Authors: Emma Smith
First published in the UK in 1972
This epub is version 1.0, released March 2016
1 - The Day School Was Sent Home Early
Amy Bowen, bending and shuffling, climbed out from the back of Mrs Rhys’s van into the snowy wind and banged the doors shut, turning the handle on what was now an empty shelter for she was the last to be dropped of the eight children Mrs Rhys brought back from school each day, just as in the mornings she was the first to be picked up. Only tomorrow there would surely be no picking up; no school tomorrow, thought Amy, as she stood by the roadside holding her collar tight together under her chin and watching Mrs Rhys turn the van. The windscreen wipers were beginning to be clogged, she noticed. Busily working to and fro they cleared a smaller space at every wipe.
Mrs Rhys manoeuvred her van until it was pointing round the way it had come, for the road finished here: it was a dead end. The village of Melin-y-Groes was two miles further back, and school itself five miles beyond that in the larger village of Colva.
“You get from here, Amy, just as quick as you can,” said Mrs Rhys. She had wound her window down and put out her head. The snow beat into both their faces. “It’s coming in thicker every minute and there’s quite a step for you to go—will you be all right, do you think?”
“Oh, I’ll be all right, Mrs Rhys—I like it,” said Amy, stretching up to scoop snow off the windscreen so as to give the wipers a better chance.
“You’ll be saying something different time you get home—I know I shall. Never mind about that snow, Amy—let it alone—you’ll only get your fingers wet before you start,” said Mrs Rhys, putting her gear lever into first but keeping her foot on the clutch as though reluctant to leave her last charge there on her own with not another soul in sight, and the storm increasing. “I don’t have to ask if your Granny’s well stocked up with food, I suppose—she always is—she’s wonderful that way.”
“Do you think it’s going to last long, then?”
“Well, I shouldn’t be surprised, indeed—I always say it’s bad when it comes on this time of day. Maybe I should have put you down with young Ivor, Dintirion—the Protheroes would have been glad enough for you to stop with them.”
“I wouldn’t have wanted to,” said Amy. “Supposing we do get snowed in I’d rather be up the Gwyntfa with Granny—she wouldn’t enjoy it half so much on her own.”
“One’s not much company, that’s true,” said Mrs Rhys. “Well, you make haste then—the sooner you’re home the better.”
Amy watched the van drive away. It left two black lines on the white road. Then she pulled off a glove and unbuttoned enough of her coat to be able to shove her cotton shoe-bag inside against her jersey where it would keep dry.
There was a box fastened to the post of the five-barred gate. It had a strip of roofing-felt nailed on top and a door in front. Amy opened the door and took out a blue enamel milk-can with a lid. Then she looked hopefully into the little square interior, but there were no letters.
Years ago, according to legend, a certain giant drover called Casswell, being set upon by cattle-thieves, had lifted the gate then hanging here clean off its hinges and brought it smashing down on the heads of his attackers, defeating them. Whether true or not this story was the reason why the present boundary-gate between road and valley was known as Casswell’s Gate even though there were now no Casswells living in these parts.
Usually Amy clambered over it but today, so as to avoid getting her skirt wet with the snow already lying thick on the top bar, she unhooked it and went through, dropping the hook behind her. The flakes were big and loose, soft white lumps of snow blowing across sideways on the wind as though they too were in haste to get home. Amy had tied her scarf round her head before she left school and was glad now to have her ears covered. She bent her head, turning it so as to protect her face, and trudged on.
Snow, she thought, was a marvel—it was indeed! Snow was like nothing else: it changed the world, the whole of life, in a matter of moments. Not only the shapes of trees and grasses were changed but daily habits—even laws lost their power and had no meaning when snow fell.
That morning lessons had been uncertain. Mr Williams, the schoolmaster, looked out of the window often and doubtfully, as though the low grey sky held a message of warning. And outside it was very still. No birds were flying about; nothing moved.
“I don’t like the look of it,” said Mr Williams, twice.
At half past twelve they had their dinner and immediately afterwards he went into the playground, not pausing to put on his overcoat, and stood there for some time staring towards the north where the sky above the hills was dark and seemed to be getting darker. Even as he watched the darkness came down and hid the tops of the hills, and then the whole of them. They were swallowed by the sky. And in place of the stillness that had lasted so ominously all morning, a great draught of air rushed forward: the wind was rising. Crowded together at the window the children could see their schoolmaster’s trousers flap and branches begin to sway and bend, and a bevy of small birds burst suddenly out from the cover of a holly-tree opposite and scattered in all directions. Mr Williams came inside in a hurry.
“You’ve got snow on your coat, sir,” said Danny Price.
Five minutes later snow was sweeping across the playground and Mr Williams was at the telephone ringing up the various members of School Transport to tell them to come at once.
“It’s only going to get worse,” they heard him say, “and we’d better have them away from here as soon as we can—if we don’t, we’ll never be able to get them away at all by the look of it.”
There were thirty-nine children in the school and each of them felt it was a special treat to be let off two hours of schooling on a Tuesday, as good as a party almost, even though most of them, living on Radnorshire hill-farms, knew well enough how disastrous a heavy fall of snow coming towards the end of February could be for farmers and sheep. But they crammed on their coats and knotted their scarves and stamped about to get their feet down inside their Wellington boots in a state of great excitement because they were doing it at the wrong time of day; and change is always exciting, reflected Amy as she plodded along, seeing only the ground immediately in front of her; which was why snow was always exciting, she thought—snow changes everything.
Although she kept her head lowered her right cheek was beginning to hurt with the cold. She put up her free hand and covered her cheek with the warmth of a woollen glove, and kept her hand there as she struggled on. Walking was not easy, for at each step her foot slipped a little. After some time her legs ached so much she was bound to rest them. She stopped walking and turning her back on the snow lifted her head.
There was nothing to see; nothing but a white swarming nothingness. The hill that rose up in front of her was invisible and the snow itself had altered. The flakes were smaller now and driving harder. She was uncertain of how far she had come, uncertain of exactly where she was; and as she realised this she felt a curious movement inside her, the sudden squeeze of sudden fright. It was not that she was afraid of losing herself, for the track was clear enough yet and she had only to keep on walking ahead until she reached a path turning off that would lead her down to the stream and across it on a narrow wooden bridge and up the further side to the Gwyntfa, the cottage where she lived with her grandmother, Mrs Bowen. If instead she had had to follow the track, an old drovers’ road, on up the valley, up and up and still on for miles over a waste of grass and fern and boggy patches and outcroppings of rock where curlews nested in the spring, that would have been another matter. Anyone might get lost up there.
But Amy’s fear was not of losing her way home. What frightened her was being unable to tell where she was on a path she knew so well. An entire hill had disappeared, and the familiar track was not familiar any more, and the snow was increasing, and there was nobody with her. Then she noticed close by her feet a large squarish boulder, its shape already altered by the snow blown against it but still recognizable as a rock on which she often paused when she was coming from school and the weather was sunny and she was not in any hurry. Her panic evaporated. After all everything was where it had always been—not gone, only concealed. She shifted the milk-can to her other hand; the weight of it dangling from its wire handle had numbed her fingers. Head bowed, glove to cheek, once again she set off.
It was a relief at last to reach the turning. Here the path plunged steeply down out of the wind and even, except for a faint sprinkling, out of the snow, so sheltered by oak-trees and overgrown hedges that it was like a tunnel. In summer it was a green tunnel, or like walking underneath a green paper sun-shade. In winter, with the bare twigs interwoven above, it was more like being inside a brown shopping-basket. Half running and half slithering, Amy got to the bottom when she saw with astonishment that her rough-haired mongrel terrier Mick was waiting for her in his usual place on the opposite bank of the stream.
“Why—Mick!” she called out.
Mick resembled no other dog for miles around. He had been abandoned as a puppy by visitors some three years previously, and Mr Pugh the policeman had told Amy she could have him: no one else wanted him—for what use was a dog in this part of the world unless he was a working sheepdog? Mrs Bowen said she thought he might possibly be an Irish terrier, only that his hair was a bit too long for that, maybe. Since he was certainly not Welsh he might as well be Irish, Amy had reasoned, and therefore named him Mick, loving him without in fact caring what he was. Every morning Mick accompanied her so far and watched her cross over the stream, and then turned back; every afternoon he came the same distance to meet her.
He stood up now, wagging his tail.
“However did you know I was going to be early?” called Amy. “What do you think of this weather, boy?—do you like it?”
He barked back at her, eager staccato barks, and then, overcome by excitement, burrowed his nose and tossed up snow, and shook his head and sneezed, and burrowed again, behaving so much like a clown that Amy was bound to laugh. She ran across the plank bridge, balanced the can of milk carefully on one of the steps, and then sprang at Mick, meaning to catch and hug him. But he dodged and she lost her balance and rolled on the ground with Mick beneath her wriggling to get free. When they stood up the snow that clung to them both was speckled with dry leaves.
“Look at us now—covered!” said Amy. “Go on then, boy—tell Granny. Tell her I’m coming.”
Mick flew ahead up the slope. Amy retrieved the can of milk and did her best to hurry after him, but as soon as she was clear of trees she felt again the strength of the wind and the sharp bite of the snow it carried with it and she had to go slowly. After all, it was of no consequence how slowly she went now: she was nearly home.
She topped the first rise. From here she was accustomed to seeing in front of her the slated roof and grey stone walls of the Gwyntfa. Low and broad, the cottage was set sideways into the hill, facing east but with the front door placed in the centre of its south wall, the gable end overlooking the slope. To the right of the front door were two windows, one above and one below, and to the left of it, high up, a little peephole that served to light the stairs. The short cropped grass continued to the very step of the porch, and large flat stones sunk into the grass formed a rough sort of path that led away from the porch in either direction. Against the west wall of the cottage was a lean-to shed where they kept the chicken-house and where they chopped sticks and sawed logs. On the other side a patch of ground had been enclosed and dug over to make a garden where Mrs Bowen cultivated vegetables and herbs, and gooseberry-and currant-bushes, and a few flowers. Down in the far corner of this enclosure was the lavatory, a wooden hut like a sentry-box, and the whole scene was crowned by the mountain-ash that grew from a cleft in the rock behind and above the cottage. None of this was visible to Amy today because of the snow driving between her and every known object, until suddenly there was Mick leaping round her legs again, and there was the porch and her grandmother, wrapped in a shawl, peering out. “Amy—I’m glad to see you!”