2017

The end of one year and start of the next always makes me think of the following poem. Mostly I remember it as the first part, in the old, crackly, BBC Radio archive recording of King George VII's Christmas speech, but here is the whole thing.

Happy New Year, everyone!

~:~:~:~

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

So heart be still:
What need our little life
Our human life to know,
If God hath comprehension?
In all the dizzy strife
Of things both high and low,
God hideth His intention.

God knows. His will
Is best. The stretch of years
Which wind ahead, so dim
To our imperfect vision,
Are clear to God. Our fears
Are premature; In Him,
All time hath full provision.

Then rest: until
God moves to lift the veil
From our impatient eyes,
When, as the sweeter features
Of Life’s stern face we hail,
Fair beyond all surmise
God’s thought around His creatures
Our mind shall fill.

~:~:~

Rain From A Clear Blue Sky: Chapter Twelve

12. May

The phone rang in May. A Welsh man’s voice: “Miss Lloyd?”

I said “Yes.” I had given up saying ‘No, Quinner.’ It caused people to say ‘Oh, sorry, wrong number’ and hang up before I had time to explain. Then, since the only people still phoning and asking for Miss Lloyd were those important to existence at Hen Fferm, I would endure days of rationing out the Calor gas, or buying pale tasteless eggs from the supermarket, before I would discover that was the man from the petrol station who delivered the gas, or that was the woman from three farms over whose hens had come back into lay.

So, I said “Yes.” After a pause, I repeated myself: “Yes?”

“Oh,” said the voice, in the slow Welsh way which, when Dai used it, meant great thought was going on somewhere. “I was wanting to speak to Miss Lloyd.”

“I’m her niece,” I said, omitting a generation for the sake of clarity. With the man with the gas, and Rhiannon of the free-range eggs, explaining who I was had proved much easier than explaining why I was answering the phone.

“Ah,” said the voice. “Well, tell her I’ll be with her Sunday, then.”

I admit, I was too thrown to try and put the situation right. My staggering brain heard my entirely independent voice echo: “Sunday?”

“Sunday,” said the man firmly. “When the rugby’s finished.” With which, he hung up.
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Rain From A Clear Blue Sky: Chapter Eleven

11. April

I had always thought it was March winds and April showers which brought about May flowers, but the weather did not seem to have heard about such a routine. Or, if it had, it heard about it late and was hurrying to catch up. We had had nice weather, by and large, in March. April arrived with a howl of cold east wind and a flurry of showers.

I put my tub trug down outside the potting loose-box door one morning, and turned back to pick up my trowel. Five minutes later, I had snagged yet another pair of jeans climbing over that top paddock fence, on the way to ask the Evanses for my tub trug back.

“You shouldn't leave buckets lying around,” said Dai firmly.Collapse )
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Rain From A Clear Blue Sky: Chapter Eleven

11. April

I had always thought it was March winds and April showers which brought about May flowers, but the weather did not seem to have heard about such a routine. Or, if it had, it heard about it late and was hurrying to catch up. We had had nice weather, by and large, in March. April arrived with a howl of cold east wind and a flurry of showers.

I put my tub trug down outside the potting loose-box door one morning, and turned back to pick up my trowel. Five minutes later, I had snagged yet another pair of jeans climbing over that top paddock fence, on the way to ask the Evanses for my tub trug back.

“You shouldn't leave buckets lying around,” said Dai firmly.

“I didn't!” I protested, mortified.

“No...?” Dai grinned suddenly. “Then what is it doing in my hedge?”

I walked home, pondering just that. Quite aside from the reality of a very windy day; or being destined to be the origin of one of Dai's rare jokes, which were always so simple and unexpected I never saw them coming; why would a tub trug fly off on a windy day? It was a question a bit like all those 'why did the chicken cross the road?' jokes, only, to make a pun on the shape of my tub trug, a question in need of a more well rounded answer.

I had the answer by the time I got home. Leaving the overflowing drain cover which I had been getting the trug and trowel out to clean out in the first place to carry on overflowing, I went into the studio, turned one of Aunt Hilda's old sketchbooks round to draw on the backs of the pages, and produced 'The Adventures of Little Trug.'

It was on a par with Bold Eric, only babier. Little Trug helped Big Trug and Middle Trug on the farm, until one windy day he wished for adventure and blew away. He went many places, met sheep and cows and a fox, and then blew home again. Really awful stuff, but I was rather pleased with the picture in which he blew through the air saying “Oh! Where am I going?”, because it had a fairly good rendition of Fferm Newydd in the background. I admired it shamelessly for a bit, then stuffed the book up on a shelf to show Caroline sometime, and blew into the house myself for lunch.

If I had not had my head thus in the clouds, I might have noticed I had fewer daffodils. I noticed it crossing the drive to the barn the next morning. In windy weather, one must expect a few flowers to blow away; and also to find the battered, squashed remains blown under the hedge or into a drain cover. The entire bed of daffodils by the yard gate was simply gone. A few of the oldest strappy leaves still lay on the soil, but the rest of the plants, flowers and stems and all, had vanished. Idris Thomas himself could not have done a shorter chop – and his flail mower would have left the bits behind.

I didn't see that anyone would have stolen them. Not here: as Dai had correctly predicted when I had been planting them, there were thousands of daffodils, all over the place, including great dancing swathes of them all the way down Hen Fferm's drive. I think Aunt Hilda must have added to them over the years since we had visited, for I didn't remember quite so many of them, nor any of the orange and white pheasant's eye daffodils, which now stood out in clumps all the way along. No-one would have walked past all those and then cleared out this little bed.

The following morning, the daffodil thief had cleared out my newly planted Cavolo Nero kale. And the day after that, I met him: one large, brown rabbit sitting up on his hind legs on the middle of the top lawn, watching me. He had just finished off the nearest-to-flowering clump of hardy geraniums

I chased him with a garden cane, but it did no good. Aunt Hilda had planted that garden to be thick and beautiful, crammed so that you could barely see from one terrace to the next, even when the leaves blew off in the winter. However, it also meant you could not see from one rabbit to the next. And the large brown rabbit, like Jean-at-the-shop, had cousins whom he numbered by the dozens. They seemed to view my garden as a buffet, and the vegetable garden as the dessert section. Unless it was under a plastic bottle cloche, they ate it, and I only had a limited number of plastic bottles to make into cloches. Nor could I stick covers on things like the daffodils. The rabbits didn't touch the ones up the drive, nor apparently the ones growing wild in other people's hedgerows; they just cleared out every one in the garden.

“Oh, like Benjamin Bunny!” said Caroline enthusiastically when she phoned from work one lunchtime, and I had just lost a row of radishes and most of the helenium clumps. I'm sorry to say I was not at all nice or understanding or appreciative of her sense of humour. I told her she was a townie, and stomped back out to the barn.

“Everything looking pretty,” said the Calor gas delivery bloke when he came late that afternoon, as I was going up to call the ladies in for their tea. He was the sort of sleazy bloke who liked to pass compliments with a leering smile. I was sorry I'd been around. It was much easier just to waddle four big gas cannisters down the drive myself than get shut of him without some irritating remark like that.

“Including the rabbits,” I said shortly.

“Oh, rabbits!” He nodded wisely. “Give you some nice recipes!”

I didn't want to eat rabbits. I wanted to eat cabbages and lettuces. But I rather had the feeling that was the answer I was going to get from most people round here. Rabbit meat might be very nice, for all I knew. I didn't have a problem with people cooking rabbit – they were welcome to it. What I did have a problem with was my vanishing herbaceous borders and vegetable seedlings. I was not growing hardy geraniums and newly planted beds of daffodils to fatten meat for the table!

That gave me an idea. When the gas delivery man had gone and the sheep were fed, I went in and phoned Judy. “Judy? What do vegetarians do about rabbits in the vegetable garden?”

The answer to that question arrived, with much cheer and insistence that refused to hear my feeble protests that I could never repay their time, in a Landrover and trailer bulging with tools and rolls of chicken-wire mesh three days later. Ceiran got on with the unpacking, and ordered “you two queens” to go and look round the garden until he was done.

“Oh, whose is the doll's house?” cried Judy as we went through the gate. “The little gingerbread house?”

“That? That's the studio.”

She looked from it to me, eyes dancing with surprise and curiosity. “Are you an artist?

“No!” A picture book and a habit of sketching flowers did not count as Art. “But my great-aunt was.”

I took her in to show her. Judy was impressed with the oil paintings. “You ought to sell those,” she said cheerily. “Local artist and all. They'd bring in more money than sitting in a stack behind the door.”

“I had thought of it,” I said. “But where? Who'd want them?”

Judy considered. “Hippies!” she said with a laugh. “Always, if in doubt, the hippies! You know,” she added. “Paintings, parrots – are you sure your aunt wasn't a hippie?”

“He's only the one parrot,” I protested. “And if Aunt Hilda was ever a topless hippie, she didn't show much sign of it while we were here. She always went in more for old-lady pastel sweaters.”

There was a yell from outside. “There's the fencing maestro,” said Judy. “Either your dog's just bitten him, or he's ready to start.”

Anti-rabbit fencing is complicated stuff. Not only must it be three feet high so the rabbits cannot jump over it – “Higher than that and you've got kangaroos,” quoth Judy – it needs to be buried in an outward facing flap at the bottom, so the rabbits cannot dig under it.

“And a blessing it is,” said Ceiran, “that they don't start to dig until they've run into the fence.”

It went on the existing posts of the stock fence which kept the sheep out of the garden, so the only job was fitting the mesh. Only was a drastic understatement. Ceiran cut the turf for the buried flap and pushed it down again as the fence went along, I unrolled the mesh and held it taut and handed Judy the staples to hammer it up. If someone had wanted to paint a scene of 'rural working party', we would have made an ideal model. My family complained afterwards that I had taken no photos or sketches, but we didn't have time. I dashed into the house and flung biscuits and sandwiches onto a tray at intervals, but apart from that, we worked and worked.

“Always,” said Judy as we crawled along the bottom terrace. “Always do the whole job. In one day. We didn't, for our first place. There was a little gap just by the stable. The rabbits hadn't been coming through there, we knew that, 'cause we'd seen them strolling up the field and under the gate, so we thought, a temporary job would do, just for overnight. So we fixed a strip of that heavy duty green plastic windbreak netting up there. In the morning – never mind digging under, a perfectly round hole eaten through it! And an apple tree ring-barked! More staples, please.”

More staples, more wire. More staples, more wire. “I'm going to be seeing life in little hexagonal patterns for days,” I remarked, unrolling more wire mesh.

“Hair of the dog that bit you,” said Cieran wisely. “The cure for that's stewed rabbit.”

“Don't!” wailed Judy, hammering away. “You're making a high-principled vegetarian hungry with the thought of dead animals – that's mean!”

We finished in the dark, and packed up the Landrover under the back door flood light. It felt oddly like the past: a dark navy spring night sky; the bright yellow floodlight; the pre-departure pattern of coming and going and slamming car doors. Of course, I had omitted one thing Aunt Hilda had always done. “I feel terrible,” I said. “You've worked like slaves all day, and I haven't even asked you in, or shown you round or fed you dinner or anything!”

“To be sure and you've shown us all the way round the edge,” said Ceiran chivalrously.

“With biscuits at every fence post,” Judy added. “But we really couldn't stay for a dinner party: we have to go home and feed the turkeys. Horrible old birds!”

I waved them off into the dark with the last packet of biscuits, and went in to feed my own horrible old bird, who had also been emulating the past by shrieking “Spam! Spam! Spam!” all day.

Rather as he had sidled off in the past when Aunt Hilda had had all of us to visit, Dai did not appear during the fencing project, or for nearly a week after.

“Oh, been busy,” he said when he finally stopped in the tractor at the top of the lane one morning. “Hear you've had fencing.”

I wasn't sure if this was an expression of curiosity or not, but it was certainly with a little pride on my part that I took him through to see it.

Dai kicked at it gently and wobbled the old posts. “A good fence, then.”

“It is,” I agreed. “No rabbits get across it. But that means the rabbits who are still in the garden can't get out, and they're still eating my vegetables.”

Dai scratched his head thoughtfully. “Can't shoot them, with all those bushes. You'll have to let the dog in.”

“Mac? Loose?”

“Aye. He wasn't a good ratter, but he should catch a rabbit. Don't feed him.” Dai nodded.
“Give him a week, sort them out nicely.”

I had my doubts about this. I was also feeling fairly desperate. Mac became a garden dog for a week, with no chain and his barrel like a strange lawn ornament on the middle terrace. He seemed to spend every waking hour I saw him sitting outside the back door begging for his cancelled meals. It broke my heart to walk past him going to feed the sheep. But the rabbits came no more to the cabbages.

“He's done splendidly,” I told Judy when she phoned to ask how I was getting on with my bothersome bunnies. “I don't think I've a single rabbit left inside Ceiran's fence.”

It was a mistake to say that. Because an hour later I met Mac marching proudly along with a still very much alive and kicking rabbit between his jaws. He came through the yard gate before I could stop him. He waggled up to me with pride. And then he dropped it.
~:~:~:~
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Rain From A Clear Blue Sky: Chapter Ten

March

The Farmers Co-op calender switched to another photo of a Welsh scenic beauty spot nowhere near here, and the entire countryside seemed to turn into a sheep maternity ward.

“Have you been helping with lambing?” Caroline asked eagerly when I told her this. “Have you got a bottle-fed lamb or anything?” I hadn't. “Oh. Have you got swallows in the barn?”

“I've got sparrows,” I replied. They were nice, too: a couple of pairs of little brown busy-bodies, fluttering about overhead and underfoot, squabbling over bits of straw much too big to fit through the pop-hole of the sparrow terrace, and stealing grain out of the sheep trough almost before the girls had got in there.

But Caroline sounded distinctly disappointed. “Oh. That's not very romantic. Or rural. Sparrows are town birds.”

March in rural Wales is not romantic. It is beautiful, and it is very hard work.Collapse )
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Rain From A Clear Blue Sky: Chapter Nine

9. February

Saying ‘the darkest hour is just before dawn’ sounds terribly melodramatic. But when I had finished crawling around the kitchen floor sweeping up the cornflakes and shredded packet, with the hand brush and dust pan because there was no way my head was going to stand the noise of the vacuum cleaner, my head had not actually fallen off. When I crawled out of my nest of blankets on the sofa at sheep dinner time, I found it had stopped raining. Then, as I crept back from the barn, bent double in the icy wind that seemed to be too lazy to go anywhere other than through me, into my little bent-over line of vision came a clump of celandine, in glorious golden flower.

Celandine is a weed, and a thug in the rockery, and poisonous to sheep. But right then, that patch of yellow could have been the most precious, prize-winning bloom in the entire Chelsea flower show. I stopped and stared at it, despite the wind. I couldn’t have composed a better picture if I had tried: the yellow flowers against the grey slate of the stable foundations, somehow slightly sheltered enough to have trapped a few coppery fallen beech leaves among the green heart-shaped leaves of the celandine, and then the golden section finished off by a tiny polypody fern making a spot of bright green just up the wall.

I didn’t consciously think about feeling better. I was just well enough to drag myself over to the studio, stick the electric heater on and get down a rough pastel sketch of how it all went. My drawings are always better for being done with the subject to hand, but there was no way I was going to sit out in that wind. I was not that railway painter who sketched in a 60 mile an hour gale up the Forth bridge. So, the sketch was awful. But I’d seen it, at any rate, and in tucking it up on the shelf for a time when I’d feel up to filing it away in the ‘dream of improving later’ folder, I found the Farmers Co-op calender. Collapse )
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Rain From A Clear Blue Sky: Chapter Eight

January

When the snow cleared and all the mud had come back, I drove home for my belated Christmas break. It was … all right. No, it was fine, it was lovely, it was my home and all my family, but it was so unlike my everyday life at Hen Fferm it felt like some odd piece of time travel, as if I had, like Lewis Carrol’s Alice, fallen down a rabbit hole or through a mirror into a world that was somehow not quite normal. I woke up every morning for all three days in a mad hurry to go and feed the sheep.

It was on the drive back to Hen Fferm that everything started, with a fairly nightmare journey. It was pouring down in Malvern, so by the time all good-byes had been said, I was pretty damp and remained so for miles. It was dark by the time I reached the border into Powys. Everything on the roads slowed to cope with a dark wet night, and I seemed to crawl along. And then the wind started. It blew the spray on the main roads; it roared overhead in the trees as I came up the river valley, where the water was pouring down from the rock side and across the road like somebody had left a tap on; and up on the top, the car actually swayed.

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Rain From A Clear Blue Sky: Chapter Seven

December

At the start of December, I finally managed to go and visit Aunt Hilda's grave. I had been meaning to all along, with a horrible sneaking remembrance of all those times of having been meaning to go and visit her at Hen Fferm, when I'd only sent postcards instead. But with one thing and another, it was the second day of December before I finally parked outside the churchyard in Llanfynnon, instead of the usual spot across the river bridge, for nipping into the village shop. Since the one thing and another had all been things at Hen Fferm which she must have wrestled with once as well, like changing Calor Gas cannisters in frosty weather and having to go and buy more sheep feed, I rather felt Aunt Hilda would have understood the delay this time.

I did not take her Cornishware mug. I had grown used to it in the cupboard, sitting there on the top shelf besides Grandma's, as if Hilda and Margaret had reached a sort of understanding and companionship in death that they had not had in life. But I did take flowers from the garden: a big mayonnaise jar of the green and purple hellebores that had just come into flower in the border behind the studio. It had been such a surprise finding them, fresh and green when everything else was soggy and yellowing, with their down-turned heads that were full of smiling freckles when you turned them up, that I had wanted to share them with someone. Since Watty was, as usual, uninterested in flowers and I knew from speaking to Mum the night before that she and Aunt Lillian were out all day on a long-planned girls-only Christmas shopping trip, Aunt Hilda had seemed the next option. Collapse )

Rain From A Clear Blue Sky: Chapter Six

November

“How,” I asked Watty at breakfast one morning, “do you explain the inexplicable?”
Watty, of course, had a very simple answer to that. “Spam!”

“Brief and to the point,” I conceded. “But if I say that to my mother when she asks how life is, she'll assume I've gone mad from exposure or something.”

“Spam!”

I shook my head at him. “Don't believe me, then. But the question remains. How do you explain the inexplicable? Or the incomprehensible? Or the impossible? Or the normal that everybody tells you is just plain weird?”

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Rain From A Clear Blue Sky: Chapter Five

5. October
In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the heroine looks out of the window and starts shrieking because there’s this unknown white stuff falling out of the sky and the world must be ending. I did not shriek, but it was a bit of a surprise to open the kitchen blind before breakfast and see the rain – and the garden – going past sideways. I had known it was raining: I had heard it drumming on the windows all night long, and had vaguely registered ‘wet’ when I had trotted through the porch en route to the bathroom, but in my sleepy state, I hadn’t registered then the direction of the rain. I mean, it’s not like it’s something that usually varies, is it? Rain falls, and all that. You don’t fall by going sideways.
When I put these facts to Watty, he said “Spam.” He was probably right. There it was, after all. Rain, and all the leaves off all the bushes, going past sideways.Collapse )
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