The woman leads Lee to the chapel he was seeking, which is now overgrown and quite hidden.
A harp hangs from a tree outside, and it becomes clear that the woman has taken the chapel as her home.
It is the beginning of a passage of truly magical writing.
Lee describes how the woman supplies him with a cup of bee-orchid wine. ‘It glittered in the cup, transparent, cool, the colour of emeralds.’
The real strength of the passage though lies in Lee’s description of his hostess and how the sunlight plays upon her via the old chapel’s stained glass windows.
‘The sun threw the figures of saints like lantern-slides against the walls, and the woman, as she moved about before me, changed from blue to purple, from green to rose. Occasionally, like a mystic translation, the ghostly glowing face of some bearded prophet lay superimposed upon hr own, and she looked at me with double eyes, through double features.’
It’s sufficient here to say that conversation between Lee and the woman turns to the bullock – the beast is hers – and a seeming feud with a farmer (who is ‘off-stage’ on a remote holding still deeper in the valley).
From early on in the piece there is a sense that the dead bullock will revive in some fashion… that we are not ‘done’ with the ‘beast’ (to use the woman’s word).
And Lee doesn’t disappoint. The piece has a fine closing passage I shall avoid discussing so that you may have the pleasure. I urge you to read it.
This tale strikes me as of a piece with work by the Welshman Glyn Jones (1905-1995), an almost exact contemporary of Lee – such as Jones’s superb short story ‘Wat Pantathro’.
Graham Greene, perhaps surprisingly, is another who’s reported something of this life.
As a struggling novelist Greene lived in the Cotswolds. Extracts from his diary – in his autobiography A Sort of Life – tell of rat-catchers, eccentrics, strange deaths and home-made wine.
But I’ve the conviction that this particular story – precise, elegant and seeminlgy cut from the Gloucestershire earth itself – could only have been written by Lee.
Some years ago, matters of a business nature occasionally took me to the Gloucestershire town of Stroud.
I was in the habit of travelling there from the cathedral city of Gloucester in the most advantageous way: on the upper tier of a double-decker service bus, its height granting wonderful views lost to motorists in their cars.
The Gloucestershire countryside, I’m pleased to say, still looked magnificent: green, rolling… I shan’t attempt to describe it. Such things are best left to Laurie Lee.
The bus in question – I believe it still runs – passed not far from his home village of Slad.
Lee, of course, famously left it to travel to Spain.
Looking out from the top deck, after some adventures and misadventures of my own, including some time abroad, I felt myself re-connecting with him, his writing, his land.
Why ever had I forsaken them?
I Can’t Stay Long by Laurie Lee (Penguin)
The Collected Stories of Glyn Jones (University of Wales Press)
A Sort of Life by Graham Greene (Penguin)