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Cymraeg

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Crossing the Boundaries on Christmas Day, and the Little Family by Peter Green's Cave

Ifan Gruffydd (1896-1971)

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Was your mother very interested, would you say, in legends and traditions?

Yes, I'd say she took an interest, say, but nothing out of the ordinary really. Of course she knew all the old sayings and so forth and believed them, you see, weather signs and such things. Old sayings and old proverbs, and people believed them, you see. And they became a fact in their lives, often enough, and proved that there was a basis for them, you see, things that people don't believe in or think about these days, of course.

Yes. She didn't believe in the fairies, did she?

Well, I can't say whether she believed in them, but she gave me the impression that she believed, and that impression, of course, was what led me to believe. Oh, I believed very deeply in the fairies, of course, and took a lively interest in them, although I'd be frightened of them, of course. You'd suffer misfortune if you came across - or if the fairies came across you in one of their nooks or woods. They lived in many places. They lived in Henblas Woods, as we called it. And in the cave too. They called the old cave Peter Green's cave. Well, the fairies were there. There was no doubt about that, you see. But, of course, they wouldn't always be out and about. They said that when it was quiet the fairies played around the door of the cave, they said, back and forth. And people in days gone by used to say they always had their eye on little children, if they could get hold of them. And if they caught a little child, that they would take him in with them to the cave and keep him for a year and a day.

And, of course, because of that we were scared of the fairies, though we were very interested in them, [too], in hearing about them, that they were tiny, tiny things - people. And then mother would always warn me, of course - and many other mothers would warn their children about the same thing - not to go near the cave if there was nobody keeping an eye on us, that there was a danger that the fairies would get hold of us. And I would be scared to death of crossing the boundary my mother had set. That boundary was the church. Because the cave is beyond the church, you see. So it's in the middle of fields. A very lonely sort of place. You would tend to think about fairies, or beings like them, living there, because of the silence and tranquillity.

Of course, all rural places were quiet in those days, you see. I sorely miss the quiet of the countryside in those days. You know, the traffic these days - well, every minute you're hearing the sound of some machine somewhere, or a car going by. And the big machines they have these days - dear me! They make this house shake. But in that age there was nothing, of course, except the occasional horse and cart, or a horse-drawn carriage, or Twm Hermon's wagonette going to the fair or the market on Thursdays. That was all the traffic there was, you see. And at night, then, that's the time I really miss. I remember how I used to go out, and stand in the doorway, or go [down] to the roadside gate, say, and look at the stars. Not a noise to be heard anywhere. Perfectly quiet. You could hear a man walking towards you, almost half a mile away, I should think. You'd know the sound of his feet. You knew who he was. You'd hear a horse and carriage coming, say, as far away as over half a mile from here. A wagon crossing the highway to Holyhead coming - you'd hear the quick steps of the pony coming, and you'd almost hear the driver driving it and shaking the reins. It was as quiet as that, you see.

Well yes, I was telling you about the fairies, wasn't I. I think I've got quite an interesting little story I can tell you. And it's a true story, you know. There was only me, as far as I know, in this little settlement of say half a dozen houses. I was the only child. The people around here didn't have children and I was the only one here. There was just Mam and myself living in this little old cottage. And I'd play in the fields - I liked being by myself. Down towards the church and back. Mixing with the animals there. Knowing the cows by their names, and the horses. And indeed, I remember how careful I was not to cross the boundaries Mam had set me, that church, for fear of the fairies. I remember one Christmas, how I'd put my stocking on the bedpost to wait for Father Christmas. I didn't get much in those days. An apple and a little orange, and another little present with it - something to play with. And this particular Christmas, I'd had a penny gun, along with the orange and the apple from Betsi Rolant's shop in Llangefni. Dear me! I was thrilled to bits with this little gun. Well, I had to go out with it into the fields, the fields that Davies, the Borth, shot in days gone by - the landlord, you see. He bred pheasants too - oh, there was plenty of game in those days. Huw Roberts, the keeper, looked after them. I followed him many times, when he went with his gun to shoot the occasional bird of prey, say, that was bothering the pheasants. And I'd pretend to be like Huw Roberts, the gamekeeper, and felt I was like Davies of Borth too sometimes. I felt that I owned the estate. And off I went with this little penny gun. Imagining that I could shoot the occasional pheasant and hare, you see. And as a rule on Christmas Day Davies of Borth would shoot everywhere and go over his boundaries. He'd play havoc on Christmas Day, when everyone would forgive him for trespassing on their land, you see.

And I also took advantage of Christmas. I too crossed the boundaries. I went beyond the church, over the knoll and walked the long fields where the reeds and the rushes grow as tall as my armpits, or taller than me. And indeed, I carried on, and came to the cave without realising it. I thought nothing of it. What made me realise I was near the cave was seeing - I could see a little family of four eating their Christmas dinner in the mouth of the cave, having set up a kind of little tent, you see, across the entrance. They slept in it but took their meals, it seemed, where they were. Well, before I could run for my life - they had two children, a boy and a little girl - the two children had come up and were standing around me. I couldn't very well escape. And I remember that the boy, at least, counted the buttons of my coat like this, and the girl tickled me under my chin like this, and drew her hand across my cheek, I suppose. I don't know whether she thought I was cute, or what! At any rate, I thought she was pretty. Well, so pretty that I suppose, although I was very young, I'd fallen head over heels in love with her. That is, after I'd started to feel at home with them, you see.

Oh! I was terribly scared, but they made me quite comfortable, fair play to them. They took me away and gave me food. Well, now, if you'd seen the table they had. Plenty of pheasants and hares and all sorts of poultry, and they'd set as good a Christmas dinner as the landlord had on his table, I'm sure, every day. And indeed, I had an excellent Christmas dinner although Mam had been worrying terribly about me for a long time, I'm sure. And I stayed there. Well, I couldn't for the life of me work out who they were, nor how they'd come to such a place with all the furniture they had. They had a handcart, you see, and they'd had to cross a river, and pass through reeds, and over rocks and sedge, and all kinds of wilderness like that. And there were two big greyhounds lying under that handcart. Oh, lying there happily resting, and their red tongues like bloody blades hanging over their chops, down like so. And their ears pricking up and flattening, as if they were ready to start at their master's command to hunt somewhere else again.

Well, soon enough I was quite comfortable playing with the children, ooh, and I thought it was a wonderful, excellent place. I'd given over the idea that they were the fairies, of course. And there I was and there I would go again when I wanted to play with someone - down to the mouth of the cave to meet Juliana and her brother. I played with them many times, and I loved it there. Dear me! I was fond of Juliana. You know, they said that the man was a Scot - that's what people said, and that he'd left home and married a girl from [one of those] hot countries. That's what the old people said. And, of course, she was dark-skinned. She had crow-black hair and dark eyes, and Juliana was the spitting image of her, and just as beautiful. Good gracious! She was a beautiful girl. But, of course, we were very young - say I was [between] five and six years old, something like that, if I remember rightly. At any rate, I went there for weeks to play with Juliana and her brother. Mam was very afraid, but still, she saw that everything was all right and allowed me to go. Other people said that you shouldn't mix with dark-skinned people, and so on, that it was very dangerous. Well, anyway, it made no difference, I was too fond of Juliana. Nobody could stop me going down there day after day, especially on Saturdays.

However, one Saturday when I got there they'd disappeared - had gone on their way somewhere. Nothing left, only the old rushes and reeds where they'd lain down and slept, and the remains of the little fire, of course, the ashes and the paths where we used to play. Well, I was heartbroken, seeing that Juliana had gone. I might never see her again. And you know, I longed for her. I long for her to this day. I longed for her for - ooh, well, until she slipped from my mind completely in the end, with the years, of course.

* * *

And then I wandered the length and breadth of this old world, from one place to the next. I found myself at the end of the First World War as a sort of officer, to tell you the truth, if you'll allow me to put it that way, in the army, looking after a camp in Dunkirk in France, and it was my responsibility to look after the staff of soldiers who provided food for the soldiers who came and went, finishing in the army from the Far East and the Middle East, say, coming home. They'd put in to Dunkirk - the ship waited there for them to be fed, you see, and to rest a little. Then on they'd go. The next day, others [would] come. Others on their way to the Far East. You fed thousands of people a day in huge tents. Oh, a terribly busy place. I had a staff of men working with me, you see.

And one day, you know, as people did at the time, Frenchmen, and everyone for that matter, doing a great trade selling things to the soldiers to take home, you see - souvenirs. And every ex-solider, if he had his wits about him, tried to buy a little something to take home to his family, or to his wife and children. And an old woman came up to me, with her daughter, or so I thought at the time, and asked me whether they could set up a little shop somewhere near the entrance to the tent, where the soldiers came and went, you see - a good place to sell. And of course I let them do this, and I did more than that for them. I lent the old woman a table or two to put her wares on. Well! She had grand things. And this girl was helping her. I became very friendly with them, and they with me. And of course, I'd done them a favour, and I'd call by for a chat early in the morning around ten, with a cup of tea each for them and one for myself. I'd talk to the old woman - very interesting, and the girl too of course. Dear me! I liked this girl. Good gracious! She was a beautiful young girl. I'd completely fallen in love with her, truth be told. But I didn't take any advantage of the situation, I just thought things to myself. Day after day, we talked a great deal. And I noticed that the old lady could speak any language. No matter who came to her counter, she could change from French to English, from English to German, or any language. And I asked her one day with great interest, asking her in English of course - she could talk English very well - asked her how many languages she could speak. And she turned and said to me, in the middle of all her bustle,

'I can speak fifteen languages, my boy,' she said.

Dear me! I was amazed, of course, and told her that I could speak one language she couldn't, I was sure. She asked which one. I said Welsh.

'Oh, my dear boy,' she said, 'I lived there with my late husband. I can speak Welsh too.'

'Where did you live?' I asked her.

And she took a piece of paper. I wondered at that, you know. She wrote on a piece of paper and handed it to me, and what was on it but Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrnrdrobwllllandisiliogogogoch. Well, good gracious! I said I knew where that was, and that I could pronounce the word, and did so for her, of course.

'Ah,' she said, 'now you've got me.'

She couldn't speak Welsh, I'm pretty sure, you see, and so I'd caught her out in that. That's what I thought, anyway.

However, things went on like this from day to day. And then it was Christmas Day and, of course, the old lady couldn't afford not to set up the shop, even on Christmas Day. She was still selling. And I, of course, took them both their Christmas dinner from the cookhouse. I provided it and was pleased as punch I could take it to them. And I took it, and my own dinner, and sat down with them for a chat. Dear me! The old lady's conversation was always interesting. The girl was quieter, but still pleasing enough. Oh, wonderful. And she said to the girl, and to me of course, how kind I'd been, how much help to her livelihood, because of my kindnesses, and turned to the girl, and said something else in her own language. I don't know whether it was Arabic, or what, I'm not sure. And the girl turned and looked at me, and looked at her mother. And I didn't know what they'd said, or anything. Soon, however, before I went back to my work, the girl turned to me and said:

'I know you. You used to live with your mother in the little cottage beyond the church.'

And it was Juliana. They'd wandered the world, I suppose, from one cave to another, from one country to another and found themselves there. And I'd found myself on a similar enough Christmas, I suppose, to the first Christmas I saw her at the mouth of the cave. And I still think about her. I don't know what's happened to her now. I don't know, if I'd stuck to Juliana I don't know what would have become of me, what anyone else would have thought of me, I don't know. But I wasn't at an age, I suppose, to be able to decide such things in those days. Or didn't think, at any rate. But it was a strange happening, or what should I call it, coincidence, I suppose, wasn't it?

* * *

Did you think they were fairies when you saw them first?

Oh, yes! Dear me! Yes. And I wanted to run away, you see, but they'd caught me. And these little children around me, well to me they were the fairies, you see...But when I saw the father and mother standing, as they were, well, they weren't fairies to me then. And their furniture outside. I knew then, I suppose that they were something like - not Gypsies, say, but something like the Abram Woods we called them, you see. These people who would set up their tents wherever they wouldn't be disturbed. Out of sight of other people, where they could always go and hunt at night. And feast in the day, and sleep. And then wake again for the night. They hunted Davies of Borth's pheasants, you see, and his hares.


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