Paris … ah Paris … he had been in love with the city since that magical day in April fifty five years before when he had stepped off the train at the Gare du Nord and walked out of the station into the bustle of the busy streets of the capital. He was a country born and had lived all his life on his father’s farm and his mother had decided that now he was fifteen it was time he saw something of the wider world. He was a quiet and sensitive boy who preferred to spend his days with his head buried in a book, or sketching in the countryside. As the youngest of five children, he was his mother’s favourite and she had arranged with her sister that he should spend the Easter holidays with her family in their apartment in the Paris suburbs.
His aunt met him off the train and as there was time to kill before they needed to catch their suburban train from the Gare Saint-Lazare she took him to a café on the corner of the Rue Saint Lazare and the Rue d’Amsterdam. It was one of the first warm days after a winter that had been one of the coldest in living memory and they drank fresh pressed citron while he gazed in wide-eyed wonder at the busy traffic and the smartly dressed passers by hurrying about their business. To this day the sound of car horns took him back to that moment and his first experience of metropolitan life, so different from the sleepy streets of his home village.
He had three cousins. The eldest Jean was eighteen years old and in the Army doing his National Service, and was only home at weekends. The other two were both girls, Jacqueline who was seventeen and Geneviève who was a year younger than him. The only girls he had known until then were typical country girls who dressed simply in plain smocks and wore thick serge stockings, and whose conversation was mainly about dolls and babies. In contrast his cousins seemed much older and so sophisticated, especially Jacqueline who wore smart dresses and nylon stockings, and even makeup, which he found shocking at first.
His uncle worked for SNCF, the national French Railway company , and the family all travelled free in the trains. Over the next two weeks the girls showed him all the sights of the city, and he marvelled at the majestic buildings on the boulevards and the grand palaces, monuments and churches. They climbed the hill of Montmartre to take in the panoramic view of the city from the top of the Eglise de Sacré-Coure, had coffee at one of the many cafés in the Place du Tertre, and strolled past the booths of the street artists, successors of the Impressionists who had lived and worked there in the last years of the nineteenth century. One memorable evening the whole family walked arm in arm along the Champs Elysées past the brightly lit shops until they stood at the tomb of the unknown soldier beneath the arch of the flood-lit splendour of the Arc de Triomphe. The highlight for him however, had been the day they spent at the Musée du Louvre and, best of all, the Museum of the Impressionists in the Tuileries.
It is hardly surprising that as well as the city, he also fell in love with Jacqueline. She treated him as an adult and flirted with him a little, calling him her petit chou-fleur, and one memorable day when they were walking hand in hand in the gardens of the Petit Trianon at Versailles he managed to steal a shy kiss while his aunt wasn’t looking. Years later he would say that his three week holiday had changed the whole course of his life and turned him from a gawky and naive boy into a budding adult. Until then he had given little thought to his future, but on his return home he was quite clear that he did not want to be a farmer like his father and live the rest of his life in the country. He had three older brothers, the eldest of whom was at agricultural college and would inherit the farm anyway, one who wished to join the Army, and one who wished to become a priest. After much meditation he realised that most of all he would like to study art at the Sorbonne in Paris, which is what he eventually did, although there was some resistance from his father at first.
It had been an uncomfortably hot day, unusually so even for this summer, and there was not even a breath of wind to stir the dust. It was nearly eight in the evening, but the blast of air from the subway entrances was still as scorching as a dragon’s breath and he was reluctant to join the masses on the Metro for the short journey to his apartment in the sixteenth arrondissement overlooking the Bois de Boulogne. It would be best to wait until it was cooler he thought and he took another sip of wine from his glass. He decided he would prefer to eat here — he had been told that the steak was very good — even though there would be a meal in the fridge prepared by his daughter for him to heat up when he got home in the evening. Never mind, it would still be okay for another day and he was sure she would understand — she was used to his whims by now. However he’d better phone her anyway so that she wouldn’t be concerned — she did worry — and he keyed her number into his mobile.
Even now the apartment still felt empty although it was six years since his wife had died. After university he had married his cousin, not Jacqueline but Geneviève, the quiet one. Maybe he should have moved to somewhere smaller when she tragically died far too young of a brain tumour, perhaps closer to the Jardin du Luxembourg and Institut d’Art et d’Archéologie where he was Professor of Modern Art, but now he was about to retire that would have been foolish. He still felt her loss keenly and it was strangely comforting to see her things in their familiar places with all the memories that they evoked of their many years of happy marriage. It was the silence that was most unsettling but he had been surprised to discover that, almost more than the sound of her voice, it was the clatter of everyday life he missed as she went about her household tasks.
He thought back over the events of the day, idly watching the people passing his table; nameless office workers weary to get home and pretty girls eager to meet a lover — he did a lot of people watching these days. That was when he saw her in the far distance, radiant in her own bubble of sunlight. Time seemed to stand still for an eternity and he froze with his glass halfway to his mouth, spellbound by this dream of otherworldliness. She moved as if she owned the space around her with the grace and assurance of an athlete. He had never seen anything so lovely; a once in a lifetime vision of beauty — not the skin deep artifice of a model — but something fundamental, almost divine.
To his surprise she stopped and sat down at the table next to his. The waiter, whose attention he had found so difficult to engage, immediately moved from where he was hovering at the entrance to the café and asked her what she would like. She asked for a cup of coffee — an espresso — and a glass of pastis, and while she was waiting she took a long cigarette holder and a pack of black Russian cigarettes — the type with a gold filter tip — from her handbag. After lighting the cigarette with a gold lighter, she inhaled deeply and then blew a long stream of smoke into the evening air, reminding him of those sophisticated and glamorous film stars of the fifties. Then she looked over at him … and smiled … not just a friendly smile, but a smile full of meaning. He was totally nonplussed and blushed like a teenager, uttering a feeble greeting, but she just smiled again and continued smoking with an air of utter relaxation.
Shortly after that his order arrived, followed by her coffee and pastis, and he turned his attention to his steak, which was really rather good and cooked just as he liked it. Nothing further was spoken between them and after about half an hour she stood up, nodded to him and walked off into the gathering gloom. He guessed that he would never see her again and he regretted his unusual shyness. If she had been a student he would have had no problem asking what she was studying — an annoying habit of an ageing academic. She was so remarkable he would loved to have known her story — what she did and why she was there, but he had missed his chance and he would forever wonder. Perhaps she was just a vision.
Over the next few days while he was sitting at his desk in the evening trying to write his valedictory lecture on “The Erotic in Art, the Enduring Attraction of Beauty”, his mind kept wandering as he recalled that brief moment of magic — he just couldn’t get her out of his head. He would chide himself that he was just a foolish old man, and leave his desk to and make another cup of strong black coffee accompanied by a very large glass of a fine cognac, before returning to his labours.
He dressed carefully for his lecture in a long mustard frock coat and large pale yellow cravat — as a professor of modern art he had always liked to present a slightly raffish, if slightly old fashioned, air, and he had always considered a black tuxedo to be so boring. After the lecture there would be a reception in his honour and the idea of showing off a little appealed to him. One never knew, but there might be an attractive lady who would be pleased to join him in an intimate late supper; just a little flirtation to round the evening off in a pleasant fashion — nothing more serious of course.
The lecture was going well and he was in that zone where he seemed to be speaking directly to every member of the audience. Suddenly his attention was distracted by movement at the back of the darkened theatre — a late comer was trying to find a seat. Normally such things didn’t bother him, but there was something this time that made him pause, and he looked up to see who it might be. And then he realised — it was her, the young lady of his daydreams, sitting there with that same air of mystery and seemingly still surrounded by an aura of light in the darkness. He soon recovered his composure and continued with his presentation. When he had finished there was a moment of silence and then the audience rose and gave him a standing ovation that lasted for several minutes. And that was that, the conclusion of a successful career, and he made a slight bow and left the podium with the applause still ringing in his ears.
At the reception he had to sit through a long and slightly tedious presentation by the Director of the University, who insisted on enumerating his successes. This was followed by a much more pleasant and much shorter speech by one of his former students who was now a member of the National Assembly, and then he was free to mingle amongst the guests, receiving their generally sincere plaudits with due modesty. And then, what he had secretly hoped for happened. She was there in front of him and everything else faded into the background as if they were the only people there. She came up and instead of shaking his hand, as would have been perfectly normal, she kissed him gently on the lips and then spoke for the first time. Her voice was as melodious as her appearance was elegant, and although she spoke perfect French it was with the hint of an American accent.
“Bravo Monsieur Le Professeur,” she said, “your presentation was as interesting and entertaining as I had expected it to be. It was a privilege to be here.”
“Perhaps,” she continued, “ you might permit me to visit you at your home, I have a proposition I would like to make to you. Please phone me tomorrow.”
She pressed a card into his hand and then she was gone, moving amongst the guests with the same grace that had first attracted him until she was lost to sight.
He paced the floor of his drawing room like a nervous cat, unable to sit down and relax for more than a few seconds. He glanced at his watch for the thousandth time — surely it must be past eight o’clock but stubbornly the hands seem to be frozen as if time was standing still. Perhaps she wouldn’t come, he thought, and then at last when he was beginning to give up hope, the doorbell rang.
After closing the door he took her coat and hung it carefully on the stand before ushering her into the drawing room. Without saying a word she moved around the room looking at the many modern objets d’art he had collected as well as the photographs in their silver frames of his wife and children. Finally she stopped at the window and gazed out at the view of the Bois de Boulogne with the lights on the trees beginning to twinkle in the gathering dusk.
She turned to face him and spoke, “You have a very fine collection Monsieur, as I would have expected from a man of your refined tastes, and your wife was very pretty. I have only seen photographs of her as a child but I can see her likeness to my mother. You were a very fortunate man and I’m sure she made you very happy.”
Then he understood. She was Jacqueline’s daughter and his niece — she could have even have been his daughter, except that Jacqueline had married an American and moved to New York long before he started courting Geneviève. He recollected that Jacqueline had divorced after several years of a childless and unhappy marriage, and that she and her second husband had been killed in a motoring accident when their only child was small. They had subsequently lost contact with her when she was adopted by another American couple.
“You must be Françoise,” he said, somewhat prosaically, “you resemble your mother, or what I guess your mother would have looked like when she was your age, although the last time I saw her was fifty five years ago when she was seventeen and I was a callow youth of fifteen. I am delighted, even overjoyed to meet you — and if I may say so, you are a beautiful and poised young lady.”
“Thank-you uncle,” she replied, “I may call you uncle, I hope, even though we are still strangers, although I know much more about you than you do about me.”
“It would be a privilege and an honour,” he said, “and I hope you will be staying in France long enough for us to get to know each other and for you to meet your cousins. They will be delighted I know. But I have been very remiss as a host, please take a seat and let me get you something to drink — have you eaten by the way, I know of a nice restaurant nearby? And then you can tell me all about yourself, and I believe you said you had a proposition for me.”
“I ate at my hotel, but a cup of coffee would be welcome, and an aperitif would be nice too. Do you mind if I smoke; it’s a terrible habit I know, but I do enjoy a cigarette or two in the evening.”
“My dear, I have no objections to your smoking, let me find you an ashtray. The scent of Black Russian cigarettes is quite pleasant, and my wife used to smoke them occasionally. I was a pipe smoker but I had to give up on the advice of my doctor, my chest you understand.”
The next two hours passed in the twinkling of an eye. He learned that he adopted parents were close friends of her father’s family. They were a childless couple who were already well into middle age when her parents were killed, and that they had both died whilst she was at university in California studying art. She had been offered a job with a small publishing company specialising in fine art books and also refined artistic erotica. She had learned about my reputation as an expert in twentieth century paintings of the nude whilst she was at university, and had suggested to her employers that a series on the erotic in modern art would be fine addition to their collection. Which is where he came in.
“When I told my boss that you were my uncle, and that in my opinion a series by a world renowned expert with your reputation would give that extra caché a small publisher like us needs in today’s competitive market, he nearly snapped my hand off. So I am here, and I do hope you will say yes to the proposal. We will pay you a very good fee and you will get a generous share of the royalties.”
He thought for a few minutes before replying, “I am very flattered by your proposal, and I am delighted to accept. The money is immaterial to me as I will be able to live very comfortably on my pension, but it will give me something satisfying to do in my retirement. My daughter would like me to sell this apartment and move out of town to something more modest where I can grow flowers. Sadly the idea bores me, and my father may have been a farmer but I have no aptitude at all with plants. Anyway, I could not bear to leave Paris, it captured my heart long ago and this is where I am at home. To leave after living here for over fifty years would break my heart.”
“That’s fixed then,” she said, “I will send you the contract tomorrow. But that’s not all. I have one other very personal request, or rather two requests.”
“Oh,” he replied, wondering whatever she could mean.
“My first request is easy. I am getting married in three months time, and I would like you to give me away. The second request is more, shall we say, semsitive.”
“Ask away,” he said, and smiled, “I’m certain it can’t be too difficult … or shocking, and it will be an honour for someone as charming … and special … as you.”
“I’m sorry if it appears like prying, but I couldn’t help noticing the painting over your bed — the door was open and I just peeked in I’m afraid. I have seen one or two of your paintings in galleries and you are a gifted painter as well as an academic, and I would dearly like a painting of me like that as a wedding present for my husband.”
He sat in silence for a bit longer. This was something totally unexpected and he wasn’t sure that he was still capable of producing a competent work of art, let alone capturing the likeness of a sitter. In his youth he had specialised in painting nude portraits of ordinary people, both men and women, in a style not unlike that of the amateur female artist Suzanne Valadon. She had posed as a model for both Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec among others in the 1880s and was also the mother of Maurice Utrillo by an unknown father, and had been the subject of his doctoral thesis.
Although he sold a few pictures he had realised by his early thirties that with a wife and young family to support he wasn’t talented enough to earn a living from painting. However he did discover that he had a flair for communication and from then on concentrated on his academic career. He had continued to paint for a couple of decades for pleasure and relaxation, but by the time of his retirement he hadn’t picked up a brush in years.
He explained all this to François, but she was insistent and said she was absolutely certain that once he started his ability would come flooding back. As she appeared to be adamant, and not wanting to offend such a beautiful young lady, he decided that the gentlemanly thing to do would be to accede to her request. However when he told her that he was willing to paint her in the nude as she desired, it was on the condition that there should be a chaperone present and that he was sure his daughter would be happy to do this. He also explained that as well as two or three sittings, he would need to take some photographs which he would give to her once the painting was completed to his satisfaction.
The painting was finally completed a couple of weeks before he was due to fly out to California for François’ wedding. The pose he wanted had been easy to decide. He particularly wanted to capture the aura and bloom of her flesh that had so captivated him when he first caught sight of her that summer evening in Paris. He placed her on a chair at a slight angle to the window with its westerly view across the park as if she was watching for her lover to return, with her legs crossed and her arms demurely in her lap. He chose a time of day when the sun was beginning to set so that her body appeared to glow against the darkness of the room in order to give an impression of the warmth of her flesh and the radiance of her personality.
He was surprised how easily he found it to capture her likeness, but he struggled with the skin tones and it was only after several abortive attempts that he finally found the right mixture of colours. At last however he was happy with the result and allowed his daughter to view the finished picture, which he had kept hidden from her whilst he was working on it. To his delight she said that in her opinion it was one of the best things he had ever done, and specifically commented on the remarkable quality of the flesh tones which seemed to glow with an inner light. This pleased him immensely since that was precisely what he had been hoping to capture.
Once he had finished making a few final touches he did something that might have seemed odd to the casual observer who might have expected him to continue painting now that he had rediscovered his talent. He threw away his brushes, palette and tubes of paint, and vowed never to paint again. This would be his final statement in paint because he knew that he could never again hope to capture the essence of a person so perfectly. It was his one and only masterpiece, not because of his skill and expertise, but because of the particular and special character of the subject. It was as much her work as his, and it was painted with love. It said everything he had ever wished to say in paint about the beauty of the human soul, which is the quality that all the best portraits seek to portray.
He has continued to live in Paris, and now in his old age he will often be found sitting in a chair looking out over the city where he first discovered love. If you asked him what he was thinking he might reply that he was dreaming of a special evening when he saw someone who embodied the elemental spirit of that wonderful and uniquely beautiful city.
It’s on summer nights such as this
That I remember so clearly;
Sitting in my chair in silence
As the daylight fades from the sky
And the soft air folds about me
Like a soothing blanket of peace.
It’s on gentle nights such as this
That I remember so clearly;
Looking out across the calm loch
To the fell-sides outlined ink black
Against the paler indigo
Of the star bedecked northern sky.
It’s on special nights such as this
That I remember so clearly
The very first love of my life
Every detail like yesterday,
As if the passage of the years
Had become just a moment.
It was on a night just like this
That our paths crossed for the first time
One summer fifty years ago,
Guests at an end of term party,
Two strangers, who in an instant
Made a connection lasting years.
It was on many nights like this
That we sat gazing at the stars,
Your head resting on my shoulder,
Content just to be together
In silence, sharing thoughts in ways
Far more profound than words could tell.
It was on wondrous nights like this
I still remember so clearly
How we loved, the mutual joy
Of our bodily union
A reflection and completion
Of the harmony of our souls.
It was on a night just like this
That we eventually parted,
Acknowledging without rancour
That the spark of love was no more,
No words, just one last tender kiss
Before fading into the dark.
Tonight is a night just like those
And I remember so clearly
Despite the passage of the years
The many nights of joy we shared,
Sweetest Kate, or was it Angela,
Or Susan; am I growing old?
I remember so many nights,
My memories are still quite clear,
Yes so clear, so clear ….. oh, what’s this?
A gentle hand on my shoulder,
“You’re sleeping in your chair again.
It’s time to come inside grandad.”
It’s on summer nights like tonight
I remember her so clearly,
My Kate, or was it Angela,
Or Susan; what became of her?
Perhaps we’ll meet again someday.
Yes I remember so clearly.
Impassive sentinel of history,
Mute and inscrutable you stand alone,
Floating serenely on a sea of sand,
Unmoved by the passage of centuries
And indifferent to the countless hordes
Whose brief existence has been conducted
Within sight of your enigmatic gaze,
You are a stark and silent testament
To the folly of human vanity
And its desire for immortality;
For the bodies of those whose tombs you guard —
Those majestic gateways to the heavens —
Were plundered for their riches long ago
And nothing remains of their mortal essence,
And in time you too will suffer their fate,
Your stones eroded by the restless wind
And your atoms merged with the blowing sands.
For a little while you will be preserved
As a symbol of human endeavour
To be studied by archaeologists
And to assuage the curiosity
Of those who come to gawp at your splendour,
Some perhaps understanding your message
That our lives ultimately mean nothing.
Driven by the same conceited spirit
As those who commissioned grandiose tombs
To glorify their godlike achievements,
I have attempted to construct with words
Temples of meaning, vast edifices
To celebrate all human life and love,
Vainly hoping for immortality
As one blessed with a special genius
To illustrate eternal verities
In a unique and memorable way.
In my intellectual arrogance
I expect adulation as my right
While humbly accepting every plaudit,
An attitude of such hypocrisy
That deserves the punishment for hubris,
That most awful nemesis for the poet,
Worse than criticism — to be ignored.
The truth, of course, is that my artistry
Is nothing special, merely commonplace,
And makes little impression on the minds
Of those who are kind, or foolish enough
To read my verse, and whose gracious comments
Reflect their generosity alone.
The least among writers, it is my fate
To leave no lasting trace of my passing.
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 slats 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 modernizing 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 7:30 am, and I didn’t get home again until after 6:00 pm. 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 Eisteddfod 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 to 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 for the career. I pray every day that I don’t 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 chiseled 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 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 settees 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 to 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 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.