Plygain: A night of candles and shadows.

This is for Sian, from my favourite bookshop, Browsers in Porthmadog. Diolcham y llyfr, Sian. Unwaith ddaw dydd Llun ….. My youngest son is home for an early Christmas celebration. This is for him too. Nadolig Llawen x

As tradition dictated, we walked to the chapel. Daf moaned all the way. I was silent. The wind turned umbrellas inside out, and the chapel porch was soggy with puddles on the uneven stone floor. The chapel was warm with the scent of candle wax. The light shimmmered  on the white washed walls, and the old sconces  traces of smoke. Smells of damp wool coats filled the auditorium. The piano was bright with ornate candelabra wreathed in holly and misteltoe. I sighed and looked at my hands. Why on earth had I allowed mam to persuade me to do this? 

“Come on, Harri. It will do us good to get involved in Chapel again. We can get to know people and you know how much dad loved singing plygain. You can sing in a choir or something.” 

But mam, we hated Plygain. We only went because of dad…”

“Honey come on, we have to start rebuilding -making our own traditions…”

“What? Out of the ones we hate?” I shook her hand from my arm. “You can’t make me sing in front of a pile of strangers.” But four slammed doors later I capitulated. There’s  no worse sound than your mum crying and no better guilt trip than her colleagues offering to donate one hundred and fifty pounds to a cancer charity because your dad happened to die of it and I happened to promise him that I would raise money once a year.

The chatter in the chapel,muffled by the coats and hats, was getting louder. it sounded like seawater in my ears and I felt as if  I were drowning. What if someone had the same carol as I had? What if i trod on a choir’s toes and ruined weeks of preparation? We were honour bound by tradition not to repeat the same carol. I began to feel sick. I had prepared a song of annunciation, where Mary sings of her lost dreams. Right now in a strange chapel amongst strangers and far from my friends I knew how she felt.

The chapel windows streamed with condensation as the wind outside tightened its grip, blowing a draught under the wooden doors. The velvet drapes on the lectern rippled. A boy and a girl in Welsh folk dress walked past. They smiled at me. I shivered deep in my parka. I thought of the man in my gibbet dreams. Who was he? Would he have worshipped here? Why dream of him anyway? I looked over at the pew where the boy sat,  and nudged mam. “All we need is a bit of clog dancing and broom jumping.” 

“Enough, Harri.” She snapped.   “You can be so cynical… Sing or don’t sing. I don’t care . We will give the money to charity anyway.

“But the boy.”I looked over and saw that he must have moved. I sighed. Why bother explaining? I thought of dad and felt guilty all over again. He had told me to be good. Mum knew as well as I that I would sing. Guilt the mother of all weapons and the weapon of all mothers would ensure that.

I zoned out while the adult choirs sang. They were as sharp and flat as dead violins in old packing cases. I just didnt do old-lady-warble. But the little kids were cute waving at mamgus and tadcus and blowing kisses to their parents. Their faces were shiny in the candlit warmth and the oh of sympathy rippled around the congregation when the smallest blondest child began crying and pointing at the congregation.  She snuffled in the set fawr. It was an evening of candlelight and shadows, of sharps and flats, and wet wool coat. 

The chapel hushed as the young girl I had seen earlier stepped up to the pulpit. Her dress was a blue lawn pattern, edged in navy. The dress had leg-o-mutton sleeves. As folk dancing costumes went, it was not as lavish as some I had seen. In fact it looked home made. But it was a nice touch for the plygain. The girl was slight and dark with blue eyes. And she smiled at me again as she began to sing “Myn Mair” Mair’s complaint is less of a christmas song and more of an offering for someone , perhaps a lover who languishes in prison. The notes of the song caught at my throat and my eyes filled with tears as she owned the ancient medieval song and made it hers. I thought Of all we had lost: Dad, Llyswen; and a childhood swallowed up by someones illness. In an effort to make amends, I turned to mam. “She was amazing.” Mam shrugged. “I thought you had fallen asleep. Anyway I didn’t like it.I thought she looked cheap.”

 With no time to debate I walked from pew to set fawr. I don’t like standing in the pulpit -it’s too high; and by lifting my chin a little it was possible to sing to the almost empty upper gallery. My knees shook as the syncopated notes from the piano sounded around the chapel. I breathed and focused on the boy and girl who were holding hands in the gallery. I sang of Mary a simple country girl. Her lost dreams of a wedding and family. Would Joseph still want her? And how God the author of her life needed her obedience and faith . I shook as the key change to four flats was successfully negotiated.”Kerching ! A hundred and fifty for cancer research” I thought. “Job done.” And Isat down to the approving murmurs of strangers. The folk duo after me were excellent. But the adrenaline buzzed in my body as fast as my thoughts. 

What about my life? How would it turn out in this new place? If God was the author did we have any control? And why did mam dislike Myn Mair ? By eleven pm the gale had blown itself out and our breath fogged in the air as we walked up the lanes to Alltwen. “What did you mean, Mam about the Myn Mair girl  being cheap?”

“Well you don’t wear clothes like that to a plygain. Have you ever seen a Goth Mary in all your Plygain years? 

“But she was wearing folk dancing clothes…..”

“No Harri she was dressed in black,”Dafydd chimed, “and her hair was black.I bet Mair never had mascara like that. He cuddled into mam as they walked onwards. I turned and looked back at Capel Salem. The windows were dark and blank. The wind whipped my ankles again. I turned for Alltwen and my new home.

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