Letter from Carmarthen
On the eastern edge of Carmarthen, in the village of Abergwili, is Bishop’s Palace – a place of beauty, history and faith.
And on this mild November morning, with a glass sky of sun, he is running, veering off the path, passing the ancient box tree that dwarfs a terraced counterpart close by.
He circles the monkey puzzle, looks over his shoulder, then hides behind the London plane, pressing himself up against the camouflage bark. I bend my knees, slink low to the ground and sneak across with the stealth mode only mothers know.
‘Where has he gone? I can’t see you.’ I elongate my final vowels for effect.
‘Peekaboo!’ he shouts, a red flash suddenly appearing with arms held wide, hood bobbing up and down.
Shrieks fill the air. I chase him across the grass towards a cluster of maple trees. They have shed most of their leaves already, bare branches waving to the gingko still coated in a sheath of yellowy green and softening the air like it is May.
But our days are shortening now, the wide grin of summer a hazy memory, and the ground has become a topography of crackle. Drying maple leaves have piled in a come-and-get-me mould of burnished toffee, amber gold and butter. Splodges of lime mulch through.
He is grinning, kicking the fallen leaves back up towards the sky in a twister of cinnamon litter. There is a moment when the leaves change course, a moment when they lose human fuelled momentum, hang, and then slowly float to the ground in a dry cascade.
He scoops them up with digger arms and throws them in a fountain arc. They rain down on top of him. An earthy smell, disturbed by play, loads the air between us. For a moment it is still. It smells of Autumn.
He looks up to the branches haloed in sunshine, just in time to see a dying leaf lose grip. I reach up for him, catch it as it floats through the air, place it safely into his coat pocket.
There once stood a tree in Carmarthen on the corner of Old Oak Lane and Priory Street. We all know the saying,
When Merlin’s Tree shall tumble down,
then shall fall Carmarthen town.
Rumour has it the oak tree was poisoned, and then it decayed. And then it died. Despite this prophecy, of course, Carmarthen still stands and Merlin still sleeps under the green blanket of his hill in the valley.
Caerfyrddin. A wizard’s fort. A small fragment of the old oak is forever immortalised behind glass. Hard and dry. Cracked and fractured. It has calloused knobbly growths and whizzened fingerprint swirls.
Children are unable to press their palms against it, cannot feel its four hundred years of memory. They stop and look, are told, ‘this was a tree,’ keep walking.
Here, history lies deep beneath our feet under the foundations of the new town that was built around the old town – that was built on top of the original town.
Priory Street still runs along the same route as the Roman settlement Moridunum, the perfect name for this Sea Fort.
In the town centre, just up from Darkgate and Nott’s Square, Carmarthen Castle stands proudly on the hill that overlooks the River Tywi. The perfect position for a Medieval lookout.
We cross the threshold remains under a grey stone archway, then turn right. He runs to the far end, down the few uneven steps, and looks out over the river and floodplain. His hands, those childish hands that sculpt towers of Play Doh, build Lego sentry gates, colour in flags, now lean against the cold stone.
I wonder if he can feel a connection.
Do the rocks pulse with what has been before – a rhythm of dashes and dots – dots and dashes – across this marked stone? Will his heart-line and head-line trace back, run from his warm palms and fuse with the fissures, centuries old. Can he bind skin with lichen, grow roots with his feet, create no beginning or end with the earth?
I catch up to him, wrap my arms around his chest, push my face into his hair. His sweet hair, soft and smelling of honey. I hold onto him for just a little longer than I mean to, wish his life-line could trace forwards in time, send us faith.
We look below to where industry has sprung up across the basin, watch a train slowly pulling into the station. A red light gives warning further up the track.
‘Granny’s train.’ He points and smiles, knowing where we meet my mum when she arrives from Yorkshire.
County Hall sits beside us, its bulk boasting tall chimneys, hulking roof, and many, many windows with white, white frames.
‘Tadcu Tumble painted those,’ he says proudly.
We watch a kayak skim the river. Seagulls rest by the reeds, some ride the air, one seasaws the water.
Memory simmers in the currents of the Tywi as it winds its way around town.
Up here on the ramparts, his eyes trace centuries. He imagines the vessels unloading sugar and vinegar, iron and coal, on the quay.
The woody smell of ginger wafts up from below, carried on several hundred years of breeze. It clouds the air tan, pricks the hair in his nostrils, mixes with salt from the sea.
An outgoing tide sculls coracles and sewin but the river no longer flashes with the pilgrim shimmer of an Autumnal migration. Instead, UberEats roams the streets.
Just past the quay, the Tywi changes direction and heads south for the sea. Its banks, now velvet brown and tide-smoothed, begin to widen, leaving behind the contorted twists of a slower westerly journey. From our house we can see the river, a glinting mirror of the Heavens that sits in static motion, bound for Carmarthen Bay.
But down on the bank, it boils and churns. Pulled upstream and downstream by a relentless tide it moves quickly. Unevenly. A menace of swirls rip the shore.
This is where we come to ride our bikes, on the flat path across the floodplain between the leisure centre and the quay.
‘Watch me,’ he cries, feet whizzing, spokes spinning. Watch out, I silently pray.
The water can rise and spill over the paths, licking the wetlands with its silver tongue of brine. It uproots Harribo bags, takeaway cartons and 7up bottles that have been seized by the mud. Now set free, they too can join the sewin on a pilgrimage back out to sea.
Later at home, I empty his pockets.
Autumn is pulled out and lays upon the table: a wood pigeon’s feather, once fused and smooth with the strength of each strand it has pulled apart like a jagged dagger; a piece of rough bark, perhaps oak; a brittle leaf, now disintegrated into many dark flecks like roughly ground coffee beans; a little cup, no acorn; the maple leaf that I caught, casting a yellow glow from the interior darkness of his coat.
I take my little wooden box, carefully place the pieces in – close the lid.
I shall save it for when he is older, a reminder of what Autumn was like.
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