Hiraeth

by Huw Jones

Chapter 4

Over the rest of the holidays, Huw and Lewis met up frequently and spent days together. They were growing quickly in their friendship and Huw began to dare to believe that he may have found somebody with whom he could build a close relationship. The boys found they shared many common values. They preferred not to run with the pack, but rather to be individuals. Two pastimes that they both enjoyed were mountain walking and climbing. Huw and his father used to walk regularly in the Brecon Beacons and on holiday in North Wales they used to walk in the beautiful mountains of Snowdonia. It was here that Elwyn had introduced Huw to proper mountain climbing. Now Lewis's father would take the lads in the family car for a trip to the Brecon Beacons to go walking in South Wales's premier mountains.

There were good bus and rail services in their area and they travelled throughout South Wales into the City of Cardiff, the mountains of the Brecon Beacons, Barry Island funfair and to beaches along the South Wales coast. Lewis, like Huw, liked to get out of the valleys so the boys travelled as far as their pocket money would allow.

Sadly, the excursions of August ended all too soon and a few days into September, school started again for all the youngsters. Huw liked the autumn term because it meant that they would be playing rugby again. He was sure that he would retain his position in the school's First XV rugby team. He had performed well the previous year and there was no obvious candidate to take his team position as hooker.

The school began to accelerate the pace of learning in preparation for the demands the next year would place on them. They were starting their two-year General Certificate of Education (GCE) syllabus, the national qualification for 16 year-olds. The boys were introduced to the discipline of a greater volume of homework and a faster pace of learning.

Secretly, Huw was pleased. He had been coasting academically for some time, finding the work too easy and he was glad to have greater demands placed on him. He found all his subjects undemanding but he looked forward most to his two history periods each week.

He happily resumed his place in the school's rugby team and began to settle into a routine of after-school rugby practices on Tuesday and Thursday, with matches most Saturday mornings. He also became accustomed to the demands of two or three hours of homework each night. What little social life he had was now even more curtailed by the demands of school. However, in common with all of the other lads in his year, he was grateful when seven weeks of term had passed and the school was preparing to close for the one-week half-term holiday.

On Friday, 21st October 1966, the final day of term, Lewis was excited and bounded up to Huw as he arrived. Their bus timetables deposited both of them at school 20 minutes early, so they were in the habit of meeting together before school.

Lewis ran up to Huw bubbling over with excitement., "Hi, Huw. How'd you like to stay with me over the holidays? Mum and dad are happy and there's loads we could do. Maybe even go camping in the Brecon Beacons?"

Huw was thrilled with the suggestion. "That sounds great. I'll check with mum tonight and I'll call you to let you know. I can catch the bus tomorrow morning and I can be with you by about 10.30. Will that work out for you?"

"That'll be fine," said Lewis. "I'll check with mum and dad what you need to bring and let you know when you call tonight."

Neither of them could know that trip would not take place. Huw's world was about to fall completely apart. A tiny South Wales mining village had already become hell on Earth and for weeks to come would attract the attention of the whole world.

All the boys were excited about the half term holiday and there wasn't much appetite to work. Fortunately, the teachers shared the boys' need for a break and so they reduced the pressure on the last day. At 11:20, after the mid-morning break and the usual football kick-around in the playground, the teacher's whistle sounded to signal the end of break time.

The boys were surprised to be led by the prefects and teachers into the Assembly Hall rather than to return to their classrooms. There was a buzz of puzzled conversation until the Headmaster climbed onto the stage and lifted his hands for silence.

The Headmaster's face was ashen. For a few seconds he was clearly emotional and unable to speak. The rest of the teachers who had been briefed during the morning break were standing nervously, as white as sheets. One female teacher and the school secretary were openly in tears. The room fell totally silent except for the sound of sobbing.

The Head gathered himself and began. "Boys, I have brought you here to tell you of some very worrying and sad news that I learned just half an hour ago. At about nine o'clock this morning there was a slippage of the slag heap above Aberfan and the whole side of the mountain collapsed on some houses and the two schools."

There was an audible gasp from the boys gathered in the room and conversations broke out. Many of the boys came from a mining background and were all too aware of the horrendous implications of the news they had just heard.

The headmaster raised his hands for silence and continued, "I don't have any more news than that and I would like us to close our eyes and for us all to pray silently for the safety of the children in the schools and anyone who may have been injured in the collapse. We should also pray for the work of the emergency services and the rescue services."

Huw's stomach lurched and he almost brought back his breakfast. He was in a complete panic – Mair and Dafydd were at Pantglas Junior School, one of the schools below the tip. He had to go there.

After two minutes or so of complete silence, the Headmaster dismissed the assembly, sending the boys back to their classes. Huw was in turmoil and visibly shaken. He ran to his teacher and said with shock and panic evident in his voice, "Sir, my brother and sister go to the junior school in Aberfan! I must go and see what has happened to them."

His teacher looked on him with concern and compassion. "Huw, I don't know what you would be able to do and I'm afraid I can't let you leave the school. I can understand how worried you are but I'm sorry I can't let you go."

Huw hesitated for a moment, then turned and ran from the classroom on legs that felt like jelly. He sprinted along the corridor, out of the school main entrance and straight to the bus stop. With a totally numb feeling he paced up and down for about five minutes until a man walking along the road said to him, "It's no good waiting for a bus, lad. There's been a slip at Aberfan and they've stopped the buses."

Dismayed, Huw immediately started to run along the road in the direction of home. His best hope was to hitch a lift with someone travelling the seven miles back to Aberfan. He heard cars behind him, turned and gave the universal hitching sign with his thumb but all the passing cars ignored him. Becoming increasingly desperate, Huw saw another car approaching and stepped out in the road waving his arms. The car screeched to a halt. It was being driven by a coal miner, his face and hands still bore the grime of his work. "What the bloody hell's the matter with you? You stupid sod." said the miner angrily.

"I'm so sorry," said Huw, "but my brother and sister are in that school that's been buried in the slag heap slide at Aberfan and I have to get there."

"Get in lad," said the miner immediately, reaching over to open the passenger door. "I'm on my way there myself. I'm at the Nantgarw pit. My shift was brought up early to get to Aberfan to help in any way we can. I'm sorry to hear your news. I'm Jim, by the way."

"Thanks Jim, I'm Huw and my brother and sister, Dafydd and Mair, are at Pantglas junior school."

They continued their way in silence lost in their anxious thoughts. The traffic became heavier and moved more slowly as they travelled the seven miles to the village. Many vehicles of all types were travelling the same way: lorries, vans, cars -- all full of grim-faced people. Huw could see shovels through the windows of the cars and in the back of the lorries. He looked along the road, men and women were walking purposefully towards the village centre with spades, coal shovels, buckets… anything that might possibly help in the rescue operation.

When they were about half a mile from the village centre it became impossible to go any further, so Jim pulled the car to the side of the road and pulled on the handbrake. "That's it Huw. We aren't going to get any further. Good luck lad! I hope your brother and sister will be okay."

Huw thanked him and quickly set off at a run into the village. As he ran into Moy Road where the junior and senior schools were located, the full horror of what had happened was evident. The huge heap of coal waste that he had seen every day from his bedroom window; that he had seen as he boarded his bus to school that very morning; had simply collapsed and now engulfed the houses behind the school and covered the back of the junior school itself.

He walked along the road which was covered in coal slurry which people were shovelling into buckets or any other receptacle to take it away to facilitate access to the schools. There were people everywhere and many were clearly hampering the rescue efforts as they walked around dazed or in tears at the scene of horrific devastation in front of them.

The senior school was relatively untouched. Many of his friends from the junior school had moved to the adjacent senior school rather than to the grammar schools in Merthyr and Pontypridd. As he moved closer, he saw that everything behind the facade of the junior school had been engulfed in the foul tide of coal slurry and only a small part of the building was still uncovered. His stomach finished the process it had attempted to do earlier and his breakfast was deposited on the side of the road. Nobody took any notice of Huw's distress as the hundreds of people around focused on desperately digging a way through the wet coal dust into the school. Dazed, Huw walked through the crowds of men and women some of whom were digging with their bare hands to remove the deadly blanket of soaking coal dust.

Talk about this story on our forum
Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily. Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]