Dreaming at Christmas

Here is a nostalgic little story I wrote a couple of years ago which might make older – nay, elderly – readers sigh in remembrance. Although the story is a fiction, it certainly rolls back many years for me, anyway. 

Capture Everly Bros

It’s two days after Christmas. Back from the family get-together; life sinking, as it quickly does, back to normal.

Trevor places the seventy-eight on the turntable of his red Dansette, sets it in motion and, concentrating hard, carefully, slowly, drops the stylus. It’s only just onto the edge of the vinyl, so there’s a second or two of preliminary hiss and crackle. He sits down, watches the disc’s wobbly rotation, a little mesmerised. He knows what’s coming. That brilliant guitar chord, setting you up, expectation piqued, for what’s to follow. Then a moment’s pause. Then the Everlys, Don and Phil, their voices perfectly harmonised. Dre-e-e-e-eem, dream, dream, dre-eem . . .

He lets the sweetly blended voices; the wistful lovesick words wash over him, singing along quietly although he can’t sing for toffee. He smiles ruefully, musing, thoughts turning in on themselves. Why am I so damned sentimental? I’m like a big girl sometimes. Well, can’t be helped. We are who we are. So I like this sort of stuff better than Bill Hayley. Rock Around the Clock was alright. When the film came to town I went to see it along with everyone else. There’d been so much publicity about it, so much outrage in the papers, so how could you not? It was forbidden fruit, almost. The Teddy Boys loved it. There was a near-riot in the cinema. It was as exciting as visiting – in the middle of the afternoon for goodness sake – the Windmill Theatre on that day trip to London with the lads, to gawp flabbergasted at the nudes who were supposed to stand stock-still like classical statues so as to be artistic, but didn’t quite manage it.

But no, he thinks; rock n’ roll’s fine: exciting and new and all that, but when you’re madly in love, your first time, it’s the love songs that really grab you. They do me, anyway. I probably shouldn’t be playing this really. It’s a bit masochistic. Is that the word? It’s certainly bitter-sweet anyway. Reminds me of Laura. Her sweetness. Her prettiness. Those blue eyes; that thick blond hair halfway down her back, often done up in pony tails; those soft full lips and that irresistibly soft chest too. The way she really made me feel good about myself; instilled in me a little self-esteem for the first time in my life. Made me walk tall, for all that I’m only five feet five. But I felt like a giant. I was absolutely smitten.

Her name’s the same as that tragic left-behind girl in Ricky Valence’s hit. And how can I forget that first agonisingly nervous time at the youth club when I finally worked up the courage to ask her to dance; having previously been schooled by Carol in the intricacies of jive, over and over again until I got the hang of it, in my bedroom to (yes, alright, I admit) Bill Hayley on the record player.

And how Laura had astonished me by saying yes.

As the Everlys’ dulcet tones rise and fall his thoughts wander. He remembers that first little foray into the uncharted territory of socialising with girls properly, which worked such wonders for his self-confidence, as opposed to the clumsy exploratory kissing and cuddling with girls from school, all two of them, which didn’t really count.  And the following Friday night, when she was there again and really seemed to his optimistic sixteen-year-old eyes to be returning his interest. Just one dance the previous time had seemed an enormous achievement and after that she’d retreated to the giggly clique of her friends, although he’d thought he caught her throwing sly glances in his direction afterwards. But that second time had been a quantum-leap, when with great daring he’d made a beeline for her almost straight away, and she’d responded to his invitation with a broad smile and when the record had finished showed no inclination to rejoin her mates. So they’d spent the rest of the evening together. Emboldened, he’d even begun to show off a little, twirling her ever-faster and improvising ever more elaborate (and rhythm-ignoring) dance steps. Quite the strutting peacock, he’d been.

He harks back to the climax of the evening as far as he was concerned. The church volunteers who supervised the club tried to keep their charges away from smoochy ballads as much as possible because they could lead into dangerous territory, but someone had brought in the Everlys’ new single, Dream. It had been saved until last, and as if attracted by a sudden magnetic force the dancing couples had closed into embraces and shuffled around the floor in an approximation of waltz-time, even though the music wasn’t. Laura had come into his arms without hesitation and although they’d had nothing stronger than Coca-Cola, he might just as well have been drunk. He was intoxicated by her closeness, the feel of her body, her sapphire eyes gazing up him (she was only five feet one) in what he was certain was adoration. And the words of the song, which seemed so incredibly apt. They might as well have been written just for them.

He recalls how that had been the start of it all. The next day, Saturday, he’d been straight into the record shop in town – virtually been there waiting for it to open in fact – to buy Dream. He’d borne it home like some fabulous bounty and pretty well retreated to his bedroom for the rest of the weekend, playing it over and over again. For the first time in his life he’d really wished he didn’t have a brother. One sibling, Carol, would have been quite enough. But in their modest little three-bedroomed house, having Michael as an elder brother had suddenly become a pain. Because, obviously, the boys had to share a bedroom. As the oldest of the three, he was four years Trevor’s senior. And Michael, who was a man of the world and had recently returned home after National Service, hadn’t really taken kindly to his kid brother’s mooning around all the time in their bedroom drooling starry-eyed over some new, highly significantly-worded seventy-eight. It was alright for him though; he’d been going out with Doreen for the last two years, although he hadn’t seen a great deal of her, what with being away in Germany with the army. No doubt he took matters of the heart in his stride now. He was practically a married man.

But for him, Trevor recalls, this was all an exciting novelty. After the third evening at the club, when again they’d automatically gravitated towards each other and he’d made a point of taking Dream along, just in case no-one else did, they’d left together and he’d walked her home, although it meant a long walk home for him afterwards. He’d been nervous; he would have been the first to admit it. Dancing and a little light smooching was one thing but now, he hoped, things were going to get seriously physical. He knew full well that he wasn’t the handsomest boy around; what if she couldn’t bring herself to kiss him? That would be really humiliating. But things were absolutely fine. He’d boldly held her hand on the way home, engaging in what he’d hoped was scintillating conversation and, when they’d arrived, still possessively held onto it, keeping up the chatter, just in case she suddenly evaporated into the night like some wondrous but fleeting mirage.

But then the talk had become a little strained, as if they were putting off the moment of truth. After a while, as the awkward punctuating silences grew ever longer, it had dried up altogether and they’d been left stranded, simply looking at each other. Until she rescued him by making the first move, and reached her free hand up to cup the side of his face and paused only briefly before planting a tentative kiss. He hadn’t been able respond terribly well, but all the same it had led to a longer, more confident one and then, to his great relief, a gloriously tactile embrace; a proper one. The process had been repeated several times until she’d announced that she really ought to be going. It was something to do with worried parents, apparently. They’d arranged to meet again the evening after the next and he’d boldly suggested visiting the espresso coffee bar, which had another delight: a jukebox. He’d walked home clutching his precious record in a dream. And thinking rapturously that he’d got an actual, proper, real-life girlfriend! Now he could hold his head up high; compete with the best of them.

He remembers how their relationship (if one excluding full sex could be deemed as such) had gone from strength to strength; the club on Friday nights, the coffee bar a couple of evenings, sometimes the Pictures on a Saturday night and, of course, parading around the town and visiting the record shop to crowd intimately together in a tiny booth to sample the latest hits. He’d enjoyed the fact that Laura was nearly a year older – having an Older Woman for a girlfriend seemed to confer an extra gloss of sophistication.

Then, inevitably –although he certainly hadn’t tried to hide it anyway – his mother had begun to take an interest in her younger son’s love life. Intrigued, or perhaps simply to check her out, she’d suggested he bring Laura home to Sunday tea. He’d been all for it; wanted to proudly show her off to the family. Laura had seemed a little more circumspect at first, or perhaps just shy, but once she’d got over the strain of the first tea-taking, which involved meeting everyone: Mum, Dad, Carol and her boyfriend Denis and a now-single Michael, who’d split from Doreen, and they’d all crowded round the modest (even with its leaves extended) dining table in the dinette, as Mum termed it, because it sounded more sophisticated than alcove (and she wouldn’t countenance the idea of them eating buffet-style), things had gone swimmingly.

Indeed they’d all become great friends. At the first meeting, and every other one for that matter, Michael and Denis had gazed at Laura in barely concealed admiration. They’d laughed at her jokes and flirted very mildly. They could hardly take their eyes off her. Trevor, rather smugly, had felt as pleased as Punch. They were actually admiring his girlfriend! Yes, his girl, who was certainly prettier than Doreen had been and a more attractive partner, he imagined, than Denis.

But the friendship hadn’t lasted. Trevor’s thoughts are drawn back to the first signs of strain, when the first cracks had appeared. It had begun with Denis. His constant rapt attention to Laura had grown after a few meetings to become a little too blatant, and Carol hadn’t failed to notice. Hardly surprisingly, she’d grown increasingly and equally obviously displeased. Her attitude to Laura shifted steadily from friendliness to hostility. Carol was no great beauty. No doubt she felt jealous and threatened. Perhaps she’d decided to get her retaliation in first, because when after a month of Sunday afternoons Denis failed to appear, she darted a venomous look at Laura and announced that she’d sent him packing. So the Sunday teas had rather fizzled out after that. Carol clearly didn’t want Laura in the house, so to avoid upset they’d gone to her folks instead, which was much less fun compared with the joshing jollity of before.

Then, although he’s tried to keep it safely submerged so many times, the black, black memory of the Calamity comes back. He knows now, with the easy wisdom of hindsight, that he should have seen it coming. Her interest had begun to wane. Increasingly she’d seemed to find him irritating; no fun to be with. She’d begun to find excuses for not coming out: flimsy ones like having to wash her hair. Then, to cap it all, Michael, trusted big brother, tall and good looking with his dark smouldering take-you-to-bed eyes and perfectly chiselled face, unlike Trevor’s with its unbanishable acne and imperfectly repaired harelip, had been spotted in a pub in a nearby town, far enough away to avoid detection (he’d obviously thought) with a ravishingly pretty little blond in tow. The little blond had been Laura. Trevor’s workmate Billy who’d made the discovery had seemed to take great delight in spilling the beans. Perhaps he was just envious of his good fortune; Billy, with his piggy eyes and knowing leer was certainly no Casanova with the girls himself.

Trevor sadly recalls going home that evening feeling physically sick; numb with disbelief. Remembers how, when his mother had finally winkled out of him the reason for his stricken pale-faced silence, he’d succumbed to impotent tears of rage and hurt, feeling utterly betrayed. How when Michael came in later she’d immediately, brooking no nonsense, rounded on him and demanded to know what the bloody hell he thought he was playing at? She wasn’t going to have her little boy, who’d drawn a shorter straw than his luckier brother in the lottery of good looks, hurt like this. Michael had tried denial at first of course, claiming that Billy must have been mistaken, until Mum had smacked his face, hard, and told him not to lie or there’d be more of that from his father when he got to hear about it. He wasn’t too big for a good thrashing if it was called for, God help her.

So in the end Michael had had to concede that it was true, but he hadn’t meant it to happen; it just had, and he was really sorry. He couldn’t help himself. To which Mum had snorted in derision and told him caustically that young men had no control nowadays. His national service had done him a fat lot of good. Trevor glumly pictures that scene now; his mother lambasting his brother for his selfishness and lack of decency whilst he himself sat mute and humiliated, reduced again to the level of a helpless child. When their dad had got in from his late shift and been told (Michael having waived dinner and made himself scarce down the pub) he’d been almost apoplectic with rage, and Carol had also hissed, ‘the bastard!’ and ‘the bitch!’ and given him a long sisterly hug when she heard.

He unhappily dredges up the memory of taking himself off to bed, evening meal untouched, sick of all the upset and feeling puny and rejected. Of creeping between the sheets, covering his head and sobbing in his desolation. Of course there’d been no question of Michael and him sharing a bedroom now. Mum had pointedly placed a pillow, blankets and sheets in a sort-this-out-yourself pile on the sofa for his return from the pub, and that had been his sleeping place until he’d packed his bags and moved out a few days later, now the family black sheep, to a flat above a bookie’s.

Trevor remembers how he hadn’t had the stomach or the confidence or the courage to seek Laura out and confront her. What would have been the point? It wasn’t in doubt that she’d betrayed him; thrown him over for a more attractive alternative – and his own brother at that. Just what had gone on though? Had she taken up with him in the first place as a way of getting at Michael later? Had Michael dropped Doreen in order to clear the decks and be ready to jump in when the opportunity arose, knowingly arrogantly that he’d be a much more desirable proposition?  He’d never know. But however it had happened, he’d lost her.

So he’d stopped going to the youth club and the coffee bar for fear of encountering her there, although he’d supposed that now she had Michael she’d be doing more grown-up things like going to the pub anyway. And whenever he’d been in town, trailing disconsolately around – not that there was any point in visiting the record shop and buying ballad-type records now – he’d always kept a sharp lookout for her, occasionally stopping short, heart pounding, ready to take cowardly evasive action at the glimpse of a blond head, although it always turned out to belong to someone else. Later he’d learned (from bloody Billy again) that she’d moved in with Michael, and later still that she’d moved out again. Good, he’d thought bitterly, one or the other of them had now been let down too.

But then Trevor’s memory stream surfaces from the stygian pool of remembered unhappiness; breaks through into the light. He recollects there being a couple more girlfriends in his teenage years, who had restored some pride, although neither of them had been worshipped as helplessly as Laura. He’d probably clammed up as far as new girlfriends were concerned; huddled behind a protective carapace, not allowing anyone fully in for fear of being hurt again.

Until now, that is. Now there’s Brigid. Lovely flame-haired, freckled, stocky, thick-ankled Brigid, with her cockles-of-your-heart-warming Derry accent and body every bit as soft and warm (which he now knows from wonderful experience) as Laura’s (which he’d only got as far as wistfully imagining). Brigid, with a smile never far from her lips and her left leg slightly shorter than its mate, so that she has to wear a rather clunky built-up shoe – either that or limp crazily – which rather limits her wardrobe of shoes. Brigid, named after the top Celtic deity who made the land fruitful and caused animals to multiply; who blessed poets and blacksmiths and whose compassion and skill in miracle working is revered in Ireland to this day, so they say.

Brigid, who appeared, like a miracle herself, ten days before Christmas, like the star in the east, to bring light into his world. Most people wouldn’t give her a second glance in the street, but to Trevor she’s beautiful.

And there’s something else. She absolutely loves Dream. She told him when they met that it was pretty much her favourite single of 1958, if not of all time. That had clinched the attraction. She makes no apology for being sentimental either. It’s because of being Irish, she confesses with a grin. Hearts worn on sleeves, and all that. He loves her for it.

He suddenly realizes that the record has finished and he’s missed it through being so lost in thought. So he puts it on to play again, and croons softly again, absorbing the words, now directing his thoughts only to Brigid.

In fact here she is now, entering the den, his domain, with its bookshelves and memorabilia, bringing a cup of tea and a plate holding a slice of Christmas cake and a slice of stollen. She puts them on the desk and places a somewhat arthritic seventy-nine-year-old hand on the nape of his eighty-year-old neck.

‘Sure you’ll wear that record right out if you play it much more, so you will,’ she murmurs.

Trevor glances up at her fondly. ‘Yes I know. It was hearing it the other night on that programme about hits of the fifties and seeing the Everlys again, with their smart suits and Brylcremed hair. They looked so young, didn’t they? Just boys. It took me right back – not that I was ever as good looking as them. I was just reliving the past.’

He pauses, a wry, wistful smile playing across his lips.

‘I was just dreaming.’

www.youtube.com/watch?v=tbU3zdAgiX8l

That sentimental little tale is one of the stories in my small anthology Another Spring, three of which (although not the Everly Brothers story) are converted chapters from my full length novels, just to give readers a taste of them. To find out more, click on the book cover images on this site.

Capture Another Spring blue paler

And here is the final instalment of my autobiography, Wishing for the Better.

Wishing for the Better/17 

That was the summer of 2009. I thought I couldn’t get any happier or feel any more fulfilled. But events were about to take another very unpleasant turn. In the August Sarah telephoned, sounding very low. Like her sister before her, she too had been diagnosed with breast cancer. It was devastating: just too cruel. It seemed that she’d been caught at an earlier stage than Jenny though, and was to have a mastectomy within days. The day after it was done I phoned, and she was already out of hospital. I went to visit her the following day. She looked remarkably well, as if she’d taken it in her stride. Thankfully, she had the support of Steph. After a few weeks she began chemotherapy. Now, writing this a year later, she’s taking a follow up cancer drug until early 2011 and another one for five years. She’s showing remarkable fortitude, as her sister did. My daughters shame/shamed me with their courage. Once again, it brings home the importance of families and things that really matter; it puts things in proper perspective.

One stays optimistic for a good outcome. You have to.

My present cottage in Wales

With the front and side of the cottage now done (the rear, which was less important, would simply be redecorated another time), I turned my attention back indoors. There was some more serious thinking to do about the rest of the interior. My book told me that croglloft cottages evolved out of simple single storey cabins with just one room, wherein the entire, probably large family lived, cooked, slept and did everything else, cheek by jowl. They must have been primitive hovels. In fact they were, because virtually none survive. One end may have been designated for sleeping but probably had no partition to separate it off, other than perhaps the backs of furniture, sides of box beds or perhaps a bit of drapery. If extra, separate sleeping quarters were needed a loft might be created by bridging a few planks across between the tops of the beds. Access ‘upstairs’ would be via a ladder.

Later more substantial cottages had a boarded partition creating a distinct sleeping ‘chamber’ and boasting a door for parental privacy, with most of the kids probably sleeping up in the loft. But usually only the sleeping end was lofted over. Later again someone realised that you could put a loft over the entire house to give more sleeping space for particularly large families, possibly separating boys and girls. Finally this reached its logical conclusion in the fully two-storey house, but that’s another story (so to speak).

I was fortunate in that my immediate neighbour, an elderly lady, knew my house from before it was modernised, because it used to be owned by her together with next door. She told me that it had the typical wooden partition separating the chamber on one side of the front door, but also one on its other side, creating a cross passage – another later development. In the passage stood a ladder for accessing the lofts (it was fully lofted). Again, I wish I could have seen it then, to try and assess whether that was the original layout of the house or an early ‘modernisation’. Original or not, those partitions had been mercilessly ripped out at the 95 modernisation. Now, there was a plasterboard wall on the living room side of the front door creating a rather small main room, with a stairs door (until I removed it) accessing the ridiculous, steep staircase. There was a silly little square entrance lobby inside the front door with Georgian-style doors (for goodness’s sake!) into the two rooms, and the staircase was boxed in, again with plasterboard. The result was an awkward tiny T-shaped chamber, and any semblance of the original house plan had disappeared. It was infuriating. How I hate modernisation!

There must be a way, I thought, to de-modernise and return the house to something like its former appearance, or at least give it something of the feeling of a croglloft cottage – given of course that I couldn’t realistically live in a house mostly open to the roof, with a tiny narrow ground floor bedroom with a loft over, and a ladder. It seemed sensible to return to the typical one-main-room-plus-smaller-one layout. That would give the maximum space to the sitting room. A boarded half-partition on the small-room side of the staircase would partially close off the new dining area, but it would be left open for the remainder to increase circulating space. If it were fully partitioned off it would be very narrow and cramped. In effect, the ground floor would be semi-open plan. The staircase would be open on the sitting room side, looking like the first step up the sophistication scale from a ladder, anyway.

So out came the plasterboard walls. Like my alteration outside, it seemed a little bit ruthless to wreck competent work, which this time had been done fairly recently, but on the other hand I would be doing what I  thought  right  rather than  simply doing what thehell I liked. But apart from the plasterboard, there was no waste. All the timber framing was kept and reused for the new partitions. I just had to buy simple 7 inch-wide plain softwood boards. They were nailed on the sitting room side of the framework with a slight gap to emphasise the fact that they were boards. The framework was left honestly exposed on the dining side to make it obvious that it was just a partition. There was one other authentic touch. According to my book, these simple cottages often had a further small screen, typically about three feet wide, by the door on the main-room side, described in earlier literature as there to ‘keep the draught away from the house-place in front of the hearth’ (wonderful archaic phrase).

Draughtiness wasn’t a consideration in my case. The front door wasn’t actually a door, was fully draught-free and insulated to boot. But it would be a nice little nod to authenticity. (There was local evidence of this device. Just outside the village there’s a roadside derelict cottage dated 1906. Although two storeyed it’s built to  just the same plan as Tanffynnon, with a large room on the left and a much smaller one on the right. It’s much more recent than mine, but still has a draught-beating short partition on the left and a full, boarded one on the right.) So the nasty faux-Georgian door into the pokey lobby became instead a house-place-protecting partition. It looked much nicer, and it was architecturally correct.

I’d now done away with most of the horrible surfaces: from the chimneybreast, the outer walls and the previous plasterboard partition walls. That just left the party wall (in reality next door’s gable end) and the awful artex between the Tudoresque ‘beams’ in the main room to skim over with smooth plaster. I did the same finishing in the bedrooms. I’d made one other change to the main bedroom. Now needing in my great age to make nocturnal bathroom visits, I installed a micro en-suite toilet, squeezing it into one corner and leaving, just about, enough space for the bed. Being underneath the roof slope, it had little headroom, but then that applied to the bedroom in general. It suited diminutive me. After all, it was probably the unacceptably low-ceilinged croglloft bedroom  that  was  the  reason  no  one  had  bought Tanffynnon before me and it was now mine.

That left the re-decoration. Before it had been pretty stark: white glossy paint on the horrible walls and cheap white doors contrasted with the black Gothick ceiling ‘beams’ and over-large dark red velvet curtains. It might have been someone’s conception of a period interior, but it certainly wasn’t mine. I thought about it. To some extent the colour scheme was now predetermined by the nice red brick chimneybreast. In the past I’d tended to go for really pale colours, to let the character of the room speak for itself. But this time I wanted to be a bit more positive, in a deliberately simple, pretty, cottagey way. Reading up on the subject told me that cottages were painted with lime-wash that was sometimes coloured with natural pigments, often the ‘raddle’ used for marking sheep. The outside of the house had indeed been pink, probably produced in just that way.

But although it would have worked well with the chimney-breast, pink isn’t my favourite colour. Another one often used was yellow ochre. You often see this used to pleasant effect as a masonry colour on houses. A purist like Gill who’d had Haulfryn before me would have said use traditional paint, but if I was honest I didn’t really like the ones she’d used there. They didn’t produce a nice flat opaque finish like modern emulsion paint. If I were talking about a very antique house where it would be important to be really fastidious about using traditional materials it would be quite a different matter.

So I compromised, and went for emulsion. Conservation issues apart, modern paints and mixing systems allow a huge colour choice. I chose a yellow ochre in matt finish, had five litres mixed and applied a first coat. It was all right, but a bit on the too-strong side. So I bought some plain white and toned the yellow down, noting the ratio of the two. It looked much nicer. Now I had to be careful doing the wood of the partitions. I’d decided to paint them in an eggshell version of the same colour, but now the yellow was a hybrid, created by me. I never make things easy for myself! Buying the same yellow and more white, I mixed the same paler version, and now all the walls looked really pleasing.

 

The next thing was to change the dark, oppressive ceiling. Apart from trying to evoke completely the wrong period in Gothicising the joists, it was the wrong tradition for simple houses, where cheap softwood joists were usually painted, or lime-washed, white. It took four coats of eggshell white to completely cover the dark stain, but it was worth it. The room looked much, much better, and much lighter as well. That left the woodwork of the staircase and the new, planked door and built in cupboards I’d made. I chose a neutral grey-but-slightly-green colour, in eggshell again, and it combined well with the yellow.

When new, correctly sized gingham curtains were at the windows and my small sofa, filthy from a lifetime of renovating places and springer spaniels, had been reupholstered in a harmonising (and Ellie-matching) brown and my pictures were on the walls, the final overall result was tremendously gratifying. I was really pleased. The opened-out ground floor looked so, so much better than before. Obviously, comparatively speaking it was far more luxurious than it would have been when first lived in, but I hoped that, although not original, it now had at least a suggestion of its first appearance, a slight ambience of authenticity.

As far as the old part was concerned, there just remained to paint the bedrooms and their new, planked doors. In its most important aspects, my final home was now finished.

Minolta DSC

It wasn’t just the interest in Tanffynnon as a building though. I also wanted to know its history. I knew about my immediate predecessors of course, and theirs, the English couple who had deceitfully bought it as a holiday retreat and then, pretending that it was their primary home, got a substantial grant to do the extending and modernising work in 1995 but never actually lived here full time. There’d been some resentment in the village, apparently. Quite rightly, too. I didn’t feel even slightly guilty about overturning their mistreatment, in more ways than one, of this cottage.

Locals have told me about their predecessors, a carpenter and builder and his wife who lived here renting it from the old ladies next door. He it was who rendered the front, and perhaps built the old kitchen and outside toilet, but didn’t make a doorway through the gable end so they could be accessed in comfort. Perhaps the ladies wouldn’t fund that radical an upgrade. There were no habitable loft bedrooms then: an elderly near neighbour remembers seeing the rustic underside of the old thatch, stitched with prickly gorse to deter rats.

I have a photographic record hanging on my wall of Tanffynnon in 1967. It’s frustratingly vague though. It’s an aerial shot, taken from the north and showing this cottage from the rear: squat, iron-roofed and with the lean-to service rooms. The garden is half way up the then-windowless back wall, so it was probably horribly damp (now there are French doors, a window, a log shed built by me and a retaining wall), but otherwise it looks much as it does today. I wish the aircraft had taken the shot from the south, and then the front of the house might have been in view. I spent an evening with Doris next door soon after I came. Unfortunately, bless her, she’s in her eighties and showing symptoms of dementia, and it’s difficult to glean reliable information from her. She thought she had old photos of Tanffynnon and we spent a long time going through hundreds, produced from old shoeboxes, but I didn’t spot any. It was very frustrating.

The only other history from the twentieth century I have is anecdotal again. Older villagers remember an old lady living here when they were children. Her living quarters were even more limited: she had her bed in the living room. They used to mercilessly tease her by rapping on her windows and running away before she came crossly out to shake her stick. Poor old girl.

Then I looked at census records. I hadn’t done genealogical research before, and it was quite a discovery. This is why I like the Internet so much. It’s a wonderful tool if you have an enquiring mind. I looked first at the 1911 census. There I found another old lady here, Mary Thomas, a former cook. She was then 82. The 1901 census told me she’d been here at least ten years before that. The 1891 count showed another elderly person, Owen Evans, 77, described as an agricultural  labourer  (not, you’ll notice, as a pensioner: there was no such concept then) and his wife Esther, 78. Presumably they both died in the next decade, to be replaced here by Mary, who’d previously lived nearby with her husband John.

Owen and Esther lived here for at least thirty years – although it could have been anything up to forty-eight or nine, if they came here soon after the 1851 census and were here for most of the decade up to 1901. In 1851 though they’ve yet to arrive, because they’re elsewhere, on a local farm. He’s 38, she 39 and they’ve two daughters at home. Almost certainly there had been other offspring, either now flown the nest or, quite possibly and sadly, dead. The greatest number of people of that family I could find living here was in 1861, when there was the two of them, an unmarried daughter, 21 and a son, 8 (described as ‘scholar’ and surely one of their last: Esther was now 49). And, intriguingly, a nine month-old grandson. Was he the unmarried daughter Jane’s child?

There’s no entry at all for Tanffynnon in the 1851 census – or, strangely, for Spring Gardens next door, to which, presumably, tenants in my house had been paying rent. I wonder what was happening then? In fact I couldn’t find any earlier reference to next-door than in 1861, which slightly challenges my theory that it existed first. It’s so frustrating, not knowing. There was though an entry for Tanffynnon in 1841, the first census when individual dwellings were enumerated. At least I presume it was mine. The name is written Tan y Fynnon, the fuller, more correct way of saying the three component words (Under the Spring). A Joseph Nash, gardener, 40, his wife Elizabeth, 35 and their three children were here then.

I wish I could be a time travelling fly on the wall and go back to those times. That would be really interesting; to see how my predecessors lived. It must often have been very hard for them, a hardship we can’t begin to imagine today. They must sometimes have had great sadness, but I hope they had laughter too.

I’ve described my attempts at writing, from my earliest childish efforts  through  to  my  hopelessly over-ambitious  final  thesis  at  college, my absurdly day-dreamy The Ascent of England, my prosaic occasional copy writing for my old job and my limited success writing for the dog magazine. I never managed to do it viably enough to earn even a small living and after the move to Haulfryn it petered out. After a year here, having thrown myself enthusiastically into transforming the house, I began to realise that I must slow down a bit. I’d run out of things to do. There would always be the garden to look after, but that wouldn’t fully fill my time. And I had other small non-house projects planned, like doing a montage picture of all my projects, perhaps doing a bit of calligraphy, doing a nice house sign (including the legend: Please use side door) and renovating my furniture.

The trouble was: these were all one-offs. Once they’re done, they’re done. What then? Daytime television? Not on your Nelly! I wanted to spend my remaining years with my brain engaged and interest stimulated, for as long as I could. There’s reading of course, and I love that, whether non-fiction on a subject that grabs my interest or the imaginative world of fiction. But I needed to do something proactive too. I couldn’t change the habits of a lifetime.

So, two years ago, the thought struck: why not write? And something really substantial and time-occupying, like a book? It wouldn’t matter if it didn’t sell (and it probably wouldn’t). It would be just for fun. But what should the subject be? There’s the old writer’s adage: ‘write what you know about’. Well, what I know most about, obviously, is me. I know that sounds disgracefully narcissistic, but I’ve led a fairly unusual and certainly eventful life. It might interest a few people. It sounded quite daunting though. It was one thing to write a brief article that was mainly a set of instructions for a dog magazine, or a fuller one for a walking periodical, but quite another to do a full-scale book. Could I possibly find that many words in me without having to endlessly repeat myself? Well, I’d give it a try.

I got out my laptop and made a start. The introduction was the most difficult part. It usually is in writing; you have to capture attention quickly, otherwise your potential reader will close the book, bored. I went over my first prologue chapter many times, chopping and changing, unsatisfied. Eventually I re-jigged it completely, moving parts from the front of the book to the conclusion. But once I was into the body of the book it came fairly easily, even the early part of the first chapter where I had to dredge up ancient memories. It became really enjoyable – nearly all of it, anyway. Remembering and reviewing my life became quite a nice therapy. I’d recommend it to anyone. I didn’t suppose for a moment that I was writing good literature – I’m not clever or well educated enough for that – but it didn’t really matter. I might not sell a single copy, but I was enjoying myself in quite a stimulating sort of way. It was also nice being able to call on my typographical training and, rather than simply type ‘copy’, format my typing and arrange pictures so that it looked like already printed pages – the content would have an aesthetic dimension as well (although, as I would discover later, this aesthetic niceness was rather pointless).

As I’ve said at the beginning, there was another reason to do this though. Leonard Cohen once wrote in a song, ‘I hope you’re keeping some kind of record’. Well, this is mine. I would have loved to know, from their own testimony, about my parents and ancestors, or my predecessors at Tanffynnon. If anyone years from now is vaguely interested in me and would like to learn about me from the proverbial horse’s mouth, here it is.

That’s almost all my story. Apart from the recreational, purely fun things mapped out above, there were still things still to do on the final Project, like face-lifting the kitchen and bathroom and garden endeavours like the pond and water feature*. But I won’t bore you with those. I’ve captured the essence of Tanffynnon, practically and in writing about it I hope, so I’ve now finished, almost, apart from a postscript.

*Actually I’ve abandoned those ideas in favour of a rockery and a terrace.

 

There is just one more job to mention though. One of my plans, germinated during the period of waiting in delicious anticipation before I moved here, was for a summerhouse. It would be a piece of sheer self-indulgent whimsy. I’d had the idea when looking at the chalet-type cottage before finding Tanffynnon: the one I would have done up in Tyrolean style with a nod to Hansel and Gretel. My plans to do an entire house like that had been thwarted, but I could do a smaller version. Backed into a corner of the lawned section of the garden and raised on a plinth, it could look out across the village. It would be just the job for alfresco activities like writing or painting, or even just sitting in happy contemplation.

So in the summer of 2010 I made it. It was a little challenging (so what’s new?), because to get it as far back into the corner as I could it had to be designed with the back corners cut off. That made constructing the framework for the walls and roof quite complicated. Also, for picturesqueness I wanted a gothic-arched window. The ty bach (little house – usually meaning an outside loo) was built on a plinth of masonry, with the walls made from horizontal feather boarding and stained dark green.

The large window in the front was a triumph of recycling. The central section was the window taken out of the kitchen and the outer parts were from the old side kitchen window, with new glazing bars. I made the arched top section myself. The barge-boards at the front were carved in the Tyrolean style (a neighbour commented that I should paint flowers on them. It’s a thought). The old front door went in one of the cut-off sides. All these items were painted a lighter green. The roof was slated. Inside, I fashioned a worktable from the door for the old, ridiculously tiny, built in wardrobe the main bedroom. It was all great fun: I was pleased with the end product.

I’m in there now, writing a last few pearls of wisdom to round off my saga. I hope you found it at least mildly interesting or entertaining. Gazing through the window with its whimsical Gothic top, I see my rose garden. Another year there might be a focal point, perhaps the Ellie sculpture. A wild hedge, rich with many species, which I only slightly trim and tame (things like ash and lilac I’ve allowed to grow unchecked), bounds the garden. The owner before me was an agricultural contractor specialising in work like hedge cutting (hacking?) and every year with insensitive abandon he slashed everything, no matter what, down to a militarily exact regulation height. It wasn’t my thing at all.

From my elevated position I can see over the hedge to the village square. Rather endearingly, the Welsh always call the centre of a settlement a ‘square’, even if it technically isn’t one. In Cwrtnewydd’s case it’s simply the junction of the two side streets with the main village street. Diagonally across the square I can see a nice building, the former Red Lion pub. In this strongly Welsh speaking area it ought to have been called Yr Llew Goch. I don’t know why it wasn’t. It’s a shame it didn’t survive as a pub. Apart from a nice old whitewashed former stables attached to the ex-pub, there are no other buildings in view. Just the green folded fields that tumble and cradle the village.

If I were higher I’d glimpse a longer view: the rumpled landscape stretching south eastwards to the bleak uplands of Brechfa Forest just a few miles away; and if higher still the misty magnificence of the Brecon Beacons: pale, tiny and much further off. When I take Ellie dog for her walkies at Brechfa I can see them from there.

So this is it: my retirement present from me to me. The crock of gold at the end of my personal rainbow. A small white Welsh cottage, a bwthyn gwyn, something sweet and precious and (to me) priceless to show for sixty-eight years on earth. Not everybody’s idea of a journey’s-end prize I know, but it does me very nicely, thank you.

They say that to travel is better than to arrive. The anticipation, the excitement as you approach the place of your dreams can be pretty good. But the destination can be wonderful too. It’s now three years since I came to beautiful Tanffynnon and I haven’t looked back once. I feel tremendously lucky to have found such a perfect final place. It’s taken a lifetime to realise it, but it’s all I really wanted, if truth be known. A delightful and unspoiled cottage in which to live out my days, that’s small but sufficient for Ellie and me; a potentially lovely garden with plenty of scope for creativity (it’s developing wonderfully) and the promise of, hopefully, many happy pottering-about days to come; and a tranquil, pretty village environment with nice neighbours in a remote backwater of a magnificent country.

What more could you wish for?

I suppose some would say ‘plenty’ – in quite a literal sense. They would equate success (whatever that means) and happiness with huge wealth. Think of the ‘lucky’ adjective always applied to Lottery winners, as if self-evidently so. The assumption, encouraged by Thatcher, Blair, Brown and now Cameron/Clegg that greed is OK. Call me eccentric if you like, but a life of striving for the better has left me concluding that ‘standard of living’ is about quality of life, not quantity of material goodies owned. I think psychologist Oliver James gets it right. In his thoughtful book Affluenza he suggests that the best things for happiness and well being are the intrinsic ones, such as a nice (but not necessarily luxurious) dwelling; a reasonable and secure income; a peaceful and beautiful environment that nourishes your spirit; and good, caring   human relationships with family and – Thatcher was wrong: there is such a thing – society at large.

And not forgetting of course, as we often do when we grumble about trivial things (and as my life has shown), reasonably good health for all concerned.  Nothing, certainly no amount of wealth, matters more than this. To put it in a nutshell: health and happiness. To paraphrase Lennon/McCartney, writing about love, that’s all we really need.        

So, finally, that’s it. End of story. In the end my geographical and other wanderings have led me to the place where I want to be, the situation I want to be in and the ownership (or stewardship: nothing is forever) of the things I find most precious.

And, as I said a few pages previously, in a final twist in the tail that I could never have imagined, I’ve ended up spending some of my time doing the sort of work, book production, that I shied away from when I was twenty-three but tried to get into later in life, with only limited success, on the writing side. Admittedly, it’s not to earn a living (which doesn’t matter now, although if you, dear reader, are someone other than a descendant, I’ve sold at least one copy!) It’s a way of making books that employs more than one skill (‘Jack of all trades, master of none’, that’s me): writing, typographic design, typesetting that’s a quantum leap different from the ‘hot metal’ setting by hand I used to do as an apprentice, photography, illustration, and the creation of some of the subjects I’ve written about. All the things I can do fairly well coming together. I may not do any of them brilliantly, but there’s a nice completeness in chronicling my Grand Scheme, and life in general, like this that’s supremely satisfying.

I’ve finally found the Holy Grail we all seek: that often-elusive sense of well-being. And finished with all the intrinsic things I need to flourish. I’ve found happiness.

To sound a bit smug, I suppose that’s not a bad life’s achievement. Perhaps it’s all I could really, reasonably, have aspired to.

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About wordsfromjohn

Once a printer, graphic designer, house renovator and landscape gardener, I'm now retired and a writer of books with a passion.
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