‘Wild pansy – also called heartsease as it was traditionally used for heart ailments, Holy Trinity for its three colours, kiss-me-in-the-buttery, because both side petals resemble two lovers kissing, and three-faces-under-a-hood because the lower petals represented a girl with lovers either side, one of whom would lose out. An infusion of it was used to treat asthma, and skin eruptions in children. Another local name was banewort, perhaps because picking it when it was covered in dew risked the death of a loved one. It was the juice, love-in-idleness, which Oberon squeezed into Titania’s eye so that she would fall in love with the ass-headed Bottom in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’
‘The Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland,’ Charles Coates
Elizabeth knew that there had been antecedents – they were combinations of ultra-clarity and shock: like looking at an image through clear glass the instant it shatters: shivering whatever is glimpsed into extinction.
There had been four experiences so far – she mistrusted the terms hallucination, episode, event, instance or vision – three in her early childhood; one in her mid-teens.
There was the pale servant-girl raking coals where the original kitchen fireplace had been replaced by fibreglass replica of a Victorian range; a child scampering excitedly after a toy hoop, whose bows and curls and pleated green dress had been so vivid; the stern man, furiously intent on some errand, who strode past her on an empty staircase, then dissolved into the wall – leaving an impression of greasy tobacco fumes and terrible swearing – and a brocaded woman sitting in a twilit railway station waiting room, fussing with her button boots, who yawned, then simply became an empty seat again.
She was always alone when it happened, except for the Fourth-Form trip to Erwau Llydan Hall for the ‘Upstairs-Downstairs Experience.’ There was the jabbing toothache first, triggering panic; then the buzzing in her ears, horribly congested sinuses; a sensation that the air was congealing around her, tears starting involuntarily, and other stuff: windows misting with condensation; a kind of crackling silence, and the urge to say aloud over and over, ‘I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!’ Then something would buckle, slam or shatter.
In the Hall kitchens, the row of heavy copper pans, from tiny ones scarcely bigger than a teacup, to fish kettles, huge skillets and a Bain Marie hanging from bracketed hooks above the scrubbed table – with its neatly-labelled replica sugar cone; a knife sharpener, milk and water cans, coffee grinder, pastry-cutters, graters, strainers, mincers and dessert moulds – began to sway, left to right, in a perfect, jostling, clanging arc.
There a fourteen year-old maid, knelt before a range twice her height, raking the grate, pausing to tuck fronds of hair under her lace cap, looking in mute despair at the ash trickling into the pleats of her white apron – and Elizabeth knew the girl was exhausted, and that her hands were a mess of cuts and blisters.
Here Gwilym Williams was insisting, ‘It wasn’t me Sir! It’s Lizzie ’ave done it!’ and their teacher Mr Pugh was already scooting them out of the kitchens, past he still-swaying pans and towards the laminated ‘Tour Continues This Way’ arrowed sign. Without turning back, she knew that the fake range with its LED glow would still be there; the Perspex tray of National Trust brochures on top of the stove undisturbed, and the girl would have vanished.
It is now nine years later, and early morning in the old Welsh drovers’ town of Pren-Brigog. Swifts are bedlamming above its tidy streets; a calm of hills rises to the north: The Clwydians. Not the scarred thugs of Snowdonia or the Arenigs, but soft, undulating rises delineated by mixed woodland, then pasture, fading into heather billowing upwards to their summits – though all six stay demurely at barely nine hundred feet – nipped by the circular ramparts of ancient hill forts; shouldering west until they meet the serious Berwyns.
The spire clock on Saint Cadoc’s Church – late thirteenth century, celebrated for its gilded, embossed camber beam roof, rescued from Basingwerk Abbey and spared dissolution – chimes seven-fifteen; the peregrines who nest on a parapet below do not flinch: they glare down as shutters rattle up, vans unload; milk and mail are delivered, joggers huff-huff self-importantly up Tabernacle Hill, cats begin their napping – and Elizabeth calls at Wynne’s Bakery for a chicken salad baguette with two honey buns, for her lunch break at the County Archives’ Office.
Pren Brigog seethes with ghosts: anguished, bitter, wrathful, tormented – or just plain confused. The Iron Age Decceangli howled down Pencloddau’s slopes to butcher the Ordovices, quietly tending their barley; Roman legions sterilized the valley flanks, slaughtering every living thing in a mile-wide corridor along the road they constructed linking the pass with their bridgehead at Chester – deeming it a prudent, proven tactic. Warrior-psychopath Owain Glyndwr plundered the little town’s fat cattle, then torched it out of spite: indifferent to the screams of those trapped inside their close-packed dung and wattle homes, until roof-crucks shattered, and blazing beams thudded down – ending whatever agonized life remained inside.
He spared only the Marcher Lord Baron De Gray’s red sandstone castle, because it would not burn.
In 1646, De Gray’s descendant’s rashly defied Parliamentary artillery for eleven weeks until the starving garrison graciously conceded defeat – when even the horseflesh and rats had run out. Their castle was levelled in reprisal. The tiny cobbled market square, now splashed with jolly red geraniums in municipal tubs – was once slippery with a filthier scarlet: the site of a gibbet where mendicant priests and treasonous rebel poets were hanged, drawn and quartered.
In 1834, cholera spared only three of the Union Workhouse’s thirty-seven inmates – the dead included seventeen children. Fists, cudgels, boots and knives in Pren Brigog’s three hundred-plus alehouses, taverns, inns and stews kept the Assizes busy and the hangman’s pockets jingling – especially after the arrival of the railway company’s brawling labourers in 1863. One felon, Gwilym Ewan Hughes, was executed in 1866 for ‘gnawing a man to death after a quarrel over bedsheets’. By 1870, one night bound traveller intent on reaching the Irish Packet from Anglesey noted: Even the benison of Sleep became a stranger to our party. After a hasty supper of boiled potatoes and indifferent mutton – which lay heavily enough on our stomachs – the darkened streets outside resounded with gleeful riot: window-breaking, coarse oaths, female imprecations, blows – and, twice, the detonations of pistols – seeming to surge to the very foot of our cots. Flung stones glanced off the shutters as I commenced to praying, mindful of Milton’s lines upon the Sons of Belial, ‘who wander forth, flow’n with insolence and wine.’
Elizabeth’s pleasant walk to work is entirely untroubled – the very opposite: bubble-gum pink bunting and Welsh dragon pennants flutter overhead, the length of Borddyn, Argoed and Bryn Streets; signs are in place re-routing traffic to temporary car parks, and plastic maps display the town’s historic properties – variously Listed or obliging – and the location of public toilets.
The Beehive Café, Owen’s Country wear, Huw’s Greengrocers; Bevans’ Newsagents, Roberts’ Ironmongers and Pets’ Supplies – have all themed their windows with displays of artefacts, products, packaging and photographs from the past – for this is Pren Brigog’s Annual Heritage Open Week, and Elizabeth and her colleague Sian have been planning it for seven weeks. She decides that this year’s Best Display winner will be Ceredog’s Toys with its splendid working Meccano colliery winding engine, and makes a furtive note of it in her phone.
Since the incident at Erwau Llydan Hall – there have been no further apparitions, mists, glass-splintering, odd sensations: none – not so much as a whisper, rustle or creak – though she still suffers from migraine attacks.
Elizabeth walks this route from her rented mid-terrace with its flourishing back garden to the County Archives on soft mornings with the promise of heat later; in rain, horizontal sleet, mist; occasionally floundering through snow – passing alongside or over a vortex of slaughter: executions, massed, frozen pain, murderous brawling – all staying tidily deep under the tarmac and cobbles.
Even the Archives’ Office’s location – a perfectly intact, limestone-blocked former Victorian ‘Panopticon’ gaol, where the County’s heaped and bundled stored, curated, ledgers: Grants of Arms, registers of Sealed Documents, books, periodicals, census returns, diaries, journals, letters, manuscripts, maps and plans, newspapers, records from Quarter Sessions and Magistrates’ Courts; records of families and estates, churches and chapels, farms, schools, taverns, businesses, clubs, societies, births, marriages and burials – are piled inside the old cells, from the first to the third floor – causes her not even the slightest apprehension.
She walks across a courtyard where felons where once flogged, picked oakum, shuffled, hooded and shackled, in silent, milling circles for their permitted daily exercise; where fifty-seven men and three women were hanged between 1877 and 1916, then shovelled into quick-limed pits below where Sian has parked her new little hatchback – mindful only of digitising the remaining three Hiraethog Estate tenancy maps before funding expires; forwarding copies to the National Archives, and checking her inbox for any late additions to the Heritage Week venues.
Fizz is not a bright cat. A plump, endearing muddle of black and white splotches, he buts his way through the cat flap after a night of killing and copulation, intent on feeding from the bowls on the kitchen floor – to which Elizabeth has kindly added a little cold bacon, to hide the worming tablets.
Ignoring his brand new ‘Kitty-Eze’ basket, he opts, as usual, for the heap of fresh, folded laundry on top of the table in the corner of the front room, opposite the brick and slate-bedded fireplace. The wood burner, though carefully damped, keeps its warmth, and he lies on his back – rather sluttily – to sleep off the night’s excesses.
The tiniest of sounds – certainly imperceptible to humans – wakes him, coming from the brick arch above the fireplace. Alerted to possible prey, he lopes, rather than darts, to the hearth; then watches in fascination and bafflement as a wisp of hundred year-old soot and mortar trickles down from one of the bricks, forming a small, neat heap in front of his paws.
The Archives’ office is at the front of the building, opening directly onto the street. It is a pleasant jumble of cultivated untidiness, and the gaol’s last Governor, Idris Bledig Cadwalader – all whiskers and stern admonition, disapproving of such Godless clutter – glares down from a hand-tinted oleograph on the wall, alongside a framed print of The Broad and Narrow Way – in which The Saved, who have struggled barefoot or on all fours up a rock-strewn, twisting path to the summit of Sion, forsaking all wickedness, leap into the awaiting blaze of light: The Damned, who chose a smoother, verdant route to the summit; rashly pausing to smoke their pipes; caper about with a bottle in each hand, swap punches or play cards – are permitted a moment’s terror before The Fiery Torment consumes them.
Sian confirms the tours available in the week ahead: the Labour in Vain pub will allow hard-hatted exploration of its cellars’ secret passage – all thirty-nine feet of it, cut through red sandstone, extending under the Market Square, before ending in a rock fall. Sniffily dismissed as probably a gunpowder or provisions store dating from the town’s Parliamentary siege, a local yarn insists it emerges in Saint Cadoc’s crypt and contains fabulous long-lost treasure; Saint Cadoc’s larkily-costumed volunteers will offer a tour including notable worthies in the cemetery, interpretations of its medieval stained glass, bell ringing, and a recital from its famous organ.
There will be ‘a chance to meet’ figures from the Castle’s past, enlivening a scramble below the lopped curtain walls and rubbly hummocks left by Cromwell’s artillery; a re-enactments of the siege itself –always a favourite – with simulated cannon and musket fire; illustrated talks on Pren Brigog in Wartime, Pren Brigog’s Pubs, Taverns and Ale Houses, Pren Brigog and Young Dickens – who paused here on his journey to Anglesey, assigned to cover the shipwreck of the Royal Charter – traction engines, vintage cars, motorbikes, lorries and agricultural machinery displays; folk music, produce stalls offering lamburgers, bara brith, leek and Caerphilly crumble tarts, crempogs and ‘dragon’ chilli pizza.
‘Oh hallo!’ Sian exclaims, beaming at Elizabeth over the top of her monitor, ‘we’ve had an email from Reverend Morris Aneurin Owen at Capel Hiraethog –that’s a first! She pulls a pencil from her hair and traces each line across the screen with the blunt end, reading hurriedly, under her breath – ‘It’s yn Cymraeg – they’re Welsh-speaking Wesleyans – and they’re up for offering tours over two days – and he’s attached a template for a bi-lingual flyer. I’ll forward it to you…just popping on the Survey Code…887….and grid reference – let’s see County’s stuff: ‘Grade 2 Listed. Completed 1891; designer Emrys Ap Morgan. Quirky Gothic style with horse-shoe plan; tracement windows, semi-circular oak pews, ashlar front with three bays and a pedimented central bay, pyramid roof, Tuscan porch; round-headed windows to both floors. Notable architecture and furnishings.’’
‘Send an acknowledgment and our effusive thanks!’ says Elizabeth, already setting up an initial print run of fifty of the flyers to accompany the tours. ‘I’ll call round on my way home with a banner for them.’
The Heritage banners are carefully designed to be draped, strung or stuck in place with grip pads. Each one is around seventeen feet by three, in pale blue, announcing: ‘Another Heritage Open Week Property’, followed by ‘Open’, ‘From’ and ‘To’ – with clear plastic pockets between them to allow for dates and times to be added – along with the symbols for ‘standard’ and ‘accessible’ toilets;’ ‘inside access’, ‘level changes’, ‘photography permitted,’ and ‘dog-friendly’ or ‘dog-free’ zones.
Later that afternoon, with the tightly-furled banner under her arm, Elizabeth walks up Tabernacle Hill to Capel Hiraethog, Sian having agreed to lock up and set the alarm codes – something she admits to doing at a run when winter’s shadows congeal along the old gaol landings. It is a bonny evening, and the swifts zoom low over the streets between the eaves. Mrs Hafwen Howells, one of the church wardens, greets her warmly on the porch; there is thunderous unlocking, and Elizabeth steps, so it seems, onto the very deck timbers of a Victorian sailing vessel – there ought to be creaks; the sway and tilt and hiss of the sea.
Pitch pine boards pitted by a hundred and twenty years of clogs and hobnails lead to a descending, tiered, semi-circular well of pews – all aligned towards a mighty, slab-sided pulpit, seeming to hang precipitously above: fit only for the Unmitigated Voice of God Himself to transfix every single parishioner: it is all anniben – ‘plain’: whitewash, slate, and gleaming black oak. Pure light blasts down from the three soaring, arched windows.
‘Does unman i guddio clecs na gwingo!’ laughs Mrs Howells – ‘Nowhere to fidget or gossip!’
Elizabeth is leaving after the women share a pot of tea in the choir vestry, deciding on where to drape the banner, and promising to drop off the tour flyers in the morning – when Mrs Howells points to the chapel’s Great War memorials: etched brass plaques, with a century’s residue of brass polish flecked in the corners of their lettering. ‘Our Fallen’, says Mrs Howells – ‘there were over seventy boys who never came home: Pren Brigog was not a ‘Gifted’ or ‘Fortunate’ village like Eryrys, Clawddnewydd or Craigforwyn. ‘Dros Ryddid Collasant Eu Gwaed’ – ‘They gave their blood for Freedom.’ Pals, you see, from the farms, mills, forests on the big estates – all enlisting together in the Royal Welch.’
Elizabeth looks up at them: Jones, Parry, Roberts, Davies, Rees, Owens, Hughes, Ifans, Morgan, Griffiths – and the succession of battles – each place – name forever damned; an outer spiral arm of roaring Hell: Bapaume, Loos, Tyne Cot, Ypres, Thiepval, Mametz, Passchendaele, Cambria, The Somme.
‘When I polish them, I think it is a way of touching the past – ‘A dwyed rhai i Dduw eu dal wrth iddynt gwympo’. ‘And some say God caught them as they fell.’
Elizabeth replies softly with more Owen: ‘Pray you’ll never know the Hell where youth and laughter go.’ The she notices with a start, and a shot of ice to her neck and shoulders, that one casualty, Private 44762 Idwal Christmas Cadogan, 21, who died of wounds serving as a stretcher bearer at Ville-Sur-Ancre, on April 12 th; 1914 – is listed under her address: 27, Cae Seren.
Mrs Howells follows her glance – ‘Oh Christmas Cadogan! We have the Family History Society papers on him – and I knew his niece Mrs Bevan when I was little – she lived to a hundred and one: loved strong peppermints and the telly wrestling! He was a sweet, sweet boy – a time-served farrier and blacksmith – one of three brothers, all lost in France. He had married Hafwen Craddock – there had been a deallwraieth – an understanding – between them since childhood – from the creamery up at Llandwrog. Three weeks later, she waved him off at Berwyn Station, and two months later the telegram came, and a letter from his officer.’
‘They say she went mad with the grief of it. She was found one morning in the river below Bontuchel Bridge, poor, dear girl – wild heartsease twisted in her hands.’
Fizz is sulking. On returning to find a mixture of soot, brick dust and mortar on her hearth carpet, Elizabeth naturally blames him, and he has been scolded then scooted outside. Worse, the greenhouse door is shut, and he cannot manage his usual trick of pawing it open to doze amongst the tomatoes, peppers and chillies – he is left to prowl the garden, bored and hungry.
The mess swept up and tidied away, Elizabeth wonders if it was really caused by the property ‘settling’, or even some weird localized earthquake. She checks the ceiling beams; the walls, the door jambs, and can find no cracks. She pushes the afternoon’s revelations out of her mind: it is an old village. This space, now ‘Rose Cottage’, has been reconfigured, with its electricity, fitted kitchen, programmable gas hob, double glazing; bright, synthetic rustic paintwork and the comforting whoomf of central heating on a winter morning – the last hundred years surely deleted. What skin, she wonders, remains?
The floor would have been slate flagged; grooved or ‘trinkled’ in the kitchen for sluicing directly out into the back; water brought in from a communal pump; earth closet, piggery, apple trees, vegetables and poultry in the garden; a black-leaded range. It was April; dusk by eight pm. Did Hafwen sit in here, at this side of the hearth, mending by paraffin oil light, re-reading his letters?
Elizabeth has catalogued and curated hundreds, donated by families: the pencilled larky ones from base depots and hutted training camps – ‘Dearest they are working us hard! We run everywhere at the double in full kit including greatcoats, pack, webbing, rifle and bayonet and the sergeant’s full fury descends on any unfortunate whose puttees unwind! They feed us like heavy horses and my pals here are splendid set of fellows.’ The Field Service cards with their tick box options; messages bearing the censor’s stamp; the last letters: ‘My Darling Sweetest Wife. I am writing this on the fire step and within the hour we expect to advance so I am putting this in my steel Toby for safekeeping and if all does not go well someone will be kind enough to send it to you. Please know that if you get this I have found my rest and there is one above who will watch over you.’
The archives hold some six hundred assorted letters and postcards, including officers’ uncensored mail; regimental badges, two trench whistles, a set of signallers’ flags, a collapsible periscope and a captured picklehaube.
Did she hurry inside with the telegram – the other women along Cae Seren, unfastening aprons, setting aside children, running to her before the terrible wailing? Did she sit here, rocking in the dark, lamp unlit, until the unbearable grief burst inside her and Hafwen walked the two miles to Bontuchel, pulling wild pansies from the moonlit hedge banks?
Was she barefoot?
‘Stuff this!’ Elizabeth yells, with such ferocity that Fizz, midway through the cat flap, darts back out again. ‘No more!’ She flicks on every light in the house; dials up a takeaway, pours herself a huge gin with crushed ice and fresh lemon; has a bath, then changes into her shriekingly awful comfort combo: a neon pink fluffy dressing gown, Barbie pyjamas and Slumberzz novelty llama slippers; makes buttered popcorn, and settles down for a TV trash fest.
Somewhere between Love Island Australia and The Mandalorian, the trickle of dust resumes – then stops. Elizabeth presses Mute and glances up at the source – a brick in the fourth row below the ceiling, oddly a fraction out of true, in a corner where the pointing has worn away.
Now she fights all that Old Stuff – the blazing sinuses; the sick headache jabbing her eyes and teeth sockets, the screeching pressure on her eardrums; the tears, leaving their salt on her lips and splashing from her chin – hating its return with such utter fury that she steps onto the hearth bed, reaches up, seizes the brick with both hands, and yanks it free.
She smears the soot onto her dressing gown, dropping the brick onto the floor, and reaches into the cavity – her hand closing on something pliant, light. It has a kind of tape or loop or ribbon around; she pulls it out in a splutter of dust: letters – twenty or more, in an embroidered cloth, so frayed as to be transparent; scorched and soot-caked, but still with a tracery of wild flowers – the tiniest, intertwined stems, leaves and buds – sewn with exquisite care: white clover, flax, shield fern, harebells, columbine, lady’s smock, columbine, sweet violets, heartsease, corncockle, poppies.
With skilled, experienced concentration, she pares away the cloth wrapping and slides off the once-bright, shrivelled ribbons; spreading the letters in an arc on the table. She has time to take in a blur of a neat school hand; smears of blue indelible pencil over any lapses into Welsh: To: Mrs Hafwen Cadogen, 27 Cae Seren, Pren Brigog, Denbighshire; North Wales; the cream, buff and blue envelopes, and the red Field Censor’s PASSED stamp, and, even, briefly, the Princess Alexandra stamp ‘sweetheart codes’ – tilted the left – I Love You; her face upwards, gummed down sideways: Thinking of you.
Then the light bulbs explode.
There is only the firelight to see by now, and she waits, swaying, wiping her eyes with her sleeve. This time, it is almost silent: just a whisper like the soft treading on beech-mast.
Hafwen is standing directly opposite her.
So pretty, so tiny: soft, upswept, dark curls, pin-tucked cotton blouse, a gently fluted skirt; smiling directly at Elizabeth as she scoops up the letters.
And she is gone.
Then there is a roaring, silver light and the room seethes and swirls with a blizzard of pink and white flakes somehow all whirling upwards – so thickly packed, so dense, that Elizabeth fears crushing or suffocation, or both.
It is blossom which falls into her cupped hands: blackthorn; clusters of wild cherry, like tiny Christmas baubles; pear, golden sallow, hazel catkins, pink-tinged crab apple, and creamy elderflower. In an instant, it dries, curls and fades.
The following day is Friday. Elizabeth buys one of Wynne’s biggest Special Pork Pies, crimped pastry with a middle layer of onion marmalade, knowing Sian to be very partial to them – and two of those wonderful raspberry and hazelnut things. Wynne is delighted with trade since the Heritage Week began – it has been ‘Gwaedlyd rhyfeddol!’ – ‘Bloody marvellous!’
He adds two lemon drizzle bars to the paper bag, beaming. She walks to work; certain there will be no more headaches, ever.
Mrs Howells unlocks the cupboard at Capel Hiraethog to take out her polishes, dust cloths and the hoover extension lead. She turns to notice something lying along the scrolled top of Idwal Christmas Cadogen’s brass plaque, and tuts as she fusses it clean: blossom – doubtless blown in through the open door.