Read Winners and Losers Online

Authors: Catrin Collier

Winners and Losers (4 page)

‘I have an idea from that outburst just how much your uncle has allowed you run wild. You're forgetting who you are talking to, girl.'

‘If you give me a chance I might be able to find work around here, Dad,' she pleaded.

‘So you can carry on seeing that Catholic I found you alone in the house with.'

‘Victor was lighting the fire.'

‘From what I saw, he was lighting a lot more than just the fire,' Ianto countered viciously.

Megan felt sick to the pit of her stomach. Her uncle had warned her that her ardent Baptist father would never approve of her associating with a Catholic. But he hadn't attempted to stop her from seeing Victor in the mistaken belief that if they encountered no opposition, their feelings for one another would burn out.

‘I found work for your brothers last month on a farm outside Ammanford. Gwilym gets his keep and ten pounds a year, Owain three.'

Megan did a rapid calculation as she poured hot water from the kettle into the tin bowl in the sink. ‘But Owain is only ten.'

‘Which is why he gets no more than five pounds a year. Your sisters have it easier. They're working in Craig-y-Nos as kitchen maids and from what I've seen of the carts going in there, the servants live off the fat and cream of the land. They get twelve pounds a year apiece without putting in a tenth of the work your brothers have to at the farm. But as they all keep half their earnings back for clothes, your mother and me only get eighteen pounds ten shillings a year from the lot of them. Not much gratitude for the effort we put into feeding and clothing them and bringing them up to be God-fearing Christians. Your twenty-six pounds a year just about kept us going. But I can see we're going to have to tighten our belts. And from that cawl you put on the table, a lot more than the miners in this valley. You'll earn nothing like as much in Brecon. Be lucky to make ten pounds a year and your keep like Gwilym.'

‘Supposing I found a job here that would pay me a pound a week,' Megan blurted breathlessly.

‘Don't talk daft, girl.'

‘There's a lodging house down the road that's paying that kind of money.'

‘What kind of a lodging house?' he questioned suspiciously.

‘One the police live in. The miners won't let their wives or daughters work there because of the fights that keep breaking out between the strikers and police.'

‘You sure they're paying a pound a week?' His eyes narrowed.

‘That's what people around here are saying. If I get it, I could send fifteen shillings a week home,' she promised recklessly.

Her father fell silent and Megan sensed he was weighing up the money against the risk of leaving her in the same town as Victor.

‘Get your coat, we'll go down there now and see about this job,' he said finally.

‘I have to wait for the children to come home so I can put Daisy and Sam to bed. And I'd be better off applying on my own -'

‘Oh no you don't, girl. I want to see exactly what kind of a house it is. And meet whoever is running it. If you get the job, I need to be sure that they won't be like your uncle and allow you to run wild with Papists.'

‘You have to undress for bed and you have to do it now!' Megan had never been impatient with Daisy and Sam before, but the thought of having to leave Tonypandy and more especially Victor, had driven every other consideration from her mind. The children were upset but so was she. And it had taken a mammoth effort just to get them to pack their clothes and few toys in the cardboard boxes their father had cadged from Connie Rodney.

‘I don't want to go to bed because when I wake up I'll have to go away ...' Daisy threw herself, face down next to Sam on the bed he shared with his brothers, and howled. Ashamed of herself for losing her temper, Megan struggled to hold back her·own tears. Daisy and Sam had fought one another from cradle days and it disturbed her more to see Sam slip his arm around his sister's thin shoulders in an attempt to comfort her, than the times she'd caught him pinching and kicking her when he'd assumed no one was watching them.

The front door opened and Sali called out, ‘Hello, anyone in?'

Weak with relief, Megan left the children and ran down the stairs. ‘You've heard?'

‘Your uncle told Lloyd. I came to see if you needed help with packing. Harry's in bed, but Victor's offered to sit with him until I get back. He would like to see you. So, if I can take over here -'

The kitchen door opened and Megan's father joined them in the passage. ‘I heard voices.'

Sali held out her hand. ‘Hello, you must be Mr Williams, Megan's father. I'm Sali Jones, one of Megan's neighbours.'

‘Not popish, are you?' he demanded.

Although Victor had discussed Megan's father's opposition to their engagement with her, Sali was taken aback by his directness –and hostility to Catholicism. ‘No, Mr Williams.'

‘Baptist?'

‘My parents brought me up in the Methodist faith.' Sali omitted to mention that the only church that she had set foot in during the last year had been the Catholic Saints Gabriel and Raphael when Joey and Victor had invited her to attend Christmas Eve midnight mass with them.

‘So you're not popish,' he reiterated, as if he hadn't quite believed her.

‘No, Mr Williams.'

‘Your husband?'

‘I am a widow.' She blushed, as she always did, whenever she denied the existence of Owen Bull, the man her uncle had forced her to marry, who had raped and abused her before she had escaped him, and was now awaiting execution in prison for murder.

‘I would like to go out and see about a job,' Megan interrupted before her father could interrogate Sali any further.

‘You go. I'll put Daisy and Sam to bed and see to everything here.' Sali couldn't imagine what kind of a job Megan was applying for at that hour, but the fact that she had something in mind looked hopeful for her – and Victor.

‘I've packed their things and laid out their clothes for the morning. But Daisy's terribly upset.'

‘I'll tell them a story. That will take their mind off tomorrow.' Sali lifted Megan's cloak and hat from the pegs and handed them to her. ‘Is there anything else you'd like me to do?'

Megan shook her head. ‘We won't be long.'

Ianto Williams, who hadn't removed his stained and creased jacket since he'd entered the house, pulled his cap from his pocket and followed Megan out through the front door.

Ianto didn't offer Megan his arm as they walked up the dark street and joined the gas-lit thoroughfare that led down the hill into the town centre. A fine drizzle needled the glow in front of the lamps and Megan lifted the hood on her cloak to save her hat. Despite the rain, the air was thick with the smoke and smuts that spewed out of the chimneys. Coal didn't burn clean, but tarred wood was worse and she recalled the colliery railings that had been ripped up by the rioters.

‘Where's this lodging house?' Ianto enquired brusquely.

‘Bottom of the street on the left.'

As they walked, the sound of voices raised in anger reached them. Megan began to run down the hill, past the lodging house into Dunraven Street, ignoring the shouts of her father behind her. A crowd of men, boys and women, a few nursing babies in shawls wrapped Welsh fashion around both mother and child, faced a solid wedge of constables and mounted police who were blocking the main thoroughfare.

A window opened above the police and steaming buckets of water were thrown over their heads. Agonized screams filled the air. The police lines thinned as officers helped injured colleagues limp away from the confrontation. An order was shouted from the front line.

‘Hold firm! Draw batons!'

Gwyn Jenkins stepped forward and yelled at Joey Evans, who stood, arms crossed, defiantly facing the police, but his voice was drowned out by the chants of the hostile mob.

‘No blacklegs!'

‘Right to picket!'

‘Fair wages for all!'

‘Fight or starve!'

Half a brick flew through the air from somewhere behind Joey. It smashed into the face of a constable in the front line. Blood poured from his head, he staggered and his fall to the ground signalled the end of police restraint. Batons flailing, they charged into the crowd as two officers carried him away. Megan watched helplessly, while people ran to avoid the blows being rained down on them. Men pushed the women, children and babies behind them. Sticks and stones appeared from nowhere as a few intrepid colliers attempted to fight back. But their makeshift weapons were no match for the solid police batons. A policeman knocked a woman to the ground and Megan ran forward. But when she extended her hand to help the woman, the constable turned his attention to her.

‘Come on!' Joey appeared, grabbed Megan's arm and pulled her back up the hill.

Hearing footsteps, Megan glanced over her shoulder, expecting to see the police chasing them, but the woman she had tried to help and a crowd of boys were running behind them.

‘Go home, Megan, before you get hurt,' Joey shouted.

‘I don't see you taking your own advice, Joey Evans.' She stopped and rested her hands on her knees to catch her breath, as the woman and boys disappeared up the lane that cut behind the shops.

‘They're bringing blacklegs in on the train to work the Cambrian pit. They won't allow us to picket the station and until they do there's going to be trouble.' Joey followed the others up the alley.

A dozen police rounded the corner and Megan joined her father, who had remained halfway up the hill, well away from the skirmishing.

‘You see any colliers come this way, miss?'

Terrified of the officers, yet too afraid to tell a lie in front of her father, Megan remained silent.

Having always regarded miners as being overpaid in comparison to farm workers, Ianto Williams had no compunction about betraying them. He pointed to the entrance to the lane. ‘They went in there.' He waited until the police ran after them before taking Megan to task. ‘Fine place you live in, girl.'

‘Tonypandy is a good place and most of the people who live here are wonderful. It's only like this now because of the strike.' Megan listened intently but all she could hear was the steady tramp of police boots. The garden walls behind the houses were high, but not too high for Joey and the others to vault over, and she hoped that they were all safely hidden in the houses by now.

‘If colliers tried to live on farm wages they'd know what it is to go hungry,' Ianto sneered.

Wary of offending her father any more than she already had, lest he take it into his head to drag her back to the Swansea Valley even if Joyce Palmer did offer her a job, Megan didn't remind him that unlike the vast majority of colliers, farm labourers had gardens big enough to keep a few chickens and grow vegetables.

She led the way back down the hill to the side door of the lodging house and lifted the doorknocker, bringing it down on a polished brass lion's head.

‘Do you know that boy who spoke to you?'

‘He's one of the neighbours.'

‘Related to that Catholic?' her father questioned sharply.

‘His brother.' She was glad to see the door opening.

Joyce Palmer was a tall, thin woman, who wore her hair pinned back in a severe bun. It had changed colour, from a rich brown to white overnight when her husband and five young sons had been killed in the Wattstown colliery disaster five years before, along with a hundred and fourteen other mineworkers. With few savings and a widow's pension that didn't cover the rent of her colliery owned house, Joyce had taken the position of lodging house landlady two days after their funeral. She had a reputation for plain speaking and most of her neighbours were wary of her, despite the fact that if anyone was in real need, Joyce was always the first on the doorstep.

When the miners withdrew their labour, the colliery company that owned the house gave the tenants notice to clear their rooms for police officers. Joyce's neighbours had expected her to leave along with the colliers, but she stayed. She knew that most people condemned her for her stance, but she was too busy catering to the needs of her new lodgers for the gossips' attitude to concern her.

‘Can I help you, Megan?' Joyce asked with the air of a woman who had a great deal to do and a shortage of time to do it in.

‘This is my father, Ianto Williams, Mrs Palmer. Dad, this is Mrs Palmer who runs this lodging house.' Megan took a deep breath and crossed her fingers behind her back. ‘I'd like to apply for the job advertised in the window if it's still open, Mrs Palmer.'

‘You want to work for me?' If Joyce was surprised, she concealed it well.

‘Yes, please, Mrs Palmer.'

‘Then you had better come in.' Joyce opened the door wider. Ianto removed his cap and preceded Megan into a hall that smelled of washing soda and beeswax polish. A gleaming oak staircase led to the upper floors, the wood either side of a narrow strip of jute carpeting, buffed to the same shine as the banister and dado that separated the brown varnished paper on the lower wall from the dark green plaster above it. The black and white floor tiles were spotless, but Megan couldn't help noticing there wasn't a plant, picture or even a coat rack to add a personal touch. Masculine voices echoed from a room on their right.

‘The lodgers' sitting room,' Joyce informed them. ‘If you'll excuse me a moment, the doctor is examining the officers who have been injured. I must check that he has everything he needs.' She knocked the door, went into the room and emerged a minute later. ‘They know where I'll be if I'm needed. We'll talk in my room.'

Megan had never seen a room as crowded with furniture as Joyce Palmer's sitting room. An enormous Welsh dresser filled one wall. Its open shelves displayed a blue and white painted ironware dinner service with tureens large enough to cater for twenty. Ranged in front of the dishes were Joyce's family photographs and an assortment of cheap chalk and glass ornaments, the sort of knick-knacks children won at fairgrounds and gave to their mothers as gifts.

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