I’d look at other people’s children and often wonder that only a mother could love them with their snotty noses, piggy little eyes and sticking-out ears. Our Freya was spun from pink and silver and gold, a perfect little confection right from birth. She grew into a flaxen-haired princess with skin like rose petals and huge, wide eyes of the palest blue. I kept expecting Freya’s hair to turn darker as she grew from a baby to a girl, as both Rob and I have dark hair. But she remained as fair as the day she was born.
She didn’t seem to mind being our only one, and although she played happily with other children at her playschool group she rarely brought other children home. She was content to play alone quietly with her toys, or wander around the garden talking to herself. Rob and I would watch her through the window, glad to have such a well-behaved, easy-going child.
One day I noticed that she seemed to be holding a conversation with someone rather than talking to herself.
“Who’s your friend?” I asked her. She was sat on the low wall by the herb border, intently explaining something to somebody. Somebody who plainly wasn’t there.
She looked up at me, her blue eyes focusing as though she was returning from another world. I remembered my mother’s warning that an only child could be imaginative and prone to flights of fancy.
“Her name’s Ceinwen, Mummy. She’s very sad because her Mam is poorly. I told her to be a good, quiet girl then her Mam would soon be better.”
“That’s sweet of you, dear,” I replied evenly. “Come in now, Freya. We need to go to the supermarket.”
I racked my brains, unable to recall anyone named Ceinwen at Freya’s playschool.
At the supermarket Freya asked whether we could buy a bag of oranges for Ceinwen’s mother.
“Ceinwen didn’t know what they are, Mummy. Can you imagine, she’s never seen an orange before. I told her they’re very good for you, and she thinks they might help her Mam get better. They’re very poor, they mostly eat bread and dripping. What’s dripping, Mam?“
“I think it’s beef fat, darling,” I replied, wondering where she could have heard of bread and dripping. I humoured Freya and bought oranges; at least she wasn’t asking for sweets.
Ceinwen soon became a regular imaginary visitor to our home. And no, there was no Ceinwen at playschool. I checked. Where Freya had got the name I’d no idea. She adopted a strong Welsh accent when talking to Ceinwen, and over a period of weeks various Welsh words cropped up. Strange, considering they hadn’t started teaching Welsh at playschool. We were proud to be Welsh but we didn’t come from Welsh-speaking families.
“Look you, Ceinwen, your hands are all bleeding!” I heard her say. “Are we going to play up the Tumble? Come inside first and I’ll wash your hands and put some ointment on them. Ych a fi! Your hands are so cold, you poor little dwt, and so are your feet! Where by are your shoes?”
Freya was becoming more and more obsessed with Ceinwen. One evening when I went in to kiss her good night she was in tears.
“What on earth’s the matter, Freya?” I asked, smoothing her hair out of her eyes.
“Ceinwen’s Mam has died. She got badly burned, and now she’s dead. Now Ceinwen has to go to work with her Dada. She gets so cold, Mam. Can I give her some of my clothes?”
“I suppose so, dear.”
I didn’t really know what to do. I was reluctant to talk to the playschool leader or the doctor, not wanting to single Freya out as different from the others. Rob agreed with me that we should wait and see, and for the meantime let Freya’s friendship with Ceinwen take its natural course. Surely an imaginary friend wasn’t the worst thing parents ever had to cope with. Freya was a charming, well-behaved little girl and it was easy to make allowances for a bit of eccentricity.
Ceinwen soon became adventurous enough to join us on family outings.
“Ceinwen liked the little ducklings best,” reported Freya after we’d visited the Community Farm. “She says they don’t have ducklings where she lives. She‘s never seen anything quite so lovely as the Community Farm. So many animals! And she loved the big water dragon, even though he‘s a bit scary.”
I sometimes wished my daughter had chosen someone less poverty-stricken for her imaginary friend. I was concerned that the unending dreariness of Ceinwen’s squalid life would affect Freya. But she seemed to have an abundance of sunshine in her nature, enough to keep both herself and poor Ceinwen afloat. And I was thankful in a way that the advent of Ceinwen seemed to have made Freya more aware of how fortunate we are to have a nice home and a good life. So many spoilt children could be heard in shops asking their mother for one of these and one of those, and can we have that. No mention of please. And tantrums if they didn’t get what they wanted. The only things Freya asked for when we went shopping were treats to share with Ceinwen.
Some socks, a pair of gloves, a woolly hat and a scarf were missing from Freya’s chest of drawers.
“Oh you know, Mummy!” said Freya when I questioned this. “I’ve given them to Ceinwen. And she says thank you, they’re nice and warm. And she loves chocolate cheesecake. Can we have it again this week, please?”
Ceinwen was excited beyond measure when we went to the cinema to see Shrek. The only problem was she had sweets and fizzy pop and felt sick in the car coming home.
“Imaginary vomit has to be easier to clear up than the real thing,” whispered Rob with a grin as we turned off the bypass.
Ceinwen came with us when we went to Tenby for the weekend. She and Freya walked for miles along the beach, chattering and sharing ideas. Freya said Ceinwen liked the boat trip to Caldey Island best. She said it was a peaceful place and she felt close to God and to her mother in heaven.
“Mummy, we really are very lucky people,” said Freya one summer evening as we were preparing a barbecue. “I love you and Daddy so much.”
I held my little girl close and breathed in the scent of her silk-spun hair. At five she was wise beyond her years, a funny old soul in a young body.
The following weekend it occurred to me that something was wrong. We hadn’t heard Ceinwen’s opinion for several days.
“How’s Ceinwen?” I asked Freya. She was reading at the table in the garden.
Freya’s eyes clouded. “Oh, Mummy. She died.”
Freya nodded. “I’m too sad. I can’t talk about it. Sorry, Mummy.”
Tears brimmed up in her big blue eyes and tumbled down her cheeks. We sat together in silence, hands linked, and I said a silent prayer for poor little Ceinwen. I chided myself that I had become as fanciful as my daughter.
I’d never read any of Alexander Cordell’s books, but some months later I selected “Rape of the Fair Country” from the library. And there in black and white among the other residents of Garndyrus was Ceinwen Hughes, a little girl whose mother had died in the iron works. Whose father had to take her to work in the coal mines because there was no provision for child care after his wife died. Poor little Ceinwen, who should have been carefree to play and laugh like my Freya, spent long days in a freezing mine chipping coal with a hammer. And like so many little ones she died.
The book gave me a number of answers, but opened up a seam of questions as deep as coal in a mine-shaft. My little Freya was only just learning to read, and could not possibly have read this book. So where had she gained her knowledge about life among the blast furnaces and mines nearly two hundred years ago? Was my daughter, with her remarkably fair hair and skin, one of the mystical tylwyth teg? If she was capable aged five of conversing with the dead, what wonders would she reveal to us when fully grown?
I had a dream shortly after I finished the book. Ceinwen came to me and put her little hand in mine.
“Missus Morgan, it’s thankful I am for everything you did for me. I know you couldn’t see me, but you welcomed me into your home like I was your own. I’ve told my Mam about the lovely chocolate cheesecake. I’m with her now. And Dada. We’re together again, lovely and warm we are. Tell Freya all is well, and give her my love.”
I never did find those clothes Freya said she’d given to Ceinwen.
by Karenne Griffin
Last Modified on: 05-11-2015