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Back in August I drove over to lovely Llangollen to my parents’ flat-by-the-river and took my quickly-growing nieces, Christina and Isabella, to watch my Aunty Brenda performing with her musical group ‘Wrexham Singing Hands’; this group perform a wide variety of songs – interpreting them through the natural language of the Deaf Community: British Sign Language (BSL). We found them setting up on the steps outside Y Capel (Llangollen Library and Tourist Centre), all wearing their smart black t-shirts with embossed logo.

There was a slightly melancholy mood at first as a photo of founding member Malcolm Vaughan, of Plas Madoc, was attached to the nearby pillar, in memory of their dear friend who had tragically passed away just days before. However the mood soon picked up as the group recalled his fun-loving nature and they prepared to perform some of his favourite songs, including Erasure’s ‘A little respect’.

The group was formed in June 2010 by members of Wrexham Deaf Club and is led by the club’s secretary, Claire Hawkins, supported by Jo Jones, who is a committee member. The group play music through an amplifier and Claire, who began signing in 2007, interprets the lyrics into sign language and the rest of the group follow her lead. When asked how the idea for the group had come about, Claire commented: “Jo and I did a few songs a few years ago when we were learning our level 2; we were approached by a lady from Deaf Access Cymru and we did a charity event with them. Following this we formally established the group and went on to buy the T-shirts”.

One of the things I noticed was how varied the musical set was – for example, I was delighted with Elvis’ ‘Return to sender’ and couldn’t help but sway to Tom Jones’ ‘It’s not unusual’; meanwhile, my on-trend nieces were more impressed with songs by contemporary artists such as Katie Perry – in fact later in the day, Katie’s ‘Fireworks’ song was requested by a group of children who had been stood watching the performance.

Explaining how the set is put together, Claire commented: “Basically, I choose the songs and do a quick version of it in sign and see what the others think. I find it easier when I know the song or really like the song as it’s me that people follow, so as long as I know the song, it’s not too bad! So the more I like a song the better. I do like to mix it up though with some old songs for the older generation and some up-to-date songs for the younger listener/watchers. I try and mix up the style of songs too; we used to do the song ‘Poison’ for a bit of rock, but some members went off it and so it has been dropped from the set!”

Another thing I noticed was how quickly it was possible to pick up the signs after watching the songs a couple of times through…which led to me actually joining in later in the day (to my great surprise and delight), with my favourite song to sign being ‘Gold’ by Spandau Ballet, with the title word being the most dramatic and fun (two clenched fists hitting together, followed by the hands separating and opening up). I certainly picked up some BSL that day – and in a way which will help me remember the signs long-term because they were in the context of song lyrics with which I am familiar.

We were also joined in the afternoon by a passer-by who had studied sign language many years ago – it really was quite thrilling, if a little daunting, when we noticed how many people had stopped to watch us. Reflecting on my stage-fright, I asked Aunty Brenda if she got nervous before a performance and she said that she had been nervous before her first performance, especially since this had been the first time she had been involved in a performance of any kind, but that after the first time she had been fine.

Reflecting on what being a member of the group meant to her, Aunty Brenda explained that she had always been interested in music and had observed friends listening to music, sometimes wishing that she could listen to it herself, but was unable to hear the music. However she is able to experience music as vibrations through a wooden floor (although not through a hard floor) and had previously enjoyed reading song lyrics; so two years ago, when Claire asked members of Deaf Club if they would like to form a sign singing group, she had happily joined in.

When I asked her what she enjoyed the most about being a member of the group, Aunty Brenda explained that her late mother (my paternal grandmother) Alwen Jones, had always been in the Church Choir, and so this made being a member of the sign-singing group extra special. For some reason this hadn’t occurred to me and it brought tears to my eyes remembering how much ‘Nain’ loved to sing, and how she had taught me so many Welsh folk songs when I was little, including my favourite: ‘Mynydd Aberdyfi’ (to which she knew all the versus). I am sure that Nain, and my grandfather, Glyn, who was conductor of ‘Rhos Silver Prize Band’, are watching my Aunty with interest and pride – I know I certainly am!

On a lighter note, Aunty Brenda commented that she very much enjoyed travelling with the group and that her favourite song to perform is ‘Dancing Queen’ – which I have to say was also one of my favourites, especially since it contains the sign for ‘dancing’ which involves the index and second finger of both hands ‘jitter-bugging’ in alternate motions (at least that’s how I remember it in layman/ learner terms!)

When I asked Aunty Brenda what her hopes were for the group in the future, she replied that she would like to see more new members joining in so that everyone could enjoy sign-singing together. This was a sentiment echoed by Claire, who is keen to share the experience of the sign-singing with a wide audience; she commented: “Anybody can join, young, old, learning BSL, fluent in BSL, or just interested in BSL. Children can join but must always be accompanied by an adult”. Anyone interested in joining can call or text Claire on: 07761818396.

Reflecting on what she enjoyed most about her involvement with the group, Claire’s passion and enthusiasm were evident and I was fascinated by her thought-provoking comments: “I enjoy it that the deaf members enjoy it, because they can’t hear the music they can only possibly feel the beat if the bass is up high. But with the movement of the sign they can get an idea about how the word is being sung (whether it’s being sung in a long note or on a faster beat) because I try and elongate the sign if the word is being sung for a long time etc. Plus the deaf members get to understand the ‘story’ behind the songs too”.

When I asked Claire about her hopes and plans for the future of the group, she replied: “that’s a hard question really… do I want us to go on and be famous? Or do I want the group to become big with more members? I’m not sure to be honest… as long as everyone is enjoying it and want to continue, I’m happy to carry on; It’s when people can’t be bothered to turn up for practices or to the performances, that’s when I’ll give up. If it helps also to raise money for Wrexham Deaf Club so they can reach one or some of their dreams then I’m happy to help”.

The group have given performances at Deaf charity and Deaf awareness events for Flintshire Deaf Children’s Society and are planning some more performances at St Giles Church later this year (currently pencilled in for the 17th of November and the 13th of December). Anyone interested in attending these events can keep an eye out for confirmed dates on the Wrexham Deaf Club Facebook page.

This article was originally written for my column ‘Synfyfyrion llenyddol’ in the Welsh-language community newspaper Y Clawdd.

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I awoke just in time to witness the final stages of the transaction taking place a few inches from my nose; the too-cheerful air steward took the euros from the kindly gentleman next to me and handed him his extortionately priced coffee. The unfolding scene had shaken me from my dream and I felt too jumpy to slide back to sleep with any ease, so I dragged my heavy head forward and shifted my lower back to match the contours of the seat; I checked my watch: 5.55pm, so I’d slept another half an hour away of this torturous two and a half hour flight in my cheap, last-minute seat on this budget airline.

Looking around I realised it wasn’t actually that bad; the seats were sensibly spaced, appeared to be made of leather and were reasonably comfortable – beyond that I didn’t really have many expectations of plane journeys anyway. I decided I would treat myself by making a start on reading my new novel – that should help while away the next forty minutes or so before we landed and my post-thesis holiday could begin.

I reached into my bag and carefully brought out my exclusive, not-out-in-the-shops-yet and not-for-resale copy of Mari Strachan’s ‘Blow on a dead man’s embers’. I slowly undid the knot in the red bandana that I had lovingly wrapped around it to protect it from being scratched or bent in my ‘cabin-baggage’, and sat smugly savouring every detail of the cover. This book wouldn’t be available for another two months but she’d had her publishers send me a copy because I’d based one of my literature columns on her debut novel. Needless to say, I was very pleased with myself indeed.

I was just about to start reading when I got the feeling that I was being watched. I looked up, and then across to the right, where there sat a rather astonished-looking  baby, who had obviously been observing the peculiar book-unwrapping ritual with some interest. Upon meeting my gaze however his astonished look was replaced by quite a cool, grown-up expression:

“Seriously lady”  he seemed to be saying.

Just what are you doing with that there book?!”

I smiled sweetly at him and found myself making those annoying baby faces, complete with ridiculously over-pronounced baby talk; he promptly lost interest and turned his attention to the plastic spoon on the table in front of him. I returned my attention back to the book before me.

Then for about twenty glorious minutes I was whisked back in time to 1920s Mid-Wales, where I befriended Non Davies, a simple rural girl like myself (well I am at heart anyway); we sat in her kitchen together, observing her husband Davey ghosting scenes from the war as we tried to unravel the mystery surrounding his disturbing behaviour. But inevitably my escape was abruptly terminated by the endless announcements which always precede landing. So I rewrapped the book, flipped up the table and began planning my ‘holiday’ with military precision.

Retrieving my luggage from the carousel was surprisingly palaver-free and I walked through the arrivals doors to find my parents watching each person intently, their facial expressions a mixture of anxiety and hopefulness…quickly replaced by relief and delight upon seeing me…presumably because this confirmed that I had, in fact, caught the correct plane from John Lennon and thus had not buffooned my way onto a flight to Timbuktu…or somewhere equally as unhelpful.

As I drew closer their expressions altered again and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at first – was it alarm? Horror? Concern? Ah, of course, they’d been out here four months or so already, so they hadn’t witnessed my transformation from wearing-well-thirty-something-cutie, to pale, puffy-faced, strained, post-thesis-burned-out-husk. Looking down I also noted that I was sloppily dressed in my used-to-be-baggy-jeans (now decidedly snug) and oversized-ancient-cardie, rounded off with some battered old flip flops and un-ironed, uninspiring, white Gap t-shirt; my slightly greasy, flat hair completed the look. Hmm, adorable…not. I really needed to get myself back on track.

Mercifully, I slept through most of the drive back to Playa Flamenca, with my Dad at the helm since he’s the only one in the family who has thus far mastered driving on the right hand side of the road. I was a bit dubious when my Mum told me she had made quiche for dinner, since shop-bought quiche is always soggy and tasteless; but it turned out that her latest creation was more of a four-cheese pie kind of a deal, with a delicious savoury version of her legendary pastai fale pastry – even the accompanying salad was made palatable in its wake.

The evening was long and pleasant; the sun kept shining and we kept talking…well it was mostly me talking really, firing my well-rehearsed monologue at them about my future plans for cracking into academia; plans which involved lots of additional, self-paid-for courses, highly competitive research grant applications (with slim chances of success) and numerous applications for research posts (again highly competitive, with slim chances for success). They listened, they nodded, and they sympathised; but really I couldn’t even convince myself to hold out much hope that my efforts would lead to a state of sensible, stable solvency – at least not for a good few years yet anyway.

Back when I’d been offered the funded PhD, we had all been convinced that I’d ‘made it’ and was now destined for a successful, lucrative career…well, at least a job that would pay the bills whilst also being interesting; but five years later and we’d all come to regard the path I’d selected as being more of an expensive, all-consuming hobby, which had left me swimming in debt and bitterly disillusioned. I lay awake for hours that night, as the realisation of my precarious predicament kicked in: what on earth was I going to do if I couldn’t now forge a career in academia – after all this life I’d frittered away chasing the dream?

For the next couple of days I stormed about, sticking to a strict schedule: need to lose weight so I’ll go to the pool; my parents watched in wonder as I charged through the gate and down the lane…whilst they continued with their leisurely breakfast in the sun. Next on my list was a visit to the Saturday morning market; reflecting on this now I’m having trouble identifying why this seemed so important – was this me allocating myself some ‘scheduled relaxation’? Or perhaps this came under ‘cultural appreciation and enrichment’? In any case, I visited the market…where I promptly huffed about, growing increasingly bitter at not being able to afford any of the fabulous knitwear or the pretty little white blouses and dresses with lace detail and colourful, embroidered flowers.

The turning point, which tipped the balance in favour of this being a ‘holiday‘ rather than a ‘mission’, really came when I decided that a tan would help rid me of my pinched, ”morlock-like’ complexion. So off to the beach I went, heavily laden with all the ‘kit’ I had decided were essential: towels, chair, three different sorts of suntan cream, a parasol in case the sun was too fierce, belly-board for some tummy-toning activity when cooling off in the sea became necessary. Basically I was seeing everything as ‘work’ – even a simple trip to the beach or market!

Having set up in an appropriate spot, smothered myself in factor 50 (I burn horribly through anything less) and gotten through the annoying procedure of re-donning shorts and flip flops to fetch the key from the bar-hut to visit the ladies…and having climbed the steps to the top of the cliff to where some bright spark had decided was a good place to put the beach-toilets…I was returning the key when I noticed the sign for ‘sandwich nata’. This conjured up memories of family holidays in Ibiza, when I had spent almost every waking hour in the pool, punctuated by visits to the snack bar for cheese toasties and the aforementioned ice-cream-biscuit.

                   I allowed myself a smile – just a little one mind, remembering how impish I was back then, how much delight I found in each new experience…the complete opposite in fact of my current temperament. I checked my purse – ten Euros, enough for a sandwich nata…and just enough for a mojito even…but I wasn’t here to enjoy myself…or was I?

This kind of ridiculous navel gazing went on for about five minutes until the bargirl snapped me out of it by reaching for the key from my hand and replacing it on the hook above the bar; she nodded to me and I found myself blurting out the imagined order in my text-book-sentence-Spanish before she had chance to turn away. Looking slightly startled, and perhaps slightly irritated at the thought of having to ‘muddle-the-mint’, she smiled at me pityingly and I realised I must be frowning and staring intently again…I loosened my grimace and touched the deep crease between my eyebrows; new mission: relax and fit in.

A few minutes later I was back in my low-swung beach chair, sandwich nata in one hand, fully-muddled-mojito in the other. As the sun beat down on my carefully-placed sunhat, I took a few bites of my ice-cream-biscuit and sipped my mojito. Around the third, long sip I began to truly relax; I didn’t have to be anywhere today, or tomorrow even. As long as I kept a look out for decent research opportunities – which was now possible from the house thanks to the nice people from Olé having installed the home-hub last week – I was surely entitled to relax a little, do things just because I wanted to, rather than because they fitted into some big plan or other – wasn’t I?

I returned from the beach feeling newly optimistic. I took a long, refreshing shower, put on a pretty little blue, flowery, loose-fitting, cotton dress from Joe Brown’s and headed for the kitchen, where to my pleasant surprise I discovered at least half of last night’s four-cheese-quiche under a strategically-placed dish-towel. I carved myself a hearty piece, brewed a pot of tea and sat happily daydreaming whilst enjoying the divine pastry.

I poured a second cup of tea and headed for the sun lounger on the patio in front of the house, taking my bandana-clad novel with me. The novel soon sucked me back through the vortex of time and space, and soon I was accompanying Non on her daring adventure to track down the woman who had apparently stolen her husband’s heart and was somehow tied up in the mystery that kept Davy locked in an imaginary battle; would she confront her? Would she find the answers she was seeking? It was all very exciting.

An hour or so later my parents returned from Mercadona, hulking numerous bags of tasty treats, including the just-so-much-nicer-than-home, full fat milk (it has a pleasant ‘nutty’ flavour). I rewrapped the novel and helped them unpack. Over the next couple of days I pretty much followed this pattern of beach or pool, then preparing and eating lunch, followed by reading my novel – which I decided was perfectly valid since I was going to base my next ‘Synfyfyrion llenyddol’ column on the ‘genre-of-the-seedy-underbelly’, with Mari’s novel at the heart of it. In the evenings I was mostly occupied with checking my emails and trawling for research jobs.

One afternoon, I arrived at a crucial bit of the story; it was tense, then, Davey finally revealed the dark secret at the heart of the unravelling mystery…I won’t write it here as it’s a spoiler, but suffice to say it was pretty shocking – so shocking in fact that I yelled out: “No”. At which point my Mum looked up from her sweeping in surprise. I explained what was going on in the story and my Mum again expressed surprise – she had been quietly observing the bandana-wrapping-ritual and had assumed that this must be one of the Jean Rhys novels I was forever harping on about (she didn’t put it quite like that, but that was the gist…and in fairness, I had been a bit of a Jean-bore these last couple of years!) Obviously I had a couple of ‘Jean’s’ with me, but they were just cheap, penguin classics, so no need for bandana-wrapping. However this did remind me: I really must get around to writing my novelette ‘I dream of Jean Rhys 30 years later’ based on the conference I’d attended the previous year…I was currently mimicking my role-model’s writing pattern, that’s for sure…cue more pangs of anxiety and self-recrimination!

That evening I opened my googlemail account to find an email from a very Welsh sounding person whom I did not recognise. Casually I opened it, assuming it would be a circular from Llenyddiaeth Cymru or one of the other mailing lists I’m signed up to. But as it turned out, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Addressing me specifically, Pedr ap Llywelyn, of Cyngor Llyfrau Cymru no less, was writing to say that he had read my column in a recent issue of Y Clawdd (community newspaper) at some über-Welsh event that our editor had been presenting at, and that he had liked the article very much (it was the one which linked Aled Lewis Evans’ book of short stories with the L’Oreal strap-line and Radley handbags, all to a soundtrack of the folk song Moliannwn – quite a feat, I thought!) Anyway, Pedr went on to say that Gethin, our editor, had given him the address of my wordpress blog where I post all my columns and latest literary offerings, and that he was impressed enough with the content of my work to offer me my own column in ‘Gweler’ magazine, with an associated book option.

After that the good news just kept coming as he explained that there was some funding available, for folks like me – budding authors whose Welsh was colloquial rather than ‘correct’, to enable us to attend an intensive two week course at Nant Gwrtheyrn, with top-up sessions thereafter, to help us get our treigladau right, and any other ‘polish’ we needed; the offer of the column and book option came with the condition that I first attend the course. Was this for real? Had my rambling, obscure ‘literature’ montages with suggested ‘soundtracks’ not only just paid for themselves in course fees, but also brought me one step closer to the Jessica Fletcher lifestyle I so yearned for?

I fired off a carefully constructed email, making sure that he was left in no doubt regarding my enthusiasm for snapping up this offer, and listing all the novel plots I had on the back-burner: the social-sci-fi-thrillerThe Bodhyfryd Chamber – set in a dystopian future, complete with its own bespoke dialect, à la Clockwork Orange; and the catchily-titled and mystical: Carmen Fernandez-Jones and the secrets of Cegin Dodo…describing the adventures my nieces and I would have from the gateway of my magical kitchen…all very Magic Far Away tree/ Lion the Witch and the wardrobe! I even pitched my fledgling idea for a zombie-esque, pandemic apocalypse based in Wirral, which dovetails around to prequel The Bodhyfryd Chamber…and I don’t even have a title for it yet! But I’d figured this might show I had my finger on the pulse of the current ‘hot genres’ as well as being an eccentric, off-beat genius!

Having checked my email every hour for two days solid, feeling thoroughly ignored and dejected, I received a short email from Pedr saying that those ideas all sounded interesting enough, but that what they actually had in mind was a column and novel based on…well, me, essentially; it seemed that the idea of a bumbling young academic-wannabe, who spent her spare time writing articles for her community newspaper, attempting to infiltrate the ‘Welsh literature scene’ – all whilst living over the border, experimenting in her farm-house-style slate kitchen, trying to write novels and learning to be a ‘dodo’ (aunty) was what had caught their fancy.

Apparently, they felt that my wholesome persona, coupled with my heart-felt yearnings and endeavouring for success in something other than reality TV and b-list celebs-ville, would be the perfect antidote to the current overkill of this sort of thing, and might also help to inspire some of the young people who were currently being put off the idea of university by the recent funding horrors and dreary job prospects beyond. Hmm, I’d have to carefully tone down the exacerbation I felt with my current ‘Temps Perdi’ predicament, but this unexpected career break would help with that; in fact, I’d already done a complete one-eighty and was busy extolling the virtues of my university education, reflecting that I owed my analytical mind and engaging writing style to my ‘journey so far’ (oh cringe! Did I seriously just utter that ridiculous cliché?)

So, in summary, it seemed that they were looking for an easy reading, mildly entertaining, weekly meander – no doubt to fill the slot previously inhabited by Lowri Reiki/ Mami-medrus…oh, I could do that…oh yes! I rubbed my hands together in glee at the thought that I could plunder my long-neglected ‘Inklingettes’ blog for additional source material; the Miranda-esque posting: ‘A graduation, Jam side down’ would certainly pack a punch as a stand-alone column, and the more whimsical offerings of ‘A thesis picnic’ and  ‘PhDs and long stories’ would also do quite nicely.

A few emails later and we had hammered down the details: I would attend the course on a fully-funded scholarship and I would then begin submitting weekly columns, whilst also simultaneously working on the associated novel with an editor from Y Lloft publishing house. I’d get a small sum for the column…just enough to keep me in Guerlain, and then when the novel was published I would get a percentage of sales following the first ten thousand copies sold…which initially would probably not be that many since linguistic minority fiction only had a niche audience who could read and understand it, much less those who would choose to do so.

Okay, so it seemed I wasn’t exactly going to reach the dizzy heights of a beach house in Cabot Cove overnight, but if it was successful enough they might publish an English language version – then I’d be ‘cooking’, as they say. In the meantime, at least now my actual hobby of fiction-writing would begin to pay its own way, or at least stop costing me money (in competition entrance fees and such) and who knew, maybe my academic ‘career’ might even follow suit? Wow that would really be something – an Atwood-esque, combination, portfolio-career, with a twist of Bradshaw…but without the rude bits!

So after three splendid weeks in Spain I conceded that it was time to go home. I surfed the budget airline pages until I found a suitably cheap flight back, packed, and sent dozens of emails informing all and sundry that I would shortly be ‘back in town’. To my great delight, upon checking my emails on the day of my departure, I had an email from Luke, one of my friends back at the University, saying that, not only did he have some examining work which he could put my way, but that there was a 0.8 Research Associate contract in his department which would shortly be advertised – for which I had the perfect experience!

Everything was finally beginning to work out, as though my whole life so far had merely been setting the scene for this moment. But I was getting ahead of myself, the research job wasn’t even advertised yet and there’d be heaps of people applying. After a ridiculously out-of-perspective moment, in which I was more concerned with the idea of getting the job for the sake of the column, rather than because it was a fantastic career opportunity, things came back into focus; I had a good chance of getting this position and if not this one, then a similar sort of thing sometime soon. In the meantime I had this thoroughly random, yet thoroughly brilliant opportunity to really test myself as a creative writer, on a topic for which I would never be short of material – what with the trials and tribulations of preparing research grant applications, the endless redrafting of papers for publication in journals and the weighing up of impact factors…

I practically skipped out to the car with my bags and sat grinning to myself all the way to Murcia (as I practiced, in my head, being interviewed about my success – à la Jimmy Rabbit in ‘The Commitments!’) As I boarded the plane and settled in my seat I was optimistic that I was returning home with a much better ‘hand’ than the one I had arrived with – and I even had a couple of aces up my sleeve. This plane was taking me back over the border and into a different linguistic space (well, for the column anyway) and there were plenty of interesting options to consider. One thing was clear: the future was bright – and it certainly seemed set to be more profitable for me than it had been until now!

This short story was written for The Quattro Authors Facebook page. Please feel free to download it to your kindle or IPad, or simply print it off; or you can email me and I can send you the PDF!)

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Blodwen watched from the doorstep as Osian walked awkwardly across the lawn, carrying the canister of petrol they had given him. As he reached the gate he turned briefly and waved, smiling, before vanishing into the night; and so he was gone, as suddenly as he had arrived. How strange it seemed to be stood in this doorway, after all these years of it being locked and forgotten; it had taken a stranger’s knock for the spell to be broken.

She stood there for a few seconds, replaying the evening’s events in her mind; such a different evening, because of the visitor. They so seldom had visitors these days – and when they did come they were usually on ‘mercy visits’ with much clock-watching and sighing, before the inevitable “must get back to….do such and such”, almost as though they had been doing her and Glyn a favour by visiting.

But this evening had been lovely. Blodwen recalled with pleasure how Osian had heartily tucked in to the food and had complemented her on the Bara Brith and the butter – “churned right here on the farm mind you!” She had added with delight.

“Lucky I’d made a fresh batch of Bara Brith this morning” she’d thought then. How nice to have someone enjoying her Bara Brith and butter. A new person; a new stamp of approval!

As she stared out into the blackness she shivered and pulled her shawl over her thin, aching arms. For sure there was a bitter wind this evening and it must have been a shock for poor Osian, what with him having just stepped off the plane from Israel; they did travel far these days, didn’t they, young people? Why the next county had seemed a distant land in her youth…her youth, a hazy memory now.

She sighed and stepped back into the hallway, shutting the door; it really was in such a shabby state, what on earth must he have thought as he stood there knocking?

“And with me being so house-proud too” thought Blodwen miserably.

But it had been many years since anyone had knocked at this door, or even since it had been opened to let the air in, not since – well, there was no point dwelling on the past…and it was doubtful they’d have another visitor any time soon…

Once the door was shut the house seemed to embrace her, hugging her, with its dark woodwork and low ceilings; a comforting sense of history, familiarity and belonging. This was a truly Welsh house; a testament to the culture and traditions she so dearly cherished. As she passed the old grandfather clock it struck eleven

“High time we were both in bed” she muttered “If we’re to be up for the milking”.

She bustled into the kitchen with her mind set on the tasks to be completed before bed: return the butter dish to the pantry; wrap the Bara Brith; wipe down the table; wash up the dishes…

Glyn was sat in the rocking chair by the fireplace watching her quietly; he seemed a little uneasy and she suspected he was stewing over something, as was his way, rather than just coming straight out with it. Perhaps it was to do with the farm? Perhaps it was something the visitor had said? Perhaps he wouldn’t talk to her about it at all, whatever it was? She decided to test the waters by speaking first:

“Well he was a very nice young man wasn’t he?”

“Mmm” said Glyn, not lifting his eyes from the fire.

“So nice to have a visitor…and a Welsh speaking one too. It would be nice to see him again; I wonder why he had to rush off like that? But then perhaps he was tired…from his trip…so maybe he’ll come back this way…when he’s got time obviously, they’re busy these youngsters aren’t they…”

She stopped then, berating herself. She was doing it again – rambling on and on when she was nervous. All these years and she still couldn’t help herself. Glyn looked up and she knew from his face that it was something she had done. She felt her stomach tighten.

“Blodwen my love, why did you have to go and say all that about the border?” He said, in a disappointed tone. Blodwen exhaled erratically, and said in a wavering voice which threatened tears:

“Because that’s how I feel; and because that’s what’s in my heart; and because how can I not talk about these things when they torture me so?”

“But he won’t understand – and how could he? I certainly wouldn’t if I weren’t living in this confounded place! Said Glyn.

“I just had to can’t you see that? So that I know that it’s real, so that I know that I am real, I’m so lonely out here Glyn, I feel like I’m drowning…”

“I know” said Glyn “I know. But we must be careful. Try and see it through the outsider’s eyes. What if word gets around that the old lady who lives over at Ty’n y caeuau farm thinks she hears the border ‘whispering’ and ‘breathing’ and ‘scratching at the old front door’ and for goodness sake, if anyone heard about you being afraid that the border waits outside the front door to ‘suck us away’ well what do you think would happen? “

Blodwen stared at him blankly.

“Well aside from them carting you off to Denbigh, what if they started asking questions? What if they wondered why two prominent young activists suddenly vanished? What…”

Glyn noticed the distant look in his wife’s eyes and realised that he had gone too far. Blodwen was staring into the fire now, playing with the fringe at the corner of her shawl. She didn’t say anything for several minutes. She didn’t even seem to be aware that he’d stopped mid-sentence. When she did speak her voice was small and quiet, almost menacing in its lack of emotion:

“Maybe they should”

Glyn paused before answering. What did she mean? Had she misheard him? Was she even speaking to him?

“Blodwen, you do understand don’t you” he said, gently. “We’re both quite old now and we’ve got no one to stand up for us.”

Blodwen turned her head towards him and fixed him with a calm expression:

“So what if they do come looking?” she said defiantly. “Supposing they do ask where my beautiful sons have gone? It’s not as though we have anything to hide is it? Maybe they could get to the bottom of it…”

“Unlikely” Glyn interrupted grimly; he didn’t like the way this was going. He’d always felt responsible for what had happened, and guilty for not being able to protect his family.

“Oh I didn’t mean – you know I don’t blame you. But I can’t live like this. I hated having to lie to Osian like that. It was so lovely to show him their photos” At this point she reached for one of the photographs from the dresser and gazed at it lovingly.

“My boys, my boys, all they achieved, everything they stood for, and I have to deny them, lie about them, say they abandoned their entire belief system, sold out – went to live in England and turned their backs on their language and culture I HATE IT I TELL YOU!” She was shaking now, tears of frustration in her eyes and she strode across the kitchen, making a grab for the kettle.

“I know, I’m sorry” said Glyn, trying to make amends. “And I’m sure Osian isn’t the type to gossip, I’m sure in my heart. I felt as you did, he’s our kind – on our side.”

Blodwen was stood in the middle of the kitchen floor, still clutching the kettle, not moving.

“Come here” he said at last. “Come and be warm by the fire and let’s think no more about it tonight.”

She hesitated then went over to him and he wrapped his arms around her tenderly, then held her so that he could look into her eyes. “Such pretty eyes” he thought, “As pretty as the day I met her.” Her hair was silver now but still soft as silk, still long and shiny and she still wore it pinned back, as she always had.

“There, there my sweet” he said, kissing her forehead and stroking her hair. “We have each other and that’s more than most.”

“But what happened to them Glyn? Where did they go? Where are they? My babies, and their babies…my Dylan, my Carwyn; I ache for them…”

“I know, I know. There are so many unanswered questions from this life, we can only hope to know more when we move onto the next”.

This appeared to comfort him, but he’d always been more comforted by religion than she had; the idea of heaven had always rather frightened her.

The fire crackled bathing the kitchen in a warm and cosy light, “if only life hadn’t been so cruel” she thought “I could have been happy, living the simple life, here, with my family. But that’s all gone now, ruined, there’s nothing left.”

As she stood hugging her husband she heard a faint scratching. “A fox” she thought, but then the wind began to howl and the house shook; she could hear the eerie breathing and cackling of y ffin…

She separated herself from her husband with such force that he stood stunned for a moment, but then sped after her through the hallway. Her shawl hung off her shoulder and a strand of hair had come loose.

“Blodwen what are you doing?”

She’d paused by the door and was staring at the Grandfather clock.

“One minute to go” she was saying “Just one minute”.

“So come away from the door” said Glyn “let’s get to the centre of the house where it’s safe…”

“But safe for how long?” She said angrily. “No, not this time, not this year and not on this day. I’ve had enough. I need to know…”

“But Blodwen, you saw what happened, it’s too dangerous”.

He tried to grab her hand but it slipped through his fingers as she threw herself against the door and undid the bolt.

“Please Blod” he pleaded, tears in his eyes now.

“Don’t make me go on my own, Glyn. We belong together…”

They stood staring at each other. He seemed lost, like he had run out of things to say. She wrenched open the door and the hallway filled with white light. He saw the outline of her face against the light and it seemed young and vibrant. Her eyes were wide and bright and she stepped forwards. He couldn’t let her go, he couldn’t lose her, his love. He grabbed her hand and they stepped forward together…

******************************************************************

Osian sat in the coffee shop at his favourite table, waiting for Catrin to come back from the counter with their coffees. When he looked up she was almost at the table and smiling awkwardly. On the tray in front of her were two huge slices of chocolate fudge cake. He sighed; she had a sweet tooth but was too self-conscious to indulge by herself, so he was often roped in as an accomplice.

“One for you and one for me” she said, charmingly.

“Thanks” he said, picking up a fork.

“So what exactly was it that happened to you the other day that left you high and dry with a bunch of pretty flowers?” she asked eagerly, her green eyes shining.

“It was the strangest thing” said Osian. “Do you remember me telling you how I ran out of petrol on the way back from Cardiff?”

“Oh yes, when you nodded off at the wheel!” she teased.

“That’s right. Well I felt that I’d rushed off, after they’d been so kind…I was worried about the drive back you see…”

“I’ve run out of cream, could I have some of yours?” She said, cutting across his story.

“Sure, have it all…”

“Oh no I couldn’t possibly…”

“No, really, I’m not a fan of cream anyway…”

“Oh, really?” she said, sounding rather bewildered. “How odd. Anyway, sorry – go on”

“Anyway” continued Osian “I decided to go back with some flowers”

“Ah that’s nice”

“Yes I thought so” he said, rather impatiently. “But when I went back, I couldn’t find the farm”.

“Oh?”

“And I drove up and down for about 2 hours.”

Catrin observed him thoughtfully. “And you’re certain it was the correct stretch of road?”

“Yes” Said Osian patiently “The Arddlin road, along the border. I found the first farm house, and…even the hedgerow…but that farm just wasn’t there”.

“Woah, dude! That sure sounds like one of your short stories in the making!” She said, smiling.

She was about to tease him further but then she noticed that all too familiar expression crossing Osian’s face, as though a light had come on somewhere. And she knew it was hopeless; from here on in, his mind would be fully engaged with piecing together the story. She finished her cake.

“Right, I’m off-ski, got a list of books to get from the library for my thesis” she said, not expecting much of a response.

But Osian was momentarily distracted by this, he’d been worried that the break from her studies had been too long, and that she was going to find it hard to get back into things.

“So what are you working on at the moment then?” he asked, genuinely interested.

“Oh, erm…the theory chapter” she said, looking glum. “I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to write, nor even which theory to go with…”

“Oh, you’ll be fine” he reassure her, although he had found some of their previous discussions about Sociological theory rather alarming, and it was certainly not anything he would fancy trawling through!”

“So, I’ll see you at the Eisteddfod next week?” she enquired, swinging her multi-coloured, hippy-esque bag over her shoulder.

“Yes, I’ll be there for the dechrau canu, dechrau canmol sing-along” he replied, smiling.

“Right you are then, I’m pitching my tent over on maes-b…going to catch a couple of gigs while I’m there, groovy hey?…see ya!” she said, making her way towards the door.

Osian smiled as he sipped his coffee, Catrin could seem so mature one minute and so young the next. She was right though, he could turn this rather disturbing experience into a short story…Y Ffin…The Border, yeah; it would add a touch of sci-fi to his latest collection for young people, that’s what they liked wasn’t it? At any rate Douglas Adams seemed to be pretty popular! He reached into his bag and pulled out his notebook and pen and wrote everything out as it had happened; you couldn’t make this stuff up!

Later that year, Osian’s editor called:

“Hia Osian, yeah, we want to publish the collection, we’re going with the ga’i ddarn o awyr las heddiw? title – great collection Osian, especially Y Ffin, spooky vibe, I’m liking it!”

“That’s great Phil, I’ve got a great idea for the cover by the way, it’s a bit out there, but if we can get the right person, with the right expression, I think we can capture the mood of the book…”

There was the faint sound of a telephone ringing in the background and of someone answering it.

“What? oh, sorry Osian, I’ve got to go…that sounds great though, we’ll talk more next month, we should have the proofs through by then”.

“Great, speak soon” said Osian, hanging up.

***************************************************************

The old couple sat at the back of the chapel, dressed like everybody else, looking like everybody else – smart, respectable and inconspicuous. The Vicar began to speak. After a while the old woman noticed that one of the visiting speakers looked familiar – where had she seen him before? She wondered; then she let out an audible gasp

“Duw annwyl!” she said

“Shhhhhh” said her husband incredulously. “What’s the matter?”

“It’s him, it’s Osian, the one who came to the farm” she said, her dark eyes sparkling.

“O rargor, I knew this was a bad idea” he said.

“Glyn, what an awful thing to say – coming to church is never a bad idea.”

“It is if it raises awkward questions” he said. “Now there’s no need to panic, let’s just sit quietly, there are lots of people and it’s unlikely that he’ll spot us. Then we can just slip away at the end, quietly, no problem”.

But Glyn must have known that Blodwen couldn’t pass up this chance. She’d so often wondered about Osian – had he made it home safely? Did he ever come back to look for them?

And, predictably, once the service was over, Blodwen slowly made her way to the front. Glyn tried to reason with her but she was determined:

“Look, you said yourself at the time, even if we told him the truth it’s unlikely he’d believe us…he’d just think I was an eccentric old lady who made up stories to amuse herself!”

“Now I don’t think I quite said it like that did I?” said Glyn. “And don’t you think it will strike him as odd that we haven’t aged in the last 20 years?!”

“It hasn’t been that long” she retorted, but he was ready for her:

“I’m afraid it has my dear, well, 19 years anyway. So you see he’s going to suspect something…”

“Oh give over” she cut across him. “Look, there’s Meinir Llywelyn over there, she hasn’t aged a bit in the last 30 years let alone 20…why some of her former pupils look older than she does!

“Yes, but…”

“And look there are the Williams sisters, they must be technically in their 90s now, and still gallivanting here there and everywhere”

Glyn looked over at the twins, still identical, with the same short hair style, similar long skirts, the same style of blouse but in different colours – and yes, they must have been touched by Y Ffin, because they didn’t look a day over 60.

There was a bit of a queue to speak to Osian, and it seemed, from the snippets of overheard conversation, that he was quite the celebrity these days – a successful author no less!

Having waited patiently for ten minutes while the woman in front monopolised his attention, Blodwen finally came face to face with Osian.

“Excuse me” she said “I’m not sure if you’ll remember us but you came to our house once…”

Looking into his eyes she saw the disbelief as it slowly dawned on him who they were.

“Gosh, Mrs Jones, Mr Jones…how lovely to see you again. I hadn’t expected…well you know I came back a couple of days after you gave me the petrol, I had some flowers…”

Blodwen had thought as much, and now she felt sorry for him and it showed in her face. But Osian mistook this for doubt; he thought miserably of how unlikely it would sound, but he tried anyway:

“I came along the road, but it all looked so different in the daylight and, well, I know it sounds ridiculous but I couldn’t find the farm…”

To his relief Mrs Jones didn’t seem to be holding a grudge:

“Oh that old stretch of road likes to play tricks, lots of farms and they all look the same”

“Well, do you have time to go for a coffee now? Please, let me treat you, to thank you, belatedly…we could go to the coffee shop in the library…”

Blodwen smiled as she recognised the same tendency to ramble when nervous as that which plagued her. She was so pleased to see Osian that she had quite forgotten the need to get back and she was about to accept the invitation when Glyn cut across:

“Erm, that’s very kind of you Osian, but we really must be getting back to the farm now you see, got to feed the animals and such, you know how it is”

“Oh of course” said Osian, disappointed. He smiled and waved to them as they left the chapel and was quickly reengaged in conversation by Mrs Bowen, who had enjoyed his recent poem in such and such magazine and wondered if it was part of a collection, and so on and so forth. But Osian didn’t forget. He was curious; and he was determined to show his gratitude to the Jones’s for their kindness.

***************************************************************************

“So what’s all this about Oz-man” asked Catrin with an amused expression as she arranged herself carefully on the seat opposite him. She looked so different to how she had been last time they had sat at this table, talking about that farm. She was Dr Evans now of course, married and settled, and working as a lecturer at the University. Gone were the bohemian outfits and childish jewellery; they’d been replaced by slick suits and a big sparkly engagement ring and matching rose-gold wedding band. But underneath she was still the same cheeky little scamp who was forever teasing him.

“Catrin, I had a rather strange experience on Sunday”

A smile twitched around the corners of her mouth and she was obviously suppressing the urge to make a joke, so he pressed on with his story.

“How very odd” she said, when he had finished. “And yet…”

“Go on” said Osian, wondering why she’d stopped mid-sentence.

“Well haven’t you noticed that the old folks of Treffin don’t seem to get any, well, older?”

“Erm, maybe, but I’ve always just thought it was down to good, clean living” he said.

“Come to think of it, it’s especially true of those who live out near Arddlin…hmm…I wonder…well certainly you should try one last time with some flowers” she said, thoughtfully.

“Yes, that’s what I thought, only – they did seem keen to get away, and I wouldn’t want to impose”.

“Well, you can only do that if you find the house right?”

“Right”

“And if you do find the house at least you’ll know it was just a trick of the light or something last time right?”

“Right”

“And if you show up and it seems you’re unwelcome, at least you tried, okay?

“Okay”

“Splendid, now finish your coffee and we’ll go now”

“What?”

“Yeah, no time like the present”

“What…you’re coming too?”

“Sure, two pairs of eyes are better than one and, besides, you’ve got me curious now!”

So they set off in Osian’s car, stopping off at Tesco on the way to pick up some cheerful gerbias.

As they reached the Arddlin road along the border Osian slowed down.

“Now look out for farm gates, let’s take them one at a time.” He said.

“There’s one” said Catrin, excitedly.

“No, we’re looking for a privet hedge.” Said Osian, decisively.

They drove all the way to the end with no joy. The light was fading, but they turned the car and drove back up, determined. The sky had changed colour and visibility was poor. Osian switched on the headlights. Then, as they drove along, they saw a ribbon of light, swaying in their path. It was too late to swerve and within seconds the car had been enveloped. The landscape swirled and the tyres scuffed along the curb; Osian stopped the car.

“What on earth was that?” asked Catrin, bewildered.

“I’m not sure – are you okay?” asked Osian, anxiously gripping the wheel.

“Yeah I’m fine” said Catrin, reaching for a bottle of water from her Radley handbag. As she slowly sipped its lukewarm contents, she noticed an old lady come through a nearby gate; an old man followed her…and then two young men and some children…

“Hey Oz”. Said Catrin. “Look over there?”

Approaching the car Blodwen felt a twinge of guilt. She’d known in her heart that Osian would come and she hadn’t tried to dissuade him; and now he was here, mixed up in all of this. Oh but she was glad to see him.

She smiled at Osian and prepared to greet the new Arddlinians

This short story is ‘fan fiction’ to Aled Lewis Evans’ short story ‘Y ffin’ (The Border) and was originally written for a cinnamon press competition but was unsuccessful; it has not been published anywhere else.

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            Like many of you I’m sure, I have, for the past few years, enjoyed following the BBC series:  ‘Who do You think You are?” where ‘celebs’ trace their family histories, learn about their heritages and then muse over their senses of ‘identity’ in light of what they uncover. We saw Julia Sawalha drinking goats’ milk with the ‘bedouin’ in Jordan, where her father’s family hail from; whilst Jeremy Irons travelled the length and breadth of Ireland searching for Irish roots to explain the sense of familiarity and ‘home’ he felt the first time he visited the emerald isle, despite his ‘quintessentially English’ upbringing.

            Then, earlier this year, the television network NBC began broadcasting an American version based on the English series. The first ‘celeb’ to research her genealogy was Sarah Jessica Parker, who unveiled extremely American family connections, including family who were involved in the ‘Goldrush’ and also one of her kin who narrowly escaped being hung in Salem as a witch, thanks to the fact that the pertinent courts were disbanded just days before her case was due to be heard! Another notable ‘celeb’ was Brooke Shields, who discovered family connections to the Italian aristocracy, including one of her kin who was banker to the Vatican; she also uncovered family connections to the royal families of both England and France through Henry IV and Louis XIV.

            Well, I hear you say, this is all very interesting but what relevance does this prattling have to the column’s topic of ‘Synfyfyrion llenyddol’ (‘Literary musings’)? Well, recently I was reading the annual report of the National Libraries of Wales and I came across a reference to ‘Who do you think you are?’ and the fact that this is a popular question these days, with those interested in genealogy and local history currently forming one of the most important categories of the library’s users. Indeed it is a popular past time and my father spends hours trawling the internet and on the phone to people from America and beyond in order to add branches to our own ‘family tree’. Whilst we were down in the library in Aberystwyth we saw old photographs of our family in the archives of the community newspaper ‘Nene’ and we were delighted! This got me to thinking about that pleasant feeling and how it might be harnessed to aid my career as an author; then I realised that the question of ‘who do you think you are’ (and the musings this elicits) are the foundation of several of my favourite books, including two of Alex Haley’s classics: ‘Roots: The Saga of an American family’ and its sequel ‘Queen: The story of an American family’. Indeed, as I pondered this idea, a whole genre unfolded before me, including possible songs for consideration as the soundtrack to the column, including: ‘Coward of the county’ (Kenny Rogers), ‘In the Ghetto’ (Elvis) and, even more tenuously perhaps: ‘Who are You?’ (The Who)!

            I then began to unpick the reasons for the remarkable attraction of this ‘genre’ and I began researching and checking facts in order to base a column on it. I learned that it was actress Lisa Kudrow who had taken the initiative to produce an American version of the UK show, having been inspired by the original series when she was over in Ireland filming. There is a quote from her saying: “It’s those tiny, wierd little connections to the past that make the show so interesting.” Indeed, as I mull over this phenomena, I would offer similar explanations for our interest in genealogy:

  • The way that the lives of our families (and the families of the ‘celebs’) are interwoven with historical events of note (for example the witch trials of Salem)…
  • How this then lends emotion and a sense of reality to the history, because these people mean something to us: “These are my people” (to quote SJP)
  • And finally that wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey idea (to quote Dr Who) of the feeling that things are ‘in the blood’ (to quote Jeremy Irons) – the feeling of being ‘Connected’ (to quote Brooke Shields) who went so far as to conclude that the history of her kin may be partially responsible for her (previously unexplained) decision to study French literature and culture at University.

              Now then, until very recently I would have tut tutted at the third point above. My academic training as a Sociologist would have led me to the conclusion that such ideas were nonsense and, apart from some particularly pertinent biological factors, it is largely our personal surroundings and immediate environmental factors which shape us into who we are; the things that we actually experience for ourselves. However, a few months ago I had a dream which could, despite the fact that I am not religious, be considered a ‘revelation’. Essentially, I met my Taid (grandfather), Glyn Edwards (previously conductor of the brass band for Rhosllannerchrugog), who died at least twenty years before I was born…I awoke and continued to feel that I had met him at last, and that he had so0mehow reached out in order to give me a message…(for more of this bizarre story read the short story: ‘Paradocs y Pili-pala arian’ on my website on the link below).

               Anyway, back to the literature! Considering Welsh examples of the genre I would recommend two books in particular: ‘O Drelew i Drefach’ (Gwasg Gomer) by Marged Lloyd Jones and ‘The Pleasure Seekers’ (Bloomsbury) by Tishani Doshi. The first book tells the story of Ellen Davies, or ‘Nel fach y Bwcs’ (so nicknamed because her father was a bookseller) who was born in the Rhondda before moving to Patagonia with her family in 1870. ‘Nel’ was the mother-in-law of the author of the book and it is full of wonderful stories of the family, and the Welsh community generally, as they settled in the harsh prairielands of the colony. These stories include the friendships with the ‘Tuhuelche’ (native Indian peoples). Amongst my favourites are the tales of: the Tuhuelche gathering outside Llain-las, the family home, shouting for ‘Poco bara’ (a small amount of bread) which they had developed a taste for and were willing to trade horses for this ‘Welsh delicacy’; then the gift of a ‘poncho’ given to the family at a time of loss; and finally the fact that the Tuhuelche loved to listen to the Welsh community singing hymns, and they would stand outside their chapel in a row, swaying from side to side to the music, tapping their feet and laughing!

              The second book, The Pleasure seekers, is a brand new publication by the poet Tishani Doshi from Madras, which tells the story of her parents, Babo and Siân (pseudonyms), and the weaving together of two very different cultures (Gujarati Jain and Welsh) as these two ‘pleasure seekers’ insist on continuing their romance and marrying, despite all efforts of intervention from their families. Again this book is full of lovely stories as we follow Babo and Siân from when they meet in their work canteen, through Babo’s period of protest in his Ba’s (grandmother’s) house in the village of Ganga Bazaar, where he went when his parents were trying to insist that he would not see Sian again, and then to their marriage and setting up home at the house-of-the-orange-and-black-gates in Madras, to raise a family of their own. Both books are ‘labours of love’ and very enjoyable to read, and I hope to write my own version some day (or several versions)…beginning maybe with the trials and tribulations of the Pinto-Edwards family!

            I would like to thank Tishani Doshi for giving permission for us to use her photo. To read more of my work, including previous articles from the column, please go to my blog/ website: www.saralouisewheeler.wordpress.com  

This article was first written in Welsh and published in my column Synfyfyrion Llenyddol (literary musings) which appears in each issue of Y Clawdd, the Welsh-language community magazine for the Wrecsam area. It was published in October 2010 (Issue 141) and then posted here on the 21st of October 2010. I have translated it here so that everyone can enjoy it. / Cafodd yr erthygl yma ei gyhoeddi yn gyntaf yn fy ngholofn Synfyfyrion llenyddol sy’n ymddangos ym mhob cyfrol o Y Clawdd, papur bro ardal Wrecsam. Cafodd ei gyhoeddi ym mis Hydref 2010 (Rhifyn 141), ac yna ei postio yma ar y 21ain o fis Hydref 2010.  Yr wyf wedi ei cyfieithu fan hyn er mwyn i bawb cael ei fwynhau.

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            When I initially set my sights on ‘breaking in’ to a career in academia, I had quite a difficult time getting a foot in the door, primarily because my written English was not of a sufficient standard. I hadn’t properly grasped the simple rules, for example: grammar and punctuation. In fact, I didn’t even use ‘full stops’ with any kind of consistency! A turning point came when I applied for a temporary, part time job, as a ‘P.A.’ to cover a period of maternity leave.

            I felt quite confident as I walked to the interview, with my degree certificate in a conference-file under my arm, along with relevant experience under my belt. But, without wanting to bore you with the whole story, the result of this outing was that I found myself back in my flat, sitting on the kitchen floor, in my suit, weeping and chiding myself; I had failed to get a job which asked only for GCSEs because I didn’t know the difference between “It’s” ac “Its” and some other similar linguistic details. However, once I had dried my tears, I decided that I must do something to fix this pronto or else this entire university-palaver would have been a waste of time.

          I attended night classes for English Grammar and I read: “Eats Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” (which explains the “It’s” ac “Its” issue perfectly by the way). Before too long I had mastered many of the rules which had once been such a mystery to me – in fact, I became a bit of a pedant and a “much-sought-after-proof-reader” amongst my colleagues. Then I landed a job as a researcher within the University and I felt that I had ‘arrived’.

           However before too long my Clark Kent life wasn’t quite enough. A strange super-hero-ish feeling awakened in me and I yearned for an outlet for my creative energies; so I began writing poems and stories. I had originally intended that my literary activities would be in the Welsh language and I set about attending local Eisteddfods. However this led to a huge reality-check when I received my first short story back with the following sentence written on it: “Gormod o wallau iaith: Rwy’n amau mai dysgwr sydd yma?” (“Too many linguistic mistakes: I suspect there is a learner at work here?) So obviously, I had some work to do ‘fixing’ my written Welsh – however I was quite confident that I could do it since I had been so successful with my written English.

           However despite my best efforts over the next few years I never even came close to reaching a satisfactory standard with my written Welsh. The rules were more complex, particularly the enigma of ‘mutation’. Another problem was that the nature of my Welsh was fundamentally different to that of my English. I had set about, at an early age, styling my spoken English on that of Sir Alec Guinness, Deborah Kerr a Julie Andrews. I would sit for hours replaying certain bits of footage from the videos of the Star Wars trilogy, Mary Poppins and The King and I, listening and then stopping the video and practicing out loud (although I have no idea what sparked this particular decision and subsequent behaviour!)

           In any case this meant that I did at least speak English ‘correctly’, if a little pompously. This developed further of course when I took to studying my undergraduate degree in English. But the Welsh I speak is still the language of the hearth rather than the more polished, scholarly English I have crafted. I mix ‘tenses’ and I make linguistic bloopers of the same kind that may be observed in ‘everyday English’ used on soap operas, football commentating and reality TV. The Welsh that I speak is ‘natural’ but not ‘correct’.  I also mix idioms which renders them nonsensical, in much the same way as George Huws from C’mon Midffild does with his “Dyna sut mae’r cookie’n crymblo! (That’s the way the cookie crumbles!)

          I brooded over the problem for many years. One time, when I was watching the Sali Mali DVD with my niece, Sali Mali began counting the sandwiches: “Un, dwy, tair, pedair…” “But why are sandwiches feminine?” I whined, and my niece stared at me, puzzled. Then, one day, as I sat on a train, reading Golwg (Welsh language magazine), I saw a letter which drew attention to the tendancy of Rugby commentators to mix gender and mutation rules: “Y Llinell, nid y linell” (the llinell not the linell) complained the pedant. A poem began forming in my mind. I pulled a biro and pad of paper from my briefcase and started scribbling. By the time the train pulled into Lime Street I had the foundations of a poem. I entered it as part of a collection fin the “Ysgoloriaeth Emyr Feddyg” (Doctor Emyr Scholarship) competition (National Eisteddfod, Cardiff and district 2008) and they receive a favourable review in the book of “Cyfansoddiadau a Beirniadaethau” (Compositions and Judgments) although, again, the Judge Ceri Wyn Jones mentions the linguistic mistakes!

            Unfortunately I am still totally clueless when it comes to ‘correct’ Welsh and I am tending to write creatively in English more now, particularly when it comes to competitions. However I still enjoy writing in Welsh thus I treasure the opportunity to write in Welsh here, for my community newspaper/ magazine. The soundtrack of this month’s column therefore is the Stereophonics album: “Just enough education to perform”. And, if you will forgive the hubris, I would like to share my poem with you, in the hope that you will enjoy it: (In the original column just the Welsh version of the poem was printed, but I have since translated the poem and both versions were published in Voice magazine (united press) so I have included both versions below:

(Welsh version): 

Pam fod brechdanau’n fenywaidd?

(A chwestiynau difyr eraill) 

 

Y Llinell, nid y linell.

Y llong, y llinyn, y llyfr, y llwyn.

Mae Sali Mali’n cyfri’r brechdanau,

Un, dwy, tair, pedair,

Gan mai benywaidd yw brechdanau ynte?

Ond pam fod brechdanau’n fenywaidd?

A sut mae gwybod pryd i dreiglo –

A phryd i beidio?

Meddal, trwynol, llaes, Cysefin.

Mae gen i’r tabl ym mlaen fy ngeiriadur,

Ond waeth iddo fod am fecaneg cwantwm ar y blaned Siwenna wir!

A beth am yr acen grom te?

a’r symbolau deniadol eraill?

Maen nhw’n edrych yn neis iawn ar y dudalen,

Ac yn ychwanegu ryw Je ne se quoi at enwau pobl,

Mae’n rhaid i mi gyfaddef,

Siôn, Siân, Llŷr ag Andrèa.

Ond dwi’n methu’n glir a chofio’r rheolau,

Ac maen nhw’n niwsans i’w teipio ‘fyd –

Codau cymhleth fel rhyw fath o semaffor hunllefus,

Mae’n ddigon i gadw rhywun rhag blogio!

A sut mae sgwennu’r dyddiad hyd yn oed?

-af, -fed, -ydd, -ed,

A pam fod rhai pethe yn un-deg-tri,

Tra bod eraill yn dair-ar-ddeg?

Rwy’n ddieithryn i iaith fy nghalon –

Mewn pob ffordd “cywir” beth bynnag.

Ag eto, mae yna brydferthwch i’r cymhlethdod.

Hen iaith urddasol, swynol, cyfriniol,

A’i idiomau pert a’i eiriau barddonol.

Mae yna ddyfnder sy’n deillio o’i hanes maith,

A’r traddodiadau morffolegol yng ngwreiddiau’r iaith.

Y mae cyfoeth yn deillio o’r tafodieithoedd niferus,

A sioncrwydd yn yr ymennydd pan fo Cymraeg ar y wefus.

Ac felly rwy’n fodlon straffaglu â marciau diacritig,

Am yr anrhydedd o ‘sgrifennu yn yr iaith fendigedig.

Anwesaf yn awr y teg, tecach, a’r teced,

A’r drud, y drutach, y drutaf, a’r dryted.

Y mae’n bleser i ddysgu sut i gywiro fy ngwallau,

A dysgu’r ffordd orau i gyfrif brechdanau.

 

(English version): 

Why are sandwiches feminine?

(And other interesting questions)

 

 The Llinell, not the linell.

The llong, the llinyn, the llyfr, the llwyn.

Sali Mali is counting the sandwiches,

Un, dwy, tair, pedair,

because sandwiches are feminine aren’t they?

But why are sandwiches feminine?

And how to know when to mutate –

and when not to?

Meddal, trwynol, llaes, Cysefin.

I have the table in the back of my dictionary,

But it may as well be on quantum physics from the planet Siwenna!

And what of the acen grom?

and other decorative symbols?

They look very nice on the page,

and add a Je ne se quoi to people’s names,

I must admit.

Siôn, Siân, Llŷr and Andrèa.

But I can’t for the life of me remember the rules,

and they’re a nuisance to type as well.

Complicated codes like some nightmarish semaphore,

it’s enough to keep someone from blogging!

And how to write the date even?

-af, -fed, -ydd, -ed,

And why are some things un-deg-tri,

While others are dair-ar-ddeg?

I’m a stranger to the language of my heart –

in every “correct” sense anyway.

And yet there’s a beauty which lies within the complexity,

Of the old tribal language shrouded in mystery.

With its pretty idioms and poetic phrases,

Steeped in a history which continually amazes.

Morphological traditions which contemporaries respect,

and the richness derived from each dialect.

A vivaciousness of spirit when Cymraeg is spoken,

So proud are we that it has not been forsaken.

And thus I am willing to study diacritics,

 For the honour to write with their added aesthetics.

I’ll embrace now the teg, tecach, and teced,

the drud, the drutach, the drutaf, the dryted.

It’s a pleasure to learn how to correct my gwallau,

and to learn the correct way to count the brechdanau.

 

This article was first written in Welsh and published in my column Synfyfyrion Llenyddol (literary musings) which appears in each issue of Y Clawdd, the Welsh-language community magazine for the Wrecsam area. It was published in July 2010 (Issue 140) and then posted here on the 15th of July 2010. I have translated it here so that everyone can enjoy it. / Cafodd yr erthygl yma ei gyhoeddi yn gyntaf yn fy ngholofn Synfyfyrion llenyddol sy’n ymddangos ym mhob cyfrol o Y Clawdd, papur bro ardal Wrecsam. Cafodd ei gyhoeddi ym mis Gorffennaf 2010 (Rhifyn 140), ac yna ei postio yma ar y 15fed o fis Gorffennaf 2010.  Yr wyf wedi ei cyfieithu fan hyn er mwyn i bawb cael ei fwynhau.

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            As February turned to March, and the cold spell continued to grip us, I looked out through the window one Saturday morning, across the fields and marshes, and pondered “When will we have blue skies again I wonder?” This got me to thinking about a collection of short stories we studied at school called: “ga’i ddarn o awyr las heddiw?” (“Can I have a piece of blue sky today?”) So I went to the bookshelf to find my treasured copy.

           Now usually my Saturdays operate with military precision: get up, go to Tesco, unpack the shopping, clean the house, do the ironing, make tea. An organised Saturday like this makes it easier to cope with a week full of work and study, but sometimes it can evoke the feeling from ‘The shining’ of: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. So sometimes it’s nice, and perhaps even important, to escape from the routine and do something fun.

           On the Saturday in question I’d just moved house and had been busy for days struggling with boxes, sweeping and tidying, and getting cross when I couldn’t find things; and I was very tired. So I decided that I deserved the luxury of going back to bed, opening this little book, and spending a pleasant hour or so reading something that was nothing-to-do-with-work-or-my-thesis. Like a cherry on the cake my husband brought me a lovely cup of tea before vanishing into the fields to go bird watching. So I settled down to enjoy this collection of short stories written by my ‘literary idol’, Mr Aled Lewis Evans, who was a teacher at Ysgol Morgan Llwyd (secondary school) when I was there as a pupil in the early-nineties.

            I remembered fondly how we had studied the book in our Welsh literature class with Mrs Liz Williams and that she gave us an essay set on the story ‘Alltud’ (Exile); we were to decipher its meaning and write about it. So, when the bell rang, there we were of course, in a little gang, following poor Mr Evans around the corridors trying to persuade him to give us the answer, with one boy asking if it was about someone with a ‘split-personality’, to which Mr Evans laughed and said “Erm no, but that’s an interesting idea!”

              Like many of the books I studied whilst at school, I got far more pleasure from reading it as an adult; I had a better understanding of what the stories were seeking to convey and thus I appreciated them far more. The title of the book comes from one of the short stories (of the same title) which tells the story of a young girl who has experienced a lifetime of suffering, through a difficult childhood and a broken marriage, and then in her depressive state she has come to view the world through the metaphor of clouds and blue skies; she focuses on making ‘a piece of blue sky’ for herself. This is the main theme of the collection which follows a plethora of complex characters as they seek their own ‘pieces of blue skies’ in lives that are full of clouds. It is a powerful message, particularly in these grey days of grim winter, with the spectre of recession looming and nothing but sadness filling the news channels; sometimes it’s hard to see even the smallest patch of blue sky, and life seems to be passing by in an endless stream of anxiety and pointlessness.

                Each time I find myself dwelling on this however, my favourite folk song ‘Moliannwn’ (We praise) echoes in my mind, like a light in the darkness: “Daw’r coed i wisgo’u dail, a mwyniant mwyn yr haul, a’r ŵyn ar y dolydd i brancio!” (“The trees come to wear their leaves, and we’ll take pleasure in the pleasantness of the sun, and the lambs on the hills will prance”). Somehow it gives me an extra bit of ‘oomff’ each time I think about the old, nostalgic farm and the woolly, little lamb jumping on the hill! I start mulling over the metaphor of the lyric which comes later in the song “ac ar ôl y tywydd drwg, fe wnawn arian fel y mwg, mae arwyddon dymunol o’n blaenau(“and after the bad weather, we’ll make money like the smoke, signs/ omens for our futures look agreeable”) until pretty soon I have forgotten my sorrows and find myself humming the tune for hours!

                 Interestingly, as I was verifying the facts for this article, I learned that ‘Moliannwn’ was one of Wales’ Bob Tai’r Felin’s best loved songs. Bob Tai’r Felin was the performance name of Bob Roberts, a famous Welsh folk singer from my Nain’s (grandmother) era, who hailed from the Bala area in North Wales. According to some well-read members of the online forum maes-e.com, ‘Tai’r Felin’ (the mill houses) were in the Cwmtirmynach area, and this resonated with memories of my Nain telling me (after we had been singing Moliannwn together one day) that Bob was from the area near Tryweryn. However the words were written by Benjamin Thomas, a poet who was originally from Bethesda but who lived for most of his life in the United States. Benjamin wrote the song whilst living in North Pawlet, New York State. He set the words to an American tune: ‘The Old Cabin House’.

                Anyway, back to the collection of short stories! This little book has given me that same kind of ‘Moliannwn-esque’ lift over these last few weeks of bleakness.  The stories are full of the dearness of the author and they transport you around the world as he considers society, relationships and identity. Whether he’s celebrating the new year, sipping champagne in a club in Rimini, or else sitting in a cafe in Bangor, during the bustle of the Christmas shopping rush, eating a jacket potato with cheese and onion; Aled Lewis Evans possesses and incredible talent for literary musing and reflection and he is able to encapsulate the atmosphere of a particular setting and occasion, brilliantly observing the personalities of those around him, and highlighting a particular nuance or inspirational message.

             And in an odd kind of way, whilst promoting their hair and skin care products, the beauty company L’ORÉL have created a mantra which draws on the same profound concept as that of Aled Lewis Evans’s book, and that of the folk song ‘Moliannwn’; we all deserve a ‘piece of blue sky’ in our lives. We all need them in order to blossom like the snow drop and prance like the lamb-on-the-hill. But sometimes we can become too busy with responsibilities or else we simply find it hard to give ourselves permission to relax. The message of this month’s column therefore is: claim your ‘piece of blue sky’ today; insist upon it – whether it’s a pair of ‘Ugg boots’, or a ‘Radley handbag’, or else simply a quiet hour back in bed on a Saturday morning reading a book that is just-for-fun. Demand your ‘piece of blue sky’ today, because you’re worth it!

               After writing this article I learned that a new collection of Aled Lewis Evans’s stories is about to be released, in English this time. The title of this collection is: ‘Driftwood’ and it is being published by Gwasg y Bwthyn (Cottage press), Caernarfon. It will be on sale in Siop y Siswrn, and there will be an official launch party on the 16th of June 2010 in Wrecsam Library. It is intended that this collection will be available before the National Eisteddfod 2011 which is to be held in Wrecsam. It is hoped that the collection will act as a bridge for non-Welsh-speakers, particularly those from North East Wales, to try reading some of Aled’s work in Welsh.  

               The launch party for Aled’s new collection of short stories, Driftwood, mentioned above, was very successful and the book is selling well and has met with some very favourable reviews. The collection contains some translations from the original Welsh language collection discussed in the article above, including “Can I have a piece of blue sky today?” and also an excellent fantasy story called: “The Border” to which I have written a piece of fan-fiction which picks up the story from where it left off and seeks to answer some of the questions set forth by the mysteries described in the original story. I have submitted this story (“Eerie Arddlin”) to a short story competition and have my fingers crossed that it will fare well! Whatever the outcome I shall either post it here in its entirety or else post directions here of how it may be obtained if it has been published as part of an anthology or similar. Copies of ‘Driftwood’ can be obtained from the Welsh shop: Siop y siswrn or else bought online at Amazon.co.uk: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Driftwood-Monologues-Aled-Lewis-Evans/dp/1907424040

This article was first written in Welsh and published in my column Synfyfyrion Llenyddol (literary musings) which appears in each issue of Y Clawdd, the Welsh-language community magazine for the Wrecsam area. It was published in May 2010 (Issue 139) and then posted here on the 22nd May 2010. I have translated it here so that everyone can enjoy it. / Cafodd yr erthygl yma ei gyhoeddi yn gyntaf yn fy ngholofn Synfyfyrion llenyddol sy’n ymddangos ym mhob cyfrol o Y Clawdd, papur bro ardal Wrecsam. Cafodd ei gyhoeddi ym mis Mai 2010 (Rhifyn 139), ac yna ei postio yma ar y 22ain o fis Mai 2010.  Yr wyf wedi ei cyfieithu fan hyn er mwyn i bawb cael ei fwynhau.

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I was a pupil at Ysgol Bodhyfryd (Bodhyfryd primary school) when I first began dreaming of becoming and author and a poet. I remember it as though it were yesterday. I had just written a poem on the theme of bullying: ‘Billy y bwli’ (Billy the bully) and Mr G was asking Owain, one of the boys in my class, to draw a suitable picture to accompany my poem so that it could go on the wall, because it was so good. Now I had always enjoyed writing poems and writing stories and I had received praise from several of my teachers for my work, including a story about: ‘Y cyw bach melyn’ (the little yellow chick) and an English poem: ‘The sea is like a…big, grey cat’. But on that day I had one of those eureka moments and decided that it was a writer that I wanted to be.

So I applied myself to perfecting my art. I wrote a collection of naive poems, I drew up ideas for novels, and I read, broadly and deeply. I enjoyed school and so I arrived at Ysgol Morgan Llwyd (Morgan Llwyd Secondary school) full of enthusiasm. I was put in top set for every subject and the future looked very bright indeed. Then, inexplicably, I began to fail. Skills such as spelling, neatness and numeracy began to grow in importance, where creativity and understanding had previously been emphasised. It was as though I had been successfully playing a game for years and suddenly the rules had been changed and I was the only one who was failing to adapt.

I was moved to set three (of four) in several subjects and a question mark hung over my ability to even pass the GCSEs. Even though I still enjoyed Welsh and English lessons, and the books and poems we studied, my interest in school work was deflated and my dreams of being an author vanished; in fact, I didn’t really think much about the idea of a ‘career’ at all until I received the unexpected news that I had done reasonably well in the GCSE exams. In a fateful, whirlwind moment I decided to go ahead to the ‘sixth form’.

Whilst studying for A levels I had my next epiphany; the Sociology teacher worked regularly with people who experienced learning difficulties, including dyslexia, and it was her belief that I showed some of the symptoms of the condition. After a long, arduous and drawn out process (spanning many months) I eventually had a test which confirmed that I did in fact have dyslexia. Initially devastated and concerned that this spelled the end of any University hopes, I began reading about the condition and I realised that it was dyslexia that was the root cause of many of my failings. I learned that it was possible to ‘fix’ many of the difficulties, for example punctuation, and I ploughed forth with renewed enthusiasm to learn how to write ‘properly’ (in the English language anyway).
I went on the study a degree at University and was then elected to serve for a year as a sabbatical officer in the students’ union. It was whilst working here, serving on validation panels for courses and modules, that I decided that I wanted to be an ‘academic’; studying, reading and writing for a living – what could be better?! I began reading novels again and, through the work of Jean Rhys and Margaret Atwood, I had a new epiphany: I recaptured my dream of being an author, with the new added twist of simultaneously being an academic.

In the beginning it was my intention to write in Welsh and I set about entering the local eisteddfodai and then the national eisteddfod. I attended a course at Ty Newydd writer’s centre: ‘Magu hyder’ (Nurturing confidence) which was excellent. However huge problems awaited me in this direction and I had to forget this particular idea for the time being (more about this some other time, in some future column perhaps!)
Now then, perhaps it would seem to be a rather strange choice, perhaps even unwise, for someone with dyslexia to want to be an author or an academic, let alone dreaming about succeeding in both fields? Doesn’t dyslexia mean that it is impossible for you to read and write? Well no is the short answer; with the long answer including descriptions of the way in which the condition effects the individual in a cluster of disadvantages but also different additional abilities. To summarise, it is almost as though the brain has been ‘wired differently’ rather than being ‘broken’.

As a result, particular and unique talents emerge, particularly (I would suggest) following years of hiding some difficulties through shame, for example: being unable to read an ordinary clock; getting lost in the city in which you have lived for the past ten years; having to constantly compensate for ‘short-term-sequential-memory-disorder’ through being pedantic about neatness and order. However happily enough it seems that it is possible to come to terms with the condition and to harness it to your advantage.

An excellent example of this is Sylvester Stallone’s portrayal of the boxer Rocky Balboa who is successful, despite every barrier, because of his strong spirit, his perseverance and his ‘eye of the tiger’. Indeed, Rocky II contains several references to the learning difficulties of the character, which are based on the difficulties of the writer himself (Stallone).

Just recently Henry Winkler (aka The Fonz) was discussing with Paul O’Grady that the only footage of him on a motorbike in the series Happy days was some thirty seconds during the opening credits, which were filmed just before he lost control of the bike (the same one used by Steve McQueen in The Great Escape) and fell off, leaving the bike to slide along the road until it came to rest under a lorry! He was unable to ride a motor bike because of his weak motor abilities which are a part of his dyslexia; and yet, he was the king of cool on this popular show.

In light of these stories I am therefore hopeful that I, in spite of my difficulties, will be able to focus this ‘dyslexic-wmff’ on the unique ‘talents and abilities’ which I possess, including my creativity and flare for original ideas, and somehow harness this to aim for a career in creative writing. With this in mind I have created a blog: http://www.saralouisewheeler.wordpress.com where I am busy posting my poems, short stories and articles from this column, and I will be promoting my ideas for novels on which I am currently working.

This article was first written in Welsh and published in my column Synfyfyrion Llenyddol (literary musings) which appears in each issue of Y Clawdd, the Welsh-language community magazine for the Wrecsam area. It was published in March 2010 (Issue 138) and then posted here on the 29th March 2010. I have translated it here so that everyone can enjoy it. / Cafodd yr erthygl yma ei gyhoeddi yn gyntaf yn fy ngholofn Synfyfyrion llenyddol sy’n ymddangos ym mhob cyfrol o Y Clawdd, papur bro ardal Wrecsam. Cafodd ei gyhoeddi ym mis Mawrth 2010 (Rhifyn 138), ac yna ei postio yma ar y 29fed Mawrth 2010. Yr wyf wedi ei cyfieithu fan hyn er mwyn i bawb cael ei fwynhau. (rhagor…)

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