On a map it resembles the arms and hat of Merlin. It is a place where three rivers pour their hearts into the Irish sea which retreats and fills twice a day, the second highest tidal rise in the world. When absent, the waters leave miles of sunlit sandbanks and curious twists of rivulets, and a broiling horizon where the hungry waves wait to return.
There is a castle on the peninsula opposite the village, which ends in the iron age fort that witnessed the arrival of the Romans and the Vikings and then the Norman overlords. A humpbacked bridge marks one end of the village, with tinkling streams of freshwater where my father tickled trout. It has a fine Victorian school and a cliff-walk of aristocratic houses where once the villagers on the lower level doffed their caps and banked their pennies. An ugly but stately walled railway line runs from Paddington to the door of the station signal box, which is now a listed building, along with the secluded stationmaster’s house with its serrated wooden trim.
The station end of the village in summer during my childhood was still something of a resort. There was a fish and chip shop, at least two sweet shops, a paper shop, and a beach shop with colourful buckets and spades and inflatables hanging outside, and ice-cream for sale. Further along the beach, were terrifying swing boats and happy children building sand castles; or dogs to let loose, which would return covered in estuary mud. The village had at least five public houses, and years before, Dylan Thomas had supped at them all, when he had visited “to get messy.”
You can cross the tracks which once carried black steam trains screaming ever westwards, onto a beach where sinking beige sand falls steeply down to the river on which humble yachts and dinghies bob during the short months of summer. A few fishermen still hold licences, just as my forefathers did, to row up the estuary at low tide and practise the ancient art of Seine fishing, hoping for a catch of salmon; or they may walk out to the muddy banks and leave sticks and nets overnight to capture dabs, their lonely silhouettes casting shadows at dusk.
A fairy-tale round hill forms a barricade at the opposite end of the village from the humpbacked bridge. On summer evenings, when the sky turns cobalt and the powder blue and cotton clouds are up-lit by the falling sun, the semi-circular perfection of the hill has a spherical effect, so that one feels contained within a glass paperweight on a giant’s desk. The view from the top is especially beautiful in the sunshine when the tide is out and the sandbanks are streaked gold.
This is the Land of My Fathers. It is the only place I have ever had as a constant in my life. They say that the average person moves eight times, but I have moved at least thirty. Visiting for the first time at the age of two, I came to consciousness in this Welsh village. My Nanna had knitted me a matching red suit, complete with Noddy hat. I held my giant father’s hand, or was carried on his shoulders, a golden tunnel of light behind us, on our deserted beach. A brown and white spaniel supped thirstily on a puddle of seawater and was promptly sick. “He’s as sick as a dog,” said my dad.
I remember the small tragedies of a small person, such as when the round lollipop got stuck in the side of my too-small mouth. My grandmother eased it out, and then threw it onto the fire, much to my sorrow. I remember her pride in the rag rugs she made, the smell of Welsh cakes on the hob, and the way dinner was always ready at 1 pm, the thick mouth-watering gravy that she made from the meat dripping that she had cooked expertly and slowly on the Rayburn all morning.
There was the syrupy happiness of afternoon tea and a tin of peaches and cream; thinly cut white bread and butter for supper before the safety of sleep in the front bedroom. The sound of trains rushing through the night, and the fear that my grandmother’s stories of witches flying over the water were true, gave way to a magical awakening, the special excitement of knowing I was by the sea.
Stories of her life in an orphanage undoubtedly were true: jam for tea on Sundays; one brother killed down a mine; another losing a leg on the railways; a vague memory of her father in a red soldier’s uniform; the sister who lived at the other end of the village, and the story of how she met Evan.
Sara Jeffreys is hard to find in the earliest records as, even at five years old, she is recorded as “Daisy, a scholar” in Aberdare orphanage where her impoverished parents who moved between the mines of Somerset and Neath in the 1800s, had deposited her and her brothers and sisters, out of desperation.
Daisy was sent into Service in the village at the age of 13 in 1912. She had been found a place on the cliff, in a pink house with a Louisiana balcony. A man used to come and call, “Jeffries, Jeffries, come out here. I’ve got something for you,” and threaten her with a shotgun if she didn’t come and see what he had for her. There was no one to protect this young girl; with her rudimentary education, she had to make her way in life as best she could.
She moved to look after a Lady. The first time she had to make pastry, she made a hash of it and was terribly anxious. The Lady kindly sent the message back to her that it was the best pastry she had ever tasted. Daisy was happy in the large stone house nestling against the round hill. There was some connection with the big house built by General Picton who had died at Waterloo. Even now, its walls hung with wisteria, the bowered gate with the stone pineapples on the pillars, the original window frames and rocky garden, seem mysterious, leaving me longing to take a look inside and wonder where Daisy’s room was.
Sunday was her one precious day off, and the chance to go to church was the only leisure activity. A man, already 40, became friendly with Daisy. She was 19, a pretty girl with shining thick chestnut hair held up with tortoiseshell combs. He told her, on a low red bench at the base of the hill, that he was going off to sea again soon, being in the Merchant Navy. Daisy told him she was thinking of going back to Aberdare.
“Come to Oban with me.”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“We could get married.”
As simple and romantic as that. She went to Oban. She became Sarah Davies.
At this point in her story, an uncharacteristic deep, hard and bitter edge would alter her pretty Welsh voice, “But I wouldn’t do it again. There’s a life I had.” Evan was the second of five sons. He took his wife to the family home with its long garden allotment and underground well, and she was to look after his ailing parents for ten years: the hammering on the ceiling with the broom; her own children coming fast as well as this burden of angry relatives to wait upon; and a poor labourer, her husband, doing whatever work there was after World War One. What strength he must have had, the heavy ice breakers in Iceland during that War, a member of the Lifeboat well into his seventies.
But he was the second son, and the law of Primogeniture meant that when the old tyrants, my great grandparents, finally died, he was disinherited. His older brother, already father to ten children, moved to the cottage in its large grounds, and the only alternative for Daisy, who had poured her life into caring for her in-laws, was to swap with him and move to an old stone-mason’s workshop. “It was 1927,” my father, Daisy’s first born told me, “I can remember the old man now, banging his fist on the table, shouting, ‘I’m not living there!’ “
But Daisy was happy in the old stone workshop. It was the first place she could call her own. She brought up five children during the barefoot 1930s, where they shot rabbits in the dunes and sniped the occasional duck on the farmer’s pond. Daisy never went to the doctor. The children were born at home. She had a thousand home cures for ailments and minor injuries, and could cook a delicious meal from the most meagre of ingredients. She was known as Auntie Daisy to the village children for her kindness and sense of fun, despite her bitter, ageing husband who became more and more of a trial to her in his old age.
Daisy ran a sweet shop out of the front room in the 1930s, and continued long afterwards to sell pop which she kept in crates on a shelf in the front porch: Dandelion and Burdock, Raspberry, Orangeade or Lemonade. She was tireless in her enterprise, keeping lodgers during hard times, even though her house was already full.
Daisy was childishly curious about new things. She ran a catalogue and delighted in the free gifts she earned on commission: a frame for an iron that lived on the wall; nylon sheets; a golden tea trolley and a gilded cabinet to display knickknacks from exotic places. The first package tours abroad meant relatives brought exciting booty to the parlour cabinet: a Spanish doll, a ship in a bottle, a tiny Greek pot.
Daisy had some amazing objects for children to enjoy. She never threw anything away. There was a sort of mini ship’s wheel with a glass centre sandwiching plastic fluorescent fish, which could be plugged in to light up; there were glasses you could drink from, over and over, the green or red liquid disappearing as you tipped them up; a mug with a cat in front, whose tail would fall off “in an earthquake”; a jam pot from Devon, with a tiny spoon which went pleasingly through the lid that had a nick taken out of it. An alcove in the wall with shelves and a glass door housed the Toby jug and a weather man and lady. When the lady came out too often, signalling rain, then the strangely fascinating button box, was brought out; or we played dominoes, or draughts with Uncle Dai’s special set. These precious items were kept in the cupboard of the ugly dresser made from the wood salvaged from a shipwreck from which my grandfather had helped rescue sixteen people one stormy night in the 1920s.
The kitchen and back shed were veritable treasure troves: a rusting mousetrap with a row of cruel loops that could catch six mice at a time; many lathes and hammers and saws; a giant sieve for sieving the soil, or washing the cockles which were always spitting at you from the tin tub they were soaking in. Or you might watch the bloody task of the fish being cleaned, or be chased by the whisk as Daisy sang, “Ha ha ha,hee hee hee, I see a monkey up a rhubarb tree.”
When Daisy put on her hat and shoes and talked of the terror of old age and surveyed her bandy legs, she would take me up the village to collect her catalogue money. One night she took me to the bingo, where I won a full eighteen shillings and sixpence and was allowed to keep it. Once, we all walked arm in arm up the beach singing, “Ask your mother for sixpence to see the new giraffe, with pimples on his whiskers and pimples on his….ask your mother for sixpence…” We laughed and laughed.
Daisy would read your tea leaves, “You are going on a long journey,” and play and often win, Spot the Ball in the local paper. She whitewashed the garden walls and painted the upstairs sills from a high ladder. She could walk up the hill in Carmarthen at speed during old age, and went on her first flight when she was over 80. She kept the allotment across the road, and sewed her bank with orange Welsh poppies or taught me how to sew stocks for the summer. She especially loved gladioli.
I was newly married when she lay dying, and she said to my husband: “Who’s going to look after my house?”
Only when we tried to live there ourselves did I discover just how hard a life it had been, living in such a place. Sometimes the tide seems to rise right outside the window, the moon lighting a slow motion of dark undulation. Or in autumn, the last lights of the sun streak upwards in spangles of orange, turquoise and teal. Winter nights are the coal black of “Under Milkwood”, often locked in with howling wind and driving rain, which, during the day, continue in low brown clouds that puff past the window, making you draw the curtains and put the lights up high at noon. When the “nights above the dingle” are starry, the Perseid Showers flit down the frosty darkness, and the outline of the hills and castle form a safe silhouette. Sometimes the silence descends like a pall, after the lonely cries of the rooks are stilled and their shadows have settled on the woods above. In the Springtime as the daffodils, snowdrops and bluebells give way to summer’s foxgloves and wild orchids, myriad weeds inhabiting hedgerows that grow in tunnels over narrow lanes, the wind on the grasses in the churchyard overlooking the distant sea and light, Daisy seems to walk with me.
It is always a long and hard journey to return. The house hates being left to its spiders, cobwebs and centuries of dust, and greets you with damp and dirt, taking four days or so to settle once more around you like an old cardigan. Then I feel the solitude, and wonder what drives this attachment. But I still return to Daisy’s house, for when I walk alone on that beach, or with those who understand, we can feel that we are kings of the world. I have never found a more beautiful place, never seen elsewhere the special light on the sandbanks, never walked amongst such wild flowers, and always felt a strange magical loneliness in Daisy’s house, in the arms of Merlin.
Heather Gatley was born in Cyprus to British parents and has lived and worked all over the world as an English teacher. She has had poetry, prose and photographs published in Proximity Magazine, Scarlet Leaf Review, Ariel Chart, Centered on Taipei, the Carmarthen Journal and Memoirist. Her four chapbooks of poems, entitled “Indigo Sky”, “Tombs of Gold”“Last Boat to Brienzersee” and The Cliffs of Qingshui are available on Amazon.