CREATIVE S Beryl Jones

NWR Issue 119

The Woman at the Well

When I got out at the station I found the only way of getting to the house was on foot. Jameson, a little man with a thin moustache and turn-down collar, took me first of all a three-mile climb on a rough road; then we crossed a colliery tramway and went along through fields up to a wood, right through the wood for another two miles or so, and there, just outside the wood and before the whin began, the place I was to stay. I suppose it had been a keeper’s cottage but now it was a poor smallholding.

As I sat in the parlour facing the garden and the wood beyond, I saw my week shape itself in front of me there on the path running through the woods, crossed by stream after stream. I’d follow the nearest first up and then down, and perhaps drop into a pool or get my shoulders under a waterfall. Then I’d trace the other streams to their sources and down to the valley river. I’ve always delighted in this sort of tidy plan, though indeed, now I think of it, I don’t believe I’ve ever followed one out in detail.

So, next morning when I sauntered out, my mind was running on busily, and I was over two or three streams before I remembered and turned up a thin and grassy brook under hazels and ashes and oaks. Before long I was surprised to come to a roughly walled-in square about twelve feet by six. Just above was a spring, and someone long ago had made a rough stone runnel into the enclosure. I sat on the walling with its ferns and pungent cranesbill and wondered what the place had been made for. Anyway, it would be a marvellous bath if only the loose stones were fixed. I’d get Jameson to let me have some cement and a bit of piping to control the outflow. Perhaps I should catch a dryad. They must have fled, mourning, from one wood after another as the landowners sold more and more timber, with their taste for luxuries growing and coal not enough to pay for them, though it was being steadily drained from the deep black veins of the land. And these dry seams were the old forests, buried and shrunk and hardened. Where were their nymphs gone? I searched my memories for stories of nymphs found in coal mines, but I couldn’t remember hearing of anything of the kind, so I slipped off the wall and followed the brook and the path back to the house.

I could see Mrs Jameson picking currants, so I went over to help. The fruit was sparse and small, and as the thin black stream began to run through my fingers from the bush to the basin, I asked, ‘Do you know anything about collieries?’

‘Nothing at all,’ the old woman answered, ‘we came to Wales from Shropshire less than a year ago. I’ve always lived in good farming country. And I don’t know how much longer I’ll manage to put up with an unhuman place like this. It seems as though coal getting doesn’t breed the kindness that’s got by growing corn and tending animals.’

‘Come, colliers aren’t as bad as all that,’ I protested. ‘We met some yesterday afternoon going home to the village, nice red-lipped boys with flowers in their caps.’

‘They look like coons [sic],’ she said scornfully.

‘And they’re obviously fond of their dogs,’ I went on. ‘Colliers look after their whippets as carefully as a farmer looks after his sheep dog.’

She sniffed. ‘Of course, if you call whippets ‘‘dogs’’! I call them just shivery-shakes.’
I laughed and gave my attention to the currants till the basin would hold no more and she wrapped it in her apron and took it indoors...

‘The Woman at the Well’ was first published in New Stories, Vol 2, No 1 (Feb–Mar 1935), pp 70–80. Published here with kind permission of S Beryl Jones’ nephew, Mr Emrys Evans.

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