So it must have been after the
birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place,
the spellbound horse walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.
Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill
At the first gate, the walk did not look promising. A low overcast sky shadowed forbidding hills that seemed not spectacular but wet, one linen hill like the other, plastered thick with winter grasses, white on the north sides where the hills had hidden their snow from the thirsty sun that ate the frozen stuff, leaving only drippings that soaked the track on which we walked so that we might be always shoelace deep in mud. Still, it was Wales, and this walk, although unplanned, had taken on such an importance that it seemed we had walked the whole year to get here, to earn this culmination: a self-held importance that seemed to say these hills were watersheds that must be crossed before life could go on.
It was December 23 before we ever got out of London, and as we pulled on to the M4 at 6 p.m. and headed west, it had already been dark an hour and a half. For weeks, it had been dark when I went to work and dark when I came back home, and if the winter’s days were as short as love songs, the year had been as long as lonely hearts.
My work was in redecorating the Knightsbridge homes of American and British executives, for which I charged twice the going rate, but for which I had to bring the job in in half the time, to an impeccable standard. The day before, I had put to bed the completion of a five-story architect’s office, having told the principals to stuff stripping and repainting the fireplace in a basement room, the one I had insisted from the start had problems paint could not solve. It was a job that, no matter how good I got at it, would never be really fulfilling, and this was the year I had realized that. My wife’s music had kept her away for half the year, first in the United States, and then in India. She had arrived home only two days before, and over our heads hung the great question marks that haunt couples that have been apart too long.
“Right,” I said when we finished our first argument. “We’re going hiking.”
“In the middle of winter?” she asked.
“Well, somewhere,’ I said.
We had an unused invitation to visit a friend who lived in Pontypool, in southern Wales, so we oiled our boots and packed our woolens, bundled into the green Volvo wagon and headed out on rain-slicked streets to the Great Western Road.
Walking for us was more than just exercise. It was something transcendental that seemed always to put things in their right place. When she was pregnant with our first two children, we had walked five miles a day around Hyde Park. When we could not talk, we walked. Walking seemed to shake things loose so that the bad things inside rose to the top and could be scooped off.
We reached our friend Edita’s house that evening late, and with warmth and fire and tea round her Christmas tree, set ourselves to the task of going to bed in the tall wide bed. In the grey Welsh morning, we announced our intent of taking a long walk, preferably in some hills.
That morning, looking out her windows at the narrow village streets beneath grey skies, with the mists rising out of the valleys, I was struck with a sudden realization: this was Christmas, and this was Wales, and suddenly a flood of memories of Christmases long ago came trotting back on their long, thin legs, Christmases when our family would gather on Christmas Eve and my Father would lift the needle on the record player and we would sit, all of us, year after year, and listen as the voice of Richard Burton read us the words of Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales.
“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”
And so, as if I had stepped back into a childhood reverie, I found myself at Christmas in Wales. She brought me a cup of tea and we stood gazing out the window at the chilly streets where so few people walked, and those that did were so bundled in woolens and sheepskins that one identified sexes by relative size and the style of their hats. Furry dogs trudged after them with heads down, and short-haired dogs with their noses up sniffed for bacon on the crisp morning air.
“Not many those mornings trod the piling streets: an old man, fawn-bowlered, yellow-gloved and, at this time of year, with spats of snow, would take his constitutional to the white bowling green and back, as he would take it wet or fine on Christmas Day or Doomsday; sometimes two hale young men, with big pipes blazing, no overcoats and wind-blown scarfs, would trudge, unspeaking, down to the forlorn sea, to work up an appetite, to blow away the fumes, who knows, to walk into the waves until nothing of them was left but the two curling smoke clouds of their inextinguishable briars.”
Edita bundled us into her car and we drove into the hills to the farm of Stephen Jones and his family. These old friends of hers had invited us over for Christmas Eve festivities which, in Wales, were an all-day matter. The drive up the hill to their farm house was up a narrow winding road and then an even narrower gravel drive. The hedgerows had a scratchy, mid-winter look to then and the rock walls ran off in all directions to enclose the steeply sloping paddocks, where there grazed long-haired sheep and horses.
Edita took us in to meet our hosts who then all came outside to point us in the direction of the recommended walk.
“Right up the track there you go,” said Mr. Jones. “It’s easy as ham and eggs. In a couple of miles she starts to go back down the other side. That’ll be a good place to turn around and come back. Oh, and have a care in the steep spots, won’t you? Keep an eye out for some kids on ponies. Our girls are up there just now. You’ll probably see them.”
“Yes, and mind they come back down when you do,” chimed in Mrs. Jones. ”We’ve gooseberry pies in the oven, should be ready soon.”
So we sloshed through the mud and found that after the first gate, as the path started to climb, the mud was replaced by a rough, rocky trail that was not unpleasant to walk on. We climbed in silence, a little out of breath from too few recent days climbing hills and daunted now by the scale of these bread-loaf hills that had seemed only easy, grassy knolls from the car. Now as we walked up the side of it, this hill and the ones around it took on proportions that began to seem mammoth to us, as if by some breath of Welsh magic, they had inflated.
And it’ s true Wales is a magic land. This is the land that gave us Merlin, that sent Arthur out looking for ladies in lakes and swords in stones. This is the land of poets and golden tongues that wove tapestries out of common words and stories, and gave their towns magic, secret names that outsiders cannot pronounce. A land of poets, and sometimes a land of liars. Below us in the valley, the small village was growing smaller with each step. The smoke from the chimneys tried in vain to chase us up the hill, only to lose its way half way up and wander off dreamily down the valley, where a hundred families were preparing for their Christmas Eve as we walked, colorful birds displaced from a distant shore, higher and higher up their hill, having the Christmas in Wales my father had tried each year to give me.
“It’s amazing,” I said to her. “It’s as if we’ve come full circle in our lives now.”
Across the valley to the west of us the clouds seemed to be breaking up and there was blue sky to be seen and sunlight on the hilltops. The track was steady and well-drained, running diagonally across the face of the hill and switching back from time to time, so that our view of the valley kept changing as we climbed. The grass was thick and green, and damp with beads of moisture. I guessed our altitude to be only fifteen hundred feet, but there was still an alpine quality to the terrain, with the iridescent moss and lichen on the granite boulders and stone walls that crouched in the grass, and the low clumpy nature of the hedges.
As we walked, we fell into step with each other. The sound of the breath between us, which we listened to and, without thinking, but not without noticing, brought into synchronicity so that the walking became a muddy, woolly dance of sorts, a ritual between two people who knew each other too well and themselves not enough.
We reached the top of the hill, not so much by cresting it as by gradually agreeing with It that we were not going up any more, and on the round top saw the sky that was clearing for the afternoon, and the stratocumulus off to the south, with their nobility that gave dignity to a less noble world below. Behind us hill after hill marched off toward the Irish Sea.
Two small girls on round shaggy ponies were up there cavorting in the meadow, and when they saw us, they whipped their steeds up into a thumping trot and came bumbling over towards us.
“’Ullo,” said the older of the two, a redhead about thirteen years old. “You must be Aunt Edita’s friends. I’m Jennifer. This is Althea.”
“Mummy said you might be coming up here,” offered Althea, who looked about ten under her mountain of scarves. “Wanna see us jump?”
They trotted across the open ground to a clump of small trees, one of which had fallen over some time back and provided an obstacle about a foot high to which they set about jumping, with snorts of steamy fog from their steeds, and polite whoops from themselves. We walked on after them, and then past them toward a farther clump of wind-bent trees that seemed to mark the descent of the trail down the other side, and our appointed turning point. The sky, for us, was clear now and the cool yellow sun of winter picked at the color in our cheeks and ears and reddened our cold noses. Our stride, lengthened now on the refreshing flat ground, counted cadence to our thoughts, weeding out doubts and fear, and threshing the stalks of regret. Things, as we saw clearly now, were all right. We came to the huddle of small trees expecting to see the rolling descent to another valley and village below, and instead of land saw the incomprehensible: sky below us, unbroken and endless, stretching off to the east, a measureless sea of clouds that lay like a blanket on the earth below us where, to our surprise, the hills of Wales had ended with a slap and the rolling fields of England had begun.
The sun broke a wider berth and shone white on the clouds below us and white on the clouds above us. The girls came trotting up beside us and we stood there with the great woolly beasts, and the wee woolly kids, and the great woolly world of sky above us, and below us a sea of waving clouds that covered a breathing world where mothers stirred pots of stew on the stove, and fathers ground the gears of the family car, and the vicar hung his surplice on the peg by the door and set out home on his foggy walk to Christmas Eve with his family.
Here and there the tops of sharp hills reached up from the one-clouded sky below us and gave scale to the sight that seemed a thousand miles away, and a thousand years beyond our troubled lives, troubles which now also stood in scale and could be measured against the larger things in life.
I looked at the girls, whose eyes said that this was not an everyday sight, even on this sainted hill, and said, “I believe your mother has a gooseberry pie ready.”
And so the six of us trotted home, four plus two, shaggy as the clouds were long, and hungry as bears, back across the mossy hilltop and down the rocky track, with the valley below us and the closing grey sky above. We held hands and talked incessantly, giddy as children, and listened as the girls told the ridiculous tales of girlhood, and believed them.
Down the track we went, and over the gates, sloshing through the last wet gate as the sky opened up with a crisp, soft snow that fell the rest of the afternoon and into the evening. Inside, the pies and puddings and double Devonshire cream awaited us by the crackling fire, and gooseberries as green and sweet as spring, and buckets of sugary tea, and stronger stuff for those who wanted.
We laughed and talked into the night and past the time when the expectant children at last trailed off to bed, having left out biscuits and milk for Father Christmas, and finally bundled ourselves out into the snow with shouts of reunion, and at last made it home to Edita’s old beds. In the darkness, listening to the even breathing of my softly sleeping wife, I remembered the final words of A Child’s Christmas in Wales which our family had recited in unison to the record as our Christmas Eve ritual came to an end:
“Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-coloured snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steadily falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.”