Authors: Emyr Humphreys
Tags: #epub, #ebook, #QuarkXPress
The Woman at the Window
WITH Lord Parry of Penhesgyn there was no means of telling whether he was pleased to see you or pleased for you to see him. In his early seventies he was well preserved. The same broad thick-lipped smile could be discerned in old school photographs when he was an outstanding sixth-former and the smile had stood him in good stead throughout a long political career. In retirement there was little point in abandoning the attitude of a lifetime. He still enjoyed a fine head of white hair and an imposing if portly proconsular presence. He listened with a slight tilt of the head as though considering a petition that he would prefer to grant rather than reject if the government's finances would allow it.
He still liked to demonstrate democratic goodwill and throw back his distinguished head to indulge in rich baritone chuckles. He had held high office and even higher had been in reach but, as he was ready to confess, he lacked that streak of ruthlessness that makes it possible to plunge a knife in a colleague's back. In a sense he was a victim of his own irrepressible good nature. âAlas' he would say. âAll political careers end in failure, so who am I to complain?'
His cousin, the crowned and chaired poet Gwilym Hesgyn, was altogether different. He looked like a man who had been whittled down by a lifetime of disappointments, and this in spite of his eisteddfodic triumphs. He sat in his study in his orchard bungalow staring at the magnificent view of the mountains, and longing for a fresh surge of inspiration that would prove once and for all and beyond question the unique qualities of his gift. The world had never sufficiently appreciated his vision or the lifetime of struggle and sacrifice he had devoted to preserving his heritage and his beloved commote of Hesgyn from alien invasion. His territory as much as his talent had been overrun by hostile forces: landmarks of the spirit had been bulldozed and replaced with unsightly evanescent structures. Farmsteads and fields with poetic, ancient names had been replaced by bungaloid developments occupied by newcomers with raucous voices and unruly children.
When he learned that his cousin, âthe noble lord' as he called him with monotonous sarcasm, had decided to retire to Plas Penhesgyn, it seemed to him a fresh insult to add to a lifetime of injury. The man dared to set himself up as a latterday lord of the manor and let it be known that his childhood haunts meant more to him than they could possibly mean to anyone else. It was to his long-suffering daughter Rhian Mai that Gwilym Hesgyn snarled:
âReturn of the Native! Return of the Traitor more like.
The nerve of the man. The sheer brassnecked nerve!' Rhian Mai trembled and held her breath. Nothing muchÂ
had gone well for her since she made the dreadful mistake of marrying a charming but feckless Dane in the early eighties. Claus Fleming was unable to distinguish between fact and fiction, or as her father put it, âhe was a born liar'. For example, was he in fact a Dane or a German? He was born in Flensburg, but he told them that he wrote in German. He came to Hesgyn Bay to snorkle and remained, he said, to complete his best-selling thriller in the caravan he rented in their orchard. On the very site where the bungalow now stood with its wonderful view of the mountains. His book would be translated into fluent English and as many as twenty-three languages and without question make his fortune. It was Claus this and Claus that throughout that remarkable summer.The sky above him was always blue and the sun was his halo. Claus said his true love was poetry and he seemed to listen enthralled to Gwilym Hesgyn's exposition of the mysteries of cynghanedd and the twenty-four metres.
Father and daughter were taken in, although the father never admitted it. In the end the unpublished author went off to Thailand leaving a trail of debt and misery behind him. As Mrs Fleming she played the organ in Moriah chapel on alternate Sundays. She attended the evening Bible class conducted on Tuesday evenings by Catrin Dodd, the doctor's wife. This offered more than an escape from her father's rumbling discontent. She felt the need to explore a book that might lead her to the true nature of love and forgiveness: to forgive herself as much as her errant husband. It would help her to unravel the tightening knots of years of resentment.
For Rhian Mai the prospect of the return of a distinguished relative offered some relief on a social level. Ever since the collapse of her marriage she had moved around the district virtually on tiptoe for fear of disturbing some further consequence of Claus Fleming's irresponsible behaviour. To have an important uncle in residence might enable her to walk down the street with her head held a little higher. There remained such a thing as being well-connected.
âThey say he's very nice. Tada!'
âNice! Being nice is nothing. Any fool can be nice. Rogues and politicians make a speciality of being nice!'
Her patient and prayerful longing for peace and reconciliation in the wider family seemed answered when a printed invitation to a housewarming at Plas Penhesgyn arrived, with a handwritten note from his lordship, signed Clem, anticipating a friendly chat about the good old days and all the spirited adventures of their youth. It seemed that life could take a turn for the better, until her father's stubborn growl crushed her hopes.
âI don't want to smell the man let alone talk to him!' Her father sank further into his rocking chair to nurse his resentment. From under overgrown eyebrows he glared at his daughter.
âYou've got no idea,' he said. âNot the slightest idea what I've had to put up with. All down the years. My mother thought the sun rose in his arse.The great hero of the family.
She dressed me in his reach-me-downs as if I were being handed down royal robes. Crippled my feet in his old football boots. Ruined any chance of my reaching the first eleven. He was captain of the school and nothing I did was ever good enough. Even when I won the chair he'd been elected to the English Parliament and my mother was convinced he'd be the next Prime Minister. All he ever had was a good memory. Photographic. I heard him say so himself. He could master a brief in record time and then chuck it away to make way for the next one. Just as he chucked principles away. Not to mention people!'
His discontents rumbled on. The peaceful routine in the orchard bungalow was often disrupted by the chaired bard's restless urge to devise means and methods, chiefly surreptitious, of exposing the shortcomings of his cousin: or the shabby subterfuges of that long political career. He fulminated, and at most mealtimes she had to listen.
âJustice must be rocklike! That's what I believe. The fulcrum of a civilised society. People should understand that.' He cherished the phrases. He took time to hammer them out and in some sense saw them as part of his bardic mission.Â
âRocklike,' he said. âOtherwise it will melt. Evaporate. Blow away and be forgotten. Lost in the sand.'
For her own part Rhian Mai wondered if that indeed was the case. Not that she dared openly to disagree. Her father was too easily upset and driven into one of his rages of frustration. She racked her brains for some way of bringing up the case for reconciliation as a general principle. The sad truth was since the failure of her marriage and all the troubles that went with it, her father was only too quick to demonstrate contempt for her lack of intellect and even common sense. She spent more time in chapel practising on the organ. She cherished the secret hope of discussing the nature of forgiveness on a one-to-one basis with the doctor's wife. More than her own shyness restrained her. There was no knowing what sleeping dogs of family disgrace would be disturbed if she started blurting everything out.
Catrin Dodd was a formidable woman who in Rhian Mai's eyes oozed success from every pore. She had given up her career in the University Department of Religious Studies in order to bring up three burly sons, and the fame of her achievement spread wide in Presbyterian circles. While she viewed the doctor's wife with admiration and awe, she found the doctor himself intimidating. Since he was a keen amateur practitioner of the strict metres he was a frequent visitor at the orchard bungalow calling, as he put it, to consult the oracle. As a past master of his art he paid Gwilym Hesgyn exaggerated respect. He had a loud voice, a jovial manner and a bulky presence. She was obliged to nod more than once when he repeated that her father in France would be addressed as âCher MaÃ®tre'. She could never quite tell when the doctor was joking or being serious. Her father appeared to have no difficulty at all in making the distinction; beyond the study door she could hear his contented snigger punctuate the doctor's loud laughter. It was possible too much isolation had made her socially tone deaf.
In the Bible class Rhian Mai concentrated on being unobtrusive. There were teachers present as well as a philosophical market gardener. She judged herself the least educated among the group and certainly the person most in need of some form of spiritual sustenance. The others seemed able to chat lightheartedly among themselves. Their lives were so much brighter, more fulfilled than her own, and this was reflected in the ease and confidence of their discourse. Should David have taken steps more speedily to be reconciled with his son Absalom, and was Hushai just as guilty as Ahitophel of deception and double-dealing? And did it all fit in with the workings of Providence, or just a pattern of a national myth? All Rhian could think of was David's grief, and the tears welled up in her large and mournful eyes.
Her distress did not escape Catrin Dodd's notice. She was tempted to take her aside after the class and ask her if anything was troubling her. It was part of her remit to take a pastoral interest in her students. Mrs Fleming had allowed herself to murmur aloud that if families couldn't get on how could the family of nations be expected to live in peace with each other? This was sufficient to determine Catrin Dodd on a course of action. The following morning, at breakfast, the doctor's wife urged her husband to tackle Gwilym Hesgyn at the first opportunity.
âHe's a bad-tempered old misery guts at the best of times,' she said. âHe's making his daughter's life miserable. He listens to you. Use your authority. Tell the old man to think of his daughter. Tell him selfishness is bad for his health. He's so monumentally thoughtless and he calls himself a poet. Tell him to let bygones be bygones â or whatever.'
âIs that an edict?'
His wife was adding to his workload but he approached the task in his usual cheerful manner. He had a couple of new leaflets on blood pressure and the treatment of the prostate gland; also an englyn sequence of his own that he would like Gwilym Hesgyn to take a critical look at. Armed with these he paid the poet a visit. The doctor found the chaired bard in his study studying the list of subjects for the next National Eisteddfod but one, which had arrived with the morning post.
âWell now then Gwilym Hesgyn! How about it? Doesn't the ever-changing light on the mountains inspire you? What a subject! I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills. You've only got to sit here and set the pulse of composition racing!'