Read Winners and Losers Online

Authors: Catrin Collier

Winners and Losers (10 page)

Too bewildered by the events of the day even to cry, the children allowed Sali to usher them back in front of the stove, and she told them a story while Beryl cut and handed them slices of bread from one of the loaves Connie had sent.

Father Kelly gave Lucy and the dead baby the last rites then left Lucy with Mark in what passed for privacy, and sat with the children on the floor. They didn't have long to wait. Lucy Hardy stopped breathing at a few minutes before ten in the morning.

Alerted by Mark's sobs, Father Kelly led him out from behind the curtain. Ignoring his children, Mark slumped on the floor and sank his head in his hands. Beryl followed Sali into the screened-off alcove and gazed at the emaciated corpse.

‘At least the poor woman passed away with an easy mind, knowing her children had eaten.'

Beryl's words were no consolation to Sali, or Sali suspected, Father Kelly. She sensed the priest was convinced that he had been derelict in his duty, but she was too guilt-ridden herself to remind him that given the demands of the parish and the problems wrought by the strike, he couldn't help everyone.

Sali found it unbearably painful to think that she had passed the Hardy's hut twice a day since the strike had begun on her way to the Catholic Hall and done absolutely nothing for the family. Lloyd would argue that it had been Mark Hardy's place to ask for help, but in a close-knit community like the Rhondda, she couldn't accept that. Everyone should have known about the Hardy's plight weeks ago and Sali decided she would ask Lloyd and his father to make a list of all the non-union men so members of the Distress Committee could visit them, ensuring nothing like this would happen to any other family.

Beryl left to fetch a bowl, soap and flannel from her own house to wash the corpse. Sali listened to Father Kelly trying to reason with Mark on the other side of the makeshift curtain while she waited for her to return.

‘The children are weak, Mr Hardy. They'll be needing good food and medical care and they'll get just that in the Infirmary. As soon as they've recovered and you get your home together again, you can take them from the workhouse -'

‘No workhouse!' Mark screamed hysterically. ‘I promised Lucy, no workhouse! We said we'd stay together no matter what!'

‘Now, I'm sure that you promised Mrs Hardy you'd do the best for the little ones. But you heard the doctor the same as me. They need more care than you can give them at present.'

Sali thought rapidly. Lloyd wasn't one to turn his back on anyone in real need and the house next door was practically fully furnished. If she could persuade him to give it to Mr Hardy, she would make sure that the Hardy children received as much attention, food and medicine as they would in the Infirmary ...

‘You can't feed all the hungry children in the valley, no more than you can help every destitute family, Mrs Jones.' Beryl had lifted the blanket and was watching her. ‘I could tell from the expression on your face that you're thinking of taking in the children. Don't! Better the parish go broke trying to look after everyone who is living below the breadline. Then management will have to give in to the strikers' demands. That's what my Alun says. And once the pit reopens, Mark Hardy will have a wage coming in so he'll be able to furnish the house and get the children back.' Beryl set the bowl of warm water she had brought on the floor and unbuttoned Lucy's nightdress.

‘And who's going to look after the children while he's at work?' Sali took a flannel from the bowl, wrung it out and rubbed soap on to it.

‘Why me, of course. The couple of shillings a widower pays out to have his children cared for can come in handy. I looked after Bert Rees's two until he decided that, strike or no strike, he was better off back labouring on his father's farm in Carmarthen.' She removed the nightdress from the corpse, took the flannel from Sali and began washing Lucy.

‘He left a family farm to become a miner?' Sali asked in surprise.

‘Tenanted farm. If you ask me he's a fool. Tenants have even less rights than colliers.'

When Beryl had finished washing the body, Sali replaced the flannel in the tin bowl. She looked around for somewhere dry to put the soap and balanced it on the window sill.

‘Poor thing only has the nightgown she was wearing,' Beryl commented.

Sali straightened her back. ‘I'll go up to the house and get a clean one of mine.'

‘You don't have to do that.'

‘I have too many,' Sali lied.

‘And you haven't hocked them?' Beryl asked suspiciously.

‘I'll be back in ten minutes.' Sali moved the curtain aside. Mark was still slumped with his back to the wall; his head buried in his hands. Father Kelly shook his head as she approached, but ignoring the priest's warning she crouched down beside him. ‘Mr Hardy?' She touched his hand.

He looked at her and she recoiled from the naked pain in his eyes.

‘I know someone who owns a house. It's empty and furnished. I could ask if you could have it. You wouldn't have to pay rent until the strike ends -'

‘No!' Mark's features contorted in hatred. ‘You'd like to see me grovel, wouldn't you, bitch? But I'll take no bloody charity, not from you, nor from anyone.' He grabbed one of his small daughters. Terrified by his outburst, she tried to wriggle free but he held her fast. ‘I know who you are. You're Billy Evans' housekeeper. He and his cronies organized this bloody strike and this,' he waved his hand in the direction of the curtain, ‘is the result. Women and children starving to death for his damned politics.' Tears poured unchecked down Mark's face but he continued to yell at her. ‘You and that damned priest have done enough charitable deeds here today. Does it make you feel good, dishing out crumbs to the poor? Is it enough to buy you a place in heaven? My poor Lucy didn't deserve to starve to death, nor did my two babies.' He broke down and began to sob. ‘Get out!' He rose clumsily to his feet and pushed her towards the door. ‘I'll look after my own. And I don't need help from no bloody priest or do-gooder.'

Sali opened the door and fled across the square as fast as her legs could carry her.

Dressed in a green canvas overall that Mrs Palmer had given her to do the ‘dirty work', her red-gold curls hidden beneath a matching dust cap, Megan waited for Lena to open the door of a bedroom on the first floor of the lodging house. Lena picked up the two empty slop buckets she'd carried upstairs and walked in, Megan tightened her grip on the brush and dustpan she was holding and prepared to follow, but she halted, overcome by the stench that wafted out to greet them.

Even from the doorway, Megan could see that the chamber pots under the double bed and two singles were full to the point of overflowing; the pillowcases were stained with greasy patches of hair pomade, the sheets smudged with bootblack. Piles of soiled shirts, drawers, combinations and socks cascaded from a laundry bag that hung from a hook on the wall next to the wardrobe. Both washstands were filthy, encrusted with dried soap thick with hairs. The washing bowls were brimming with grey, scummy water. The soap in the dishes had melted into pools of jellied fat. Wet towels were draped over the beds and the floor, spreading water stains on the blankets and floorboards. Books, magazines, playing cards, sock suspenders and, to Megan's embarrassment, postcards of girls dressed in feathers and beads and not much else, were scattered over every surface.

‘This is disgusting!' After cleaning up after her uncle and his brothers for almost six years, Megan had no illusions about bachelors' habits. But no matter how tired, or drunk, they'd been, her uncle and his brothers had always made their way down to the outside ty bach at night and the only chamber pots she'd had to empty had been Daisy's and Sam's, and not even Sam's since his fifth birthday. Picking her way carefully around the mess, she went to the windows and lifted both casements as high as they would go. Glacial air blasted into the room, along with rain, and smuts from the neighbouring chimneys.

‘The worst is when they tip the chamber pots over or throw their clothes into them.' Lena lifted the lid on the slop pail and emptied a wash bowl into it.

Steeling herself, Megan slid a chamber pot out from beneath a bed and emptied it into the second pail. When the chamber pots and toilet china were empty, she replaced the lids on the slop buckets and helped Lena haul them outside the door.

‘Mrs Palmer and I usually take those straight downstairs and tip them in the outside ty bach before bringing up clean water for the jugs and cleaning,' Lena said diffidently.

‘I can carry them myself. You make a start on stripping the beds.'

‘Oh no you don't. Never alone in the bedrooms, Megan, remember.' Mrs Palmer walked up the stairs towards them.

‘Sorry, I forgot, Mrs Palmer,' Megan apologized.

‘Don't again.' Joyce handed Megan a key. ‘To the linen cupboard. I meant to give it to you before you came up. The soiled linen for the laundry goes in the small storeroom next to the scullery. Lena will show you where it is.'

‘Yes, Mrs Palmer.' Lena smiled, pleased to be given the responsibility.

‘I overheard you complain about the state of the room.'

‘It's a disgusting mess, Mrs Palmer,' Megan reiterated.

Joyce peered around the door. ‘It's about average. In my experience single men who live in lodging houses fall into three categories: thoughtful, thoughtless and downright filthy. If you stay in the business you'll find all three in every walk of life. Police officers and colliers may be at odds in Tonypandy now, but I've seen men in both jobs who live like pigs and that's probably an insult to pigs. Here, Lena, you take Megan up and show her where the bed linen and towels are kept while I gather this laundry ready to take downstairs.'

Sali knocked on the door of the hut. Father Kelly opened it and she looked cautiously inside. There was no sign of the children or Mark Hardy.

‘I've brought a nightdress for Mrs Hardy.' She held out a brown paper bag.

‘Come in.' Father Kelly closed the door behind her and they walked to the stove. ‘I wasn't sure you'd come back but I'm glad you did. You do know that Mr Hardy didn't mean those dreadful things he said to you?'

‘I know how it feels to lose someone you love.' Sali thought of her own father and Harry's father, Mansel, who had been murdered by Owen Bull before he could marry her. ‘How you can feel so angry and bitter, you want to lash out at the world.'

‘And I'm sure that's all Mark Hardy was doing, God bless him.' Father Kelly crossed himself.

‘Have the children gone to the workhouse?' Sali didn't want to discuss Mark Hardy's outburst. She had run from the hut with his shouts ringing in her ears and hadn't stopped shaking until she'd reached her own kitchen. Glad that no one had been at home to see her, it had taken her half an hour to compose herself and another ten minutes to find the nightdress and brace herself to return.

‘They left a few minutes after you. The doctor sent the ambulance for them. Mrs Richards' husband, Alun, and a couple of the other men came round and took Mr Hardy off to the Pandy for a wake, although given that none of them have two farthings to rub together it's anyone's guess as to what they'll be drinking. Mrs Richards went to her neighbour's to feed her twins. I offered to stay in case the undertaker arrives with the coffin before she gets back.' He took the bag containing the nightdress from Sali. ‘I'll give this to her.'

‘I could wait.'

‘One of us should be at the soup kitchen.'

‘Then I'll go.' Sali took his hint. The priest was telling her to leave as tactfully as he knew how, and she was no more anxious to see Mark Hardy again than, she suspected, he was her.

‘You know how the food stocks have a habit of disappearing if one of us isn't around to keep a close eye. Not that anyone ever takes more than a handful of vegetables or a few slices of bread. It's just that the “handfuls” mount up.'

‘I'll make sure that the food is eaten in the hall, apart from the jugs of soup and slices of bread that are bought by families or sent out to the sick.'

‘I'll be up as soon as Mrs Richards comes back.' Father Kelly patted Sali's arm as he walked her to the door. ‘If you're needed here again I'll send for you.'

‘I won't be,' she said unequivocally. ‘Mr Hardy is best left with people he knows.'

‘If I can arrange an emergency meeting of the Distress Committee to make sure nothing like this happens again while the strike is on, you'll come?'

Sali opened the door. ‘I'll be there.'

The atmosphere in the foyer of the Empire Theatre was electric with tension. Luke Thomas and the men he'd recruited to stop Abel Adams and the Winter brothers from reaching the pithead, had sought out and confronted Billy Evans with their version of the morning's events. Luke had demanded the strike committee set up an official picket line to stop the men he considered blacklegs from trying to reach the pit again the following morning.

Victor, Lloyd, Ned Morgan and half a dozen members of the committee were standing behind Billy. And although Billy was doing his best to remain calm, Luke wasn't the only man on the brink of losing his temper.

‘First it was the pit ponies,' Luke ranted. ‘Management moved the lot of them into the colliery most prone to flooding just to get public sympathy. We offered to go in and bring them up and what do the press report? The miners won't allow management in to feed the animals, they'd rather see them starve to death.'

‘The ponies are all up now,' Billy interrupted, ‘so what's your point, Luke?'

‘The point is, you didn't see that we got credit for allowing management to bring them up.' Luke paused for the men standing behind him to nod a noisy agreement. ‘You did sod all while the newspapers painted us as drunken, greedy, callous brutes, who were prepared to let dumb beasts starve to death to get ourselves fatter wage packets to spend on beer.'

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