“It’s one of those villages in Wales you would hardly notice if you drove past. Even local people don’t seem to know where it is. It’s where the dog was buried, in the woods, just north of there. My Aunt remained stoical about the death “I lost three brothers during the War”, she said, “and two sisters to scarlet fever. Tina was a dog, it’s sad my love, but not a tragedy”. The comedic element of the dog’s unfortunate end was not lost on her; she noted that the poor thing was reversed over by a hearse. She explained that hearses move very slowly and that the dog was old and stupid, she said she was a very slow kamikaze.
I was distraught. We dug a tiny dog-shaped hole in the woods, buried Tina and planted some bluebell bulbs where she lay to grow in the spring. It was winter and the light was already growing dimpsy so we retreated inside. My aunt always closed the blood red velvet curtains when there was a funeral, out of respect; otherwise, she said, it was as if our house had windows for eyes staring out on another’s grief.
That was my clearest memory of childhood, probably the happiest too. I was sad for the dog of course and for my poor aunt. Somehow though, that clumsy sandbag shaped parcel placed lightly in the ground had received all the careful ceremony of a head of state. That death made more sense than any since. The times since, I have always felt that people have been wrenched away from me.
When my Aunt left us last year we hardly had a ceremony. A service at the crematorium and that was it. An electric conveyor belt and she was ash. She wanted one of those eco-burials. A cardboard coffin was what she said she wanted but I couldn’t bear the thought of her body mouldering away and being eaten by worms. When she died the clock on the mantelpiece stopped, just like in the nursery rhyme. I had to wait until the morning to get her body collected; I couldn’t sleep that night. I felt her still, in the creaks of the stairs, like she was pottering about. As I laid her out, there was the heavy scent of chrysanthemums, like the air was full of them. My cousin, a nurse, said I was to open a window to let her soul out. When I opened the window, the flowers went with her.
My Aunt’s father, Griffith Evans, was an uncomplicated man. The photograph I still have of him shows him as tall and willowy with a typically stern Victorian disposition. His face and mouth couldn’t hide the unremitting loss of five children before his own passing, alongside the cold of fifty winters that had forged into the creases of his skin like fossils. There was something in his Quaker faith that ensured that even his children’s names should be unadorned. And hence, boys were named after the month in which they were born. The one exception was Selwyn.
Selwyn was bound to make life complicated. He was born a breech birth in the middle of a snowstorm, a few weeks before his mother’s 40th birthday. Selwyn started life as the adored baby of the house and subsequently developed into a sensitive child. He entered the world with a bellowing cry but left it fifty-six years later with no trace in family photographs. The shame of his illness was core deep in his family’s heart. Rhagfyr, his oldest brother was named proudly, in Welsh, after the month of December. It has always struck me in retrospect that it was appropriate that Selwyn’s name was the only one untranslatable into its’ month, he was of a thousand seasons.
My own recollections of him are limited. The times I remember him, he was always sat slumped in a chintz high-backed armchair in front of the open coal fire. A white lace doily rested at the back of his head to stop the slick of brilliantine cream in his still crow-black hair from soiling its fabric. The lace should have seemed adventitious but instead echoed the way age had melded him from a strong young man to having a more delicate aspect. His green eyes were often glazed and listless as if coated in a skin. He rarely spoke. I would sometimes hold his hand, when he could tolerate it, staring up at him. Tears would roll down his face without warning or we would hear him bellow out like a leper with a hand-bell addressing some taunting spectral presence, ‘Keep Away!’
As a child, a curious nature outweighed any fear or propriety and I would ask my Aunt alternately, ‘Why does Selwyn not speak?’ or ‘Why does Selwyn shout out?’ ‘He has had his troubles’ she would patiently reply.
It was only when I grew older and weighed down with troubles of my own that Selwyn’s disposition made sense. “He’s a burned out schizophrenic,” my mother explained. When the same diagnosis was gifted me I remembered Selwyn with a resonant sadness. I would like to put the word schizophrenic in brackets or quotation marks for it is not how I like to be defined, nevertheless it is a definition and definitive to the way I have come to think and feel about myself.
I went to Selwyn’s graveside recently and was heartened to see yellow welsh poppies on his grave dance like lit candles in the breeze. A mirror of the fireside where I last saw him alive.
My face pressed lightly against the window of the cab. My breath alive in repeating semi-circles of condensation on glass. The Welsh landscape flew past. The road’s swaying corners would sporadically rock my lumpen form out of its stupor to catch emerald valleys and snow-topped hills through half dreaming eyes. Four hours on and the car finally pulled up to Rhydymain, shaking me conscious with the rasping crunch of tyres on gravel.
I clambered out of the cab awkwardly, yawned and checked myself in the wing mirror. I tried but failed to rub the sleep creases from my face then straightened my hair. I looked like shit.
The light was fading and although he had seen it before in photographs it took a moment to recognise the cottage. It was nestled opposite a simple chapel, which had a series of higgledy slate headstones marching up the hill at its side. A clutter of starlings jostled for position in a bare branched copse and wisps of coal smoke licked at the frosted air from ragged stone chimneys. Everything here seemed cold and tiny.
I walked up to the cottage door. I knocked lightly without response, so rested an ear to it. I could hear a radio babbling and the clamour of kitchen sounds. I stood back and knocked again, louder this time. Eventually the door opened a crack and caught a single eye blinking back at me. ‘You’re not welcome,’ it hissed. The door promptly closed. I was perturbed. I had been travelling for hours and this was my greeting?
Dejected, I put my jacket down on a nearby bench and gathered my thoughts. The taxi was long gone. Surely they were expecting me? The letters seemed to have been warmly received and the response to my proposals enthusiastic. Who was this strange character so resistant to my presence?
After waiting in the cold for an hour, and by then somewhat prone to doom-laden projection, I couldn’t think of anything apart from picturing my frozen corpse being discovered like a moose down a precipice after a thaw. Suddenly the door of the cottage opened bleeding a warm yellow light. A woman stood in the doorway clearly surprised by my presence. “Are you ok? It’s very cold you know. You shouldn’t be out here; you’ll catch your death. Come inside and warm yourself.”
I was too cold to explain and didn’t need to be asked twice.
Ceridwen chattered as she poured warm black tea from a large brown teapot. “You’ll have to excuse my brother. He’s not been the same since…a little sensitive (She checked herself, looking over to her brother Selwyn and thinking for a minute)…not used to visitors. I mean we weren’t expecting…”
“I do hope you got my letters?”
“Selwyn? Do you know anything of this? Have you been hiding the bloody post again?”
Selwyn looked a little sheepish and pretended, somewhat unsuccessfully, to ignore his sister, instead looking down intently at his newspaper.
“Selwyn? Don’t pretend you can’t hear me.”
My Aunt glanced at Selwyn and responded diplomatically. “I can see we are all a little tired now”
“There will be plenty of time for this in the morning. Daniel, you can take the river room. There are fresh sheets. Selwyn, take the girl’s bags upstairs please.”
The next morning I opened my eyes to bright sunshine piercing through holes in thin floral curtains. I pulled them back and looked out. I could see the river flowing in torrents down the side of the house. I wondered who would be crazy enough to build a cottage so close to water. It was little wonder it smelt so badly of damp. A small butterfly corpse was caught between the double-glazed panes of glass and I considered how long it had been since they had been cleaned. There was little time to think too much about it though. The sound of the river was making me desperate for a pee.
When I got downstairs, I was a little nervous, Ceri was no-where to be seen and Selwyn was standing over the cooker staring as if hypnotized by the egg bobbing up and down in a boiling pan.
I thought of creeping out of the kitchen undetected but Selwyn spoke to him without turning round. “Do you want coffee? You Americans like coffee don’t you?”
“Thanks, that sounds good.”
Selwyn rifled through the depths of a kitchen cupboard eventually reaching to the back to retrieve what looked like a brown medicine bottle. He then sieved the egg from the boiling water and plopped it in an eggcup. He poured the remainder of the boiled water into a mug and added a teaspoon of brown gloop from the bottle.
“Here. Enjoy,” he said. “Coffee.”
“Thanks,” I said, taking a brave gulp from the mug. Selwyn looked at me intently, smiling and waiting for a response. “It’s good isn’t it?”
I nodded and made approving noises. Horrified by the concoction and baffled as to what to do, I held the hot coffee in my mouth for what seemed like minutes and continued nodding back at Selwyn. Terrified of swallowing the peculiar brew, I was, at last, saved by the reappearance of My Aunt who was carrying logs. As Selwyn went over to assist her, I charged over to a nearby fern and rapidly ejected the contents of my mouth into its pot. I examined the ancient faded label of the coffee to search for the ingredients; camp coffee includes – chicory, acorn, and sugar syrup, best before 1926. It was twenty-one years out of date and there was absolutely no sign of anything in it even vaguely resembling what I knew as coffee.