SHEELA-NA-GIG

THIS was at the time when I felt sure that I had nothing better to do than hang around waiting for the right one.
It was my third summer in Wales, in Lleyn, in the peninsula that dipped its tentative finger into St. George’s Channel. A man could feel himself a king in Lleyn, I used to think, could climb Garn Fadryn and see his kingdom stretched about him in extent, bounded on three sides by the sea, valleys and fields and woods and villages. Not that, however, I would have mentioned my imagined sovereignty to the Welsh, I, a Londoner–this would really have strained their tolerance of my summers. For the first two I had worked, and this third I had come down on a kind of working holiday: I stayed at David’s farm on the alluvial plain extending back from Hell’s Mouth, and helped with the harvest and anything else there was to help with. In the evenings we would go out drinking, driving all over Lleyn—Aberdaron, Sarn, Rhŷd-y-clafdy, Abersoch, Criccieth and sometimes up as far as the Mermaid on Anglesey, or to Llandudno and Rhyl.
That was how we lived in the summer, worked hard all day and enjoyed ourselves all evening and most of the night: there was a group of thirty or so of us, all in our twenties, in that tense, competitive group relationship of the unmarried; Trefor and Anne and Gwendy and Iolo and Alice and Gwillim and Mos and Jenny and Llr and David and Rhiain and a dozen more, who would racket about North Wales in sheer enjoyment, imaginative enjoyment, that is, not that kind of mixture of foolishness and bravado born of boredom. We could all drive–you had to drive to get anywhere west of Pwllheli–and were good drivers, too, for I never heard of any of us having an accident in spite of the way we used to belt around.


In the winter, of course, they used to tell me, it was very different: I would hardly, they said, recognise the places or the people. But from June until September, the summer: that was the time for me to be in Lleyn.
One afternoon the combine-harvester pitched awkwardly and stubbed its drum into the earth, fracturing the lefthand support arm–a great casting about four feet long–with a crack which I was afterwards told was heard as far away as Rhiw. The quickest way to replace the arm was for someone to drive down overnight to the spare-part stockists of this particular Swedish machine, in Dorset, near Poole. As the others could harvest by hand, at which I was useless, it was sensible and logical that I should be the one to make the round trip of about six hundred miles. I should be back the following night, so that only one full day’s work would be lost. I slung a caravan bunk mattress and my sleeping-bag into the back of David’s ten-hundredweight van, and left at about five.
There was not much traffic even the other side of Pwllheli, and I made good time over the slower stretch through Maentwrog and Blaenau out on to the A5. I began to enjoy myself. I sang sad songs to myself with deep sentimental feeling, unashamedly, secure in my solitude. I looked out for hitchikers, for this was one of the few times I was in a position to repay some of the hitchiking debt I had incurred myself as a student in the past. But I saw only one, and she was running for a wagon in front of me which had just stopped. Something about her made me feel that she was on the game, a wagondriver’s pickup. I would have liked to have talked with her.

Past Shrewsbury the sun was half set, and for fifteen minutes or so I drove enravished through the most sensuously-affecting light effects: I had the headlights full on, and, instead of marring the effect by their artificiality, they added to it, being and epitomising my relationship with the sun’s light. I thought at the time that I was asking for trouble, enjoying the sun: but I persuaded mysélf that it was after all the death of the sun.
I did not feel at all tired. The van was comfortable and easy to drive; I could rest the outside of my right foot against a projection whilst using the accelerator, so that my ankle did not become overtired. I thought I would drive for as long as I did not feel tired.
The moon rose about eleven.
I stopped once just beyond Ludlow to look at my map. I should go through Leominster, Hereford, Ross and Gloucester. Seeing Hereford on the map caused me to remember its cathedral, and then the church at Kilpeck, just the other side of the city, which I had read of as being one of the finest examples of Norman and late Romanesque architecture in the whole of Britain. At the same time, I realised that I was beginning to feel tired. I would make my way to Kilpeck, although it was eight or ten miles out of my way towards Abergavenny rather than towards Ross, and spend the night parked nearby. I was delighted at the thought of waking in the morning to find the church there to be given my mind.
I found it easily, almost uncannily, for although the moon shone fully the way was quite intricate: past a railway halt, over another bridge, and then right down an avenue–of elms, I think. I pulled off on to the verge not twenty yards from the lychgate, and climbed over into the back of the van, on to the mattress. It was just after one o’clock. Through one of the door windows at the back I could see the outline of the church against the sky; it was smaller than I had expected.
The windows were misted aver when I awoke, and it was nearly eight. I had slept longer than I had wanted to, and I decided I could spare the church only about fifteen minutes. I sloughed oif the sleeping-bag, and pushed my hair back.
There was a castle mound to the west of the church, with thickset stumps of rubble walls on it, and I decided to go up there first to look at the church from a distance. My bladder needed emptying, toö, preferably out of sight of the farmhouse just opposite the van.
The first surprise was to see a mountain to the west with an outline almost exactly similar to that of Garn Fadryn from David’s farm at Llanengan: from the north, a fairly gentle slope levelling out to a plateau, closed by a cairnshape which fell to a forty-degree scarp on the south.
The church was exquisitely lovely. Its sandstone was ironmould brown-red in colour, like the warm hide of a stag. A groundmist covered the churchyard nearly to the top of the surround wall, so that the church seemed to be suspended within a thin rectangle.
I went down. The gate was locked. I vaulted over the low wall.
The south door of the church gave me an emotional shock; I had read that it was the first glory of the building, but this had not prepared me for what I saw. It was elaborately and richly carved, the architrave carrying a tympanum with the Tree of Life, semicircled by a plain moulded order, then a carved order with heads of fantastic and grotesque beasts, and outside that a label with large linked medallions enclosing more beastheads. The inner order of the jambs was plain, but the outer had two shafts each side, both carved differently: íntricately intertwining foliage, and serpents with their tails in their mouths, and two armed figures wearing strange caps or helmets. I felt oddly that the style and matter of the carving were pre-Christian, even anti-Christian.
The door was not locked; surprisingly.
Inside, the chancel arch had two mouldings, one with a chevron pattern and the other with lozenge-and-pellet ornament. The label also had chevrons, and the responds facing west had three apostle-like figures carved on them. These and the modern brass cross on the altar came as a shock to me: the whole atmosphere, feeling, of the church was to me pagan, non-Christian, and these apostles and this cross were alien here.
At the door there was a table, and on it flowers and a thick pile of a royal blue quarto monograph with Kilpeck Church in gold fatface Gothic on the front. I picked one up, and put half a crown into a box by the vase. Glancing through it I saw illustrated a holy-water stoup, believed to be Saxon and therefore older than the twelfth-century church. I looked around me, and found it: it was in a very worn condition, but two arms carved round the rim, some sort of band round the waist, and two feet, toes downward, could still be made out easily enough. I felt I knew what it was really, and smiled at its being used in a church.
I shut the booklet, resolving to read it later. It was now half past eight, and I thought that I ought soon to be moving again: but the outside of the building was so interesting that it was impossible for me not to give it a close if quick scrutiny.
Outside the remarkable doorway I turned right and looked up at the west wall: it had a splendidly-proportioned window with an inner interlaced roll-moulding, and at the ends and centre of the corbel table below it there were three narrow stylized crocodile-heads protruding, with curled grotesque tongues. These latter heads were another shock: I hardly thought of Norman landowners in the Marches even knowing of the existence of crocodiles, let alone wishing to decorate their church with stylized representations of them.
What was so remarkable about the carving on the church was that it was so well-preserved: the stone was not weathered at all as far as I could judge. Inspecting it closely I could still see the toolmarks on it, just as the masons had left them over eight hundred years before. This seemed extraordinary to me: Old Red Sandstone formations are not usually notable for their resistance to friability.
Of all the carving, it was the corbel table which fascinated me most: at intervals of about a foot, all the way round the building, projected carvings of groteque heads, figures, monsters, and animals: dogs, bulls, rabbits,serpents, bears, pigs-all seen in nightmarish mutations. Here and there a corbel was missing, the stone looking as though it had been deliberately smashed off. I looked in the booklet and read that some had been destroyed in the nineteenth century because they had been considered obscene:.I.felt.I knew. exactly what kind of corbel had been so childishly effaced.
All the more to my surprise, then, the last shock this astonishing building had for me that summer morning, when I saw the last figure on the corbel table of the sweetlyrounded apse to be the sheela-na-gig: narrow face, huge eyes, thin lips, skeletal ribs, legs haunched high and wide, stick-like arms outside and under the thighs for the hands to hold open an enormously exaggerated vulva.
I read later that there are two or three other examples of the sheela-na gig in Britain, and a lot more in Ireland. The sheela-na-gig is a representation of the twin aspects of life: death and procreation, symbolised by her upper and lower halves. She is pre-Christian, pre-Celtic, and has been traced as far back in Britain as the advent of the Beaker People early in the second millenium B.C., and in Egypt as far back as the VIIth Dynasty of the First Intermediate Period. But what the sheela-na gig stands for is constant for all ages, eternal and universal: for if there were no death then there would be no need of procreation. The two are inseparable.
Even though I did not know all this that morning, I felt I knew why the despoilers had left this one alone, had left the sheela-na-gig alone.
Whatever foreign building techniques and Romanesque style the Normans had imposed on their vassals, they had known enough to let these master-masons of the Marches decorate and ornament Kilpeck Church in their own tradition, a religious tradition far older than the Christian one.
I turned away.
A woman in an apron was unlocking the gate. She did not seem surprised that I was already inside.
I put the blue monograph on the shelf under the dash, started the engine, and drove awkwardly off the verge. In the mirror I saw the small rustbrown church until I turned the corner; reflected then was the mountain like Garn Fadryn; and Rhiain was in my mind.
The feeling of disembodiment came upon me. I had had it once before whilst driving, in North Wales the previous summer, strangely enough, and had been frightened afterwards. It is very difficult to describe. It was as though someone else was using my body, and I was above (always above), dispassionately regarding this person’s actions. As last year I drove dangerously fast along narrow roads. As last year I had very near escapes several times. When I think of the risks I took I am full of reprehension for myself. I remember the above-myself thinking at the time what a fool this body was, as well.
Eventually I found myself following signs to Ross, and finally a main road to Ross. Gradually myself came down, returned to my body, consonant with an increasing hunger. Perhaps that was something to do with it, feeling hungry. But I do not think so really, because the summer before it J had occurred not very long after lunch.
Gloucester Cathedral stood fretted and haughty and threatening above the city, white, far whiter than most buildings in England, and in the morning sun it looked as though carved in packed snow. I considered stopping again to visit it: but I thought that the cold Perp. of the cathedral would sort ill with the vision of warm Romanesque that I had within me; so did not stop.
I settled down to drive hard, taking as direct a line south as I could through Stroud, Nailsworth and Tetbury. I was enjoying the sun-impregnated stone of the villages, and driving as well as I had ever done: fast, but very safely.
I was furious when a petrol tanker backed into me in Malmesbury, smashing my offside headlight’and damaging the wing. There is a tower in Malmesbury, and a rightangle turn round it wide enough for only one vehicle at a time. A huge mirror is fixed to the corner and there is an equally huge sign directing attention to it. I was waiting about three yards behind a petrol tanker when without warning it began to back. All I could do was to sound my horn; luckily the handbrake was off and there was nothing behind. The infuriating thing was that there was no action I could have taken in time to prevent the accident.
The tanker driver was a great thick, and resented me having been behind him. He had obviously not looked in his nearside mirror or he would have seen me. He was hardly perturbed, however, as we exchanged addresses, in contrast to my anger, and we parted in deepest enmity.
I drove savagely then, though I surprised myself by how well, too, being determined to make up the time lost and to reach Poole by the early afternoon. I arrived shortly after two, and found the spare-part stockists to be pleasantly efficient and co-operative. I was on my way back, having had a meal as well, by three.
Just before the shops shut, I stopped to buy a couple of meat pies and some cakes. Otherwise I did not stop until about nine o’clock, when the sun was poised on a holt to the west, and I was a few miles south of Shrewsbury. There, having left the van in a rutted gate entrance, I sat on a great stone newel and ate one of the pies and a couple of the cakes.
On the left, under a rowan, there was what I now know to have been a man lying with what I now know to have been a woman, making what I already knew to be love.
I considered whether I should drive on after dark or not, in view of the damaged headlight, which, surprisingly, still worked in spite of its glass being broken: for I was not sure whether the accident had so altered its alignment that it would dazzle other drivers. I could drive until dark, sleep, and then go on when it became light. But remembering how I had overslept hours past dawn the night before, I decided that I would risk driving through the night: otherwise I should not be back at Llanengan before midday, and David would have lost best part of another day’s harvesting.
The offside headlight certainly did dazzle other drivers, I soon found: they flashed their own lights at me, and all I could do was show them by main beam and off again that I was already dipped and could not help it. Fortunately there was not very much traffic about.
The moon bobbled about in the rearview mirror occasionally as the road turned to accommodate it.
After I had passed Corwen and was trying to make up my mind whether to go through Blaenau or Beddgelert back to Lleyn, I remembered the minor road through Yspyttyifan and over the moor: I thought that it would be almost deserted at that time of night, and therefore less dangerous both for me and for others. I began to look out for the turning: I was not sure whether it was the near side of Pentrefoelas or past it. I looked forward to seeing the moor at night; I had driven across it several times by day, a desolate, hardly inhabited tract of land with roundshouldered hills separated by marshy stream-cut valleys: it was more typical of Dartmoor than of North Wales.
Half a mile before the turning the far side of Pentrefoelas I saw a woman standing in the road. She moved her arm as the nearside headlight picked her out. I swerved to avoid her and braked harshly. I told her I was not going much farther along the A5, but through Yspytty-ifan and thence to Portmadoc and down Lleyn.
“I know,” I feel she said.
She climbed in. I drove off. I asked her where she wanted to go.
“You know,” I feel she said.
I glanced at her strangely. She had a sharp, narrow Welsh face. We turned left towards the moor, and passed the village. I was busy watching where the road was going, for once through the village the sides are marked only by limewashed stones at intervals of about ten feet. There were often sheep, too, lying down in the road to sleep, for reasons no doubt best known to themselves, to be avoided; perhaps the road was still warm from the sun.
The moon was uncovered suddenly by cloudbanks, above and slightly to our right.
We drove for about twenty minutes. I certainly did not know where she was going, I thought, and she’s got a bloody cheek. Then she said:
“Here! Here!” in a voice which it was impossible not to obey.
I braked harshly again. She turned in opening the door, looked at me, and I felt her moonlit thinlipped smile. Then she was gone, leaving the door open. I leant across to close it, straightened up, and then there she was, sitting down in the road facing me, just inside the headlights’ range. She raised her knees, and suddenly she was the sheela-na-gig, just as the one at Kilpeck, but living, living.
I felt an elemental oneness, union, unity, with the moon, the lights, the road, the moor, the sheep, the van, the stones, and, above all, with her.
I began to feel disembodied again.
I watched myself put the van into gear, and start to drive round her: and watched myself surprised that she moved with the beams, stayed in the same position relative to the van whichever way my body tried to turn it on the road.
Then I lost interest in my body.
The rest of the journey has no being in my memory: but certainly the above-myself returned, certainly I was wholly myself again when I reached Llanengan, for I remember Rhiain stepping from the gate-breach in the church wall as I slowed to take the turning for the farm, and being warm and gentle and kind and her hair damp from the night; and suddenly it was right with Rhiain, good and right, and three summers’ knowing had fallen into love between us.
Rhiain’s father runs sheep on half a mountain behind Beddgelert. The old man was lonely with only his daughter. Now he has a son-in-law and a grandson too. This is my home now, Wales, Lleyn.
To Rhiain I tell everything, everything. She listens and understands and knows. She smiles in her way, the pointed Welsh face full of love for me and for our son. And knows.
But it has taken more than two years for me to bring myself to write it down.
It hit me.

B.S. Johnson, Sheela-Na-Gig.

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