As it's that time of year, and it's actually snowing, and they're already playing Christmas songs in supermarkets, and I am bored with adverts about carrots, here is an extract from A Time For Silence:
Christmas, 1938 at Castell Mawr.
© Thorne Moore
© Thorne Moore
Gwen has been busy because it’s second nature, she cannot be still. There are plates to carry, cups to wash and she must help, that is only right. But there are more than enough George daughters and George aunts and cousins to do all that is required, and Betty John has been firm with her. ‘Go and sit down, Gwen. Rest your feet. You deserve it.’
So she is doing what she has almost forgotten how to do: nothing at all. She sits, out of the way, soaking up the warmth and the exotic experience of being still, watching the scene with a sense of faintly wicked contentment. The children of Ted Absalom, one of the Georges' hands, are huddled nearby over the unspeakable luxury of an orange. Gwen leans down to help them with the peel, the small business helping to assuage the sinfulness of being idle.
The smell of orange. When did she last savour that? Christmases of long ago, happy faces that have vanished forever, her mother, her brother before the TB, her father still hale …All recaptured by the sweet sharp spicy warm smell of Christmas at Castell Mawr. The frosts have set in with a vengeance, but inside the old farmhouse, all is cheerful flickering warmth. A monstrous fire flames in the huge hearth, roaring up the massive open chimney. The oak beams are festooned with greenery and paper chains made by the children. Candles twinkle on the Christmas tree and the sideboard is groaning under the spread of hams and mince pies, cakes and cheeses and preserved fruit.
Rosie and Jack are red-faced with pleasure and overeating, romping among the other children with squeals of delight. Tom, smallest and slowest of the Absaloms, triumphantly bolts down the last of his orange and struggles over to join them.
Light and warmth and laughter. The resinous smell of greenery, flickering flames, a feast for the entire parish. The Georges are as careful with their money as their neighbours, but maybe that is why they can afford this annual prodigality.
It is all a far cry from the spartan Christmas chill of Cwmderwen, though Gwen has done what she can, saving up spare coppers from her housekeeping, and attempting rashly to roast a scrawny old hen, past laying, that should have had two days slow boiling in the stock pot to render it edible. They ate it regardless and the children had presents.
Not toys. John would never tolerate that sort of thing. Their gifts from the Chapel tree on Christmas Eve, dispensed by a Father Christmas looking strangely like William George, disappeared within hours of their return home. Jack’s tin trumpet was confiscated as he came through the door and Rosie’s bead necklace was gone by bed time. Toys have no place in the house. Rosie’s doll, Maggie May, survives only because she lives secretly in an old biscuit tin concealed just over the garden wall. But John permitted the mufflers, mittens and tam-o’-shanters that Gwen has knitted out of old wool and he accepted the new boots that Rosie must have for growing feet, with the old ones falling to pieces. He sniffed in disapproval at the sprigs of holly Gwen brought in from the woods to brighten the hearth. Christmas is a time for chapel and reverence, not for bawdy frolics and pagan merriment.
His disapproval, she notes, is reserved for the hallowed soil of Cwmderwen. No such censure for the celebrations here at Castell Mawr, but then who would dare criticise with Mrs. George presiding over the revelry from her rocking chair? One glance at her solemn bulk strapped into her best black satin will dispel any idea that there is anything ungodly about this gathering.
Mrs. George’s eldest daughter, Annie Lloyd and her sister-in-law Evelyn are organising the children into a choir. Hymns and carols around the Christmas tree, while Annie plays, thumping on the piano with joyously inaccurate goodwill. Rosie’s little voice rings out clear and pure above the others. Mrs. George looks across to Gwen, with a nod as if to say, ‘I told you so.’
The gesture of approval is dear to Gwen, but she does not need to be told that Rosie has musical talent. Of course she would have, with a singer like John for her father. It is his turn now. He is standing solemnly in the background, hands clasped behind his back, aloof even here, but they are having none of that, summoning him forward.
The Reverend Harries claps his hands. ‘Yes, come now, Owen. Let us have some sacred music worthy of the season.’
John demurs and then complies, standing dignified by the piano as Annie anxiously leafs through the music. Should Gwen offer to help? There is no need. John’s repertoire, which she knows by heart, consists mostly of hymns that Annie mastered years ago, and a few pieces from the great religious oratorios.
Calon Lân to start with, because Annie can play it with her eyes shut. John begins and his audience joins in, a quiet accompaniment at first and then a rising crescendo of hwyl. Then The Messiah. Every valley shall be exalted. The roof timbers are ringing, threatening to exalt themselves into the night sky. John is in truly wonderful voice, his breast swelling, the liberated spirit within him finding its wings and soaring as only music allows. He finishes amidst a roar of applause. The Reverend Harries beams round proudly as if this prodigy of Beulah Chapel were his very own creation.
A pause. They are debating. Some Bach? Annie is not sure she can do it justice.
The Reverend looks up suddenly, in Gwen’s direction. ‘But of course, we mustn’t forget Mrs. Owen. Quite a reputation in her youth, so I’ve been told. Is that not so, Mrs. Owen?’
Gwen smiles and shakes her head, eager to divert their attention. The smile is a mask concealing a sudden flutter of pain. In her youth. When was that? She is scarcely into her thirties and her youth is already something barely remembered, a dream of long ago from which she has woken with a vengeance. ‘Oh no, don't think of me, I haven’t played for years.’ When was the last time she had been permitted time to play, on her fleeting visits to Penbryn? She cannot remember.
They are not listening to her objections. Evelyn and Annie and her sister Betty have gathered round, cooing and twittering and insisting that Gwen must perform too. She can accompany John. What could be more appropriate than that?
‘I really don’t think—’
‘Play us one of your father’s hymns,’ suggests Mrs. George, and no one dares to argue, least of all Gwen.
Tentatively she seats herself at the piano stool. Perhaps she can no longer play. Her fingers ache from scrubbing and boiling and mending and milking and the onset of rheumatism. They cannot possibly move smoothly enough.
But they do. They awake, at her command, as if they had been waiting. She plays, one of her father’s best compositions, and it all comes back as if she were practising still at her old instrument in her room over the grocer’s shop.
She is the focus of all attention. It is not right; she feels a guilty twinge. They should not be minding her. That had not been her intention when she had agreed to play. She had expected John to sing the words, but he has not understood her intent and is silent, so she plays while the others gather round in earnest admiration, humming along, the Reverend and Sidney Lloyd finally adding the words.
It is such a pleasure, to be playing again. She had forgotten how overwhelmingly pleasurable it was. Annie has her hands clasped in ridiculous admiration and William applauds loudly, though Gwen realises, with an inner smile, that he is not just complimenting her, but currying favour with Evelyn Lloyd, whose enthusiasm is gushing.
‘Why, Gwen! I didn’t know you could play. Play some more. Here, let me see.’ While Evelyn is rustling through the papers, others crowd round in ungrudging admiration, but Gwen barely notices them. It is Rosie she sees, Rosie sitting still with the other children but suddenly apart in spirit, thumb dropped from her mouth, eyes wide with astonishment that her mother can do this thing. It is Rosie’s poised expectant eagerness that persuades Gwen to go on, quickly, into a silly little song that instantly has the children jigging and dancing. Rosie laughs with delight.
‘You are going to play the Bach accompaniment for John,’ the minister reminds her.
Of course. The Bach. She looks at John.
He is standing, stony faced, waiting, and her innards freeze. Has she done something wrong? She senses his petrifying displeasure, but his audience is impatient, the minister is nodding and she must play and he must sing.
Gwen turns back to the keys with a shiver. Beautiful sacred music that must be treated with respect, and she plays with greater care, giving it its due, waiting for John to share with her.
But something is wrong. Is it her playing? He sings, but they cannot keep time together. He has to keep correcting, missing, slipping, and it all goes awry. He stops in mid-phrase, hand to his throat, coughing, and immediately they are all consternation. He should not have exerted himself, not after so much singing in the chapel. He must rest his voice.
Quietly, Gwen rises from the stool and accompanies Betty into the kitchen to fetch tea and a spoonful of honey for the cracking voice. It is enough. Nothing they say will persuade her to return to the piano. Besides, their idle hour is done, they must be going. No help on the farm tiding things over in their absence, and they have chores to do, the cows to see to. Everyone understands when John abruptly announces that they must leave.
Gwen gathers up the children, bundling them into coats and scarves and gloves against the biting winter chill. Jack is a sturdy little boy, thank God. He’ll manage most of the walk back to Cwmderwen on his own now, although she’ll have to carry him if he is too slow. She has just time to smile at the company, her arm patted in benediction by Mrs. George as she follows John out into the frost. The little Absalom faces, glowing with food and excitement, peer round the matriarch's bulk at her, a picture of warmth in contrast to the needle-sharp bite of the night air. In contrast to the beds the Owens are returning to. No roaring fire awaiting them at Cwmderwen. Gwen will have to heat the stone bottles as soon as they get in, or the children will be all night shivering.
Too dark to cross the fields on a December night, the mired footpath too treacherous with ice. They must climb to the road. Their breath clouds in the cold air, their boots ring out on the cobbles of Castell Mawr yard. She hurries the children along because John is striding ahead, not waiting, and he will not have them dawdle. They must keep up. The track up to the road leaves them panting, and Gwen has to carry Jack in the end. Rosie trots along, gripping her hand.
At the gate, John stops, turns, waiting for them impatiently. She can see the anger still simmering in him. Why? All she did was play the piano.
‘Are you content, then, woman?’
‘Putting yourself forward like that.’
‘I did not mean to put myself forward, John.’
‘Flaunting yourself!’ He turned away. ‘Showing me up in front of my neighbours.’
‘I’m sorry that I played badly.’
He does not hear her apology. He has already gone on.
Resigned, she follows. What has she done that was wrong?
Out in the open on the road, out from under the trees and the shelter of the valley, the sky arches over them, ink black, and strewn with a billion diamonds. A lid lifts off her world and her understanding. The stars twinkle with piercing clarity in the frost, so bright they cast dim shadows. A different light. A new comprehension. Revelation.
John is jealous.
The ice-cold knowledge washes over her. John Owen, her John, walking tall, upright and proud along the road, is a small man. Small and mean.
Immediately she pushes the thought to one side. It is not permissible, she must block it out, too humiliating for words. She cannot allow for the futility of it all, if that terrible thought is true. But for a moment it has touched, settling, searing onto her brain, a black treacherous scar that will not fade. He is not worthy of her.
Put it out of your head, Gwen, before it destroys you.
A Time For Silence. published by Honno 2012