This morning, at nine o’clock, the men came for our possessions.
I have to admit that I felt a little faint and had to sit down when I saw their lorry labouring down the hill towards us, past the chapel. But after a while my heartbeat slowed, and then I opened the door on a new life – utterly, completely different – because the time has come for me to leave my beloved birthplace.
Together with my sister Anwen I will leave the valley later today. There will be a circle of villagers there to bid us farewell; they will wave and say comforting words, but I know in my heart of hearts that I will never see this little green paradise again. I will avert my eyes if I ever return, that is if an old friend departs this land before I do and I’m summoned to the funeral.
I will bid farewell to the Valley of the Flowers. We were bound together inexorably all my life. But I must leave. It won’t be easy, I’ll probably shed a few tears. The old hearth will cool for a while, then new life will come to the cwm. A young family perhaps, with a small dog and chattering children; their bikes will lie on the patch of lawn outside in patterns of blue and red and green.
We will leave little gifts for them: coal in the fireplace, a pot of honey and a candle on the table. Also there to greet them will be the resident family of sparrows which come and go at the bottom of the garden, and the tiny mice which scurry between holes in our boundary wall.
The new residents will receive a warm welcome, but they will have to live here for many years before they’re fully accepted, such is the slow pace of the ancient mechanism which regulates our society.
I’m going to live by the sea, something I’ve always wanted to do. We’re moving to an old market town on the coast, a favourite spot for many of the local farmers and their wives once they’ve handed over the reins to their children after a lifetime’s toil on the land. That’s where the weekly mart is held every Monday, when the streets are flooded with farming folk, chatting and doing their shopping after selling their lambs, their cattle and their poultry.
I read somewhere that swallows returning to Africa every autumn come to rest at regular intervals on their extraordinary journey. They feed on the wing, then land towards dusk. Apparently they choose the same sanctuaries every year, before flying on. I see a comparison in the fate of the farmers as they gather together on the shore before their last flight to that distant country from which no-one returns.
But there are practical reasons for their retirement there. For a start, the ground is flat – and that’s a luxury for their stiffening limbs after a lifetime of struggling up and down all those steep slopes in the rolling hills of our forefathers. The shops, the library and the OAP club are all within a stone’s throw, and there’s a bonus for all those elderly farmers who like a good chinwag in the morning – the public gardens are festooned with inviting benches on which they can discuss market prices, farming trends, and generally put the world to rights – in the way they used to mend their old machinery; sensibly, frugally, cunningly. And they’re obliged to discuss the weather of course, and the family tree of every soul within a twenty mile radius.
Many of my generation have found a perch somewhere on the shore, though some stay in the cwm, retiring to little bungalows close to the old farmhouses – as a sheepdog shadows its master. I will miss seeing those people, though with a bit of luck I should make new friends in town. Meeting new faces in the little cafes on the high street, and enjoying a chat, will be a bit of an adventure.
But my main objective is to write something about the history of that lovely cwm, hidden away in the mountains, which first gave me the breath of life. I already know where I want to start: with the story of the Dolfrwynog family, since I’m ‘related’ to them just as closely as I am to my own flesh and blood. I think it’s important to chronicle my lifetime so that people will know what really happened during those turbulent years, a period which left its mark on all of us and resulted in a great deal of publicity, making the valley a national talking point for quite some time after the war. I also want to counter some of the wild rumours which still circulate, many of them completely false or bent out of shape, mainly by the newspapers.
It’s marvellous, isn’t it, how the truth becomes twisted over time, rather like those old blackthorn bushes you see stooped like pensioners on the skyline; if you walk up to meet them you’ll notice that their gnarled trunks have been sculpted into all sorts of shapes by the winds of time. They’re knotty and as hard as iron, though they were young and supple once. That’s how time affects us all; it twists us out of shape and it distorts the stories about us too.
The truth germinates straight and pure, heading straight for the sun; but soon enough a stone or an icy wind hinders it and bends it. That’s how it is with words also; they germinate as pure as spring-water in the mouths of children, but in no time at all they’ve been sullied and corrupted by the world. Passing from one mouth to another, they become knotty and as hard as iron.
That’s the way it was with the story of Elgan Evans. Indeed, I heard another version of his tale in the supermarket this morning as I reached for a basket in the lobby.
Almost forty years have passed since those momentous events; so what makes my version any better than anyone else’s? The truth is, I can’t guarantee the veracity of my story, since I have a message of pottage in my head like every other mortal, and let’s face it, no-one can be truly unbiased – we all see the world through different eyes.
No, the only distinction I can claim is that I was the housekeeper at Dolfrwynog for a long time, during the whole of that period, covering two generations. Later on, after I’d left the farm to live in the village with my sister, I would return there for two days every week, Mondays and Fridays, to keep the place in trim, do the washing and to prepare their grub. I would cook enough food to last them all week, which suited them down to the ground, and they paid me handsomely for my labours.
They were generous people, kind and ready with their praise. Yes, the Evans tribe were a ‘noble’ lot, as my father described them. They’d hide my wage behind one of the dishes on the old dresser, ready for me to take home every week. This saved me for having to ask for it, thus avoiding any embarrassment. I think maybe the traditional shyness of the old Welsh accounted for this, and it still brings a smile to my face when I think about it. No mention was made of it ever, and there would be a few extra pounds on my birthdays and at Christmas. It wasn’t like that on every farm, not by any means – I heard many maids and servants complaining about the antics of their employers – their meanness and their wandering hands, especially if one of their animals had died, or a crop had failed. I won’t name them, we all know who they were. Many were chapel elders or prominent members of society. But the Dolfrwynog boys detested such hypocrisy – and although they weren’t particularly religious, they were better men than most.
In this atmospheric novel prizewinning author Lloyd Jones returns to Dolfrwynog farm in north-east Wales, the setting for Dŵr (2009)/Water (2014), his powerful vision of future environmental disaster. In this prequel the storyteller, Eirlys, reflects on her years working for the family there in the mid-20th century. As she leaves the farm for the last time when retiring to a seaside town, she recalls the sudden incursion into their lives of Fflur, the mysterious girl in the green dress who bewitches Elgan, to the bemusement of his brother Gwyn and to the dismay of Eirlys. As Elgan and Fflur withdraw from the life and work of the farm, other far-reaching changes affect Dolfrwynog, as the traditional way of life in the rural community begins to disintegrate. Moving back and forth in time and between the contrasting worlds of town and country, Eirlys strives with the help of her new friend Elis to understand and come to terms with her own life and the fate of the Dolfrwynog family.
With its lyrical, strongly visualised evocations of a lost way of life and the haunting, dreamlike tale of all-consuming yet impossible love, Fflur is an enchanting and memorable work by a consummate and versatile novelist.
'A gentle novel about love arriving unexpectedly and leaving without saying a word'.
Jon Gower, Nation.Cymru
'A meditation on the wonder of love, its power both detrimental and restorative, and how we come, if we can, to express its effect upon us.'
Casi Dylan, O’r Pedwar Gwynt