I am proud to present 'Olwen', a winter story by the novelist, poet and short-story writer, A.L. Reynolds.
After a misspent youth pursuing literature and mediaeval studies to postgraduate level, A. L. Reynolds now divides her time between her children, her cats and her computer. She is (as A. L. Doughty) the author of How Glass Becomes Sand (Caernarfon: Gwasg Pantycelyn, 2002). More recently she has written Of The Ninth Verse, The Myth of Wings, and Drift: Collected Poetry, all available via her website. She lives in the Conwy Valley.
Olwen: A story by A.L. Reynolds
It might have been said that Olwen had had a hard life. Other people certainly felt that. She heard them say it when they saw her walking away from the shop, her back bent.
'Oh, Olwen. She's had a hard life.'
'Buried two of her own children, Olwen. To lose one is enough, wouldn't you think?'
'God in his mercy…'
She may have had a hard life, but she had sharp ears. Always had. She could hear bats in the air when others could only see them flitting. They used the road as a map beneath them and other people shied away. She didn't. She stood and listened to them in their high-pitched intensity, and then moved on. Like as not they thought she kept some of those bats herself, safe in her own belfry.
No bats out now. It was too light and too cold. She walked on home, one foot after the other, her shoulders aching with the crook that was always there. She hadn't been born bent. It was something that had come on year by year. It had never been a curse. It just ached and hurt, but it wasn't a curse. It kept people away. They didn't like to mention it. If she had just been old they would have given up their seats on the bus and offered to carry her heavy bags, but a crook like this, a scoliosis of sorts, was like something catching. Their eyes slid away from her. It was like she was an invisible monster in the room. They all knew she was there. No one spoke of it though. Their eyes slid away.
There were flakes of snow falling as she walked up the pavement. One, then two, then four and five and more. The air became a veil of snowflakes that looked black like ash against the white sky. On the concrete paving slabs they turned very quickly to mush and faded away.
That was how Dolly had gone. Olwen had never given the girl a proper name. Born in the winter of '62, and she had faded so quickly she had never had a name. She lived for three days, drifting away every hour. The doctors said they'd never known a baby so quiet. She wasn't the perfect chubby thing that all Olwen's friends seemed to have. She was wizened, more like a monkey of sorts. Her face and her glazed eyes had looked weirdly old. Her fingers had been little sticks. She had not fed and she had not cried. She slipped into the world early and then slipped out again, two days before Christmas.
'At least she didn't take Christmas, eh?' Will had said in his pragmatic way.
He felt more than that. Grey with grief at the time, Olwen hadn't been able to see it, but looking back she could see it. He had been buttoned up so tight with loss that he had been like a stone. Will never let any emotion spill out. But he had walked. Her own mam told her that, holding her hand in the hospital and trying to describe Will's grief to ease her own. He had gone out and followed the footpaths and tramped through his tad's fields and walked out all of that pain, and come back on Christmas Eve with a tree and a tight smile, and had proceeded to make Christmas right for the other babbies, even if their mam was tucked away in hospital and not likely to come home for another week.
Looking back she knew that she had got over it a long time before he did. The day before Christmas Eve had never been quite the same again for him. It had been different for her. She'd felt that baban growing in her guts. It had stretched out and pressed into her ribs and her hips. It had hiccuped inside her and kicked and turned around and been a discomfort and a blessing. She'd pushed it out in dizzying pain and held it on her chest and seen its eyes and its little crooked fingers. She'd had time to know it and to say goodbye. She'd known that baby wasn't right and wasn't going to stay. Will had had nothing more than a promise of a daughter that came to nothing. Women didn't romanticise these things like men did. Olwen planted little Dolly in the ground and moved on. That was the only way to go.
The snow was thick and languid as she made her way round the corner out of the high street and up the road towards home. It was unusual for it to snow that much here, within earshot of the waves grinding on the shingle. She couldn't hear that today, though. The snow seemed to slow and muffle everything. The sea was sluggish and the cars were moving so slow on the expressway that they were almost stopped. The snow made a wall that cut out sound, that narrowed down people's lives and showed them what really mattered. The cold in her fingers and the way the plastic bag handle cut into her skin with the heavy tins inside. The ache in her spine. The concentration on every step to be sure she didn't slip over on the ever-increasing slush on the ground. Those were the important things right now. She didn't want to spend Christmas in hospital again. She didn't want to do that ever again.
Olwen turned her head up to look at the road ahead. It was easier to walk with her head down, but she glanced up every now and then to see what lay before her. There was hardly anyone out in this weather. This close to Christmas only the youths and the fools and the lonely came out. Those with families stayed at home and hung chocolate on the tree and wrapped presents last-minute, and if they did go out they went off by cars or bus to the supermarket, or in to Llandudno for window-shopping and all the glitter of the town.
At home Will would be waiting for her. None of the children were home this year. She remembered Joan in the shop recounting a joke she'd seen online. Something about getting the children to come home for Christmas by telling them mam and dad were getting a divorce. She wondered if that would work, but she wasn't sure she wanted them this year anyway. Sometimes it was nice to go to no bother. Sometimes it was nice to wake up on Christmas morning and never get dressed, to eat a turkey roll from Tesco and those pre-done roasties out of the freezer and to pour on gravy that was thick and packet made and full of lumps. It was the stopping that made Christmas, not the doing.
The snow was starting to cling to the edges of the slates on the roofs and pile wetly along windowsills. Here was where the pavement ran out and she had to step onto the tarmac of the road and keep an ear open for cars. In this window and that she saw a Christmas tree, most of them plastic, lit up and decorated without imagination. So many windows had those meshes of lights in them. They looked like an idea from Dr Who plastered up against the glass. Televisions flickered, having taken the place of a fire as the focal point of the room. Olwen thought of her 1979 set with the wood veneer. Will wanted a new one, but she liked the wood veneer, and she liked it in the corner, not spread in front of the fireplace.
It was '65 when she lost her other little girl. That was still a painful place in her brain. It was quiet most of the time but it was like an old break, and in dull weather or times of unusual shock it flared up and overwhelmed her. It was so different from losing a little stick-figure of a baby who was never meant to live. Iris had been six years old; her hair dark as the tarmac Olwen was plodding over now; her eyes like wet coal. Her smile had lighted up rooms and in her tempers she overturned the furniture. She had been a person, not a little rag doll.
Iris would be almost fifty now. She could have been a mother of her own, a grandmother if she'd been unlucky.
The snow caught in Olwen's collar and stung on the back of her neck. She didn't bother to pull her coat more closely around her. It never sat right because of her back. She should have brought a scarf but when she'd looked out at the weight of the clouds earlier as she walked down into the village she hadn't thought they'd be giving forth snow.
What a Christmas gift this was. Angels from heaven, Iris had said they were. All the children had pretended they were angels, fairies, pobl bach from the sky. Fairies lived everywhere when you were a child. Inside the brussel sprouts; in the rough boles of trees; under flowers. Fairies were a year round business. But it had been Iris who first looked up and said they came down as snowflakes. Olwen had laughed at that and caught a couple in her hand and watched them melt. Iris didn't see it as a massacre. She didn't think about what happened after the snow melted. Everything happened in the moment and nothing lasted.
Iris had been going after fairies when she had been knocked down. Not winter fairies, but the summer ones; the ones made out of seed heads. When you caught them you made a wish. Iris had jumped after one of those spindly things. The car had been going too fast. Meredith Hughes had only just passed his test and been driving like a boy of his age would on his first run out in the summer with his friends piled in. It was his dad's car. It was like a brick wall against poor little Iris. She'd only taken one step out into the road after that fairy. Most of all Olwen remembered the faces of those lads, white, their mouths open like caves in a hillside and just as empty.
That had broken Will into pieces. Olwen had been in pieces too for a while. It was inexplicable, unbelievable. There and gone. That had been Iris. It still felt like a dream forty years after the fact. Sometimes Iris's whole little life felt like a dream and Olwen would lie in bed in the morning wondering if it were true or not. She knew it was, though. She had the photographs of her little girl. She had the death certificate alongside the birth one in the dressing table drawer.
The snow covered over everything. It covered over the tarmac and the bare branches that were as black as Iris' hair and eyes. It covered over the gravestones in the churchyard and the cemetery and the little dead offerings that had been left there. It came down and blanked out the horizon and the grey sea behind, the closer houses full of talking mouths, and the steep, shadowing mountain ahead. It caught on Olwen's eyelashes and made her eyes blink closed and made her hunch her shoulders more tightly together. As she got up towards the house she saw that Will had pulled the curtains closed to shut out the dark and the cold.
The snow shut out everything. It made everything void.