Chapter 9

That evening, Dr. and Mrs. Llywarch and I went to the Welsh-language theatre to see Mair in the drama. Llywarch bought programmes for us in the lobby, and once I arrived in my seat I made myself comfortable and started turning the pages of my copy. Inside the cover were these words:

“You are now in one of the venues of the National Theatre of Wales. The National Theatre also has venues in Bangor, Wrexham, Aberystwyth and Swansea. There is a staff of two hundred at your service, and our only ambition is to satisfy you to the best of our ability. Once the company that you’ll see tonight has performed here for three weeks, it will go on tour through the Theatre’s other venues and some community halls in the rural areas of Wales, and another company will come to this stage to present another drama to you.

“You may ask, where does our bread-and-butter come from, for two hundred of us? We have a Welsh Government which is generous towards the arts. Through the Arts Council, it extends help to us of half a million pounds every year. With this, we can pay a living wage to the company and our staff and keep playwrights employed for when we need them. But our aim is always to give consistently better service. And we cannot do this without the support of you and your compatriots across the country. That’s why we thank you for coming tonight and invite you to come again soon.”

I suggested to Llywarch that it was quite a burden for a small country to pay half a million pounds a year to keep a theatre going.

“No more so than for other small countries,” said Llywarch. “Don’t forget that we haven’t got any armed forces to pick our pockets, and no imperial taxes to pay. Oh no, Wales considers it a duty and a privilege to sponsor the arts.”

The theatre was quite small, holding perhaps three hundred people. The planners had come up with a good scheme. The Welsh-language auditorium and English-language auditorium were set back-to-back within the same building, each facing onto different streets. The advantage of this was that the technical area lay between them, and sets could be moved from one stage to the other without any trouble.

I was glad to see that there were curtains in front of the stage, and to understand that it would be a ‘traditional’ drama being performed tonight. Llywarch explained that it was the National Theatre’s policy to alternate traditional dramas with contemporary ones, done without scenery or curtains. I was fortunate in my choice of evening. There was a string sextet in the orchestra pit, playing something of Iddon Morris’s work. I understood that he was a leading composer in the new Wales, but his sounds were very strange to me. The auditorium slowly darkened, the music stopped, and a clock struck three times in the wings.

The curtain rose on a room in an office, with an important-looking man sitting at his desk by the main window. A clerk came in, and it was obvious from their conversation that some fraud was being committed. The important man was head of some government department, and had defrauded the department of millions of pounds. No-one knew about it except the clerk and himself. But there was to be an inspection the following day, and their task was to cover their tracks before the inspection.

Soon, the reason for the head’s deceitfulness came onto the stage. A splendid woman, all pearls and jewellery. She was obviously his mistress, and he kept her in a grand house somewhere in Snowdonia. She wasn’t in on the fraud, but she could still say too much to anyone who might ask her. What to do with her?

The emergency came to a head as Mair entered. She was no less than one of the government’s inspectors, who had come a day early to have a preliminary discussion with the head. Having understood that, he was sweetness and light, talking freely in vague generalities. Mair cut through it all and soured the mood, saying “You’re in trouble, aren’t you? I know all about your fraud.” The curtain came down.

One thing that struck me during the first act was the company’s confident and lively acting. It was as good as anything I’d seen in London during my own time.  As the theatre was small and the acoustics first-class, there was no need for the actors to raise their voices much ore than if they were speaking in a private house. Another thing that struck me was their easy-flowing stage Welsh. I knew that any Welsh drama I heard from now on in my own age would sound cumbersome by comparison to this. Welsh as a language for the stage had grown up.

Some of the audience went out after the first act – to the refectory, Llywarch explained – bbut came back when the warning bell sounded in the wings. After three strikes of the other bell, the curtain rose for the second time.

The same scene. The office, the head, and Mair facing him by the window. The story of the second act consisted of the head trying to bribe Mai rot to reveal the fraud, and her playing a game of cat and mouse with him. I must admit that the story itself was becoming less interesting to me, despite the quality of the acting. Mair herself had my full attention. When she left the stage, it was empty and dark. The capable acting of the head and the other characters couldn’t fill the void that she left.

At the end of the second act, Llywarch and his wife and I went to the refectory for a cup of coffee. The refectory was clean and bright, and interesting. More than half the audience was there, discussing the drama enthusiastically, mainly in Welsh. Some were drinking tea or coffee, some lemonade or orange or milk or buttermilk, and some were drinking something I saw quite a lot over the next few days – iced blackberry tea which was very popular at the time and healthy, so they said. Beer, wines and spirits were available as well, but I only saw one person drinking them. It was the man who’d sat next to me for a minute in the football game that afternoon. The man from the U.B.L.

I’d know the face anywhere. He was standing with his weight against the long counter, a glass of brandy in his hand and a soda syphon by his elbow. He was looking at me. He didn’t stop looking at me for as long as I was there. And as we went back to the hall when the bell rang, he walked past me and said under his breath as he passed,

“It’s a pity that you didn’t come to speak at the meeting tonight, Mr. Powell.”

That was all. But he succeeded in making me uncomfortable, and I didn’t succeed in shaking that discomfort away in all my time at the theatre that evening.

When the curtain rose on the third act, the scene had changed. We were now at the head’s villa in Snowdonia, the mountain ridges visible through the windows with the last rays of the setting sun upon them. The inspection was over, the fraud had been exposed, and nothing awaited the head and the clerk except the law courts. Here were the two of them, showing their true colours. The clerk wanted to arrange an escape to another country, while the head accepted his fate and was willing to receive his punishment for deceiving the nation. His mistress was trying to persuade him to end his life and hers. The way the author played around between the three options was gripping.

There was an unexpected end to the play when Mair came in. She came to tell the head that his department would not be prosecuting him or the clerk. The department could bear the financial loss, and she had used her influence upon the department to offer the fraudsters a second chance. The clerk jumped at the chance. But after long consideration, the head refused. He had thrown in his lot with corruption and with his mistress, and he could no longer serve his country. His mistress walked off the stage, and a shot was heard. The clerk went off to investigate, and came back to tell the head that his mistress had taken her own life. I can’t forget Mair’s face as she turned to the head and said:

“That which happens to every weak man has happened to you. Your choice has been made for you. From now on Wales is your mistress.”

I’d have loved to meet the author. But he had appeared the night before, the drama’s opening night. Llywarch said that he was only twenty-three years old and that the nation was expecting great things from him. I asked whether the drama was a true picture of how things were in Wales, and he said that it was based on  something that happened in one of the Welsh Government departments a few years ago. In that case the head of department had lost his job and his status; the playwright was suggesting tonight that there was a better way to deal with fraudulent heads. This was a sign of a lenient spirit towards offenders which was becoming more widespread, said Llywarch.

The three of us went out into the street, and Llywarch nodded towards one of the radio cars that were going past. It came alongside us, and a man was sitting inside.

“Hire?” he said, in English.

“Hire,” said Llywarch, in Welsh.

“Come in,” said the cabby, in Welsh.

“We’re not going home for dinner tonight,” said Llywarch. “I want to take you to a restaurant which is typical of Welsh Cardiff. The Oak Trestle. It’s run by Gwynedd people, and they’ve brought all sorts of old oak furniture with them. It’s a good place.”

“But what’s typically Cardiff about it?”

“Oh, you’d be amazed at the scores of people who’ve come to Cardiff from rural Wales, bringing their old oak furniture with them, and opened up restaurants. Vistors from every country love them, and they do a roaring trade.”

“Are they millionaires?”

Llywarch smiled.

“It’s not easy to become a millionaire under the present government.”

“That’s discouraging,” I said, even though I was a socialist.

“Not at all. The standard of living has risen so much here since your days that no-one needs to wish they were rich in order to be comfortable. You’ve only been here twenty-four hours, but I’m fairly sure that you haven’t seen anyone showing any signs of poverty.”

“That’s true,” I said.

“Of course, you get the odd exception who lives extravagantly or chaotically, but the government makes special arrangements for them – provides them with food and clothing and everyday essentials and just gives them a small allowance in cash each week. Everyone else is fairly comfortably off, though some moan of course. You get discontents in every age.”

“But why is it so hard to become a millionaire.”

“Well, take a friend of mine for instance. James Owen, who runs three restaurants in Cardiff here. The first one, The White Cow, pays him splendidly. The second, The Seagull, pays poorly, even though it does a lot of trade. The third, James’s Refectory, doesn’t pay him anything, despite having a huge turnover. If he opened up a fourth or a fifth then they’d make heavy losses.”

“But how is that possible?”

“Because the government taxes a man’s first business very lightly, the second more heavily, the third much more heavily. For example, the business rates on The White Cow and just a quarter of the building’s rateable value, and the corporation tax is just a sixth of the annual profit (these two taxes come in place of the Income Tax that you had in your days). But he business rates on The Seagull are two-thirds of the rateable value, and the corporation tax takes half the profits. The business rates on James’s Refectory are double the rateable value and the corporation tax takes all the profits.”

“Alfan,” said Mrs. Llywarch, “you’re blinding Mr. Powell with your figures. You’re talking like a committee…”

“No, no, not at all,” I said politely, although I was rather grateful for Mrs. Llywarch’s intervention. “I… I’m very interested in this.”

“You see,” continued Llywarch, unperturbed, “The Welsh Government doesn’t ban capitalism. To tell the truth, it doesn’t ban anything at all if it can help it. But it makes large-scale capitalism economically impractical. It pays better to keep one shop than to keep three – generally speaking, of course.”

“But why can’t your friend James Owen run his three cafes as one business?”

“Ah! That’s the only place where the law gets involved. If you open up a business in two places, in two buildings, then you’ve opened two businesses. That’s how Welsh Law interprets it. And you must keep the accounts for each business separately. There’s scope for fraud there, of course, but fraud is difficult these days with the automated accounting system. You’re welcome to open a hundred shops – if you’re enough of a wizard  to make them pay –  but you must keep them as a hundred separate shops, not a hundred links in the same chain. The intent of this tax system is to encourage family businesses – the small farm, the small shop, the small restaurant – those are the things which pay in Wales today. And that, according to the government, is the basis of a healthy national life. They’re right, too.”

“But look,” I said, pointing at a big, impressive shop set among trees at the other side of the street. “Are you telling me that just one family runs that?”

“Oh,” he said, “that’s the Friends’ Shop. No, that’s a co-operative. It would be possible, of course, for it to be a family shop, but it would hardly pay for a family to keep enough staff to run a shop of that size. The only way you can run a large business in a large building is to join with a number of friends and run it jointly. The biggest shops in Wales today are all cooperatives.”

“And government shops?”

“No, the government doesn’t run shops. Only public services on a national scale are under direct government control. It has the power to take industries into its control temporarily if the need arises, but rarely…”

“Hello?” said Mair through the car window, and I was genuinely glad to see her. “I’m sorry to be so long,” she said then, sitting next to her mother in one of the car’s seats. “I’m sure that Mr. Powell is ready for some food.”

“Me?” I said bravely. “Oh no, I’m fully satisfied with this statistical feast…”

“If you’ve settled Wales’s affairs to your satisfaction,” said the Taxi driver, “perhaps you can come back down to earth and tell me where it is you want to go.”

“Oh, sure, sure,” said Llywarch. “The Oak Trestle, please.”

“Oh yes,” said the driver, fingering the car’s dials as it began to move. “Roasted egg on a soft muffin.”

“I beg your pardon?” said Llywarch.

“A roasted egg on a soft muffin.”

“Perhaps you’d care to explain?”

“That’s how we refer to all these restaurants – ever one according to its speciality. The Seagull, plum cider; The Round Table, cockle soup; The Silver Stallion, partridge pie…”

“An interesting catalogue, I’m sure,” said Llywarch, cutting across. “Do you attend these places, friend?”

“Whenever I get the chance. I’m very fond of the harp.”

“The harp?” I said.

The driver studied me carefully.

“Have you been to Cardiff before?” he asked.

“Uh… Yes and no” said Llywarch.

The driver studied him as well.

“Very odd,” he said. “Yes and no? Yes and no… dear dear.”

He shrugged his shoulders and turned round to look at the city. The free conversation between him and his customers interested me. Either taxi driver were considered part of a respectable class these days, or there were no class distinctions in Wales. The car came to a stop outside an interesting . Llywarch paid the driver, and the driver thanked him politely, then drove away.

“Didn’t you give the man a tip?” I said.

“A tip?” said Llywarch. “Dear friend, those days are long past. Offering a tip to the man would have been an insult of the worst sort. Come. My stomach is roaring.”

I looked again at the building before me. It was most like a big farmhouse from my time. An imitation, obviously. Or a bit like St. Fagans, a farmhouse that had been dismantled stone-by-stone and rebuilt here. Well. Really well. We went in.

After going through the long hall with its slate floor and the electric candles mounted in boxes on the walls, and handing our coats to the kind and gracious girl who looked after the cloakroom, we went through a thick oak door to the dining room. This was lovely. All the walls were black oak panels, with three alcoves in each of which stood an oak trestle laid with blue plates and lusterware jugs. On each table there was a cluster of wax candles, and every so often a boy came by to replace any candles that were burning low. A few clusters of electric candles hung from the oak beams in the ceiling. The light was enchanting.

A middle-aged lady came to us and greeted us in Welsh.

“Well, well, Dr. and Mrs. Llywarch,” she said. “We haven’t seen you for ages. How are you, Llywarch daughter?” she said to Mair. “I hear that you are splendid in your new drama.”

Llywarch introduced me to her, and asked for a table for four. The lady took us to a rond table close to one of the trestles. I noticed now that all the tables were arranged around the walls, with the centre of floor remaining empty.

“Is there dancing tonight?” asked Mrs. Llywarch.

“Yes indeed. You’re in luck. The Harpist of Penllyn and her party are with us for the week – and our own fiddler, of course. One of the girls will come to you now.”

“Do you dance?” Mair asked me.

“Well… a little,” I said shyly. “I can do a reasonable waltz, but…”

Mair laughed.

“No, not that sort of dancing! Folk dancing.”

“Oh!” I said, feeling myself blush. “No… not folk dancing.”

“You’ll have to teach him, Mair” said Llywarch.

I lowered my eyes below Mair’s gaze. A girl came to us, wearing a white bonnet and a black and white apron, and a red silk shawl over her shoulders. I looked in vain for a black stovepipe hat, and was relieved.

“Ma’am?” she said, with a remarkable smile, and passed the menu to Mrs. Llywarch.

Mrs. Llywarch cast an expert eye over the names of the various meals.

“Leek soup or turnip?” she asked.

Everyone agreed on turnip soup.

“And I recommend the roasted eggs with bean pie,” said the girl.

“Superb,” said Llywarch under his breath, as he opened the bottle of dandelion and burdock with a corkscrew.

I swallowed hard. I feared the roasted eggs and bean pie.

“Do you have meat?” asked Mrs. Llywarch.

“Yes, but surely you don’t …”

“No we don’t. But Mr. Powell here eats meat.”

“Oh, it’s all right,” I said awkwardly.

“Tonight,” said Mair, her voice full of persuasion, “Mr. Powell is going to eat roasted eggs. He’s not going to miss such a memorable experience, carnivore or not.”

“Oh, sure” I said, “sure.”

“Thank you, Ma’am.”

And the pretty girl melted int the candlelight. Once she’d gone, Mair laughed.

“We’ll make a modern Welshman out of you yet,” she said to me.

“Modern?” I said, looking around at the oak furniture.

“After all,” said Llywarch philosophically, “what is modernity? ‘There’s nothing new under the sun’… am I quoting it right?”

“Forget about quotations tonight, Alfan,” said his wife. “The four of us are here to enjoy ourselves.”

By the time we had finished the turnip soup the restaurant had filled up. At the table to our left there were three American women enthusing noisily about the place.

“I think it’s perfectly charming, my dears.”

“Absolutely super.”

“I never imagined that Wales could be so divinely different, did you?”

And so on.

To our right there was a company of Germans.

“Wunderschön, nicht wahr?”

And from one of the tables across the floor came a loud French voice.

“Magnifique, n’est-ce pas? C’est magnifique!”

The roasted eggs with bean pie arrived. On my plate were three eggs roasted to a yellow colour and placed into a triangle with butter, a slice of pie with green beans inside it, and a garland of vegetables around the plate. My heart sank. But I’d barely got the first mouthful between my teeth before I’d changed my mind. I tucked in hungrily to one of the best suppers I’ve ever had.

The diners around me started to clap their hands, and I turned my head to see why. On a stage at one of the dining room there was a group of girls in white bonnets and checked aprons. A man with a fiddle under his arm came to them and bowed. Then the harpist came, and the applause became deafening. She ran her fingers two or three times over the strings, and then there was an expectant silence.

I can’t describe my joy when the harpist struck up “Gainc y Datgeiniad[1]” and the party of girls sang part of the ode “Min y Môr[2]”. I had heard it many, many times, but hearing it here, in the secret future, amidst these enthusiastic foreigners, threatened to be more than I could bear. It’s true that there was something different about the singing – it was so effortlessly professional, for one thing – but this was canu pennillion. And there was no doubt about it, this was proper old-fashioned canu pennillion. There was no applause after the first song (the audience was obviously well-disciplined), and the girls sang part of “Ymadawiad Arthur[3]”. The applause after that, I’ll never forget.

The girls curtsied, a flowed off the stage. Floodlights broke out over the harpist and fiddler, and they struck up a dance tune.

“’Clover’,” said Mair.

The party of girls slipped into the middle of the floor, eight of them, and held their arms out to invite partners. Four, six, then eight boys from the tables here and there rose, and went to join them. It was a sight to treasure: the white bonnets and frilly petticoats of the girls, the boys in their knee-breeches and blue, green and orange jackets, their white ties waving. The room had a slate floor, and the clicking of shoes upon it stirred the blood. In no time at all another party had formed on the dancefloor, and more white ties and long dresses were whirling in the yellow light. The foreigners by their tables were in ecstacy.

The dance finished, and the boys and girls bowed and curtsied to one another, their faces flaming with exertion and satisfaction. All around us there was laughter and loud conversation. The room was alive with goodwill. Another glissando on the harp, and then the dance “Llanover”.

Mair rose from the table.

“Mr. Powell,” she said, “you should be asking me, but I forgive you since you are a stranger. Come and dance.”

“Oh no, Miss Llywarch… if you will excuse me…”

“Leave him alone,” said her mother. “Mr. Powell isn’t a folk dancer.”

“Try it, Powell,” said her father. “I was a great dancer in my day. It’s good fun.”

“I’ll teach you,” said Mair.

It was hard to say no to Mair, and I rose. She and I stood on the edge of the dancing circle, and she showed me the steps of the dance. Then, without warning, she pulled me into the circle. I found myself hoofing around clumsily in the midst of a whirlwind of merry young Welsh people. Their eyes and teeth sparkled healthily, and ever time Mair’s hand touched mine it was like electricity running through me.

I don’t know how Mair kept dancing, after she’d already played in the drama that same evening. But keep going she did, as if the dancing itself were giving her fresh energy. The mischief in her eyes didn’t dim, nor did the smile leave her face. She was magic.

“Forgive me, Miss Llywarch…” I said at the end of one dance.

“We’re Mair and Ifan, aren’t we?” she said, pretending to tell me off.

“All right,” I said rather shyly, “Forgive me, Mair, my feet are starting to tire. I’d rather go and sit down.”

“A strong man like you?” she said provocatively. “Well, I am surprised!” And then she laughed. “All right then, Ifan. Come on.”

To my surprise, she walked towards a door at the side of the stage, and opened it. I followed her, onwards along a corridor, and through another door. We were in the open air. We were, in fact, in a garden. In the garden were fruit trees with lights set in them, and in the middle of the garden a fountain which threw spray up into the air which the lights then turned into a rainbow. I could see couples standing here and there among the trees and sitting on benches, and Mair led me to an empty bench under an apple tree close to the fountain. She sat down, and I sat too.

We listened for a while to the canu pennillion party, still audible from afar, and I felt as I often did on the Eisteddfod field at night, listening to the Welsh singing being carried on the wind from the main pavilion. The Welshness of the music connected deeply with the Welshness within me. Mair broke into my contemplation.

“Well Ifan, what do you think of ‘Future Wales’?”

I folded and unfolded my hands.

“I can’t rightly say. It’s a strange experience. It’s like being in a foreign country, which isn’t quite foreign either. It’s like I’ve found a Welsh colony in a land far away.”

“Do you think that our country has gone into decline since your days?”

“Oh, no. It definitely hasn’t gone into decline. There’s a sort of joy here that didn’t exist in my age. A cheerfulness, almost a sense of mischief…. I can’t get to grips with it properly.”

“You’ve acclimatised wonderfully within twenty-four hours.”

“Thanks to you, Mair.”

“To me?”

Her dark eyes were fixed on me, understanding me better than I understood myself.

“You, Mair, have given me some… some focus for my mind. You hold my gaze, hole my attention in everything that you do, and I can’t help thinking about you. That’s kept my mind together, so that it hasn’t gone off on a tangent and fallen apart.”

“I see.”

I looked at her, and saw that she was blushing.

“I never saw anyone like you,” I said then, more or less to myself.

“Of course you have,” she said. “Lots. There were prettier, more attractive girls than me in your age.”

“No there weren’t. Not to me.”

She laughed, softly and sweetly.

“Oh, you’re being romantic now.”

“Why not? When I saw you in the drama tonight, holding the stage as you did, it… it made a llanast[4] of me.”

Llanast?”

“You obviously don’t know that word. You’ve… done something to my heart.”

“Ifan… we’d better go in. My Mum and Dad will be getting worried.”

I followed her graceful body back to the restaurant, unable to stop myself looking at her and thinking about her. When we arrived back, the last dance of the night was at its climax. Dr. and Mrs. Llywarch raised their eyes and saw us. Mrs. Llywarch’s eyes were smiling, while the Professor’s eyes were looking a little shocked.

“Home now,” he said, standing up. “It’s getting on for midnight, and the Oak Trestle will be closing in a few minutes. It’s Sunday tomorrow morning. We’ll need to be up early for Church.”

“If Mr. Powell isn’t too tired,” said Mrs. Llywarch kindly.

“No-one is too tired to go to Church,” said Llywarch.

He pinched me playfully on the arm, and we went to collect our coats.

In my bed that night, with the radio playing soft music and throwing multi-coloured lights on the walls around me, I gathered together before me the events of the day. The journey through the sunny town; the minutes in Llywarch’s study in the college and the exciting minutes spent in his laboratory; the football game with Rhys Rhymney and Gwil Llannor; the drama, and Mair’s part in it; the supper and dance with the merry Welsh people in the restaurant, and Mair opposite me, and the time in the garden, and Mair by my side. For a sour moment, the face of the man from the U.B.L. came into my mind. But he went away, and in his place came Mair’s face once again. And I fell asleep.


[1] “The singer’s tale”, a cerdd dant air.

For an English description of cerdd dant (string music), also called canu penillion (singing verses), I defer to the great Ryan Davies: https://youtu.be/q_OsHvUSp6U?t=49s

“My friend and me we are going to sing you pennillion, which is the singing of verses. My friend by there will play the air on the harp, and I will join him half way through. The song that he is playing and the song that we are singing is the same song, but is the different song, and the object of the exercise is for us both to finish together… So it’s every man for himself in the middle and God help us all at the end.”

[2] “The Sea’s Edge”.

[3] “Arthur’s Departure”

[4] A mess; to “gwneud llanast ar <something>” is to turn it upside down and make a mess of it. Despite the fact that it begins with ‘llan’ it has nothing to do with placenames or churchyards. In the translation I have left the original word in to give a sense of Mair’s confusion at encountering a word that the author imagines will have fallen out of use by then. In fact it is alive and well in 21st Century Welsh.

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