Guinevere by Andrew Hart

Friday, May 3, 2024
Alice helps an old Welshman cross the bridge into Bangor, and even though she doesn't believe he is who he claims to be, his stories might just alter the course of her life.

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Queen Guinevere Meets the Wizard Merlin


When I first saw him, I was not sure if he was trying to kill himself or just exceedingly drunk. He was lying precariously on the edge of the Menai Bridge, with one leg dangling over the edge, whilst the Straits crashed noisily, far below.

As I got nearer to the man, I could hear him moaning; there were no clear words, just a low keening sound that sounded almost beautiful; a lament from many centuries ago.

"Are you okay? Can I do anything?"

He continued with his gentle moaning as he lay almost prostrate on the bridge, his right foot, which had nothing between it and the water below, twitching. Whilst inches away, on the other side of us, cars whizzed past, heading from Bangor and onto the Isle of Anglesey (or Ynys Mon as I should call it, being in Welsh Wales). A few uncouth voices shouted from various cars as I tried to deal with this unexpected crisis, but as they were shouting in Welsh, I could not understand what they were saying - I doubt it was anything helpful or encouraging.

"Do you want to get up?" I asked, but he just lay there as if I did not exist. I felt foolish and wished I had carried on with my maths revision for a few more minutes, rather than be on the bridge at the same time as this peculiar man, who had created this situation which was both embarrassing and dangerous. I assumed that he was having some kind of panic attack, and I had no idea how to deal with it. And then to my relief he seemed to come to his senses; he looked up at me and said something in an accent that was so thick I could not understand it.

"Excuse me?"

He said the word again.

"What did you say?"

"Guinevere, my queen."

"Guinevere?"

He attempted to bow, despite his horizontal position.

"I'm Alice actually. Let me help you up." I reached for his hand, and he held me tightly as I pulled him up, his right foot finding purchase on the bridge as I did so. Fortunately, he was light as a piece of old manuscript, so I managed the manoeuvre easily enough. His hand was warm and dry, and he held onto me with surprising strength for someone seemingly so old and helpless.

"Where are you going?"

He looked at me uncomprehendingly.

"Bangor or Anglesey?"

He thought for a moment and then pointed back towards the mainland.

"I need my stick," he told me and there it was, a rather impressive carved piece of wood that had been lying by his side.

"Take my arm."

And he did so, holding on tight as we walked back into Bangor.

"I am sorry about that," he told me after a moment, "I lost my nerve rather. I still cannot get used to the bridge, or cars for that matter. I remember when there was a ferry to get you across."

"That must have been a long time ago."

"Yes, I suppose that it was, but then I have been alive for a very long time."

As we slowly walked along, I got a good look at him; he was old, with short grey hair which was surprisingly smart, and he was wearing an old, but rather lovely suit with a dark green cloak draped over it, which blew about him in the wind. He had an odd smell about him; not sweat or dirty clothes, but something more pleasant; herbal, I think, and how I imagined druids and warlords would smell. It proved to be always with him, and I liked it.

As we left the bridge and walked through the ancient city of Bangor, I could tell that he was calmer and relaxed. I had thought that once we were over the bridge I could leave him to it, whilst I got back to my house and my equations, but apparently this was not to be; he continued to hold onto to me tightly, whilst telling me that it was "not far", or that we were "nearly there." A few people looked at us curiously, including a fellow student, who had been in my tutorial class last year; he looked embarrassed and I could feel him staring back at us long after we had passed him.

I was getting used to the old man's accent, and whilst he occasionally used the odd Welsh word or two, it was simple enough for me to understand.

"Thank you," he told me.

"So long as you are okay."

"Yes, I am recovered, thank you, but I might pop into this off licence, though, I could do with a drink." He swiftly disengaged himself and walked into a dingy looking Wine Cellar. I waited outside, wondering whether I should go, as he was clearly safe and I was in a part of the city I did not know, but part of me was charmed by this strange man who may have been a bit odd, but who was compelling, and who I felt completely safe with. After studying for my exams for so long, it was good to be involved with something out of the ordinary.

He returned with a bottle of wine.

"I thought we should have a drink to celebrate. I live just up here."

He nodded towards a large house, which was probably once owned by a successful businessman and his family, but was now the sort of place that students tended to share. My companion led me in and up to the second floor where he had two rooms, as well as a small bathroom.

"You learn to travel light at my age," he told me, but even so his room was full of books, clothes and throws all in garish reds and purples. I had to clear some ancient-looking paper to sit on the chair he indicated. He poured us both a generous glassful of wine and then used his to swill down some tablets.

"Are you sure you should be doing that? Alcohol and pills, I don't think they mix."

"At my age everything aches and I need all the pills I can get hold of. Doctors don't understand, and they are all incompetent anyway. Fortunately, I have a couple of friends at Gwynedd hospital who make sure I don't run short. And one thing I have learned in life is that everything goes well with alcohol."

He noticed I wasn't drinking my wine.

"It is good wine, the best in the shop."

"I'm sure it is, but I'm a Latter-Day Saint, you probably know us as Mormons, and we don't drink."

"I have not heard of Mormons; some kind of religion, are they? You shouldn't deny yourself pleasure just because of your God; we have been drinking wine and beer for far longer than any of your Christian churches have been around."

I put the glass down on the floor, hiding it under my chair. I imagine it is still there.

"So, what is your name?" I asked, to change the subject.

He paused, "Oh Guinevere, I thought you knew. I am Myrddin, but you probably know me better as Merlin; even Arthur calls me that sometimes."

"Who is Arthur?"

"King Arthur, the one and only king, and your future spouse. Surely you must have heard of him."

"How ridiculous; and stop calling me Guinevere, my name is Alice."

"Alice, what kind of name is that for a queen?"



On Conwy Castle

It would be a lie to say that I forgot about Myrddin, but I certainly did not think about him much over the next couple of weeks, as I had other things to worry about; my second year exams, how to avoid working at my Aunt's café over the summer, and most pressingly of all my boyfriend Derek, who had just moved back home to Cardiff having recently returned from his two-year Mission in Peru.

A few weeks after my meeting with Myrddin, Derek visited me in Bangor, the first time that I had seen him since his return. Being good Latter-Day Saints, he stayed in a hotel near the pier, rather than sharing a bed with me - sex before marriage being one of the worst sins that Mormons can commit. One of our prophets said that he would rather see his daughter in a funeral hearse than in an "immoral relationship", by which he meant having sex with someone without being married. I often wondered if he felt so strongly about his sons.

It was odd to see Derek after his two years abroad; the oddest thing being that he had not changed very much, he had not even gained a tan. I had been having some doubts about our relationship before he went away, and had rather enjoyed the peace and sense of freedom over the last two years. As time had gone on, I found that I rarely thought about him for days at a time, apart from when I wrote my weekly letter to him after chapel on Sunday. But now he was back and, rather than having forgotten about me, he seemed determined to make the relationship more serious.

It was as we walked along the walls of Conwy Castle that he suddenly proposed. Well, that is what I assume happened, but I was busy looking down into the town and thinking my own thoughts when he did it, and did not catch what he said. In fact, I had been blocking off much of what he said since he came to visit; he had always been a talkative bloke with views on anything and everything, but since his return from his Mission it had been worse, or perhaps I had forgotten how chatty he could be; it was almost non-stop; about his Mission, Peru, his plans for his career (to be a pharmacist), and the church; lots and lots about the church.

"Sorry, did you say something?"

He looked embarrassed.

"Alice..." He looked me in the eyes. "You are the only one I have ever loved, I want to spend..."

"Is that Merlin?" I interrupted him as I caught sight of a familiar figure just behind us.

"Merlin?"

"Well, he calls himself Myrddin, he's someone I met in Bangor. He was having a panic attack on the Menai Bridge."

And there he was, standing in front of us.

"My queen." He bowed with a flourish. "Visiting your domains?"

"Hello Myrddin, this is my boyfriend, Derek. We're out for the day."

"Pleased to meet you," said Derek in his best Mormon Missionary voice, and put out his hand.

Myrddin looked him over and did not seem particularly impressed. He muttered "uhm", and then "uhm" again, and looked at me questioningly. I shrugged and gave him a smile.

The three of us stood there in silence for a few moments, looking over the estuary, whilst Derek embarrassedly put his hand away and tried to think of something to say. A train flew past, on its way to Llandudno Junction and into England.

"I had better go," Myrddin told us, "I promised to meet Arthur here; there's a café near the Smallest House in Wales, which makes excellent fish and chips. You can come too if you like," he added, looking at me.

"Sorry, Derek and I are going out for a meal shortly. We need to get back to Bangor to get changed."

Whilst I was intrigued to meet Arthur, I was not sure that Derek and Myrddin would get on, and I did not want Derek reporting back to my parents about the strange company I was keeping.

Myrddin bowed again, and then looked at Derek before raising his eyebrows at me, with substantial irony, before departing, striding along, his stick tap, tap tapping the walls of the medieval castle.

"You do know some peculiar people," Derek told me and took my hand.

"Oh, he is interesting, but I don't know him well."

"Who's Arthur?"

"I am not sure, a friend of Myrddin, but I've not met him."

"I take it that neither of them are Latter-Day Saints."

"I doubt it."

To my relief, Derek forgot to ask me to marry him again during his visit; perhaps he thought I had agreed to his proposal; or that it was so obvious I would say yes, it did not need confirming. The following morning, Derek hugged me tight at the station, as he prepared to set off back home.

"I miss you," he told me. "You know you could transfer to Cardiff University if you wanted to, it's all the University of Wales. I went into their admin office a few days ago, they said it would be easy, just fill in some forms."

I looked at him in horror.

"But I like it here," I told him.

"But then we could be together. Just have a word with your tutor. Save me having to travel all this way, and you could see your parents more; I know that they miss you and are worried about you."

I did not bother staying to watch his train leave, but hurried back to my rooms and listened to The Pixies, who Derek hated, as he did most of my music.



Merlin Prophesies to the Celts

"Would you like a drink, my queen?"

"You know I don't drink alcohol."

He sighed. "Well, I am sure that Gryff has an orange juice locked away in the cellar. Although it is not becoming for a queen to shun wine and beer."

He then walked ahead of me, and I hurried to catch him up.

I had finished my last exam of the year the day before, and was feeling rather bereft as my housemates had completed their exams a few days earlier and already fled back to England for the summer. Now there was no excuse for me to stay in Bangor, but the thought of returning to Cardiff depressed me; working all week at my Aunt's café, and then church, and of course there was Derek who I am sure would renew his proposals and would have the strong backing of my parents. I had hoped that by moving away from Cardiff I would somehow have moved on with my life and have somewhere to escape to... at least for a time.

"This is my local," Myrddin told me as we entered the Globe, a small pub just off the high street. "Arthur might be here, he often drops in for the evening."

"I don't think they like students here," I told Myrddin. "It's a pub for locals, and, well, the university handbook says it's best to be avoided."

"Oh nonsense, they are all very friendly, just a bit raucous at times, and I want you to meet Arthur, someone befitting you."

Arthur wasn't there, however there were lots of other men who knew Myrddin. I was the only woman in there, not even a barmaid or a girlfriend to be seen. One young man said something to me in Welsh; I know a little of the language, having had to learn it in school, but by the time I realised what he had said, what seemed like hours had passed.

"I said, where are you from girl?"

"Cardiff."

He looked at me disparagingly; it is a matter of some debate in student circles as to whether the locals hate the English most or those from South Wales; personally, I think they hate us both equally.

"Cradle snatching?" he said turning to my companion. "A bit skinny isn't she?"

"Shush, you ignorant lout. My queen here rescued me. Now learn your manners and buy us both a drink."

Being a Latter-Day Saint, I am not supposed to have ever drunk alcohol, but in fact I had done so on a couple of occasions with "gentile" friends for nights out in Cardiff, but then it had been out of curiosity and only a single drink each time, most of which I had spilled through nerves. It was therefore not surprising then that the beer swiftly went to my head, and for a while I felt disorientated and incapable of rational speech. I sat at the table whilst Myrddin talked with a group of locals, mostly in Welsh, but occasionally translating for my benefit when he remembered I was there.

He seemed to be talking about Gwynedd, and the old kings. Telling stories of battles and dragons.

"Did that really happen?" I asked him after a while, having now reached the stage of drunkenness to have lost my inhibitions. "Merlin and Arthur, and all that?"

"Some of it. It was all petty warlords, fighting over a few acres of land after the Romans left. And of course, writers then Christianised it with stories of the Grail and knightly purity, all that nonsense. But Arthur existed, and so did Guinevere. I was there."

At first I laughed, and then I looked at him and wondered. It might be because I was drunk, but for a few moments I believed that he was who he said he was; he looked older and wiser than anybody I had ever known; much more so than the Bishop and the rest of the hierarchy at my church, who claimed wisdom but were really middle-aged men who believed that one day they would be gods.

I vomited outside the pub and then found myself snogging one of Myrddin's interlocutors with a drunken passion. It was probably for the best that Myrddin rescued me and walked me home.

"I haven't ever kissed anyone apart from Derek, and even him not properly... it was fun, although I probably shouldn't have done it."

"Well, you did seem to be enjoying yourself, I was a little reluctant to interrupt."

"It's okay, he was a bit old, and I probably tasted of sick."

I vomited again, whilst Myrddin stood there looking as if he was from another age, or wishing he was.



Guinevere and Arthur

He appeared at my door the following Monday.

"It is time you met Arthur."

"I was doing my laundry."

"You should have servants to do that."

I shrugged - silently agreeing with him - and put on my favourite jacket, a black velvet one which fitted me just right. We set off.

Myrddin led me to the old part of the university which is part of "Upper Bangor", so called because it is on top of a hill, from where you can look down into the city; the cathedral, the long high street, and houses stretched out towards the pier and the Menai Straits.

"It looks lovely from up here."

"I preferred it when there were fewer houses and the university did not exist."

The mathematics department, where I studied, was in "Lower Bangor" and was made up of modern buildings which smelt of damp and looked like a school; this was much more like a university should look; older and somehow venerable.

Myrddin led me into a lecture hall where a young man was passionately lecturing approximately thirty students about something or other. We sat down at the back of the lecture hall and made ourselves comfortable. At first nobody noticed us, but then a few students seemed to sense our presence - or perhaps smelled Myrddin - and they surreptitiously looked back and then turned away, looking slightly embarrassed. After a few minutes the lecturer looked up and he too saw Myrddin; I saw them exchange looks; happiness on the part of Myrddin, and resignation on the face of the young man.

"That's Arthur," Myrddin told me. "I often pop into his lectures; it is never too late to learn new things. And I can correct him when he gets things wrong."

Myrddin certainly seemed to get involved with the lecture, laughing out loud and agreeing with various statements that "Arthur" made. I found the whole thing completely embarrassing, especially as I recognised a couple of the students; one from community service project I used to attend, and another who had had a brief fling with one of my housemates. Both had clearly seen me, but refused to meet my eye.

Fortunately, the lecture was nearly over, and afterwards Myrddin stalked over to his friend; I trailed in his wake, whilst various students seemed to be hanging around to watch what happened next.

"Well, Arthur, have you any of that wine left in your office?" Myrddin greeted him.

Arthur sighed and I followed them as the two men left and took us to a rather pleasant office hidden away up three flights of stairs. Lo and behold, Arthur brought out a bottle from his desk and poured out three glasses.

"This is Guinevere, your future queen."

"Actually, I'm Alice, pleased to meet you."

"I am Arthur, as I am sure Myrddin has told you."

We smiled at each other. I rather liked Arthur; he was diffident and rather handsome in a tweedy sort of way.

"What's your real name?" I asked him.

"Arthur, really. Although I wish it wasn't, as it gives our friend here too many ideas."

"What did you think of the lecture?" he continued.

"Interesting," although it had been difficult to concentrate with Myrddin next to me.

"The Mabinogion is a fascinating book. I don't know why it isn't better known."

"Guinevere here is looking for a summer job; she is trying to escape from a boyfriend who wants to marry her, and her parents, so she needs to stay here over the summer."

Arthur thought for a moment. "How is your Welsh?"

"Minimal."

"Oh well, it might not matter, our part of the library is being reorganised over the summer and they are looking for people to help; cart books about that sort of thing. Would you fancy doing that?"

"Sounds good."

"I will speak to the librarian and let you know. The money won't be great, but you will have free accommodation in one of the halls of residence and a voucher for meals in the refectory."

I was annoyed at first that Myrddin had jumped to conclusions and tried to organise my life, but he was right; I much preferred the idea of staying in Bangor than going back to Cardiff, and a job would make that possible, however lousy the pay. It would be more interesting than my Aunt's café - where the pay was also poor and the hours long - and the thought of another proposal from Derek filled me with dread.



The Flight of Merlin

He stood on top of Bangor Mountain just as the sun was setting; in the distance he could see the lights from the Menai Bridge and the occasional car being driven towards Ynys Mon by those who worked in Bangor and Llandudno by day.

There was a cold wind, and he shivered and wrapped his cloak tightly around his scrawny body. There was a rock by his side, which he hit with his stick, at first randomly and then in the rhythm of a funeral march. He began to chant.

Oh people of Cymru

Throw away your shackles.

Fight for your lives.

Oh people of Cymru

Throw away your Christianity.

Fight for your lives.

Oh people of Cymru

Throw away the English.

And fight for your lives.

His voice sounded out strong, and clear, unlike the accented and frail voice that Guinevere was used to, and it travelled over the mountain and down into the city below; through the cathedral and the churches that preached an alien religion, into the university, and rustled the leaves of the Black Book of Carmarthen and the works of Taliesin and Aneirin and other Celtic bards, whose verse spoke of a time long ago, when this country was great and heroes roamed the mountains and valleys.

Myrddin's voice travelled over the Menai Straits to Ynys Mon, and south to the small villages where English is never spoken and England is a foreign country where few of the inhabitants have ever ventured; the voice sounded on Yr Wyddfa (which the English called Snowdon) and over the Irish Sea, to Ireland, where the old legends and myths struggle against priests and nationalists; and even to mainland Europe, where some say Arthur fought whilst his own kingdom was beset by civil war.

His voice became one with the mountains and valleys; at times it almost disappeared, but then rose stronger and yet more powerful. He stopped to draw breath and then called out again; a king or a wizard, rather than a seemingly insignificant old man who got drunk with nationalists and was mocked by students and those local people who had forgotten their own heritage.

The wind began to blow harder and harder, and his cloak spread out around him. Myrddin drifted up over the mountain and headed towards sea beyond. Soon he had disappeared. A few people saw him fly past; a young man staring out of his window thinking of the woman he had loved who had left him to work in Spain, and an old lady who could not sleep and who had read of dragons and wizards and knew that one day they would come again.



Guinevere in her Loneliness

I took the job in the Welsh Studies section of the university library, and although I was a little lonely, I enjoyed it. I was given rooms in Neuadd Reichel, a male hall of residence which I knew slightly because a couple of students who attended my church lived there and I had played chess with one of them called David, until he got embarrassed and sent me home.

My room was large and warm, and the building was virtually deserted, which I rather liked. Having shared a house with three rather noisy young women for the last two years, and having two sisters at home, it was pleasant to come home to silence, to be able to play "Doolittle" as loudly as it was meant to be heard, and to soak in my bath for as long as I liked without anyone banging on the door and telling me to hurry up.

The job itself was easy. The Welsh Literature Department had been given more shelves for their stock, and so I spent most of my time moving books and journals around, which was heavy work but nothing I could not cope with. There was no rush, as there was all summer to do it, which was more than enough time. But best of all, every Friday, the librarian Katie would give me a list of "lost books" and I would spend the day hunting through the rest of the magnificent library to see if I could locate them, which gave me an excuse to peruse other books, some of which I suspected had not been touched since the library opened all those years ago.

Apart from Katie, who looked only a year or two older than me, there was a small group of Welsh Literature students, who stayed for a week or a fortnight and then were replaced by others. They muttered together earnestly in Welsh and occasionally read the books on the shelves, calling their comrades over to point out items of interest. They were all local, and often talked of drunken nights out and swimming in one of Anglesey's beautiful bays.

Once they realised that I did not speak Welsh, or not much, they tended to ignore me and rather treated me with contempt. Katie, however, was lovely, and we often had lunch together. She was from South Wales's other major city, Swansea, and we were a united front against the North Walian barbarians.

"Have you a boyfriend?" she asked me.

I laughed. "There is someone back home, who wants to marry me... but..."

"But...?"

"But I'm not sure. I'm sure I'll end up marrying him, but it's as if I've signed up for something without having had chance to sample anything else. What about you?"

She laughed. "Nobody permanent. No-one here is marriage material. I'm busy sampling..."

We both laughed.

"Arthur seems nice," I ventured.

"Uhm, maybe, in short doses."



Guinevere and her Kin

Fortunately, the halls only had one payphone which was far away from my room, and so I was able to ration when I spoke to my family and Derek, just calling them once a week and never answering the phone when I heard it ringing, just in case it was one of them trying to persuade me to leave North Wales and come back to Cardiff. But even speaking to them once a week was bad enough.

I sighed to myself as I listened to Derek's hurt tones and his endless questions as to why I had not come back home.

"You had a job in Cardiff. I don't understand why you needed to stay in Bangor."

"It's interesting. And I've lived in Cardiff all my life, why not explore somewhere else for a change? After all, you've been living it up in Peru for two years."

"I have not been living it up, I've been doing the Lord's work."

"Well, it's more of an adventure than I have ever had."

"But I miss you," he told me, sounding rather childish.

"I'm sure I'll come back before the end of the summer, to see my parents."

"When?"

"God, I don't know. The beginning of September, we should have finished by then."

"September, but that's ages away, and there was so much we could have done together."

"Sorry, Derek."

"So am I."

My parents were even less happy. My dad told me off, in his usual pompous manner.

"Your aunt was relying on you, and you have your calling at church."

"I'm sure you can all cope without me."

"You should come back home, and stop all this silliness," he told me. I could picture him in the hall at home, fierce and in retrospect a little pathetic. "This is where you belong. I knew it was a mistake, your going to university. And poor Derek is desolate; if you're not careful he'll find someone else."

"I wish he would," I told him, and put the phone down.

Arthur did pop into the library on occasion, and we would talk a little, but without Myrddin at first it was difficult to find words to say.

"Have you seen Myrddin?" I asked him a couple of weeks after starting work. It was a Friday and I was looking through some early Celtic poems purportedly by Taliesin.

"He popped in yesterday to borrow some books. He said he had been travelling and had just got back."

"I wonder where he went."

"He was a bit vague. I am sure he will come in and see you; he kept asking after you."

"Well, he knows where I am."

"What are you reading?"

"I can't understand it, or not much of it, but it mentions our friend, but not you and me."

Arthur laughed. "No, Arthur and Guinevere are separate traditions; it was Geoffrey of Monmouth who put them together, to make an exciting story. Although Myrddin won't have any of it."

"Is he a scholar?" I asked. "He does seem very knowledgeable."

"God knows, he just came up to me in the Globe one quiet Saturday afternoon, and I have not been able to get rid of him since."

I laughed, and then as there was nobody about Arthur kissed me, pushing me hard against a bookshelf.



Merlin and the Burning Houses

At first there was nothing and the house looked quiet and dark, and then suddenly there was the sound of a loud "pop" followed by a dull-sounding explosion, and shortly afterwards flames could be seen through the front room window as the curtains came alight. There was a smell of burning and cheap furniture, and the house was engulfed.

"That was some bomb."

"Bloody English and their holiday homes."

"What do you say, Merlin?"

Myrddin stood there as the flames rose; he was hot from the burning house and worried that his cloak might ignite - it was already starting to smoke alarmingly. However, even when the sounds of sirens sounded and the four young men with him had fled and returned to the Globe, where they claimed to have been drinking all evening when questioned by the police, he stayed there, watching closely. He was still there when the firemen eventually managed to put out the fire, and when one of them vomited in the garden, overcome by smoke inhalation.

"I don't suppose you saw anything either," said the exasperated policeman.

Myrddin did not bother to answer, but after a moment turned away and started walking.

"Hey," shouted the policeman, "I'm speaking to you."

Myrddin continued to walk and then seemed to disappear amidst the smoke and darkness.

"Shit, he's gone."

"Don't worry about it," PC Adams told him, "they all pretend to know nothing. We know who's responsible, but they'll all have alibis."

"In some ways I can't blame them though, all these houses just used for a couple of months in the summer, whilst my younger brother and his family have to live in a flat on that awful estate."

"I know, I know."



Guinevere and the One True Religion

I had stopped going to church; it had always been a pain to get to the chapel, it lay on the outskirts of Bangor, part of a trading estate and surrounded by cheap sports shops and noisy garages. If I had had a car, it would have taken me ten minutes, but by bus it was a very long thirty-minute journey followed by a thirty-minute walk. And because of the infrequent Sunday service I had the choice of being either three quarters of an hour early or twenty minutes late.

If I had been keen, I suppose that I would have regarded it as a small price to pay to be with my fellow Saints, but the fact was I found church all rather boring and trivial. When I had first moved to Bangor and started going to the chapel, I had been given a calling to teach the children, but towards the end of my first year I had pleaded exams, and despite the Bishop's rather manipulative comments, had stuck to my guns. The following year I had not been asked to resume my work or any other, which I did not mind in the least.

"For some of you, being a Disciple of Christ is just a one day a week thing." The podgy Bishop, who five days of the week sold caravans to tourists and locals and who liked to head into the hills on Saturdays with his perpetually pregnant wife, glared around the people in front of him. For a moment or two he looked directly at me, where I was sitting in the back trying to work out a particularly difficult sum in my head. Rather taken aback, I gave him a quick smile and once he had looked away in confusion, I got back to my workings.

That was then, but once the university year had finished, I decided that I could do with a break and stopped going. I had not read the Book of Mormon in a while, nor had I prayed for weeks. I guess that I had not consciously left the church, but was just drifting away without pain or anguish. Presumably they would assume that I was back in Cardiff, so I would not have to listen to The Bishop nagging at me to return and offering to pray over me with one of the Elders. Once or twice I did see members of the church in Bangor, and hid so that they would not realise I had not gone home.

"So, I hear you have stopped attending church."

I could feel my father's anger over the phone. "I rang your Bishop last night, and he was under the impression that you were back here in Cardiff."

"So why did you ring the Bishop?" I enquired, feeling the anger building up inside me.

"I'm worried, we both are, and poor Derek looks so miserable; you are so lucky to have such a decent and devout young man."

"I do wish you would stop checking up on me, I'm a grown woman. Now I've got to go."

I walked back to my room through empty corridors which echoed to the sound of my bare feet. Arthur was still in my bed, naked, as he had been for most of the evening.

"How was your phone call?"

"Don't ask," I replied, as I quickly pulled off my robe and joined him in my warm bed, "just don't ask."



Merlin, Arthur and Guinevere

We stood on a hill overlooking a small village.

"So, you have become a couple."

Arthur looked embarrassed, "How do you know?"

"I can tell, just looking at you; especially you. Guinevere is perhaps less sure."

I laughed and looked down at the houses and church below.

"It looks lovely."

"The church dates back to the medieval period, I believe," Arthur told us, loosely holding my hand.

Myrddin sighed with what sounded like contempt.

"Don't you approve of Christianity?" asked Arthur.

"It ruined our land, and took over from the one true religion."

"Which is?"

But Myrddin did not bother to reply, just stood looking out over the mountains in front of him.

Nonetheless we walked down into the village, three abreast, and pushed our way through the graveyard and into the church. Arthur was clearly excited and wandered around examining the walls, whilst Myrddin and I stood at the back.

"It is very enclosed," suggested Myrddin.

"Religion is."

"What's our king looking at?"

"It is a Doom," Arthur explained coming towards us. "A fresco showing the last judgement."

Myrddin and I walked over, arm in arm, to have a look. "Oh yes, I can see some naked people and Jesus sending them to Hell."

"I have never seen one before, well not in the flesh. I cannot believe that it was so close to Bangor and I didn't know about it."

Myrddin laughed. "It looks pretty grim to me."

"Well, yes..."

We left soon afterwards, Myrddin clutching some postcards he had pinched from the back of the church.

"Who are you going to send them to?"

"I know lots of people, I always try to have postcards in, you never know when you need to contact someone."

"Haven't you heard of telephones?"

"You never know who is listening."



Merlin Amongst the Apple Trees

There was an orchard near to the church, and as it was hot we sat amongst the apple trees drinking lemonade and eating pastries, which we had bought at a small local shop. I wondered if I had ever felt so happy. Myrddin started to talk, and after a moment I realised that he was reciting poetry.

Sweet appletree, your branches delight me,

Luxuriantly budding my pride and joy!

I will put before the Lord of Macreu,

That on Wednesday, in the valley of Machaway

Blood will flow.

"Sounds a bit bloodthirsty," muttered Arthur and I nodded in agreement.

"History often is," Myrddin told us, and continued.

England's blades will shine.

But hear, o little pig, on Thursday

The Cymry will rejoyce

In their defence of Cymimawd,

Furiously cutting and thrusting.

The Saxons will be slaughtered by our ashen spears,

And their heads used as footballs.

I prophesy the unvarnished truth -

The rising of a child in the secluded South.

"Are you quoting something?" I asked.

"It is from The Black Book of Carmarthen," Arthur told me. "I lecture upon it sometimes, although you have misremembered some of it," he added, addressing Myrddin.

"I wrote it many hundreds of years ago, before your Shakespeare or Chaucer were born. My poems were recited over campfires and at the eve of battle. Now shut up and listen."

Sweet appletree of crimson colour,

Growing concealed in the wood of Celyddon:

Though men seek your fruit, their search is vain

Until Cadwaladyr comes from Cadfaon's meeting

To Teiwi river and Tywi's lands,

Till anger and anguish come from Arawynion,

And the long-hairs are tamed.

I felt transported back to a previous time when the people of Gwynedd spoke a mysterious language, and when men were warriors or wizards, brave and true. I listened to the wind in the trees and the sound of birds, and smelt the apples above our heads, as Myrddin stopped reciting and appeared to fall asleep.

Arthur was equally quiet, and he and I lay together in the sun, holding hands and thinking our own thoughts, until Myrddin told us that it was time to go, and I brushed the pastry crumbs from my grandad shirt and stood up. After listening to Myrddin, it was a surprise to walk into the village with its telephone box and shop; a car slowly drove past with the voice of Bob Dylan coming from it, singing his poetry to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar, sounding as ancient and authentic as Myrddin's poems from earlier.



Galahad

"How can you go back to Cardiff?"

"It is my home. My family, my church... my fiancée."

"But aren't we a couple?"

I looked at Arthur; I sort of loved him and had learned a lot from him, but he felt alien, as did Myrddin. At heart I was a city girl, not someone who belonged in small towns and villages where you were always recognised and there was no place to hide.

"I am sorry, Arthur," I told him, "but it was never a serious thing; just a summer romance. And I can't keep Derek hanging on forever; he wants to get married by Christmas."

"Is that really what you want?"

"Yes," I told him. "This was fun, but it wasn't real life."

"So Derek was Launcelot?"

I laughed. "More like Galahad."



Merlin in a Dungeon

Arthur left Guinevere and headed back home to his flat, feeling as sad as he could remember, particularly having felt so happy only a few days ago. It was only when he was almost there that he had forgotten to tell Alice the reason for his visit; that Myrddin was in prison...

Myrddin had telephoned him earlier from the police station.

"It was my Welsh Nationalist friends from the Globe; they stashed some of their stuff in my rooms and someone must have squealed."

"What kind of stuff?"

"Oh, matches, petrol, and there were a couple of guns."

"Guns, oh shit."

"They were only going to be there for a couple of days, but the police banged down my door."

"Have you got a lawyer?"

"Do you think I need one?"

"Yes, I think it might be an idea."



Guinevere and Galahad

"I'm glad you came home," said Derek as we sat in his parents' front room watching a rather tedious children's film ("no certificate 15s or 18s in a good Latter-Day Saint home", as my dad used to say), whilst his mum and dad, Gwen and John, made "snacks" and eavesdropped on the happy couple.

"So am I."

"I thought you weren't coming back."

"The Bishop came to see me with one of his counsellors, after my dad spoke to him and he realised that I was still here. I probably should have listened to him earlier. He even helped me fill in the forms to finish off my degree at Cardiff. Brother Jones works for the university, and got it quickly passed."

"I was lonely without you."

"Well, I'm here now and we'll soon be married in the Temple."

"I can't wait." Derek continued to talk about "our plans" for the future, whilst his parents now sat opposite us looking proud, full to bursting with happiness. The epitome of a good Mormon couple.

"I'll help you choose a dress," said Gwen. "Sister Preston works in that wedding shop in town, she'll get us a discount."

"Thank you," I said, "that'll be fun."

"And maybe we can go to a café afterwards, have a herbal tea and a naughty cake."

"Oh lovely, I do love cake."

God I am bored, I thought, but at least I am doing the right thing and am where I am supposed to be. I cuddled up to Derek on the settee and thought of Merlin on the Menai Bridge, about to drop into the water below.



Merlin Unbound

Arthur sat on the end of Bangor pier, dangling his feet over the edge, and staring over to Anglesey; he had not heard from Alice since she returned to the South, and Merlin had been sentenced to two years in prison. He felt lonely, and had started applying for jobs elsewhere, as everywhere here reminded him of his desolate kingdom.

He heard a step behind him; gentle but determined, with the tap of a stick in accompaniment.

"Merlin?"

He sat down beside him.

"I thought you were in prison."

Myrddin laughed. "Do you really think a manmade dungeon could hold me?"

"But won't they come looking for you?"

"Probably."

He flipped the water at their feet with his stick.

"I am sorry about Guinevere," he told him.

"Oh well, it was always doomed to fail."

"Yes, she was in thrall to her religion."

"She was not brave enough, and I was not what she wanted. Nice to be used for sex though."

"Yes, it must be."

"Are you staying here?" Arthur asked after a moment.

"Oh no, not for a while," Myrddin told him, "I have places to go and battles to fight. Come, let us go back into the city."

They helped each other up walked back down the pier, heading towards the city centre, Myrddin's hand loosely holding onto Arthur's arm. And then, after a few moments of silence, Arthur realised that he was alone, heading into God knew where. He grasped his sword and prepared to fight, whilst Guinevere cavorted with Galahad in an alien land, far, far away.



Ghosts

I should have known that Myrddin would not disappear, although for a while I did not see him. I did think about him though; wondering where he was and what he thought about my decision to desert them all. And there was Arthur of course, who had been lovely, but not for me, and yet who I often cried over when Derek was away on church work.

It must have been almost a year before I saw Myrddin again; it was summer and I was now a good Mormon, trying (struggling) to combine being a student with being a housewife. Already Derek was talking about children. I often wondered if I had done the right thing, if I shouldn't have been braver.

I was walking home with bags full of shopping when I saw a familiar figure in front of me. An old man with a cloak and a stick, whom I recognised immediately. For some reason it felt quite natural that he should be there, not odd at all. At first, I slowed down to lose him, and then I decided that I should speak to him and hurried forward, but however fast or slow I walked, he remained the same distance ahead of me.

He was still there when I turned into my road, and I wondered if he was going into our house, but then I heard a shout to my left, which was just an overexcited child, but when I looked back Myrddin had gone, there was just an empty street in front of me. When Derek got home later I did not tell him about it; I had no inclination to discuss it with him, and anyway he was full of the church meeting he was due to attend shortly, as he had just been appointed a Bishop's Counsellor, which he was very proud of.

It was at church I saw Myrddin next; I was doing a short talk at the front on the joys of Temple marriage, and as I stopped for breath I looked out over the Saints in front of me, almost all of whom I knew well; my parents, my sisters, my in-laws and friends from my youth, whilst close to me on the podium sat Derek, my husband for now and eternity. I felt comfortable and safe, but also trapped; I had hoped to escape from all this and had done for a short while, but now I was back in world that was as familiar as it was dull.

And then at the back, sitting next to Sister Griffiths, was Myrddin. He was looking at me intently as he had done to Arthur in his lecture, which seemed many years ago. He smiled slightly when he saw me looking at him, but his eyes looked sad and disappointed, which made me understand how much I had hurt him, perhaps more than I had done to Arthur.

I realised that I had not said anything for a few seconds, and for the life of me I could not carry on; I looked down at my notes, but they meant nothing, and I felt sweat drip down my back and Derek's anxiety behind me. And then I looked back up from my notes and Myrddin was gone. After a moment, I carried on with my talk as if nothing had happened.

I should have talked to the Bishop or to Derek about Myrddin, but I did not want them to think I was mad and imagining the whole thing; anyway it was none of their business, and they would have had even less idea what to do than I did myself. When you have spent time with a wizard from centuries past you rather lose faith in people who worship a religion formed only a couple of hundred years ago.

And then Myrddin spoke to me. I was in my aunt's café, doodling on a pad of paper, and waiting for the morning rush, when I smelt a familiar smell, and he was standing there in front of me.

"Myrddin."

"Oh Guinevere; is this where you have ended up?"

I wanted to tell him that I was happy, that I had made the right choice, but I couldn't, I just stood there, feeling hot and self-conscious.

"He is still waiting for you," he said after a few moments, and briefly stroked my arm. Then he turned away, and did not look back.

"Who was that?" asked my aunt, who had just come in from the back.

"A friend."

"Does Derek know?"

I sighed, and told her that I was leaving, that I had some work to do.

"I thought you'd finished university. And you're on shift for another four hours."

Without a word, I hung up my apron and left. Behind me, my aunt reached for the phone, to call either my father or Derek.

Myrddin has never spoken to me since, but occasionally I think that I see him in the distance, striding ahead on his own affairs, his cloak flapping in the wind, his stick by his side; but perhaps it is just a dream or wishful thinking. Meanwhile, I try to live my life in the best way that I can, a good wife and a good daughter, and most importantly a good Mormon.

All this feels like years and years ago, a different time completely, although I am still comparatively young. I have children now, and spend my time looking after them, tending to my husband or doing church work, so that I rarely have time to think or listen to my Pixies albums that I have hidden amongst my college textbooks. I imagine that one day Derek will find them and insist that I throw them out, so that there is nothing left of what I once was, when I was young and open to everything.

Perhaps one day, when nobody expects it and without a word, I will pack a bag and leave all this behind. I will walk out of our front door without a backward glance, and go to where Arthur is patiently waiting for me, my one true love, whilst Myrddin blesses us both, the only truly wise man that I know.

5 comments:

  1. At the end, the main character says, “Perhaps one day, when nobody expects it and without a word, I will pack a bag and leave all this behind. I will walk out of our front door without a backward glance, and go to where Arthur is patiently waiting for me, my one true love,” but there was no sense in the story that he was her one true love. She didn’t love either of her suitors. The arc of the story would have made sense to me if she had had a change of heart toward her Mormon guy, but I don’t see evidence of it…or if she had left the church, which would have felt like a denouement.

    That aside, I really enjoyed the story. I loved her real world problems, and her initial bravery in addressing them. Cutting everyone from home off at the knees while she faced her real feelings about things.

    Excellent read!!

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  2. This is an inventive melange of Mormon struggles, UK life, Welsh culture and Arthurian legends. I agree with June - it is unclear to me as a reader how much Alice really loves either Arthur or Derek. If you expand the story… …I can’t help but wonder how Alice would react to meeting Morgana and Mordred 🙂

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  3. This is a delightful novella that shows the progression of a naïve young woman into a more nuanced, progressive and mature one. Her boyfriend, a self-involved, insufferable pill who believes that first his and then the Mormon Church’s stilted needs, should supersede any desires that his girlfriend may have, eventually gains what he wants – possession of Alice.

    It was dispiriting that the story winds down with Derek getting what he sought, with Alice’s self-delusion that being “a good, dependable Mormon girl” was the way to go. The very final sentences speak to the possibility that Alice will forsake her prosaic life and return to Merlin and Arthur. But who knows. It was probably a temptation for Andrew to go that route from the start and make it a genuinely happy ending. The fiction is more textured with his decision not to use that ending.

    I admired Andrew’s practice of ending chapters with declaratory sentences showing that the characters had moved in a new direction: for example, 1) when Arthur pushes Alice against a stack in the library and daringly kisses her; and 2) when he states simply that Alice returned to bed with Arthur.

    Some of the story’s passages are highly descriptive: Merlin smelled “herbal” or were almost poetic: “I felt transported back to a previous time when the people of Gwynedd spoke a mysterious language, and when men were warriors or wizards, brave and true. I listened to the wind in the trees and the sound of birds, and smelt the apples above our heads...”

    There are also whimsical remarks, particularly from Merlin: “One thing I have learned in life is that everything goes well with alcohol.”

    The story concludes on a hopeful, wistful note when Alice says: “Perhaps one day, when nobody expects it and without a word, I will pack a bag…will walk out of our front door without a backward glance, and go to where Arthur is patiently waiting for me, my one true love, whilst Myrddin blesses us both, the only truly wise man that I know.”

    Andrew, I really enjoyed your story!

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  4. As someone interested in the novella form, I was pleased to read this story. Well done!

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  5. A very interesting take on the Arthurian legend, in part I imagine inspired by the time hopping Merlin in T.S. White's The Sword in the Stone? I enjoyed the modern day take and particularly liked the first half of the story as we see how Merlin navigates life in our time (the request to find the nearest off licence was excellent!). The also appreciated how the final paragraph alludes to the 'Once And Future King' supposed inscription on Arthur's grave. Overall, an engaging amalgam of Arthurian tales with an interesting twist.

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