A Field of Hay
A short story
by Gillian Clarke
This is Dafydd's story and he doesn't know the half of it. The field was in his father's keeping. It went with Bethania, Ty Capel and the graveyard and they all had to be kept tidy. It had never been ploughed or seeded, but annually renewed itself in successions of orchids, cowslips, buttercups, clover and dog daisies. Occasionally came a glory of some kind - the year of the dandelion, for example, when the field sang sharp gold before the seed clocks flew in swarms and it was time to cut it down. They killed the hay in July. They scythed, bound and set it up in stooks to bleach in the sun and the salt winds from the Atlantic. Then Elwyn Price would come with his trailer to take the hay. The field was left to settle its roots and grow green again through the dead stalks. Later the scythe was hung in the barn, woodworm in its handle. Then machines cut and baled the hay, and Elwyn Price drove his old Fordson and trailer up the lane, through the gate and into the field to collect it. Elwyn Price always had the hay. Dafydd's father helped and his mother brought tea. They drank it in the sun. There's always sun for hay-making, because a field must wait through the rain to come into its hour at last when a hot, dry spell allows the ritual to begin. So the hay-days of summer are remembered as hot and blue, with a growl of thunder and the first spots of rain as the last load goes home. All the summers of childhood are full of those field-edge teas, wasps and sunburn, thistles and daisies bound into stook and bale, into the story of that remembered time. There are photographs in the album to prove it. It had begun long before Dafydd was born.
Dafydd showed Sue the letter the minute it came. She moved their mugs aside, not to spill coffee on it. Letters were rare as home cooking in their flat. The handwriting was half printed, half joined-up, in biro on blue, lined paper. Dafydd was twenty now, and miles from home. His sisters never wrote. They were almost a generation older. He'd been a late child, son of his parents' middle age. His sisters were strangers with husbands and children of their own. He'd been closer to the sheep-dogs, to the names on the gravestones, to Elwyn Price, than to his sisters as he grew from babyhood and began to adventure into the field.
It was not forbidden to him. Its strong gate into the lane was secured with binder twine. The chapel house garden led into the graveyard, and a small gate led into the field. A gap under the hedge, big enough for a sheep-dog or a boy, led from the chapel field into Elwyn Price's farmyard. If the grass was short enough his mother could watch him as she pegged out washing, or through a circle rubbed in the steam of the kitchen window. When the grass was long and the trees densely leafed, she would call now and then, and see the long grass part where her youngest crawled or waded through the depths of the field.
The field was the limit of Dafydd's world. By the time he was three or four years old, when memory began, the field was free to him. Only one thing was now forbidden - Elwyn Price. He must never talk to Elwyn Price. No one in his family would ever again speak of Elwyn Price. One day, old enough to wonder, Dafydd asked his mother why. 'Oh,' she said, twisting dough, her wrap- round apron snowy with flour, 'there was a disagreement. About the hay.' And he was sent to learn his verses for Sunday. The thought of saying his verses on Sunday drove the field from his mind. He felt a lump under his heart like a heavy dinner, and opened the book on the sill of his room, the bright field within view but out of mind, the page brilliant and fearful before him. He repeated the words like a spell, their musical potency killed by the deadening threat of learning and forgetting and at last coming down to say them in Chapel on Sunday with the other children.
There were two small, dog-eared photographs in the blue envelope Dafydd handed to Sue. She gazed at them. Dafydd, five or six years old, squinted under his fringe into a lost brilliance. His legs were thin between the loose twin loops of his shorts and his wellingtons. Trees blurred behind him. A gate stood open. The pictures were crumpled as if they'd been kept in a wallet, old snaps, the invisible photographer implicit, complicit. The invisible sun, camera and photographer looked into the face of the dazzled boy in the picture and were reflected there. Dafydd remembered earlier pictures, one taken on a beach, where he sat on Elwyn Price's knee beside his mother and Mrs Price on a happy, faded afternoon. He supposed his father must have taken it. Families have drawers full of such pictures which have long forgotten who pulled the trigger. Dafydd knew his photographer.
The pictures were the excuse for the letter from Elwyn Price, but not his reason. He'd asked Dafydd's mother for her son's address so that he could send him his pictures. Dafydd had often crawled unseen through the gap in the hedge to talk to his old friend, and from time to time Dafydd's mother greeted Elwyn Price as they passed each other in the lane. She couldn't be doing with men and their old quarrels. But his father never saw him, or spoke to him, or heard his name mentioned. The quarrel over the field of hay had been too bitter. It could never be forgotten. Elwyn Price no longer existed in the world of the chapel verger. The hedge had grown dense and tall against the lane, so that not one window looked at another from the chapel house to the smallholding beyond the field, though their hens sometimes absent mindedly scratched together in the lane, and Elwyn Price's little cockerel woke Dafydd's father every dawn of his old age, and the graveyard thrushes sang triads promiscuously in border country. The birds and the child moved unharmed through fortifications of bush and briar, over a mined hayfield.
Sue puzzled over the story. She wondered how they managed to erase each other from the small congregation of Bethania, how they avoided seeing the one face, hearing the one voice, forgiving the one trespass. Had Elwyn Price stopped going to Chapel?
I don't suppose you remember me now but when you were a little boy you were my friend and used to come to see me. I took these photographs of you a long time ago, and I thought you would like to have them. Your mother gave me your address. I hope you are getting on well at College. I am writing to tell you that when I promised I'd buy you a car one day, I put a few hundred pounds into shares for you. They are worth a lot more now. They will be yours next year. I did the same for my boys. I like to watch the papers to see how the shares get on. No one knows about this. It is one of my interests and I promised you I'd put the money by. Do not write back. There is no need. It is a secret.
Dafydd had not seen his old friend for years. Home with his parents for a few weeks that summer, he sat in the long grass and waited, day after day, pretending to read, restless to say thank you. He caught him in the lane. He looked old and thin, as everyone did. Would he be buried in the graveyard? Would his father cut the grass about his enemy's grave, or let him keep his hay?
It was a wink of a moment, a brief thank you, guiltily given like a word with a forbidden lover. Every time Dafydd Price went home he found a way to greet Elwyn Price, who was thinner and older every time.
It was Dafydd's strong, unflinching, unbending father who fell first. Cancer of the gut brought him down, giving his wife the job she'd always needed. She was in charge now, a skilled though untrained nurse, tender and brisk. Dafydd grew close to his father again like when they'd worked the roads together, linesman and boy sharing work and tea and long hot afternoons mending walls, pleaching hedges, scything verges, sharing jokes, stories, father and son so alike in nature and spirit.
In June, on his birthday, Dafydd's money arrived. An unworldly young man, he had not asked, or known how to ask how much there would be. It was enough for a second hand car and a down payment on a house, or twenty acres of good agricultural land. Or an old car, a bit of a house, and a field of hay.
It was Sue who read the documents properly. It was she who noticed the date the shares were bought - the winter before Dafydd was born. 'I don't understand that,' said Dafydd. 'Elwyn Price said he did it because I was his friend when I was small. Why would he give me money before I was even born?' Dafydd and Sue sipped their coffee in silence. 'You must come home with me to meet Dad. He's very ill, but I'm still just like him.' Sue squeezed his hand and said, 'Yes.'
Dafydd bought a second hand car. He's off home with Sue for the summer, to rev the engine in the lane, to drive his sick father on little outings to the sea, and to cut the hay in the old field.
Formerly published by Gomer Press in ‘Magpies’, a collection of short stories.