Kenfig is plagued by ghosts. Things have reached epidemic proportions. Ghosts in the fields, in the pubs, on the beach, in the houses, in the machines. Shrieking in the slacks, knocking on the windows, whispering in the walls. Indeed, Kenfig could even be said to be haunted by the ghost of itself. Because Kenfig is not really Kenfig. It’s a substitute. The original town disappeared sometime in the middle ages, covered over entirely by the remorseless and relentlessly shifting sands. We live today in the refugee camp. It’s beginning to seem permanent. And sometimes it’s tempting to think our real lives might still exist, out there somewhere under the dunes, among the arrowheads and amulets, millstones and thimbles. Sieve sand’s pixels and who knows? A flake of reality might catch the sun.
The ghost I’m hunting today gave its name to The Angel Inn, next to the church in Mawdlam. I’ve heard there’s a story behind the name, but I don’t know it, so I’m sitting in the beer garden looking towards the castle ruins and asking my fellow drinkers. Was there a penitent pilgrim perhaps, on his way from Bridgend to pray with the monks at Margam? He got lost in the mist on the dunes, say, pixy-led and delirious. Bitten by the savage salt wind, all hope draining from his frozen bones like frost until suddenly the fiery angel arose, a beacon in his mind, and led him here. To the shelter of this very door. No? Well then, I’ve heard that this place was once a hospice for lepers. The bandaged patients, removed from the world by their terrible sickness; a life in quarantine. Maybe an angel worked here and daily washed their wounds with her tears? Her compassion a miraculous cure. Could that be it? Anyone? But nobody seems to know. Either that, or it’s a secret that must be kept. Perhaps the angel is still here. Kept in the cellar. The ultimate contraband. Imagine that, the beast of eternity, shipwrecked on Sker beach.
Meanwhile, busker Gronow tells me his own ghost story:
“I was about fifteen or sixteen I think. The school found out I’d been mitching, so I was hiding over the dunes from my old man. Hiding from a battering. I hated school. Much rather wander the dunes than sit in carp-faced rows for the mind-control. I wanted to be a traveller, a troubadour, a tramp, yeah? A poet, a wandering minstrel. I was head over heels in love with the world and every single girl in it. Heavenly days. But the careers adviser said them things weren’t on the list. How about travel agent? Leisure and Tourism? So I switched off, dropped out, never looked back. But the ghost was earlier in my career. Fifteen, hiding in the woods. It looked like an owl mask, something wearing a white owl mask, standing in the shadows, intending itself to be seen. But it was pretending not to see me. It stood there like a monk in a hood. I stopped still, definitely scared, but doubting. Wondering whether to approach the mystery. It was man-size I suppose, but with the hooked angelic face of an owl. A hooded owl. A weirdo in an owl mask in the woods. A white monk in a devil’s hood. I got closer, slowly, quietly as a deer over the brambles and ivy, straining against my nerves and doubts and fears and curiosities, uncatching my clothes from the flicks and fletches and scratches of blackthorn and dogrose, trying not to jinx myself by shaping the wrong thought. Could this be the moment? The moment I meet…a supernatural “Thing?” An ancient thing with flesh and bones and brains and grievances? My god, surely it is: Look! But then I slipped on a mossy rock and the creature turned its alien head and looked straight into my heart like an arrow. And there, tumbled in the ferns, spluttering among the dust and pollen, I saw it clearly. An ash tree had fallen in a recent storm. Its shattered trunk created the remarkable illusion. It really did look like an owl-headed human stood there in the soft light of the rising moon. A lady-owl. A howling witch. I hauled myself up, shaking off the sticky buds and stingies, strode forward and touched its twisted face, the wrenched white heartwood of the ash. And then suddenly a breeze like a stranger’s breath whispered against the sweat on the back of my neck. Said my name. I careered out of those woods alright.”
“But that’s not the end. A month or so later and I’m walking down West Road. Night-time. Soft rain falling. And I spotted a stuffed barn owl, just dumped there on the wall of the vet’s surgery. Remembering the ghost in the woods I approached it shiftily. Can I just take it? A masterpiece of taxidermy, abandoned, weirdly, right there on the vet’s wall. Stunning. A souvenir of my scary encounter. It could only be meant for me. A wink from the universe. All the stillness of death on it and yet, its closeness to life, bewildering the senses. That beak, like a razor. Well, I reached to smooth its breast and the moment my fingers touched those soft feathers – BOOM — it burst back to life, threw out it’s big wings and leaping into the sodium lit sky swept away silently towards the full moon rising over Sker… and that, my friend, is a true story. Yes, a true story.”
The tables in the beer garden are covered with empty glasses and crisp packets. Most of the drinkers have disappeared but some hang on for the last of the early spring sun. A chill in the air now, like a key in a lock. Tobacco smoke drifts away towards the steelworks, a hazy mirage on the other side of the Kenfig river. Looks like I’ll have to consult the online oracles when I get home. There’s surely information about The Angel there. But for now, one more drink to keep us warm as we watch the starlings gathering on the telephone wires, their voices a wild reel of whirrs and clicks and brash flutes.
Kenfig Journal by Kristian Evans
Kristian Evans is an artist and writer from Bridgend interested in ecology and the ways we think about and interact with the “other-than-human” world. He has lived in Kenfig for five years. His performance installation “The Mirror’s Grain,” written with Tracy Evans, was launched at the Kenfig National Nature Reserve Centre in May 2010, as part of the “Mouth to Mouth” series of events organised by Arts for the Earth. The Kenfig Journal will appear here regularly.
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