Pen y Cae, October 1949
Dorothy met him in the Ancient Briton not far from the small village where each of them had ancestors. She had deferred her place at Wellesley College for a year in order to see Europe and her maternal grandmother had given her fifty dollars and a camera, a black and silver Leica in a tan leather case. Then she had extracted a promise; Dodo must go to Wales, must take photos of the old farm, the mountain, the church, the gravestones of the Thomas’s, the Craddocks, the Vaughans and Dandos.
Everyone stared at her when she entered the pub; she had the sense that she had barged into someone’s private living room, though the door had Public Bar engraved on its glass. She stood out amongst the local women in her crisp sky-blue slacks, crew-necked sweater and saddle shoes. They seemed mired in the mud and heather, the tree bark and tea stains by the colours of their clothes, all of them in skirts and worn looking winter coats and stout-looking dress shoes. Not that there were any women in the pub at midday.
He had approached her at once, handsome and smiling, making her feel welcome. He bought her a glass of warm beer. Then he had sung a haunting song in the language of his (and her) people. Everything had stopped in that moment, no one moved, no one touched their drink or spoke or lit the cigarette that dangled from their lips. All eyes were on the black-haired young man as he leaned almost jauntily on his stick and lifted his head and voice to heaven.
When she said it was time for her to go, he walked her outside and asked if he could kiss her. She understood that he had been in the war, that his leg had been damaged by shrapnel or gunshot or mine. She said yes because she was ashamed to say no.
‘Marry me!’ he said and she laughed and skipped away out of reach.
An hour later she was on the mountain faithfully taking the photos her grandmother had asked for when she fainted. A sheepdog and his master found her; otherwise she would surely have died. She was carried down the mountain on an old enamelled sign that advertised Buckley’s beer and woke in an itchy flannel nightgown that stank of old sweat. The farmer’s wife was smearing rancid foul smelling grease on her chest and throat. She was in a fever for six days remembering little except for a dreamlike procession of different visitors, a doctor, a nurse, a few small children, the farmer’s wife, the farmer himself and his dog, and the young wounded man with the pure singing voice. On the seventh day he came to see her and brought his mother and three sisters to meet her. They congratulated her and held her hand and kissed her. He spoke of their engagement and lifted her left hand to show off the gold and diamond ring she now wore. He had got the ring in France but failed to mention who he had bought it off or the dead hand it had been taken from.
As she lay there alone and exhausted she felt everything was drifting away from her; the water glass with its beaded linen cover, the walls of the room, the train that should have carried her to London, the boat to Calais, the Eiffel tower, Venice with its canals and gondolas, the Coliseum in Rome, the Parthenon, the Aegean sea, the olive groves, the brightly painted fishing boats, the dusty narrow streets that led to open squares with sparkling fountains. All were picture postcards blown out of her hands before she had a chance to send them.
Her marriage to a young Welsh war hero delighted everyone. She was back where she belonged. After the war it was the happy ending they had longed for. To go back on her word, to break her engagement was out of the question.
She married him, hoping for the best, but came to suffer him just as a soldier must suffer his wounds long after the battle had ended. Long after the wound was inflicted.
The Loire Valley, August 1958
Crossing the bridge our eyes were filled by the imposing presence of the chateau. Its towers and spires circled and chased by a murder of crows that swooped and cawed. I stopped to take a photograph while Thomas walked on, slowing his pace in deference to my dawdling ways. The weather which had promised fair when we drove towards the town now seemed on the brink of change. While one half of the sky was still blue and filled with high white clouds like those a child would draw, behind the chateau a great mass seemed to gather and brew, deep lilac grey and gun-metal blue. Heavy and ominous.
Perfect for a moody shot of the 13th century edifice, with the black pen strokes of the winged birds adding drama and interest to the scene.
I took several shots and adjusted the metering to be sure of a good exposure. Thomas was now 20 paces ahead of me and had walked into the shot. He wore his black gabardine coat and dark moleskin trousers and leaned, as he always did, to the right, his cane taking the weight of his body as he limped slowly forward. With his dark head turned towards the chateau only his bony wrist and strong hand showed white. I took another shot, this one including him in the composition, but this was no cheery familial snapshot such as a wife should take of her husband, him smiling at the camera with some tourist destination serving as backdrop and proof of their trip, but one which rendered him an ominous stranger, a black-clad cripple; priest, sinner or necromancer. Perfecting the graphic composition as artfully as if it had been sketched by Beardsley or Dore or Peake.
I had loaded the camera with a roll of 36 exposures and the dial showed 14 frames remained, but when I advanced the film it jammed. I increased the pressure with my thumb, but it did not give way. I knew I dare not force it as the film might snap.
‘Come on, Dodo! It’s going to rain,’ Thomas called and as he did I felt the first few drops of rain. One splashed on my hand. Warmish rain that my skin was almost insensible to. I closed the camera’s leather case and keeping the strap around my neck tucked it under my raincoat, then holding it securely between my hand and my body began to run after Thomas.
By the time I caught up with him the rain was torrential, Thomas’s hair was plastered to his head, and his glasses were washed by a moving film of water. We were still a good distance from the entrance to the chateau and the winding road that led steeply up to it was lined with small houses of differing age, but there was no shop or café where we might seek shelter.
‘Damn it!’ Thomas shouted, but I barely heard him so loud, so all consuming was the relentless pounding of the rain. The cobbled street had become a river and we seemed to wade through it as if for the sport of it. In this state, our shoes sodden and waterlogged, our clothes and hair drenched, everything wet through, there would be no chateau visit, no pleasant lunch on the square, nothing but a miserable retracing of our steps, a return to the small hotel and an afternoon amongst our dripping, steaming clothes and towels.
I was a few paces ahead of him and running blindly with my head bent forward, when a door to my left was abruptly pulled open and a beckoning arm urgently drew me in. I all but fell into the doorway and seconds later Thomas plunged in behind me, bumping against me and making me stagger forward into the room. I heard the door slam shut and then the noise of the storm was muted. It still lashed angrily against the window panes and roof, but it was powerless, a watery demon disarmed.
I sighed with relief and wiped my hand over my face and back over my hair, stemming the tide of liquid that ran down my forehead, into my eyes and poured off my nose and chin. It was only then that I took in the kind stranger who had opened her home to us. She was a tiny, ancient woman with fine white hair scraped back over a bony skull. Her back was hunched and her once ample bosom had sunk to a broad fleshy mound. She wore a shapeless frock that, because of her diminutive size, almost covered her ankles. Her surprising large feet had been pushed into a pair of worn sabots and grey lisle stockings drooped in rolls around her lower legs.
‘Merci Madame! Merci!’ Thomas said rapidly and with great warmth. She did not reply but nodded and gestured towards the old fashioned black stove that dominated the room. She opened the iron door and poked at the coals rousing them into fierce life, then turned her attention to me and partly by gesturing and partly tugging at one sleeve she encouraged me to take off my coat. There was a wooden airing rack over the stove and she unwound a rope to lower this, then draped my coat and Thomas’s over it. Next she pointed at our shoes and from a copper box produced sheets of newspaper which she pushed into our shoes before lining them up on the hearth.
I took my camera from my neck and finding that it was still dry I put it on the large table by the side of the fire.
Our socks and stockings were taken and wrung out over the hearth to sizzle and steam, then they too were draped over the airing rack.
Thomas let out a steady stream of thanks and elaborately formal expressions of flattery and gratitude in perfect though badly accented French. He was in the middle of such a speech when our host began to shoo him away from the fire and towards a very narrow and steep flight of wooden stairs. Up he limped, his naked feet almost soundless on the steps, while his walking stick played a slow tattoo, one, then one, then one. She followed and I heard the floorboards creak overhead, then a door creak and then the shuffle and slap as the old woman descended to turn her attentions to me. I was likewise shooed into another room, that I understood at once was the old woman’s bedchamber as there was a metal bedstead painted white and beside it a sturdy three legged stool by which means she must have climbed in and out, for the bed was very high and she was remarkably small. Shrunken by old age and bent by osteoporosis, she was the size of a child of nine or ten. Once more she tugged at my clothes encouraging me to remove them. She was right of course; they were soaked quite through even down to my underwear. While I peeled off my cardigan and blouse, she searched in a tall chiffonier until she found garments she deemed suitable for me and she draped these over the bed. As I stood there naked except for my brassiere and pants, her parting shot was to press a threadbare towel into my hands, then to mime, quite unnecessarily, the vigorous rubbing and tousling movements I should make to dry myself.
I suppose I might have found her manner overbearing, for she did not smile, nor show any expression of warmth, but gratitude and her great age combined with her almost doll like size quite disarmed me. It was as if Thomas and I were two orphans of the storm she had chosen to take under her wing. Or two stray dogs, one of them lame and almost blind, that she had found cowering and half-starved in the street.
I wriggled out of my underwear, then rubbed myself dry and wrapped the towel around my head in a turban. I looked at the clothes she’d laid out for me, eggshell blue camiknickers and a matching suspender belt made from silk with a trim of white lace, seamed stockings and black satin shoes with an ankle strap. Finally there was a lavender grey dress of crepe de chine that fell from the shoulders to the waistband in soft folds, while the skirt, as it had been cut on the bias, skimmed over the hips and fell in flowing airy flutes to just above the knee.
They were none of them garments I would have chosen to put on, being given more to practical skirts or slacks, to cotton blouses and aertex shirts, but once I had them on I could not help but examine my reflection in the looking glass. My skin, it seemed, had done well by its dowsing with rain water and looked soft and translucent. The dress was a very good fit, indeed it might have been made for me.
I rubbed my hair and found that the rain had brought out both the natural wave and a new glossy sheen. If I had ever wished for such a transformation or attempted one I never, in my wildest dreams, could have imagined the creature who now stood before me. I was (and perhaps it was the dim but electrified light that crept through the shutters, the antique glass in the mirror, the curious and transformative strangeness of the day’s events) quite beautiful.
I gathered my wet things from the floor and went back into the room where the stove was. There was no sign of either Thomas or the old woman, so I busied myself by hanging my clothes on the rack, then when that was done I began to look with interest at the room itself and all it contained. Like many of the houses near the chateau this one was of a great age and the room was low ceilinged with roughly hewn smoke-darkened beams that here and there showed the wooden pegs used to drive them together and the marks of the tools that had made them. A great cauldron hung on a chain near the fire and the rafters were here and there festooned with bunches of drying herbs: bay and rosemary and lavender. In one corner a brownish side of bacon hung from a sharp hook and nearby some other object, black and crusted with age, also hung, though whether it was a truffle or dead mouse I could not tell. I only hoped that we would not be invited to eat it.
On the table next to my camera, there was a cracked earthenware bowl containing three hen’s eggs. Beside it on a newspaper were six yellow tomatoes and a small cucumber with a skin as warty as a toad’s. Then there was a bread board, a long knife with a striated bone handle and the heel of a baguette.
The floor was tiled in deep red and dipped in shallow troughs where many generations of feet had worn it down.
It seemed that time had stood still in this house for three perhaps four centuries. I looked ruefully at my camera and willed it not to be broken, then as there was still no sign of either Thomas or the old woman, I drew up one of the chairs, sat at the table and took the camera out of its case. I tried the lever to advance the film once more but it would not budge, then rather regretting the waste of unexposed film I pressed the button under the camera which released the locking mechanism and began to rewind the film onto the spool in the canister. If I was quick I could reload more film and get a few shots of this unique interior and if I was allowed a number of pictures of our ancient host too.
As a rule once the button is pressed the film winds easily and quickly back into the metal casing, but as I turned the knob I met with more and more resistance until I found I could not move it in either direction at all. Opening the back of the camera would mean ruining any or all of the frames I had taken that day. So unless I could find a darkroom, I would be without the camera for the rest of the trip. If it hadn’t been for the frames I had taken of the chateau with the storm clouds behind and the circling crows and that last one when Thomas had stepped into the frame, I would have sacrificed the one roll of film for the sake of the many I planned to take.
I was agonising over my dilemma when I heard a step and then another on the stair. Slowly and irregularly at first, then it seemed to gather pace and gained the steady rhythm of one step after another, each the perfect echo of the one before and far too spritely I thought for either the old woman or Thomas.
The rain had begun to lose its intensity and now it stopped abruptly, making me as acutely aware of the swelling silence as if my ears had popped.
I turned and there was Thomas dressed more or less in the sort of clothes he usually wore, a white shirt, dark trousers, a jacket, but there was something distinctly different about them. The trousers were fuller and had pleats and turn ups, the jacket was far broader and also padded in the shoulder exaggerating his masculine form. His hair like mine seemed altered; it was combed back from the brow and shone as if he had dressed it with hair oil. But strangest of all was that he was standing up straight with his weight evenly distributed on both legs. He still held his cane but in such a way that it seemed a mere affectation, an accessory with no function besides its silver tip and ivory handle.
‘Where’s the old dear?’
‘And what are you wearing? You look like a…’
I never discovered what I looked like to him at that moment, as the woman suddenly reappeared from the back room carrying a tray.
She fussed silently with three deep bowls, each of them cracked and stained, putting them on the table and laying beside them mismatched soup spoons. From the oven she brought a small crock pot. It was glazed white and crudely painted in blue with rustic scenes that by the costumes of the shepherd and his maid must have been 18th century.
She beckoned us to the table and we sat, catching each other’s eye as if to see if it was okay, if we should obey our host and eat with her. Thomas would have been all too aware of my American scruples in regard to hygiene. I tried to avoid looking too closely at the many chips and fissures in the crockery and did not let my mind dwell on the centuries of grime and fragments of food and germs they must contain.
She lifted the lid from the pot and inside we saw a thin yellowish broth, the steam carried to our nostrils a sweet garlicky smell. With a ladle she filled each of our bowls in turn. Thin strands of vermicelli slopped like white worms into the bowls and tiny green flacks floated on the oily surface.
‘Bon appetite!’ cried Thomas, all false conviviality, then he raised his spoon to his open mouth, clacking the metal against his teeth. The old woman picked up her bowl in both hands and held it by her gnarled fingertips as a diamond is held by the ring’s claws.
‘Goddamnit,’ I thought, narrowing my eyes at my husband. ‘I’ll show you,’ and I picked up my bowl, turning it in my fingers so that my lips should not come into direct contact with any of the chips and I drank. Oh yes, I drank noisily and heartily and the old woman nodded at me in encouragement and ladled more soup into my bowl. I tipped my head back and let the fine threads of pasta slither into my mouth.
You can keep your Nathan’s Hot Dogs. Your New York Strip, your Southern Chowder, I thought, I will eat only this. In this simple kitchen. Cooked by Mama.
I looked up and saw that Thomas was staring at me. He had stopped eating and laid aside his spoon. Defiantly I drank the last dregs, put down my bowl and, aware that a film of grease coated my mouth and chin, I drew the back of my hand over it, wiping it clean.
The light in the room suddenly changed, a warm golden glow spreading from the windows and across the floor, making the old woman’s face lose its dull grey pallor. Her cheeks seemed fuller, pinker and though still lined by age, she seemed to shed many weary years. She smiled indulgently at me and I melted under her benevolent gaze, held fixedly in her twinkling grey-blue eyes.
Thomas stood up abruptly and began removing his clothes from the drying rack. His cane, I noticed, was abandoned, hooked over the back of his chair. I wondered why he had ever bothered with it; his injured lag had healed long ago.
‘They’re just about dry,’ he said. ‘And the sun’s come out!’
He made two roughly folded piles of clothing and brought mine to me at the table. I shook my head and barely glanced at them. Angrily he put them on the table, the plain white cotton undergarments uppermost. They were like something a child would wear and I was no longer a child.
‘Dodo,’ he said. ‘It’s time we left!’
I looked up at him; he’d run his hand through his hair so that it no longer lay flat and glossy but fell in a short dry-looking fringe over his forehead. He looks like a foreigner, I thought, like one of those Tommy boys from England or worse, those dough boy Yanks.
He rolled his eyes then gathered up his clothes and stomped up the stairs. I listened to the creak of the floorboards overhead, the sounds were interspersed with other noises, the regular tick, tick, tick of the mantle clock, the muted crack and whispered collapse of the coals shifting in the fire.
I sighed and smiled happily at Mama. It was good to be home. She went to the cupboard in the wall by the stove and brought two small glasses and the bottle of eaux-de-vie. She filled the glasses to the brim and we each dipped our heads to take the first sip before the drink was lifted to the lips.
I gave a little shudder at the first swallow as I had always done as a young girl. I closed my eyes and sat back in the chair, running my tongue over my lips savouring the fiery sweetness of the digestif. It was pleasantly warm in the room and peaceful. I dozed off for a couple of minutes, no more, and dreamt that I was a bird. I didn’t know what sort of bird I was, but I was soaring on a thermal with my wings outstretched, my feathers stirring and fluttering in the wind. I seemed to have no weight, it was effortless and it was happiness such as I had never known before.
I did not wish to ever leave that dream, but a hand was shaking me awake and there was Thomas, dressed in his own clothes again.
The old woman had moved to an armchair by the fire where she slept, her mouth hanging open slightly, her chin sagging on her chest.
Thomas led me to the door, tugging gently at my hand as I gazed at the old woman and hung back like a recalcitrant child. Then we were outside on the street once more and Thomas slammed the door behind us decisively.
‘You look ridiculous, you know,’ he said in a hiss. ‘Here are your things.’ He pushed a brown paper parcel into my arms. ‘It goes without saying that you have shocked me. How could you drink that dishwater she served us? I thought you’d have the good sense to pretend like I did. And as for that liquor! My god, you’re quite drunk, aren’t you?’
He set off up the steep hill towards the entrance to the chateau again. He was carrying his cane tucked under one arm and striding ahead. I ran a few paces to catch up with him, but my head was reeling, and the shoes I wore might have done justice to walking, but running uphill half drunk in the blazing heat and light of mid-afternoon?
A small truck came rattling round the bend and I saw the driver’s eye follow me, turning his head to pucker his lips as he let out a shrill whistle of approval.
Thomas had rounded the bend and by the time I caught up he was entering the carved archway that led into the chateau. I followed and found myself at the foot of a broad spiral staircase. I paused a moment listening to distant echoing steps going up, further and further away from me. I must have gone up forty or so steps, when I stopped, opened the package, retrieved my walking shoes and slipped them on. My head was clearing; I felt energised and so I began to move faster. The dress brushed against my legs and the rubber soled shoes gave grace and accuracy to my fast moving feet. Up and up I went, stopping once to gaze out of a narrow window to the cobbled courtyard far below where other visitors milled about in pairs and groups. One man stood just below me, a camera aimed upwards, obscuring his face. Where was my camera? Thomas had dragged me away so suddenly I had not even thought of it. I threw myself at the stairs again, running, taking two, then three steps at a time. Surely he would have picked the camera up for me. It had been there on the table near his elbow. He knew what it meant to me!
I reached the top of the stairs. They ended in a circular well in which there was only one door. A wooden door that was banded with black iron and scarred all over from bottom to top with carved signatures, many of which were dated. I saw the year 1668 swing away from my gaze as I pushed the door open. A clear fresh wind hit me, tossing my hair and rippling through my dress. Ahead of me was a narrow walkway that led from one tower to the next. On one side was a crenelated wall, on the other side nothing but a sheer drop. Thomas stood halfway, he had the camera in his hands and was leaning forward slightly from the waist aiming the lens at the courtyard. I watched him for a moment with relief, thankful that he had remembered the camera. Then I realised that any shots he took would ruin my pictures by producing double exposures!
‘Thomas!’ I called. ‘Don’t!’
He turned sharply at the sound of my voice and his walking stick, which he had tucked under his arm, clattered onto the walkway, then half rolled, half bounced over the edge. He lunged sideways, his hand clawing helplessly for the cane, then his injured leg buckled and, both arms flailing, he pitched forward over the edge.
There was nothing slow or magnificent about his descent, it was nothing like flying. When he landed there was a noise that I will never forget. A woman screamed, but it seemed very far away. I don’t think it was me.
I stood there blinking for a moment, hardly believing what had happened. I could not take it in. I stared at the place where he had stood as if willing what I saw to develop fully just I watched images appear in the developing fluid in the darkroom. Then my eyes went to the ground where his feet had been. There was my camera, the case half open, the neck strap making a looped whorl. It had landed on its back, the delicate glass lens uppermost. Unbroken.
Jo Mazelis is the author of short stories, non-fiction and poetry. Her collection of stories, Diving Girls (Parthian), was short-listed for the Commonwealth ‘Best First Book’ and Wales Book of the Year. Her second book, Circle Games(Parthian), was long-listed for Wales Book of the Year. Her stories and poetry have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in various anthologies and magazines, and translated into Danish. Significance is her debut novel, and is a 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize-winner. Her latest book is a collection of short stories, Ritual, 1969.