With the change in the weather, the wall had come into its own. The snow was sculpting each stone into a neat plump mound, moulding little knolls that lay softly one on top of the other and side by side; only the deeper, narrower crevices, the leeward nooks, still betrayed the grey-brown certainty of hard rock. As the sky dropped lower, whiter, and the land filled with snow to rise and meet it, these scratchy seams of dark rock stitched the world together, pinning it to the ridge of the wall so that it did not disappear entirely in the blizzard.
Salim went to the back door, pulled on his coat and wellies, and stepped out. The depth of snow surprised him. His feet sank quickly; his trousers were immediately wet and cold above the cuff of his wellies.
He crossed the snow to the wall. Since he’d been watching, the blizzard had altered familiar distances; the walk seemed too long. He was breathless when he arrived, as though he’d hiked as far as the village.
He stood with his hand on the bulging cap of snow, his fingers stinging with cold.
Salim had only ever come here to Ty Nant twice with his wife, shortly after she’d inherited the house: the first time she’d refused to get out of the car. It reminded her of a horror film, she’d said, with the brooding mountains and the creepy bogs and the black birds. The second time, she’d taken an old pink jug of her mother’s and two handfuls of forget-me-nots from the garden, then she’d seemed to put the place out of her mind, as though it didn’t exist. But at some point, she must have arranged for all the old furniture to be taken away or perhaps some of the locals had been in, helping themselves. He’d remembered the house being stuffed with heavy dressers, sturdy drawers and beds, linen boxes so when he’d come with Molly he’d only packed a car full of light belongings – mostly his daughter’s clothes and toys, some books, his work – but when he’d stepped into the hallway and heard the hollow slap of his feet on the tiles, he’d known immediately that they’d be lacking essentials.
Had there been a photograph of the grandfather in any of the bits and pieces left behind? Had that been him: the small, skinny man with the leathery face? That was the picture that came to mind (a dried nut of a man, not wholly unlike Bethan, at the end). In the absence of anything more definite, he thought it would do. That was how he would think of the man who built the wall.
His hand was still on the snow, numb. He hadn’t meant to hang around out here so long. He should go back inside to the warm; he had work to do.
But the wiry old man who might once have been Bethan’s grandfather could be seen quite clearly further up the mountain. His clothes were black-brown against the snow; his boots, his skin, too. If Salim looked along the wall, following the faint, smudged line of it up the slope, he could believe he was seeing such a man heaving stones, patching the breaks that had crumbled into the hollows of the land, his stick-drawing figure scored into the distance.
Hauling back towards the house, he heard the spin of car wheels and the burr of an engine. A 4x4 had pulled off the track and was turning in the yard. Molly jumped out of the back, her uniform a shoot of spring green against the stretch of white.
‘School closed early,’ the woman said, winding down her window. One of those who smiled at him, and waved sometimes, Alice, he thought she might have once said, or Vicky. ‘I brought her on my way home. They’re ringing round, but I thought it would save you having to head out in this.’
She hesitated, looked at him too closely.
‘Are you all right, Salim?’
He placed his hand on Molly’s head, where snowflakes lay like lace. ‘Oh yes, fine. Thanks. For bringing her. It’s very kind.’
She nodded. ‘Well, better get going, before it gets worse. I’ve got two more to drop off. Bye, Molly.’
Salim stood with his daughter watching the heavy tyres churn. It wasn’t long before the sound of the engine was swallowed by the dense quiet.
‘Come on, come and get warm. Then I want to show you something,’ he said.
Molly changed and ate some toast. Salim closed down the document on his laptop. They moved around the house gingerly, as though each of them was trying to make the least sound. The snow came more lightly, each flake swirling.
It was mad to go outside in the cold to show Molly the wall. She was seven years old – why would she be interested in a wall?
‘You’ll need your bobble hat,’ he said. ‘And your red socks.’
He was more carefully dressed, too, this time: he wore long socks that pulled up above his wellies, a hat, gloves. He took her hand at the back door. The ground stretched away, unlandmarked, the boggy grass that would never be garden, the tussocky rise beyond, the heather and hard ground, the scree above, all disappeared.
‘Look, Daddy. Look at that.’
Salim gripped her hand more tightly.
‘There. Can’t you see it? Before it goes.’
He followed the bob of her finger. What he saw was the flick of a small black flame on top of the wall, a coal-smudge thumbprint in the sweep of white. Molly pulled away, sank into the snow. The animal sat up, scanning towards them, some kind of squirrel or wildcat, a sleek, fluid thing; the ermine of its coat was blotted with grey and brown, a smear of almost-yellow, only the black tip of its tail unequivocal. With a single unhurried movement, it slipped away.
Molly stopped. The snow clasped her about the knees. She didn’t look at Salim as he approached.
‘Never mind, Moll. Really. We’ll see it again.’
‘Is it what you wanted to show me, Daddy?’
‘Well, in a way, yes, I suppose so. Just come up a bit further.’
She allowed him to take her hand again and lead her closer to the wall. His footprints from earlier were still visible but only as shapeless impressions; he could not, now, imagine himself standing in them. When they walked together, he and Molly pushed through the snow more clumsily, ripping through in places to the mud beneath, ploughing a furrow that tethered them to the house.
Salim gently kicked the wall. The snow shuddered. ‘Mummy’s grandad made this. A long time ago, when he lived here with his family. This whole wall.’
He gestured towards the mountain, invisible.
Molly snapped her hand from his and waded along to the place where the animal had been. When Salim came up with her, he could see how she was pressing her fingers into its tiny symmetrical tracks.
‘Did you hear me, Molly? This whole wall – see, right up there it goes. All this, built by one man. By your great-grandfather.’
She finally raised her head and peered along the length of the wall. The stripes of her bobble-hat quivered briefly, then she returned her attention to the animal tracks.
Eventually, she said: ‘What was his name?’
‘I don’t know, Molly, do I? It was years ago. Long before I met your mother. Before – anything. She didn’t tell me his name. I don’t even know why she told me this, about the wall. I don’t remember.’
Salim flung a layer of snow from the capping over the stones. They walked back to the house separately, slapping out two trails of new footprints.
Moss grew thick over the stones on the near side of the wall; the other side was stripped by the wind, the cracks and joints scoured. But Salim found spiders’ webs even here, beetles deep in the dark, sometimes a spindly weed. When winter passed, he got into the habit of walking the length of the wall every morning once he’d taken Molly to school. Each time he was surprised by how many things he discovered living in it.
It took him almost three hours to walk from the house, climb to the end of the wall on the high ground and pick his way down again through the rocks and marsh. He always walked up on the bare side, and back with the moss. He dropped Molly off just before nine; by the time he came back from his walk, changed his wet trousers and boots and shook out his coat to dry, it was lunch time. After eating, he took a nap and then it was time to collect Molly again. There was no opportunity to work. He didn’t take his phone with him onto the mountain in case he lost it; when he returned, he didn’t bother making a note of missed calls.
He knew this was not a good way to go about things, but there was nothing much he could do: he was busy with the wall.
The construction, he found, was simple. In several places, stones had collapsed; sheep had broken through and widened the gaps, leaving tufts of shabby wool. Opened up in cross-section this way, Salim realised that Bethan’s grandfather had in essence built two walls, one about a foot from the other, both running parallel over the dips and bumps. He’d filled between them with smaller rocks, rubble, clods of earth, then closed the top with a jigsaw of wider, flatter slabs.
The land here, all around, was peaty; a thin scrub of heather and grass gave way in places to sloughs of bog; huge boulders sprouted through. Salim couldn’t see where Bethan’s grandfather had sourced the stones he must have needed.
When Molly started refusing to go to school, he would take her with him while he worked. He’d give her a biscuit from his pocket and she would sit to one side, where the wall was sound. If it was raining, he opened the big red umbrella and she nestled beneath it.
He was slow, at first, to see the unique shape of each piece of stone, its natural place among the others, but in time he became more skilled Still there was much trial and error; still the patches of wall he re-built were not as strong and accurate as the original, but as the winter passed he began to work more quickly, with more confidence. As the days grew longer and the light stronger, he found he could mend several breaches in a day; his fingers grew strong.
One morning, moving to a new stretch of wall, they found a lamb tangled in a low cluster of hawthorn. When they approached, it panicked, squirming further into the prickles. Salim thought Molly might be distressed at such a sight, but she held back, watching calmly, as he burrowed under the tree on his hands and knees. When he finally extricated the lamb, it bounced away to its mother, nudging at her teats to feed; Molly walked on as if something entirely expected had been accomplished.
Another time the lamb they found was dead, its eyes pecked out, the sockets raw and gaping; the wool of its stomach was stained with blood. Molly crouched by it, examining it with great care, until he pulled her away.
They saw birds of all kinds, and more insects as the days warmed. Salim pointed out a fox that ran across the slope in the distance. On one occasion, they were passed by a small group of walkers in bright anoraks.
They talked about these things sometimes, but mostly, they talked about the wall.
‘Here.’ Molly became very good at finding the right stone. Each time they began a new section, she made a pile of loose rocks and rubble, pulling pieces from the peat or from the dusty innards of the old wall. Once she’d accumulated what she considered to be an adequate supply, she sorted it, grading her stones by a complicated system of size and weight that Salim did not fully grasp. ‘This one.’ She would hand him what she felt to be the most appropriate stone for each slot, certain about her choice. If the ideal piece was too heavy for her to handle, she would point to it. When she made a mistake, and the stone did not fit, she walked away thoughtfully, allowing her father to continue alone.
At the end of each day, they stood together to scrutinize their work. ‘It’s coming along nicely, Moll, don’t you think?’ Salim would say.
It was only towards the end of the spring, on a particularly bright day, that they saw the stoat again. In the meantime, Salim had identified it online, and read something about its habits. It was much easier to study this time because it was impaled in a trap. They found it as they walked along the wall early in the morning, when the sun was still low and the dew heavy.
Salim saw the cage first, shoved against the wall on the mossy side, its end neatly closed off with wood. He wondered how such a thing had come to be there. By the time Molly caught up with him, he’d seen the body of the stoat snapped into rusty teeth, its brown fur gleaming with damp, its tail limp. Its teeth were bared, snarling, but it was dead.
‘Oh – no – Molly, don’t… I mean…’
But she’d seen it too. She stared at it for a moment, and then she stared at him, and then she screamed.
She was flailing and kicking so wildly that he struggled to carry her back to the house. She squirmed from his grip, hit out at him, pulled his hair, his clothes. He thought she might bite him. When they reached Ty Nant, he placed her on a chair in the kitchen. She slid to the floor, rolled into a ball, and sobbed.
‘I want my mummy.’ She pressed her face to the cold tiles.
He wanted to find a way to tell his daughter that Bethan was here, oddly, in this place she’d rarely visited and never liked; here more than she’d ever been at the house in Birmingham that they’d both been so proud of. He wanted to tell his daughter that secretly, intimately, Bethan was right here and if Molly would just keep quiet, she would get to know her mother better than she’d ever known her before. But Molly wouldn’t stop crying, and so Salim picked up the cloth shopping bag and filled it with some cheese from the fridge, the end of a loaf and a bottle of water. He went upstairs and came back with a blanket. After a brief search, he found his wallet.
Wrapping Molly in the blanket, he carried her with the picnic bag to the car. She allowed him to strap her into her seat, only slapping his face at the last moment as he bent over her to secure the belt.
He drove quickly through the bright greens of the fine day. Molly sobbed a while longer, screamed once more as though at a sudden memory, and then fell asleep. Salim drove on, the bends in the road exhausting themselves, the traffic building. He joined the motorway behind a supermarket lorry. The route back through the Birmingham suburbs was so familiar that it might not have been real.
He pulled up in the drive to their house and sat for a minute or two with the engine running. There was a moment’s relief that nothing obviously bad had happened: the front door was not hanging off its hinges; the windows showed no signs of a break-in; there had clearly been no fire. He closed the car door quietly and went in alone, sloshing through the pile of post and blinking at the sudden shade. The gloom of winter was still trapped, as well as an odd smell, of dust and coolness and Bethan and damp paper.
He took a number of empty bags and boxes from the cupboard under the stairs and carried them up to the spare room at the back of the house. From the wardrobe there – his mother’s old wardrobe, with heavy sliding doors – he took out the piles of things Bethan had stashed away. He filled all the containers he’d brought up with him, tidied the shreds of paper and ends of ribbon which had fallen loose, checked briefly round the room and made his way back downstairs where he scooped the post onto the top of one of the bags.
When he looked through the little window next to the front door, he could see that Molly was still sleeping.
He paused only briefly in his own room to collect a pair of sandals that he thought might be useful in the warmer weather. He stuffed them in his pocket, leaving his hands free to carry the boxes and bags. He wondered how they would ever come back here.
As he loaded the boot, Molly woke.
‘It’s all right,’ he said. ‘Just some shopping. Go back to sleep, Moll, and then when you wake up, we’ll have some cheese.’
When they returned to Ty Nant it was dark; Salim lifted Molly out of the car, still wrapped in the blanket, and took her up to bed. He spent the night sifting through the material he’d brought from the Birmingham house, rifling briskly through proofs of Bethan’s existence: photo albums, scrap books, theatre programmes, school reports, postcards, one or two guarantees for electrical equipment.
He set aside all the photographs he could find, and when he’d finished going through the stash, he went back and examined them carefully. Bethan’s grandfather featured in a handful of snaps. In every photo, he was standing to the right of his wife, with his hands in his pockets, squinting at the lens. He was exactly as Salim had pictured him – lithe, gnarly – but his eyes were fiercer than Salim could have imagined. The photographs were black and white, mostly taken on holiday somewhere: there were caravans and beaches, a flag-poled promenade. Only one was taken at Ty Nant: Bethan was in it, as a little girl. She was sitting on the wall, between her grandparents; there was a puppy on her knee. Salim studied the wall. After the photos, he went carefully through the stack of official paperwork. By the time Molly came downstairs, just after dawn, he was done with it all, standing by the front window, watching the night slink away over the wall.
She held back from him, nothing of the previous day forgotten.
‘I’ve got something to show you,’ he said.
He picked up one of the old papers from the table and waited; eventually she came to him.
‘Look – you see here.’ He ran his finger along a line of the print, old-fashioned type-writer letters. ‘This is Mummy’s granddad right here. This is his birth certificate. I found it for you, because you were asking, about his name. Do you remember that? Do you remember asking, when I first told you about the wall? Well, it’s here, Moll. See?’
‘Gareth Owain Richards. Richards – that was Mummy’s surname, before she met me and we got married. Gareth Owain, those were his first names. Gareth he must have been known by, I would think.’
Molly nodded solemnly. ‘Can we go home?’
‘You mean, to Birmingham home?’
‘Yes. Like yesterday. Only for ever.’
But he’d only just found Gareth. ‘Would you want that? Even if Mummy isn’t there?’ His daughter didn’t answer him. ‘I’d have to finish the wall, Molly, before we go. I’d have to do the last stretch of the wall.’
Molly did a little jig on the spot. ‘I don’t think Mummy would have cared about the wall. Not one little bit. It’s a stupid wall.’ She skipped away to the kitchen, flapping her arms. Gareth’s birth certificate floated up from the table and flopped onto the floor. She called back to Salim over her shoulder. ‘So you’ll just have to do it quickly, Daddy, and get it out of the way. I want to go home.’
He watched the way she moved, her dizzying lightness, and felt his own weight like a displaced stone.
Molly no longer selected building material for him. After two days of complaining, she refused even to go out onto the mountain.
‘I want to go home,’ she said, clamping the edge of the kitchen door with her hands and knees. ‘Mummy’s home.’
He could not shift her without hurting her. ‘But Mummy came here too, when she was little like you.’ He tried to explain. ‘She came to see her grandparents. I told you, about her grandad – your great-grandfather – and about the wall. I showed you the photos, Moll.’
She glared at him until he went away.
He didn’t see how he could go back to the Birmingham house. It seemed an empty, spoiled place. But Molly struck a deal with him, a series of deals, each one more binding than the last: she would behave nicely and talk to people; she would eat vegetables and re-join her ballet class; she would kiss him; she would go back to school. All of this she would promise, if he would take her home.
And so they packed up, the few things they had. Salim explained their departure in the village, and his neighbours nodded. One evening before summer came, before the soft dark rolled off the mountains, he piled their bags into the car so that they could be sure of an early start the following morning and he walked out to the wall in the uncertain dusk. He made his way steadily over the tussocks and then turned to follow the mossy side – the wrong side – up the hill. He walked as far as the first mended breach, crouching to trace the new work with his hand. It might not be strong enough to make it through the worst of the weather, he thought; or sheep might bring it down again, nudging through. He ran his palm over a long flat stone – one that Molly had picked out for him – and pushed at it gently, to gauge how firmly it was wedged. It did not shift. He pushed harder, leaning in with his shoulder, and he felt the stone slide, only slightly, imperceptibly, but enough to convince him that he was right: the new parts of the wall would not last.
He stood up, brushing his hands against his trousers. He could see Bethan’s grandfather in the distance, a scratch of a man bent over the stones. This was probably the last time he would see him, Salim thought; he would put Ty Nant up for sale, he supposed; he wouldn’t come again.
He headed back while there was still enough light to pick his way over the uneven land. He checked on Molly who was curled on top of the bed, soundly asleep, her eyelids flickering. He wondered how he would remember all this, once things got back to normal – whether he would remember it much at all, given a year or two.
Jacqueline Yallop is the author of three novels and several works of non-fiction, including the memoir Big Pig Little Pig which was BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week. New to short stories, her work was longlisted for the 2021 V.S Pritchett Short Story Prize. She lives in Aberystwyth where she teaches creative writing at the university.