Cyfannedd Fach by Hannah Persaud won the Fresher Writing Prize for Best Short Story 2016. Hannah’s story, along with all of the other shortlisted entries, can be found in the Fresher Writing 2016 anthology which can be purchased via our Books page.
The cottage is as they left it. Each time they return, he holds his breath as if it might have disappeared in their absence. But the crumbling sheep barn is still there, obscuring the slate roof until the very last moment. This slice of Welsh farmland that sits between the Forestry’s land is a void between the trees. Grass winds its way up through the rough surface of the driveway and wind-felled trees lattice themselves together like gnarled fingers.
When she jumps out to open the ninth and final gate, the forest twitches news of their arrival along the length of the valley.
“It’s just as glorious.” She whispers this, though their closest neighbours are five miles away.
They bought it fifteen years ago, this ruin of a Welsh farm perched on the edge of a hillside populated only by sheep and birds of prey. The road hasn’t been repaired since the end of the Second World War, the agent had said, looking at them with a challenge in his eyes. The house was derelict. It had been madness, this purchase that balanced precariously just below the ridge on Tyddyn Shieffre, but when they had walked up the land behind the cottage and the Mawddach estuary stretched before them shimmering in the last throes of summer sun, they had been sold. Barmouth sparkled below and, beyond, the mountains of Snowdonia stretched out in mist-soaked peaks; in the distance the Lleyn Peninsula jutted out defiantly and beyond that, Bardsey Island rose nervously from the sea.
Since the day they had got the keys they had fought the wilderness, chasing the brambles and sheep from the door.
We wanted a challenge, she had laughed, leaning off the roof as she held her hand out for another tile. They called them working holidays, and had put the cottage back together piece by piece, like a jigsaw. The day the new roof was on they had lain beneath it, a lazy breeze blowing through the glassless windows. Our space, she had murmured. It wasn’t a secret. There wasn’t a choice. Their spouses agreed, silently. Complicit.
They’d returned home after every visit with blistered hands and windburn that healed slowly. They knew the locals referred to them in hushed tones as ‘the visitors’. He didn’t blame them; their visits were fleeting, their departures signalled by a new pile of rubble, a flapping tarpaulin.
They found a trunk in the attic and spent hours pouring over faded photographs and spidery handwriting that crawled over the pages. It was built in 1757, she had said in awe. They were the first owners who were not farmers, married to the land. We’re frauds, he’d whispered. They struggled with the local dialect. It took him three years to pronounce the name of the nearest town correctly. Dolgellau – Dol-geth-lie.
Feet plunge into muddy puddles as she runs to catch up with the car that he has swung in front of the cottage. They had tried to arrive before night fell, but he had been late leaving and she had got held up in a last minute drama. By the time they had hit the motorway it had been a race against time, and as the speedometer had nudged 100 he’d wondered not for the first time about the wisdom of this, these stolen days. Usually they went in summer and her call had surprised him. Of course, he’d agreed. For you, anything. She had opened every gate, the heat in the car dissipating as the wind tore the door away from her hands. Each time she had thrown herself back in beside him, damp air curled after her. It tangled her hair. Each gate took her a step farther from being the woman who had climbed into his car at the beginning, her neat lines unravelling with each mile that drew them closer to the mountains.
At the cottage, white shapes scatter as she walks round to the barn where the key safe is. They leave the key here. She likes the magic of arriving with nothing.
She goes first, as always. A click as the wooden frame groans, a sigh as the house breathes out. The matt-black night floods in. Within seconds she has the lights on. He fetches the wood from the store and a flame licks the cold stone. When she turns towards him, he sees the etchings of time in her face. He pours the wine whilst she unpacks. He turns on the water heater in the kitchen, lays the mat before the bathroom door to catch the water that always overflows. She seems quieter than usual. He watches her as she slices the chicken for dinner by candlelight.
“Is everything okay?” he asks as she stirs the white sauce, passes her the salt and the pepper, and the small slice of Welsh blue that she always saves. The sweet aroma of rosemary fills the small space. He puts his arms around her waist, feels the tensing and twisting of her torso as she chops and seasons.
“Of course.” She abandons the spoon and turns into his chest. “Never better.”
Still, he wonders. Over dinner and by the fire afterwards, doubt nudges him. Swinging her legs off the sofa, she picks up a book from the bookcase and reads out loud –
“In the inaccessible fastness of the mountains, we built a lodging place for angels between two worlds.” She sighs. “I love Gwenallt.”
She leans forward and kisses his forehead. “I’ve missed you.”
Before bed, they shower, separately. Whilst he listens to the hum of the shower he heats the kettle for the water bottles. “We’re old before our time,” she had said the first time they came, all those years ago. “Not old, wise,” he had replied.
This time, she emerges fully dressed from the bathroom. In bed, she keeps her clothes on until the last moment. When he peels off her tracksuit trousers and vest he is thrown off sequence by the concave dip at her hip where there is usually a curve; the softness of her rendered sharp.
In the morning she sleeps late and he brings her tea and an OS map. Sitting up in bed, it is like old times, just them and the mountain. Their phones don’t work inside; only on the ridge can a bar of reception be gained, depending on the weather. After breakfast she slips away. In her absence he wanders round the front of the cottage that faces the trees that the Forestry has sculpted the barren mountainside with; listens to the sounds of the wind sweeping in across Cadair Idris, that dwindle to a whisper as they creep across their clearing. With no sign of her he walks to the right of the house, checking that the car is still there. It sits dark and covered in the morning frost that spreads across the bonnet like stale breath.
He walks back to the front and turns right against the west wall, striding up the clearing towards the top of the hill. He hears the sighs of the valley, the creaking of the trees as they adjust to the mist lifting. Nearing the top he sees her. She is not looking at the estuary and sea below. She stands fixed, staring at her hands. She does not hear him coming, visibly jumps when he approaches. As he slides his icy hands up underneath her windbreaker, she gasps.
“I didn’t see you, you scared me.”
“I missed you. Why didn’t you tell me you were coming out?” She knows that he loves this routine, but it is theirs.
“Sorry darling, I just needed some fresh air.” But he sees the corner of her phone that she thrust into her pocket as he approached.
Later, as they walk around the Cregennen lakes, he watches her whilst she crouches low and puts her fingers in the water. The lake is sky blue despite the grey clouds that hang like puffed curtains over the tops of the hills. “It’s the granite in the water,” he had explained the first time they came, when she exclaimed at the colour of the water. “It absorbs the light from the sky and reflects it back through the water.”
“Shhh,” she had whispered, putting her fingers to his lips; “the blue is the lake’s memory of summer days. It stole it from the sky so that the underworld could enjoy it for all time.”
He had laughed, pointed to the sky. “Well that explains the weather then!”
“The lake is cursed,” she’d said. “That’s why it is always cold. It carries the colour of summer in its water but it can never feel the sun.” This has always been for her a land of 16th century highwaymen and winged dragons, of trolls resting beneath the bridges and pterodactyls screeching through the sky. Though she is a scientist too, she’s always been a dreamer.
“Taste it,” she says, crouching down and submerging her hand in the water. He holds her finger to his mouth and thinks how not so many years ago, this would have been a precursor to finding a secluded spot. She laughs as he pulls her to her feet, and she peels off her layers one by one in the marbled January light. Her body enters the water without a sound. He dives in after her. Momentarily he is unable to breathe. Perhaps he is too old for freshwater swims. When his lungs fill with air she surfaces and he notes her bony shoulders, fragile against the rugged elbow of the mountain behind her. When he passes her a towel, he notices a missed call on her phone. He wills himself not to look, not to be that person.
That evening, nestled up beside the fire, he asks,
“Is everything okay?”
“How could it not be okay, being here with you?” He feels a flash of anger at her evasion. Betrayal flickers in his chest.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers later, when the taste of her is in his mouth. “I’ve been distracted. Finding it hard to switch off.” He knows – whereas once these trips were a way to forget everything else, this time he has been worrying.
“Perhaps this is what age brings us. An increasing inability to disconnect.” He runs a hand over her shoulder as she puts another log on the fire. And though she laughs it off, he recognises understanding in her eyes.
They slip into their routine. Jobs around the cottage in the stark morning light; venturing out around midday when the ground has defrosted. He wants to replace the pipes to the shower, widen them. He brought new ones with him. Why do you want to do that in the middle of winter? she asks. Leave it for another time. It is unlike her, to delay things. The cottage is restored, but there is always work to be done, replacing tiles that the storms from the sea rip off, clearing the drains of leaves. If we don’t stay on top of it, the mountain will be upon us, he says as he fetches the piping from the car.
It is close to midday when she suggests walking to the summit of Cadair Idris. They’ve walked it many times, but always in summertime. Already in the distance they can see the mist is swirling along the top of the summit. Snow sprinkles the peaks like icing sugar.
“Are you sure?” he asks, “We’ll be racing against the daylight.”
“Don’t be such a worrier,” she had replied, packing her rucksack. “We’ll be fine, we know the paths.”
They do, and the possibility of disappointing her is too great. By the time they pull into Minfordd car park the mist has started to descend and the summit can no longer be seen.
“Come on,” she calls as he pulls his walking boots on. The paths are steep and the mist has made them slippery. Usually the slopes are covered with heathers and bilberry, but now the ground is barren and the landscape moonlike. Moraines and cwms punctuate the landscape. The walk feels longer than usual, the stiles higher. Even in summer the temperature drops with increasing altitude, and now in the midst of winter it is close to freezing. He crunches his hands into fists to warm his fingertips. She walks a few steps ahead, stopping now and then to inspect the ferns that cloak the trees. After two hours of walking he feels his legs start to cramp. He should take better care of himself.
“Look.” She stops suddenly, walking precariously close to the edge. “It’s like flying.”
The clouds are above them and a sea of white mist carpets below. Even their voices sound muffled. The final ascent is treacherous. On a fine day it is tricky, but the wet ground is turning icy and he’s bitterly regretting his inability to say no.
He catches up with her near the top, and though her smile is jubilant she looks more exhausted than he feels. They haven’t seen a single person the whole way up. When they reach the summit of Pen y Gadair, he sits on a rock and pulls out a sandwich. The bread is soggy and the cheese rubbery. He passes one to her and they share a cup of coffee from the flask. He makes a mini snowman, the size of a ping pong ball. 2,930 feet high but they may as well be two feet off the ground for all the views they have.
Standing, she peers into the swirling mist. He looks at his watch again and readjusts his hood, pulls his zip up to his neck.
“We should get going or we’ll be descending in darkness.” As he turns towards the path she calls out.
“Look.” He turns and as he does so, the clouds part –she is there, too close to the edge again. He follows her finger, and on cue, the first sunshine they’ve seen this trip forces its way between the clouds and falls away from them towards the bottom, its shards splintering as they hit the bright blue of Llyn Cau Lake.
“They say that Llyn Cau has no bottom, and that a monster lurks beneath.” And despite himself he smiles, for she tells him every time they come. As quickly as the clouds parted they close again and then the rain starts, slow drops that land heavily. He feels a flash of anger at finding himself here when they could be back at the cottage in front of a roaring fire.
“We should go,” he calls, his words falling into silence. “Lucy?”
Turning, he sees her there against the rocks, leaning forwards. Walking over he reaches out his hand. “Let’s go.” She turns and he sees something in her face he has not seen before.
“Maybe we should spend the night here.” She points to the shelter. “They say that anyone who spends the night on Cadair Idris will awaken as a poet or a madman.” She laughs, but there’s a hysterical edge to it.
“Come on, we need to go.” He reaches for her hand again, grasps her fingers.
“Can’t we stay just for a little while?” That look again. He tugs her towards him and wraps his arms around her.
“We need to go, now. Look, it’s already getting dark.” Finally, she allows him to lead her back to the path. They descend in the diminishing light in silence.
On their last night on the cusp of the New Year, they feign joy but sorrow leaks beneath the surface. When he proposes a walk to the ridge to take in the view, she shakes her head. He walks to the door and opens it, breathing deeply. Though the wind is still there it sounds different, wheezing into corners instead of hitting him like a wall.
“Tell me,” he says after they have curled up like mice beneath the covers. “What is it?” And this thing that she will not speak of cements itself between them and cannot be budged. He forces himself not to examine the pills that she has left in the bathroom.
When they close the gate for the last time, she clambers back into the car and turns her laughing rain sprinkled face towards him.
“Thank you for this, I needed it.” He kisses her cheek and looks at the slate sign they’d attached so proudly to the gate. Cyfannedd Fach – small inhabited. In the car behind the steamy windows, she puts her hand on his thigh.
The journey passes too quickly. When he drops her at the end of her road he holds her tightly; her hair and skin still smell of woodsmoke from their fire. After she climbs out, she taps on his window and he winds it down. She leans in through his window and whispers in his ear. It is a struggle to hear her over the traffic noise; a siren shrieks through the night. When he pulls away from the kerb, her outline blurs in the drizzling rain. When he does a U-turn he sees her standing motionless beneath the streetlight, hand raised in farewell.
He drives ten miles before he has to pull over in a layby. He presses his palms against his eyes. Seven months if I’m lucky – or unlucky perhaps. She’d pulled back to look him in the eyes. Feigned a smile. I need to be with my family now. He had nodded. He understands. The snowy peaks of Cadair Idris are no more than a memory.
He knows that he will not go back to the cottage, that the forest will grow between its stones and the wind will sweep between the sheets; knows that the rain will wash away their taste of one another. Cyfannedd Fach. It was never really theirs to take in the first place.