Read Winners and Losers Online

Authors: Catrin Collier

Winners and Losers (8 page)

Fighting a wave of emotion that threatened to overwhelm her, she turned and saw Victor waiting, her case in his hand. ‘Should we lock up the house?'

‘Lloyd and I will see to it later.' Victor almost told Megan that he intended to ask Lloyd if they could have the house, but just like her he suddenly felt that 25 August 1912 would never come. ‘If you need more time -'

‘No,' Megan broke in emphatically. ‘After all, it's not as if I'm going to the ends of the earth.'

‘I won't go far from the house for the next week unless I'm on picket duty. Even if you only get an hour off, you'll call?'

She nodded and went to the door. Reaching out with his free hand, he gripped her gloved fingers. She returned the pressure and walked out ahead of him.

The yard around Harry's primary school was full of small boys making faces or ‘jibs', as they were colloquially known in the Rhondda, and girls performing an elaborate clapping game accompanied by a ditty they had picked up from their parents:

Every nice girl loves a collier

In the Rhondda Valley War,

Every nice girl loves a striker

And you know what strikers are.

In Tonypandy they're very handy

With their sticks and stones and boot

Walking down the street with Jane

Breaking every window pane

That's loot!

The last line was sung with gusto and ended in a double clap as emphatic as small hands could make it.

‘Let's hope they won't be teaching that same song to their own children,' Mr Griffiths the headmaster commented to Sali when he saw her at the gate with Harry.

‘It's the first time I've heard that one.'

‘We had to stop them singing some of the others.' Albert Griffiths and Sali both taught in the evening classes organized by the miners' unions for workers and housewives who had received little or no formal education, and he respected her as a teacher and colleague, although her uncle had forced her to give up her teacher training when her father had died, a few months before she was due to take her final examinations. He looked down at Harry. ‘Breakfast in the hall in five minutes, boy.'

‘Yes, sir.'

‘See you later, Harry.' Sali stooped to receive her son's kiss. Sensing that it was reluctantly given, with a sideways glance at his playmates, she realized it was probably one of the last he'd give her in public for a long time.

‘Bye, Mam.' Whooping like an Indian, Harry raced across the yard.

‘He's come a long way this term.' Mr Griffiths failed to suppress a grin as Harry pulled down his lower eyelids with his thumbs, stuck his index fingers in his ears and wiggled his tongue at his best friend, Dewi.

‘So I see.' Sali knew exactly who had taught Harry to make that face and she resolved to have a word with Joey.

‘We'd like to move him out of the babies' and into the first class, if that's all right with you.'

Sali looked doubtful. ‘I don't want him growing up too fast.'

‘He's bored where he is, and you were the one who taught him to read. I'd like to do it today if I have your permission.'

‘You have it, Mr Griffiths,' Sali agreed grudgingly, recognizing that the headmaster was better placed to oversee Harry's progress within the school than she was.

‘Off to your soup kitchen?'

‘Father Kelly's kitchen,' she amended.

‘You have enough donations?'

‘For the moment. You?' she enquired anxiously.

‘For the moment,' he echoed. ‘The superintendent of the Neath police force held a collection in his station and sent me a postal order for two pounds fourteen shillings and sixpence yesterday.'

‘You cashed it?'

‘I did. But if the strikers find out -'

‘They'd assume that the Neath police, like all right thinking individuals, understand their grievances and support them.' Sali repeated a remark Lloyd had made to a member of the strike committee who had argued against accepting donations collected after a football match between the soldiers and the striking miners. ‘No one wants to see children starve, Mr Griffiths.'

A teacher walked into the yard and rang a handbell.

‘You're right, Mrs Jones. What is important is that the children are fed. Not where the money comes from to do it.'

‘As long as you don't stretch the point too far and accept donations from the Collieries' Company or Leonard Llewellyn,' she smiled.

‘Those I turned down the first week of the strike. If you'll excuse me, I must go and help serve breakfast.'

‘Good morning, Mr Griffiths, and thank you for your interest in Harry.' Sali walked down the road and headed for the centre of town on her way to the Catholic Hall in Trinity Road. When she crossed Tonypandy Square, a woman carrying twins in a shawl, wrapped around herself and both babies, accosted her.

‘Mrs Jones, you probably don't remember me .. .' she began hesitatingly.

‘Of course I do, Mrs Richards, you were in one of my classes, and these,' Sali admired the twins, ‘I take it, are the reason you stopped coming.'

Beryl Richards pointed to the Colliery Cottages across the road. ‘I live there.' She leaned closer to Sali and whispered. ‘Victor ... Mr Evans gave us some coal yesterday. ‘

Expecting Beryl Richards to ask for more, Sali said, ‘Victor risked prosecution -'

‘I know that, Mrs Jones,' Beryl interrupted. ‘Not many colliers are prepared to help the families of the non-union men but Mr Evans is. And people round here say that you and Father Kelly serve anyone who comes to your soup kitchen, so I wondered if you'd do something for Mrs Hardy and her family who live in the huts.'

Sali glanced at the row of dilapidated wooden huts that fringed one side of the square. The entrepreneurs who had sunk the first collieries had erected them as temporary housing for their bachelor workers; half a century later they were still in use, housing the poorest of the poor. The wooden walls were rotting, the glass in most of the windowpanes had been replaced by cardboard, and it wasn't only Mr Evans and Lloyd who called them ‘a bloody disgrace'. She'd heard the traders in Dunraven Street describing them as exactly that, too.

‘Do you know Mrs Hardy, Mrs Jones? Lucy Hardy?'

Sali recalled a painfully thin, fair-haired woman, who always seemed to have a baby in her arms and several children clinging to her skirts. ‘Yes, I believe so.'

‘Her youngest boy died last week, her baby not an hour ago. Her husband pawned the last of their furniture when the boy died to buy a coffin. I gave her some coal but they've had no food for days. If you could send a jug of soup down from the Catholic Hall she could feed the other children. Her husband isn't Catholic but Lucy and the children are -'

‘It's like you heard, Mrs Richards. We don't ask questions about anyone's religion or politics in the Catholic Hall kitchen,' Sali said firmly.

‘The Hardys are too weak to walk up there.'

‘Will Mrs Hardy see me?'

‘She's in no condition to stop anyone from visiting her, Mrs Jones.' Mrs Richards led the way across the square and opened the door of the first hut she came to. Sali stooped to enter and found herself in a single darkened, bare room. Four children, all pale, emaciated, their stomachs swollen from hunger, lay wrapped in a single blanket on the floorboards in front of a pot-bellied iron stove, which, judging by the temperature in the room, had only just been lit. The walls bore splinter marks and Sali guessed they had held shelves that had ended up in the stove.

A ragged blanket strung on a rope nailed to the walls, curtained off a corner of the room. Beryl Richards pushed it aside and Sali saw Lucy Hardy also lying on the floor curled in a blanket. Next to her lay a grey-white baby, still as a waxwork. Sali froze; there was a pinched look about Lucy's nostrils and a far away, unfocused expression in her eyes that intimated she would soon be in the same state.

A man crouched on the floor beside them holding a cup of water. He glanced up and Sali saw a flicker of hostility in his eyes. The last vestige of a ragged pride that had prevented him from seeking help until it was too late.

Sali looked from Beryl, who was weighed down by her twins, to the man and back to the children. None of them was in a fit state to walk to Connie's shop let alone the soup kitchen. Removing her coat, Sali laid it over Lucy and went outside.

The nearest person was an absurdly young-looking constable with red curls spilling out from beneath his helmet, but moved by the urgency of the situation Sali didn't stop to look for someone she knew. ‘Will you help me?' She added, ‘Please,' when she saw him hesitate.

He and the officer closest to him walked warily towards her.

‘Constable Huw Davies, ma'am, can I help you?'

‘Will you go to the Catholic Hall and Rodney's shop for me please. Tell Mrs Rodney that Sali Jones needs a basic parcel of food, especially bread, sent here as soon as possible, and ask Father Kelly to call right away with the doctor and a jug of soup. A baby's just died, the mother is seriously ill and there's four starving children and a man who haven't eaten in days in this house.'

The officer pushed open the door just as Beryl was leaving the curtained alcove. He saw Lucy lying on the floor with her baby and the children huddled in front of the stove. He shouted to his companion, ‘You go to the shop, Wainwright, I'll go to the Catholic Hall.'

Joyce Palmer stood in the doorway of her lodging house, effectively blocking it. ‘I will not allow any girl in my employ to have gentlemen visitors.'

‘I am not visiting, Mrs Palmer,' Victor explained patiently. ‘Megan's suitcase is heavy and I assumed she'd be sleeping in the attic.' He held up the battered trunk, which Megan's uncle had discarded as too large and cumbersome to take to Canada with him.

‘I can carry Miss Williams' case upstairs, Mrs Palmer.' Wearing his cape and carrying his helmet, Sergeant Martin joined them.

‘There's no need to trouble yourself, Sergeant Martin,' Joyce said stiffly.

‘No trouble, Mrs Palmer.' He looked Victor up and down, then stared at him. ‘I know you, don't I?'

‘We haven't been introduced.' One police officer in uniform was very like another to Victor, but there was something about the way the Sergeant was looking at Megan that set his teeth on edge.

‘You're Lloyd Evans' brother.'

‘That's right.' Victor met the sergeant's steady gaze.

‘Your father and brother are on the strike committee.'

‘It's not illegal to be a union man or sit on a strike committee,' Victor replied.

‘Yet!' Sergeant Lamb strode up the street and joined them. ‘In my experience, wherever there's trouble you'll find the union men. Like last night, when my brother's skull was fractured and several men were scalded.'

‘The men on the committee try to stop any fighting before it starts,' Victor countered loyally.

‘How is your brother, Sergeant Lamb?' Joyce enquired, anxious to break up the tense confrontation.

‘Gravely ill, Mrs Palmer. He hadn't regained consciousness when I left the Infirmary this morning.'

‘I am sorry to hear that,' Sergeant Martin said.

‘As we've found out to our cost when dealing with the savages in this town, “sorry” doesn't mend broken bodies.' Sergeant Lamb pushed past Victor and Joyce and entered the house.

Joyce moved from the doorway. ‘That suitcase does look heavy, Mr Evans, so I will allow you into the house just this once. If you'd follow me.'

Victor removed his cap and waited for Megan to walk in ahead of him. Sergeant Martin placed his helmet on his head, gave Megan and Victor one last look and walked past them.

‘I asked Lena, that's the girl I took from the workhouse, to make up the second bed in her room for you. It's next to my own on the attic floor.' Joyce walked up the stairs and Victor and Megan followed.

The first oak staircase was wide and imposing, the second marginally less so. The pine staircase that led from the second to the third floor was so narrow it would have been difficult for two adults to pass. The fourth was scarcely wide enough for a grown man, and Victor was forced to carry Megan's case in front of him.

Joyce passed the first door on the uncarpeted landing. ‘That is my room.' She pointed to two doors opposite. ‘The linen and storage cupboards. You'll find all the bed linen, spare pillows, blankets and upstairs dusters, and cleaning cloths in them, but I keep both locked, so you'll have to come to me for the key, Megan.' She opened the second door. ‘You may leave Megan's suitcase here, Mr Evans.'

Victor dropped it inside the door.

‘After you've unpacked you'll find me in the kitchen, Megan. It's at the end of the long corridor to the right of the stairs. Don't be long. I'll see you out, Mr Evans.'

Victor gave Megan a reassuring smile. He saw Joyce watching them and went ahead of her back down the stairs.

Megan walked into the bedroom. It was surprisingly large and clean, but it was also cold and cheerless. The walls were whitewashed plaster, the floorboards unvarnished pine. Two iron bedsteads stood with their heads against the wall opposite the door. Both were made up with white cotton sheets, pillowcases and grey army blankets that served as bedcovers. An iron-framed camping washstand furnished with tin basin, jug, chamber pot and slop bucket stood between them. The curtains were grey cotton. A pine wardrobe and chest of drawers completed the furniture.

‘The top drawers in the chest are empty and there's plenty of space in the wardrobe. Your bed is the one nearest the window.'

A scrawny girl, who looked no more than twelve years old, hovered shyly in the doorway. She had close-cropped, curly brown hair and brown eyes, and was dressed in a khaki work overall, thick black woollen stockings and surprisingly good quality leather boots, considering the rest of her clothes. In a decent dress and with longer, fashionably dressed hair she might have been considered attractive.

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