In memoriam Aberfan

The gatekeeper

by Cath Barton

My memory is like a cobweb, more holes than substance, but the threads which hold it together are still tight and strong. One of them is the summer of 1966.

I was nine years old as the summer began and desperate to be ten, an age when life would, I somehow knew, open out. Back then all summers were hot once the holidays began, but I cannot say in truth whether that one was different from any other. What I am sure about is that by August the river was running low, for my sister Hettie and I could cross on the stepping stones which were covered in high water. Cross over to the meadow where we would each find a spot to make our own for the day. Hettie was twelve and spent her days in books. I was a naturalist. It was a word, and a world, which I had discovered when I was given a book on British butterflies for my tenth birthday the previous month. Here indeed was life opening out and I gloried in it.

The meadow was alive with flying creatures, the perfect laboratory for my experiments. I had also been given a magnifying glass and went around, Sherlock Holmes-style, zooming in on the antennae of moths (feathery) and butterflies (club-shaped). In the hedge which bordered the meadow I found a profusion of small orangey-brown moths. They must have been sated with nectar for they let me stroke their little furry bodies. I pored over the pictures in my book and declared them to be hedge browns, or – much the more exciting name – gatekeepers.

At 12.30 – the time decreed by our mother – I would call out to Hettie and she would emerge from her hiding place carrying the lunch basket. I loved unwrapping the sandwiches wrapped in greaseproof paper, each day a delightful surprise. Afterwards I would lie back in the coarse grass and doze in the afternoon sun as my winged friends danced above me. I was completely happy.

But one day there was an interruption in our routine. It must have started like any other day, for I don’t remember any difference when we set out. But, quite early on there was what I can only describe as a shift. In one way nothing changed; in another everything. It was as if a cloud came over the sun. For the rest of that day I saw no flying creatures. At lunch our sandwiches tasted dry and our lemonade sour – even Hettie, who usually consumed everything without comment or indeed much attention, said so. I felt as if something had pressed on my chest. Back at home mother was different too, though she said and did nothing out of the ordinary. Except. She didn’t turn on the radio for the news as she normally did. And. Later I heard her talking on the telephone, which she never did.

Next day everything was back to normal. The strangeness faded. But my gatekeepers were gone. I was sad, for a little while.

That was fifty years ago. Later that year, on an October morning, slurry poured from a slag heap in a South Wales valley and consumed a school. Over one hundred children around the age I was then were killed in an instant. What happened in my small world on that day two months earlier seems to me now like a presentiment. And this morning, as I walked my dog around the lanes, I saw two gatekeeper moths in the hedge. I don’t remember seeing any between that summer of 1966 and now. Although. Maybe there are plenty, and they have simply fallen through the holes in my memory.

About Cath Barton

Cath Barton is an English writer who lives in South Wales. In June 2017 she was awarded the New Welsh Writing AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella, and her novella The Plankton Collector was published by New Welsh Review in September 2018. Her second novella, In the Sweep of the Bay, was published by Louise Walters Books in November 2020. Cath is also active in the on-line community of writers of flash fiction.
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