‘Intervals in Making Lace’ by Diana Powell

Our new short story of the month is ‘Intervals in Making Lace’, by Diana Powell. This is one of a collection of stories set in the Black Mountains, where a group of women artists gather to work. As they do so, they spin tales of their childhoods, coloured by the folklore and landscape of their surroundings. But what do they really remember?

Diana Powell was born and brought up in Llanelli, and studied English at Aberystwyth University. She writes mainly short stories and novels. She won the last PENfro short story prize, and the 2013 Allen Raine Award. This year, she was a runner-up in the Cinnamon competition, and was longlisted for the Sean O Faolain, and the Over the Edge. Her work has appeared in a number of print publications, including The Lonely Crowd and Brittle Star.

She lives with her husband in North Pembrokeshire.

 

 

Intervals in making lace

 

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How do you describe a gap? It is, after all, a place with nothing there. You could say ‘an opening with two clear ends’ perhaps – like a break in a fence or a mountain pass (both easily found in our hilly, farm-shod landscape). Or holes in a fishing net; a clearing in a wood …  to let water out; to let light, animals, people, gather.

All these are gaps. All physical entities (although there is nothing there). There are plenty of examples both natural and man-made, difficult, but not impossible, to explain.

But how do you make sense of the other kind of gap – the less substantial, belonging to the mind, or the spirit?  

 

Recently, I have been enduring such a gap in my life: a break in its normal proceedings. An accident. It was an accident: all my own fault, of my own making. There is no one else to blame.

 

 Just like then, whatever they may have said.

 

‘Foolish Bron! Daydreaming again!’ Words from the past echo down to me. The voices of my mother and father, or sisters, fondly scolding. ‘Off in cloud-cuckoo-land, Bron? Again?’ True, then; true, now. For yes, I was daydreaming. You’d think I would have learnt … I had learnt! For a long time, I had! But no, my thoughts wandered away, and my body followed, leaving the stove on, and the towel draped too close. Easily done; it could happen to anyone! Though there are, no doubt, those who whisper about my fondness for a glass of whisky; a second glass. Those such as the old women in the Square, who tutt behind me as the till girl in Mace slips the bottle into a brown paper bag; all the while dismissing and excusing, somehow, their own favoured tipples – as if sherry and gin do not count as the devil’s potions, brewed to steal your wits and lead you to Hell.

But there was no whisky that night, though I am happy to admit to it on other occasions. After all, it is a quick, easy way of making gaps in your existence, if that is what you are after.

 

So … there was a fire, as testified by those who pulled me from it, and by the charred detritus of my worldly goods – and of my body. Yes, my body bears witness, but not my mind. Not my consciousness, for I remember nothing. Even the knowledge of the stove and tea towel were presented to me later. Lucky, some say. Better that way – to have been pushed into such dense oblivion by the fumes, and to fall from that into an even deeper chasm of unconsciousness (the greatest depth of my gap), so that I did not know the worst of the pain, or the prodding, patching and finishing that was needed to put me back together again, into some reasonable fashion. Did not know ... until I finally woke and had to face the torment, and battle through it (such floundering, such darkness, then!) Making tentative steps forward into painful reality, interspersed with welcome lapses back into insensibility … one step forward, two steps back. Onwards, upwards, until…

 

Until I am here. Now. Again. Yes, I have come through on the other side. For there is always this about gaps – the suggestion that they can be bridged or crossed; that they are something to emerge from. It may take time, and much effort. But, with some luck, and hope, you can make it. Maybe.

That is how it seems to me now – now that I am trying to put my life back together, and make sense of it all. Yet, in truth, none of what happened should have been strange to me. I should have been prepared. I should have known all about absences from consciousness; lapses from reality. I should have remembered. But back then we called such things by different names. We wrapped them in strange words, or wove them into magical imaginings, all meant to cloak, disguise or simply hide them. And so the truth was left unsaid, replaced by uncertainty and bewilderment. Another kind of gap; a deep, churning river that you struggled through, leaving you reaching for understanding like a drowning man gasping for air. But since I came back here, amongst you, memories have been returning – not from the accident, but from my earliest years, as if they are needed now. Like the echoing words, they flash into my mind, clear, not clouded. And beyond them, something else is taking shape – something not fixed, yet, not fully revealed, but which, if I start with what is definite, will also, perhaps, become more clear, so that I, too, will have some kind of story…

 

This is one of those scenes from long ago … I see myself, kneeling on the parlour floor, lost in wonder at the miracle before me. Someone (who?) had captured a giant snowflake, and trapped it in glass, and nailed it to our wall.

It hung there, ice-suspended, perfect in its symmetry, its intricacy. And unique – for I had, by then, been taught the nature of a single flake. The whole – snow – was white and dense; but one crystal, looked at through a magnifying glass, was a star fastened on a wheel welded on a spiral. Each one different, so we were told, and so we believed, none of us asking ‘How do you know? Have you seen them all?’

After all this was knowledge – something we were supposed to take for truth, handed down to us by those who ‘knew’ – our teacher, perhaps; or my father, the farmer, who had no truck with old wives’ sign-searching and rune-shuffling, preferring the weather-prognostications of his own sheep. And, from time to time, it would happen that a barb of this knowledge – a single fact, perhaps – would hook itself into my thoughts, anchoring them down in reality, just for a moment, keeping them sensible and earth-bound But, all too soon, such certainties would unfasten themselves, drifting up, up and away.

And so it was, as I sat in that room. For wasn’t there was a far bigger question for me to puzzle over than the technical composition of the snowflake? And it was this – which land of the giants had it come from? For, surely a flake this big can only have fallen in some gigantic realm, some land of towering beasts … or so it seemed to me, then.  

After all, they were careless creatures, in the habit of dropping things and leaving what had slipped from their grasp where it lay. And, sometimes, we human-folk gained from their carelessness. A giant’s tooth, foolishly discarded rather than tucked under a bolster, was our rickety bridge across the Gwyrne, made for us to trip-trap over, and play scaredy-cat tricks. The folds that gave shelter to our flocks on the Fwddog ridge, was a shawl mislaid. And other favoured features of our landscape had been fashioned from their castaways. The Giant’s Cauldron – a scooped dell in the heart of the slopes, perfect for sheltering sheep, or summer picnics. The circle of stones on the Height, a useful way-marker; ideal for hide-and-seek – wasn’t that a fallen, broken necklace, belonging to a vain, frittery wife? They gave us so much. How could we hate them?

And now, from the parlour floor, I saw them in their winter landscape, greeting the snow, just like we did. Arms outstretched, tongues poked out, laughing, cheering. And I saw the lumbering children fighting with snowballs the size of boulders – for, if this in front of me was one flake, what other size could their ammunition be? And did one of them –a girl, perhaps – catching sight of a single flake through a shard of icicle, witness the frozen filaments trapping space, to make this perfect filagree? And lose herself, just like me, in contemplation of its wonder?

 

I was not supposed to like giants and I was not supposed to like snow. Snow was an enemy to my farmer father – the enemy of all our farming community. It smothered the grass; it trapped the flow of sustaining water, then let it free in a deluge, laughing all the while at its cunning trick.

 Yet although we lived amongst mountains, they were not high enough to be coated every winter. After all, we were the Black, not the Snow-donned. So the hard winters were rare enough to be entered into folklore. The Great Snow that heralded the dark year of the disease and the mining disaster. The Blizzard of  ’62 that stole through the night, and was gone by a morning that never came. But even in the harshest of winters, our house was nestled in the crook of two hills, so that we were kept snug from the worst of the elements, from the cruelty that visited the heights.

So, when they came – those mornings when I woke to a different light, a different sound – I could not help but feel a leap in my heart, and dashed to the window to see the changed world, and rushed to dress to run out into it. Snow! Wonder! Magic!

Yes, this is how it seemed when I was small, seeing nothing of the bad in it – the dead sheep, the ruined crops, the flooding; seeing something ‘other’ instead.

For snow belonged in my dream-world of fantastical places, where I travelled on imaginary journeys, in search of mythical happy-ever-afters. I did not know it then, but I was Alice, looking for her wonderland: the children of Narnia going through the back of their wardrobe. And all this took place inside my head. For where else could it be, at that age, when I was not allowed to venture far into the woods where the wrach and the Tylwyth were, or the mountains, with their knights and giants?

But when the snow came, it was the closest I had to a dream landscape become real ... and all I need do was step outside my front door!

Snow waved a magic wand, shifting shapes, changing hues, wrapping in cotton wool; doing to the land around me what a kiss did to a frog. It turned the furrows of the field and the rutted mud of the yard into one seamless, rippling blanket, fit for a mountain-queen’s four-poster bed. It put lights in the trees, and stars on the dead sticks of winter flowers. In the village, the spire of the church became a white wizard striding amongst the sugar-coated cottages. And around and above, the mountains were welcoming, instead of their usual forbidding selves. The gashes and scars that etched their sides were filled in and smoothed over. Black become white become pure become mine!

And I would run out into my new domain, and touch it, feel it, be part of it, for all the while that it lasted. Believing, at last, that my dreams had come true.

 

And here is another memory from near that time – though a little later, yet in that self-same parlour. I open a drawer of my grandmother’s dresser, and find it full of miniature wooden sticks. Pale, carved cylinders, with notches cut out in random pattern, some painted, some with tiny glass beads attached. Sticks that made a pleasant sound when I ran my fingers through them, chiming them back and forth, yet somehow I knew that music wasn’t their purpose. But what else could it be? A secret child’s game, whose rules were foreign to me, involving, perhaps, some scattering and claiming, like our five stones? And this time, my mind ran away to the little people, instead of the big, inventing tiny borrowers who used the sticks as logs to build their houses; or as walking aids for hobbled bones.  

 

For this is how I was – the way that I lived, what I would do – embrace the snow; follow the rainbow in search of the pot of gold; invent once-upon-a-times in lands of make-believe full of big people, small people, any people but my own. Dolly day-dream. Little Miss Head in the Clouds. Wool-gathering; building castles in the air! Yes, these were the things that were said of me, to me, by my parents and sisters; and my aunts and my teacher; and even the bwgan-girls and the Old Women in the Square … by all. Said to me, perhaps, to snap me out of it, bring me back to earth, show me the error of my ways … except they didn’t, because I hardly heard them, my mind being so far away. And even if I did, I paid them no attention, thinking they were the fools – unlucky fools – not to see as I could see.

For giant snowflakes, caught and frozen; little sticks, clinking and jinking – of course, they belonged to another world, a fantasy realm, somewhere in my head. They were too big, too small, too miraculous to be part of my down-to-earth here-and-now, to be the work of my own hum-drum kind … even someone as special as my grandmother, who had brought the dresser with her when she returned to us from the Land over the Mountains, after my grandfather’s passing. And although everything else on and within the ancient piece of furniture was a relic of her husband, her past life and home, the little sticks surely could not be hers…

…except they were.

 

Lace.

A word.

A word I didn’t know, except joined to others. The flower caps, the rhaffau’r Tylwyth Teg, the spiders’ webs, the fairy’s or insect’s wings – all lacy. Gossamer-delicate and flyaway. White tendrils, wrapping themselves around thin air. A melted version of the snowflake on the wall…

And then, as I grew, the lace became a thing of its own – the ornament of our house, used to make plain pretty, poor posh. The cloth on the tea-tray for visitors; edgings, cuffs and collars on hankies and pillow-slips and best frocks; covers for backs and arms of chairs, called by a word I could never understand or say. All made from lace, so my mother one day told me. And all made, she said, by my grandmother. Sent in packages for Christmas and birthdays and any time in between.  A gift made with love, given with love, given to please. ‘Heirlooms for you and your sisters.’ Bottom-drawer, wedding-chest, treasures, all.

Yet how the lace was fashioned I never thought, beyond imagining, perhaps, slivers cut out of a folded whole, as in the festive streamers of trees and dolls we made. Shapes created by ‘taking away’, instead of threads worked around and in and about.

Until my grandmother, when she had been with us awhile, discovered me rummaging at the dresser drawer. And instead of being cross, as I was afraid she might, she explained the purpose of the little sticks, how they were indeed hers, and called bobbins – the tools she used for making her lace, with swift fingers, and sharp eye, and pure intent, creating work of fiendish complexity, wrought just as fine as one of those spiders’ webs caught in the dew-spattered dawn. With them, she made all the gifts she had ever sent – useful, practical, simple decoration. Which was why, of course, it was my grandmother who had captured the snowflake … except she hadn’t. Instead, she had framed the most exquisite example of her handiwork, then given it to her favourite child, my mother, to be placed upon our parlour wall.

So … it was my grandmother who made the lace and showed me how to make it, too. Cross-twist-cross, following pins in patterns. In, out, over, under. Focussing my eyes and hands, chaining my thoughts close in front of me, where they dare not stray, in case I made a fatal slip. And by doing this, I learned that mindfulness had its time and place, and was not without its own virtue, as I had always thought, in my need to believe that my own flights of fancy, my interludes from the daily grind, were the proper way to be. But, yes, she told me that these things were good too, calling my ways by pleasing names, rather than pouring scorn. ‘Reaching for the stars’; ‘a seeking spirit’. She confirmed my trust and faith in myself, as no one had done before.

And this was something else she gave me – the joy of the printed word. Books! They had been nothing to me before she came, thinking as I did that they belonged with ‘facts’ and ‘rote’ and ‘tied to a chair’. But it was she who introduced me to Alice’s wanderings, and Narnia, and Middle Earth, showing me how books themselves could be dream worlds, how you could lose yourself in them, then find yourself remade; or leap into magic and wonder, without going out in the snow. It was she, too, who taught me the value of spaces, linking together the books and the lace.

 ‘Imagine if there were no spaces between letters and words,’ she told me. Imagineiftherewerenospacesbetweenwords. ‘And look at the lace. See how the gaps are as important as the thread, for without them, it would be a solid whole.’  

This is what I learnt, this is what my grandmother showed me, teaching my sisters, too; filling our house, not with sadness and grief, as you might expect, but with wisdom and peace. And so later, when we looked back at the few years she was with us, we remembered a time of comfort and balm. (Yes! It was one of those ‘good’ gaps. A true interlude, cosseting and serene!) And, later still, we came to recognise it as a bridge between the infant and teen, between what was and what became our existence, when everything changed. ‘Change is good’, was one of her favourite sayings, but she had gone to be with my grandfather, by the time real change came upon us.  Change, changeling – something out of the old tales. Is that what happened?  

 

It was the house, first, that told us of his coming. We – the three sisters – felt a heaviness pressing around us, even though it was the time for window-opening, for dust-banishing.

Doors shut themselves, as we were about to go through them. The air was full of sighing, the shut rooms full of whispering.

‘Ghosts?’ we asked ourselves and each other. My sisters knew of such things, even whilst lacking my observance. Yet the noises we had heard had lasted through the day, and the dog didn’t crouch or whine.

The cream curdled in the jug; the bread and cakes failed to rise. ‘Witch?’ A hare in the churn; a visiting hag spurned? But we kept our Bible safe in its chest, and a rowan tree guarded the door, making us doubly secure.

‘Poltergeists? Tylwyth?’ Mugs, dishes, plates flew out of Mam’s hands, arcing into the air, then crashing to the floor, filling her with tears, that Dad rushed to comfort. Had she – they – been taken over by evil spirits?

Then the Women in the Square nodded knowingly at each other, when my mother passed. And the bwgans chanted songs we did not understand about family ways and oven buns. And my mother grew fatter even though the bread and cakes had been thrown … until finally, Lona, the eldest, almost-grown, said she knew … of course, she knew. How stupid she had been! It was all so obvious, now.

A child come late. Called different things, meaning different things to different people. There were the Old Women, with their smirks behind her back, and their congratulations to her face; the bwgans with their open pointing and laughing. Even the aunts were unsure, fretting and fussing, anxious. ‘Too old?’ they wondered. ‘Yes. No.’

But then there were those who called it a blessing; a late gift, a surety for the future. And those who said perhaps, this time, it would be a son, the farmer’s helpmeet, a boy to inherit both work and place – more useful than any girl. More needed, wanted, more beloved.

And me? ‘Bron bach’, the ‘baby’ among us, would soon be forced to be baby no more. The little one, made to grow up; the ‘last’ no longer last. What did I think about the child whose coming would alter forever my standing in the family, in my very being? A presence that opened up a gap in our existence that hadn’t been there before? A movable void, that stretched or shrank, depending on which sister you were – sixteen years from Lona, fourteen from Beth, ten from me. So many years between! But although the gap was there for all of us, and was, of course, wider for the other two, ‘it’ and I were on either side, which somehow mattered more. Sometimes, when the touch of my grandmother was upon me, I would welcome the prospect of this soon-to-be-with-us arrival, for we would have a special bond, being somehow ‘joined’, leaving no space between us at all. But then a dark mood would creep upon me, and the gap would turn into a gulf, that I couldn’t see across, or fathom, and I simply could not believe that this new sibling – this interloper – would fit into our lives…my life.

These were the thoughts that came and went, mingling with my stories, muddling fact and fantasy, so that a helpless unborn babe turned into a changeling child, a stolen princeling, a forgotten twin, a special treasure. And all the while, the house still groaned with the weight of expectancy – the house and all those inside (my mother most of all) – as we waited for its coming, waiting so many weeks, so many months, (Lona spelling it all out for us) but in the end not having to wait as long as any thought.

For the child made late was born early, catching the worst snow for a decade – far worse than any child-remembered fall. And the doctor was unable to leave his house, leaving only us to witness the birth – or hear its sound, at least, huddled as we were at the hearth beneath. Still, a birth at home was not so unusual then, in that place, though not so good, perhaps, in a mother so old. But the boy – for it was a boy, the first and only – looked well enough, seemed well enough, though quiet, strangely quiet, for a baby. A beautiful baby, who did not cry, who never cried. ‘There’s good he is!’ the aunts would say, glad that my ageing mother would get her rest, yet muttering to themselves. ‘It’s good, isn’t it,’ they also said, ‘that he spends so much time asleep.’ Except that he wasn’t asleep. Instead, he lay there awake, eyes wide, a baby who preferred to lie, rather than be held, who just wanted to gaze out of his crib and stare at the world around him.

And I, standing by that crib, would stare back at him, wondering what he saw, wondering who he was, and what he meant to me. Friend, or foe? Nothing, or everything? Bound together, or separate forever? Still I didn’t know.

He was born in the snow; he was to be christened in the snow, in that winter that would not go away. And they were to dress him in the same lace gown as I had worn, covered by the same lace shawl – both made by my grandmother, of course. She had called that shawl her proudest creation, a piece even more finely wrought than the framed filigree, and said it was made just for me … only me. So the night before the baptism I took her finest embroidery scissors and snipped here and there the threads of the entwined flowers and pinioned birds, freeing them from their captive form; making small spaces into large, changing it into something not quite so perfect, after all.

But if my parents noticed, nothing was said, not before the ceremony, as the baby was dressed in his finery, or later, as we waited in the snow to enter the chapel. And, as I stood there, I thought again of that trapped snowflake, and looked up at the sky, where my brother was gazing, too. And, as fresh snow began to flurry, landing on his swaddled form, it seemed to me that the tiny flakes sought out and clung to the tattered hem, filling the blank spaces I had made. So crystal and stitching were woven together and become one, and all I had imagined that distant day was not so foolish after all. And I could believe that I was right to do what I had done, because it made my dreams come true.

Then we hurried inside to escape the snow, and the minister blessed and baptised the child with water just thawed from ice, and still he did not cry. And some said that was bad luck, and did not bode well, recalling this misfortune, and that sad tale. But others said ‘what could possibly happen to such a beautiful, good, blue-eyed, baby boy?’ Nothing can happen at all…

 

He was with us, yet he was not there. Present, yet absent; near, yet far. That is how it was as he grew. At first, his strangeness didn’t bother us. Still he did not cry, no matter how often he fell and scuffed his knees, when learning to walk. And ‘good’ we said, and ‘brave little boy’. Why should we complain about such a thing? Such hardiness was welcome in a farmer’s child. But that he didn’t smile, or laugh, no matter what faces we pulled, or tom-fooling we invented – perhaps that should have worried us more. And still he hardly slept, yet was happy to lie there, uncomplaining, eyes open, though not focussing on any who stood close by – the first sign of his aloofness, perhaps, his apartness from us all. And although he learnt his words well enough, he rarely spoke, as if he saw no need. And perhaps he was right, for his beauty cast a spell on all of us around him (including, yes, even me!) causing us to wait hand, foot and finger – except that there was not much ‘waiting’ to be done, because there was so little he seemed to need.

When he was older, he would sit at the table, between my sisters, his plate in front of him, his mug in his hand, but not eating, not drinking, not joining in our prattle – not being ‘one of the family’ at all.

Or he would go with my father into the yard – the ‘little man’ following his dad, to ‘help’ with the milking. But he would stop halfway to the shed and just stand there looking towards the mountains, or down the valley, yet not seeming to see. And my father would turn round, and go back to him, and call his name, and shake his shoulder gently, but he would never ‘return’ until he was ready, as if he neither heard nor felt these attempts to bring him back to the here and now.

And sometimes my mother and aunts would sit him on the settle, and go about their baking, thinking to make him part of it, make him laugh, even, when daubing a thumb-print of flour on his nose, or by making silly shapes with the dough; thinking to please him by giving him the spoon to lick, and the first cake out of the oven, with the biggest cherry on top – something any child would love, something Lona, Beth and I had loved, so surely he would, too? Except he didn’t … or perhaps he did, but simply couldn’t show it, sitting there, watching them for a while, with a slight upward curl to his lips – the closest he came to a smile – until he would turn towards the flames of the fire, and keep his gaze there, but not there – rather, on some point in, through, beyond those dancing shapes. Sometimes, he was gone for the shortest time, a blink of an eye, the click of a finger against a thumb. Others, it would last for what seemed like hours, when we would all gather around, puzzling, fussing, fretting, to no avail.

Who first whispered ‘he’s away with the fairies?’ Was it the west wind, blowing from the Mother country? Or the wren gossiping amongst the crooks and crannies of the house? Or was it one of the aunts at the baking table, who had waved her hand in front of his face and seen that he did not blink? The bwgan girls, running up the lane to our gate, leaning over and laughing, at where he lay where he had fallen, on his back, watching the clouds? Or the Old Women in the Square, seeing him trail behind the rest of us, until he would simply wander down the wrong road, humming to himself, until one of us would notice he was missing and fetch him back?

And when the words were said, I remembered how the same thing had been told of me, along with that ‘Dolly Day-dream’ and ‘head in the clouds’. ‘She’s away with the fairies! Yoo-hoo, Bron! Come back, won’t you?’ But, in truth, I knew the fairies hadn’t caught me, no more than the giants, or the wrach in the middle of the wood. They were in my head, in my dreams, and later in my books. Yes, sometimes, in the snow, it was as if magic and mystery were all around me, but I could always return if I wanted to. And it didn’t need the wave of a magic wand, or the flash of a wizard’s eye. I could do it myself, bring myself back. Just me.

With him, I sensed that it was different – as if his mind travelled away, whilst his little body stayed rooted to its last-entered space.

 ‘Where are you?’ I asked him one day, standing before him, when the fugue was upon him, wanting to know. ‘Where have you gone?’

 I thought that, even if no one else could, I would be able to picture the realm he was in, being practised in such things. All I would need was a word or two of guidance, and then I would understand what was happening to him, and reclaim him for ourselves.

But, of course, there was no answer, because he wasn’t there. I reached out my hand and touched him, felt his bone, his flesh, his substance. They were all solid enough, though frail for a country boy. Yet, yet … he, my brother, was insubstantial in this place, in front of me, because he existed elsewhere.

And when he returned, and I asked him again, as we all did – where have you been, can you tell us what it’s like, what is happening to you – all he would do was shake his head, shrug his shoulders, and carry on his simple way.

There were those who judged from afar, hearing of him, but never setting eyes on him, who pronounced him a changeling, not knowing he had been baptised early, or that he was a beautiful child, though, yes, indeed, somewhat puny. But those who looked on him saw from his resemblance to us that he must truly belong. For his beauty came from inheriting the best features of us all – my father’s clear blue eyes, my mother’s blonde curls, Lona’s clear skin, Beth’s perfect bow lips. No, there could be no doubt that he was our blood – that much we knew.

And there were others in the church across the valley who muttered of demonic possession, and demanded that we take him to the true House of God, to be freed. But if anything possessed him, it was surely an angel, so quiet, good and well-behaved he was, never complaining, no matter what hurt he had, never minding his strange little life. And soon we stopped minding it too. It was just how he was, so why not let him be?

 

The day he went out in the snow, I was the one who should have been watching him.

Snow, again. Another winter whiteness – come late this time, with the lambs already born, needing Mam and Dad and Lona and Beth, to go out into the fields and bring them home. Leaving me inside with one simple task to do. ‘Look after him, Bron!’ There was no need to play with him, no need to entertain him; he would be quite happy just sitting there. So I put him at the table with a few blocks, and sat there beside him with my book, and read bits to him now and then, not because he understood but so he could hear my voice. And then… And then…

Where did I go? I got lost in the words, in the story, just as I used to do, just as I had always done, but should have grown out of by then. What story was it? A story of the usual kind, with princes, princesses, and knights in shining armour, and giants and elves, and heroes and villains. Nothing new, but well told. I was lost, following the hero and heroine wherever they went, up this mountain, through this wood, in their search for whatever it was they were looking for. Far, far away from a farmhouse in the Black Mountains, from its nice, warm kitchen, the solid, scrubbed table … from which a little boy rose, so silently, and went to the door, his steps hardly touching the ground. He reached for the handle and opened it, still without a sound, then stepped out, then walked across the yard, through the gate, into the fields, into … where?

 

Snow fills things in. According to time and place. There is no need for giant snowflakes. It is said around here that a small, steady fall is just as bad. ‘Eira man, eira mawr’ the shepherds mutter, looking skyward from the hills. So it was the day he slipped out of the house. It was only a few minutes before I noticed he was gone – three or four … five at most – woken from my dreaming by a cold blast through the door. But the fall had started again just as he left, filling in the small indentations that were his footsteps, so that there was no trail to follow, no print to lead us to him.

For we followed soon enough, my parents, Lona and Beth being close at hand, and answering quickly to my panicked calls. And we searched high and low; and all the villagers we knew, and some we didn’t, joined us, till we had scoured the mountains, the woods, the rivers, the buildings, searching surely further than he could ever have gone.

But snow deceives. Is deceptive. Things familiar are changed to alien forms. The church changed into a wizard is a nice enough thing, but a deadly marsh become a velvet pasture, or a filled-in mountain crevice turned into a welcome path, or an ice-cold stone persuading a little boy that it is a mattress for his tired self – these are not so good.

We never found him. It was thought he would come back to us in the thaw, for snow melts and reveals what it has taken. But he was gone forever. We still looked – all that spring and summer we looked – but there was nothing. Not so much as a scrap of his shirt on a hook of barbed wire, or a strand of his blond hair caught on a briar, or his little shoe.

Where had he gone? For there had been no Conwyll Corph, no Cyhyraeth, no cock-crowing in the night. And if there was no death-portent, how, then, could he have died? Those who had first spoken of fairies, now spoke of them again, saying he was away with them for good. The Tylwyth had come to claim him, not wanting to lose his beauty for even a single day. He was to be a prince amongst them, and, when he was grown, to be wed to the Fairy Queen. And stay forever content and rich inside the fairy realm.

It was a nice enough tale for us to cling to – nicer than those who brought up the giants who ate little children, or the witch that stole them away to her little house in the forest, and kept them in a cage, as slaves.

Or there were those in the village with their more prosaic explanations – a stranger had been seen, going from farm to farm, looking for work – an evil-looking man. Or had we recently turned any gypsies away? Or … then it was back to the snow. A simple case of bad weather in the mountains … just snow and cold – it needed nothing more.

Or … but he was gone, however it had happened, wherever it was, and nothing could bring him back, however hard we prayed.

Strange, but the depth of the void he left surprised us. Such a bit of a thing, always so quiet and undemanding – yet when he had gone, how great was his absence, even though he had been away from us so often before. We knew that some said it was for the best. After all, what would happen when he was older? How would he manage then? But we had never thought of such things (though, perhaps we should have) loving him as he was – whatever that might be.

And they said they didn’t blame me, it wasn’t my fault. It could have happened to anyone at any time. And I mustn’t blame myself. But I did. Of course I did. What else could I do?

So, after that, I didn’t love snow any more. I hated it, and still do. As soon as I see the first treacherous flakes, I begin to shake and lock myself away where I can’t see it fall, man or mawr.

And I stopped reading books, despising the way they trap your thoughts and take you where you are not supposed to be – in some imaginary land, instead of the here-and-now, where real life is.

And I tried to forget the giants, or fairies or any of their tales, with their mythical happy-ever-afters. They were simply not true.

These things were lost to me, along with him.

Instead, when I got older, I began to make the lace for my daily bread. No snowflakes trapped in glass – there was no demand for that kind of thing, nor for dainty mats to put on hall-tables, or the back of parlour settees. But panels and hems for christening gowns and wedding-dresses – these were wanted by those who liked the best, especially when made in the old-fashioned way. So I painstakingly pinned out my patterns, and used my grandmother’s bobbins, and criss-twist-crossed over and over again.

And just as my grandmother told me, such work requires such attentiveness and precision. And for a long time, my work, along with, yes, those glasses of whisky, kept my thoughts in check, my dreaming locked away. Until … was it you? Was it when I came to this place to ply my trade, and began to listen to your tales? Did they remind me of my forgotten fantasies, and lead me back to my old ways, until the night a stove was left on, and a towel carelessly draped…? But see – I am giving blame elsewhere, when I have said it belongs to no one but me.

And now I have had an interval in my lace-making, as I have had in many things. For, of course, I can’t do it yet; my hands are still not properly healed. The doctors say they will improve, though whether they will regain enough dexterity to work the bobbins I, and they, do not know.

But still I come here to be amongst you – all part of that ‘getting my life back together’ and ‘coming out the other side’. And you are kind enough to have me and help me, even when I am miserable and useless; even when I cast blame upon you and warn you of the dangers of dwelling in the imagination, and telling your fantastical tales.

 Yet, who am I to criticise? For here I have been, with my thoughts wandering again, though in another kind of way ... back to the long-ago, instead of some fabled place. Back to the truth, instead of some story (for, no, whatever I may have said, it isn’t a story!) Back to what I remember, or think I remember. Except … isn’t the past a never-never-land, as make-believe as any once-upon-a-time. With an unhappy-ever-after that never lets you sleep?

 

 

 

 

 

Diana Powell

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Review from The Sunday Times

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“Like the city he grew up in, Liam Carson’s memoir of life in Belfast winds like a tangled web of streets, dreams, cultures and philosophies, where every page, pavement and street corner offer another dab of colour to a fascinating picture… Carson’s natural push against his parents in the 1970s coincided with the devastating change in Belfast’s complexion. Its nascent punk scene offered a soundtrack to life in a war zone. While Carson read new-wave science fiction and moved to London, his mother, Mary, drifted away from a language partly hijacked by republican violence. His father, though, retreated to his books. It seems he was living, writes Carson, ‘just off reality.’

“In time, the detached universe William created offered his son profound truths that defined the rest of his life. His father often spoke of tearmann—the idea of the Irish language as sanctuary where the language’s power to shape culture could be celebrated and explored. It is a daunting idea, but Carson handles his journey to accepting the ideas with great skill, successfully conveying the concept of the Irish language as a living, breathing organism without alienating the simplest, most compelling episodes of family life that make this book so moving in parts.

“His description of his mother’s Alzheimer’s disease and eventual death are blessed with clarity, gentleness and a heart-wrenching sadness. His memories of shared moments with his father are beautifully rendered… Carson’s greatest achievement is recycling a complex mix of emotions and ideas on language into a deeply moving read.”

Michael Foley, The Sunday Times

04/07/2012 - 15:28
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Review from The Sunday Telegraph

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"A tender, contemplative memoir examining Carson's upbringing in a happy but complex Irish-speaking household during the Troubles; it eulogises not only his parents but the Irish language itself"

The Sunday Telegraph 2012

17/12/2012 - 10:43
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Call Mother a Lonely Field New Welsh Review

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"Amy Mc Cauley discovers language is sanctuary in this memoir nominated for the Ondaaje Prize"

Liam Carson’s Call Mother a Lonely Field is a memoir of a very strange kind. Although it features some of the standard characteristics of memoir: family narrative, the odd humorous anecdote, photographs, etc, the book is much more than the sum of its parts, chiefly because Carson turns the usual chronological format inside out. Time here is fluid; like memory, it doesn’t simply represent the accumulation of events in a sequential manner. Carson instead puts forward an alternative view – one popularised by JW Dunne - which argues that ‘all time is eternally present. In other words, the past, present and future coexist.’ Carson goes on to suggest that ‘we exist on two levels, both inside and outside time.’ This idea is absolutely central: it relates not simply to the philosophical atmosphere but to the structure of the text, which embodies the very concept it proposes.
The book is also about our experience of identity. Carson comes across as a protean character – a man who reads, dreams and wanders. At various stages of his life he adopts different selves, each of which he rejects. But his relationship to these selves is alive with the spirit of enquiry. Carson is careful to resist the monomania of autobiography, however. This is firstly (and most importantly) a paean to his parents, and secondly a love letter to the Irish language.
Carson, who was born in 1962 in Mooreland, part of the Falls area of Belfast, writes lyrically about his parents, ‘the Ma’ and ‘the Da’. He says:

My parents were Falls people, with all that they entailed. Catholic people. Nationalist people. They belonged to a particular world with particular values […] In the ritual of the mass they were bound to their neighbours, to the world, to God. In the incense, the statues, the Stations of the Cross, the rosary, the stained glass, the Latin, they reaches a from of communion and community that held up their daily lives.

He goes on to say that ‘One afternoon [my Da] told me if he’d been in Iran, he would have been a devout Muslim. Perhaps it was not so important to be Catholic as it was to believe.’
‘The Da’, for me, is the most fascinating character. His singular strength is underlined by a story Carson hears only after his father’s death. When the Da joins the IRA in the 1940s, he soon realises he will have to kill. Unable to square this with his strong Christian faith, the Da leaves, only to find himself arrested and jailed. When he is released from prison he returns to work (as a postman) he finds his pay has been docked for his time spent inside. Carson writes, ‘He took a court case, logically arguing that since his employer and his gaoler were one and the same – the Royal Mail and His Majesty’s Prison Service, in other words, the King - then it followed what his employer was the cause of his absence.’ The Da wins the case and sets a legal precedent.
Call Mother a Lonely Field is full of these unrecorded, ‘unofficial’ histories. Personal family mythologies – songs, stories, poems and dreams – stand shoulder to shoulder with violent reality of Belfast’s ‘Troubles’ from the 1970s onwards. Structurally. I is like a home, each chapter is a different room witits own distinctive atmosphere and pressure, while the presence of dreams is a brave and valuable addition. They represent the hidden strand – the inner supports – of a person’s experience, and it is Carson’s unification of physical, human, linguistic and psychic geographies which make this a real stand-out read. If I had to pick a weakness I would say the ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ section of the book (detailing Carson’s love of comic books) felt slightly out of place, but otherwise I found it quite gripping. Most powerful for me was Carson’s suggestion that language is an environment we inhabit - a sanctuary which can be used to represent the various visible and invisible environments we occupy both physically and in our imaginary lives. The hidden places of memory, childhood, identity and dreams therefore become achievement is the meshing of the public and private worlds so often kept separate by the official records of history.

Amy McCauley for New Welsh Review

04/09/2013 - 11:45
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