The Welsh Butterflies

By Mary Shiel

Some years ago, my husband and I were driving along the coast of North Wales, taking a scenic route from Holyhead to London. We had just disembarked from the Dublin/Holyhead ferry, and were on our way to visit our younger daughter, then studying in London.

As we approached a small village, we noticed that most of the buildings in sight had beautiful metal butterflies ornamenting their frontages. Intrigued, we slowed down until we could catch the eye of a passing cyclist, who politely stopped and waited for the inevitable query as to where all the butterflies came from?

“A local farmer makes them,” he told us proudly. “He’s a blacksmith too, a butterfly fancier,” he added, “and he’s just started a little business, making and selling metal butterflies. His farm is just down the next lane on the left, if you’re interested in having a look at his stuff,” and he pointed to a narrow turning about 10 or 12 yards further along the road.

By now we were thoroughly hooked, and obediently followed our cyclist’s instructions until we found ourselves turning in at a farm gate with a hand-made sign beside it, announcing that this was “The Butterfly Shop”. Across the farmyard we could see a whitewashed building, with of course, a neat little butterfly on the door, which we took as an invitation to enter!

Inside was pure heaven – nothing but the most stunning metal butterflies all over the walls, and several long glass-lidded display cases with every type of butterfly (the real thing!) you could possibly imagine. The cases were on sturdy tables down the middle of the shop, and so situated that customers could walk around them, and also read the name of each butterfly.

The counter was over to one side, and behind it sat a smiling white-haired woman, knitting placidly, while at the same time managing to keep a weather eye on the proceedings. She told us that she was the farmer’s mother, and gave a hand in the shop now and then, when she wasn’t too busy at home. In no time at all, we had chosen two of the larger butterflies for ourselves, and a couple of smaller ones as presents.

We’d already decided where our pair would go – side by side on the front wall of our house, where they would enjoy a clear view right down the road. Oh, by the way, we’d picked an old friend, a colourful Red Admiral, a frequent visitor to our garden at home. His companion was a more exotic fellow, a native Asian beauty.

He was deep blue and yellow, and was called Kallima. Once we were safely home, my husband Jack lost no time in installing our new family members, who drew great admiration from the neighbours, and from passers by. We soon learned that whenever strangers to our road asked for directions to No. 61, they were invariably told to look for the house with the two butterflies.

One morning a few years later, as I was coming down the stairs, I glanced through the landing window, from where I could normally see both butterflies and discovered to my horror that only Red Admiral was visible, not a sign of his friend Kallima anywhere. I took the rest of the stairs in a coupe of jumps and rushed outside, hoping I’d see him magically restored to his usual place, but sadly not so.

By now the rest of the family had come running out, and we searched the whole garden from corner to corner, expecting to find, at the very least, some broken pieces of metal – all that remained of our once beautiful Asian friend. On checking the sturdy bracket which had once held him to the wall, Jack did discover a weak spot, and for want of a better explanation, we had to accept that a strong wind the previous night had somehow dislodged poor Kallima and sent him tumbling down into the garden, falling but unbroken. Somebody passing by must have spied him lying there, tucked him inside their coat under cover of darkness and made off with him. How they must have thanked their lucky starts that they’d decided to walk home via our road that particular night!

A couple of years later, we paid a final visit to the Butterfly shop while on the way home from our daughter’s graduation in London. This time we were greeted by a pretty dark-haired girl with strongly accented English, who told us that she was a niece of the owner, all the way from Tierra Del Fuego, right at the extreme southern tip of South America! Seemingly a large number of Welsh people had emigrated to that part of the world many years previously, and had settled there.

She was a descendant of one of those families, now hoping to attend a Welsh university. Being anxious to improve her school English before then, she was delighted to accept an invitation to spend the summer working in her Welsh uncle’s gift shop. She was really enjoying the experience, she said, and her English was coming on in leaps and bounds!

We explained that it was this same uncle we wished to see, whereupon she took out her phone and summoned him from some nether region. Of course he didn’t remember us – we were just two of the many customers who’d visited his shop over the past few years. Jack filled him in on the mystery of poor Kallima’s disappearance, and asked if he could come up with any other explanation.

I’d noticed a sly little grin starting to appear on our wily farmer’s face as Jack finished speaking, then he burst into the heartiest chuckle we’d heard in a long time. Noticing our startled faces, he composed himself, wiped his eyes and explained.

“What I forgot to tell you when you bought Kallima was that I’d taught him how to find his way back here to us from wherever his new home was, and that’s exactly what he did. Clever chap, isn’t he?”

“But what about Red Admiral?” asked Jack. “Why didn’t he take off too? I presume you’d taught him the same lesson!”

“Ah no, I couldn’t leave you without both of them, could I? Anyway, Red Admiral would be more acclimatised to your Irish weather, seeing that he’s European and not Asian. He’d be a lot happier living on your side of the Irish Sea than his friend.”

We felt that our legs had been well and truly pulled, but what could we do? Nothing except join in the joke and make our exit with as much dignity as we could. I can still hear the laughter of that Welsh farmer and his Tierra Del Fuego niece following us as we walked down the path. Needless to remark, our plan to buy a replacement for Kallima had died a sudden and thorough death by then!

You might be interested to know that Red Admiral is still keeping vigil from the wall above our porch, and seems completely happy in his solitary state. Perhaps he’s one of those butterflies which prefers its own company.

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