The weather wasn’t particularly good on the Sunday of August Bank Holiday weekend last year, but we decided to go ahead with our plans for a picnic. Evan and the two boys strapped their mountain bikes onto the roof rack, and with a last threatening glare at the grey sky we set off. In any case we weren’t going far. Not for us the traffic jams of the M4 on a Bank Holiday weekend.
One of our favourite haunts is the Blorenge mountain. I love the view from the Keeper’s Pond, encompassing a splendid panorama. If you look closely at the mountain you can see the vague shapes of slag heaps and pits from the area’s industrial heritage, but time has smoothed them over and covered them with rough grass which the mountain sheep keep cropped short. Way down below in the valley verdant farmland is dotted with yet more sheep, beyond which is the cluster of urbanisation that is Abergavenny. Sombre mountains loom skyward on the other side of the town.
At the top of the mountain we turned off to the left for a short distance until we came to a place where we could pull off the road and unload the mountain bikes.
Little did I suspect that I was on the brink of a life-changing experience.
“I’m going to ride straight down there,” said young Rhys, pointing down the giddily steep slope riddled with humps and bumps. “Don’t worry, Mam. I’m not going to fall off!” A gap-toothed smile flashed wickedly across his freckled face as he strapped on his helmet.
“More sensible to take it in easy stages and zig-zag down the hill, son,” cautioned my husband, testing the tautness of his bicycle chain and wiping his greasy fingers on the leg of his jeans.
Leaving my menfolk discussing their plan of attack, I set off down the road a few yards before taking to the grass. Within minutes Evan, Alun and Rhys were on their way, bouncing noisily downhill on their bikes. I wasn’t planning on walking down too far, for it was a steep haul back up again. Spotting a large bird of prey hovering overhead, I fumbled in my camera bag, and must have caught my foot on something because the next thing I knew I was tumbling over and over down the slope.
I came to rest in a small, grassy hollow surrounded by rosy purple heather bushes in full bloom. And through the bushes came a little girl with a grubby, pale face, dressed in ragged clothes.
“Up a dando!” she said with a grin. “That’s what my Mam used to say when I fell down.”
“Hello, dear. Where is your Mam?” I asked, concerned that one so young should be wandering the mountain alone. She didn’t look any older than four or five.
The smile faded. “With the angels, she is. My Dada says not to be sad for she is at peace.“ The girl looked around her and frowned. “Tell me, missus, where have the furnaces gone? Sunday it is, but God doesn’t stop the workings.”
I sat up and looked around, wondering what the child meant. I stretched sideways to retrieve my camera, which appeared unharmed by the fall.
“The furnaces stopped working a long time ago, sweetheart. Nowadays there’s not much left to be seen of the old iron and coal workings.” The little girl made me feel uneasy. So pale and careworn. Quaint in her speech, and old before her time.
She sat down in the heather and looked about her with trepidation. “Oh, dear. Oh, dear.”
I sat beside her and looked out over the bucolic valley scene. Fat sheep chomped relentlessly in the fields below, and the sun was at last trying to show its face. I couldn’t understand what the child was concerned about, but one thing was certain.
“I’d better take you home, dear. Now tell me, where do you live?”
This brought forth tears, which brimmed in her eyes and trickled down her dirty cheeks. “I don’t know how to find my home. All the houses are gone, too.”
This child was a puzzle and no mistake. I thought I’d better take her to the police station. All this talk of furnaces and disappearing houses sounded like the signs of a disturbed mind.
She looked about her again in wonderment and shook her head. “It’s so … beautiful. Like God has washed all the trouble away from the land. Look you! No ugly pits, and the tram tracks have gone too. And the muddy old roads. And the blast furnaces and slag heaps. It even smells good here. Tell me, missus. Have I gone to heaven to be with my Mama?”
“No, sweetheart,” I said, taking her hard, cold little hand. The nails were ingrained with filth. “Tell me, what’s your name?”
“Ceinwen Hughes I am, daughter of Afel. We live over by The Tumble, but I tell you, the houses have gone!”
Holding Ceinwen by the hand, I led her slowly back up the hill to the car. My left leg ached a little, but my spectacular fall had left me remarkably injury-free. Evan and the boys were nowhere to be seen or heard.
“What’s this?” asked Ceinwen, running her hands over the smooth, silver paintwork of our car.
“It’s a car, dear.” Surely she knew what cars were? Then an odd thought pulled at my heart. What if she was some sort of left-over from the industrial age, when these parts teemed with workmen and their families? Was it possible that a family could live in isolation this close to civilisation, untouched by the progress of the 20th and 21st centuries?
Ceinwen looked about her again, her hands still smoothing the car door. She shook her head, musing again “Gone, all gone.”
While she was distracted I had the sudden urge to take a photograph. I quickly snapped her standing by the car, gazing wistfully over the valley.
I opened the car door and reached across the back seat for the bag of picnic food.
“Would you like a sandwich, Ceinwen? And a piece of cake?”
From the look on Ceinwen’s face, you’d think I’d shown her a chest of treasure. She took a tentative bite of a ham and salad sandwich, and soon wolfed down the rest.
“I tell you, missus. Died and gone to heaven I have. All this food! Strange things, the like of which I’ve never seen.”
I realised I had a packet of moist tissues in the picnic bag which might go some way towards cleaning this little urchin. But first she could eat her fill.
In between mouthfuls Ceinwen told of her life. “Now Mama’s in heaven I go to work with my Dada. I sit in the mine with the other children and we break coal. Tap, tap, tap, all day long. Cold it is, even in summer, for there’s no sunshine in a mine. And always my belly groans with hunger. Not much for the cooking is Dada. Besides, not much money left for food after he’s had his fill at the Drum and Monkey. Always in trouble I am for falling asleep in the day. Mo tries to cover for me, but he has his work to do. Always tired I am …”
She looked as though she was almost asleep on her feet. I remembered the blanket in the boot, and stepped around the back of the car to retrieve it. How awful that a child so young should be forced to work in a mine all day long. I knew I had to get her to the police station, to report the cruelty …
When I returned with the blanket she was nowhere to be seen. I blinked and shook my head. I looked all around and called her name, but Ceinwen was gone.
I was still puzzling over events when Evan and the boys returned, screeching to a mud-spattered halt on their mountain bikes.
“Are you all right, love?” said Evan. “You look a bit dazed, and you’ve got grass stains all down the back of your jacket.”
“Yes, Evan. I tripped and fell, hurt my leg a bit but I’m fine, really.” If I said it again maybe I’d convince myself. My brain was spinning.
“Oh, Mam!” bellowed Alun. “You’ve eaten all the Mars bars! And you’re supposed to be on a diet!”
I couldn’t very well tell them that Ceinwen had helped herself to the picnic, that I hadn’t eaten so much as a scrap.
Back at home I connected the camera to the computer and uploaded the pictures I’d taken. When I came to the one of Ceinwen by the car, sure enough, the little girl was missing. There was a vague, misty blur which looked like a small shrub out of focus, but no Ceinwen. Had she been a figment of my imagination? The result of a bang on the head?
By Karenne Griffin
Last Modified on: 05-11-2015