by Huw Jones
In fact, it turned out to be Friday morning before he left the hospital which fitted in with Valerie and the prospective school who had agreed to a Friday meeting. The necessary discharge paperwork had been completed the previous day so it wasn't necessary to wait for the doctor to see Huw again. Had he somewhere to go, he would have been discharged the previous day but the Children's Services department persuaded the hospital to allow him to remain until the following morning.
Huw had been sitting in a chair by his bed fully dressed and thoroughly bored since 6:30 that morning so he was delighted to see Sandra when she came into the ward at 9:15. He was more than ready to be on his way and glad to be leaving the hospital. When Sandra saw him, a big smile appeared on her face. "You are looking so much better, Huw", she said warmly, "I spoke again to Valerie yesterday to confirm arrangements. She's very much looking forward to seeing you and has arranged an appointment at the school, just after lunch. Let's get going then!"
He was experiencing a cocktail of emotions; excited at the new start that living with his relative would give him but apprehensive at meeting her and about his new school. Underpinning all that was sadness at leaving his beloved homeland of Wales.
The journey to Reading was uneventful although he was excited to be making his first trip on a motorway, using the recently opened M4 motorway section from Newport. He would also be crossing the brand-new Severn Bridge on their journey. The glamorous part of the journey with all the new road infrastructure ended quickly and they continued the remainder of their long journey along the A4, an old coaching route between London and Bristol.
Before they reached Reading, he spotted the Tilehurst water tower, a landmark which Valerie had warned them to look out for. Just a few hundred yards later they were at her house. Huw glanced at his watch, it was 12:45. The journey had taken them two and a half hours.
As they walked up to the front door of the 1930s semi-detached house, he was very impressed by the beautiful front garden that he later learned was Valerie's pride and joy. His Taid loved gardens and this one put him in mind of the lovely garden his estranged grandfather maintained in Pwllheli. Sandra rang the doorbell which was immediately opened by Valerie. She was every bit the stereotypical librarian -- single woman in her 50s, hair in a bun, blouse, tweed skirt and cardigan, all set off by a string of pearls. She led them into the sitting room and Huw was pleased that her first thought was to offer them a cup of tea after their long journey. So different from the reception they had received at the Salisbury's house.
Their meeting turned out to be a great success right from the very start. Conversation flowed easily as she explained things that she knew he would want to know about. She explained that Tilehurst was a district on the west side of Reading, the largest town within a 50-mile radius other than London which was 40 miles to the east.
Over a delicious salad lunch which he devoured rapidly, they talked about his mam's situation and she promised to take him down to see his mother regularly if he came to live with her. She explained that she was a senior librarian working in a number of different branches of the town's library service and that she had to work some evenings when the library remained open until 7 o'clock. Huw said that would be no problem and he'd be happy to cook the meal that evening. Valerie was very surprised at an offer from a teenage boy to do the cooking but he explained that he had done all of the cooking at their house in Aberfan in recent years. However, he warned her he wouldn't be producing anything too sophisticated. Valerie laughed and then looked at her watch and said they needed to be leaving for their appointments at Bath Road Grammar School.
It was less than two miles away from her house. It would be an easy trip on his bike. Sandra reassured him that she would arrange for the rest of his stuff including his bike to follow on immediately once it was decided that he wanted to stay there.
They arrived at the school promptly at 2pm and went to meet the Headmaster, Dr Grey. Huw rapidly decided that he was a remote and cold figure. Other than the Head, first impressions of the school were favourable; at least its appearance was modern. He learned the school was only 10 years old, an all-boys school like his old grammar school in Pontypridd and it offered the same GCE options as he was taking, other than Welsh. To his surprise, Dr Grey thought that it might be possible for him to take Welsh. One of his staff, Mr Evans, was a fluent Welsh speaker. He was also pleased to hear that the school had a rugby team that was always on the lookout for good players. He realised that this school was probably as good as it was ever going to get. He decided he would be prepared to go there. Dr Grey asked him if he had any questions but Huw had nothing further to ask and said he'd be pleased to have a place at the school.
When they got back to Valerie's house, Sandra took him into the back room to ask what he felt about living with Valerie. He paused for a moment. "I think Valerie and I will get on well together. We are very different but she does seem patient and I believe that she genuinely cares for me. The school seems okay although I did think the Head was a very cold fish, but I don't suppose I'll be seeing much of him."
Sandra was relieved and suggested that he might like to go for a walk and explore the area for half an hour while she chatted with Valerie.
Valerie was not quite as clear-cut and positive as Huw had been. She was worried about her ability to meet the emotional needs of a teenager, particularly one who had experienced such devastating loss in his life. Still, she agreed for a trial period of three months. She had Sandra give her an assurance that if things got particularly difficult for Huw or for her, Sandra would be available to provide support or, as a last resort, end the placement. Sandra was happy to reassure her that she would keep in very close contact and would make sure that he received any counselling support necessary to come to terms with his losses.
Valerie made another cup of tea for the two of them and after 10 minutes, the doorbell rang announcing Huw's return from his walk. He joined them in the living room for a cup of tea. Valerie explained that she would like to have him to stay if he wanted to. He was delighted and jumped out of the chair, giving her a huge hug. Valerie was somewhat embarrassed and somewhat stiff, being unused to hugs from teenage boys, but nonetheless was delighted to have had such a positive response.
Sandra too was delighted. "I really hoped that you two would get on because I do think that you're the best thing that could happen for Huw, Valerie. I'll get the bike and other things sent up on Monday. I'll keep in touch with you both and we'll review things formally after a month and then again at three months. It's time I started back to Wales as the roads will be getting rather busy." Sandra shook hands with them both and they waved her off as she drove away in her Mini.
The two of them turned round to go through the front door and Huw moved into his new home, beginning a new phase in his life.
He was delighted to find that he had a good-sized bedroom of his own. It was well decorated and furnished. He was particularly pleased that there was a desk in the room. It was occupied by Valerie's sewing machine, but she asked him to move it into the spare bedroom.
So began the next chapter in Huw's dramatic life. He reflected that surely the only direction things could go from this point was upwards, which really encouraged him. He missed Lewis and Tomos and hoped he would make friends here -- even if they were English! It was fortunate that he didn't have a clear view of his future. There were still many thorny hurdles to overcome before he would find stability and peace in his life.
On Monday morning, Valerie drove him to school for a 9:30am start so that he could meet his form teacher. Huw was very pleased to find he was Mr Evans, Bath Road's History teacher; the one that the Headmaster had said was a fluent Welsh speaker.
Mr Evans shook hands with them both and with a twinkle said to him, " Helo Huw, sut wyt ti? " Delighted to be greeted in his first language, he responded, " Iawn diolch a sut dach chi? " using the formal construction that a young person would use in speaking to a teacher. Mr Evans laughed and said to Valerie, "I heard that Huw was a Welsh speaker so I asked him how he was and he replied 'fine' and he asked after my health in the respectful way that youngsters use when speaking to an adult. I can see that we are going to get on."
Huw was thrilled that their first encounter was so positive. "Does that mean you'll be able to teach me when we start the GCE course in September so I can take the Welsh GCE examination, Sir?"
"Oh yes," Mr Evans responded, "but if Welsh is your first language I doubt that you'll need much help from me. You should look out for Gareth Williams; he's in this year but not this class. He's a Welsh lad like you. Unfortunately, Huw did not take Mr Evans' advice and it would be some months before their paths crossed.
The rest of the period was taken up with practical matters including a list of the items that he would need for his school uniform and his games kit. Mr Evans gave him a copy of his timetable and when the bell sounded, they said goodbye to Valerie and he took Huw to his next class, introducing him to the teacher.
For the rest of the day, Huw went from one class to another in a daze. He had brought a packed lunch with him as he wanted to avoid the humiliation that accompanied the pupils who qualify for free school meals. It was a difficult day because, pupils taking different GCE options split up to go to lessons in different directions. Fortunately, his new classmates helped him find the correct rooms, although they didn't show much of an interest in him as a person. At least they weren't bullying the new boy. He could take comfort in that.
The rest of the week passed slowly. Gradually he settled into the routines at the school. He was very disappointed that the culture was so inflexible. The existing cliques weren't adaptable enough to embrace a lad with a background different from them. What really annoyed him was that he was given the nickname 'Taffy'. He made the mistake of protesting, which only ensured that the name would stick. For the remainder of the term, he got into the swing of the syllabus and showed himself to once again be the successful student that he had been in South Wales.
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