Of The Ninth Verse

Extract

Idwal’s coming was the first thing that Anwen remembered. The beginning of her life in memory began with the beginning of his. Idwal was her anchor.

Truth be told, she did not remember his actual birth. She had no real memory of him slipping into the world, inevitable and streaked with blood. She recalled the long, slow months of her mother’s pregnancy. She remembered the growing, physical thing that held her separate from her mother, that pushed her away, an anthill growing day by day beneath her mother’s clothes. As ominous as an anthill. As unwanted.

She remembered the careful explanations, the clearing out of the small room at the back of the house, the re-construction of the cot and the re-painting of each cylindrical dowel that made up the bars in white gloss paint. She remembered thinking, what kind of creature has to be kept in a wooden cage?

And then that day… That day when her mother became preoccupied, and poured out tea onto the breakfast cereal. And then her mother taking to her bed upstairs, and Anwen being barred from her company. And taid taking her out into the fields, and distracting her with vigorous purpose, pointing out jackdaws hopping over the sheep-shortened grass and fox droppings on the ground, and hearing the sound of a cuckoo far away in the woods to the north. Cuckoos were always far away… She remembered that.

From high up in the fields she saw a car tracking up the lane, and heard the strain of its engine as it tackled the hill. Then she saw it stop at the gate, and saw a figure get out, and heard the slam of the door a fraction of a second after she had seen it happen. And the figure opened the gate and returned to the car, and she recognised the dark blue Morris Minor that the midwife owned making its way cautiously along the loose stone of the track to the house.

And her taid held her hand, and she remembered the feeling of it, fleshy and huge, enveloping her own small, soft fingers, the fingernails stained yellow-brown with nicotine, while his eyes followed the progress of the car. He watched it like a cat watching a suspicious newcomer. His mind was in the house all the time, as his lips spoke of the sheep and the promise of new lambs and the prospect of having cows to add to the farm’s revenue.

He settled on the grass, and settled her in the boat of his lap, saying inconsequential things about pirates and the fields around them being the sea, and his lap being the only dry spot in miles of ocean. And he unwrapped the cloth that held their lunch, and she ate sandwiches cut like wedges, haphazardly filled with cheese, and drank milk straight from the bottle, and prattled as two and a half year olds do, and for a while forgot about what was happening inside the stone walls of their house.

They had been outside for too long, and she was tired and restless. She had slept on her taid’s lap, and he had sat, still and patient, under her sleeping body, until she stirred herself into life again. She recalled looking up into the sky, seeing it vast and blue above her, and then realising that she was outside, and had not taken her nap in her bed, and had not been sung to by her mother. She cried then, and the tantrum overtook her, and shook through her, and her taid pinned her arms to her sides and spoke to her softly, holding her with the same gentle strength that he used to pin sheep for worming or shearing.

She pulled against him, trying to get back to the house – and he held her, and held her, and finally she gave up and slumped back against his broad, welcoming chest, and sat and stared down the fields towards the house, with its grey walls and drawn curtains. The midwife’s car still sat like a rock in the yard.

And then, after too much time had passed, and she had been forced to pee more than once on the grass like a sheep, and eaten all the remaining scraps of food, and grown bored of the wealth of nature around her, the curtains parted. She saw her nain’s face at the window, round and featureless from so far away. And her nain’s arm reached out and waved a white cloth, as if she were finally giving a surrender – and Anwen felt her taid’s whole body relax, even though she had never realised until that point that he had been tense.

‘Come on, girl,’ he said, getting to his feet, painfully easing pins and needles out of limbs too long still. ‘Let’s see what you’ve got.’

A sister, she thought. A sister, I want a sister…

When she tried to stand she felt too tired to walk, and almost cried again, but her taid picked her up, uncomplaining, and carried her down to the house.

All this, Anwen remembered.

They stepped into a house that was strangely quiet. It felt like a pall of death hanging in the house – but it was actually a pall of life. A solemn, silent acknowledgement of the miracle of a newcomer.

The midwife was washing her hands in the kitchen sink, looking tired but content. Anwen’s father stood hesitating at the door to the stairs, with a trepidation in the set of his back that Anwen had never seen before. He had been present at the birth of hundreds of lambs, and Anwen could not understand the difference.

‘Go on,’ the midwife said to him, looking over her shoulder at him as she dried her hands. ‘Go on up, love. She’s been asking for you forever, it seems.’

Anwen noticed his foot move a minute amount towards the threshold of the door. She saw his hands clench and unclench, his fingernails abnormally clean. Then her father turned and saw her, and she tore away from her taid and ran to him, and he hugged her with an absentmindedness that inhabited his entire body.

‘Is it my sister?’ she asked.

She looked up into his face, seeing only him – but it was the midwife who answered, saying, ‘It’s a little boy, darling. You’ve got a brother!’

‘I wanted a sister!’

The tears were spilling over again. Thinking about it now, remembering her two and a half year old self, she was ashamed of herself. Nine months of waiting, and unable to remember her mother not carrying her sibling inside her, and all she could think of was the sister she had not got. She hated the midwife for bringing her a boy.

‘Come on, Anwen bach,’ her father said, lifting her up into the air. ‘Let’s go and see what he looks like.’

And he carried her up the stairs before him like a shield, the wood of each step creaking at his tread.

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