The Inevitable Death Of Saint Derwyn
Emlyn Evans grew up with a fascination with the sea. Elen, a close friend as he progressed through school, often commented on how it would have been far more appropriate for him to have been born into her family, because Emlyn did not relish the idea of following the Evans tradition of working on the land. Often he would stare out to sea, longing to sail with the trawlers and schooners that passed the headland on their way to Ireland, wishing he could shrug off the shackles of his family and Llanderwyn, the village that had encompassed him every day. Not once had he travelled further than his father’s furthest fields, and the stories he heard from the seafarers that swilled buckets of ale in the Black Swan enchanted him with their distant mysteries.
As a child Emlyn dreamed of being a pirate and sailing the oceans, harvesting booty from bulging galleons and sending traitors off the plank to swim with sharks, but as he grew older and realised that galleons no longer existed, he transferred his ambitions elsewhere. He secretly harboured a plan, formulated through long nights listening to the sea, his window wide open, catching the stiff sea breeze, to join the navy. He was to wait until his fourteenth Birthday, after saving every penny he could get his hands on, when he would take his small rowing boat (a present from his father), row along the coast in the depths of night and board a train for Portsmouth. As time passed the plan became more and more elaborate, but he told not a soul.
His friendship with Elen had blossomed since their earliest days of childhood. Their mothers had often spent afternoons sat in their rockeries, watching as the children scrambled through the grass together of the Evans family’s vast gardens. Haven House, smaller but still an imposing building, held the duck pond in its grounds, so the mothers took the children to the safer and larger expanses of lawns attached to the Evans’ family seat.
The two houses had been built fifty years before, when the Evanses and Reeses established their monopoly over the village. Idris Rees the Elder, the grandfather of Bryn, had decided to build Haven House near to the sea-shore, a large and striking house of Pembrokeshire stone that dwarfed all other houses in the village. Its gardens rolled down to the sea and also included a row of terraced houses, intended originally for servants, but now let to family members and workers on the boats. The house itself, covered with creepers and wild roses, had been well maintained by the next generation of Reeses, who built a small jetty from the end of the garden where their trawler was moored. The house was a bastion of residual grandeur, but on a modest scale.
Pengelly Hall, tall and lofty, had been founded just a year later, when Emlyn Evans the Elder, consumed by a bitter rivalry with the growing Rees family, decided to move the family home from the sprawling farmhouse on the hill-side, right into the centre of the village, sitting directly opposite the Reeses. This house was ostentatious and bold, with wings and buttresses and vast Doric columns that dwarfed the meagre entrance hall of the other home, in a proud statement of supremacy. But while plants had taken root in claiming Haven House and blending it into the leafy village, Pengelly Hall stood blank and stony, blatant and brazen against the villagers like a fortress. It was marble and limestone, white with vast windows overlooking the bay, and behind the house were a myriad of farm-buildings, clad in white stone but muddy from the livestock.
It was in the pruned and sculpted Evans gardens that the children played together and formed the bonds that all believed unbreakable. Emlyn, Elen, Idris, Meredith, Catrin, Avis and baby Gwyn adventured through the rhododendrons, battled knights in the buddleia and supped tea parties on the patio, while their mothers drank glasses of lemonade and cups of scalding coffee.
As they grew, sports were introduced. Emlyn and Idris became formidable tennis rivals and sometimes, when the bitterness of defeat still stung in one of their minds, Elen would cajole Meredith from her reading to partake in doubles. Avis could always be found skipping somewhere and the tap tapping of her skipping-rope would often be the soundtrack of a warm afternoon in the gardens. Their childhoods were pleasurable, entertaining and active.
When Emlyn was given his rowing boat on his eleventh Birthday, his father refused to allow him to take it out into the bay, so initially just permitted him to float around the Reeses’ duck pond with Elen, who would dangle her fingers into the water as he lethargically rowed them round in circles. The duck pond had been dug in retaliation to the Evanses’ fountain that stood in the courtyard. Kidney shaped, it wasn’t overly large, but was spacious enough and picturesque enough to spawn great jealousy in Evan’s father, who had always resented the admiration it had created for the Reeses. Somehow the Reeses’ grandeur had blended flawlessly into the fabric of Llanderwyn, but the Evanses, though of older Llanderwyn stock, had not.
Bored of the pond within a week, Emlyn begged his father to allow him to take the boat to sea, but received very unsatisfactory responses. Evan insisted that he was too young to go out unsupervised but eventually relented under the strict proviso that Bryn, a hardened sea-farer, chaperone them at all times. Emlyn of course wanted to use the boat for coastal explorations and maybe even crossing to the other side of the Haven, but Bryn had other ideas, keeping the boy on a short leash, taking him fishing in the shallows and for short trips toward Milford and away from Pengelly Point.
Pengelly Point fascinated Emlyn. For him, it was the limit of his world. Often he had stood on the cliff, the lighthouse behind him, and the wind cutting through his hair, whisking spray from the harsh waves of the Irish Sea. What was beyond that flat horizon? What could Emlyn find on the sea that wasn’t on land? He hadn’t the slightest clue what he was searching for, but he felt convinced he would find it just beyond the skyline. Should it be adventure, a new life, new experiences. Emlyn yearned for something different; to be a part of the stories he read in books. He believed firmly in escapism, and believed that it wasn’t just pure fantasy. He believed he could grasp it for himself.
In his thirteenth year, Britain declared war on Germany. Entranced by the idea of a navy at war, he became even more intent on fleeing this family life and finding his own adventures. And when his fourteenth Birthday approached, he had pulled together a small bag of everything he thought he’d need; clothes, food, money. He knew his mother would be angry that he’d left in the middle of the night without saying goodbye, but he knew it to be for the best. She would only have stopped him, begged him to stay. It was only Elen that he would miss. His sisters would manage perfectly well without him; Meredith, scholarly and stern, had always been the disciplinarian of the group. And his father would be proud of his son, the hero. It would just be Elen who would miss him, the sweet but intelligent girl who had been his companion through games, tantrums and childhood politics. He decided he would need to at least say goodbye to her.
And so, the day before his Birthday, Emlyn and Elen took to the sea in his rowing boat, unsupervised and ready for a day of adventure. It was a dim day, the sun having barely slipped between the clouds as they skidded across the sky, caught in the strong West Wind. The sea was bordering rough, but intent on finally doing what they had always talked about, bringing the boat into inaccessible coves and exploring the cliffs, this did not deter them. There were few boats in the Haven.
“Your father’s going to be furious when he finds out about this,” Elen worried, looking back towards Llanderwyn as Emlyn rowed them away from the shore.
“Well we had to go today,” he insisted, “And your Dad’s out at sea. It’s not my fault if the rules are ureasonable.”
“Actually he came back last night,” she told him. “There’s bad weather coming in apparently, he said it wouldn’t have been safe to stay at sea.”
“Bad weather?” he scoffed, “It’s just a bit windy.”
“The waves are quite big too,” said Elen, gripping the sides of the vessel as it pitched over a large swell. “Maybe we should go back. Do this another day.”
“No,” he said, “It has to be today.”
“Is everything alright Emlyn?” she asked. “You’ve been acting strangely for days now.”
“I’m fine. Everything’s fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“Look!” He pointed out to sea.
“There’s a seal,” he said, “Over there.”
She strained her eyes for a moment and then gave up. “I can’t see anything.”
“There was definitely one there,” he declared.
“Seals don’t come into the Haven, you know that.”
“Well I saw one.”
“I don’t believe you.”
They continued in silence as Emlyn heaved at the oars as the tiny boat bumped across the sea, the wind picking deep ridges in its surface. The sky was darkening now and the cliffs were wet with spray from the churning ocean.
“What’s wrong?” asked Emlyn, noticing as Elen grimaced at the prevailing wind.
“It’s too rough,” she said. “I feel sick.”
“We can’t go back. We need to go and look up the coast for caves. I bet there’s caves that people don’t even know about.”
“Don’t be stupid, we’re not the only people ever to go out in a boat.”
“I bet smugglers use the caves.”
“There aren’t any smugglers around here,” she declared.
“How do you know?”
“Well have you ever heard of any?”
“That’s the point of smuggling,” he said, “It’s secret.”
Elen huffed and pulled her shawl around her closer. “What would they smuggle? Liquor?”
“There’s plenty of liquor here already,” she said. “Your Da certainly has enough.”
“What are you saying about my Da?” Emlyn snapped.
“Nothing,” she replied, “But you know how much time he spends in the Swan with Auntie Aelwen.”
“My Da’s not a drunk”
“I know,” she said, “I was just saying…”
“What were you saying?” he snapped, throwing the oars down.
“I…” She spotted the look of frustration in his face. “Auntie Aelwen isn’t a very nice person.”
“You should tell your Da that he shouldn’t spend so much time with her.” She knew she was beginning to tread on unsafe territory now.
“I can’t tell him that.”
“People are talking you know? I heard Mr Pugh talking about it just yesterday. He thought I couldn’t hear, but I could. He said that your Da goes to the hayloft with Aelwen sometimes. And he was laughing and I don’t know what they meant, but I’m sure that they were laughing at him.” Emlyn looked away from her as she was speaking. She knew that often her mouth ran away with her and frequently her words could be much more cutting than she intended.
“He can do what he wants,” he said.
“But why do they go to the hayloft? I’m sure your Mam wouldn’t be too happy to know they go to the hayloft together.”
“I don’t care about the hayloft Elen.”
“My Mam sometimes talks about when she went to the hayloft with my Da…”
“Elen,” he interjected, “Stop it. I know you’re trying to tell me that your Auntie Aelwen is a whore and she’s trying to make my Da unfaithful, but everyone knows that.”
“But I think she’s managed it.”
“Elen,” he sighed, “I don’t care.”
“I don’t care.”
Even though she suspected she had crossed the line with her accusations, her indignance seemed eminently more pressing. “Take me back Emlyn,” she ordered. “I want to go home.”
“I’m not going back. I wanted to tell you something.” They were moving much faster now as they headed out toward the headland, the cliffs rising jaggedly from the water to their right.
“Tell me some other time,” she said.
“There won’t be another time.”
“Don’t be stupid, of course there will.”
“No. There won’t.”
“What’s going on Emlyn? You’ve been acting strangely for days”
“This is what I wanted to talk to you about,” he said.
“Nothing’s wrong,” he replied, “I’ve got something to tell you. I’m leaving.”
“Leaving?” she asked, “Where are you going?”
“I’m joining the navy,” he told her. “I’m going to go to war.”
“What are you talking about? You can’t just leave. You’re too young!”
“How will they know that?”
“You’re just a boy. They won’t let a boy join the navy.”
“If I tell them I’m sixteen how will they prove any different?”
“But you don’t look sixteen!” she argued.
“Owen Pugh looks about our age and he’s nearly twenty.”
“Why don’t you wait a few years? Wait until you’re older.”
He sighed, holding the oars still now. “I’ve got to leave Elen. I’ve got to get out.”
“Do you ever look at your parents and realise how dull their lives are?” he asked, leaning toward her now.
“Dull? No. Why would they be dull?”
“There’s so much out there,” he said, his eyes glazing with his imagination, “So much going on. There are so many people and so many places out there, so why should our lives be the same every day? Why should I become a farmer like my father and marry a girl from the village? Why should I have to put up with cows and potatoes? I don’t care about cows and potatoes.”
“But that’s what you’re family has always done,” Elen reasoned.
“So I have to do it too?”
“You’re their only son,” she replied. “Who will do it if you don’t when your father gets too old?”
He shook his head dismissively. “They’ll find someone. Meredith will marry someone from the village. A Trevelian or a Griffiths.”
“But it’s the Evans Farm.”
Emlyn stamped his fist on the bench beside him. “Why does nobody ever think about me? About what I want?”
“Stop being so selfish.”
“I’m leaving tomorrow,” he declared.
“You’re not!” Elen snapped. “I shall tell your father.”
“No you won’t. I knew I shouldn’t have told you.”
Elen grabbed hold of his hand for a second. “You can’t just leave us all! When will you be back?”
“I don’t know,” he said, “Never maybe.”
“Is Llanderwyn really that awful?”
“What is there to keep me here?”
“Your family?” she said, “Your friends?”
Emlyn looked back at the village, which was slipping into the distance behind them. “Have you ever wondered if there was something more than this?”
“Of course I have,” she replied, “But what’s the point in lusting after something I can’t have?”
“But I could have it!” he exclaimed. “I could leave now and start afresh somewhere else, where there are hundreds of thousands of people and every day will be something different. Maybe I’ll play cricket or learn to dance and take girls out.”
“They won’t let you do that in the navy. You’ll be on a ship all day.”
“With hundreds of new people.” His eyes were lit with excitement now. “And then we’ll dock in Singapore or sail around the Cape.”
“The war’s in France. Why would they send you to Singapore.”
He cut her an impatient glance. “I need to go on an adventure.”
“You can’t just seek out adventures, that’s just stupid. Adventures come to you. That’s what always happens to people in books; they never look for their adventures.”
“But I’ll go insane if I stay here,” he said.
“It’s not that bad.” She sighed and sank down into the boat a little further, where the movement of the waves seemed less extreme.
“Isn’t it?” he asked. “Are you happy Elen?”
“Yes,” she declared, a look of obstinacy settling on her features. “I am. I’ve always been happy. And I’m going to get married and have children and be a good wife. And I’ll serve God and my husband and do what I was supposed to do.”
Emlyn sighed. “I’ll bet that in a few years time you’ll be exactly the same as me. You’ll marry some dumb fisherman or a labourer and you’ll be desperately unhappy.”
“I’ll marry a good man and we’ll do what we’re supposed to do.”
“Do you think our parents are happy?”
“Of course,” she said, “They love each other.”
“Every time I see my father look at Mam I can’t see any trace of love there, or affection. He’s not a cold man, I can see it in his face when he looks at me and my sisters, but not at my mother. And maybe he is going to the hayloft with your Aunt, and maybe he’s doing things he shouldn’t, but who can blame him if he’s not happy? I know that if I were him I’d take any opportunity I could get to make life more interesting. I’d lie, I’d cheat, I’d curse in church and drink until the sun comes up. I’d sleep through the day and I’d let the fields rot with weeds. Because what’s the point? If I don’t leave now, I’ll turn into him.”
“But that’s what comes from growing old,” she said, realising that she was about to start on the same spiel she had heard from her own mother several times before. “You learn that the world doesn’t have the opportunities you believe it to. You accept your lot, praise God for His small mercies and move on. It’s that simple.”
“I will never be that person,” he declared. “If I stay here I’ll disappoint everyone. I’ll become the lecherous old drunk sat in the Swan from morning to night. They won’t even kick me out when it closes, I’ll just sleep there. I won’t move. As long as I have a beer and someone pretty to look at. Someone young.”
“Then go!” she snapped. “Join the navy. Drown in the sea when you’re sixteen.”
“My father taught me to swim.” Elen stared intently at him for a moment, the dig at the Rees tradition floating accusingly in the air for a moment.
“It won’t be what you want it to be Emlyn,” she said. “It’ll just be a disappointment. And then you’ll come back because you’ll realise that everywhere else is just as disappointing as here.”
“If I come back it will only be because I’m rich and wanting to show off everything I’ve achieved.”
“You’re such a stupid boy,” she spat, looking far beyond him. “You’re so bloody stupid.”
The boat bobbed auspiciously in the waves, which were escalating now. As they headed out toward the headland Elen sat in silence, torn between anger and trying to form coherent arguments against her friend’s plan. The more she thought, the less notice she took of her surroundings, while Emlyn, his back against the oncoming squall, heaved at the oars as he tried to keep them parallel to the cliff. The sky was darkening overhead.
“Why don’t you just wait awhile?” Elen asked finally, “Just a few months.”
“I’ve made up my mind,” he said, “I’m not going back on it now.”
Far above them on the cliff the lighthouse was grinding slowly into motion, its beam dull in the lingering daylight, but the deep grey out at sea was looming now high above them. It was only when the boat finally rounded the tip of the headland that both inhabitants finally took notice of the conditions.
“Emlyn…” Elen said, rising shakily to her feet as she saw the height of the seas ahead of them. “I think we should go back now.”
The first of the heavier waves struck the boat. The breakwater of the headland had protected them before of the full-force of the storm that was brewing in the channel, but these waves had such high velocity that they knocked Elen flat on her back in the hull.
“Emlyn!” she screamed, “Turn us around!”
Emlyn’s obstinacy had swiftly subsided as he realised how foolish he had been in not heeding the warnings about the weather. Fumbling with the oars he tried to paddle around in a circle, but as soon as he turned broadside to the waves, the boat rocked violently and he lost his grip on one of the oars. Wrenched from his grasp, he watched in horror as it slid off the side of the boat and down into the water.
“What have you done?” Elen shouted.
“What are we going to do?” he pleaded, panic clearly daubed on his face.
“I don’t know!” she snapped, “This was your idea!”
The waves buffeted into the side of the boat again and again tipping them almost to the level of the water. With the remaining paddle, Emlyn managed to force the boat round so that it was facing back in the right direction, but without the second oar, he couldn’t fight against the drag of the current. Luckily the waves were carrying them back towards the harbour, but also dragging them out into the Haven.
The Haven, a large natural harbour cutting into the coast about fifteen miles and several miles across, was the mouth of the River Cleddau. Though protected from the harsher conditions of the Irish Sea, it still shook up in the heavier storms and now, pummelled by the wind and now heavy rain, it churned with a throaty roar.
Emlyn continued trying to row the vessel with his remaining oar, alternating the sides of the boat, but unable to fight against the water. They were carried further into the Haven, where the waves were cresting now and becoming steeper. The boat was becoming deeply engulfed in brine, their ankles below the surface. The pair stared panicking into each other’s faces, and as the sea convulsed beneath them, a final wave crashed over their small boat and tipped them both into the sea.