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Flame & Slag
By Ron Berry, Dai Smith
ParthianCopyright © 2012 Ron Berry
All rights reserved.
Then, between the heyday and ultimate dissolution of Caib colliery, Ellen came. Remote Ellen Vaughan, my seventy-five per cent silicotic grandfather urging her up the steep backyard where he harboured racing pigeons in a blue and white loft perched on a ramp of railway sleepers.
My grandmother stamped life into her splayed feet. "What's he doing now? The girl's not int'rested in his old pigeons. Nefoedd, nefoedd, there's no rest for the wicked", and she slip-slopped out after them, rotundly shapeless, dratting under her tongue the way of pure grandmothers all the working world over. I had a Sunday mood to warrant the passive June morning, fuzzy anticyclonic mist spread motionless below the mountain skyline and greenfly crinkling our postmaster's roses — he came complaining, borrowed my grandfather's brass spray pump, sucked lips prowing his Graeco-Roman nose at the ammoniac pong of pigeon droppings.
"This is Rees, my nephew," Grancha said. "Don't remember Ellen Vaughan, do you, boy?"
"I remember him, Mr Stevens," she said.
"Course, o' course she does" — old Gran, distrusting frankness, barging possessively into the kitchen. "Now come back inside, merch; make yourself at home."
They talked about Winchester, about Daren names, family pedigrees, the pigeons droning crop-happy in the loft; Grancha's beloved homers. But Ellen and I were strangers, formal in the silliness of Sunday morning, Caib screens hanging low, silent over the railway sidings. Another Daren Sabbath. From inside the open kitchen door I watched Grancha's droopy old ex-Bordeaux, ex-Nantes winner squatting puffy feathered as a squab behind the loft window, saw him cuffed by a young mealy cock chasing a red hen, the hen's bill nibbling the worn-out old champion's frayed primary feathers while the mealy trod her vagrantly fast, inevitable as electricity.
"Is Winchester nice, though?" asked my Gran, pinning down the ancient city once and for all.
"Beautiful walks," approved Ellen, "up along the river banks. And, of course, the cathedral. Everyone wants to see Winchester Cathedral."
Granch said, "But Shon Vaughan has come home, and I don't blame him. Born and bred in Daren your dad was. Come home, Duw-aye, I should say. Me, I wouldn't leave here, not after the misery ..."
"Glyndwr Stevens, mind your own business," my grandmother said, old Granch sensibly hacking the little death cough he'd lived with for twenty years.
I thought, hup, sweet gossip, sweeter salacity, dirty bedclothes somewhere in Ellen's family. Past tense dirt. Mystery Ellen Vaughan, tranquil. She out of the past. I couldn't remember her in Daren infants' school. Four hundred bleating nonentities, the village swarm, singing, There's a young lad up the hill there, with his white coat and his bright hair, he comes to court me. Infants in our rickety land of song, the time my father used to tramp into the house from Caib pit, nigger-minstrel black, rising half-white out of the zinc bath in front of the kitchen fire, soiled suds wrinkling, left drying below his navel before he kneeled cooped as a devout oriental in the bath to wash his lower half. Couldn't remember this jet-haired Ellen, dream-laid girl, woman, violet-eyed for sorcery, for illusion more than for beauty and grief, her white hands like unused blessings in her lap.
"Where will you work, gel?" said my grandmother, pitching that inbred, trustless Welshy wheedling, servility cored with unbreakable arrogance.
Ellen smiled complaisantly saccharose, responding to Gran. "Mr Harding has offered me a job."
"Nice," said Gran. "Stamps and savings, is it?"
"Book-keeping, Mrs Stevens, and serving behind the counter."
"Indeed, isn't that ever so nice. You'll do good with Dicko Harding. Influence, see; merch."
"Our cadging old postmaster," I said. "The creep makes a man's stomach heave."
"Reesy, I'll give you!"
I said, "You know him better than I do, Gran."
"Well, there's no need, outright in front of visitors and all. More tea, Ellen bach?"
"I really must go now, Mrs Stevens. My father is rather weak these days. He'll be pleased I've called to see you and Mr Stevens."
"Any time!" Grancha yelping, gasping; he'd taken enough excitement, stillness coming on him, his shrunken grey head stilted stiffly on his scragged neck, reaching for air.
"Show the gel out, Rees. Sitting there like an ignorant thing" — Gran creaking a regardless smile at Ellen before bundling across to comfort the old man. "Leave the door open! You hear, Reesy, wide open!"
Wasteful, the pity spent on old age. Endless pity shredding to cobwebby remorse by the time death wins, guilt and failure yoking the unity of man.
"Where are you working?" Ellen said.
"Over the tump, Caib colliery."
"I remember you," she said again. "But I don't remember your parents."
"Both dead. What's wrong with your father? Is he ill?" Then, crowding the nation's flaw at her, enjoying myself: "Know what, Ellen, there's more sickness in South Wales than anywhere else in the country. You name it, we've got it. If South Wales was tropical, we'd breed mad dictators faster than gnats."
She said, "My father suffers from bronchitis and bad nerves. He's emotionally disturbed" — calmly dismissing him, the night-thrashed calm of oblivion, of peace, peace acquired, fanned to the quick.
"Daren might bring him around," I said. "It's quiet enough here, and besides, I suppose he knows most of us. That helps."
"You don't have to walk home with me, Rees," — her pale face wearing evermore scaled inside a harmony of bone, blood and flesh.
"Do you mind?" I said.
"I suspect you're an exaggerator, Rees," — glossy hair hooding her lowered eyes, then suddenly thrusting exposure, nakedly frank. "Of course, it was my mother; she deserted him a long time ago. My father won't recover, not fully, not this side of paradise."
"Or the other place, Ellen."
It came from her like a mask speaking: "What do you know about love?"
"Nothing. You have no right to ask, either. It's like whatever grows in stone. There's no reason for it in the beginning."
"Exaggerator and liar," she accused. "Like him."
"Your old man? Hey, girl ..."
"He can't, won't take life as it comes, so he's sick. I'm sick of sickness. I didn't want to come back to this place," — her mouth smiling, spurning disgust easier than her doom-quiet eyes. "My father has come home to die; it's as simple as that."
"And I'm the same as him, as John Vaughan? Much obliged," I said. "Anyway, while we're on the subject, what do you know about love? Do they call it lurv up in Winchester?"
"Love can turn poisonous, destroy people; at least, a man like my father."
"Hard luck on him," I said.
She showed her teeth. "You're so tough, hm?"
Caib pit-head banksman buzzed three, the huge side-by-side wheels spinning, their fifty-eight seconds blur crowning the summer-green tump, slowing until the spokes appeared to run backwards, then the final precise joggle, cages landed, the clanging gate echoing all over Daren if you listened for it. "They're still rising muck," I said. "Big fall in the face where I work. More than likely we'll be on the muck again tomorrow, after the argument."
She swanned her dark head, gazed immobile, as if she didn't have to breathe.
"See, Ellen, they'll be compelled to pay us," I said. "It's a question of coming to some arrangement for loss of wages, abnormal conditions ... no matter, you would't understand."
"My father often talks about Caib colliery. He remembers the first days, when they began sinking the pit."
"Nineteen-twenty-three," I said. "We were sparkles in our mothers' eyes. The storks that brought us weren't hatched out."
"The institute, too," — heedless again, gesturing. "He talks about the time they built the 'stute" — smiling at her flashback — "over there, in front of Daren woods. Wasn't he on the committee?"
I thought, the burden of it, paddying to a wife-wrecked ex-miner. Ellen's olde Winchester is on another planet. "Correct," I said. "Your father's photograph is hanging in the committee room. John Vaughan, lodge treasurer, nineteen-thirty-two. If there's any glue in Daren, it's memory. We remember everything, all the bread-and-scrape of bygone years, like a deck of cardboard Nye Bevans remembering scabby old Tredegar in the plushness of Berkshire. With only piffles left to fight for, the next best thing is to remember memories. Quarrel about bloody memories. Tomorrow morning we'll bring our lodge chairman before the Caib manager; they'll argue seven kinds of manure out of each other and eventually we'll win. They'll agree on maybe two-thirds of what we should be getting for clearing muck instead of filling coal. Arguments are beautiful when you're not involved right down in the guts."
Ellen blew, "Ugh," — disinterested, familiar as a guerrilla girl whiffing hand-rolled fags in the company of righteous bandits, and I thought anxiously: John Vaughan, what have you done to your strange daughter?
"Starting in the post office tomorrow?" I said.
"Tuesday morning, Rees."
"Queer day to start in a new job, Ellen?"
"I shan't be here tomorrow."
Shut it, I thought, leave the girl alone — Caib's banksman buzzing three signals again, the aerial muck-buckets floating up Waunwen like a brochure glimpse of Switzerland, trip-levered at the last pylon high up on the mountain, regular spews of muck showering down, the quadruple-humped slag tip itself older than any man in Daren. Older than Caib pit.
"I've arranged to go shopping in Swansea tomorrow. Shopping and visiting some relatives. We'll probably spend the evening in Three Cliffs if the day is warm."
"Last fling before old Dicko Harding puts your nose to the grindstone." I said.
"Tal Harding is driving me down, actually."
"He's married. Old Dicko gave him the bungalow behind Caib institute."
Ellen said, "Married! Tal seems to be having the kind of experience my father had with my mother."
"But Tal's wife, she always bounces back. It's been going on for three or four years. Like cat and dog they are."
"Not any more, Rees. He's divorcing her."
I said, "Ah, you can't go wrong working for his old man. Dicko owns about ninety houses here in Daren, and he won't last much longer. He's too crabby to draw breath."
"Come inside," she said. "You've walked this far."
"The Daren tongues will be after you and Tal Harding. Better wait until he's divorced," I said.
"Tal Harding doesn't mean anything to me. In you go, tough guy" — impulsively butting my shoulder with hers, harmlessly vindictive, like a Brownie's revenge.
Riven as a burnt-out aesthete, vitality siphoned up, drained away from inside his skull, John Vaughan lay baby-limp on a small, brand-new settee in Number 9 Thelma Street. You wouldn't recognize him from the stark, owl-faced photograph in Caib institute committee room. He looked petrified, petrifying, his tiny dog-fretful blue eyes ambushed below white, furry eyebrows. His lamby curled haircut belonged to Arcadia, bulked milkily white behind his ears and on his neckline. Rivose creases dug into the putty-grey flesh of his jowls and brow, like the drying-out carcass of a hairless, foetal mammal.
"Some other time," I whispered. "Don't disturb him."
She called softly, pleasantly sarcastic, "Dad, do you remember this handsome fellow?"
Pleasure seemed to groan into his dog-beaten little eyes. "Well, well, mun, it's Dai Stevens all over again. Ellen, my glasses ... ta, bach, ta", and I heard the light knock of his bony nose against the spectacles. "To the tee!" Ululant conviction smoothed the raspy anguish from his voice. "Dai Stevens will never die while you're alive, boy! Glad to meet you! Your father was the best butty a man could wish to have. Duw, aye, now you've made my day. Sit down, sit down by here," feebly swinging his legs off the settee. "Shake hands, Rees, there, put it there. Well, myn Jawch, Dai's son, the living image."
"They say I resemble him more than my mother" — conveniently agreeing, glancing up at Ellen, sharing something, the power, contracted and shared from that exact moment. Because then it came, was there, soaring like a needle of smoke through a stitch-hole in Time, her pale face inscrutably gentle, lightening, trysting the moment; John Vaughan sitting stiff-armed with his workless hands on his thighs, his fleecy head bent, mouth tucked, huhrring and hissing emphysema. Bronchitis: her white lie.
"Please lay down again, Mr Vaughan," I said, senselessly cursing to myself, knowing he'd break, die, never survive the wet, the snow and fog of Daren winters. "I'll call in again; we'll have a chat when you're feeling better."
Ellen followed me outside. "You're welcome to come to tea this evening. He'll be quite chirpy later on."
I said "What time you meeting Tal Harding tomorrow?"
"Let me take you to Swansea; anywhere out along the coast, too, if you like?"
"It's rather awkward, Rees."
"It's simple, Ellen. Eleven-o'clock bus from the Square."
"All right, but somewhere else, somewhere less obvious."
"Brecon town. Ten-o'clock bus from the Square."
"What excuses can I make? Aren't you the least bit concerned about Tal Harding? I'm sure he respects you, but you, why are you so tough?"
"Tal might grow up after they bury old Dicko," I said. "The money'll be his then, unless his wife fiddles it out of him."
"That's typical Daren big talk. You haven't had any personal experience whatsoever. I told you Tal Harding's marriage is finished."
"Ellen," I said, "good weeks I make eighteen quid and poor weeks don't come often, not in the Caib."
"Interesting," her murmur faint, condescending as a turning-away oracle.
"What do you mean interesting! Listen, girl, eighteen quid a week's enough to get married on!"
Grave, incisive, like an off-throned bitch empress, she said, "Men weren't born to work underground."
"We're all born to be anything. I saw the look you gave me in the house. For Christ's sake, Ellen, I'm not a fool."
"I must have been, coming back to this place after all these years."
"Be glad about it," I said, insisting. "Ellen, I'm glad, glad all over! See!"
"And I'm a pessimist? Phu. Bye-bye now. Tea at seven o'clock," — her pale face gone empty, promising nothing, the price of nothing.
Afternoon warmth lifted the mountain fog, dark green Forestry Commission firs frizzing the flat-edged summit of Waunwen, and I thought, Tal, you misbegotten son of a penny-brained Cardi, I'm not letting you take Ellen Vaughan. She's mine, claiming her, claiming the future, zombie-stalking Daren's Sunday-resting backstreets, Grancha and Gran snoozing when I arrived home, pigeon crooning lulling over them. Obsessed now, unconsciously jockeying some archetypal mating dream while hooking my shaving-mirror over the kitchen-window latch, I noticed Caib's aerial muck-buckets coming to a stop in the glaring sunshine.
Tonight, I thought, bulling head-on, blurting out, "Ask her tonight! Aye, for God's sake, tonight!"
And Grancha wheezed, "Ah, whassat, boy?"
"Nothing, Granch; go back to sleep," I said.CHAPTER 2
Monday morning four weeks later and I didn't even have a clean shirt to wear. Old Gran muttering over the sink, mulish as a man-faced hilly-billy woman, dabbing the collar of my dingy Double-two with a stained cake of white blanco. Forgetting to send our wash to the laundry, she remembered that tin of blanco; probably kept it tucked away since my summer plimsoll days in junior school. Our wedding morning was an omen of time unspent, sometimes not having a respectable shirt at all and Ellen similarly skimped for clothes being merely part of its spending. Aye, charismata for ever on its backside, more or less, due to the selective code of the Welfare State.
"If your father Dai heard this carry-on, he'd knock some sense into you, Reesy, yes he would. But what I say is, make your own bed and lie on it. Don't come back here when she scrags your hair out by the roots. Kate Minty wasn't her mother for nothing. There, best I can do at short notice. Air it by the fire first," — a round-arm jerk flinging the smeared Double-two into my face.
I borrowed an outsize shirt off my best man, Percy Cynon.
Excerpted from Flame & Slag by Ron Berry, Dai Smith. Copyright © 2012 Ron Berry. Excerpted by permission of Parthian.
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