by Huw Jones
Huw arrived at school the next day dreading the teasing he would receive for having fallen asleep in class. On arrival, he hung around at the bus stop killing time before the short walk to school in order to arrive just before the bell. Fortunately, his worst fears did not materialise. The other lads may have worked out that there was something very wrong and made no reference to the previous day's events. Lewis was as caring as ever and took Huw aside at break time to ask what was going on. Huw gave a heavy sigh and gave Lewis a full account of what had taken place. Lewis was shocked to hear the news of the extent of Dilys's decline. Fortunately, he didn't respond with his initial reaction; that he was disappointed in Huw for not sharing with him how bad things were at home. He reasoned that he too would probably have found it difficult to talk about such an awful situation. His instinctive response was to give Huw a hug. Really, nothing else could have been more appropriate and it helped Huw to feel he wasn't entirely on his own.
After lunch, his class settled down to a Welsh lesson. Suddenly the classroom door opened and the school secretary walked across to the teacher and spoke briefly with him. "Huw Jones," said the teacher, "the Headmaster wants to see you in his study." There was a buzz of speculation around the class as he got up to leave.
When he arrived at the Head's study, he was not surprised to find Sandra there. The Head invited him to sit down around the table in his office where he and Sandra were already seated. "Hello Huw," said Sandra, "I've had a busy time since leaving you yesterday. I'm afraid we know that Olwen and Dick Jones are not your blood relative aunt and uncle and so it's not going to be possible for you to live with them long-term. We are going to have to make some other arrangement."
"But won't mam be all right in a few days?" Huw asked anxiously.
Sandra paused for a moment and spoke carefully. "I've spoken with the doctors at the hospital and they have said it's going to be a very long process to get your mother to reconnect with reality. I'm sorry to tell you they've warned me that she may never recover fully from this and be able to live a normal life. The trauma of your father's death and the tragedy of your brother and sister have just been too much for her and her mind has shut down."
Numbed, he slumped back in his seat and stared into the distance trying to process this news. First, his father, then his brother and sister and finally his mother were lost to him. 'How much more has this poor kid got to go through?' Sandra thought to herself sadly. She was also troubled because the only foster placement available to her was with a couple who had a reputation for being very strict and very unapproachable. She had already put her job on the line by placing Huw with unapproved foster parents and she needed to get him into approved care as soon as she could.
She explained to him that she had identified a couple, Mr and Mrs Salisbury, who were approved foster parents with space for a teenage boy, living in the village of Cilfynydd which was about three miles from his school. She explained that he would be living with another foster lad, Tomos although they would each have their own bedrooms. Huw felt numb. Despite the fact this was to be his future he could not bring himself to ask any questions about his placement and his new foster parents. He realised that his destiny was no longer in his own hands he asked with resignation when he would be moving.
"On Saturday," she responded, "I'll pick you up from Olwen's house at 10 o'clock and will take you there and introduce you and settle you in. Could you have your suitcases packed and be ready to go for then, please." She looked at him with compassion and said gently, "I'm so sorry your life is in such turmoil. I'm sure you'd rather stay with Olwen and Dick but we can only place you with relatives, a foster family or in a council home."
"It's all right Sandra, I don't really care any more. Things can't get any worse." Little did he know how wrong he was to be proved.
Huw went back to his classroom and sat through the remaining lessons of the day, taking in nothing that the teachers were saying, his mind whirling with confusion and grief. After school, he walked with Lewis towards their bus stops and brought him up to date on the plans for his future. "I can't pretend there's anything good in all this," said Lewis, "but at least we will be much closer together and you will still be welcome to come and spend weekends with us."
"Thanks, Lewis; I'm glad you and your family are there for me. I haven't got anyone else in the world. You're the closest I have to family now." The boys just touched one another's arm and parted, each walking to his own bus stop without saying any more, neither trusting their emotions to speak.
The next two days passed slowly for Huw. His mind was preoccupied with thinking about his future home. When he returned from school on Friday afternoon, Olwen helped him pack two suitcases with his clothes and a few treasures to link him with his family. Of course, he had a few photographs of all his family but most precious were Dafydd and Mair's favourite toys -- a soft toy monkey that Dafydd loved, a tiny teddy of Mair's, a brooch of his mam's and his dad's flat cap. As an afterthought, he picked up his mother's Bible which had not been sent with her clothes to hospital. He hoped that when he visited her, the Bible might be a point of contact and that she would find comfort there. He had asked about visiting but had been told that it would be some time before she would be allowed to see anyone because she had declined badly since her arrival and her mental state was very fragile.
It was the end of an era. Huw's whole world was contained in two suitcases and his future was completely unknown. Olwen, Dick and he sat round the table at supper time to talk about practical arrangements. "Now I don't want you to worry about the house," said Olwen."Dick and I will look after it and make sure that it's safe. Now," she went on, "I've washed and ironed all your clothes so the only dirty things you'll have are the clothes you're wearing and your pyjamas tonight." Huw was reassured that they would be looking caring for the house because it didn't look as if his mother would be coming home any time soon, if at all.
"Olwen, do you think you would be able to organise the house being rented out? You can pass on or throw out all our personal stuff now as I've got what I need. Mam might need some more of her clothes but that's it. I've got no idea what you have to do but Sandra's really helpful. Could you ask her to arrange for you to have part of the rent for you and Uncle Dick looking after the property."
"Of course I'll help, Huw cariad," she said, "Your mam and I have been friends since we were at school together and we've always helped each other out in tough times. I'll take in some more clothes to her in the hospital when they let us visit her. Don't worry, we'll look after everything ."
But he did worry and he spent a sleepless night turning over in his mind the events of the last three years and fretting about the uncertainty of his future.
Promptly at 10 o'clock, Sandra arrived in her red Mini and they loaded his suitcases; one into the back seat and the other into the tiny boot. Huw made an emotional to farewell to Olwen and Dick with Olwen hugging him to her ample bosom and tears running down her cheeks. "You'll be all right Huw bach," said Dick, "make sure you keep in touch with us." Dick pressed a £5 note into his hand.
"Thank you both so much for everything, I just couldn't have managed without you. You will always be important to me and will always be my Uncle Dick and Auntie Olwen even if Children's Services don't believe you are a real aunt and uncle. I promise to keep in touch." Huw turned away and they climbed into the Mini and drove away. He could not bring himself to look back at the house and steadfastly kept his eyes on the road ahead.
Almost as an omen, they were travelling on one of those grey, damp and depressing mornings that are so characteristic of the Welsh valleys and made everyone feel gloomy. It was only a 15-minute drive between Aberfan and Cilfynydd so they didn't have much time to talk even if Huw had felt like talking . They arrived outside a 19 th century colliers' house in Mary Street in Cilfynydd, which was in the middle of a long terrace. It had an immaculate but austere, small front garden with a tiny lawn and narrow beds of pansies. Sandra switched off the engine and turned to him.
"Huw, Mr and Mrs Salisbury are quite a strict couple. They are very religious and they tend to impose their church's views on their household. The other lad you'll be living with is Tomos. I know him very well. He'll be able to tell you the best way to live in harmony with the Salisburys."
"Oh well," said Huw, "I got very used to hearing the church's view on everything from mam, so it'll be no change there. Let's go -- the lamb to the slaughter!" His attempt at humour didn't really lighten how he felt. He was very apprehensive.
There were net curtains at the window and Huw thought he saw them twitch as they walked to the front door. Sandra rang the bell.
The door was answered quickly by a severe looking woman in her 50s with her hair pulled back into a bun. "Come on in, you're right on time," said Mrs Salisbury not waiting for Sandra to say anything and giving neither of them the smallest smile. She held open the door and then led them into what was obviously a front parlour. It was clearly seldom used, as the air was stale and smelled heavily of furniture polish. It was full of old Victorian furniture including a vintage harmonium. Not unexpectedly, there was a framed embroidered Bible text on the wall, 'I am the Lord your God' looking down disapprovingly on the room and its occupants.
"I'm Mrs Salisbury," she said to Huw, without smiling. "I'll fetch my husband," and she left the room.
Sandra and Huw sat down on uncomfortable upright chairs while Mrs Salisbury disappeared to bring back her husband and their other foster placement, Tomos. Huw was surprised that they were not offered a cup of tea as that was normal courtesy as soon as any visitor arrived in a Welsh house. Nobody arriving at any house in Aberfan would have been there more than 30 seconds before being offered a cup of tea and it would usually be accompanied by home-made cakes.
Mr Salisbury walked into the room followed by a lad with fair hair and striking blue eyes. Although the same age as Huw, he was two inches taller. Mr Salisbury was an imposing presence. Huw estimated he was between 50 and 55 years old and at least six-foot tall with broad shoulders, long greasy grey hair and a prominent Adam's apple that bobbed up and down when he spoke. Like his wife, his sour expression gave the impression he had been sucking lemons. There was no trace of a smile as he introduced himself and Tomos. He set out his stall very clearly and Huw's heart sank as he heard Mr Salisbury say, "This is a God-fearing house and we won't have any blasphemy, swearing or ungodly behaviour in this place. You'll find us strict but fair and we expect you to abide by the rules of this house. We expect our foster placements to come with us to chapel on Sunday and we don't have the television on at all on a Sunday. Tomos, will you show Huw his room, please. Thank you, Mrs Davies we can take over from here." Mr Salisbury invited no questions from Huw and his heart sank even more.
Sandra was not going to be intimidated. "Mr and Mrs Salisbury, we discussed Huw's situation on the phone and he's had a particularly difficult few months..." she began.
"You can leave him to us," snapped Mr Salisbury, "The Lord can meet all his needs and if he gives his life to Jesus, he will know real joy."
"Is that the same Jesus that allowed my dad to be killed, my brother and sister and over a hundred of their friends to be crushed under a coal heap and my mum to go mad with grief?" asked Huw bitterly.
"You will not question God's will in my house," shouted Mr Salisbury. "Everything is in His divine plan and purpose."
Huw knew immediately that his time there would be a disaster and wisely decided not to respond to such narrow-mindedness.
Sandra left shortly afterwards but with a nagging worry how an impressionable and shy young man who had experienced far more trauma than any 14-year-old should encounter in a lifetime would fare in such a cold and unloving environment.
Tomos and Huw each took a suitcase up the narrow gloomy staircase and Tomos threw open the door to the room which was to be his bedroom. 'Simply furnished' was a more than generous description of the room. The entire complement of furniture was a single bed, a battered two-drawer chest of drawers, a tiny freestanding wardrobe and a chair. The wallpaper was a drab beige colour with a very nondescript pattern. The wooden boards of the floor had been varnished and there was a small well-worn rug alongside the bed. He wasn't surprised that the only wall hanging was yet another text, 'Prepare to Meet Thy God'.
"This is it," said Tomos, "I don't think we have time for the full one-hour tour of the room so you will have to make do with this." Tomos's lame joke made him smile.
"This house doesn't seem like a barrel-load of laughs," said Huw. "Are they always that po-faced?"
"I'm afraid so," said Tomos. "There aren't many laughs here. I'm hoping to get moved out to somewhere else soon, I've already asked Sandra. The problem is they are very short of foster homes in this area. Oh, the food is bloody awful so take advantage of any meal opportunities you get outside this place. Old man Salisbury insists he is not made of money so we don't get any pocket money. You'll need to get a paper round or a Saturday job if you want spending money."
"I think I'd rather have a paper round," said Huw. "I'd like to be able to get to a few rugby matches on Saturdays. I wake up early, so a paper round would be great."
"You can have my round if you like. I was going to pack it in as I've got a chance to work on a stall in Pontypridd market on Saturdays. Come with me to the paper shop and I'll introduce you to Mr Morgan. Actually, it'll be lunch in 10 minutes. That'll just be a sandwich on Saturdays. Afterwards, I'll show you round the village and we can call in and see Mr Morgan if you like. It won't take all that long. There's not very much to see in this village," said Tomos cheerfully.
Huw grinned back. Maybe this place wouldn't be as bad as he feared it might be. Tomos seemed like he'd be good company and he clearly didn't take things too seriously. "Okay, let me just unpack a few things and I'll come down to lunch," said Huw.
Tomos turned round to leave and then hesitated at the door. He turned to Huw and said nervously, "Er, one important word of advice. Don't get any -- you know -- stains on the sheets, he goes mad about that." With that advice, he quickly left the room. Huw knew what Tomos was getting at and felt very uncomfortable. 'Oh well,' he thought, 'I'll have to take care of that in the bathroom then.'
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