Short story: A Thin Place
A cold wind came whistling towards him. He was mufflered up to his ears. He had started out with determination to visit a place he had only read about, Capel Y Ffin. It might be a steep, old climb. He would avoid the challenge of Rhos Dirion and Twmpa’s rocky peaks. He had no mental map of the area and felt like an intruder. Those born and bred here belonged in the way that scattered boulders and trees belonged. The messy margins held the smell of past rain.
He had been nursed back to health. Armed with a light knapsack and sturdy boots he trudged along, foot-weary and lame in his left leg, an infirmity he didn’t want to own up to. There was a pipe in his pocket, the bowl packed tight with tobacco. He had nothing to light it with. His matches were in the glove box of the car. Drawing on his pipe had always soothed his worries, but the space and the stillness were taking over.
The home patch of buzzards and kites, he watched them circling on lazy, outspread wings. He felt like a bird that had fallen out of its nest as he remembered the view from his seat on a practice run. A fighter pilot he had seen the sky and mountains in an hour-by-hour change, like the flicked pages of a picture book.
On a low-level mission over hostile territory there was a malfunction. He was no longer on an undeviating flight but somersaulting, and then baling out. The excruciating pain of broken bones and being spread-eagled on hard ground still fresh in his mind. He had seen others shot full of holes. Gazing up at the sky, a shadow seemed to have passed over the sun. Shards of metal were embedded in his legs, his nerve shattered. His retirement came after thirty years of flying experience; his life blighted by change.
In the treacherous watches of the night, kindness seemed as rare as water in the desert. No longer able to use his aviation skills, he was cut off from a way of life, but training himself to walk longer distances. The pain had lessened in his mottled-bruised legs and his bones had knitted. The harsh reality, he was damaged but not beyond repair. He could face his problems. As he breathed in deeply he was letting the place impress itself on him and clear his mind. He heard the wind in the canopy of tangled branches above his head, and relished the sound of swirling water near to hand. He imagined a river glinting and in haste.
His thoughts were disturbed by the anxious bleating of a sheep shielding a new-born lamb. A flash of colour, a fox living on its own terms. The unmade road pocked with stone was becoming sleek underfoot. He wondered how many feet had covered this single track and how people, born and cradled within a farm cottage, had survived through slow, winter months in a place where the weather dictated fashion.
The sun was lancing through the crowding trees branches as he followed the ancient drove road where up-country people, with resilience in their bones, scrambled for a living. Men breaking up the soil while keeping an eye on the threat from gun-smoke clouds. This was not a place for false optimism. No-fuss people, whose ways were hardly known to him, lived without luxuries from sunset to sundown.
He found the chapel at the border of England and Wales in a hamlet contained within the Black Mountains, eight miles from Hay, on the Honddu river. He had noted the date. Built in1762, at a time when Sunday was reserved strictly for God and for rest. He approached the chapel along a walkway of trees. A straight path led to the gated porch. It was not designed to make a big impression but held the look of a modest but well-tended house with a mossy roof. On the west end, a simple gable structure, a bellcote, now wonky like a sheep dog’s floppy ear; a small shelter for one bell he guessed. A window each side of the entrance gave the building the unblinking look of an owl. It was standing firm in a thickly-wooded valley.
He was surrounded by stillness but his heart was going like a drum. The throb of panic in his throat had returned. He had found a place among the windy slopes where a cloudless night would be a starry one, free of light pollution; where science meets myths and legends. The spirit of those who had lived and worked here seemed to live on. In the Celtic tradition, steeped in mysticism, it was a thin place, with the power to unsettle.
He tried the door handle. The chapel was unlocked as though someone had slipped out to attend to something in the churchyard. The walls were unembellished. He felt the chill of ancient stones beneath his feet. He was standing in a simple, spartan chamber. Looking up he took in the white-washed ceiling supported by dark roof beams. Surprisingly, it didn’t feel cramped. There was room to walk unhindered to a dark pew and as far as the altar, to view more easily the two-sided gallery where people would sing all cwtched up on plain wooden seats. He imagined the creak of wooden pews and the shuffle of feet in stout Sunday-best shoes. Scrutinising the simple furniture and the way the sunlight fell on the floor, he retraced his steps.
He was arrested by the sight of the painting on the stairway by the chapel door. Christ on a rugged cross against an eerie backdrop of hills. The pain of Golgotha had been captured in simple lines in opaque watercolour and pencil, the work of a skilful hand, the artist and poet David Jones, and dated 1925. His thoughts were being tossed about. How had he missed that as he came into the church? The strung up, racked body, the haloed head and the acceptance of pain in the last moments of life, a stark reminder that this was a place to share the sanctity of breaking bread.
The first line of Psalm121 was inscribed on the east window. ‘I will lift up mine eyes from whence cometh mine aid.’ It echoed the clean lines of the chapel and framed the view. Beyond his stare, a swathe of open fields within the steep-sided valley, the Vale of Ewyas, Dyffryn Ewias. Sheep wandered through the bracken as he watched.
A small organ was being repaired. The cold smell of mould seeped from the scattered parts. He remembered a parked car near to the church. The repairer had escaped for some fresh air. He imagined the dust gathered within the musty organ as it strained to produce a wheezy sound. The congregation had dwindled over years. Services held on the first and third Sunday in the month had dwindled to two services a year, one being the Harvest Festival. He would return for the celebration.
Maybe the organ would be able to rouse those parishioners tired from ‘bringing the harvest home.’ Sickle-bearing harvesters, haymaking with horses and the social life of gathering in the harvest, a smudge of memory. Family farmers, all farmed out. After the hustle and bustle of recent months, he couldn’t deny the power of working quietly, without music and words. He had taken up walking to try and understand himself.
On a shelf he found a candle standing tall in its holder. There was no match to light his pipe. He was finding the remnants of people’s lives, where Nature was always a constant. He left a small pile of coins on a shelf. His gaze was drawn to a wooden font cover sealing in the baptism of many young lives. An ancient font going back to the time of crosses on certificates signifying births, marriages and deaths.
It was silence that filled the place now. The lid had the trademark mouse sculpted by another craftsman, Robert “Mouseman” Thompson. Dream-like, he was lost in time. His hand followed the smooth line of the sculpture. He marvelled at the precision in every small detail, and thought this is where God still speaks into the silence, encouraging the idea that there is more than earth. The definite scent of a time long ago had leaned in. A shiver passed through his body as though the past and the present were in collision. He was gripped by a feeling that somewhere else in the world there were people who also suffered pain.
Childhood was drawing near again. Knowing that memory plays tricks, he thought of the model aeroplanes he had carefully pieced together. On training flights he had viewed the valley from above. The white-washed chapel had appeared like a flash of an owl’s white wing amongst the trees.
Yew trees were casting their shade in the find-a-grave churchyard; a scattering of headstones, leaning like greying teeth. The graves of those, born and bred within farm cottages, were wrapped in silence. The long fingers of the past were curling around him. He was gripped by every shade of emotion. Two headstones drew him in. They were a rounded shape, and the confident work of a craftsman, Eric Gill. Another jolt to his memory, Gill had established an artistic community in the nearby monastery. He was allowing artistic endeavour the power to surprise. Many walkers had strayed this way and then passed through. Some significant artisans had chosen to linger and then stayed.
Strands of memory were still at work. He was jolted by the memory of a nose-diving machine. His injury was limiting but he was being urged to return and walk the high tops and take a chance on life, seduced by farmsteads, hillside streams and difficult-to-improve land. The burdened figure of Christ on the cross captured in simple lines but conveying all the pain. He would be haunted by Sanctus Christus de Capel Y Ffin, The Lion and The Lamb, against the gentle rounded hills. He had found a place teeming with stories, where legends were hidden away or else appeared suddenly in fields; a space to be free and engage with the landscape.
Passing a clutch of cottages, he returned to his car at a slow creep. Wiping his glasses on the tail of his shirt he rescued himself with a leisurely smoke and lounged on a patch of coarse, close-cropped grass. The air was as still as a held breath. He was done with the day. Propped up against the wheel of the car he watched the blue pipe smoke spiralling upwards. A raven was patrolling the higher ground against a depth of blue sky. It had been a day like no other. Starting at a low point he had felt himself propelled along and gaining height at each turn.