For those who haven’t been keeping up with the previous Aunt Mable stories or who are new or want to be reminded, allow me to fill you in. Nobody in the small mountain village of Cythry has seen Mable for seventy years. There is nobody alive who remembers her so when she turns up, hobbling out of the fog, on the day after the Second World War began, it comes as a complete surprise. Her great nephews (Edward, Seamus, Arthur, Fletcher, Erasmus- Who can’t pronounce his own name and a lot of other things besides- Tiberius and Earnest, along with their friend Seb) find she is a truly horrible woman; she beats them, takes their toys away, and threatens them with boarding school. So far the boys have tried contacting their Father (away on war work) and trying to get him to come home. He has not believed them. Edward has been carted off to boarding school and for the others Mable has replaced their tutors with the equally horrid Mrs Mippsy (or, as Erasmus insisted on calling her, Tippsy.) At the end of the last story it looked like, finally, their father would be returning home…
ESCAPE FROM AUNT MABLE
He did not come on the date promised and though we waited for several days longer our salvation did not appear. Father did not call or telegraph to say why he was delayed but we suspected that it must have something to do with his war work. And we knew, because the winter weather in our part of the world can be quite unpredictable, that if he did not come now he might not come at all this side of Christmas. It might be a long time before he came home to save us.
December came and there was finally word from him. Our annual Christmas feast, for villagers and staff, had long been arranged for the fifth and two days before Father wrote to say that since neither he nor Edward would be there the duty of hosting would fall to myself and Seamus under the strict supervision of Mrs Violent. It was Tippsy who caught the letter and she read it through with confusion before prowling off to find Aunt Mable, whom she found knitting in the sitting room.
‘What is the meaning of this?’ she flung the letter at Mable who read it with squinty eyes for a good long while, as though it were some code that was in need of urgent decryption.
‘The annual Christmas feast?’ she muttered to herself. ‘I suppose it’s nice to see that some things have not been forgotten in these parts. I hardly think it acceptable in wartime though.’
‘Pardon me for asking, Miss Morfas,’ Tippsy interrupted. ‘But what is this feast?’
‘Oh… Some old feudal duty towards the local riff-raff. Since it has already been arranged we can hardly cancel it but the children shall not be attending, let alone hosting. They are far too young to be anywhere near the thing.’ She thrust the letter back at Tippsy and returned to her knitting. ‘You may tell this to the children.’
The news outraged us. It did not bother Earnest, Erasmus and Tiberius for they were too young to attend anyway but for myself, Seamus and Fletcher it was an abomination. This was to have been Fletcher’s first feast and he had been most looking forwards to it, for the last year and a half promising that he would be on his best behaviour- There was no chance he could have misbehaved for if he had Father would have gelded him. In his grief at having the feast pulled away from him at the last minute he shouted, kicked Tippsy in the shin and pulled an expensive painting down from the wall before running away in tears. Seamus and I, before she could get a word in about Fletcher’s behaviour, railed at Tippsy for the affront.
‘This is not my decision,’ she huffed when she could finally get in. ‘Your Aunt Mable has decided you will not attend and that is the final word on the matter.’
‘We’ll see about that,’ Seamus declared, kicking Tippsy in the shin, just as Fletcher had done, before marching from the room. I was sore tempted to kick her as well and the look of surprise on her face when I did not told me that she very much expected it.
I followed Seamus down to the sitting room in time to see him ripping the knitting from a shocked Aunt Mable’s hands. I had never seen him quite so angered by anything and he looked as though he were about to swing Mable out of six bells.
‘Get out of this castle,’ he said as calmly as possible, though with his anger still shining through.
‘I beg your pardon young man?’
‘You heard me. Get out of this castle at once.’
‘How dare you… You impudent little wretch! You have no right to tell me where I can and cannot be. I can stay where I choose.’
‘As the eldest male in residence I hold guardianship of this castle and it is my responsibility to protect both its inhabitants and the nearby village and all the people in it from anything which I might deem a threat.’
I got the impression he’d been holding onto that one for a while. He’d made it all up, of course, but like all good rubbish it had a basis in fact. Guardianship of the castle is held by the eldest male family member but it is passed down from father to son according to hereditary primogeniture. Father, not Seamus held the guardianship, even though he was not in residence, but it did not include the responsibility of protecting the residents of the castle or the village. It merely instructed that he was to look after it and pass it along to the next in line when he died.
‘You are a child. You have no guardianship of anything,’ Mable shot.
‘Madam…’ Seamus put on his best solicitor impersonation, even going so far as to finger a pair of imaginary lapels. ‘I see you as a threat to the residents of this castle and if you do not leave I will be forced to take action.’ Mable struck him without warning.
‘Young man you will watch your manners.’ Seamus tensed and I could see that he was about to blow his top. What followed was a lot of strong language.
‘You will leave this *—* castle at once you *—* old *—* or I will not be held responsible for my *—* actions. Do I make myself one hundred precent *—* clear?’
Mable cracked his head open with her cane. When he stood up again blood was running from his temple and down his cheek. Mable offered no sympathy, instead grabbing his cheek and digging her claws in.
‘Do you know what happens to little boys who swear? They get dragged off by the Bloody Bones…’
‘By the what?’ I said aloud.
‘A creature with a nest of bones, bones of very naughty boys and girls who can’t stop using bad language.’ She threw Seamus to the ground and hobbled away. Seamus wanted to go after her but I stopped him. It would only make things worse. Against Aunt Mable resistance was futile. We had learned that early on and in his anger Seamus had seemingly forgotten it.
Crusty, our chauffeur and last remaining member of domestic staff, was only too happy to help me escort Seamus to the infirmary. Given that Mable hardly ever left the castle and we children were no longer allowed anywhere beyond the village on our own he had been without work since September. He was deathly afraid of Aunt Mable too and so he kept to his own apartment above the garage for much of the time. We had thought of asking him for help in persuading Father of the emergency but we suspected that he would not wish to risk his position. Father would not take action against him but Mable might if she found out, especially if she thought he was attempting to undermine her. When I asked, years later, of why he had not informed Father of the situation himself, he had replied that it had not been his place to do so.
Seamus was still silently seething as we drove to the infirmary in Bangor, holding a damp cloth to his head so as to stem the flow of blood. Crusty was a fount of information and had he not been born the son of a working class copper smelter he would have been a university professor. I took the opportunity to ask if he knew about this ‘Bloody Bones’ Aunt Mable had spoken of. I held a passing interest in such things, though Father had always discouraged it, though he never denied such things existed, and my elder brothers were frequently chastising me for believing in childish nonsense.
‘Bloody Bones?’ Crusty furrowed his brow. ‘No. Can’t say I’ve ever heard of that one Master Arthur. He’s not local to these parts anyway. What does he look like?’ I repeated what Aunt Mable had said about how he took naughty children away to his nest of bones.
‘That isn’t local, as I said… But we do have something similar- Esgyn Gwaed. But he only takes naughty childer when they go swimming. I never heard of him having a nest of bones though.’
‘There’s a lot of lake creatures around here aren’t there,’ I remarked, thinking of others like the afanc or the llamhigyn-y-dwr, a massive, legless lizard with bat’s wings and a stinger on the end of its tail. ‘They all like drowning children as well!’
‘Aye… Well… That’s because there’s a lot of lakes in these mountains. A lot of drowning childer as well. Before science came along peoples needed a way to explain why such things happened.’
‘How about because their children were careless and went swimming where they shouldn’t?’ Seamus grouched. It was the first time he had spoken and by now we were half way to Bangor.
‘But childer will always want to know why they shouldn’t swim in lakes, Master Seamus. Wi’out people being able to explain that it’s because of the undercurrents and the cold below the surface and such things they resort to magic beasts. It was better than nothing. Childer is always more likely to believe in a magic explanation than science anyhow. Just you try something on Master Fletcher sometime and see how well it works.’
‘What would you recommend?’
‘Well… He’s not a fan of swimming is he so any of the lake monsters are out of the question…’
‘He likes climbing in the hills when the weather is warm,’ I pointed out.
‘That he does Master Arthur! So how ‘bouts the gwyllion? Ugly old hags they is, lure hikers to their death.’
‘An ugly old hag? She sounds like Aunt Mable,’ Seamus retorted.
‘I assure you Master Seamus, though she be an evil creature, your great aunt be as human as they come and that makes her all the worse.’
On returning from the infirmary, Seamus with three stitches in his forehead and an irate letter from the infirmary physician to Aunt Mable which was never given, we decided to have some fun and scare Fletcher with stories of the gwyllion. This was a mistake for although we scared him senseless our action had a repercussion in that, as Seamus had done, he thought the gwyllion sounded a lot like Aunt Mable. Fletcher, being far more impressionable than Seamus, thought that she was one and resorted to scouring the library for something on how to defeat them.
Unfortunately for him he found something and that evening at dinner he tried to act the hero by pulling a carving knife from under his cushion and brandishing it in Mable’s direction. We all genuinely thought that he was going to stab her but, as we later discovered, if you brandish a knife in the direction of a gwyllion she will run away in terror.
Aunt Mable did not run away. She ruthlessly grabbed Fletcher’s arm and twisted it until he screamed and dropped the knife. Mable let go and then pulled his plate away to where he could not reach it.
‘Young man, for that behaviour you will eat nothing else. You will sit there in silence whilst the rest of us have our meal then you will go to your room and think about what you have done.’ We thought he had gotten off lightly, especially as Seamus had been given a crack on the head for much less earlier in the day.
By breakfast the next morning we knew that it was far worse than any whack or beating. When she had said he would eat nothing else we thought she meant only for the rest of the night. When we saw that he was not allowed breakfast, and after that, lunch, we realised that she intended to starve him, to murder him.
Such a beastly thing could not be allowed and so a gathering was called in the library. There was now little choice but to find a way to rid ourselves of this hag or else face the death of our brother. He may have been a royal pain but we still did not wish to see him die.
‘She’ll beat us if we try and argue with her,’ I mourned.
‘We could always feed Fletch on the sly… Sneak into the kitchens and hustle food up to him in the night.’
‘I can do that for myself,’ Fletch griped.
‘And if she catches you? What then? She’ll skin you alive.’
‘We could go to Mrs Violent and ask her for help,’ Erasmus suggested.
‘When has she helped before? No. She’ll only make excuses like always.’
‘There’s only one thing we can do,’ Seamus declared. ‘We’re going to have to go to London and speak to Father and convince him to come home and sort this mess out.’
‘All of us?’
‘Yes. Who knows what might happen if even one of us stays here. We’re better off in London than we are with that harridan.’
‘She’ll come after us,’ Fletch worried. ‘She’ll know… She’ll chase us.’
‘I don’t think that she will,’ Seamus grinned in a way that was reminiscent of Edward. ‘We’ll go tomorrow night during the feast when she and Tippsy are distracted. She probably won’t notice we’re gone until morning, by which point we’ll be halfway to London.’ I raised my hand.
‘What about Seb? Since Mrs Violent is attending the feast he’ll be kept upstairs with us.’
‘We’ll have to bring him along. It’ll look jolly suspicious if we all disappear and he doesn’t. We’ll leave a note at Mrs Violent’s house explaining things.’ Erasmus raised his hand.
‘How are we getting to Undone?’
‘Easy. By train,’ Seamus smiled. ‘We’ll go over the mountains to Aber and catch the morning express.’
‘How are we going to pay for seven tickets to London?’ Seamus thought about it. Had it been Edward he would have had an immediate answer, probably involving our pocket money. Seamus’ eventual solution was that Father would pay for our tickets at the other end. Once aboard the train we would send word for him to meet us at Euston with the relevant funds.
‘If we’re crossing the mountains we’ll need to take knives with us,’ Fletcher claimed. Seamus and I wondered why on earth he would want knives. We realised the answer before he said it. ‘To ward off the gwyllion of course.’
Seamus and I spent a great portion of the night sneaking around and preparing for our journey. We had to gather and hide enough warm clothes for seven us and a spare set for the same number. We had to sneak down to the kitchen and pilfer enough food for the journey and a little bit more so that Fletch would not starve before we even got started. He would need more come the following morning and yet more still before we set out so that he would have the energy to make it over the mountains. We hid everything in a rucksack discretely tucked into the library crawlspace and then I spent an hour writing our explanation to Mrs Violent about where we had gone and why Seb was with us.
It was no trouble keeping the expedition secret. Ti and Erasmus forgot about it within ten minutes of the plan being formulated and Earnest couldn’t speak of it due to his age. Seb was not told for we did not see him until the following afternoon, hours before the start of the feast. Mrs Violent insisted that he stay the night which made our lives very much easier.
The rest was a waiting game, a time of nerves and excitement. A part of me was thrilled by the prospect of our daring escape but I was anxious about what might go wrong. We were going across the mountains by night, dangerous enough at the best of times, and we would have four children below the age of five in our expedition. Fletch, Seamus and I decided, could be kept in line by the threat of the gwyllion, but we would still have to be careful. We would have torches but they would not make the journey any safer.
We were all, excepting Fletcher who was made to sit and watch, given an early meal at five the following afternoon and then packed off to the library. I hid some bread down my jumper and Seamus wrapped some cheese in his handkerchief for Fletch. Fletch, who for a perplexing reason was fifteen minutes behind the rest of us, ate it all down and was sated for the moment. Then, all we had to do was wait until we were sure that Mable, Tippsy and the guests were at dinner and then we could make our break for freedom.
At seven Mable came up to see that we were settled. She was in her traditional Welsh dress and looked especially witchy that evening.
‘I trust that you can all see yourself to bed at the appropriate time?’ she enquired of us.
‘Yes Aunt Mable,’ we chorused together.
‘Good. See to it that you all remain upstairs and quiet. Should I hear any noise from any of you your lives will not be worth living.’ She clacked from the room and we all prayed that it would be the last we saw of her until we had brought Father back to avenge us.
We informed Seb of our plan, he was most keen to go along with it, and then we unearthed or supplies from the crawlspace. Once dressed in our warm clothes all we had to do was make sure the guests were dining. Seamus and I made regular sorties onto the landing to listen for the sound of voices in the entrance hall and when we finally heard nothing we decided that it was time for our departure.
Seamus showed the way and I took the rear, carrying Earnest. He appeared to understand what was going on, which was more than can be said for Ti who kept having to be pushed along by Fletch. We took the back stairs and half way down Erasmus tumbled and shrieked. He only fell a few steps but it was scary enough. He was not hurt.
‘Gobowen… Be more careful,’ Seamus warned him. ‘And keep quiet.’
‘Not Gobowen,’ he sniffed. ‘Gwyllion!’ It was Fletch’s turn to shriek and be hushed up. Seb was kind enough to volunteer.
‘We’re not calling you Gwyllion,’ Seamus whispered to him when we were outside and Fletcher had run down the drive to Mrs Violent’s cottage.
‘Gwyllion!’ Erasmus repeated as Seamus hoisted Ti onto his shoulders, ready to go when Fletch returned. There was no point arguing now so we told him to keep quiet until we were far enough from the castle to comfortably discuss it.
The first stage of our journey was easy enough for all we needed to do was follow the stony track which leads around the side of the castle and up into the high ranges. It took us safely to the top of Llewelyn but from there things became more difficult. There was now no clear path to follow for the peak was all rounded and boulder strewn. Erasmus claimed he knew the way to go by looking at the stars. Unfortunately there were no stars that night.
Seamus eventually came to figure that we could make our way blind. Going towards Aber from the top of Llewelyn was a right turn, so he claimed, and that all we had to do was make a right turn. I shudder now at the very thought for this idea, which we all thought was a sensible suggestion, could have landed us at the base of a precipice or worse. Seamus must have known this for he made his way with great caution, sweeping the torch from side to side and shouting out warnings to keep left or right or to tread carefully. After a while I didn’t have the foggiest clue as to where we were. All was blackness and the only thing I knew was that there was stony, sometimes grassy ground beneath my feet. Every so often Seamus would stop and change direction, declaring that we needed to go this way or that, and we blindly trusted that he would get us down the other side of the mountains.
We travelled for almost an hour without complaint or injury before Seb started to claim that he was cold. Erasmus joined in, claiming he was tired, and I started to gripe that Earnest, who had fallen asleep, was getting heavy.
‘We’re nearly there now,’ Seamus lied. ‘Not much further.’
‘Can we stop then? I’m tired,’ Erasmus groused.
‘Shut up Gobowen.’
‘It’s not Gobowen. It’s Gwyllion,’ he pouted. Fletcher screamed in fright.
‘We’re not calling you Gwyllion,’ Seamus snapped back.
‘Gwyllion. I’m Gwyllion!’
‘No… Stop! They’ll come and get us if you keep saying it,’ Fletcher whined.
‘GWYLLION!’ Erasmus shouted at the top of his voice. ‘GWYLLION! GWYLLION GWYLLION GWILLYON!’
‘Stop shouting gwyllion,’ Seamus ordered.
‘What’s that light over there?’ Seb asked over Fletcher’s sobs and cries. We all turned and saw a yellow speck in the distance.
‘It’s the gwyllion,’ Fletch shuddered. ‘They’re coming to get us!’
‘More like Mable,’ Seamus reasoned. ‘Let’s get going before she catches us.’
So off we went again, at a faster pace this time. Another few minutes brought us to a steep, grassy slope and we held onto each other as we carefully picked our down, coming at the bottom to a stream.
‘This must be the stream to Aber Falls,’ Seamus declared before he began to follow it. I believed him and was momentarily grateful that he had somehow managed to find his way through the mountains. Something, I soon felt however, was amiss. I scanned the edges of the stream and the landscape around us with the torch and subsequently deduced that it was not proper for the stream down to Aber Falls.
‘Shay… I don’t think this is the right way,’ I called out. ‘These slopes are too shallow and the stream is too thin.’
‘Of course it’s the right way,’ Seamus bluffed. ‘We’ll be above the falls in about ten minutes.’
‘Edward would know where we are,’ Seb challenged. ‘He’d have gotten us there by now.’
‘Yes. Well… Edward knows everything doesn’t he? Mr *—* know-it-all.’
‘We can’t even go back because we don’t know where we are,’ Fletch griped.
‘Of course we can go back. I know exactly where we are,’ Seamus puffed. ‘But do you want to go back to that miserable old hag? No. Didn’t think so.’
We kept walking and soon came across the remains of an old hut of some kind. There was no such hut against the stream to Aber Falls, that much I knew. Finally Seamus was forced to admit that we were lost. He seated himself on the wall of the hut and we all flopped down beside it.
‘How long is it till dawn?’ Fletch asked. I shone my torch onto my watch. It was around a quarter to nine so at least another eight hours.
‘Look, all streams and rivers go to the sea eventually, right? All we need to do is follow this stream far enough and we’ll get to the sea eventually.’ Seamus sounded mighty proud of himself for coming up with that one.
‘I’m cold. Can we just go home?’ Erasmus pouted.
‘We can’t go home because that old bat is there… That and we’re lost. Look… Our only choice is to follow this stream to the sea and then wherever we are we can catch the train to London. He watched as Ti crawled from the wall to play by the edge of the stream. He was the only one who appeared to be enjoying our expedition.
‘Can we ask the mountain people for help?’ Seb questioned.
‘What mountain people?’
‘I think they’re called the Flood Irons!’
‘Flood Irons? I’ve never heard of them.’
‘Grandpapa told me about them. He said they were farmers who lived up here alone.’
‘Flood Irons? You don’t mean the Frodorion do you? If you do then they won’t help us. There aren’t many of their sort left anyway. There’s still a couple of farmsteads out near Llanllechid but that’s all.’
‘According to Father they had about eight villages up here when he was a boy.’
‘What happened to them all?’ Seb worried.
‘The last war according to Father. All the young men got conscripted and most of them didn’t come back. Then all the old men started dying and there was no one left to the run the farms.’
We went quiet. Seamus scooped Ti away from the edge of the stream several times but each time he kept going back.
‘I suppose that we’d best get moving if we want to reach the sea,’ he yawned, again scooping Ti away from the edge but this time settling him back on his shoulders. ‘Maybe when we get there we can find a warm tavern to stay inside till the train comes.’ There were some cries of approval and we set off again, now with more vigour.
Minutes later we stopped, again seeing the light we had seen earlier. Now it was in front of us and it was heading our way. We froze before trying to turn around and seeing another one coming up behind.
‘Oh *—* It’s her… She’s found us!’
‘No it isn’t… It’s the gwyllion!’ Fletch hid behind me for protection.
‘FLETCHER… FOR THE LAST TIME… THE *—* GWYLLION ARE NOT COMING TO GET US,’ Seamus shouted.
‘Now there’s no need to use language like that lad,’ an unfamiliar voice said somewhere in the darkness. We all screamed and turned our torches in the direction of the voice.
It was a man in an ARP warden’s helmet and he looked very cross. He observed us all with a cold eye.
‘What are you lot doing out here at this time of night anyway?’ We were silent. ‘Come on… Answer me or I’ll have you all arrested for assisting the Luftwaffe.’
‘We’re not assisting the Left Wafer,’ Erasmus piped up.
‘Really?’ The warden took my torch from me. ‘Then what are you doing shining these around the mountains in the middle of the night? Answer me that.’ The two lights reached us and we found they were held by two similar ARP wardens.
‘Seems obvious to me Stan. They were signalling to Nazi paratroopers, telling ‘em where to land,’ one of the newcomers suggested.
‘We weren’t… Honestly,’ Seamus intervened.
‘Then what were you all doing?’
‘Please sir… We’re running away from our Aunt Mable.’
‘Now why would you want to do a thing like that?’
‘Because she’s evil… She was trying to starve our brother so we’re going to Aber to catch a train to London and see our Father so we can bring him back and sort everything out.’
‘Aber you say? Well you’re a long way from Aber. You’re near Pen-Y-Castell.’ Fletch started imitating Seamus.
‘Oh… This is the stream down to Aber Falls… Of course this is the right way. We’re not lost.’ Seamus went to strike him on the arm, gunning for him, but a warden pulled him back.
‘No need for that… What are we going to do with them Roberts?’
‘Depends… Where are you from boys?’
‘Cythry, sir,’ Erasmus answered.
‘Cythry? And you came here over the mountains? Blimey… You lot are lucky not to have fallen over a precipice.’
‘Too far to take them back tonight,’ one of the wardens sighed.
‘Take us back? No… We’re not going back,’ we all shouted. ‘Not whilst that old hag is in the castle. Not until she’s been ousted.’
There was another look between the wardens.
‘Your Grandfer Llithrig is nearby isn’t he Anafon?’
‘Aye. He is…’
‘You think he’ll put them up for tonight? It’s too dangerous to go back over the mountains and we certainly can’t drive them… There’s too many of them. Myself and Roberts can drive over there and see this Mable woman, tell her this lot are alright and what’s going on.’
There was agreement and Anafon, who was the youngest of the wardens by a long way, began to follow the stream. The other two wardens pushed us along and we went with gratitude. I did not know who this Grandfer Llithrig was but he could not be nearly so cruel as Aunt Mable.
Grandfer Llithrig lived in a crumbling farm at the very edge of the mountains, which was not so far from where we had been found. It was called Bwlch y Gaer and in the dark it was an uninviting place, lit only by our torches and blacker than the night. Fletch, upon approach, said that it was haunted.
Grandfer Llithrig himself may have been a ghost. We entered into a room crowded with objects, crowded like a rag and bone man’s workshop, and he was perched in a creaky armchair beside a fireplace, all pale and without movement. He slowly turned his head at the sound of our footsteps, his bones creaking like the sound of an old door, and I saw that there was nothing inside his eyes but white balls. There were no pupils, no irises, just white.
‘You bring guests Anafon?’ he smiled. ‘Young ones?’ Any doubts I may have conjured from his appearance were eased by his methodical, precise voice.
‘Aye Grandfer. We found them wandering round Pen-Y-Castell. Said they’d come all the way from Cythry.’ Grandfer Llithrig tutted.
‘Foolish children! From Cythry you say? Ahh. Of course. The Nythaid Morfa.’ He smiled again. ‘Come children. Sit by the fire. Warm yourselves. You are always welcome in my home. There are…’ He paused as we all jostled for a seat close to the fire. ‘Seven of you? All seven! I am blessed.’
‘Sorry, only six,’ Seamus corrected, picking up Earnest and moving him to one side so he could get closer to the fire.
‘But there are seven of you. Unless one of your number is not Morfa?’
‘Yeah… Seb…’ Seb waved at him. Despite being blind Grandfer Llithrig appeared to notice it and nodded. ‘But he’s practically one of us anyway.’
‘Seb? The Fuller boy?’
‘That’s right.’ Grandfer Llithrig leaned down to him.
‘I am sorry about your father boy, very sorry indeed.’
‘I must go back out… I am sorry boys, Grandfer,’ Anafon interrupted. ‘I’ll return when my patrol is finished.’
‘Aye… You do that boy. You do that.’ Grandfer Llithrig sounded bitter. When the door closed he began to grumble aloud. ‘Wars… Foul things. Took my boyhood friends away the last one did. Took my home away too. Foul, beastly things… Tell me children, is there a sign that this one will end soon? Anafon will not tell me.’
‘We don’t know. It doesn’t look like Hitler is going to keel over at the minute.’
‘Damn his hide… Nasty little man.’
‘Do you have any food? I’m starving?’ Fletch jumped in.
‘We brought food, fool!’ Seamus threw him a rucksack and he rooted through them and pulled out a few almost stale salmon sandwiches and some ham. Grandfer Llithrig sniffed up as they came out.
‘Conwy Salmon… Excellent choice,’ he grinned. ‘You wouldn’t by any chance have any spare for an old man would you? Anafon treats me like an invalid, says fish isn’t good for me.’ Fletch rooted in the bag and found another sandwich which he handed to the old man. ‘Thank you child. The gods shall reward you for your kindness. Not that you need the rewards of the gods. They blessed you all at birth. I wonder though, what caused your foolishness this evening?’
I was nominated to tell our story and Grandfer Llithrig listened, unmoving throughout it. At the end he began nodding.
‘So you see,’ Seamus began to add when I was finished. ‘We had to get away and go to London and convince Father to come home. He’s the only one who can boot that witch from the castle.’
‘Your reasoning is sound child, but you were still foolish to try and lead your brothers over the mountains in the dead of night. Any number of creatures may have claimed you.’ Seamus tutted with incredulity. ‘Pwca, dyn bewlog, tylwyth teg…’ I prayed that he wouldn’t add gwyllion to that list. He didn’t. ‘This Mable… I am too young to remember her for she had left this land years before I was born but I did hear stories as a child. People thought she had evil in her heart, thought she’d been chosen by the devil himself. My own grandfer once told me, but I don’t know how true this is, that her brother once pushed her into Llyn Cowlyd. Grandfer claimed that was when the divil, Arawn, found her and took her soul. That’s his lake that is and he don’t take kindly to intruders.’
‘I think that’s true,’ Erasmus confessed. ‘She’s a horrible woman.’
‘That she sounds… And knowing Arawn he’ll have had some foul purpose in sending her back here after all these years.’
‘Father could stop her,’ Erasmus pouted. ‘Father could beat the divil if he wanted to.’
‘Your father is a wise man but is he wise enough not to fall for Arawn’s tricks? Few men are. May I tell you boys something? You have a faith?’ Only Seb raised his hand.
‘Mable makes us go to church. Father only at Christmas,’ I added.
‘I do not hold for the church or its teachings but I have lived long enough to know that there are strange things in this world. Arawn, I know, is real. His servant, Marwolaeth, the reaper of death, is real. Creatures that many think of as a child’s fantasy, like the tylwyth teg, are real. There are more besides, both good and evil, but we can never know their purpose for though they are a part of this world they inhabit an altogether different plane. But even beyond them all there is something else, something that underpins every action we take, everything we do. It is something we can never know or understand. It watches us, always. It knows all we have done, and all we shall do. It knows every decision you will make and the outcomes of every choice. Fate? Destiny? The Christian God? Perhaps. Or perhaps not.’ He settled back into his chair.
Seamus caught my eye and I could tell that he did not believe a word the old man said. To Seamus he spoke fantastical nonsense, the stuff of picture books not worth reading. I agreed, to an extent. There was no such thing as pwca, dyn bewlog or tylwyth teg or even gwyllion. Aunt Mable was certainly evil but I would not have gone so far as to say her soul belonged to the divil.
What did make me think was what he had said about there being something mysterious beyond the veneer of the visible world. It does, when I see it on paper, sound absurd, but what man cannot say that he has not at some point or other felt someone looking over his shoulder when there is nobody there, a presence? What man cannot truly say that he has not, at some point, felt there was some aspect of the world he can’t see?
In my bones I could feel that the old man was right, in a strange way. Seamus claimed not to believe such nonsense but in a way, I knew, he did. I think back to the portrait of Granny that hung above the fireplace before Mable had it removed. We had all thought that she would come and haunt us if the painting was move. Is believing in Granny’s ghost not the same thing as believing in fantastical creatures?
There was also what Crusty said, about lake monsters and how they’d come about as a means of explaining the then inexplicable to children. What if it all, the tylwyth teg and Arawn and the gwyllion, is some explanation for the grandest and most inexplicable thing of all, that which science can never explain, the thing that lies beyond the veneer of the world?
Anafon returned with news of great unrest at Cythry. It was not, for once, entirely our fault though we did hold a large part of the blame. The wardens, Roberts and the other man, had arrived to find themselves assailed by angry villagers, all claiming to have been offended. During the feast Mable had taken several people to task for speaking Welsh and several arguments had inevitably broken out. Tippsy had then slapped a man who dared to claim that the English were inferior to the Welsh and it had all ended when Mrs Violent, who had had quite enough of the developing arguments, had gone home and found our letter. She’d marched back up to the castle and near caused a riot, claiming that it was all Mable’s fault for maltreating us and rallying half the village to our cause.
The wardens had eased the tension by the news that we were alive and safe and after sending the villagers home they’d had strong words with Aunt Mable about her behaviour towards the villagers, about treating us right and they said that if they ever received news of maltreatment again they would be coming down upon her.
This was great news for it all meant that the castle would soon be ours again. The offended villagers would inform Father of what occurred at the feast and he would have to believe them and come home. In the meantime Aunt Mable could do us no harm and if they did then the wardens would come and take her away.
We slept under blankets on the floor, not the most comfortable night but comfortable enough, and in the morning Anafon escorted us back over the mountains to Cythry. Whilst we were saying goodbye Grandfer Llithrig took my arm.
‘You have an interest in that beyond the veneer of the world, yes boy?’ he asked me.
‘Yes. I do.’
‘Then perhaps when the weather is right you may come back and we may discuss it more, yes? Perhaps you and I, the young and the old, can discover just what is going on.’
‘Yes, I would like that,’ I replied.
‘You aren’t seriously thinking of going back to that old man are you?’ Seamus whispered once we had begun crossing the mountains. I shrugged.
‘Why not? He can’t do any harm can he?’
‘No… But you don’t want to go getting involved in any of that nonsense he was spouting last night. That stuff is for children.’
‘I believed it,’ Seb intruded.
‘Well you are a child so that’s ok. Arthur is too old to be believing in it.’
‘I will go back,’ I stated. ‘I’d like to hear more about this thing beyond the world.’ Seamus tutted and started ignoring me.
Mable, Mrs Violent and Tippsy were waiting in the entrance hall when we arrived. All looked very cross with us.
‘Well boys… Do you have something to say to us?’ Mrs Violent asked. None of us thought we did.
‘I believe, that you should apologise to all three of us for running off into the mountains in the dead of night. What would your father have said?’ Aunt Mable sounded more upset than cross, for once, as though we had betrayed her. ‘I’ve had half the village in here blaming me for your actions and accusing me of all sorts.’
‘But you were going to starve Fletcher to death,’ Seamus argued. Aunt Mable looked confused.
‘Starve him to death? Young man I do not care what you think of me but to think me a murderer is going too far.’
‘You were starving him… He wasn’t getting any food at meal times.’
‘At meal times, yes. He was not allowed to eat at mealtimes as punishment for brandishing that knife at me and I made him sit and watch the rest of you so that he could learn how to behave at the dinner table. As for eating, he has had more than enough. He has been eating in the kitchen after your meals have been finished with. Or did he not tell you that?’
Seamus turned on him, angry.
‘Fletcher,’ he hissed. ‘I am going to rip you into tiny little pieces and feed you to the *—* gwyllion.’ Fletcher screamed and ran away, Seamus chasing after him. Mable put a hand to her mouth and tried to supress a giggle. Eventually she burst into uncontrollable laughter.
Three days later we were all eating lunch in the dining room when we heard someone open the front door and enter the hall. Thinking that it was Mrs Violent, it usually was, Seb got up to go and greet her, leaving Tippsy to chastise him for not asking permission. He had gone as far as the door into the hall when he stopped, smiled, and cried ‘MONTY!’ Now we all froze and looked at each other, hardly daring to believe in the miracle of Father’s return. Then we all dropped our knives and forks and ran for the hall.
There he was, as ever before, unchanged since the day I was born. Seb was jumping around him and now the rest of us ran in and jumped on him and hugged him and told him about how wonderful it was to have him back. He held his hand up and we all stood to attention, silent and unmoving. He did not look as pleased to see us as we were to see him.
‘I have a good mind to discipline you all here and now,’ he chastised. ‘I thought I made it quite clear that there was to be no more of this ridiculous Aunt Mable business. What do I get instead? Another forged letter from Mrs Violent saying that you’d all run away into the mountains and had to be brought back by an ARP warden and letters from three villagers whom you obviously co-opted into your plan… Yes, I know they were real letters. Your forging isn’t that good Arthur. There was also another letter from somebody called Grandfer Llithrig. Well, you obviously made him up as well.’
‘But Father,’ I pleaded. ‘We haven’t made it up. She’s here. She arrived on the day after the war started.’ Father held his hand up to silence me.
‘Arthur… I have told you a thousand times. You are getting too old for childish games like this. Please stop. You’re all fortunate that I was planning to come home anyway otherwise I would have been even more cross with you… Seamus… Why do you have stitches in your head? No. Don’t answer. I don’t think I want to know. Christ! I need a drink.’
He turned on his heel and moved towards the lounge but stopped when he saw the painting of Mable hanging over the fireplace.
‘What did you do with Granny?’ he questioned. ‘This really isn’t on you know. I honestly thought I could trust you all to behave whilst I was away doing important…’ He had turned around and come back into the hall and stopped mid-sentence when he saw the wizened, ugly old lady now standing at the foot of the stairs.
‘Oh. So my errant nephew has returned then?’ she croaked. ‘It is about bloody time if you ask me.’ Father was in a state of absolute shock and all he could say was ‘children, I am terribly sorry that I didn’t believe you.’
Image from RCHAM Coflein- Arthur Chater collection- 1962.