Read Winners and Losers Online

Authors: Catrin Collier

Winners and Losers (3 page)

Betty took Megan's arm. Daring to breathe again, they walked on. It was a freezing, damp, grey November day, but that hadn't deterred a crowd of young men from playing football with a tin can on the only flattened area of mountainside high above the rows of terraced houses. Their whoops and shouts carried down towards them on the wind.

‘I'm glad someone can forget the strike, if only for a few hours,' Betty said philosophically, as they crossed the road to avoid yet another group of police officers.

‘I wish I could.'

‘It must be hard on you, with your uncle not being able to pay your wages,' Betty commiserated.

‘If it was up to me I'd be happy to carry on doing the housework and taking care of the family for my keep.'

‘Your what?' Betty laughed.

‘What passes for keep these days,' Megan amended. ‘But ever since I started working for him I've sent ten shillings a week home to my father.'

‘Your uncle pays you fifteen shillings a week, right?'

‘He did until the strike started. It's the going rate for a housekeeper.'

‘It was,' Betty nodded sagely, ‘but it seems to me that your father's been getting a lot more than the going rate from a daughter. I used to count myself lucky to get ten shillings a month from my Annie when she was in service before she married.'

‘Things aren't easy at home. It's hard trying to make ends meet on a hill farm and aside from Mam and Dad I've two younger sisters and brothers. I don't like to think of them suffering on my account. I know I should look for a paying job, but -'

‘They're harder to find than gold in the valleys these days, especially for women,' Betty observed.

‘And I'd hate to leave my uncle. Who'd look after his house and family if I didn't?'

‘Now there's a job.' Betty pointed to a sign in the window of a large, square four-storey house on the corner of the street. They stopped and read the card propped inside the window:

GIRL WANTED TO HELP WITH DOMESTIC WORK.

MUST BE EXPERIENCED COOK, ABLE TO WASH,

IRON, AND DO GENERAL CLEANING WITHOUT

SUPERVISION. ABOVE AVERAGE WAGES OFFERED TO AN EFFICIENT PERSON. APPLY WITHIN.

‘I've heard that Joyce Palmer is prepared to pay as much as a pound a week to the right girl.'

‘Really?' Megan's eyes rounded in wonder.

‘Not that I've spoken to Joyce myself,' Betty added. ‘Well, not since the colliery company gave notice to all the miners in the lodging houses they owned and made them over to policemen. No decent woman would have stayed on to wait on them.'

‘Mrs Palmer had nowhere else to go.' Megan repeated an observation Victor had made.

‘She could have found somewhere if she'd tried,' Betty dismissed. ‘Mrs Payne in the Post Office told me that Joyce has taken one girl out of the workhouse to help her, but she's found her a bit slow, and she'd rather not take on another. I can't see any man in the town who sympathizes with the colliers' grievances, let alone the colliers themselves, allowing any member of their family to wait on police or soldiers.' Two officers headed towards them. ‘Come on, time we were on our way.'

Megan gripped her basket and trudged on up the hill after Betty. Turning left, they greeted their neighbours again. Megan said goodbye to Betty and turned the key that was kept in the lock of her uncle's house and opened the door. Goose pimples rose on her skin when she stopped in the hall to take off her cloak and hat, but she was afraid of staining her cloak if she tried to do housework wearing it.

She carried her basket through to the kitchen, tied on her apron and filled the tin bowl in the sink ready to wash and peel the potatoes. The strike had made life cold, hungry and uncomfortable, but it had done little to change her routine. Her uncle and his brothers still rose at half past four in the morning, although they no longer had to be at the colliery gates before six in time to go down in the cage. But they didn't linger in the house. In an effort to eke out the last coal ration they had received from the pit, she lit the kitchen stove for an hour in the morning so she could heat water for washing and tea and raked it out until three in the afternoon when it was time to cook the evening meal. She found it hard to do housework in the icy temperature but she didn't doubt that her uncle and his brothers found it just as cold on the picket line.

She poured the packet of tea she had bought into the empty caddy and fetched a swede, half a dozen turnips and a bunch of carrots that her uncle had brought down from his allotment the day before and put in the pantry. She wouldn't have had to buy potatoes if theirs hadn't been struck by blight. She unwrapped the lamb from the newspaper. It was a very small portion of meat for so many people but the first her uncle had allowed her to buy in two months. At least they would eat tonight. There were plenty in the town who wouldn't.

She'd put the lamb in a pan of cold water to soak and picked up a knife to start peeling the potatoes when she heard someone walk up the stone steps that led from the basement to the kitchen. There was a tap on the door, then it opened.

Victor's massive frame filled the doorway. He smiled and his teeth gleamed startlingly white against his blackened face and filthy clothes. He held up a bucketful of coal. ‘You can light the stove early. There's plenty more where this came from, I've just emptied a couple of sacks into your coalhouse.'

‘You've been working in the drifts the strikers have opened up on the mountain!'

His soft grey eyes sparkled in vivid contrast to his dirty face. His grin widened as he held his finger to his lips.

‘The police will arrest you -'

‘They have to catch me first, and even if they do, I'll only get a fine. It's worth risking that to warm a few houses. Mrs Richards in the colliery cottages off the square didn't have scrap of coal and she has four under three years old.'

‘If you are fined, no one will be able to pay it and then you'll be put in prison.'

‘I wasn't caught, Megs.' He called her by the nickname he had invented for her and no one else used.

‘This time,' Megan murmured fearfully.

‘Love you.'

‘You always say that whenever I'm cross with you.'

‘Because it's the only thing that calms you down, Megs. Seeing as how I'm covered in coal dust I may as well light the stove for you. And if you lay newspaper on the floor I won't dirty your nice clean flagstones.'

Megan opened the cupboard in the alcove next to the stove where she kept old newspapers and sticks for the fire. She picked up a copy of the
Rhondda Leader
from the top of the pile and spread its pages in layers from the basement door to the hearth.

‘You didn't go down to Porth to wait for the verdict on the inquest with your father?'

‘I had more important things to do.' Victor raked out the remains of the small fire she had doused that morning, laid balls of newspaper over the iron fire basket, balanced sticks on them and arranged the half-burnt coals together with lumps of fresh coal on top.

‘Like supply half of Tonypandy with coal?' she suggested.

‘I only wish I could.' He brushed his light brown hair from his eyes, griming it even more. ‘Your family and mine are lucky, Megs. Strike pay may not be enough to live on but at least we're getting some money. The men with the most children and the lowest wages couldn't afford to pay union dues, and now the pits are closed they can't work either. I can't sit back and watch them freeze and starve to death.'

‘You and the others who are risking prosecution won't get enough coal out of the drifts to keep every kitchen stove burning in Pandy, no more than you can feed everyone in the town from what you grow in your garden.'

‘No, but I can do my bit.' He struck a match, lit a newspaper spill the children had made and blew on it before touching the balls of paper at the bottom of the fire. They caught immediately, sending spirals of grey smoke curling up the chimney. ‘There, you can start cooking that cawl you're making.'

She folded the rest of the newspapers she was holding back into the cupboard and closed the door. ‘If you weren't so dirty I would hug you.'

‘If there's no one else in the house you could give me a kiss.' His smile broadened in anticipation.

She stooped over him and when their lips met he couldn't resist cupping her face in his hands. As always, she warmed to his touch, instinctively leaning against him. The front door banged and they sprang apart.

Footsteps echoed in the hall, then the kitchen door opened and a short, wiry, middle-aged man glowered at them through piercing blue eyes. His cap was so grimy it was impossible to determine what colour it had originally been, his grubby brown moleskin trousers were tied with twine in place of a belt at his waist and again just below his knees, his red flannel shirt was collarless and his tweed jacket more hole than cloth.

Megan stared at him. He was smaller, more wrinkled and older than she remembered. ‘Dad?' she murmured tentatively.

‘So you do remember me, girl,' he lisped through yellow, broken teeth.

She felt that she should have hugged him, but the moment was over. ‘What are you doing here?'

Ianto Williams removed his cap to reveal a shock of grey curls. ‘I would have thought that was obvious.'

‘How did you get here?' She was too taken aback to attempt to make sense of his answer.

‘I left the farm at two this morning and rode into Swansea Market on Jones' cheese and cream cart. Then I got a ride on the fresh fish and cockle donkey cart that travels up here from Penclawdd. It'll be leaving before dawn in the morning.' He settled a hostile glare on Victor. ‘Your uncle or his brothers in?'

‘He and the other men have gone down to Porth,' Megan stammered.

‘The children?'

‘The younger two are in school, the older boys out playing.' Colour rose in her cheeks as her father continued to stare at Victor. ‘This is Mr Victor Evans, Dad. He lives next door. He brought us some coal and laid the fire for me.'

‘I remember the name. You've laid just the one fire?' He eyed Victor's blackened face and filthy clothes.

‘I've been working a drift on the mountain, Mr Williams,' Victor explained.

‘Isn't that illegal?'

‘That depends on your point of view,' Victor replied easily. ‘It is good to meet you after all this time, Mr Williams. Megan talks a lot about her family.'

‘To you?' Ianto Williams enquired sternly.

‘Sometimes.' Victor refused to be intimidated. ‘Our families are close and Megan and I are friends.'

‘Friendly enough to persuade her to write to me and ask my permission to get engaged to you. And friendly enough for you to be left alone with her in the house after I wrote to her at Christmas expressly forbidding her to see you or talk to you.'

‘Victor lives next door, Dad ...'

‘So you said, girl.'

Ignoring Mr Williams' outburst in the rapidly diminishing hope of winning him round, Victor said, ‘I would offer to shake your hand but, as you can see, I'm covered in coal dust.'

‘I wouldn't shake the hand of a Papist if it was disinfected. ‘

‘I have to cook the dinner, Victor.'

Victor saw the pleading look in Megan's eyes and realized he was making a bad situation worse. Careful to step on the newspaper he retraced his steps to the basement door. ‘I've a few more bags of coal to deliver, so I'll be off.'

‘Thank you for the coal, Victor,' Megan called after him when he closed the door behind him.

‘So that's the Catholic you've been making a fool of yourself with.' Ianto moved in front of the fire to warm himself.

‘I haven't been making a fool of myself with anyone, Dad.' Megan gathered the dust-stained sheets of newspaper from the floor.

‘No?' Ianto said. ‘I suggest you look at yourself in the mirror, girl, before you say another word.'

Megan dropped the coal-smudged papers on top of the coal bucket, went to the sink and picked up the men's shaving mirror. Black imprints of Victor's hands covered both her cheeks and there were coal smuts on her lips. Dampening the corner of a tea towel under the tap, she scrubbed at her face.

‘Have you anything to say for yourself?'

‘As you said, I did write to ask you if I could get engaged to Victor at Christmas. And it's not as if it's sudden. We've known one another for over five years.'

‘And I wrote back telling you that I'd prefer to see you dead than married to a Catholic. And I forbid you to see or talk to him again.'

‘Victor's a good man -'

‘I'll have no more said about him.' Ianto scraped a wooden chair over the flagstones and plonked it in front of the fire. ‘You can make me a cup of tea and give me some bread and cheese to keep me going until tea's on the table.'

‘I can make you tea and give you bread, Dad. But there's no cheese. With so little money coming into the house we've had to cut back.' Megan filled the blackened tin kettle, opened up a hob and put it on to boil. ‘You still haven't said what you're doing here.'

‘As I said when I came in, it's obvious. Your uncle's emigrating and I've come to take you home, not that we can afford to keep you there. You'll have to find another job –and quick.'

‘Emigrating ...' Her voice died to a whisper.

‘To Canada. With no job or home to go to, your uncle won't risk taking his two youngest and he's asked your mother and me to take them in. We've room now that your brothers and sisters have left home. Tea, girl,' he reminded, as she stood, pale and trembling, beside his chair.

Chapter Two

‘You look exhausted. Sit by the fire and I'll make a pot of tea,' Victor offered when Sali walked into the kitchen with her four-year-old son, Harry.

‘I am tired,' Sali conceded. She unbuttoned Harry's coat, then her own, carried them out into the passage and hung them away. ‘And thank you for lighting the fire up here.' All the houses on the lower side of the terrace, including theirs, had a basement as well as an upstairs kitchen. Before the strike, the stoves in both had been lit every day, and the men had used the one in the basement to heat water to fill the tin baths they kept and bathed in down there. But since the strike they had economized by only lighting the stove upstairs and then, like all the other mining families, only for an hour in the morning and late in the afternoon to cook the main meal.

‘I needed a bath and I heated the water up here.' Victor filled the kettle.

‘You've been working in one of the drifts?' Sali's eyes rounded in alarm.

‘Don't worry, no one saw me –no one who is likely to shop me, that is,' he qualified.

‘That you know about. You heard your father yesterday.' Sali was more fearful for him than angry. ‘You're so big, one glimpse of you covered in coal dust or carrying a sack and the police will know it's you.'

‘You sound just like Megan.'

‘We've every right to be worried about you.'

‘It's all right, Sali. I wasn't caught.' Victor smiled at Harry. ‘The hens laid well today considering it's winter. Want a boiled egg for your tea?'

‘Can I, Mam?' Young as Harry was, he knew food was in short supply. The teachers had organized ‘feeding centres' in the schools, where they served breakfast and midday dinners to the children, courtesy of the crache the headmasters coerced into donating food. And every day since the strike had started, Sali had picked him up from his ‘babies' class and taken him to the soup kitchen in the Catholic Hall. She also gave him a bowl of whatever was on the menu, but the soup had become noticeably thinner over the last few weeks, not because people contributed less, but because more and more colliers' families were setting aside their pride and arriving at the kitchen to be fed.

‘You most certainly can have an egg, young man.' Sali gave Victor a grateful smile, knowing he always kept the largest egg for Harry's tea.

‘And bread and butter soldiers?' Harry asked.

‘Of course.' Victor set a pan of water on to boil and went into the pantry to get the margarine.

‘Your father, Joey and Lloyd not back from the inquest?' Sali took the tea Victor handed her.

‘They are now.' The front door slammed.

‘Bloody coroner!' Joey strode into the kitchen ahead of his father and Lloyd.

‘Language,' Victor reprimanded, carefully lowering an egg into a pan of simmering water.

‘You didn't hear that, did you, butty?' Joey ruffled Harry's hair and sat at the table beside him.

‘Mam told me not to repeat your naughty words.' Harry concentrated on spreading margarine on the slice of bread Victor had cut for him.

‘Hello, love.' Lloyd stooped to kiss Sali's cheek before taking off his coat.

‘I take it the inquest went as badly as you predicted?' Victor poured more tea for his father and brothers, lifted the egg from the boiling water, dropped it into an eggcup decorated with a picture of a fat red hen and put it on the table in front of Harry.

‘The jury agreed that Samuel Rayes died from injuries received on the eighth of November nineteen ten, caused by some blunt instrument. The evidence is not sufficiently clear as to how he received those injuries,' Lloyd recited impassively, sitting next to Harry.

‘If the court had allowed the miners as much leeway and time to give evidence as the police, the jury might have delivered a different verdict. But then again, given the weak-chinned, brainless crache who made up the jury, probably not,' Billy Evans pronounced scathingly.

‘They even brought stones and railings into court as evidence,' Joey grumbled. ‘They said the railings had been ripped out and used as weapons by the colliers and the stones had been gathered by the police after they'd been thrown at them during the rioting –as if anyone could prove otherwise. Then, they decided that a miner could just as easily have injured Samuel as a police officer –as if we'd hit one of our own. The police inspector from Bristol even had the gall to swear on oath that none of his men used their batons that night.'

‘Will there be an appeal?' Sali asked. Joey was the most vociferous but she sensed that Lloyd and his father were more incensed by the injustice of the verdict.

Mr Evans shook his head. ‘The authorities are writing the history books their way, Sali. They wouldn't overturn the verdict now, not even if we produced two dozen eyewitnesses who saw a police officer bludgeon Samuel.'

‘The bloody police have organized a damned whitewash!' Joey exploded. ‘A man's dead from a crack on the skull. Someone should swing for him ...'

Victor kicked Joey's foot under the table and looked significantly at Harry, who was watching Sali cut the top from his egg.

‘There's no point in talking about it. What's done is done,' Lloyd said abruptly. ‘We have to move on and make sure that Samuel Rayes' death counts for something.'

Billy Evans gave Victor a searching look. ‘And what were you doing that was so important you couldn't come down to the court to show your support for your fellow worker? And don't try telling me you were on the picket lines. I spoke to a couple of the boys on the way up. They said they haven't seen hide nor hair of you all day.'

Lloyd spoke before Victor could answer. ‘If I was in Victor's shoes I wouldn't have gone to the court either. He and Megan have little enough time left together as it is.'

‘What do you mean?' Victor poured milk into his tea and stirred it.

‘I walked back from Porth with her uncle. Her father's coming today -'

‘He arrived when I was there,' Victor interrupted.

‘He's taking Megan and the two youngest children back to his farm in the Swansea Valley. Her uncle booked passage for himself, his brothers and his three oldest boys last week with Evans and Short. They're emigrating to Canada, sailing with the White Star Line from Liverpool tomorrow night.'

The blood drained from Victor's face. ‘Megan never said a word to me.'

‘She didn't know,' Lloyd revealed. ‘Her uncle said he wanted to carry on as normal until the last minute because he didn't want to upset the children. It's my guess he also didn't want to give people round here time to have a go at him and his brothers for deserting the strike at a time when we need every man to show solidarity.'

‘He told
you,'
Victor pointed out angrily.

‘Half an hour ago and only because I'm his landlord.' Lloyd took the milk jug Sali handed him.

Billy Evans had encouraged his sons to save and invest their money in property. Originally, all he had hoped for was to give each of them a mortgage-free house when they married, but over the years he had bought a dozen houses, which he'd put in his own and his sons' names. When Lloyd had been left a legacy by his former employer, Sali's father, years before they had become friends let alone lovers, he had followed his father's example and used to it to buy several tenanted houses in Tonypandy, including the one next door. But as the strikers weren't in a position to pay their rents, their investments were worthless and were likely to remain that way until the dispute was settled.

‘He asked if I'd take the furniture in lieu of the rent he owes. After he paid his debts and passage for him and his three oldest boys he only had thirty pounds left of his life savings. And Megan's father won't take the two youngest for less than twenty because there's no saying how long they'll be living with him.' Lloyd hadn't bought any tobacco for weeks but, like his father, he pulled his empty pipe from his pocket out of habit and set it beside his teacup on the table.

‘I'm going next door to see Megan.' Victor pushed his chair back from the table.

‘I wouldn't if I were you, not just yet,' Sali advised. ‘If she didn't know that her uncle was emigrating, she'll need time to adjust to the news herself. And, as she hasn't seen her father in a long time they're bound to have some catching up to do.'

‘They're doing that all right,' Victor concurred bitterly. ‘When he found out who I was, he reminded her about the letter he wrote forbidding her to see me.'

‘It's too late for them to start travelling back to Swansea today,' Lloyd said practically. ‘Why don't you call round to see her later, or better still get Sali to do it? She's more diplomatic than any of us and Megan's father is likely to be more polite to a woman.'

Victor sank slowly back on to his chair. Considering Ianto Williams' venomous reaction when he'd found him alone with his daughter, Lloyd had given him good advice. But that didn't make it any easier to take.

‘I'll go next door as soon as I've put Harry to bed. If I can, I'll bring Megan back here. I'll tell her father that I need her help to pin up a hem or something.' Disturbed by Victor's bleak expression, Sali laid her hand over his.

Victor gripped her hand briefly, then finished his tea. ‘I'll shut the chickens in the coop and check the dogs before it gets too dark to see your hand in front of your face out there.'

‘Can I come, Uncle Victor?' Harry asked eagerly.

‘Not until you've finished your egg and drunk your tea.' Sali looked at Lloyd and knew he was thinking the same as her. If Megan's father had returned to take her home there was nothing any of them could do to prevent him. He was Megan's legal guardian and until her twenty-first birthday Megan had no choice but to obey him.

Oblivious to the hungry looks the children were giving Megan when she lifted the stew pan from the stove a second time, Ianto Williams held out his bowl. ‘It's not as good as your mother's cawl, but I've been all day on the road so I'll have another spoonful.'

Megan poured half a ladleful into her father's bowl.

‘I'll have more than that, girl,' her father complained when she split most of what was left between the bowls of the three older boys, as seven-year-old Daisy and six-year– old Sam had been fed in school.

‘Let your father finish the cawl.' Megan's uncle left his chair. ‘My brothers and me have a few goodbyes to say down the Pandy, Ianto. You're welcome to come with us.'

‘Into a Godless public house where they serve the devil's brew?' Ianto's face contorted in contempt.

‘I should have known better than to ask a Baptist. We'll see you when we get back. Megan. I'm sorry I can't take you to Canada with us.'

‘I wouldn't have wanted to go, uncle.'

‘You may change your mind in a few years. There's opportunity out there, which is more than can be said for this valley the way the miners are being squeezed to sell their labour for next to nothing.' He looked at Daisy and Sam, who had been crushed by the news that they were to be left behind with an aunt and uncle they had never met and even worse, banished miles from everyone they knew. ‘I promise you two, I'll send for you the minute I have a home for you to live in and someone to look after you.'

‘Promise?' Daisy could barely get the word out as she struggled to choke back her tears.

‘I promise. When you've finished your cawl, go upstairs, pack your clothes and toys into the cardboard boxes I brought up from the shop. Megan,' he addressed his niece's back as she carried the empty stew pan to the sink, ‘don't forget to write to let us know how you are getting on.'

‘I won't, uncle.' Megan turned and watched him walk out of the door ahead of his brothers. She knew he'd be back later that evening, but not before her bedtime. The cart was leaving for Swansea at three in the morning and she doubted he'd be up to see them off. It wasn't much of a goodbye after five years. He'd always been fair to her but he'd also been detached to the point of coolness, although the neighbours had told her he'd been a very different man when her aunt had been alive.

Ianto cut a hunk from the third and last loaf and dunked it into the cawl.

‘Can we go round to Tegwen's and say goodbye to them before we pack?' the oldest boy asked.

Megan nodded, too heartsick to answer.

‘And Sam and me?' Daisy added.

‘There'll be no time to visit friends when you're on the farm with me and your Auntie Mary,' Ianto warned. ‘You'll be too busy gathering the eggs, cleaning out the hen runs and looking after the vegetable garden. Just like Megan did when she was your age.'

‘But Megan will be coming with us, won't she?' Daisy's bottom lip trembled.

‘Only on the journey. Then she'll have to go away to earn her living.'

‘Megan -'

‘Go and see Tegwen, Daisy,' Megan said shortly. ‘But I want you and Sam back here in half an hour. Have you already found me a job in the Swansea Valley?' she asked her father after the children had left.

‘There's nothing going around Ystradgynlais, so I thought I'd take you up to Brecon. There's a hiring in Ship Street next week. Not many farmers will be looking for workers at this time of year, so don't go expecting too much. There's little enough choice in spring let alone winter.'

‘I haven't done any farm work in five years.' She picked up the children's bowls and carried them to the sink.

Ianto wiped the last vestiges of cawl from his bowl with the bread and pushed it into his mouth. ‘You've had it soft here, girl.'

‘Soft! With four grown men, three working boys and two children to wash, cook, clean and scrub for? Have you any idea how hard I've had to work to run this house?' A firm believer in free speech and the emancipation of women, Megan's uncle had encouraged her to voice her opinions.

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