I was there because I didn't have any guts. I'd wanted to go to the church that morning. But the door of the church was locked. The first thing I did was kick the door, like a toddler. I did nothing but hurt my foot. And then I saw a spade with no handle leaning against the churchyard wall. I picked it up and pushed it into the gap where the two doors met and then leant hard against the bit of iron where the handle should have been. And as I pushed I felt one door moving slightly, and then heard the sound of the wood beginning to splinter. It was that noise that bought me to my senses.
"What the hell are you doing, Efa?" I said aloud, with nobody apart from the sheep, who shouldn't be in the cemetery, listening to me.
So I flung the spade away then. It struck someone's gravestone and frightened one of the lambs, and he rushed to his mother for reassurance and lifted her off her hind legs as he tried to suckle.
"You're too old for that, you big lump," I told him. But of course we're never too old.
And that's why I was in the chapel, because the chapel door was open. I thought it would be, even though I hadn't been there for years. Why I couldn't have sat in a field or a bus shelter and recited the Lord's Prayer there I don't know. And I don't really know why I wanted to pray aloud anyway. And even then I got two prayers mixed up, 'Ein Tad, yn deulu dedwydd, y deuwn…'
I went no further than that. I didn't get to the amen. I'd gone to sit in the pew where I used to sit with Nain, the seat where my grandmother would make a mouse out of her handkerchief to keep me amused. I'd bowed my head and sat in silence for a few moments like she used to do, and then started to recite the prayer out loud. And as I said "deuwn", "we shall come", I realised that I would have to come. Or rather that I would have to go. I would have to go to him.
Less than twenty-four hours earlier my life was simple. Or at least as simple as the life of a pregnant woman can be. I had nothing to worry about, apart from the fact that I would have to work late adapting that set, because I needed to go for a scan in the morning. I wasn't even worrying about the scan. It's not in my nature to worry like that.
Meic and I were having breakfast together for once as there was no need for me to set off to the hospital very early. He'd been kind, had been a loving and practical partner, and had made a plateful of eggy bread and bacon and fried tomatoes for me. I was making a second pot of coffee when the postman came.
"Something important looking for you, Efs."
And it did look an important letter – a heavy, cream coloured envelope. I licked the trace of grease and tomato off the knife before using it to open the envelope. I must have stared, calf like, at the letter for a long time, possibly not hearing Meic when he asked what it was, because he simply took the letter from my hand and read it.
"What will you do?" he asked.
"Nothing," I said and poured myself a mugful of coffee.
And I didn't intend to do anything. If I did nothing, I could pretend that the letter hadn't arrived. Who the hell wants to receive a letter from their mother, a woman who had been dead almost five years, telling her who her father is. Mam did many odd things raising me, but this, this last thing, was one of the oddest. I'd had, of course, a period of asking about my father. When I was about six or seven, I think, when I finally realised that everyone has a father, dead or alive, somewhere.
"You imagine any father you want, Efa – that person will then be your father."
What the hell do you expect from a woman who was convinced that she was a witch. After a while I think I accepted that my father was a Blodeuwedd-like figure, created from flowers and that he'd been tossed aside afterwards like wilting flowers are thrown onto the compost heap. Mam used to piss on the compost heap. She would lift her long skirt into a colourful knot around her waist. In the winter, steam, like a handful of mist, would swirl around her feet.
There was mist surrounding the child in my womb. I needed the nurse to guide me through it.
"That's the head, and his leg down there."
"Or her leg?"
"No, I don't think so," she replied. "Hold on."
She put some more of the cold gel on my stomach and pushed harder and closely studied the dream on the screen.
"No, he's a little boy. Look."
And I pretended that I could see his penis before she wiped off the gel with slightly rough green paper. And that was it. Within half an hour I was back at work, managing to do something quite clever to adapt the set so that it could be used in smaller venues, and knowing that there was a little boy there with me. And knowing that that little boy had a grandfather.
It was the next morning that everything blew up. For no reason at all. It was a Saturday morning, and I've worried since about being such a sensible and boring person that I waited until Saturday morning before freaking out, rather than create problems for people in hospitals and people in theatres.
Rituals are important. Not the rituals that are imposed on us from outside by the state and by religions, but rather the rituals that a man creates in his everyday life in order to keep his sanity. I don't open a document on the screen and start writing until the breakfast dishes have been cleared away. But I will sit in my dressing gown, with Llwydrew on my lap, looking at emails while my coffee brews in the pot.
That is why Sali doesn't live here. That is why I limit the number of nights she stays here.
I was on my own the morning the email came. Llwydrew was on my lap, her claws hooking onto the heavy cotton of my dressing gown as she slowly opened and closed them. I had opened and replied to the first three emails – Sali asking if I fancied coming over to eat that evening; an invitation to go and read in York in October; and a short, falsely cheerful note from my publisher asking about the chapter I'd promised them a fortnight ago. The fourth email was from Efa, sent in the early hours of the morning. Because of that, for a second, I thought it was from a woman I'd met in Canada a couple of months before. The name Efa Arthan didn't ring a bell. I didn't know what surname she'd given Efa, but Arthan was not her surname or mine.
I reply immediately to almost every email – either first thing in the morning or when I return to them for the second time before shutting the computer down for the day. But I didn't reply to Efa's email that day or the following day.
I didn't know whether Efa had married or not. The reality, of course, is that I didn't know whether Efa was alive or not. I knew that she had been alive. I remember a small child in dungarees, possibly around six years old, running along the beach trying to catch seagulls, and then, when she got bored with that, settling down about fifty yards away from us and starting to build something complicated from flotsam and shells. She was perfectly content piling one thing on top of another while her mother and I sheltered from the wind in one of those old-fashioned huts on the prom. For some reason, when I got up and left the shelter to return to my car I walked over to where she was and squatted down beside her and placed a piece of seaweed on the top of her creation. I glanced back at her, just the once as I opened my car door, and saw her removing the seaweed and repositioning it in a slightly different place. That was the only knowledge I had of Efa.
That was the picture I had in my head as I ate with Sali that night. She had prepared that lamb tagine I'm so fond of.
I hesitated for a minute. It's hard to answer when you don't know what the question is.
"Well what, Sali fach?"
"Should I go for it or not?"
A job probably, but I wasn't quite quick enough to give an answer that would have sufficed for almost any question.
"What's wrong, Steffan? You're in your own little world today, aren't you?"
I pushed my plate to one side and took her hand and started to stroke the soft skin on the inside of her wrist. I ran my fingers along the smoothness up to the fold at the elbow and then back to her wrist. I smiled at her. She then pushed her plate to the middle of the table and leant over and kissed me. Sometimes the best way to be left alone is to touch somebody, to give their body attention. Both your minds are then left in peace.
Sali returned to the subject of the job within half an hour. The gap would have been longer in the past. An old man's lovemaking doesn't last as long. And it's simpler. And less energetic. And this time I was happy to listen to all the details of the job she fancied applying for because that put a stop to the flood of memories that had come from somewhere. Not that she took much notice of my opinions. It was a little bit of playacting on both our parts, she would act as if I was the wise old man and I would react as if she was a young girl since she was at least ten years younger than me.
The job would mean moving, or at least being away for part of the week. I expressed a little sadness about that, before encouraging her to follow her dream and fulfil her potential. It would be good to have a few days without Sali being around. Peace to write. That's become more and more important to me as I grow older. I need to pack words into the days, or perhaps I draw words out of the days. Whichever one it is, they need to be placed somewhere so that there is a record of my existence, and it would be pleasant to have anchorite days to do that better. And I am writing better. That is why people – reviewers and many of my old readers – don't understand what I'm writing. People have become lazy. And as I considered that I started to wonder if perhaps Efa would understand. Was she perhaps lazy and thick, or was she perhaps someone who would understand…
I almost asked Sali what I should do. But I knew what Sali would say.
"But of course you must meet her, Steff. Your daughter, your flesh and blood, your only child. Would you like me to invite her for a meal?"
Sali has a son and a daughter who phone her once a week, the son phones on a Monday night and the daughter phones on a Wednesday night usually. She visits them as regularly as possible, and the three of them remember each other's birthdays without fail. Efa was probably born in January – I remember the bluebells and their scent so strong that it could be smelt through the open bedroom window at Rhyd y Gro. A lifetime ago.
Three young people, Carys, Steffan and Lora, are sharing an isolated farmhouse, Rhyd y gro, but their lives and relationships change for ever when a stranger, Rhydian moves in with them. Thirty years later, Carys has been dead for five years and her daughter, Efa, working with Lora for a theatre company, is expecting her first child when she receives a letter from her mother, sent on anonymously. In it Carys at last reveals that Steffan, now a successful writer, was Efa’s father. From their first, awkward meeting, both Steffan and Efa must grapple with the implications of their new relationship, which will change again once the baby arrives. But Rhyd y gro still casts its shadow on all their lives, as Efa comes to realise when she tries to piece together the motivation for the decisions her parents made at her conception, and Steffan, Lora and Rhydian too must come to terms with the crisis in their shared past and reassess their own lives.
Like Sian Northey’s acclaimed first novel for adults, Yn y Tŷ hwn (2011), Rhyd y gro is a sensitive and atmospheric exploration of the symbiotic relationship between house and inhabitants. With its thoughtful and understated style, this is an evocative and memorable tale.
‘Sian Northey is a writer who suggests rather than states - a talent which makes this a colorful and joyous novel to read.’
‘Along with love and its complications, this is a novel about honesty and secrets.’
O’r Pedwar Gwynt
‘Always the feather-like touch, never the sledge-hammer.’