A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees

BOOK: A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees
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Seren is the book imprint of
Poetry Wales Press Ltd
57 Nolton Street, Bridgend, Wales, CF31 3AE
www.serenbooks.com

© Clare Dudman 2010

ISBN 978-1-85411-612-3 (EPUB edition)

The right of Clare Dudman be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

A CIP record for this title is available from the British Library.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted at any time or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior permission of the copyright holder.

This book is a work of fiction. The characters and incidents portrayed are the work of the author's imagination. Any other resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Cover image: 'Patagonia' Oil canvas by Elisabet d'Epenoux
Typesetting by Lucy Llewellyn
Ebook conversion by Caleb Woodbridge

The publisher acknowledges the financial support of the Welsh Books Council.
 

In memory of my brother
Huw Thomas Jenkins
1964-2005

Contents

 

A Place of           
 Meadows     
        and Tall Trees
Prologue

North Wales 1849

Old Hannah Lloyd was roused from sleep by the dogs. Intruder. Their barks should have made her frantic, but she paused for a few seconds to touch the other side of the bed. Of course he wasn't there: a dream, that's all it had been. She shook the impression of his hand from her shoulder and the warmth of him from her back. Gone. Gone for good he was.

A renewed burst of barking made her crawl over the coldness of his side, grip onto the walls of her bed and let herself down. These days it did no good to hurry. The world had become treacherous, with objects obscured by the thickening skin of cataracts.

The dogs were at the door, leaping at it, snarling. When she lifted the latch they were away into the haze of morning light, yapping absurdly at something. Before she could open the door fully there were shouts, one high-pitched scream which could have been animal or human and then the sound of a gun firing, once and then once again, and then silence.

‘Gwyn? Anwyn?' She stood at the door peering dimly through the bright air.

‘Where are you,
fy mechgyn
?'

She felt for her shawl, pulled it around her and started slowly along the path. She knew each broken slab, each place where she would have to reach out to find a handhold to help her step down. She was still firm on her feet but her near-blindness had made her afraid. In the haze that now afflicted everything, she could hear whimpering.

‘Gwyn? Is that you?'

She waited, her head tilted to the side, listening. The whimpering changed pitch. She stepped forward again. ‘Who's there? Who is it?'

She had gone beyond the garden now, past the wall and into the meadow where there was no path. A few paces more and she trod on something soft. She stumbled, her arms out, her knees sinking into warmth.

‘Anwyn!' Her favourite dog. Her old friend. The golden fur and the black eyes. She shuffled backwards, caught his head in her hands, and clutched tightly onto his ears even though she could feel something wet, something warm. The animal whimpered again and his eyes closed against her hands. ‘Anwyn!'

Behind her the long dry grass snapped and broke. A foot in a boot nudged Anwyn's rump and then a single sudden wrench pulled her to her feet. She could just see the cloth of a jacket: good stuff, too good for anyone she knew. She tried to pull herself away but whoever was holding her had a grip like lockjaw.

‘Leave me alone. Let me go.' She lurched forward with her head, her mouth open. Some of her teeth were loose. She left one of them embedded in the hand of the man who held her. He cried out, tried to shove her away but she went for him again, using her nails as well this time. He backed away gaining enough momentum to sweep forward again with his fist, cracking it smartly against her chin so she crumpled immediately onto the carcass of her dog.

‘Behave now will you,
gwrach
?'

She moaned softly into Anwyn's fur.

‘You had Sir Philip's letter, didn't you?' The boot nudged at her just as it had nudged at the dog, ‘You have to be out. Today.
Heddi
.
Understand? Your son, the one with big ideas, didn't vote for him. His Lordship didn't like that.'

‘Probably can't read, anyway.' Another voice, and then another boot joining the first one, trying to turn her over as if she was something dirty that had been dumped there and needed to be inspected. ‘Is she hurt?'

‘Not much. The
gwrach
went for me, Trev. Look. Am I bleeding?'

Trevor sniggered. ‘Nothing your Nerys can't lick away. What did you have to hit her for?'

‘She'd have killed me, man.'

Trevor snorted. ‘Well, you can take her in if she's a mess.' The boots stopped their probing. ‘It's clear up there now, is it?'

‘Still full of her
cach
, I expect.'

‘Good. We need some tinder to get it going, Joni boy.'

‘You're not going to let her back in first?'

‘She had her chance. Now you get her down to town while I see to business up here.' Trevor's boot gave the silent mound in front of them another small nudge. ‘She got anyone, beside that la-di-dah son of hers?'

‘Oh aye, she pupped all right, a litter of little wasters. A son and a couple of daughters in those sties by the river.'

‘Well, let them see to her.' He raised his voice. ‘The least they can do, eh, old woman?'

Joni knelt down and levered up her head. ‘
Cach
. I didn't hit her that hard.' He let the head fall again and then dragged at the arm.

Trevor laughed. ‘Looks like you're going to be in the
llaca
when they see that,
fy
ffrind
.'

Joni paused, held the old face with both hands and bellowed into it. ‘If anyone asks, you fell. Understand, you old crone? You fell.'

*

They saw the fire from the lakeside: a glow on the hill that drew the eye. But it was the nose that had been drawn first: burning, a rich odour of something other than wood. People said it was the smell of a life burning; all its hopes, its memories and disappointments. The old woman would not be consoled. Her daughters and then her granddaughters took turns in bathing her wound and talking to her, but she would not speak back. For days she sat outside their house in the street, on the wall and then on a chair, watching where a spiral of smoke beyond the lake grew smaller. People said she couldn't see and yet still she watched. And when it was entirely gone her eyes closed. Days later, when she opened them again it was obvious to everyone that her mind had gone too.

One

Patagonia 1865

It is as if the land is coming on them in the dark, as if they are not moving, as if the sea is bringing it close: great cliffs each side, and in the distance the grinning crescent of a beach. At last, after all these weeks.

Everyone is on deck, the strange half-light illuminating their pale, silent faces. It is difficult to see, difficult to tell who is who. A single figure divides into two and then three: a slight ginger-haired man and his wider wife, then a child at their feet: Silas and Megan James and their child Myfanwy.

‘I can't stand still,' he says and squeezes her shoulder slightly, but she keeps looking at the land. ‘It's been so long,' she says, ‘if we stop watching maybe it will go.'

That's what things do if you don't watch them.

There is a mewling from the shawl wrapped around her and Silas pats the warm small globe of material. Mine, he thinks, and allows a warm current of satisfaction to rise through his body.

He looks again at the land and then at the people watching. The light is gaining strength, dispelling shadows. He smiles. Everyone is dressed to the nines. Sunday jackets, and Sunday frocks, clean clothes on the children. Who are they expecting to impress? The Indians? Indians. The thought makes him shiver. Heathen and vicious according to some, given to marauding new settlements and carrying off the women and children. Will they be lined up on the shore ready to greet them? He peers out into the gloom, but still there is neither sight nor sound of life.

He is startled by a tug at his trousers. ‘Dadda?' He reaches down and allows the soft small plump hand to close around his own. She is hopping up and down, restless and impatient.

‘Calm, child.' They'll pay for this excitement later with her tears and protests. With his other hand he smoothes her head and feels the small springs of her curls bounce against his fingers – a shade halfway between his thin strands of vibrant orange and her mother's brown.

‘Dadda, what are you looking at? Can I see?' Her small quacking voice. Her hand tugging at his own like the string on a kite in the wind, but he doesn't feel, doesn't hear. All he can think about is the land – how it will feel to have something solid beneath his feet, to hear the sound of wind through the branches of trees, and to taste fresh food again – fruit, a few leaves and meat without salt. There are other thoughts too – shadows and wisps of something dark that he pushes away before they gather substance in his mind. Not yet, he thinks. Later, when there's time. Then he will let it take hold, let it do its damnedest and hurt. But not yet.

For now there is just what lies in front of them. Land. He shuts his eyes, leans against the railing, and tries to remember how it will smell: the aromatic tang of crushed leaves, the barn-like fog of hay and cut grass, the damp mouldy smell of the forest floor… the rich stench of a prize sow's muddy boudoir. Trotters churning up the
cach
. He smiles. Yes, just now, he longs even for that.

He opens his eyes again and peers forward. It is still hard to see. There is a great bank of cloud covering the sun and everything is grey. The shore seems lighter than he'd expect and there's something strange about the flatness.

‘Dadda?'

He looks down at her and she tugs again at his trousers. Her voice, when it comes this time, is complaining and threatening tears. ‘Why won't you lift me up? I want to see.'

The weight of her always surprises him. She clenches her knees at his waist and hooks her arm around his neck and then squeals as the sun comes out. ‘Look Dadda! Yellow!'

  The sudden sight of it winds him like a blow to the stomach. Behind the white beach the land is almost as pale, and is bordered by cliffs that look as if they have been painted there by a madman's brush – jarring oranges and more yellow. Even though the sunlight is weak the land ahead is glowing. Something grips his lungs, squeezes them tight. No trees. No grass. Too yellow, too bright. He closes his eyes and opens them again but the brightness stays. It is unreal, untrue, a brash, feverish dream.

‘Dadda!' Myfanwy wails, ‘stop it. Let go. You're hurting me.'

Her voice brings him back. Something real. He is holding her too tight, crushing her to him. He releases her and then carefully draws her head towards him so he can feel her burning cheek with his own, then, still looking at the land, turns his head slightly to kiss her. Sorry. Oh Myfanwy,
cariad, cariad
. Still holding her to him he squints ahead, trying to see something of promise. Not a single tree. Not a single patch of grass. Some off-white patches which could be tents, and a brown hulk of a wreck protruding from the water ahead of them. Apart from that, just yellow cliffs pitted with holes, too shallow to be called caves, and a few scraps of vegetation: dead-looking bushes and something that looks like it could perhaps be a bramble.

‘This can't be the place,' he says. ‘Soon someone will realise. That drunk of a captain has made a mistake.'

Megan gives no sign that she's heard. She's glaring at the land as if she's waiting for it to change into something else. As the sun climbs everything is becoming clearer and more vivid. A flock of birds erupt from a cliff with a couple of loud calls, and then settle again almost immediately. ‘Seagulls!' she says, and grips onto his arm.

BOOK: A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees
10.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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