A brief recap of chapters 12-15 and a few shared thoughts
“Death and madness are themes of the book, and as we peer through the moonlight we gradually realise that we are witnessing a slow descent into insanity.”
Last week we left the unnamed narrator feeling downcast because his mother was unwell. Today we look at chapters 12 to 15, which are steeped in sadness and misfortune, yet the boy’s naivety remains touching, and his memories are compelling to the end.
He first takes us back to a “lovely day” when he and Mam went “over the mountain to visit Auntie Ellen at Bwlch Farm.” She was, he says, “a nice woman” but he “never saw her laugh.” She shared her home with her son, Guto and his younger sister, Catrin – a girl of about fifteen who, as a baby, was scalded when a “kettle fell off the fire”, leaving her disfigured. She spends her days reading or knitting stockings” but never goes out or says “how are you to anyone”.
He is admiring of the older Guto, whom he describes as “a big strong lad” and he goes to help him in the “Big Field” while Mam and Auntie Ellen prepare a meal of lobscouse. He has enormous fun that day picking fruit and learning to swim in the “Swirling Lake”, but unfortunately “comes a cropper” in the hay barn when falling off the hayrick and breaking his arm. The local doctor resets the break and, much to the boy’s distress, his mam leaves him there to convalesce until she returns the following week. As it happens, he enjoys his stay on the “nice little farm” so much that he tries to persuade her to let him stay longer, although he has been tormented with peculiar dreams at night.
As an aside, at the start of this chapter, when he and his mam are walking to the farm before his accident, she chats contentedly to him about the past and surprises him by saying she “went into service in Manchester” in her youth. She describes the great city in northwest England as “a fine place” and promises to take him there one day so he can “see the Lion Show at Belle Vue.” By complete coincidence, my great-grandmother’s brother owned this old zoo and amusement park in the early 20th century – it had been in the family’s hands since the 1800s. I have memories of my Nan (my Mum’s mother) telling me stories of visits to this once fabulous place where she rode on an elephant and was permitted to enjoy the rides for free. While not directly connected to the novel, I couldn’t resist sharing this snippet of information with you.
In this same chapter, the boy also remembers his first glimpse of the sea (“it stretched far far away and then joined the silver wall of Heaven in the far distance”) on a day trip with his church choir to Glanaber. He fondly recalls holding hands with Ceri as they as they walk up the hill to admire the view.
“…with the mist rising from the grass and the gorse just as though someone was turning back the bedsheets and there was a green blanket underneath.”
Chapter 13 becomes considerably darker, when the boy discovers the body of Will Ellis Porter on the floor in the school toilet block, with such “a great gash in his throat” that, for a moment he thinks the man’s “mouth is open”. The place is “swimming in blood” and a large, butcher’s knife is nearby. He runs “like the devil to tell Price the School”, shaking so much the teacher can’t understand what the boy is saying.
He is deeply shocked but keeps his emotions in check. When he returns home, however, his mam is nowhere to be found. He waits for her to return, and eventually heats up some lobscouse in readiness for their meal, but when she still doesn’t appear, he eats alone while reading The Pilgrim’s Progress. He then goes to meet Huw but is hit with yet-more unhappy news. He learns his friend is moving to South Wales the following day to work with his father in the coal mines. The boys promise to write to each other, but he never again sees or hears from Huw.
After coming back to an empty house, he goes to fetch his gran and they return to find “Mam sitting in the chair with no hat on and her hair all over the place […] still wearing her coat and […] soaking wet.” She takes no notice of the boy, who is sent next door for some bread and butter while she is put to bed, but merely speaks to “someone she thought was standing behind her.” The following day, in chapter 14, mother and son are collected by Little Will Policeman’s Dad and Little Davey Corner Shop’s Dad in the “Corner Shop Motor” and driven to “Denbigh”.
I should like to clarify here that Denbigh (which translates as ‘Little Fortress’) is a pleasant market town in North Wales, best known for its historic castle built by King Edward I in 1282. When I was a child, however, it meant only one thing – the name evoked images of a dreadful place where the insane were incarcerated and forced to undergo degrading treatments. I well remember that if ever someone said in a lowered voice: “They were sent to Denbigh”, the matter would be left with only a shudder and an exchange of knowing looks. Its reputation came about because it is where the enormous and distinctly creepy-looking North Wales Hospital (Ysbyty Gogledd Cymru) – originally known as Denbigh Asylum – stood. Built between 1844 –1848, it served as a refuge for Welsh-speaking mental patients, housing up to 1,500 before it was closed in 1995.
Mam never returns from Denbigh and, in chapter 15, the boy runs away one night to avoid being sent to work in the quarry. He leaves a note for his gran saying he’s “gone away to work, just like Huw”, but promises to return one day “with a lot of money” to buy her “loads of posh clothes.”
The novel culminates in a shocking act of madness, which takes the reader unawares, though I won’t offer any spoilers here in case some of you haven’t finished reading. I will merely reveal the ending is obscure – there are clues but no certainties. I’m inclined to agree with the novelist Niall Griffiths who suggests in his excellent Foreword, the book’s “slipperiness is one of its best qualities.”
About the Author
Caradog Prichard (1904-1980) made his name in Wales as one of the writers of the Caernarfonshire quarrying district. Born and raised Bethesda, a tiny town and community on the River Ogwen, he spent his career as a journalist, eventually moving to London and becoming a sub-editor on the foreign desk at the Daily Telegraph. During this period, he penned four award-winning odes in addition to this remarkable novel. He remained in the English capital for the rest of his life.
“Dew, I’d never cried like that before, and I’ve never cried like that since, either. I’d love to be able to cry like that again, just once more.”
Please share your thoughts on chapters 12-15 of One Moonlit Night.