It was all quiet tonight. Enoch turned his head and listened. Normally, the breeze would be raking the coarse mountain grass, or water could be heard running deep underground. Only September could bring perfect quiet to the mountain, as though summer had spent all its force, and autumn were holding its breath before slowly spreading its corrosion over the rough ground. The fog and snow would come again to smother the landscape but there was no stillness like the living stillness of September. He tightened his grasp on his stick and walked along the old path through Llechwedd Rhedyn.
He had run his finger under his white collar countless times in chapel. The heat from the congregation had steamed up the little windows and he had taken a handkerchief from his pocket several times to mop his brow. That morning, he had been a long time fumbling with the black tie before having to call Isaac, who had listlessly tied the knot for him. He had never been more glad to take off the dark suit at the end of the day, hang it back in the old wardrobe at once, as Hannah liked him to, and put his cap back on. The bracken was choking the path, which was closing up. They were all closing up now since hardly anybody walked them and the thickets obliterated and disfigured the face of the old mountain. He felt a heat rise through his body and his chest tighten.
Llechwedd Rhedyn ran along the side of the mountain down to Nant y Clychau, where the old shepherd’s cottage stood, now little more than four walls and a roof. Near to that was where his mother used to cut peats in May every year, peeling off the skin of the old mountain. The scars could still be seen there today. Then the land rose towards Pwll yr Eidion and over to Pen Cripie. That was where the wettest moorland was, and higher up was an area of level ground under the summit of the mountain known as Mainc Ddu. That led to Creigiau Mawr. Before the advent of the fences, Enoch and the neighbours knew every inch of the mountain pastures. His pace was now slowing a little. He turned towards Pwll yr Eidion.
Plenty of food had been prepared for the tea in the chapel vestry and some was placed on Enoch’s lap in the car, wrapped in a white cloth. It was Rosemary from Clawdd Melyn who took him home, since Isaac had gone to the pub. Enoch put the food down, untouched, in the old, narrow kitchen before going to take off his clothes. He came back down and sat for a while by the fire listening to the old grandfather clock ticking, but the silence became too much for him. He knew that he could trip and fall on the old path but there was no way he could stay in the house. Enoch turned by the old sheepfold and looked back down the valley. Overhead a red kite watched him, coming in closer to see what had disturbed the peace. His fingers were like the twigs of a thorn bush now and the skin of his face was stretched tight over his skull. But despite his eighty years he had a remarkable spring in his step and his eyes were sharp. Every day he hung the half-moon whistle from an old lace around his neck, and it rose and fell on his chest with every breath.
He had been sent over to Tyddyn Isaf by his mother when he was a boy. A lamb belonging to Gomer had come into their pens. It was placed on his feeble shoulders and he was ordered to take it home. When Enoch arrived there was no sign of anyone. After leaving the lamb in the fold, he went from window to window, but the curtains were closed although it was midday. He waited a second before hearing the sound of footsteps. He crept to the back of the house and stared in through the pantry window to see Hannah dancing, her feet pounding the black and red tiles. Her black hair was down and her eyes were closed as she whirled on the spot. She was about fourteen. The most beautiful sight Enoch had ever seen until then were the sheep streaming down the mountain when they were being rounded up, in one great white torrent. Enoch knew that if he were to attract her attention she would be mortified so he went home without leaving his message, and although he had seen her a great many times at school before then without much noticing her, he was unable to sleep that night.
The kite, like the breeze, had become still. Its eyes were locked on a meal that was rustling in the bracken. The day was drawing in too, and the mood had shifted. Enoch watched the kite with his watery blue eyes. Tyddyn Isaf stood empty now among the purple heather, the whitewash faded and discoloured. Enoch also felt his own weakness. He had not been able to sing today, his grief a heavy stone in his throat, and he had returned two or three times to the graveside, knowing that in the end he would have to leave her there. Isaac had waited by the graveyard gate his chin resting on his chest, impatient to make for the pub. Enoch knew that he would be in full voice by now.
The quiet was perfect and the light was warming towards sunset, and, for a second, time seemed to have stopped between Tyddyn Isaf and the old mountain. There was no quiet more terrible than the quiet that had been in the house since Hannah had left them. The quiet after he went to bed, without anyone clearing up dishes downstairs. The quiet before Sunday lunchtime with a cold stove, and the quiet of one person’s breathing in the middle of the night. He stood for a moment, the kite a cross above his head. He felt the cold penetrate the marrow of his bones. Darkness was falling. He turned back towards the old path and as he did so the red kite dived mercilessly to the ground.
Isaac sat by the table. Hearing his father coming down the stairs, he clicked his tongue at the bitch lying at his feet, and she skulked out through the open door. An old fire was smouldering black in the grate. Isaac did not look up to watch his father walking across the lino to the back kitchen to fetch his cup. He came back to the table and lifted the teapot to fill the cup for himself, before going to sit by the fire. He took off his cap and wore it on his knee.
“I’ve been thinking about things...” ventured Isaac finally. His elbows were on the table and his fingers were greasy from holding his bacon. He wiped them on his trousers before rubbing his mouth with the sleeve of his jumper. He sat back. “I was thinking that perhaps we should sort out this land. There’s tax to pay if you don’t put a place in someone’s name... things happen.”
“We’ll be rounding up tomorrow,” Enoch replied without shifting his gaze.
Isaac hesitated for a second. “It’s for the good of the farm, instead of us putting money in those bastards’ pockets at the —”
“You’ll need to pick up a loaf from the shop, for us to make tea,” said Enoch, his jaw tense.
Isaac fell silent. He hunched over. It was his mother who used to make the tea for rounding up. She would bring it all in baskets and carry them to the field. They would know that it was ready when she knocked two enamel mugs noisily together.
“I thought perhaps that it would be peace —”
“So it was thinking you were doing there in the pub, was it?” Enoch’s voice had risen dangerously.
Isaac looked up sharply at his father’s face. “Jesus, I was just having a chat...”
“After your mother’s funeral like that. No shame at all —”
“A little bit of company...”
“You call those good-for-nothings over there company? Sitting on their backsides instead of going home and doing something... They should be ashamed of themselves. All that work all those years, and then you drinking it all...”
“A fat lot of drinking I’ll do on the wages I get from you...!”
“And a good thing at that, as far as I’m concerned...”
Isaac pushed back his chair in his temper, and stood up.
Enoch had also risen to his feet now, grasping his stick tightly. The two of them stood in silence listening to the slow ticking of the clock. Isaac could hear the noise in his father’s chest. Then, with the taste of whisky from the night before souring in his mouth, he turned and went out, slamming the door behind him.
The silence settled back into the old room along with the dust. Enoch stood for a while and looked at the old house as though seeing it with fresh eyes. He bent down, picked up his cap and put it back on his head.
Isaac had pulled the table back into the middle of the room. Hannah had lain in the house for three days before the body was taken to the chapel. A place had had to be cleared for the coffin and everyday bits and pieces moved out of the way. Now, everything was back in place, and yet, somehow, something was different. It was a narrow room, a dresser on one side and an open fireplace on the other. The latter was decorated with horse brasses and above Enoch’s chair was a picture of the old family sitting in a row outside the chapel, their collars as white and starchy as their prayers. They all sat with their hands on their knees. Every one of them as neat as a new pin. The walls of the house were low and thick to withstand the wind that scorched the old mountain in the winter. The house lay in the jaws of the land, as though on the point of being swallowed up. And although there were some old fruit trees in front of the house, they remained stunted, keeping their heads down out of the wind. Enoch heard the fire choking behind him. He turned slowly and threw on a log.
Isaac had always been hot-headed. He had shown his temperament when he was just a boy of eight. He had given him thirty lambs and their mothers in a pen and asked him to sort them. The ewes would have to be left to calm down and start calling for their lambs before it was possible tell which lamb belonged to which ewe. Then, they would have to be separated from the others. After all the hubbub and confusion, and the bleating, you had to leave them to settle again before starting on the next pair. Isaac finally came in, in a rage, after having taken a stick and thrashed the dog till he was squealing and cowering, with his tail between his legs. Enoch had known what he was like since that day, and although Hannah had wanted to take him some warm tea after hearing him crying in bed that night, Enoch stopped her. He had shown his true colours.
The smoke from the fire had started to sting his eyes now. He took a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe them and looked behind him for the arm of the chair, before sitting down. It was Hannah who had smoothed communication between the two of them since that day. It was she who had carried messages, proposed compromises and praised each of them to the other.
The couple had gone to live in the cottage after marrying, since Enoch’s mother and grandmother had still been living in the house. And it had been the sound of Nant y Clychau stream that had lulled the two of them to sleep in those early days. It was an old one-room cottage, its walls dripping with damp. And in the summer, when the door was open, the flies would eat you alive. By the front door was an old oak with a beech tree growing from inside it. Some squirrel had no doubt carried a seed up and hidden it in a chink in the oak, a seed which had germinated and grown stronger than the oak, finally breaking its heart and bursting out from inside it.
The fire was still cold and for a second he longed for the peat fire that his mother used to light in the same grate. A fire that would fill the old house with the smell of earth, and the smell of grass and the smell of mountain.
Translated by George Jones
In her haunting new novel, award-winning writer Caryl Lewis once again draws on her own first-hand experience as she turns her unflinching eye on an upland sheep-farming community in west Wales. Escaping from the difficulties of urban life, Owen arrives at an isolated, abandoned cottage, where he falls ill. Discovered and cared for by the owners, the elderly, recently widowed Enoch and his middle-aged bachelor son Isaac, he gradually recovers and begins to adapt to their ways. But his incursion into their lives begins to disturb the fragile balance in the relationships of his hosts and of the neighbouring farmers. As the seasons pass, each with its appropriate tasks requiring cooperation and collaboration, and as the newcomer becomes further embedded in his new surroundings, hidden tensions from the past begin to surface. In his search for his own identity Owen gradually discovers that winning Enoch’s approval entails Isaac’s dangerous enmity, and only by a hair’s breadth is disaster averted and mutual understanding eventually achieved.
Perfectly paced, structured by the rhythms of nature and the farming year, the novel depicts with compassion the realities of life in an agricultural, Welsh-speaking community forced to adapt to changing circumstances. Lyrical in style yet uncompromising in its acuity of vision, this is Caryl Lewis’s finest novel yet.
'Caryl Lewis is at her best in this powerful novel.'
Manon Steffan Ros