Adapt Or Die

Entry by: Mac

11th August 2017
From the pale shadows that shrouded the valley that kept the slumbering secrets of the village that was home to the run-down cottage … there through the crackling, frost-tipped grass, the tread of a weary, broken pair of boots quietly crushed each tiny icicle. And Gareth tried to march bravely. Tried to show his faith and courage in his choice to serve.

“With distinction”, urged the recruiting sergeant. His mother snorted disdainfully when he told her but she gave him bread, cheese, an apple – where had she got an apple from? – as the frail edge of dawn nudged its way into the day and Gareth accepted the consequence of his choice. But she didn’t believe he was going forth in faith, and bravely too, no more than he did. She surmised what he knew to be true. This was escape and he would return to rescue her one day from this valley that held the tiny village in its grip that encircled the run-down little cottage where they survived day after day, year after year. He would come back for her. And for his brother and sister.
“I’ll keep in touch, don’t worry. I’ll be fine.”

Her eyes burned with the ferocity of an animal whose young are threatened and she cursed the recruiting sergeant for not seeing the boy, instead pretending to see a faltering, skinny, ungainly man, driven by determination and demons. She had no truck with soldiering, not since her own brother – too many years ago to remember now – never came back from a skirmish somewhere unpronounceable in Africa. Politicians and generals: murderers all. She wiped her hands on her apron and turned back inside as he disappeared into those pale shadows, shrouding the valley that muffled the sleeping sounds and hidden secrets of the valley. She would cope because there were the other two.

In the woods that nestled on that same hilltop over which Gareth had trod towards his destiny last autumn – a Thursday morning – Susannah sat on a withered, fallen tree trunk, anticipating the words, the smile, the actions of this boy that she was unsure if she loved: Alwyn. He, the boy from the butcher’s shop and the pride of his father’s congress with the world, was driven more by ardour and daring than affection, certainly not love, though he could hardly explain the difference. The pain of passion he mistook for longing … and Susannah was the object of that longing.

When Alwyn’s father, in great haste, packed him off to a college of commerce in Cardiff, it might as well have been the ends of the earth; she watched the pony and trap shrinking into the paleness of the early Spring morning, the dampness cold on her cheeks along with the few tears she shed and she recalled that he only turned to wave once, and said, “I’ll keep in touch, don’t worry. It’ll be fine.”

She had worried she might be pregnant - she wasn’t – and she knew, though he never said, that Cardiff had been his own suggestion, planted in the head of the proud and fretful father; and so he went. She had made love; he had fucked. Together they laughed and kissed and felt the warmth of their skin melding one with the other, in the musky, shadowy woods atop the hill that harboured the gateway to the valley that gave shelter to the village. Susannah didn’t want him to return. She would find a way to begin her young life again. This wasn’t the end she thought it was.

Only the boy David, who knew every stream in the valley, every nesting site in the woods, who drew beautiful studies of birds – resting, nesting, flying – only he lived so quietly in the shrouded valley that people barely knew he was there. Except when he smiled sweetly as he trod his tired steps back towards home, his own nesting, resting place after whole days in the nooks and crannies of the valley that he loved. His mother would return his smile, surprised once again to see him and confounded by the realisation that he didn’t occupy more of her thoughts, as much as Gareth and Susannah. Perhaps his quietness, his solitude lulled her into pallid forgetfulness; he was a sweet and kindly boy deserving of more and she gave it when she remembered. Thank God he is untroubled.

On a hot summer’s morning when insects buzzed and the smell of the warm, coarse grass caught in his throat and the reckless shudder of the brook rattling over the stones filled his ears, David raced along the farthest edge of the valley that led away into the mountains. He raced toward the deeper, darker woods with the tall trees and the concealed break in the foliage where a small, natural clearing gave home to a makeshift tent and a primitive camp fire, a small pony and a broken, little cart. And a boy. Older than David. Alone. Sitting on a rock and smiling. Like the product of a phantasmagoria – all shadows and demons and magic and wondrous in nature – this mud-streaked boy, lean and muscular and tanned by all of the seasons not just unrelenting summer, sat and smiled slyly as David approached. He was a child of nature, through and through. More mature, leaner, fitter, more powerful than David.

The bruises – a source of ardour in the night and a mark of tenderness in the morning – were harbingers of secrecy and mild panic as he concocted myriad ruses to avoid any prying glance from his mother. When she noticed she said nothing, telling herself that they were the product of a fall in the woods but there had been others a week ago that she noticed – and David was fleet of foot, had been since childhood. He could climb like a squirrel, the better to find a lodging place in the high branches, the better to hide and sit and draw his pictures of the birds. He worked on their smallholding, helping her to scratch a living from the valley and he worked at the blacksmith’s, none too successfully, to make a pittance to bring home to her.

David was unusually quiet this time of returning, his thoughts engulfed by that final conversation in the clearing.
“You’ll keep in touch?”
“I can’t write.” There was a self-contained smile and then, “Maybe I’ll come back next year.” But he never returned and David kept silent. That summer that saw a change in Susannah and gave constant reminders of the absence of Gareth and gave David knowledge and solitude.


The long, ragged shadow of the Great War reached to the valley and the village that clung to the sheltering slopes and windswept moorlands, robbing them of sons who never returned. Leaving daughters bereft, nursing abandoned promises.


“My husband died when the children were young and we got by as best we could … the smallholding, David's job with the blacksmith that didn’t last, a shop assistant’s position in the butcher’s for Susannah that lasted one year – long enough for the grocer’s conscience to feel absolved. They thought I didn’t know but there was gossip. So of course I knew.
“And the eldest to the army. He never came back. He met a girl in the north of England and stayed there, raising his own family. He visited every year and always left an envelope with money that was never referred to – by either of us. He was always a kind boy … reserved and not given to showing his feelings. It was seven years before I met his wife and children – poverty prevented visits until then. But there was always a Christmas card that they wrote in. I have them all.
“A mother will feel especially close to her youngest – but I never did. Such a shy, withdrawn boy but so independent. He left the blacksmith shortly after a travelling theatre had played for the villages in the area and I assumed he had run off to join them. He couldn’t have given his life to the village – people were wary of him, I learned. Or simply ignored him. Or … I don’t know. He didn’t fit in. How does a boy come to be born in a place that he can’t call home? I got a postcard once. He said he loved me and hoped I was well. The picture was Truro. I’d never heard of it.”


Moody’s Travelling Theatre was pared to the bone, completely devoid of young male actors as a result of the fighting; old men played young heroes. They were a troupe of eight, playing each village in each valley before wending their way towards England via the outskirts of Cardiff. Giving excerpts from Shakespeare and Dickens, followed by full performances of Fanny By Gaslight or some such. With rudimentary equipment and the help of locals and an abundance of imagination – not to mention the highly popular ten-minute shadow show which gripped the senses of young and old alike with its elementary magic. Performances brought light relief and momentary escape from the realities of poverty and the war effort. Church halls were generally given over to performance unless they were strict chapel. Then a barn was commandeered, to the delight of the mistress of said farm and the casual pride of the master.


“Susannah wedded the blacksmith, after rumours concerning her and the grocer’s son made it difficult for her to find a beau. Better if the grocer had not offered her the position only to let her go after a year. Tongues wagged. The blacksmith wasn’t given to gossip – nor to conversation much, either. But in these later years they have been kind to me; God loves a dutiful daughter. Every two weeks she walked from the neighbouring valley, over the tops to visit me. Even in winter. They moved there shortly after the wedding; the gossiping played a part in that. When she had her own, she brought them too – two girls and a boy. When arthritis afflicted her, her girls made the journey to check that I was fine. And every year I would go and stay – at Christmas and at Whitsun. Only three days at a time, mind. I could never take to the blacksmith but he was good to her. He gave me the necklace that my John gave to me for our first Christmas and that I had given to her when she wed. He gave it back to me when she died. I saved it for her eldest girl.

“I never heard a word from David after he disappeared. But in 1947 I received an envelope … no note or anything. Just a postal order for £20. A small fortune! There was one every month for five months. Never an indication of who sent them. Postmark was London. Who did I know in London? I showed the envelopes to Gareth when he visited that summer. I went to the Post Office with them. No doubt there was gossip. So I suppose they were from David.

“By then, Gareth’s wife always came with him on a visit. They’d got on their feet and their children were working. She was a good woman, his wife … took care of him. They were let down by their youngest. She had a baby. That war changed a lot of things … attitudes.
“They keep in touch. Apart from David. I tell them not to worry. I’m fine. Mrs. Cole next door is very kind and helpful in between Susannah’s visits. And her girls’ visits. I need more help than I used to."


In the pale shadows that shrouded the valley that kept the slumbering secrets of the village that was home to the run-down cottage, people adapted. And survived.