“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 me?
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 lifted me.
“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.