‘The Storyist’ is taken from the beginning of Jon Gower’s adaptation of his Welsh-language novel, Y Storïwr, which won the Wales Book of the Year award in 2012.
One silver birch, its leaves ablaze. One sturdy oak, a crackling green and red bonfire right in the middle of Cae y Rhaca. One lofty larch, now become a lantern of light, as its boughs and branches flared and fired – from piney twigs through knotted growths to arthritic limbs. Even the prickly mass of evergreen foliage caught fire quickly despite the seeping dampness of that summer, with its unending torrents of rain. The arboreal blaze incandesced as every green leaf , moss beard and crabapple was consumed. The rising sap converted into rocket fuel and berries, such as the black pips of the elder, boiled swiftly before bursting with a fizz. Acorns and beech mast simply exploded, scattering tiny shrapnel of hard shells across a wide area.
The hissing lightning worked like napalm, torching tree and copse and thicket. A hawthorn hedge burned like a fuse, the flames running along one side of a field before turning a corner. It was an almighty conflagration. A fire and a half.
The sky above this arboreal wildfire most resembled a crazy laboratory, a series of Van der Graaf discharges above the hills of Dyfed. Some would swear they had seen the aurora borealis above Alltwalis, and one drunk farmer was convinced the Day of Judgment had arrived as he crossed Penpella Road, the sky blazing above him, angelic javelins spearing the night. All that lightning! Jesus! No more Drambuie for him! Not ever again.
A remarkable child was born to coincide with this once-in-a-millennium, night-time spectacular. His birth cries seem to echo the drama of the heavens, the startling and undeniable power of the orange, purple and lime lightning flashes that rent the sky, tore through the inky clouds. Lightning to burn away all shadows. Lightning to scare the bejesus out of crows so that they moulted with fear, losing all their feathers and ended up looking like naked poultry on the way to the oven. Lightning which struck ancient trees like matches, causing them to burn swiftly, like silk paper.
Here I come, mam. Here I come to change everything. What adventures lie ahead. Oh boy!
And so he arrived, just as the dowdy, straight-laced Fifties with their post- war celebrations and thin austerities turned toward the lysergic psychedelia of the Sixties. Five hours to go before the new decade, with its heady colours, its liberations, its new wars of sacrifice.
The mother stared amazedly as her son poured into the world, or rather broke free into it, like an imago from a purple cocoon, tearing himself loose in a thick stream of mucoid blood. He had a good head of hair: she could see that despite the clotted mess that clung to it, and he had his father’s eyes as they had a little turn in them, sufficient for him to seem to be looking at both his mother and the midwife at one and the same time.
‘He’s got hair enough for two,’ opined the midwife, Mrs Lazarus, just before she stepped outside to dispose of the afterbirth – like a lump of outsized liver – which she carried in a bucket to the sty. It was favoured as a delicacy by the pigs, which savoured every birth in the village, their snouts red with the lipstick of fresh blood. Once upon a time twins were born to Lizzie Penuwch, and the eight pigs thought that Christmas had arrived early when they saw the size of the feast, a steaming pile of chestnut-coloured meat the size of a small seal.
‘It’s a he, is it?’
‘No doubt about that. He has some pretty tackle. Two plums and an earthworm.’
The baby’s mother laughed heartily despite the enveloping weariness which resulted from the brutalizingly long hours of labour. She watched her firstborn reaching out a pudgy hand towards the light bulb, the hair Brylcreemed to his skull, shining in the light. A bit of a spiv. A bit of a dandy. But entirely comfortable after his journey from within the noisy hydraulics and Gothic plumbing of the womb, all those fluids pumping day and night, not to mention the far-off sounds, the ones like major artillery hitting remote targets in the far distance. What on earth were those? Those underwater detonations. That’s what asked himself in the months when he floated indolently within the aquarium of his mother’s warmth. Before slipping out like a torpedo. A caterpillar torpedo. To see what was what.
The parents, Martha and Macs had decided on a name already. If a girl, Gwenllian. If a boy, Gwydion. So, Gwydion was his name, an uncommon moniker.
Macs was an obsessive reader, especially as he’d received precious little formal education, having left the laughable Pinkerton Academy for Boys in Burry Port at the age of thirteen and thus felt he had a lot of catching up to do. He devoured a book a night, two if they were slim volumes of poetry. A fair range of stuff. In Welsh the delightful doggerel of I.D. Hooson. In English the cantering rhythms of Longfellow.
Macs believed with all heart that giving the boy a special name would create a special man. If you wanted a leader, then name him Abraham, like the one in the Bible, or the one who vanquished slavery in America. If a musician, then Wolfgang, or, even better Johann Sebastian, although, given Macs’s surname, McGideon, not every name would sit that pleasingly, becoming a tongue twister too readily. But, for an engineer, then Isambard. Or for all the human qualities rolled into one, then call him Leonardo.
So Gwydion was the name they chose. Gwydion McGideon. Euphonious. Rhyming and chiming in the same breath. And because of a certain, well, vulnerability to children’s mockery about the sing-song name he decided that he would make damn sure the boy could look after himself.
Some of the workers who built the sea wall which carried the mainline railway were Chinese and some of them had stayed on after the work was completed. Some of them taught a form of gentle fighting which Macs very much approved of: it was called tai chi. He had had dozens of lessons himself and while he couldn’t claim to have mastered it himself he had absorbed its rhythms, its patterns and philosophy. He would ask Mr Ling to teach the boy once he was of a decent age. It was like the song by Johnny Cash, ‘A Boy Named Sue’, with the boy learning to fight because his dad knew he’d have to. But both song and martial arts lessons lie a ways off, and Gwydion has many more things to accomplish first, as he is special, as rare as a red cormorant and he has barely learned to suckle as yet.
Macs celebrated the birth in the company of the diligent roisterers at the Colliers Arms, where the hosts, Dic and his darling wife Beryl, mixed the two local bitters in big jugs, which frothed with both Felinfoel and Buckleys: the resulting hoppy amalgam was delightfully addictive. Should there be a good crowd settled in both snug and lounge in there was a need for constant replenishing and Dic and Beryl scuttled back and fore between snug and cellar as if they were puppets on wires.
‘Gwydion, is it?’ asked Len Tŷ Isha. ‘There’s a name pungent with myth for you. Full of import. You must have pondered that one awhile Macs? A deep name, that’s what it is. From the Mabinogion, isn’t it? A classical name, therefore, and a bloody good one if I may be so bold? A storyteller wasn’t he? No, more than that. He was the best storyteller on God’s earth. That’s something for the boy to live up to. ‘
‘Lord, you’re a learned man, Len,’ said Macs, as he received the latest in a line of free pints, the bracken-coloured liquid tasting elegantly of nutmeg and roasted monkey nuts and a little bit of leftover autumn sunshine. You know the taste.
‘When can we see the young giant?’ asked Jac y Pant, the cheery, portly farmer who was ablaze with curiosity as he wanted to see the dragon birthmark which was already the talk of the village. Everybody in the pub had been talking animatedly about it just before Macs arrived, the bar chattery with inquisitiveness and eagerness, eager and beavers to see the mark on the baby’s skin. They’d changed the subject of course when the new father walked in, to much back slapping and hearty ‘Llongyfarchiadau.’ They talked about the extraordinary storm, and how Twmi Rhydfarchog had vowed never to touch another drop after being out under such cinematic skies. It beat any other storm in living memory, even the one which rained down frogs. The colours of it! The way the sky fizzed! The tangerine colours! Rainbow shafts of pure energy, a veritable glory of them. The ferocity of the lightning and the number of trees it set on fire!
‘One more just to wet the boy’s head once again,’ suggested Len, reaching a pint to Macs, whose head was already a-swirl with the beer. Len’s hand reached him out of a haze. People were melting around him and farmers with two heads laughing as they stood up near the serving hatch. He normally had two pints, seldom more but tonight he’d had far more than that. Far, far more. Little wonder the tables were becoming misty, desolid.
Having taken stock of their friend’s inebriate condition Jac y Pant offered to take him home in a wheelbarrow, an idea which appealed greatly to Macs with his jellified legs, but even in his condition he didn’t want anyone to see him in that, well condition. A wheelbarrow carriage! No fear! Mae’r diawl yn y gasgen gwrw, ody wir. As the old song proclaims, The devil’s in the beer barrel, that’s for certain.
Macs now did something out of character and actually asked for some more falling-down-water. ‘Anotherhalfifyoupleasetomarkthearrivalofmyfirstbornson,’ he slewed through rubberized lips. There was a treacly quality to his utterance, as if he was chewing the words without the use of teeth.
It was lucky that some of his companions were still on the sober side – just on the sober side – but still able to understand the international Esperanto of all drunks. Jac insisted it was time for home. He let go of the wheelbarrow notion but helped lift Macs through the door before the new half pint reached him and consequently floored him. They struggled down the alleyway, with chinks of conversation rolling after them like bright pennies. The sound of that conviviality accompanied them all the way to the junction of alley and lane before it dissipated and the velvet of night, and the chill of settling frost, startled them slightly.
Macs had to stop for a very substantial piss behind a hedge near Rehoboth chapel and the stream was strong enough to coruscate with the reflection of the Milky Way, which arced overhead. They were the lamps of the tylwyth teg, the fairy folk, or perhaps just a quotidian miracle, giving off just enough light to make their journey possible. Macs found it hard work to co-ordinate his limbs as he turned scarecrow: his legs flailing away from him, his head wanting to hang loose on his neck, itself a mangold dangling on a string of baling twine.
The lamps were still burning in some of the houses along the way, and not all of them were connected to the electric, so paraffin lamps shimmered in some rooms, while candles burned in others. In an upstairs room at Melin Byr-Rhedyn Miss Myfanwy Daniels was sure to be staring at a photograph of the man she loved, who died on a faraway field of battle, and she still burned with a need to have him share her bed after all these years. On a bad night she would even hear a baby cry in the corner of the room: their baby, the one who was denied. He had a name. Horace. And a mess of black curls atop his beautiful head.
The father, Wmffre, had been killed on one of the slaughter-days of the First World War, in 1917, smithereened by German guns and his body entombed in the bloody mulch of Passchendaele’s soil. Over forty bitter years ago. And the old lady still wept every night. Without fail. Her lachrymose ritual.
Jon Gower is a writer and broadcaster who has seventeen books to his name: these include the novel Y Storïwr, which won the Wales Book of the Year in 2012, the coastal journey Wales: At Water’s Edge, which was shortlisted for the 2013 prize and The Story of Wales, which accompanies the landmark BBC television series. He has also written travel books such as An Island Called Smith – as well as collections of short stories in both Welsh and English. He is a former BBC Wales arts and media correspondent, was an inaugural Hay Festival International Fellow, and is a Fellow of the Welsh Academy. Forthcoming books include a Welsh language novel about Central American migrants and an account of the Welsh overseas adventure in Patagonia.
Banner image: ‘The Brouhers’ by Ric Bower