by Huw Jones
Huw Jones's story is set in the late 1960s, a period of momentous change in British society. A 14-year-old baby-boomer, Huw experiences more tragedy, pain and confusion than any youngster should experience. Sadly, he faces it totally alone. Despite huge loss, Huw is driven by hiraeth, a concept from the ancient language of Wales. Hiraeth has no direct English translation but can be defined as a Welshman's abiding sense of yearning, longing and belonging and his connectedness to the land of Wales.
Huw embarks upon a quest to fill a huge void in his inmost being, which has been created by loss. A loss made even more painful by the continuing seemingly fruitless search for his identity as a boy becoming a man, as he walks barefoot over the broken glass, upturned rusty nails and hot coals at the cusp of the threshold between childhood and being an adult.
Although most of the conversation that takes place in this narrative would have been in the Welsh language, I have only included a few words where they help flow of the story. A few explanations to help you understand the context: "The Valleys" are a series of parallel valleys in South Wales, running broadly north to south, in which much of the industrial base of Wales was found. The Valleys had, and still have, a distinct identity, sub-culture and a unique accent easily discernible to another Welshman.
The Welsh spoken in the North and the South of Wales (still spoken by more than 600,000 people today) has a few regional variations but a 'Hwntw' from South Wales would understand a North Walian 'Gog' and vice versa.. A few Welsh words that occur often in this story: Grandfather is Taid (pronounced 'tide') and Grandmother is Nain (pronounced 'nine'). Mother is mam everywhere in Wales. Bach (roughly, 'little one') is a general term of affection used by a family member or by a close friend. Cariad (literally, 'love') is another term of endearment which is used for a close friend or family member as well as in a romantic way. Duw is Welsh for God.
The First XV rugby team is a school's premier rugby team. Teams are always shown with Roman numerals. XV = fifteen. This would be equivalent to the USA's Varsity team in a sport. Huw's position 'hooker' is not as risqué as it sounds. In British rugby, a hooker is the central forward in the front row of a scrum whose main job is to win the ball. A hooker also throws the ball in when it goes out of play on the sides of the pitch, to two columns of opposing players known as a lineout.
Grammar schools were state schools that selected their pupil intake on the basis of academic achievement or aptitude. Most authorities abolished secondary selection in the late 1960s.
This story is dedicated to my friend and literary inspiration Mihangel. Many thanks to Chris and Liz for suggestions and to Solsticeman for patiently editing and translating from the original English.
I'd welcome any comments – firstname.lastname@example.org
"What is longing made from?
What cloth was put into it
That it does not wear out with use?
Gold wears out, and silver wears out,
Velvet wears out, and silk wears out,
Every ample garment wears out
Yet longing does not wear out.
The moon rises and the sun rises,
The sea rises in vast waves,
But longing never rises from the heart."
Great longing, cruel longing is breaking my heart every day;
When I sleep most sound at night
Longing comes and wakes me.
Welsh poem, 17th century
Huw smiled as he looked down towards the Cardiff Road from his favourite spot on the hillside above Merthyr Vale. He gazed across the wooded hillside with its rowan, sycamore, ash and oak trees and the many others he couldn't identify. Along the tops of the valleys, he could see the great heaps of coal spoil -- the residue of the coal mining that had given the valleys their livelihood for over a hundred years. They were ugly, black, intimidating and menacing. A frown crossed his face; Huw knew there was something wrong about what he was seeing, or rather, not seeing and he was puzzled. Normally he would expect to see the road between Merthyr Tydfil and Cardiff carrying a continuous stream of cars, buses and lorries. Today, however, the road and the village below were strangely empty. He could see that Aberfan to the north and Treharris to the south were both almost deserted. He was unaware that this Saturday afternoon would go down in British history, or at least in English history, as one of the nation's greatest sporting achievements. It was Saturday, July 30, 1966 and England was playing West Germany at Wembley in the football World Cup final.
After some thought, he worked out why the road was so empty, although the significance left him unmoved. To him, it was a complete mystery why people should follow football instead of rugby union, and anyway, England and Germany were two foreign countries competing in a sport of no interest to a true Welshman. He was proud of his Welsh identity and culture, which had a place in its heart only for the oval ball, not the round.
The tranquillity of the afternoon was perfect for Huw who preferred solitude to being part of a crowd. Here he could mull over the many issues that were competing for attention in his mind. His mam often described Huw as '14, going on 24' years old because he demonstrated a maturity and approach to life far beyond his years. In physical appearance, he was certainly average for his age in height and possibly he was a little underweight, but his brown twinkling eyes and striking features gave him an attractiveness that drew others to him. He had a dark complexion, thankfully free from the ravages of teenage acne. Girls liked his wavy black hair which he wore long before it became fashionable. Quiet, kind and shy, he had already lived through more traumatic experiences than most other lads of his age. On several occasions in his early childhood, severe asthma attacks had caused Huw to be rushed to hospital for emergency treatment. Fortunately, he proved the doctors wrong when they prophesied that he would not live beyond his infancy and he grew out of that phase. Those experiences and the horrific ones to come contributed to his maturity and his adult approach to life.
Although likeable, Huw did not respond well to friendly approaches. He was happiest with his own company, finding friendships and relationships confusing. He found it difficult to know how much to give of himself in a friendship. After getting his fingers burned on more than one previous occasion overstepping some unwritten line, he decided he was safer with his own company, despite his inner emptiness. On those occasions that had gone badly wrong, he had welcomed a warm initial camaraderie but the friends had backed off when they felt smothered by his attempts to develop the relationships by too frequent contact or by becoming too serious in the things they discussed. Where did this need to be close to someone come from? He knew something was missing in his life but it always eluded his search. He was determined that he would take the opportunity during these early days of the school holidays to try to make sense of the confusions and conflicts he felt, and he would try to work out a way of interacting with people in a new way that did not lead to inevitable fracture and disappointment.
It was just over two years since the accident at the Merthyr Vale Colliery which had killed his father Elwyn, leaving his mother, Dilys, a widow and Huw and his younger siblings, Mair and Dafydd, fatherless. His father's death was a great irony, in that coal had killed his grandfather, his great uncle and another uncle. It killed them, not in dramatic pit disasters but slowly, painfully and over many years as coal dust insidiously, inexorably and relentlessly clogged their lungs. As always, a chest infection became pneumonia and pneumoconiosis claimed yet another victim. His father's death added further to the ever-mounting true cost of the price of coal but was not a result of mining. It was the result of a careless vehicle accident. A National Coal Board lorry had reversed far too quickly without checking properly that it was clear behind. Elwyn Jones was crossing the yard, about to join the morning shift on a cold, rainy morning. It knocked him from his bike, crushing him under its wheels. Huw well remembered the call to the headmaster's office where he was told that there had been an accident involving his father and he should go straight home.
He had rushed home to find the front door open as the women neighbours of their street were coming and going, some in tears. His mother broke the news to him with Mair and Dafydd sobbing uncontrollably, their arms round their mother. He couldn't believe what he heard. His father -- his guiding light, his mentor, and his friend -- was dead. He was dimly aware of someone speaking to him. "You're the man of the house now, Huw bach," Jim Morris the National Union of Mineworkers union welfare officer said. "You have to look after your mam and your brother and sister now. We'll be starting the compensation claim for your family today." Jim's statement was well meant but Huw immediately took on the responsibility implicit in what he had said. In that moment, he ceased to be a child in his mind. That over-developed sense of responsibility would turn out to be a huge burden for many years.
Huw could feel nothing. He had locked up his emotions; even at the funeral, where it seemed the whole village and the entire colliery had turned out, he shed no tears. The only positive thing that came out of that terrible incident was the compensation paid by the insurers that enabled Huw's mother to buy their rented house outright and to put a little money aside.
'Fucking NCB', reflected Huw angrily. Not normally given to swearing, He found it hard to find words to express the depth of his anger and loathing towards the National Coal Board. He had grown up immersed in the stories and the culture of the South Wales miners – hard drinking, aggressively masculine, sentimental, passionate and with long memories. Local memories were of events like the Cilfynydd colliery disaster where 194 miners died and Senghenydd where 439 men and boys had perished only 53 years earlier. Everybody in South Wales knew someone who was killed in that awful disaster of 14th October 1913. Huw knew he would never, ever, go down a mine. Only a few years previously, all lads who shared his age of 14 would have been starting their working life in the pits. He shuddered at the idea. He was at Pontypridd Boys Grammar school and, as a successful student at or near the top of his class in all subjects; he had every prospect of getting an education that would take him away from the Valleys with their industrialised poverty.
He grimaced as he re-ran the conflicts that were being fought in his mind. A desire to leave the grinding poverty, grime and hopelessness of the Valleys clashed with his love for Wales and his Welsh identity. Then there was his mam and his younger sister and brother. Yes, they could all be tiresome but he loved all three of them dearly. His mam, Dilys, had not really recovered from his dad's death and so Huw already did most of the cooking at home and a great deal of the care of his sister Mair and brother Dafydd. Mair was a 10-year-old dynamo, devastatingly pretty, who never stopped talking and always wanted to play; but Dafydd, two years younger, was quieter and was utterly devoted to his big brother, as was Huw to Dafydd. Dafydd was a miniature version of his elder brother: dark in hair and complexion with the same chocolate coloured large eyes. Dafydd was well cared for by his sister who kept an eye out for him at Pantglas Junior School, the school that they both attended in their home village of Aberfan. Just a couple of streets away from their home, the two little ones walked together to and from their old Victorian school every day.
Huw missed his father terribly; particularly their long walks together over the hills, where Elwyn would tell him stories of Welsh Princes and Bards and they would sing old Welsh hymns and folk songs, with Huw's reedy soprano and Elwyn's fine tenor voice harmonising together. They always spoke Welsh together -- the language spoken in their home, despite the fact that other than old people, most people in the Valley now used what Huw thought of as the language of the English invaders: Saesneg (English). Although it was almost 700 years since King Edward Longshanks had invaded Wales in 1277, Huw shared the capacity of his fellow Welshman to nurse a deep sense of injustice for that infamous event of history.
His father, Elwyn, was from coastal North Wales where the only English that you would hear spoken was by the tourists who came in their thousands to the beautiful beaches and spectacular scenery of the mountains. This was in stark contrast to the Valleys where the only place you could guarantee to hear Welsh was in the dozens of churches and chapels of the area.
Huw's parents had always attended the Calvinistic Methodist Chapel on Sundays but since Elwyn's death, Dilys's life now completely revolved around the chapel, attending services, prayer meetings, women's meetings and chapel coffee mornings. She expected the children to attend Sunday School and Huw complied with her wishes, but only out of loyalty to his mother. He struggled with the idea of worshiping an all-knowing and all-loving God who had allowed his wonderful father to be taken from him. How he longed for the easy intimacy that he had shared with his father, although he would never express it in those terms. He just knew he wanted -- no, needed -- to recapture that friendship and sense of loving and belonging.
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