Mari Ifans of Llidiart Gwyn died last week. I only heard today. I was on the settle in Tanyfron, Margiad Jones’s house, slicing rhubarb for her to make a cake. Her husband Twm had come in for something to eat.
“Mari Ifans from Llidiart Gwyn has gone.”
“Poor soul,” I said.
That’s what I say when someone dies. I was glad I was on the settle when I heard, because I was dreadfully upset. I let the knife slip, and cut my thumb, so there I was quietly sucking my thumb while Twm and Margiad talked about Mari.
Nobody knew what was the matter with her. That’s not important when a person dies in Denbigh infirmary. Poor soul. Danial Ifans, her husband, boasting of how they took care of her: there wasn’t a mark on her, according to the certificate. But they couldn’t mend her heart, and Danial Ifans no doubt had to say that to spare his own.
Margiad blamed the brother because he drank like a fish and that made people talk and poor old Mari was so ashamed that she tried to do away with herself with a knife and some turpentine... and there I was with the rhubarb knife in my hand and the taste of blood in my mouth.
“Terrible business,” we all said.
I don’t know about the brother, but I liked Mari, and she was very nice to me. I had gone to Capel Nant to a revival meeting, ten years and more ago now, and there was no end of people preaching and carrying on and bellowing out the hymns like they were rolling drunk. And it was hot, and I wasn’t well at all. Poor Mari Ifans couldn’t keep the little one settled. He was carrying on as though he wanted everyone to be quiet. Poor little thing.
And poor me, too, with my insides feeling like they were fraying away thread by thread. I thought I was sure to faint or vomit before long, and although I wouldn’t have been the first to do that in chapel, I also knew very well that I’d better be the last to do such a thing. I had to go out for a little bit of air, and everyone went quiet as I left, although I was sitting at the back with my head down as usual.
I braced myself against one of the headstones and pressed my hand under my bottom rib to release the wind.
“Are you alright?” asked Mari Ifans.
She and the little one had come out after me. She was smiling sweetly at me, and rocking the child.
“A little wind, that’s all – and it’s hot and all those people...”
“Dreadfully hot, and no end to their noise...”
She patted the child, who was now doing very nicely, on the back. Perhaps you’d better go home and lie down a while. Goodness, I’m gasping for a cup of tea...”
She was going on and on like a river in full spate, a heedless babbling. I heard, but didn’t listen, her words and her breath all mingled, and the breeze like a tonic. This is how people should talk to one another.
“Let me take you home, in case you take another turn on the way...” she said then.
She moved her hand over my forehead: “I shouldn’t be surprised if you had a fever too.”
And I insisted quite firmly that I would be alright to go home by myself, and that stretching my legs a little would do me good.
“Aren’t we a pair, eh, Elin Ifans!” she said.
And the two of us started to laugh endlessly like fools, the baby joining in as if he were playing gee-gees on his mother’s knee.
Heavens, it was a fine day, and I was none the worse at all after I reached home.
And that’s all I know of poor old Mari Ifans. Such a terrible shame when she was such a nice lady. I’m sorry now that I went home so abruptly. I’ve little enough company like that now. There’s nobody at home with me but the cat, an ungrateful creature, and two hens. And I’m as silly as they are, mimicking them: pulling at my throat and – ‘Buck-buck-buck-buck.’ If I were more of a one for speaking up to people, I could boast and say, “You never heard anyone like me for making a noise like a chicken.”
“Make a hen noise for us again, Elin.”
“Buck-buck-buck-buck...” And everyone would fall about laughing.
But I don’t have much to say to anyone. I encourage others rather than speak myself: ‘Oh, yes... A terrible thing... An awful pity...’ And the conversation never goes much beyond that.
I don’t have a lot to say or any story worth telling, but, like any other bore, I am smart enough at making the rounds of people’s houses. Any house is more comfortable than my hovel. I haven’t had strangers there since they did the last census. Some lad came by with papers and asked my name, age and ‘occupation’.
“What do you do, Miss Evans?”
“Go visiting other people’s houses.”
“Oh,” he said shyly, we can’t put that on the form.”
“What can you put, then?”
“If you don’t work, we can say you look after the house.”
The house was a shambles, with the cat chewing a vole in her paws, while I had not slept in the bedroom for years.
“If you think I’m managing that.”
And the poor silly thing didn’t know any better than to put it down on his papers.
It’s worse here now, the mess gaining ground as my strength fails. But I’m happy enough to help other people with bits of this and that, and, doing so, I give myself leave to visit their houses as I please. I’ll go to Tanyfron and Saethon Bach, each in turn, and instead of gossiping, and leg-pulling and laughing, I’ll encourage others to talk, destalk gooseberries, peel potatoes, darn socks, a stitch here and a stitch there...
Funny to think that I of all people would mend anything, but it’s a light enough penance. The order of things is the same at Tanyfron and Saethon Bach, and a little order is a comfort.
“How are you this morning, Elin Ifans?”
Then, I sit myself down on the settle with whatever needs to be done and stay until the men arrive for their supper. Perhaps they’ve got used to me by now. I try my best to be invisible and take up barely any of the settle. But I expect they think to themselves sometimes – ‘her here again under everybody’s feet’.
When it’s time, I’ll say,
“I’d best be on my way...”
“Kate,” or whichever child happens to be there, “take Miss Ifans home and gather some firewood for her.”
The children are all alike, girls and boys. None of them keen to find favour with me, and it’s no easy thing to make friends with frightened children. In no time, they’ll be the same as those hard-faced lads who bang on my door in the middle of the night, on their way home after they’ve been out poaching, or courting. They go off home quiet and satisfied, once I’ve given them the sharp edge of my tongue.
The journey from Tanyfron and Saethon Bach grows longer every time. On no account must I or the children hurt ourselves or have a fall. I’ve tried many a time to cheer things up – behaving as though I were some maiden aunt of theirs. Reciting nursery rhymes, ‘Bye ba-by Bun-ting, Dad-dy’s gone a-hunt-ing...’ It’s no use trying to buy them with toffee once we’ve arrived, either.
“Do you want a piece to take with you?”
“No, thank you, Miss Ifans.”
Desperate to be off, and it would be of no help to anyone if I were to say that I’m afraid too. If it’s still daylight and fine, I’ll stand in the door to see them safely on their way, their slender little backs bobbing off through the bracken.
Farewell, little ones. One day you’ll think it something quite remarkable to be able to say you can remember Elin Ifans of Pantywennol.
But I’m Elin Ifans of Tŷ Ucha’r Lleiniau now. It’s many years since I left Pantywennol, went over the mountain and found a place for myself between those two stark summits whose names begin with Moel. And when I feel everything pressing in around me, I can open my door and see Egypt to the East and China to the South, and pretend they’re not the smallholdings of old sailors, but that other countries lie behind their doors.
China is full of busy little people, washing pretty crockery all day long. And lads from Llŷn feeling homesick in Shanghai port thinking, ‘what nice dishes – I’ll take some home for Mam...’. And in Egypt, there’s a great desert, with a family of gentle camels watching over baby Moses.
The other side of the Mountain is a little farm called New York, and I fancy there’s a deal of hubbub and fear behind its door, but I’ve no need to think of it or venture beyond the Mountain ever again.
It was over the Mountain, no doubt, that that big woman, a stranger to me, came, when she visited Saethon Bach with her Missionary Boxes. She filled the door, her voice booming, in a big, daft hat – looking as though she’d thrown the hat away and stuck the box to her head instead, with a flower on it. She and the flower were as brash and brazen as each other.
“I didn’t know you had people with you.”
“Elin Ifans from Tŷ Ucha’r Lleiniau has come over to give us a hand,” said Annie Robaits.
And the big woman comes right up to me. I didn’t look at her.
“Wait a minute,” said she, “weren’t you the Pantywennol Ghost at one time?”
It affected me. I went home early that day, and Annie, dear old thing, seemed to understand. It’s too much to ask that people should forget, but most of them make sure they say Tŷ Ucha’r Lleiniau instead of Pantywennol. And rather than say out loud the word that comes before Pantywennol, they mee-maw it with their mouths: ‘Gho-ost’.
Translated by George Jones
A gripping and believable historical novel, based on a true story. Elin Ifans is frustrated by the limitations rural life imposes on a young girl in a far-flung district of mid-19th century north Wales. The late and unexpected child of older parents, she is indulged by her brother, the sea captain Emaniwel, but resented by her bad-tempered sister with her sense of superiority and thwarted aspirations to a more genteel existence. Her life circumscribed by her gender and social class in a society dominated by puritanical religion and the cult of respectability, Elin indulges in small, secret acts of rebellion, but when she rips the skirts of unsuspecting neighbours returning from chapel, pretends to learn magic from a book of spells and keeps a tame leveret in her pocket, she unwittingly unleashes a dramatic series of events which quickly spiral out if control. Soon the the story of an evil spirit taking occupation of the house plunges the whole community into mass hysteria, and will radically affect the family’s life for years to come. In forensically clear-sighted but deeply sympathetic portraits, Pantywennol lays bare the mental and emotional consequences for individuals struggling to move beyond the allotted boundaries of their lives. In this quirky first novel, inspired by historical events, Ruth Richards emerges as an exciting and accomplished new writer
'From the very beginning, I became infatuated with this novel. In truth, I fell in love. There is more than a gripping story to be found here, the writing is also truly powerful.
Dafydd Morgan Lewis
'This skillful novel's strength is the way it combines a vivid historical portrait of society and a profound physiological study that remains relevant today, more's the pity.'
Jane Aaron, O'r Pedwar Gwynt
'The author is master at creating a nail-bitting conclusion to nearly every chapter. With every new revelation, the reader will be unable to put the book down, in order to see what happens next - there is also a purposeful eagerness to the razor sharp writing.'
Aled Islwyn, Barn
'While Pantywennol may be set in the ninteenth century, this is a modern novel, that deals with themes that still cause concern today.'
‘I rarely re-read books... But after I finished reading Pantywennol, I re-started it instantly.’
Bethan Mair, O'r Pedwar Gwynt