A clapped out fifties coach, no doubt designed with daytrips to Denbigh in mind, coughed and spluttered through the rain to the village to pick us up. We were stood outside the shop, me and my sister, detached from the other kids. Mutes in any language; refusing to betray our strangeness by speaking.
We got on after everyone else and sat quietly at the front, heads bowed in submission. There were whispers amongst the catch up conversation from the weekend. I could make out the occasional English word in the vaguely threatening broadcast taking place behind us. One word kept falling from the crowded noise like a reluctant volunteer pushed forward by an angry mob. “Size” “Size”.
The journey to Tregaron only took fifteen minutes or so, the mechanical asthmatic dipping with the road in and out of the tired looking valley, all bleak fields and dying fences. Occasionally a leafless branch would reach out from the roadside and crack its dead knuckles against my window and wake me from my dream. The bus struggled with the last steep hill and sighed as it came to a halt outside the uninviting concrete school. “Size” “Size”. Maybe it was “Sighs.”
We followed the other children through a little door into a corridor typical of any school on a Monday morning, jostling shoulders and bobbing heads, locker doors being banged shut, the hormonal drone of teenage chatter relating weekend gossip. I located a teacher who pointed us to the secretary’s office up a little staircase. The secretary, a thin but kind-faced woman who looked a little bit like Gladys Pugh in Hi-De-Hi, led us back downstairs which had suddenly and magically cleared in the interim. We were led down a corridor so thin it may have been designed with the secretary in mind. Stopping outside a classroom, the secretary led my sister in, a brief moment of noise and then silence as the door closed again behind her.
Then it was my turn. The secretary explained to me that there were lots of English children at the school now, and that each year in the school had a form for these children, one for Welsh speakers and one for children who needed extra help with their lessons. Rhyd, Bont and Llan.
We were making our way into Rhyd 3. The third year for English kids. It was chaos. The room was packed and the teacher was struggling to make himself heard as he opened his register book.
The secretary told him my name. The teacher looked at me and said “We’ve got 42 in here now. You’ll have to go to a different class. Take him to Bont.”
Any relief felt at not immediately being categorised as someone with learning difficulties evaporated in the instance I entered another class on the far side of the school. The secretary was clearly explaining the situation to the new teacher, a Miss Jenkins.
Miss Jenkins seemed nice enough, told me to grab a seat and smiled. It was the last smile I’d see for a while. The room was suddenly filled with hateful grimaces from the other children. The teacher took the register; I noticed they didn’t do it by surname like in London but by first name.
“Llyr. Rhydian. Bedwyr. Angharad. Sioned.”
These names sounded like some mad spell designed to raise the dead. Soon everyone was on their feet and I followed blindly, guided by magic to a school hall for morning assembly. Ours was the last form in, no doubt my fault. A hymn sheet was stuffed in my hand as I entered. The headmaster took to the stage, dressed in his graduation gown. At the moment he reached the lectern, he nodded to the pianist to cease her playing. There was silence save for the frantic panic of my heart trying to jump free from my chest and return to England.
This was Dr. Rees, the headmaster. He spoke almost entirely in Welsh; no doubt he was instructing the Welsh speaking children that both I and my sister would be stoned to death in the quadrangle this afternoon and that this feature would replace the swimming gala.
Another nod from the head and the pianist resumed her work, accompanied on percussion by the flapping of a hundred hymn sheets being unfurled. I glanced at the sheet. Laminated anagrams. My eyes traced the letters across the page but I couldn’t work out what was going on.
“Efengyl tangnefedd. O rhed dros y byd.” The chorus of an old song was being worried in a couple of hundred ways.
I felt as though a thousand burning eyes were melting holes in the back of my head. Even the teachers who flanked the hall seemed to be shooting me glances of contempt. No point in me trying to sing along, not even worth lip synching. My eyes carefully navigated the hall until I saw my sister, suddenly looking much smaller, staring at her own hymn sheet; listening to her own homesick heart.