“How much longer?” Josh complained as he squirmed uncomfortably in the passenger seat of Brenda’s hatchback.
“Once we’re over the Severn, it’s about an hour” Brenda replied.
“An hour?” Josh rolled his eyes and looked out of his window. Big, fat flakes of snow began to settle on the glass before melting or blowing away. “What’s Wales like in December anyway? What is there to see except for rain and sheep.”
“That’s enough of that young man,” Brenda snapped. “That’s my home you’re talking about, and my family and friends, so let’s be having a bit less of your chopsing in front of them if you don’t mind.”
Josh bowed his head. “Sorry” he mumbled. “So, who’s this Mary we’re going to see, then?” he said, attempting to show an interest.
Brenda snorted. “It’s not Mary. It’s Mari. Mari Lwyd.”
“Who’s that then?”
“It’s not a who, silly. Not really. It’s a festival we celebrate in Llanceffyl.” She saw Josh tilt his head quizzically from the corner of her eye. She continued. “We dress up and go from door to door singing, then we get invited in for some food and drink. Oh, and we follow Mari Lwyd, who is really a person carrying a horse’s head on a stick…”
“It’s not as crazy as it sounds.” Brenda paused for a second. “Actually, yes it is as crazy as it sounds. Just go with it, right? It’s a bit of fun, but the person playing Mari Lwyd takes it very seriously, so please try to be more respectful when we get there. You never know, if you behave she might even choose you.” Sensing Josh about to question this, she continued. “Every year Mari Lwyd picks one well-behaved child and gives them a gift. Parents in Llanceffyl use Mari Lwyd a bit like Santa’s Nice and Naughty List.”
“What’s it mean anyway? Mary Lewd?”
“Mari Lwyd,” Brenda corrected again. “It’s a good question. Some think it means pale or grey mare, but others say there’s a bit of Catholic influence – the church muscling in on our…” she took her hands off the wheel to make air quotes, “pagan rituals. No-one knows for sure but in Llanceffyl, the English speakers call her Grey Mary.”
“Grey Mary.” Josh mulled the name for a moment. “Sounds stupid. And creepy.”
“Josh!” Brenda chided. “You’ve got to respect our traditions! I don’t want to tell you again!”
“Sorry. It’s just that there’s nothing like this back home. Christmas was always…” he hesitated. “Difficult. More often than not I’d find myself hanging out with my mates on Christmas Day, just another day, like. Anything but spend the whole day with my dad. Not that he noticed when I was there anyway.”
Brenda patted his leg. “I’m glad you’re out of that place, and that they sent you to me.” She thought for a moment. “You’ll like it. Wait and see. You’ll make friends, good ones, who won’t try and stab you soon as look at you. Listen, I know it’s hard, first day in a new home and all, but just do your best to join in okay?”
Josh nodded. Brenda reached into an area below the car stereo and produced a cassette – NOW That’s What I Call Music 13. “Here, put this on will you?” she held it out to Josh. He took the tape and studied the stereo for a moment. He’d never seen a tape player in a car before, but it was easy enough to figure out how it worked. He pushed the tape into the slot and an ancient-sounding song he kind of recognised from one of the oldies stations burst into life. The woman was singing about the only way being up, or something. Josh sympathised with her.
As the Prince of Wales Bridge receded behind them he saw a road sign with a large red dragon sitting over the motto ‘Croeso i Gymru: Welcome to Wales’. Brenda seemed happy in her own world singing along to her tunes so Josh sighed to himself, fished his phone and earphones out of his pocket and listened to some proper music.
The town was not at all what Josh was expecting. After that freaky thing Brenda had told him with the horse (I mean, seriously – what the hell?) he was expecting thatched roofs and cobbled streets. But Llanceffyl seemed like every other modern-ish town, with off-licenses and greasy looking takeaways on the high street and dilapidated council estates with occasional boarded-up windows and kids passing round cider in alleyways.
“There’s a lot of pubs, ain’t there?” Josh said as the car passed through the town. Among many others, he’d noticed The Hare & Hound, The Grey Man (which oddly, had a picture of a pair of badgers on the sign), The Angel and The Conductor’s Whistle.
“Don’t even think about it young man,” Brenda laughed. “We’ll be in some of them tomorrow and you can have juice or Coke. Maybe… just maybe, mind, I’ll let you have some wassail at the end of the night.”
“Wassail?” Josh cocked his head.
“It’s a drink we share at Christmas, a bit like mulled wine, but with spices, cider and cream. They always have a cask of it at The Bone Horse. Anyway, we’re here now, so we’ll talk about it tomorrow.”
Brenda’s car crunched through the fresh snow of a driveway outside a modern looking house. Before the engine had even stopped the front door of the house sprung open and a man of a similar age to Brenda, and with the same dark red hair bounded up to the driver’s door. Brenda got out and hugged the man.
“Shwmae little brother!” she said.
“Shwmae, sis!” he cried, unable to conceal his excitement at seeing her.
Josh stepped out of the car. “Er. Hello,” he said sheepishly and held his hand out. The man looked him up and down for a second without taking it.
“You must be Josh.” Josh nodded. “Howard,” said the man curtly. The two sized each other up. Josh let his hand drop back down to his side. Brenda broke the tension, saying “Well I don’t know about you two, but I’m pretty beat. I’ve been driving for hours and could use a drink before getting my head down.”
“Come on in,” Howard gestured his guests into the house.
Josh was also quite tired and went to bed soon after arriving. He had not long drifted off to sleep when he was woken again by raised voices. It sounded like Brenda and Howard were arguing. Josh crept to the door and opened it just a touch to listen.
“What are you thinking Bren? I mean, it’s admirable, what you’re doing, taking these kids in, but do you always have to choose such chavs?” Josh clenched his fist.
“Howard! You’ve known him for all of ten minutes. Don’t be so judgemental, ” Brenda replied.
“You can’t save them all Bren. This Josh is obviously a lost cause. He doesn’t care about anything but himself. It’s written all over his face, his haircut, his clothes.”
Howard’s words hit Josh hard and he felt the sting of tears in the corner of his eyes. It wasn’t even the stuff he’d said about his appearance – it was the suggestion that he didn’t care. He very much did. He liked Brenda, a lot. She’d shown him more affection in that car journey than his dad had in thirteen years.
He was looking forward to tomorrow’s festivities, even if they did sound like something out of a horror film. Possibly because they sounded like something out of a horror film. It had been years since he’d been to any kind of Christmas party, and it was certainly the first time for as long as he could remember that he felt welcome. Well, that was until Howard’s hurtful rant. Josh wiped away the water from his eyes and cheeks and continued to listen.
“He’s here now Howard, and whether you like it or not, he’s coming with us tomorrow night…”
“But, he just won’t understand our ways,” Howard cut in.
“I’ve explained it to him as best I can, but you know there’s nothing like experiencing it.”
“And how did he take it?”
“Well, he thought it sounded weird,”
“See, he just won’t…”
“It is weird,” Brenda interrupted. “Fun, yes, meaningful, yes, to us, but we both know it’s also peculiar as hell.”
“I can’t say you’re wrong, Sis,” Howard laughed. “Okay, I give in,” his voice had softened somewhat. Josh heard a wine bottle being uncorked and two glasses being poured. “I’ll give this Josh a chance, but he’d better not let you down like that kid you brought here last year did. What was his name again? Harry?”
“Harry, yes, that’s it.” When Brenda spoke, she sounded upset.
“Have you heard anything else about him?” Howard said.
“No. Nothing. Not from the police here or in Nottingham,” she said. “It’s just like he vanished. I really want to do right by Josh, don’t want to make the same mistakes. He’s a good lad, I know he is.”
“You thought that about Harry, too,” Howard said.
“Yes, true, but there’s something about Josh. I can tell, despite his rough edges, that he just wants to be a normal, good kid. Be nice. I want him to just have a normal family Christmas for once in his life.”
“We’ll tomorrow is gonna be anything but normal,” Howard said and laughed.
Josh heard the clink of two glasses, and nothing else as the pair downstairs sat in silence, lost in their thoughts. He closed the door gently, so as not to alert them to his eavesdropping. He got back into bed but was unable to fall asleep, his mind a cyclone of thoughts and emotions brought on by what he’d heard.
When Josh finally did drift off, his dreams were troubled by a large shrouded figure on a horse chasing him through a maze of alleys in a run-down council estate. Every time he thought he’d got away from the horse, he’d hear the clip-clop of hooves on cobbles behind him, and the chase was back on.
Josh was woken up by Brenda shaking his shoulder. He opened his eyes. She was sitting on the edge of his bed.
“Wakey wakey, lovely,” she said. “Sleep well?”
He couldn’t help himself. He smiled back at her. “Hey,” he croaked.
Brenda’s face became serious. “Listen. I looked up the stairs and saw you at the door last night.”
Crap, Josh thought.
Brenda saw his panic. “Don’t worry,” she comforted him. “I’m not angry with you but I was angry with Howard. I don’t know how much you heard but you’ve got to forgive my brother. You see, last year I was fostering another lad, much like you, and he, well, there’s no easy way to say this… He ran away with the Mari Lwyd charity money and hasn’t been seen since.”
“That’s horrible,” Josh said. “How could someone do that to you?”
“Well, let’s just say that I should have listened to Howard last time, but don’t think too badly of him, he’s still upset about it. He’s been warned, and will be nice, but try not to wind him up, alright?”
Josh nodded. Brenda ruffled his hair and left him to get dressed.
After breakfast, Howard brought down a pair of top hats adorned with colourful ribbons.
“What’s this?” Josh asked.
“That’s your costume for tonight,” Howard said.
“There’s only two. What about you?” Josh replied.
Brenda and Howard exchanged excited glances before Brenda winked at him and said “Oh, go on. You can tell him.”
Howard fixed Josh with a stern look and said, without an ounce of humour “What I am about to tell you is a closely guarded secret, and if you let this slip, I’m afraid I will have to kill you… That last bit was a joke.”
Josh grinned. This Howard wasn’t all that bad. He nodded for him to carry on.
“I’m picking my costume up at the cricket ground because this year,” he paused. Brenda grinned as she put her arm around her brother and rubbed his shoulder. “This year the festival council chose me to be Mari Lwyd.”
“That’s a big responsibility. Don’t screw it up,” Josh said gravely. “That last bit was also a joke.” He couldn’t hold back a laugh after that, which made Howard and Brenda laugh too. It was at that moment when Josh, for the first time, probably in his life, felt like a member of a family. A proper one, not a gang.
At dusk, a small crowd began to form at the Llanceffyl cricket ground. Brenda and Josh were directed to join a group of similarly dressed folks, some of whom were about Josh’s age and greeted him with a friendly “Hi”, “Alright?” or “Shwmae” and not the suspicion or the warning flash of a blade he’d grown used to. That felt like another life now. Another person.
There were Morris Dancers, folks in their best suits, some just in jeans, coats and scarves, and all kinds of other bright and colourful costumes. Josh even spied a couple of people carrying fiddles. There must have been fifty people, maybe more.
The general chatter was silenced when a tall man in an old fashioned flat cap and cravat banged the wooden floor of the cricket pavilion three times with a walking cane. Everyone turned to look. He straightened himself up, took a long breath and said, in a deep loud voice, “Boneddigion a boneddigesau…”
Josh assumed this to be Welsh for Ladies and Gentlemen.
The man held a hand out to the pavilion door “Mari Lwyd!”
The crowd erupted in cheers and applause as a man, dressed in a red waistcoat and a top hat much taller and more impressive than Josh’s, stepped onto the pavilion. Behind him, attached to a rope came Mari Lwyd.
She was every bit as unusual as Josh expected – hilarious and terrifying in equal measure. What really surprised him was that it was a real skull poking out of that bright white sheet. He’d assumed it would be some kind of paper mache puppet. The bone-white head was covered in Celtic symbols painted in red. Christmas tree baubles bulged in the eye sockets. Colourful ribbons and strings of bells draped over the top of her head like a festive mane and jingled as she trotted merrily around the crowd, snapping her mouth open and shut, gently nipping at people, making them laugh or cower away in mock fear. Josh laughed at the sight of Howard’s Converse boots poking out from underneath the sheet. He was surprised to find that he was enjoying all this festivity.
Mari Lwyd’s keeper led the procession, closely followed by the horse and then the rest of the crowd. The fiddlers played as they went. Some were Christmas tunes Josh recognised, others he didn’t. Soon the group came to a stop and formed a semi-circle around the front door of a cottage.
Brenda nudged Josh “This is the fun part, the pwnco,” she said.
Mari’s keeper knocked on the door and almost instantly a man in a jester’s hat answered. Two small children stood just behind him. Mari leaned down and snapped her jaw playfully at them which made them giggle and hide behind their father’s leg. The keeper then spoke some verse in Welsh. When he finished the homeowner responded in kind. Although Josh could not understand the words, it was clear that both men were exaggerating an argument for comic effect and he couldn’t help but enjoy it.
“Is this like a Welsh version of a rap battle?” Josh whispered to Brenda.
She nodded and winked back at him, putting her arm around his shoulder. “I told you you’d like it.”
After a couple of minutes of back and forth between the two men, the homeowner gestured for Mari Lwyd to enter. The rest of the throng then began to cram into the tiny house behind her.
“We’ll never all fit into someone’s house!” shouted Josh over the hubbub.
“Not gonna stop us trying, though,” laughed Brenda.
They were swept into the hallway by the crowd, through a kitchen and out into a large garden where a buffet was laid out on a table. As folk tucked into the food one of the teenagers went around the garden shaking a charity bucket, occasionally helped by the mischievous horse who coerced folks into parting with their coins.
This ritual was played out in pubs and houses over the next couple of hours, and Josh was starting to feel extremely full of crisps, mince pies and Coke. Upon leaving the last house before the procession marched on The Bone Horse pub, Josh found himself separated from Brenda and towards the back of the crowd. He noticed that the kid had forgotten the charity bucket so nipped back in to pick it up. When he got out on the street the procession was some way down the road. Off in the distance, he saw it turn down a side street so he jogged to catch up. When he reached the street he’d seen the procession enter, there was no sight of it. He poked his head back out of the alley but there was no-one in any direction.
They must have gone down here he thought, ducking back into the alley. He stopped for a second to listen for the crowd and could just about make out the jingle of Mari Lwyd’s bells. Josh hurried in the direction he thought they were coming from but soon found himself lost in a maze of dark and really quite dodgy looking back streets. Suddenly he felt incredibly vulnerable. More so than he ever had as a gang member. He hoped he wouldn’t bump into any of those cider drinking kids he’d seen last night. Instinctively he felt in his pocket for his knife, but of course, he didn’t carry one now. That wasn’t him. Not anymore.
Josh took his phone out to get directions to The Bone Horse but the signal was dead. And even worse, he could no longer hear the bells. As he strained to listen for them, he realised he could hear footsteps. No, not footsteps. A sound he recognised from his dream last night. The clip-clip of horses hooves on cobbles.
“Who’s there?” he called out. When he glanced around there was nobody in the alley with him but the sound was getting louder. At the end of the street, he saw a looming shadow of someone – or something – about to turn the corner.
Whoever it was whispered “Josh”.
He ran, blindly turning left here, and right there, taking him deeper into the estate. All the time the sound of racing hooves thundered in his ear. These back streets looked the same to Josh and he soon found himself even more lost than he had been before. It felt like forever since he’d seen another person.
He continued to run deeper and deeper into the estate, still grasping the charity bucket. When he fled down another dark alley he saw something that made his heart race. At the other end, which had been shrouded in darkness when he turned down it, was a brick wall too tall to climb, leaving him with no way out but the way he had entered. As he turned to escape the blind alley the sound of hooves slowed and the shadow appeared at the end of the street again.
Josh backed into the corner, hoping to conceal himself in the shadows and piled up snow but the thing was now at the street mouth and slowly making its way towards him, all the time accompanied by that clip-clop sound. He was unable to back up any further and looked in horror as its features were revealed in the dim light of a flickering streetlamp.
A skeletal, demonic creature, which looked like Mari Lwyd, but not Howard’s pantomime-esque puppet loomed over Josh. The animal skull couldn’t have been from a horse. The teeth – no fangs – were too long and pointed for that. Where Howard’s Mari had ribbons and bells, this creature had wild black hair down past its waist. The robe it wore was so black it was uncertain where the creature ended and the shadows began.
Grey Mary stopped just a couple of feet from Josh and regarded him for several seconds. “Joshua Richmond,” she said in a voice as quiet as a whisper yet as booming as a thunderstorm.
Josh curled up protectively in the corner of the alley. This was it, payback for everything he’d done back home. He always thought it would be a knife. He squeezed his eyes tight as he felt the skull come so close that its hot breath rushed through his hair and across his face. Josh braced himself, waiting for the teeth to sink in.
It spoke again. “I have chosen you. You are mine and I am yours.”
When the killer blow never came Josh dared to open his eyes. Grey Mary was crouched just in front of him, staring into his eyes with those empty black sockets, as dark and endless as outer-space. She was holding something out in her skeletal hand. “Take it,” she said.
Josh let his knuckle-whitening grasp on the bucket relax, set it down in the snow and took the object. He turned it around in his hands. It was some kind of bowl or large mug with six handles at regular intervals all the way around it. It was decorated with the same Celtic symbols Josh recognised from Howard’s Mari Lwyd mask. Repeated around the rim were the engraved words “Iechyd Da”.
“It’s beautiful,” Josh said, looking into Grey Mary’s eyes. “Thank you.”
Grey Mary stood, took a step back and nodded once, before turning and walking away. Josh examined the bowl again. When he looked up again Grey Mary had gone. As the clip-clop of hooves on cobbles faded into the distance, he could hear the jingling of Howard’s bells again. They sounded close.
The alley now seemed a lot brighter than it had before. Taking the charity bucket in one hand and tightly gripping his gift in the other Josh crept out of the alleyway straight onto the main road, and there, right across the street, was the crowd, gathered outside The Bone Horse. Mari Lwyd’s keeper was performing the pwnco with the pub’s landlord.
Josh snuck up to the back of the crowd and mingled in, searching for Brenda.
“There you are!” she exclaimed. “Where have you been?”
“Oh, just making some new friends,” he said. “By the way,” he held out the bucket. “Someone left this at the last place.”
Brenda smiled. “You keep hold of it for now, hand it over when we get inside, alright?”
“Are you sure? After last year?” Josh said.
“Oh, I think I can trust you,” she replied, patting him on the shoulder. “Now let’s get in where it’s warm. You’ll finally get that wassail I promised you.”
The crowd heaved into the pub after Mari Lwyd, and once inside Josh couldn’t see the kid from earlier so gave the charity money to one of the Morris Dancers. Brenda then took him by the hand to the bar where there stood a large barrel filled with a sweet-smelling liquid the colour of caramel sauce. Orange slices and cinnamon sticks bobbed merrily in the steaming concoction. She took two plastic cups from the bar.
“Wait,” Josh stopped her. “I think we’re supposed to share it from this.” He handed her what was now his most precious belonging, his gift from Grey Mary, which he now understood was a wassailing bowl.
Brenda’s hand shot to her mouth in surprise. “Oh my! Mari Lwyd chose you? Wait till I tell Howard. He’ll be dead jealous!” They both looked to her brother, clearly having a ball dancing and whirling around in his costume, entertaining and teasing the revellers. Brenda took the bowl, filled it with a ladle from the barrel and took a sip.
“Iechyd da, Josh,” she said, handing it to him with a grin.
“Iechyd da,” he replied.
Mari Lwyd is a real tradition celebrated in towns and villages in South Wales in December and January and the photo at the top of the story is a real Mari Lwyd puppet. The Chepstow Mari Lwyd is a particularly well-known one an attracts people from all around the world in January. They are taking a year off in 2020 but will return bigger and better than ever the following year.
Here’s a brilliant video of the pwnco in action at a real Mari Lwyd festival:
This story began life as a 400 word short written at my weekly writing group. That week’s leader used this image as a prompt. Originally, Josh was going to steal the charity money and fall foul of Grey Mary, but that kind of evolved into the secondary story thread of “Harry” and Josh had more of a redemptive arc. It’s Christmas after all and sometimes ghost stories can have happy endings! Also, the Mari Lwyd festival is a time of celebration, fellowship, kindness and fun, so I felt that I should honour that.
This was written to be read out at a Ghost Story for Christmas event in Manchester in December 2019. Thanks also to my Welsh friend, writer Howard David Ingham, who checked it over for me, to make sure the folkloric and cultural aspects were sensitive. What I can’t vouch for, however, is the Welsh accent and pronunciations of some of the words I attempted on the night!
- Shwmae (pronounced shoo-my) is an informal greeting, equivalent to the English “Hi”.
- Croeso i Gymru (croy-so ee cum-ree), as the story says, is “Welcome to Wales”. That sign really is there at the end of the Prince of Wales Bridge.
- Boneddigion a boneddigesau (fon-uh-vigg-yon uh fon-uh-vigg-uss-eye) was almost correctly translated by Josh – it actually means “Gentlemen and Gentleladies”.
- Iechyd da (yech-ee dar) is the equivalent of the English “Cheers”. It actually means “Good Health” as does the malt whisky drinker’s Scots Gaelic salute, Slàinte mhath.
- The translation of Mari Lwyd really is disputed as mentioned in the story.
- There is no English translation for pwnco (punk-oh).
There were a couple of links back to Badgers Crossing in this story for the eagle-eyed. The obvious one was The Grey Man pub, which refers to the BC local nickname for our black and white chums (as heard in my 2017 Ghost Story for Christmas, The Grey Path). The other was far more obscure, however. The tape Brenda puts on, NOW 13, was also the album Paul Church listens to in Cloakroom Duty. I like to think they met each other in the late 80s and he gave it to her.
Perhaps that’s a story for another time…