“One more chair sold and you’ll
sleep up high tonight,” Da would say to the younger children. It spurred everyone
to sell as much as we could. And when I looked back on my childhood, it was the
recollection of cosy nights spent sleeping in the covered cart that brought a
smile to my face, not the memories of our house in the woods.
Cousin Marared stowed her bundle of
brightly coloured gowns which, though not for sale, would bring in an income. Gryff
packed his hurdy gurdy into its special wool-lined case. My brother would
cradle the instrument all the way to our first stop. It was more precious to
him than a sweetheart. If the weather came bad, he’d tuck it inside the cart,
wedging it so that nothing would slide or bang into it. As we rode towards our
first stop of the season, he and Mam talked about which songs he would play for
her to dance to. And Marared? Well, she’d do what she always did.
I knew exactly where we’d go; it
was the same every year: northeast from our dwellings in what the English call
the Forest of Dean to Worcester, calling at all the small settlements along the
way. We’d stay for a while in a little place we knew near there, before making
our return journey to arrive back in the forest before the equinox. So as the
long line of carts, riders on horseback - some leading other horses which would
be sold - and children who thought they’d have the energy to dance and skip
alongside, moved out of the woods, I had no reason to think anything would be
different this year.
We had been travelling for less
than a morning when Da brought our cart to a halt. I’d settled down, knowing
that it would be midday before we reached our first stop and was brought out of
my reverie when the steady rhythm of the horse’s feet ceased and the cart
lurched to a standstill.
“Ydych chi'n mynd i'r gogledd?”
I stared. Rudely, I’m sure. The
words had come from a boy not much older than me. Well, perhaps he was twenty
or so. His Welsh was good but his accent was poor, yet I instantly found myself
longing for him to speak again. His voice was warm, and soft, and though my
whole life my Grandmother had talked about smiling eyes, I’d never known what
she meant until I looked into his. My insides whooshed and I looked away,
noticing that my heart was beating far too fast. What on earth was wrong with
Da, if he was even aware of my
discomfort, ignored me. “Yes, we are going north,” he said in his much better
English, “but only as far as Worcester.”
The boy smiled and looked a little
relieved at not having to think too carefully about his response now he knew my
father spoke his language. “I only need to go to Cinderford. May I ride with
you? Safer in a group and all that.”
My parents exchanged glances. I’ve
no idea what emboldened me to speak but I said, “Of course you may ride with
us. But, we are Welsh.”
He turned to look at me and his
lips moved with a funny little pucker, and then he smiled. I flushed hot from
my face to my toes. “I know that you are.”
Well then he’d know that the
English were happy enough to buy our goods, listen to our tales and our music,
but they did not like us. They never had.
He sat next to me on the bench of
the cart and I could feel the warmth of his arm through our clothing. How
strange that such a heat should make my heart beat faster, but I swear it did. With
every bump in the road, he seemed to lean in closer and I cannot say I found it
unpleasant. When I could be sure that no one was looking, I swivelled my
eyeballs till they ached and stole glances of his jaw, the curved edge of his
lips, the outline of his nose.
We stopped to make camp that
evening and he jumped off the cart and held his hand out to help me down. I
needed no assistance, but took it anyway, feeling the strength in his arm as he
“Hoffech chi gerdded gyda mi?” he
whispered in his imperfect Welsh as he set me down on the ground.
Would I like to walk with him? Oh
yes, even though I knew I shouldn’t. Even though I knew I should be helping to
bring the covers over the wagons to make our shelters.
“Mam, I’m off for firewood,” I
said, surprised but delighted how easily the lie tripped off my tongue.