Quite Early One Morning

One early winter morning in Wales, by the serene sea that lay still and green as grass after a tumultuous night, I stepped out of the house, where I had chosen to spend a cold and unseasonable holiday. My intent was to assess the aftermath of the storm—whether the outhouse had been swept away, potatoes, shears, rat-killer, shrimpnets, and tins of rusty nails scattered to the wind, and if the cliffs remained intact. The previous night had been ferocious, with rumors in a smoky ship-pictured bar that someone could feel their tombstone shaking, even though they were not dead, or at least not motionless. Yet, the morning unfolded with a clarity and calmness one always envisions for the day ahead.

The sun bathed the seaside town, not as a unified entity—from the chapel with its reproving zinc roof to the empty, rat-infested grey warehouse at the harbor—but in distinct, bright fragments. There, the quay extended, devoid of human presence except for the gulls and capstans resembling small men in tubular trousers. Here, the police station roof, black as a helmet, dry as a summons, somber as Sunday. There, the splashed church, with a cloud shaped like a bell poised above, ready to drift and chime. Here, the chimneys of the pink-washed pub, eagerly anticipating Saturday night like an overjoyed girl awaits sailors.

The town was still in slumber. The milkman lay lost in the clangor and music of his Welsh-spoken dreams, the wish-fulfilled tenor voices more potent than Caruso’s, sweeter than Ben Davies’s, echoing past Cloth Hall and Manchester House up to the frosty hills.

The town was not yet awake. Babies in upper bedrooms of salt-white houses, clinging over the water or bow-windowed villas perched on unsteady hill-streets, disturbed the light with their half-asleep cries. Various retired sea captains briefly emerged from waves deeper than those that ever tossed their boats, then submerged again, descending into a perhaps Mediterranean-blue cabin of sleep, lulled by the sea’s rhythm. Landladies, adorned in shawls, blouses, and aprons of sleep, lived in the curtained, bombasined-black of their once-spare rooms, recalling their loves, bills, and visitors—some dead, some departed, and others buried in English deserts until the trumpet of the next expensive August awoke them to the world of holiday rain, dismal cliffs, and sand viewed through weeping windows.

The town was not yet awake. Birds sang in eaves, bushes, trees, on telegraph wires, rails, fences, spars, and wet masts—not for love or joy, but to deter other birds. The feathered landlords contested even the flying light’s right to descend and perch.

The town was not yet awake, and I walked through the streets like a stranger emerging from the sea, shedding off seaweed, waves, and darkness with each step. Or perhaps, like an inquisitive shadow, determined to miss nothing—not the initial quiver in the throat of the dawn-announcing cock, nor the initial whirring of arranged time in the belly of the alarm clock on the trinketed chest of drawers adorned with knitted texts and handmade watercolors of Porthcawl or Trinidad.

I walked past small sea-spying windows, behind whose trim curtains lay mild-mannered men and women still not awake and, for all I knew, capable of terrible and violent dreams. In Miss Hughes’s head, “The Cosy,” the cymbals of an Eastern court clashed. Eunuchs struck gongs the size of Bethesda Chapel. Sultans with voices fiercer than visiting preachers demanded an un-Welsh dance. The colors of her dreams glowed and radiated—purple, magenta, ruby, sapphire, emerald, vermilion, honey. Yet, I found it hard to believe. In her tidy dream-world, she knitted a beige woolen shroud with “Thou Shalt Not” on the bosom.

I couldn’t fathom Cadwallader Davies, the grocer, in his near-waking dream, riding on horseback, two-gunned and Cody-bold, through cactus prairies. He added, subtracted, receipted, and meticulously filed a prodigious account with a candle dipped in dried egg.

What grand seas of dreams did Captain’s sleep sail across? Over what blue-whaled waves did he navigate through a rainbow hail of flying-fishes to the music of Circe’s swinish island? I hoped he wasn’t dreaming of dividends, bottled beer, and onions.

Someone was snoring in one house. I counted ten savagely indignant grunts-and-groans, like those of a pig in a model and mudless farm, which concluded with a window-rattler, a wash-basin shaker, a trembler of tooth glasses, a waker of dormice. It reverberated with me to the chapel railings, then brassily vanished.

The chapel stood grim and grey, admonishing the day with a stern warning against nonsense. The chapel never dozed or nodded off; it never closed its long, cold eye. I left it, reprimanding the morning, and a rebuked seagull hovered above it.

Descending and ascending again out of the town, I heard the cocks crowing from hidden farmyards, from old roosts above waves where fabulous sea-birds might perch and cry, “Neptune!” A distant clock struck from another church in another village in another universe, though the wind whisked away the time. I walked in the timeless morning, past a row of white cottages, almost expecting an ancient man with a great beard, an

hourglass, and a scythe under his night-dressed arm to lean from a window and inquire about the time. I would have told him, “Arise, old counter of the heartbeats of albatrosses, and wake the cavernous sleepers of the town to a dazzling new morning.” I would have told him, “You unbelievable father of Eva and Dai Adam, come out, old chicken, and stir up the winter morning with your spoon of a scythe.” I would have told him—I would have scampered like a scalded ghost over the cliffs and down to the bilingual sea.

Who resided in these cottages? I was a stranger to the sea-town, fresh or stale from the city where I toiled for my sustenance, wishing it were laver-bread and country salty butter yolk-yellow. Surely, fishermen; no painters but of boats, no men-dressed women with shooting-sticks and sketchbooks and voices like macaws to paint the reluctant heads of critical and sturdy natives who posed by the pint, against the chapel-dark sea that would be painted bluer than the Bay of Naples, albeit shallower.

I resumed my walk on the cliff path, the town below waking up now ever so slowly. I stopped, turned, and looked. Smoke from one chimney. The cobbler’s, I thought, but from that distance, it might have been the chimney of the retired male nurse who had come to live in Wales after many years of successful wrestling with the mad rich of Southern England. He wasn’t well-liked. He measured you for a straitjacket, meticulously, with his eyes. He saw you bouncing from rubber walls like a sorbo ball. No behavior surprised him. Many townspeople found it hard to resist leering at him suddenly around the corner or convulsively dancing or pointing with laughter and devilish good humor at invisible dogfights just to prove to him that they were “normal.”

Smoke from another chimney now; they were burning their last night’s dreams. Up from a chimney rose a long-haired wraith, resembling an old politician: someone had been dreaming of the Liberal party. But no, the smoky figure wove, attenuated, into a refined and precise grey comma: someone had been dreaming of reading Charles Morgan.

Oh! The town was awakening now, and I distinctly heard, carried by the slow-speaking sea, the voices of the town blowing up to me. And some of the voices said:

“I am Miss May Hughes ‘The Cosy,’ a lonely lady,
waiting in her house by the nasty sea,
waiting for her husband and pretty baby
to come home at last from wherever they may be.

I am Captain Tiny Evans; my ship was the Kidwelly,
and Mrs. Tiny Evans has been dead for many a year.
Poor Captain Tiny all alone, the neighbors whisper,
but I like it all alone, and I hated her.

Clara Tawe Jenkins, ‘Madame’ they call me,
an old contralto with her dressing gown on.
And I sit at the window and I sing to the sea,
for the sea doesn’t notice that my voice has gone.

Parchedig Thomas Evans making morning tea,
very weak tea, too; you mustn’t waste a leaf.
Every morning making tea in my house by the sea,
I am troubled by one thing only, and that’s – Belief.

Open the curtains, light the fire; what are servants for?
I am Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard, and I want another snooze.
Dust the china, feed the canary, sweep the drawing-room floor.
And before you let the sun in, mind he wipes his shoes.

I am only Mr. Griffiths, very short-sighted, B.A., Aber.
As soon as I finish my egg, I must shuffle off to school.
Oh, patron saint of teachers, teach me to keep order,
and forget those words on the blackboard – ‘Griffiths Bat is a fool.’

Do you hear that whistling? – It’s me, I am Phoebe,
the maid at the King’s Head, and I am whistling like a bird.
Someone spilt a tin of pepper in the tea.
There’s twenty for breakfast, and I’m not going to say a word.”