My Beautiful Imperial

Chapter 1

March 1865
‘Whoa!’  The  farmer  brought  the  carthorse  to  a stop beside them in a flurry of flying straw and jangling chains.

‘Where are you two going?’ the man asked.

Davy turned to the carthorse and gently stroked the animal’s nose while his older brother answered.

‘We’re off to the beach, Uncle. Davy’s learning to swim. We’ve brought a rope.’

Perched high above them at the front of the cart, Uncle William scratched his chin.

‘Up you get, then. I’m going that way. But Griffi, mark my words, if you drown, don’t go telling your mother that I helped you get there.’

‘Uncle William,’ replied Davy as the boys clambered on to the back of the cart, ‘if I drown, I won’t be saying much of anything.’

William Evans must have thought he was too clever by half, because he cracked the reins so sharply against the horse’s rump that it sent the boys lunging backwards almost out of the cart again as the animal pulled away. Gruffudd unloaded the rope just in time to grab Davy’s shirt and haul him and his dangling legs back up.

‘You won’t be minding the sow then, will you?’ said the farmer, turning towards them with a wry smile.

The boys hadn’t seen their traveling companion nestled in the hessian sacking. It was too late to object now, so they would have to share their journey with the disgruntled creature. It eyed them suspiciously.

‘Is the rope good?’ shouted William Evans as the horse picked up speed. He didn’t say, ‘Not rotten through like Bob Morgan’s last year. Poor dab.’ But the brothers knew what he meant.

‘The rope’s good, Uncle,’ replied Gruffudd. Then they were quiet for a while.

Davy leaned back, assessing the sow and wondering how many hams and slices of bacon could be had from such a creature. Peggy the horse had reached the brow of the hill; the chains and leather sat more easily now and she was in her stride.

‘When’s your father back?’ asked the farmer. ‘April sometime,’ replied Gruffudd.

Davy looked out over the edge of the cart. The blackthorn was already in blossom. It would soon be April.

‘On the Ellen?’

‘Yes.’

‘Ah.’

They were quiet again. It seemed to Davy that the older he became and the more he understood about life, the more he noticed that people like his uncle didn’t make idle talk about the sea. William Evans was a farmer but his brother was on the sea, and his uncle before him. Only people who knew nothing said things like ‘Oh, she’s a fine ship,’ or ‘He’s a good captain,’ or ‘It’s a solid crew’. It mattered little at the end of the day.  There were plenty  of fine ships and captains at the bottom of the sea. Davy wanted to learn to swim. But it bothered him too. If the ship sank in the middle of the ocean, where would he go?

Perhaps it would be best to drown with the ship, to be sucked straight under with the masts and sails rather than to swim around waiting for cold, exhaustion and a slow horrifying death.

Davy shuddered. These dark thoughts were no good. He reached into his pocket and took out a piece of freshly cut willow, then opened the hinge on his penknife. First he surveyed the section of branch, running his fingers over it as he looked for knots or faults. Then he started cutting, first marking out a V shape for the hole then gouging inwards in confident easy movements. He turned the knife around and used the handle to tap the bark gently, moving the wood around between his fingers. The mother-of-pearl handle glinted in the sun. He paused for a second to judge the length of willow then scored the bark all around towards the centre of the piece. Gripping the knife between his teeth for a moment, he held the wood in both hands and twisted the bark firmly on one side. Davy remembered the first time he had seen his grandfather do this. It had seemed like magic when the bark slid off elegantly, as it did now in his own hands, revealing the pure pristine white of the wood inside, the bark still a perfect intact tube. Davy could smell the fresh sap on the breeze. He took his knife and began cutting again, a deeper V and a shallow channel for the air. As he carved, his brown skin grew pale over his taut knuckles. I could make one of these in my sleep, Davy thought.

Before they left the house, Elen had begged, ‘Davy,

please!’

‘But I made you one yesterday!’

‘The dog ate it.’

‘The dog did not eat the whistle, Elen. Don’t be ridiculous. You lost it, just like the one I made you before and the one before that.’ And Davy had stomped off in his clogs with no intention of relenting.

When Davy looked up, he found Gruffudd staring at him intently.

‘Another whistle for Elen?’ Gruffudd asked. ‘Maybe.’

Davy watched Gruffudd as he smiled and leant back against the side of the cart. His pretence was a farce, as usual: his brother could see straight through him.

 

Diawl! It’s cold!’ Davy slipped off the rocks and into the water, on to a rocky ledge and up to his chest.

‘Davy, don’t swear!’

‘I’m not in chapel now. Christ!’

‘Don’t swear! Someone might hear.’

Davy had tied the rope around his waist and the other end around a jagged rock, but getting into the sea was proving difficult.

‘Davy, don’t go down that way, there are too many rocks. Go to the left, the water’s deeper.’

‘I want to go slowly. Hell’s bells! I can’t swim yet can I? I don’t want to go in the deep bit.’ Davy pulled at the rope and slipped on seaweed, this time off the ledge and over his head. Davy tried get a grip on the slimy stone but failed. Gruffudd hauled him up and he appeared again with his dark wavy hair pasted down over his face, cold, shivering and scratched from barnacles.

‘Christ, there must be a better way than this.’

‘Davy, let’s try from the beach, it’s safer.’

‘Where the hell am I going to tie the rope?’

Gruffudd scanned the beach. ‘Don’t swear!’

Davy turned his attention to the  ridge  above  them. He could see the outline of the limekiln against  the sky. And then, just inside the entrance, something he recognised. ‘There! Uncle William’s lobster-boat! That’ll do. We’ll borrow it!’

‘We’ll never get it down, just the two of us,’ said Gruffudd.

‘Gravity my boy!’ said Davy, imitating the schoolmaster.

‘Back up, then – we’ll never carry it back up!’ ‘We’ll worry about that later.’

Davy knew that he was testing his brother’s patience to the limit. Granted, his schemes were often hare-brained but some of them actually worked. They managed to get the boat on to the grassy slope.

‘Easy does it,’ said Gruffudd, sounding nervous, ‘otherwise she’ll run away from us and we’ll have a pile of firewood on our hands.’

The boat was much heavier than they’d bargained for, and although there were wheels under her, which made moving her easier, there was a real chance that if she gained momentum they would both be left behind. They heaved and struggled and made slow progress.

‘We’ll have to make a tack otherwise on this slope she’ll run away.’

‘Christ, this will take all day,’ said Davy.

The water was getting closer but the slope was getting steeper.

‘Davy, turn her towards me.’

Davy did as he was told and braced his right shoulder against the vessel. He pushed with all his might and thought of Samson bringing down the temple. The wheels screeched horribly with every push.

‘More, Davy, and again.’

But this time the boat was too heavy and on the slope her rusty wheels started to turn properly.

‘No, no! Hold her back!’ Gruffudd shouted. The wood began to slide and burn through their hands.

To Davy’s mind there was a simple answer. ‘Get in, Griffi!’

‘Christ, no!’ Gruffudd looked horrified, ‘We’ll be smashed to bits!’

Without waiting to see what his  brother  would do, Davy clambered over the side and into the boat as it was moving. In a second he had reached across, grabbed Gruffudd with both arms and yanked him in too. Now they were flying towards the edge.

‘Hold on!’

The ground disappeared – they were moving noiselessly through the air. It seemed as if the seagulls, the waves below, the white clouds were all frozen in time. Only they were moving. Then, an almighty crash. Davy lost his grip on the side and was thrown forwards over the bow. Under the water, Davy was momentarily paralysed by the cold. Something brushed past and instinctively he reached out for it. It was the rope but when he grabbed it, it sank with him.

In the boat, Gruffudd hurled himself forwards, scraping his shins on the cross plank, and catching the end of the rope just in time. Cursing his brother, he wedged himself against the side of the boat and hauled again on the rope which was now wet and even heavier than before.

‘Don’t you dare drown! I’ll kill you!’ Gruffudd shouted, hauling as quickly as he could. ‘Don’t you make me come in after you!’

Suddenly, the rope sprang taut and drops of water shot out in the sun like sparks. ‘Come on, Davy, kick!’ Gruffudd heaved again and, out of the water, Davy exploded in a spluttering mass of hair, spit and scratched arms. Gruffudd grabbed the band around

Davy’s waist and hauled him roughly into the boat.

‘I shouldn’t even be here,’ said Gruffudd once they’d caught their breath and Davy had stopped coughing. ‘You mad bastard.’

Davy was doubled up on the floor of the boat. There was a gash on his shoulder and his arms were covered in scratches and splinters. ‘Don’t swear, Gruffudd. You know they wouldn’t like it at Bethania.’

‘I’ll tell you,’ said Gruffudd, ‘you’d better learn to swim today because I’m not bloody doing this again.’

 

‘What in God’s name were you thinking of ?’ she shouted with her back turned, not even looking at her sons. Elinor Davies was moving around the room like a malevolent thunderstorm, clanking thebucketand stabbing the sodden mop into the large slate flagstones. Everything smelled of carbolic. Gruffudd stood limply and apologetically in front of the dresser. Davy, nearer his mother, stepped sideways from time to time to avoid her terrifying path. In the doorway stood Uncle William, with a soft cloth cap in his hand that he was folding and unfolding.

‘Elinor, really, as long as they help with the repairs, there’s no harm done, I just wanted to …’

‘No harm!’ she screeched, grabbing the soap and brush from the table and swinging around in exasperation. ‘No harm! Look at them, Will! What am I going to do with them? They’ll soon be grown men. The one has some sense but no sense to use it, and the other one is, God help me, just like his father!’

Elinor dropped on to all fours and started scrubbing the floor as if the devil himself had walked across it trailing all the sins of Gomorrah.

Gruffudd turned to his uncle. ‘We’re truly sorry, Uncle William. We’ll be with you tomorrow and bring the timber. We’ll call by the yard on the way over. I have some money saved from the harvest last year.’

‘Your savings!’ screamed Elinor. William Evans and the two boys glanced at each other nervously trying to assess whether now was a good time to make an exit. Just then Elen ran to the door.

Mam, Mrs James has brought a little kitten and says that I can …’

Davy caught her eye and flashed her a warning glare, but not quickly enough.

‘Elen! For Christ’s sake go and wash the cow for milking. And where’s that slattern Jane got to? Tell her to fetch some potatoes from the barn. And tell her not to bring the seed potatoes like she did last time unless she’s trying to be stupid. And not the potatoes meant for Reverend Hughes and his wife, which are in the wooden barrel and obvious to anyone with half a brain!’ Elen rolled her eyes at Davy and turned to go. ‘And Elen! Clean your clogs properly before you come in next time, otherwise I swear to God almighty that you will be scrubbing the floor again before your supper.’

Elinor Davies threw the wooden brush into the bucket with an almighty clang and got up from the floor.

‘Boys, I’ll see you tomorrow morning. Early as you can, then,’ said William Evans putting on his flat cap and turning to leave. Davy watched as his uncle tiptoed out  of the door, clearly now aware of his filthy boots. When Elinor turned towards them, Davy felt that old familiar dread. The anger was shocking, but the calm was worse. Why was she always so angry? Were they really such bad sons? He had just enough time to see William Evans disappearing down the lane, and to envy him his journey back to a happy home, before his mother came towards them.

 

‘You shouldn’t have mentioned the savings,’ Davy whispered in the dark.

Both of them had been sent to clean out the cowshed then ordered straight to bed without any supper. That was the worst thing. She had hit them both, of course, but  that was nothing unusual; Gruffudd first for being the eldest and the one who should have known better, and then Davy because he was always doing stupid things, and because he was lazy and useless. Gruffudd sighed as if it came all the way from his toes. His sigh said, Do you think I don’t know that? The second I opened my mouth I thought ‘here we go’.

‘She can’t stand me. She hates me,’ said Davy, staring at the ceiling he couldn’t see and wondering whether, if he opened his eyes really wide, he would start to make out the shapes of the joists and the planks above them.

‘She doesn’t hate you. She just thinks you’re like Father,’ Gruffudd whispered.

‘She hates Father.’

‘Yes. Sometimes.’

‘Well, then.’

Davy opened and shut his eyes, and tried to see whether there was any difference between ‘real dark’ and ‘eyes shut dark’. He realised that he was using the rhythm from his favourite hymn, ‘I bob un sydd ffyddlon’. At least it was a distraction from his stomach and his stinging face.

‘Why are you singing?’

‘I’m not singing. I’m hungry.’

Gruffudd sighed again in the dark, a long self- conscious sigh of exasperation. Davy sighed too and decided that he was bored with his game. He thought  of Lisa Tŷ Hen and how black the end of her plait had looked when he dipped it in the inkwell the week before. If she hadn’t flung her head round like a demented horse it wouldn’t have made such a mess.

‘It’s about time your father … sent you to sea!’ Sgwlyn had gasped, in between swipes. ‘I’m done with you … Heaven help me … the amount of navigation you’ve learned so far … you’ll be wrecked in a week …’ Davy thought he had heard him add the words,

‘Dull as a brush,’ but the pain of the cane had increased to the point where he wasn’t sure what he could hear. There had been something unseemly in the whole event, Davy nearly fourteen and almost as big as his teacher, but Sgwlyn had a surprisingly good swipe for a man with one arm.

‘I lost it at Waterloo, for your information,’ he pronounced one day. Davy had been staring unwittingly at the neatly pinned-back fabric at the schoolteacher’s shoulder when he should have been concentrating on his arithmetic. It was only later he’d realised that the man would still have been in his cradle at the time of Waterloo unless he was a hundred and three. Lying toad.

He thought again of Lisa Tŷ Hen and the blackened tip of her plaited hair. She was ill now, or so a neighbour had said.

‘Do people always die of scarlet fever?’ he asked Gruffudd in the dark.

‘I don’t know. Probably.’ Irritated.

Davy felt a pang of guilt and hoped that nothing would ever happen to Lisa. Or Gruffudd, or Jane, or Elen. Or Father.

His limbs were starting to feel heavy and he was about to turn on his side when he saw a misty shape forming between him and the door. It swayed and coalesced into light and shadow, a moving shape with arms outstretched towards him like his grandfather at  the end of a working day at the mill, blanched white with flour and hair standing on end.

‘Jesus! Griffi!’ Davy sprang backwards in his bed, pulling the covers towards him.

‘What?’ screeched Gruffudd, now exploded upright from his drowsy sleep.

Davy turned and saw his brother’s outline clearly and, in the window beyond him, the shadow of the bare- leaved oak tree silhouetted by the moon that had emerged pale and serene from behind the clouds. Davy stared back at the door, his heart still pounding. The outstretched limbs were the shadow branches of the tree; the ghostly face the fabric folds of Davy’s own shirt on the back of the door.

‘It’s nothing.’

Gruffudd scratched his head with both hands as if it were a nest of fleas, then threw himself angrily back down on to the bed and pulled the covers tightly around him. Davy stayed still, staring at the door and the moonlight, waiting for his heart to regain its normal momentum. He thought of his mother’s hatred; he thought of the boat with its shards and splinters, the teacher’s stump, Gruffudd’s linen bag of savings in the old button box under the bed, Lisa’s hair. Lisa dying. Lisa not dying.

‘Griffi?’

‘Jesus.’

‘I’m sorry about your savings.’

There was a long silence and another sigh. ‘Go to sleep, will you?’

Davy stared at the door for a long while after that and it seemed to him that the figure reappeared to him again as before. It was his dead grandfather’s likeness, the miller with the white smiling face and friendly open arms. Then it loomed larger. Now it was Neptune. It held a trident in its bony hands and pointed to an invisible horizon. Come follow me, it said, and we shall have wild adventures.

The tick of the oak longcase clock was the only sound in Tŷ Hagar. Everyone else had finished their chores and gone to bed. Captain Roger Davies, home from the sea for two nights only, was in no hurry to go upstairs. He and Davy had been left, contemplating the last dying flames in the fireplace, when the clock’s mechanism whirred suddenly into life and began to chime eleven. W. Hopkin, Llandeilo, said the maker’s mark on the face, but the scene above it was of some far-away place, of a red-roofed tower near an azure lake edged with tall and impossibly slender trees. Not Llandeilo, thought Davy, as the last strike reverberated around the room.

A fire had been lit in the parlour, a rare event usually reserved for special occasions such as Christmas, funerals and hushed visits by the local minister. At first the inglenook had coughed and spluttered, belching retreating plumes of black smoke. But as it warmed, the air had cleared. The whitewashed walls now glowed russet and gold as the faint smell of damp gave way to warming beeswax.

That morning, as she cleared the morning dishes, his mother had said disdainfully, ‘We’d better light it – as your father’s home.’ Father, dog, vagrant. She said it loudly enough even though his father was within earshot, engrossed in the newspaper’s shipping reports. And so Davy had been ordered to fetch kindling and logs from the outhouse and to mind he used ‘the proper cloth to wipe the hearth this time’. His cheek smarted just to hear the words. It was relentless.

And Jane must have sensed his despondency because, passing him on the way to the pig’s trough with a pail of swill, she muttered,

‘It’s no good trying to understand her. You’ll drive yourself mad.’

Davy stooped to fill the basket. Was that all he wanted? Merely to understand? He stood with his hands on his knees, like a winded man, wondering how long he could stay in that stance before being shouted at to stop dawdling and get a move on.

He heard Jane return, and this time she stopped beside him.

She sighed and then in a low serious voice said, ‘I think some people are born into worlds that don’t fit them. They’re born to be shoemakers when their talent is for metal or they’re gifted soldiers when there are no wars, or they’re painters with no money for canvas or poets who never learned to read.’ Jane swung the pail absently until the handles squeaked. ‘I think Mother is one of those. A captain’s wife when she should have been … oh, I don’t know, a seamstress or … a rich man’s courtesan.’

With a gasp of amusement, Davy stretched out his arms and gathered a large armful of kindling, then stood and threw it into the basket. When he looked up at Jane, had turned her back on the house to hide her guilty smile.

‘Can you imagine?’ she said, still swinging the empty pail.

Davy brushed the hair back from his forehead then stood squarely with his hands on his hips. ‘No, not really!’ he laughed.

Just as anticipated, their amusement was interrupted by a long stream of shouting that rose in a deafening crescendo, like thunder gathering for the final lightning crash. Their mother was on the threshold, and the last few words they caught were something to do with them not being too old for a thrashing.

Jane darted off to rinse the pail under the pump and Davy bent down again to gather another armful of kindling.

‘I wish she’d spend some time working out what her real talents are,’ Davy muttered. ‘She’s hiding them under some bloody great bushels.’

Now, as Davy  gazed into the parlour fireplace,  he wondered whether Jane had been right, that the only thing wrong with his mother was an accident of birth. She had been a miller’s daughter and a captain’s wife when she should have been a governess or a lady’s maid. For a moment he tried to imagine her as a contented woman, happy with her lot, then concluded that Jane’s first words had been nearer the mark, that there was no use trying to understand, he would only drive himself mad.

By the light of the flames, Davy noticed that his father had taken up the smaller of the two Welsh Bibles and was reading it with the help of the brass-framed magnifying glass. Davy could see his father’s lips moving silently as the lens skimmed over the page and wondered which passage he was reading. Perhaps some consoling words for a man trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea.

On his own lap, he had a copy of Learning to Read, Write and Speak the French Language by V. Value. Sgwlin must have felt unusually well disposed towards him earlier on that week to lend him the copy, or else his schoolmaster had abandoned all hope of being able to teach Davy anything he considered useful. Davy opened the book and for the next hour or so they both sat in silence, lost to the gods of hope and irregular verbs.

When Davy did eventually take his eyes from the page, he saw that the logs had died down so far that the ash-covered bark was a grey crust over what appeared to be a molten centre. Davy rose from his chair and, gauging that another couple of small logs should do the trick until they went to bed, scraped the fire together with the poker and added them. They had been freshly chopped and they hissed as they met the orange flames. Cherry wood, he thought, smelling their distinctive sweetness.

Davy’s father closed the Bible and laid the glass to rest on the cover.

‘I have often wondered …’ Roger Davies began, then his voice trailed off. ‘… where God is. You  know, at those times when the sea is a churning mass, when it’s a valley beneath you one moment and then a mountain above you the next and the whole thing designed to destroy. Or so it seems. When I started out, a lad like you, I would pray …’ His father turned away from the flames and looked searchingly at Davy.

‘Not pray like they do in the Gymanfa, all comfortable in their warm coats and their dry boots, not a gentle, polite prayer. Not asking nicely on a Sunday, “Please God, make our harvest good this year so that we can grind enough corn to feed our children this winter and if we’re lucky, perhaps help the neighbours too as they helped us pick last autumn’s potatoes.” Not that kind of prayer, but a shouting, spitting prayer. “Make me brave, Lord, to uncurl my fingers from this blasted rope and move my foot down to the next rung even though the boat is horizontal and the sea and the wind are all in the wrong place.” And all the while the sky is screaming.’

Davy shuddered and thought he could see the tempest his father talked of emerging from the golden flames.

‘I often thought that God was there. But rather than watching and waiting and looking out for us, he was the one whipping up the waves, flinging our sails around in the boiling waters and roaring at us, cursing us, laughing at us, perhaps?’

His father reached into his pocket and took out a small silver tin of tobacco. He opened it, placed the lid on one knee and the tin on the other knee, then reached again into his pocket and took out his pipe. Davy had watched him do this many times when he was home from the sea. It made him wonder where Father had been and what countries he had sailed to.

‘Don’t you believe them,’ his father turned to him all of a sudden.

‘Who, Father?’

‘Any man who tells you that he doesn’t fear the sea. Don’t take them on as crew for they won’t be trusted. A man is either lying or half-baked if he says such a thing and you don’t want him on your ship. When you look a man in the face and ask him a question about the sails or the state of the rig, you want to be sure that he’s telling you as it is, not some half-cocked story that sounds good in front of his pals.’

Davy looked at the fire again, trying and failing to imagine a day when he, David Davies, would be a captain. Why would anyone in his right mind ever listen to him?

Roger Davies raised his pipe to Davy as if he’d heard his thoughts. ‘When you’re a captain, you make the decisions. But your crew are your eyes and ears and hands, and if they give you a cock-and-bull story you will end up making cock-and-bull decisions. And don’t go thinking you can change a liar. Liars never change. If a man looks as if he isn’t scared of the sea, leave him at the dockside.’ ‘It’s like dogs,’ his father continued, looking at Davy

as if his meaning should be completely clear. He filled his pipe slowly. Davy got up and took a long taper out of the earthenware jar; he dipped it in the fire until it was alight. He passed the taper to his father, who used it to light his pipe. Roger Davies put the pipe in his mouth and drew in the smoke. Then, when he was satisfied that it was properly lit, he blew out the taper and passed it back to his son.

‘When I was a little boy, our neighbour had a sheepdog. They used to say, ‘Oh don’t be worried passing the farm, our dog is a lovely dog. He doesn’t bite.’ I was only four and I was on my way to fetch eggs when the dog came out. I don’t know why, but he was vicious that day and he bit me twice on the arm. I ran home crying and after cleaning the wound under the water pump, my father said, “You must understand that a dog is a dog, and all dogs bite when they want to. Just like a liar is a liar, and sooner or later he lies.” ’

Davy glanced up at his father. His face was kind and serene but his eyes were far away, back in the sea of fire and the tempest of flames.

‘You must learn to read the weather and the waves. But more than that you must learn to read your men. They don’t teach you that at the Maritime Board of Trade.’

There was a shout from the room above, his mother’s voice. Something about it being late, about keeping her awake, about wasteful pointless nattering, how there were a million important things to be done in the morning. Roger Davies slipped his hand into his waistcoat pocket and took out his watch. He made no response to the time, whatever it was, and slipped it deftly back into his pocket. He moved to the edge of his seat and turning to Davy, whispered, ‘You must decide, son, what you want to do. You know that Datcu would have liked you to take on the mill. He was very fond of you. A nice safe job. Unless you get your hand stuck in the cogs like Owen Felin Ganol did of course. Or there’s the sea.’

Davy shrugged, remembering the words of his school teacher and how he would surely be wrecked in a week. He thought of the two short cold voyages he had taken with his father to Birkenhead.

‘You need to get to know the ropes, lad, before you try your luck up there!’ one of the crew had laughed at him when Davy ventured on to the shrouds. ‘Leave it to the experts, boy,’ they had muttered, pushing past him on wet ropes, the swing of the mast more pronounced as they rose.

‘Take no notice,’ his father had said afterwards, and had told him all about the crew. Who was related to whom, back home. Who was foreign. Who could speak Welsh. Who couldn’t speak any English.

Davy looked at his father’s face. It was tired and worn and his long beard was unkempt and needed a trim. But his eyes were clear.

‘It is time to decide. I don’t want to lie to you, Davy,

it’s a hard life on the sea.’

‘But you like it? You’re a captain.’

There was the sound of bare feet on the upstairs floorboards and Roger leaned in further towards Davy. ‘I’ve seen more of the world than many, that’s true. It has its hardships and its compensations.’ His father’s mouth curled briefly into a smile and for a second Davy thought he saw the young man emerge from the wise and benevolent Neptune. Perhaps his mother was right. Perhaps he was just like his father had been, before his hair turned grey and his face became hidden by an unruly beard. The likes of his father could not have afforded a daguerreotype when he was young. Davy would never know.

Roger Davies moved to the edge of his chair as if he was about to stand up, but he hesitated. ‘I don’t know what to say to you, Davy.’ He scanned the slate flagstones under their feet as if there might be an answer to be found in their pattern. ‘I’ve done what I could. I can’t remember whether I had many choices.’ He smiled at his own realisation. Then the smile faded into concern. ‘It’s been hard on your mother.’

His gaze returned to the slates. ‘When I was an apprentice on the Resolution, I had to help the surgeon. He was about to perform an amputation on a man who’d lost his concentration, only for a moment. The surgeon turned to me, just as he was about to make the first cut. “Here’s some good advice for you now, lad. Two things you need to live life to the full. What do you think they are? Wealth? Love? Reputation? Fame? No, none of these. Be present, pay attention; these are the things you need.” Those words have helped me in all manner of situations, not just on board ship. They would have helped me in many more too if I had remembered them in good time.’ A chair scraped the floorboards in the room above and this time Roger Davies rose to his feet. ‘Of course, it took me years to understand his true meaning.’

Davy watched as his father slid the Bible back on to the shelf and ran his fingers lightly along the spines of the other books: an anthology of Welsh poetry, a history book, Gilpin’s Massacre of the Bards, a book on animal husbandry, The Ingoldsby Legends. ‘Nos da, Davy. Mind you turn out the lamp.’

The door closed behind his father and Davy noticed that high in the shadowed corners of the room, a narrow trail of stencilled leaves and daisies wound its path around, under the jutting beams, over the low window and up again over the plastered inglenook. He had never registered them before but they must always have been there. The leaves had darkened with age and the white daisies were dull. But the branches in between had been drawn freehand with a certain flourish and the lightness of touch remained. Davy leant back and followed the trail around and around. The parlour was rarely seen. What kind of person would have considered time decorating it to be well spent? When there were cows to milk, crops to harvest, land to plough and seeds to sow? What kind of person had been here? Davy sank back in the chair and studied the flames. A hopeful person, he thought.