Read Winners and Losers Online

Authors: Catrin Collier

Winners and Losers (9 page)

Megan held out her hand. ‘You must be Lena. I'm Megan.'

Lena gave her a limp handshake. ‘Mrs Palmer told me last night that you'd be coming today. I hope we can be friends. I haven't had one, not since I left the workhouse.'

‘I'm sure we will be,' Megan smiled.

‘It's hard work here, but not as hard as the workhouse, and the food's much better. Were you in the workhouse?'

‘No, I've been living with my uncle.'

‘You have relatives?' Lena said in amazement.

‘Yes,' Megan answered briefly.

‘You're lucky. My mam and dad died of typhoid when I was six. No one wanted me so I was put in the orphanage. Don't your relatives mind you working here?'

‘My family need the money I'll earn.'

‘Mrs Palmer pays good wages. I've bought loads of things since I've been here. Like my boots.' Lena held out her foot so Megan could admire them, before backing to the top of the stairs. ‘I shouldn't have come up to see you. It's time for me to lay the table for the lodgers' last breakfast sitting.'

‘I'll be down as soon as I've unpacked to give you a hand.'

The girl ran down the stairs. Megan lifted her case on to her bed and sprung the locks. The first thing she removed was a framed photograph of her and Victor that had been taken on a day trip to Barry Island in the summer. Encouraged by Joey who had travelled with them, only to disappear half an hour after their arrival, they had posed for the seaside photographer with their arms wrapped around one another.

She only had to glance at it to relive that glorious holiday. Victor had never kissed her so often and shamelessly as during the course of that day –on the beach, later when they had sat in a quiet spot overlooking the sea to picnic on the sandwiches she had made for them, and finally on the railway station while they had waited for a train to take them back to the Rhondda.

Embarrassed, she had tried to remonstrate with him but he'd insisted that stationmasters were more inclined to turn a blind eye when lovers were saying goodbye. Only they hadn't been saying goodbye –not then.

She ran her fingertips lightly over his image then looked for somewhere to stand the frame. The chest of drawers was on the opposite side of the room to her bed. Setting it on the window sill close to her pillow, she pulled off her gloves. Rummaging in her suitcase, she found the plain wooden box that held her few pieces of jewellery, all of which had been presents from Victor. Removing the silver chain he had given her on her last birthday, she gently slipped the engagement ring from her finger, threaded it on to the chain and fastened it around her neck. Opening the top button on her blouse she tucked both chain and ring beneath her collar and refastened the button. Taking her spare underclothes from the case, she carried them to the chest of drawers.

It didn't take her long to unpack and hang her three dresses in the wardrobe. She stowed her empty suitcase on top until she could take it to the box room.

Wondering how long she was going to have to call this bleak room home, she slipped on her calico apron, tied it around her waist, checked that her hair was tidy and went down the stairs.

Chapter Five

Traumatized by the heartbreaking conditions in the hut, beset by feelings of impotency and inadequacy, Sali waited with Father Kelly outside the curtain that screened off the corner. When the doctor joined them after examining Mrs Hardy, he glanced at the children who were sitting around Beryl Richards, drinking soup from cups she had scavenged from the neighbours, before beckoning Sali and Father Kelly outside. It was cold in the square but Sali found the air easier to breathe than the smoke and tragedy-laden atmosphere indoors.

‘Lucy Hardy's dying and it won't be long. An hour at the most.' Overworked, tired and inured to misery, it didn't occur to the doctor to be tactful.

‘Starvation?' Father Kelly couldn't keep the disgust from his voice.

‘The death certificate will cite pneumonia, same as the child. The boy who died nine days ago had tuberculosis as cause. But your diagnosis is probably more accurate, Father.'

‘That man and those poor children will need all the help they can get.' The priest forced himself to concentrate on practical matters.

‘I'll arrange for the children to be admitted to the workhouse.'

‘Surely not, Doctor,' Sali protested.

‘It's the best place for them, Mrs Jones,' the doctor insisted. ‘They're weak, undernourished and they've been in contact with TB. They'll get warm beds in the infirmary, food and rest, and when they're strong enough -'

‘That man won't be in a position to take them back. Not until the strike breaks, and,' the priest looked back at the hut, ‘even when it does, he'll need to save six months' wages to get his furniture out of hock.'

‘I can't do any more here, Father, and there are others who need me.' The doctor snapped his bag shut. ‘I'll send the undertaker round. They'll need a coffin –on second thoughts I'll tell him to wait a couple of hours. The mother and child can share one. I'll ask the Distress Committee to pay the bill and arrange a pauper's grave in Trealaw cemetery. Goodbye, Father Kelly, Mrs Jones.'

‘The Distress Committee's paid out more for coffins than food in the last month.' Father Kelly watched the doctor stop to talk to Captain McCormack of the Salvation Army and Reverend Williams. ‘To be sure, we're all flocking round now it's too late.'

‘Don't be so hard on yourself, Father. It might not have been too late if Mr Hardy had asked for help sooner,' Sali said quietly.

‘It might at that. But that poor baby's corpse and those children!' Father Kelly closed his eyes as though he could blot out the images. ‘They're nothing but skin and bone, and that's not enough to keep body and soul together.'

‘We came as soon as we heard.' The Reverend and the Captain joined them.

‘We can assist Mr Hardy with food, clothes and even furniture. Some of our sponsors have been very generous,' Reverend Williams explained.

‘The committee would like to formally ask you to help with the distribution of relief, Mrs Jones,' Captain McCormack added. ‘With you being the Evans' housekeeper and two of them being strike leaders we thought you might get to hear of the worst cases before they reach this stage.'

‘If colliery workers couldn't afford to pay their union dues, the last people they'll go to for help is the union men.' Father Kelly stamped his feet, ostensibly to keep out the cold, but Sali thought sheer frustration a more likely cause. ‘My, but it's bitter today.'

‘We need to organize the women,' Sali said thoughtfully. ‘Mrs Richards didn't have coal enough for her own family until yesterday, yet she found a neighbour to care for her two older children so she could come here today to light the Hardy's stove. And I know that if she'd had any food, she would have shared it with the Hardy children.'

‘You're right, Mrs Jones.' Father Kelly looked to the Reverend Williams. ‘It's the duty of everyone on the Distress Committee to gather as many donations as we can, but I suggest we leave it to the women to decide what's needed most outside of the soup kitchens. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to the pawnbroker to see if I can get that poor woman's bed out of hock so she can at least draw her last breath in comfort.' He lowered his voice to a whisper. ‘Damn Mark Hardy's bloody pride.'

‘Did I just hear Father Kelly say what I thought I heard him say?' Captain McCormack asked, as the priest stomped off.

‘Of course not, Captain,' Reverend Williams answered. ‘Everyone knows priests never swear.'

Victor was opening his front door when Ned Morgan, snorting and puffing like a steam engine, hurried towards him.

‘Have you seen your father and Lloyd? There's trouble on the corner of Gilfach Road and Primrose Street and your Joey's in the thick of it.'

Victor didn't stop to ask what kind of trouble. ‘If they're not in the house, try the Empire Theatre. They were talking about organizing another mass meeting.' He put his head down and ran.

A few minutes later he saw a crowd of colliers blocking the road. Ned had been right. Joey was in the centre of the front line. Abel Adams, an assistant overman who had been promoted on Lloyd's recommendation, stood flanked by two firemen, brothers Sam and Fred Winter. All three looked terrified as they faced a solid line of colliers.

Luke Thomas, one of the most militant strikers who had frequently accused Lloyd of being ‘soft' when negotiating with management, was standing next to Joey. ‘You can't go any further, Abel,' Luke warned. ‘We've received information that you are doing more than maintenance. You're cutting coal.'

‘Come on, Luke,' Abel yelled back. ‘The only coal we've cut is the load we used to fuel the engines that drive the pumps.'

‘If we don't do essential maintenance, the mine will flood and there'll be no point in striking, because none of us will have a pit left to work in,' Sam shouted.

Victor walked up slowly and positioned himself side on, in the narrow space between the colliers and the workers.

‘If you are doing work other than your own, you're blacklegs, the lot of you.' Luke pushed his face close to Abel's.

Victor had heard his father and Lloyd complain about the difficulty of keeping Luke in check but there was no denying that if Abel, Sam and Fred were doing anything other than essential maintenance underground, they were, in effect, blacklegs.

‘Please, boys, we're only trying to keep the pit open for all of us,' Abel pleaded.

‘Go back or you'll get a ducking in the river,' Luke threatened. When Abel stood his ground, he snatched his cap and tossed it to the men behind him. Joey caught it.

‘We're not cutting coal for the market,' Sam refuted. ‘Just enough to fuel the pump engines.'

‘If you're cutting coal you're a blackleg!' Luke decreed.

‘Give Abel his cap back, Joey.' Victor spoke softly, but his words cut across the street like a whiplash.

The colliers fell silent. Before Joey could hand Abel his cap, it was seized from his hand.

‘I might have known you'd be as yellow as your brother,' Luke jeered at Victor. ‘Didn't you hear what they said?' He pointed to Abel, Sam and Fred. ‘They've condemned themselves out of their own mouths. They're cutting coal and that's doing other people's work. We've every right to stop them drawing wages and living off the fat of the land while our wives and children starve. We're fighting for a decent wage for everyone and no blackleg is going to prevent us from doing just that. Nothing and no one will.' He raised his voice to an orator's pitch. ‘Not police batons, nor cracked skulls. They can beat us –they can starve us –they can break our bones –they can even kill us –but they will find hundreds willing to step up and take the place of every striker they murder. Management, police, soldiers, blacklegs,' Luke spat in the road, ‘none of them will succeed in crushing us. It's time we showed these blacklegs what we think of them, boys. We'll stop every man from going to the colliery -'

‘Then none of us will have a pit to work in when the strike is over,' Victor interrupted.

‘If we don't, it will be down to the likes of soft buggers like you and your brother who wouldn't stand up to management from the very beginning, Victor Evans. You and your “essential maintenance” agreements.' Luke tensed his fists and turned to Sam, Fred and Abel. ‘If it wasn't for boot-lickers like you, management would have caved in during the first week of this strike. They'd never have risked the colliery flooding and we would all be in work now with every one of our demands met. A fair and living wage for all and extra for working in dangerous places.'

The colliers shouted noisy approval and moved
en masse
behind Luke.

Victor stepped close to Abel. ‘Why don't you three go home, just for now.'

Abel, Sam and Fred needed no second bidding. They backed away before turning round and racing off up Primrose Street.

‘Lena's willing enough, but she's used to obeying orders without thinking about what she's doing. She can't be trusted to remember more than one thing at a time or even to do something properly unless you watch her. I've found out to my cost that workhouse standards can't be applied to a lodging house,' Joyce warned Megan, as they washed and dried the dishes from the ‘third' and last sitting of breakfast. ‘And the worse thing about running a lodging house is that the chores never end. As soon as one lot go to bed the next lot get up.'

‘My uncle and his brothers worked different shifts, so I know what that's like.' Megan dried the last breakfast plate and set it on top of the stack on the shelf.

‘You know where you are with colliery workers. They're either on the six till two, the two till ten or the night shift and once they're underground they can't nip back, stick their heads around the door and say, “I've a spare ten minutes, Mrs Palmer, any chance of a cup of tea and a scone in the lodgers' sitting room?” And no matter how busy you are, you dare not refuse,' she said sternly. ‘This lot aren't averse to going to the Collieries' Company with their complaints. And that only makes my job all the harder.'

‘I understand, Mrs Palmer.'

‘Once a policeman goes out through that door you never know when he's coming back. I thought they would start working regular hours once the army were brought in but if anything it's been worse since the troops arrived. There's trouble every single night and sometimes they end up working for ten or twelve hours straight, only to go back out on the streets after a couple of hours' sleep. You've no idea of the number of spoiled meals I've had to throw out in the past month. That's why I've put as many stews and casseroles on the menu as I can get away with. They're easier to keep and heat up.' Joyce set the last of the cutlery on to the tin tray on the wooden draining board and tipped the water out of the enamel bowl down the drain. ‘There's a timetable for making the beds and cleaning the bedrooms pinned behind the kitchen door. I used to do it with Lena, but now you're here, you can take over. Knock on the bedroom doors before entering. I've tried to put men on the same shift in the same room but sometimes they swap shifts or work overtime, so they could be in bed when the room is supposed to be empty. And always take Lena with you. I don't want either of you girls working alone in the bedrooms. Do you understand what I am telling you?'

‘I'll be careful, Mrs Palmer,' Megan assured her.

‘You and Victor Evans have been courting for some time, haven't you?' Joyce fished.

‘Two years.'

‘Is it serious between you two?'

Megan thought for a moment before answering. Deciding there was no point in concealing the truth from her employer, she pulled out the chain and engagement ring from beneath her collar. ‘He asked me to marry him this morning and when I said yes, gave me this.'

‘It's very pretty.' Joyce admired the ring. ‘I take it you won't be telling your father about your engagement.'

Megan knew Joyce wasn't asking a question. ‘My father disapproves of Catholics.'

‘I gathered as much last night, but the Evans' have always struck me as a fine family, apart from Joey, that is. That boy is far too wild for his own and any unsuspecting young girl's good. But Victor is very different. You are a lucky girl, even if you will have to wait until you're twenty-one to marry. How old are you now?'

‘Nineteen last August.'

Joyce beamed; Megan had given her the answer she'd been looking for. Desperate for help in the house, she was relieved to discover that Megan would be with her for more than a year, because whichever way the strike went, the one thing she could be sure of, was that there would be lodgers in the house. Policemen or miners, it made little difference to her workload apart from the amount of dirt the miners carried in with them after their shift. ‘Right, as soon as you've dried that cutlery you can see if Lena's finished laying the table for the next sitting. If she has, you two can start on the bedrooms. Check the rota for changing the sheets and towels. I'd never cope if we waited until Monday to change the lot, so I do two rooms a day Monday to Thursday, one room and our beds on Friday, and another on Saturday.'

‘You wash every day?'

Joyce's smile broadened, as Megan's face fell. ‘I send the bed linen, towels and the men's socks, shirts and underpants to the Chinese laundry. The tea towels and our personal laundry I'll expect you to do on a Monday morning. You did say that you can wash and iron?'

‘I did.' Megan breathed a sigh of relief.

‘It's hard enough to cook and clean for forty men without doing their washing as well.' Joyce rinsed out the sink. ‘Time I started preparing the beef stew for dinner and you cleaned those bedrooms. Give me a call as soon as you have finished one, so I can inspect it.'

Sali stayed in the hut with the Hardys while Beryl Richards took her twins to the neighbour looking after her older children. She returned with a pillowcase and they wrapped the baby's corpse in it. Father Kelly arrived with Connie's delivery cart containing the Hardy's bed and bedclothes, reclaimed from the Pawnbroker. The delivery boy, Father Kelly and Mark carried the bed behind the curtain and Sali helped Beryl to make it up and lift Lucy into it. When she was as comfortable as they could make her, Mark brought his children behind the curtain to say goodbye to their mother, but Lucy was too far gone to do anything other than smile weakly at them.

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