen the sun,
Banished from home, and warmth of family,
Begging for an end to his agony,
Desperate that his crimes could be undone.
But he was not entirely forsaken,
The wife so sorely abused yet loved him,
Regardless of danger to life and limb,
Through the cold city’s foetid underground,
She searched, sustained by hope he might be found,
And love so strong it could not be shaken.
Nothing is stronger in heaven or earth
Than the redeeming power of true love.
Love does our humanity fully prove;
It is the force that binds us from our birth,
And gold or silver cannot tell its worth.
Although passion will fade as we grow old,
And pretty created things lose their hold,
In hearts love ever seeks to make its berth.
Love forgives and takes no account of wrongs,
And through its power all may be reborn,
Whate’re the price may be, love ever longs
To make us whole, caring not for men’s scorn,
For no richer gift can there ever be
Than to share the love that will set us free.