Mynd i Ffwrdd i Fyw - Going Away to Live

Elisa James is the pen name of Liz Corbett. Liz, a Melbourne based writer, is working on a novel in which two of the main characters are Welsh.  

Set in 1841, the novel traces the journey of a group of emigrants travelling from St Katherine’s Wharf, London to the Port Phillip District in New South Wales. It is a story about losing a father, and of leaving home. It is about decisions we make that take us to the edge.  

Bridie Stewart, a child from London, is travelling with her mother and stepfather on board the emigrant ship Gloriana. Rhys Bevan, a young Welsh storyteller is also on board. Through Bridie’s love of story, and a grief for her father, a friendship between Rhys and Bridie is formed. Through Rhys, and his young wife Siān, themes of enchantment and destiny are added to the narrative and the story of Y Ddraig Goch is unfurled.  

This is Liz’s first novel. Although writing it has been a long held dream. Liz’s mother is Welsh and her father was English. The family came to Australia when Elizabeth was only four and a half years old. It would seem, that having been raised Australian, Elizabeth would have very little interest in her heritage, but it is not the case. Immigration, and its consequence, has long held a fascination for her. She is exploring these issues, and her Welsh heritage, in this, her first novel.  

Her is an excerpt from the novel. Liz would love to know if you have if enjoyed it. Her email address is: lizziejane2001@yahoo.com.au

Mynd i Ffwrdd i Fyw/ Going Away to Live 

September 1841

On board the emigrant vessel Gloriana. Travelling to the Port Phillip District in the Colony of New South Wales.

 

There were cabins on the main deck, and a galley. Between them was a makeshift horsebox, and lying lengthwise beside it were two small boats.  A floor was built into one of the boats and crates of hens set there to roost. The other boat rested upside-down on four wooden blocks, and underneath it a black bitch was kennelled. In between the boats was a rectangular horseshoe of space, a sliver of privacy. It was exactly what Rhys needed.

            They had passed out of the basin now and onto the Thames. Two small steam-tugs pulled their vessel amid a plethora of steamers, lighters and barges. Ships crowded the banks along both shores. Behind them were buildings and wharves for as far as the eye could see. The river was the pulse of the city, throbbing, arterial. Its sluggish, murky depths were a repository for the filth and squalor of its many thousand inhabitants.

The music on the wharf seemed to be following their vessel. Rhys could hear the repertoire of tunes being replicated by musicians in the various craft following in their wake. Who were these people, he wondered, and why did they follow alongside?

The current tune, a popular one, was being sung with great fervour by many on board.

Rule Britannia! Britannia rule the waves…’ 

Which is why Rhys just had to get away.

He squeezed in between the two boats, smoothing the soft silky fur of the hound, and settled himself back against the horsebox. He hadn’t expected to feel miserable leaving London, but he did. He felt as bleak as the mid autumn sunlight struggling to break through the clouds. If he were honest he would have to say he hadn’t felt this bad since the night he first left Wales – and that was a night best forgotten!

If only he could get away from the music. The words kept coming into his head, unbidden, in response to the tune.

‘The nations, not so blest as thee,

Must in their turn to tyrants fall…’

It just didn’t make sense, this terrible longing. Why, today of all days, a day of freshness and new beginnings, did he feel so utterly alone?

Still, it wasn’t surprising if you thought about it. England was, after all, attached to Wales. What it didn’t really explain was why today, four and a half years after the event, he was being ripped in two at the thought of leaving home. His chest felt like it was on fire. He rubbed it with the heel of his hand as the prickling behind his eyes threatened to overflow. Funny how his breath came in short sharp bursts as the memories assailed him. Strange how new grief poured salt in the wounds of the old. 

‘Still more majestic shalt thou rise,

More dreadful, from each foreign stroke…’

The song was nearly finished now. Just one more verse – Duw! Would it never end?  He struggled to rein in his thoughts, but he couldn’t do it. For some inexplicable reason they wouldn’t go away.

Beside him the bitch was huddled close. ‘It’s going to be a long hard journey,’ he said fondling her ears. He hoped by talking to banish all thoughts of home.

The black dog whimpered and rolled onto her side. Urging him, with a kicking leg, to tickle her lightly furred under-belly.

‘Plenty of pups in there bach.’ He could feel them half-formed in her abdomen.

Still the memories kept on coming.

Blest isle! With matchless beauty crowned,

And manly hearts to guard the fair…’

His fellow travellers were fairly bellowing out the final chorus. How did they do it, he wondered. He couldn’t sing a bar to save his life. His throat was so tight and restricted. They were coming thick and fast now, the old images. He didn’t know what to do with them. How best to stop them. Any minute now and he would be a child again – a boy of twelve preparing to leave his father’s house. Here it came the fear, jellied, like liver in aspic.

Rule Britannia! Britannia rule the waves

Britons never, never, never, shall be slaves …’

Terrified he had been at the thought of leaving home, and far too afraid to stay. But there had been no choice, not really. Now it seemed it must come back to him, revisit him, on this cold grey day in September, and he had no alternative but to let it come.

The song was finished – Diolch Byth!

 Rhys heaved a sigh and gave himself up to the past.

 

*          *          * 

The Bevans lived in a small cottage. Hidden high up in the softly folding hills above the village of Cwmafan. The men of this generation were miners. The women and children worked in the mines too. They kept poultry and a small garden, and like their fathers, and their fathers before them, they did anything they could, to find the bread, to stay alive. Tonight Rhys, the youngest son of the house, lay wide-awake in a small loft room above the stairs. He was trying to memorise every detail of the home he was leaving behind.

There was the dresser. It was the most substantial piece of furniture in the house. There was also the old oak chair his grandfather had lovingly carved. There wasn’t much else, Rhys thought. Making an inventory of images in the dark. There were the rag rugs his mother had made, and the small wooden table they crowded around for meals. There were the brass candlesticks, of course, and the chipped plate that hung above the mantelpiece. It was a small mean cottage, Rhys thought. Especially when considered from above. There were six of them in the family tonight. Tomorrow there would be five.

His mother knew he was leaving tonight. Not that Rhys had told her – it would have put her in a terrible position. But she knew, and he was glad. In reality, very few people would be surprised to find him gone. No doubt many were expecting it, laying bets on it even, behind the “Fox and Hound.” The struggle, after all, had been going on for years. Not that Rhys cared what people thought. He had learned to live with scorn. But he was glad his mother knew. It would be no shock to her, finding him gone.

Rhys was equally certain that his father didn’t know. Who would ever dare raise the subject with him! If it had crossed the mind of Gwilym Bevan that his youngest son would run away on the eve of his manhood, he would have dismissed it out of hand. His confidence in his own authority was so complete. Due to start work tomorrow, Rhys was. Not a child’s work, pulling a cart or keeping a door. An adult’s work, at the coalface, deep under ground. His clothes were hung in readiness behind the door. “A fine thing it is to do a man’s work,” his father had said at teatime and Rhys had almost believed him …

His mother was up late tonight. As if by bustling about she could somehow stay the hour. Beside him in bed, his brothers snored softly. Tired out from a long day at work. His mother gave in to it at last though, the inevitability of him leaving, and climbed slowly up the stairs. Rhys would like to have called out to her, to say a few last words. But – No! His father might wake. It was better this way.

Timbers creaked and embers glowed as the plates, reproachful and pewter, watched him creep towards the door. Rhys took one last parting glance around the room, and saw the fiddle standing in the middle of the floor. It had belonged to his grandfather. It was his mother’s parting gift. Along with a parcel of food she had left him. Duw annwyl! Leaving was hard.

 

It was a fair walk from his house into town, but Rhys was in no hurry. He could hear his boots crunching as he walked, the sound as raw and jagged as the pain in his chest. Down past the old Waunlas level he went, with the little stream skipping on ahead of him. Down towards Cwm Yr Hen Felin. The Valley of the Old Mill they called it, but the mill was long gone. The land now owned by Misters Vigurs and Smith. The men mining coal, the men digging for iron ore, the men who worked on the blast furnace, they all worked for Vigurs and Smith. They owned the whole valley his father said, and it was true. The peaceful village of Cwmafan was fast becoming a town, whirring and humming to the onward march of its new industries. 

It was spring, and a fine night for walking. A whisper of apple blossom hung in the air. Right through the village he walked. Past the Parish Church and the cemetery. Past the old “Fox and Hound.” Tafarn y Fynwent they called it – the Tavern by the Burial Ground. He went right out as far as Capel Seion. It was his family chapel. Rhys knew there would be whispering in the congregation come this Sunday morning.

He lingered long beside the Afan, as if in the company of a dear old friend. Knowing that once he crossed the river he would be gone – almost half way to Caer Hendy. He had it in mind to pass Aberafan under cover of darkness. Not that he expected pursuit. Rhys knew his father’s pride would never allow it, but some well-meaning friend or relative might try to intervene, and that he wished to avoid at all costs. Once past Aberafan he would work his way to Cowbridge and, in the company of drovers, make his way towards the great City of London. He wouldn’t stay in Wales. It was out of the question. His father’s shame would be too all encompassing. 

 

By the bridge over the Afan he met Siān. He hadn’t told her he was going. He could see the hurt and reproach in her large dark eyes.

            ‘Rhonwen told me,’ she said. ‘She asked me to give you this.’

            It was a stout hazel stick fashioned for walking. Duw! Did she know all his plans?

He didn’t know what to say. But it struck him, for the first time, how unkind it was to leave without telling. He had been so caught up in his plans he had forgotten this small limber girl who was his friend.

‘Shame on you, to leave without saying farewell Rhys Bevan, and me your closest friend.’

Fair play to her, he thought. She was right. ‘A secret it was girl, on account of my father.’ The excuse sounded miserable. Even to him.

‘And me a big tattle tale, I suppose?’

‘No, you wouldn’t have told.’ Then why hadn’t he told her? To avoid a scene like this he supposed. There was no future for Siān in Cwmafan, either. Only he didn’t know if she knew it yet.

But she wasn’t silly, this tiny girl who was his friend. ‘Take me with you Rhys. I need to go too.’

Hisht, Bach! And me barely able to look after myself.’

‘Not asking you to look after me – only for a bit of company on the road. Please Rhys, let me come?’

‘What of Rhonwen, would you leave her tonight?’ He saw her gaze falter, knew he had scored a try. ‘Would you leave her now, without even saying goodbye?’

‘What of your mother?’ Siān challenged. ‘And her missing you in the morning?’

That hurt. He saw the triumph in her eyes.

‘Looking after my father she is, and busy with three grown sons.’

‘And your father?’

‘Never mind my father,’ Rhys snapped, regretting it almost at once. It wasn’t Siān’s fault. None of it was.

He let his eyes wander back over the village. Looking over towards Moel Mynyddau. It looked peaceful in the moonlight, but it was no longer home. ‘Sorry bach,’ he whispered, almost imperceptibly.

Siān nodded, but didn’t reply

Rhys swallowed. There was a lump the size of an egg in his throat. He kept his eyes down, avoiding Siān’s gaze. ‘I have to go,’ he said at last.

Siān knew it and conceded her defeat. ‘Give me something to remember you by, Rhys.’

What could he give her, he wondered. He only had the clothes on his back, the precious fiddle and the food his mother had prepared. At length he settled on an old woollen scarf, and unwrapping it, draped it loosely about her throat. Silver were the tears welling in her eyes.

‘I’ll come back for you,’ he heard himself say. Well, that was a new thought! He wondered where it had come from. There was no time to question it, however, because Siān was speaking again.

‘Here’s something to remember me by,’ she was saying. ‘Something to bring you back.’

She held out nine small sticks to him. They were tied in a bundle with red ribbon. It was a special charm. Made by her mother, she said.

‘I can’t be taking that from you.’ He looked at her aghast. ‘Precious that is!’

‘And you coming back to me, you said.’

‘I am, too!’

‘Well then, take it. Give it back to me when you come.’

‘I am going to miss you Siān.’ His voice felt woolly, thick. He hoped he wasn’t going to cry. Not here, not now, on the eve of his independence.

‘A kiss then before you leave is it, cariad?’ She leaned over and offered her small red mouth for him to kiss.

Rhys swallowed once, twice. He didn’t know what to do. ‘The kiss will come with the spoon,’ he said at last, ‘and not before.’

Siān didn’t protest, but hugged him fiercely. Then letting go, she turned and ran off into the mountains.

*          *          * 

The music had stopped, and Rhys was cleansed. His mind sweet and clear as the mountain stream running through the valley of his home. His back was aching, he realized, and his knees felt stiff. He must having been sitting there for a while. A steamboat tooted somewhere in the distance, and a barge sounded its bell. Ahead of them, the steam-tugs bellowed and belched their rhythm steady, purposeful.

They were well away from the Pool of London now, Rhys guessed. The flotilla of small, following, craft seemed to have dropped away. He crawled to the end of the horsebox and stood up. Duw! He had been sitting there a while. They were past Wapping, with its tunnel so long in construction, and almost half way round the Isle of Dogs. He could just make out the tower of St Paul’s Deptford on the right. Soon they would be in sight of Greenwich Park. He didn’t want to miss that.

All around him were people enjoying the sights if the river, laughing and waving, cheering. Rhys smiled at their antics. The clouds were thinning, he noticed, a chink in the gray, and a glimpse of blue. For a moment, all was golden. The river was bathed in light. His heart lifted then, on the breath of autumn and danced to the song of the river beneath. He would find Siān. She would be awake now and ready to enjoy the sights He wasn’t alone anymore. They would enjoy it together.

 

© 2006 Elizabeth Corbett