She so wanted her mother to be happy, but she never really was, and for the four years that her mother had suffered from the variety of illnesses, the headaches and bad backs and bouts of insomnia that were really all a kind of anguish, it had suited her parents to drop her next door, and Pantyporthman had become her second home.
There she met Deio. He was a few years older than she and, at first, tried hard to ignore her. Then, because the drovers were always busy, he’d let her tag along. She’d backed ponies, gone fishing, learned to stalk, to make a fire out of nothing, and, in between, they’d taken the tests: the breakneck gallops down the steepest paths, the sickening jumps, hair flying above her head, from the cliffs into the sea. He taught her to swear and told her matter-of-factly one day while they were out on the horses what men did with women. He brought her a piece of amber from London when his dad took him there on a drove. He’d carved her a lapwing out of driftwood that she wore around her neck. She shivered when she looked at him, at his careless grace on a horse, his dark hair against the sky. Nothing at home made her feel so alive, so free.
And then, a few months after her sixteenth birthday, it stopped.
The gossip began when Catherine—who had wild tawny hair and a spirited, mobile face—grew, it seemed overnight, from a curious-looking child into a beauty. Local opinion thought it “a bit whatsname” to see her still riding out with Deio Jones, who frequently traveled to London and who was known to be wild. Eventually it fell to the vicar, the Reverend Hughes, to saddle up his skinny horse and ride the eight miles from Sarn to Aberdaron in order to have “a little, ahem, talk” with her father, “in a private place so to speak.”
It was glorious that early spring morning; the air smelled of salt and wildflowers and the Reverend, who lived on his own in a dark damp cottage, enjoyed the chance to get out and to observe the Carreg family at closer quarters. They were a curious tribe; Huw Carreg, Catherine’s father, came from a family who had lost a great deal of money in lavish improvements to a series of houses and at the gambling table. Either way, the money had gone. Huw, had he not then married Felicia, might have been allowed to reinvent himself in the community as a hardworking farmer, which was all he ever wanted to be. But Felicia, Catherine’s mother, had sealed his fate. She was beautiful and strange and, once he had got her home, confused him and them and made him, forever, not exactly foreign, but never really local.
The house he rode toward, Carreg Plâs—the name in Welsh meant place of stones—had been Catherine’s home for as long as she’d been alive. It was the last remnant of her grandparents’ once-flourishing estate, a no-nonsense L-shaped farmhouse, built of brick and stone, with slate walls on the Atlantic side to withstand the worst of the winter gales. In the twelfth century, it had been the home of the abbots of Bardsey Island, where thousands of saints were said to be buried. Thousands of pilgrims had come here, their last resting place before they took the boat to Bardsey. They’d washed their bruised feet under the pump in the herb garden—for them a place of joy or relief, for her mother a prison.
Hidden by trees, the house, dark and with higgledy-piggledy rooms, was designed to endure rather than impress, but upstairs, from its different windows, you saw wonderful things—the foothills of Snowdon, the Atlantic Ocean, Cardigan Bay—lit up with the hard sparkle of diamonds on this spring morning. The Reverend had been having trouble with his false teeth. A dentist from Rhyl had come in his horse and trap, given him a whiff of chloroform, and filed down the roots and affixed the new teeth, but they still seemed to wobble slightly as he sucked them in now, for duw, how the place had run down over the last ten years. He frowned at the tangle of bramble near the gate, the messy circle of grass at the end of the drive, the two stone greyhounds on either side of the front door with their heads half-eaten away.
Later, over a drop of Bristol in the parlor, the Reverend—a stoop-shouldered man with a perpetual dewdrop at the end of his nose, and a manner both snobbish and servile—talked about the great harvest that year, and the high prices cattle were fetching in Caernarfon; the lower classes seemed to be getting a taste for meat. Then, seeing Mr. Carreg look wistfully toward the door, he grasped the nettle. There was talk in the village that Catherine, a fine girl, had been riding out with the Jones boy. Now, as far as he knew, he was a fine boy, too—although he’d have to take this on hearsay as the family were not regular attenders of the church. He had thought hard about coming up, he said. After all, if the tongue told all the bosom knew, none would be neighbors, but in a small community like this, and with the Carregs being such a fine old family, the best candle surely, was prudence?
Father, who had a gentleman’s disdain for gossip, could not bring himself to confide in this man any details of his wife’s illness or the chain of circumstances that had led his family into such an intimate relationship with his neighbors. He thanked him for his visit and showed him the door.
Shortly after the Reverend Hughes had gone, Father had a sharp and urgent discussion with his wife, then called Catherine and her sister, Eliza, into the parlor. One look at his face made Catherine’s heart thump.
“Catherine,” he said, “I expect you had a nice day today, did you?”
“Yes, Father,” she said. “I think so.”
He put his cheek closer to her, he’d shaved for this and his skin smelled of witch hazel. Then he said, in the same dull voice, he was glad she had had a nice day because he was working hard on the farm all day, and now that Mother was much better and she was growing up, it was time for her to spend more time at home, helping. At this, Eliza, always the peacemaker, had made gentle, encouraging noises.
“And of course”—Mother gave a pleading look to her husband—“we’ll have some fun, too. It has been quiet for you girls and you have been so patient, so good.”
“Patience be damned!” Father’s shout made them all jump. “I should have put a stop to it years ago; we’ve let her run wild. Riding around with Deio like a hoodlum.” He opened his legs, a surprisingly coarse gesture meant to mimic a girl riding astride.
The sharp cuff he gave her behind the ear made Eliza cry out, and Catherine feel like a dog sent clattering across the floor when it had done its necessaries inside.
“Don’t do that, Father,” she’d said, determined not to cry, “I am too old for that.”
He gave her the look she feared most, as if all the words in the world would not be able to contain his rage and disappointment.
“Do not be too sure of that, missie,” he said. “I’ll do what I damn well please in my own house, and what I want is for you to stop seeing that boy and the rest of them.”
“Stop seeing them?” she whispered. “How can I? They are my friends, and he is hardly ever home now.”
This was true. That week, he was away in Ludlow at a horse fair, but they’d arranged a ride for when he got back.
“It’s not right,” her father repeated. “It sits all wrong, does it not, Felicia?” Mother’s face, so bad at lies, flickered with distress. She was afraid of the drovers, linking them with her times of greatest unhappiness, but on her own she would never have forbidden it.
“Well, Huw, they have indeed been kind, but we . . . I . . .”
“We what Father? Say it? Do not need them anymore?”
“Catherine”—he balled his big red hands—“that is quite unnecessary.”
“If it is, I am sorry, Father but . . .”
Eliza’s round blue eyes were pleading with her to stop now and say the gentle, womanly things that would end this horror.
“You are deliberately missing the point,” he hammered out. “Those men are capital men and I will continue to do everything we can to help them, but your time with them is over. Do you understand that?”
“I do, Father.” And wish to God I had been born a man. For one moment she imagined herself looking down at him from a horse and knocking him down without a word.
She had to tell them the very next day. Pale with shock, she took the shortcut to Pantyporthman, across the two fields and down by the river. In her basket was a jar of Mair’s elderberry jam and some pickled onions. In Meg Jones’s kitchen she put the basket on the table.
Meg had Deio’s wide-set green eyes; she wore bangles on her strong brown arms. “Well, there’s kind.” Meg took a cake out of the oven and put it beside the jam on the table.
“Now give me your cloak, set down there tidy, and have a piece of this.”
“The preserves are from Mother,” Catherine lied. She didn’t want her mother to be blamed for this. “With her most cordial good wishes.”
If Meg was surprised by this formality she did not show it. She shooed a cat away from the bench and told her to sit down and eat and stop dithering like an old sheep.
“No thank you.” She felt tears rising. “I am expected at home.”
“You all right, love?” Meg looked at her sharply, and said, “Deio’s away this week with his father. There’s a sale on Ludlow way. He’s got a grand new horse, I expect he’ll show you.”
“How is he?”
Meg lit a pipe and looked at her. “He misses you. He never says so but he always does. You met each other too young.”
“Too young for what?” She put her head in her hands.
“Don’t! Don’t, love.” Meg looked shocked at her distress. “There’s always time,” she said, “but he’s like his father, he needs to live a bit first.”
“But we do live,” she sobbed. “We do. I would never stop him doing that.” She could do nothing now to stop the tears.
“I know you do, love, I know you do, but this sort of love at your age—it does hurt so.”
“Why does it have to hurt?” she almost shouted.
“It’s too much and I should shut my trap.” Meg knocked out her pipe and stood up, now almost as pale as Catherine. “Deio would tell me to shut it.”
“Finish what you were saying.” Catherine felt in this moment that she hated Meg.
“There’s nothing to finish, love. All I was trying to say is he’d hate a life too settled.”
“And do you think I want that?”
“No, but it’s what you will have.”
“I don’t think I will.” Catherine stood up and put on her cloak. “But you have no need to trouble yourself with this anymore.” This was coming out so wrong, but she pressed on. “You won’t see me here again. I won’t be coming back.”
“Love, calm down.” Meg took her hand and, for a moment, she grabbed it like a lifeline. “All I was saying was be patient, give it time.”
“I won’t be coming back. I can’t.” It was Meg’s turn to look confused.
“So where are you going, love? Somewhere exciting?”
“I don’t know. Nowhere,” she stammered. “Mother is much better, you see, and now I can’t come back. But thank you very much anyway.”
“I see.” The penny was starting to drop. She could see it in the stiff way Meg took her cake away from the table and placed it on the shelf. “I thought you’d come for something else.” Later, she’d led her to the door and, in a polite voice Catherine had never heard before, thanked her for coming.
Running home along the riverbank, Catherine, her empty basket in her hand, felt shocked and unreal. She cursed herself for her abrupt treatment of Meg, wished she had had the courage to at least sit and eat the cake and explain things more fully. She imagined a scandalized Meg explaining the scene to Deio and Lewis in the English accent she often teased her in.
“Stuck up little madam, comes in and says, ‘Sorry we won’t be needing yew anymore thank yew,’” and cringed to imagine their response. Lewis, who had started with nothing and worked his way up by selling hunters to the gentry, was a proud and prickly man, even more so now he had real power in the community. Deio was his father’s son. She would not be forgiven, she knew that. But what was so unfair, what made her pant with agitation as she ran, was that Father would stay friends with Lewis, maybe even with Deio. The big world of men’s work would go on. They dip each other’s sheep, meet in the tavern, lean over gates together and smoke pipes as if nothing of any importance had happened and they were all still brothers under one skin.
A catastrophe for her, nothing to them. Her world suddenly shrunk to the kitchen, the dairy, the parlor: the whole world of footling tasks that made up being a woman. And there, barring a miracle, she would stay.
© 2004 Julia Gregson
Poor Mother looked excited when Catherine got home. She had left the door to the parlor slightly ajar so that she could hear her coming. A fire crackled in the grate, the beaded lamp was lit. She had the Caernarfon and Denbigh Herald on her lap.
“I’ve been making a list of all the things we can do now I’m feeling better,” she said.
Her face, pretty and flushed, had taken on the rose and amber colors of the lamp beads. “Look!” She handed over the newspaper. “There is sea bathing in South Wales. Sea bathing! We can take the coach from Caernarfon at”—she peered at the advertisement—“at the Uxbridge Arms. It leaves at seven o’clock in the morning. We really could swim and eat ice creams and walk along the beach and be back on the following day. I’m also determined on you and Eliza having a new dress each,” she prattled on gaily, “something in satin I fancy—Father’s hay crop was so good he will not object—you are old enough now for puff sleeves, at least I think you are.”
She looked over the newspaper for Catherine’s reaction.
“Oh my darling.” She held out her arms. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry. It’s all my fault.”
“It is not,” wept Catherine. “I am glad you are so much better and we will have fun.”
“I should have gone and explained myself.”
“But you do not know them like I do.”
“Did you say how extremely grateful we have all been, how highly we esteem them as neighbors. I should not have left it all to you. I shall write to them myself.”
“She can’t read in English,” said Catherine forlornly, “so there is no point.”
“Oh Weddy Bloodstairs!” Weddy Bloodstairs was Mother’s all-purpose Welsh swear word. Usually it made her laugh, for Father was very solemn about them learning Welsh and it was deliciously sacrilegious, but today, at this precise moment, the memory of Mother halfheartedly toying with her Welsh lessons like a child forced to eat its greens annoyed Catherine.
“It is too difficult,” Mother would protest, after her teacher, the small and bossy Miss Davies, had left the house. “The sounds are awful, like a cat about to be sick.” Father had been humorless about it, but he was right. You could not live in a place and ignore its language—or you could, but you could expect to be, as Mother had been, lonely. “Well, it is done now and I don’t want to think about it.” Catherine tried to sound cheerful. “I’ll draw the curtains; we can have tea by the fire.”
And so their lives took on a new routine. In the mornings, she and Mother and Eliza helped Mair in the kitchen with household tasks: they made butter, washed dishes, waxed, bottled, and cooked. Eliza, dear Eliza, so gentle and blond and lovable, performed these tasks with a grave absorption that sometimes wrung Catherine’s heart. Eliza wanted nothing more from life than to be a farmer’s wife and to have as many healthy children as possible. Why was she so different? Why, in the middle of polishing silver or podding peas, did she feel at times a wild surge of outrage that life, after all, was nothing more than a series of endlessly circulating, footling tasks that made you feel like a donkey tied to a wheel.
And what about Mother? Once, long ago, when Father had talked and laughed, he’d described his moment of magic: seeing Mother, aged nineteen, in the moonlight on the veranda of his parents’ house in the foothills of Snowdonia. He’d remember what she’d worn: a long silver dress with a row of pearl buttons down the front. It was a summer ball; there was money for such things in those days. She was the daughter of a friend of his father’s, a land agent. Her name was Felicia. She’d come from London. And Catherine, forever after, had imagined her sitting there in the moonlight under the dark of the mountains, a transplanted creature like a mermaid.
Now, she watched her mother’s long dreamy fingers patting butter in the dairy, or folding up the umpteenth sheet on washing days. How did she stand it, and how did Mair? Mair, who believed that the fairies would come if you left your kitchen clean. You could hear her at six o’clock in the morning singing as she cleaned out the hearth. Did she never want to throw her brush down and shriek, at the top of her lungs, “I need more.”
In the afternoons, Father took them on short outings—somehow the longer trips had not materialized. Catherine, who was still angry with him, suspected that the trips were really only for him. He was helplessly in love with Juno, his dark bay cob, and the spanking little governess cart he kept in the cowshed that, with its brasses and gleaming mahogany sides, was a relic of grander days. He almost smiled at Catherine as he brought the horse to a halt, knowing that normally she would have shared this moment of pure pleasure at the perfection of the horse. The carriage jingled faintly as her mother put her foot on the step. She tried to smile back but already felt the claustrophobia of a family outing. The sun was out, the waves danced in the distance; just the kind of day to gallop full pelt down the beach at Whistling Sands.
While the carriage made its way through the high hedgerows she glanced at her father’s back and wondered what had happened to them. Father, with his red whiskers and faint smell of tobacco, had once been the rock her life was built on: a permanent statement of power and intent, like the sea, like Snowdon. He had lifted her onto her first pony, plucked her from the apple tree when she got stuck, walloped her one afterward and cheered her up later with a peace offering of a barley sugar. He kept them in a tin in his smoking cabinet, and distributed them to his children with a grave impartiality so much more thrilling than mother’s nervous, open-handed generosity.
Catherine had loved him once, and hoped to love him again in spite of the cold draft of dislike she sometimes now felt as she watched him chewing or sitting reading Farmer’s Almanac by the fire or talking—or usually not talking—to Mother. Now you had to watch him as carefully as you might watch an aggressive dog or a stallion too free with its heels, or perhaps it had always been so but she was only starting to notice. Now when he walked into the house, you had to watch his heels: laugh at his jokes, pick up on his few-and-far-between remarks, not forget his strictures about closing doors or leaving dogs out or not coming to the table with dirty hands, or else the reaction would be swift and sure and Mother would get sad and pale and sometimes have to go to bed for the afternoon.
Father dropped them off in the small seaside town of Pwllheli. The plan was a short walk to a shop where they were to search for bonnet trimmings. At Siop Sion’s, the haberdashers, they had not got the precise shade, “almost a robin’s egg blue,” as Mother said to an assistant whose head was shaking almost as the words came out. “Thank you anyway,” said Mother. The jangling bell at the door of the shop seemed to mock them as they left. Mother and Eliza seemed quite content as they swung arm-in-arm down the cobbled street that led to the harbor, but Catherine felt quite dizzy with futility. How could some doodle on a hat take up the entire morning for three grown women?
Father was irritable with them as they drove home. The beautiful day had not lasted and a faint mizzling rain was making him anxious about the haymaking planned for the next day. When the door of the governess cart was shut behind them and the green rug settled over their knees, he set off toward home without a word. A mist had rolled in off the water, blurring the point where sea met sky and making the occasional farm, glimpsed through a wet hedge, look dreamlike; nothing seemed real except the small enclosed world of their cart and the clip-clop of Juno’s heels. The sound was soporific, and Catherine, leaving her parents to their awkward communications, dozed for a while. When she woke, they had reached the main road to Aberdaron. The countryside had darkened around them, and in one or two of the houses up on the hill lights flickered uncertainly like fireflies.
Catherine’s spirits were so low that she missed the sound that made Juno’s ears prick and Father sit up straighter. Then she heard it, “Hip Hop Tro,” at first faintly, then louder, “Hip, Hop Trooooh!” Then a burst of singing, and the metallic clatter of horse’s hooves.
Out of the mist came the shapes of two dozen or so Welsh Blacks, then two men on horseback, whose song came to a ragged halt. Deio’s father, Lewis Jones, tipped his hat briefly toward her and Mother. Deio’s brother, Rob, pointed an imaginary gun at Father in a joking, oddly debonair gesture.
“Off tomorrow lads, is it?” said Father, smiling and talking to them in Welsh. “Not a bad life, eh? Where to?”
“Gloucester, Northleach, Redland, Thame, Hampstead, Pentonville, Smithfield,” Lewis recited.
“Don’t drink all your money on the way home then,” said Father.
“What about you, neighbor?” said Rob. “Watching your weeds grow?”
“I’ll be here,” said Father, with a patient shrug that made Catherine recoil.
Then Deio rode out of the mist, and came alongside her. He did not look at her but sat loose-limbed on his horse, a damp wind playing with his hair. He was close enough to touch and Mother saw the look that passed between them. “My dear,” she said to her husband, “I’m feeling rather tired, could we . . .”
She could have jumped on his horse from where she sat.
“Aye aye.” Father dragged himself back into the world of tiresome women and afternoon teas. “We’ll go home and have tea by the fire.” He was gentle with his daughter who had grown quite pale. He could afford to be now he’d won that battle. She did not hear him; her eyes had locked with Deio’s. “Take me away,” they said.
The year passed. She heard through the grapevine that the drovers were much in demand and away most of the time. It was easier when they were gone. She also preferred the winter months when the wind blew off the Atlantic and bent the trees on the Lleyn like little old men and it got dark an hour or so after lunch and there was no possibility of going anywhere. Then the light died, first in the wet trees outside their windows, then in the distant peaks of the mountains beyond. They’d build up a fire in the parlor and close the shutters, and Mair would bring them tea and toast sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. Mother seemed so happy. Sometimes, her eyes would fill with tears and she would look at them as if for the first time and say, “I have wonderful daughters. I have done nothing to deserve them.”
At other times, after tea, she would make them laugh by dragging out what she called her Road to Hell box, a small carved box full of spools of cotton and tangled skeins of silk and her pile of unfinished projects: a tray cloth that only needed a handful of stitches to be finished; the tapestry for a footstool that had waited three years to be mounted. Sometimes she would hold up these items and attempt a serious lecture on the importance of finishing things, but her nature was too fluid and subtle for sermons and she often ended up making them hoot with laughter. It was something about the disparaging way her long fingers held up the trolley cloth and the beaded tray, the way her voice tailed off as she tried to work up enthusiasm for the idea that God was up there, waiting impatiently for the beaded tray.
What they most looked forward to was the moment when Mother’s needle dithered over the canvas and she began to tell stories. One afternoon when it was pelting with rain and the mountains just a gray blur in the distance, she told them, Catherine was never to forget it, in a voice steely with self-control, about her own mother who had died of tuberculosis. She was seven years old. She’d been in trouble the day before, she’d torn her dress and been whipped severely, three times on each hand. Mother held out both her hands, and such was her power as a storyteller that both Eliza and Catherine leaned forward, mingling their red and fair hairs in the lamplight, sure the marks would still be there. Mother had been naughty, she’d been attempting to fly with an umbrella over the henhouse and she was sure it was her fault when, a few days later, the sanatoria’s gray cabriole arrived at their door. She remembered everything: the coachman’s umbrella swooping down like a terrible bird. The sound of rain on the tarpaulin. The flutter of her mother’s hand as she drove away. The look on Mother’s face as she told this story, pierced Catherine to the heart. Normally, Mother tried so hard to make her stories have happy endings and to tell them only about nice things. Sometimes, when they were young, this had ludicrous consequences. “Don’t look, my loves,” Mother would say if they passed a squashed squirrel or a rabbit on the road. “It’s sleeping, it was going to a party and it is having a sleep.” And Mair, if she was with them, would look at her in astonishment and say, “That ain’t asleep, Mrs. Carreg, that’s dead as mutton.”
Silly as these attempts were, her determination not to inflict her own sufferings on her children was heroic. For her spirits were either very high or unfathomably low. She swung on a seesaw that seemed to get higher and lower as the years progressed, and later she was quite unreachable in her sadness, sometimes for months on end. There were one or two terrible “cures,” many afternoons in darkened rooms, and yet Catherine, when young, had had very little understanding of her mother’s nerves, which, to say the least, were permanently strained.
Later, Catherine wished she had known more about the bad things. About pain and loss and sorrow. If she had, she would have been more prepared for what happened next.
© 2004 Julia Gregson
Band of Angels
Growing up in Wales, Catherine Carreg has been allowed to run wild, spending her childhood racing ponies along the beach with her friend Deio, the cattle-driver’s son. But Catherine is consumed by a longing to escape the monotony of village life and runs away to London with Deio’s help. Alone in the unfamiliar city, Catherine secures a position in Florence Nightingale’s home for sick governesses. As the nation is gripped by reports of war in the Crimea, Catherine volunteers as a nurse—and her life changes beyond all recognition. Arriving in Scutari, she is immediately thrown into a living nightmare. Amid the madness and chaos, Catherine is forced to grow up quickly, learning the hardest lessons of love and war.
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
Questions for Discussion
1. While on the drove Catherine thinks to herself, “life, for all its brutality, was a journey, an adventure” (page 92). Discuss how this reflects the overall theme of the novel.
2. Catherine has a multitude of men in her life. In what ways do her interactions with men help to shape her journey?
3. Throughout the novel heartache, loss, and disappointment often propel Catherine into action. Talk about those pivotal moments in the book. How do they help Catherine learn about the world?
4. Deio’s mother Meg describes him as “not bred for captivity,” (page 45) and his feelings for Catherine vacillate between his desire for her and his desire for freedom. How does this reflect some of the conflict between Catherine and Deio?
5. Deio seems both attracted to Catherine and repulsed by her while on the drove. What does this reveal about his attraction to her? About his personality?
6. During her interview with Lady Bracebridge, Catherine is irritated by the line of questioning and says to herself: “sh see more