The car was jacked up, the front driver’s side wheel suspended, frustrating its attempt to reach the ground a few inches below. A grey Austin A30, one of the smallest cars ever made and slow, painfully slow. Jimmy’s father had his pistol grip grease gun in hand; a sure sign that adventure was to unfold. A journey to be taken. Each nipple received a dose, a powerful squirt, then the wheel spun and tyre checked. A Swiss Army penknife attachment flicked out stones between the treads, blemishes scrutinised to ensure no serious damage. This procedure repeated until all four wheels were safely back on terra-ferma and the jack restored to the clip in the boot. Then the dipstick was pulled and the best Castrol GTX added. One full pint.
Jimmy stood watching taking note of the meticulous way each task was performed, listening as his father explained “we have a long way to go and need to ensure she’s in the best of health.” A young lad, eight years old, skinny and frail having, that spring, recovered from a very debilitating bout of diphtheria that had immediately followed severe scarlet fever. Three months at home too ill to be moved to hospital so quarantined in his bedroom. Short trousers down to his knees and baggy. Quite new and bought to grow into. His hair short and suffering from his mother’s inexpert use of the “magic comb”: a contraption in two parts with a large razor blade sandwiched between. Comb briskly and the blade trimmed or perhaps mutilated leaving a lumpy uneven mess. Purchased from the silver tongued Better Ware man who periodically called with endless hard luck stories that produced the desired effect: the women of the road bursting their cupboards with unnecessary merchandise.
He stood at the front of the recently completed cream Snowcemed detached bungalow. His father’s design translated to paper by Mr Jenkins the architect and brought to life by Sid the builder, who let Jimmy jump the six feet from the scaffolding into a huge pile of yellow soft sand while his father discussed details at regular Saturday morning site meetings.
His grandmother had unexpectedly passed away a few years before, leaving sufficient funds to vacate the rented semi-detached house. A relief to be away from that incessant damp smell and deteriorating decoration, the property neglected by the landlord for far too long. Small rooms claustrophobic with two children. The tiny rear yard not offering much escape. His father’s inheritance, the proceeds from his mother’s house, sufficient to first buy a car to allow him better access to work, then to consider moving with a surplus for all new furnishings.
Carefully thought through, the priority three good sized bedrooms, Jimmy ecstatic he no longer shared with his sister. The full size blue enamelled bath, blue china toilet and sink all fitting neatly into the light and airy bathroom. All blue. Even the large polka dots on the white flannel curtains covering the large obscured glass window. Light oak wood block flooring adding a touch of class to the dining room and lounge, already slightly yellowing from the natural effect of exposure. Shiny pale yellow fronted cupboards and mottled yellow formica worktops producing a bright fresh dimension to the kitchen. Rotisserie gas cooker, the eye level grill perfect for Graham’s warm toast breakfast, fridge and washing machine concealed beneath the counter tops. Gravity fed central heating and hot water produced by a coal fired boiler screened within a discrete alcove. Every morning the riddling providing the enduring wake up call. Coal rumbling, leaving the scuttle, the hiss of the gas poker firing up the day’s warmth. In 1956 this was truly luxurious, the indoor facilities and heating still unheard of in many hard working people’s homes. Jimmy made full use of the sizeable garden. His mother grew vegetables and soft fruit and was forever chastising him for attempting to destroy them with his football.
The contrast with their rented house was obvious. Most relevant the heating providing a complete change from the paraffin heaters discharging copious amounts of water that would freeze on the windows of the unheated bedrooms, adding to the prevalent dampness within the property. The damp top bedclothes stiff on very cold mornings. His father had once said, “I’m going to speak to the landlord again about the electric supply. It’s dangerous. The rubber flex is perishing. I can see sparking and there’s nowhere to plug in an electric fire. Only the light socket. We could prevent some of the damp if we could replace the paraffin heaters with a fire.” Space in the tiny bathroom was consumed by a sit in bath and toilet, the sink a major obstruction. The water orange tinted from old rusting pipework. Dribbly noses and congested chests indicative of the conditions. The move was significant for Jimmy. Surviving his illnesses in the old house might have been problematical.
He had heard his Mum say “I’m sure we would have lost him Graham if we hadn’t moved, he’s been so ill.”
“I think you are right. It’s ironic. I lost my mum who was not that old but she has probably saved young Jimmy.”
They had met during the war. Graham in the air force and Mary nursing in Warwick. She looked after the wounded paratroopers lucky enough to return from Arnhem. Then nursed Graham but for nothing more romantic than an ingrown toenail. He was an electronics expert repairing radio equipment and then fitting radar into night fighters. Forced to live with his mother for a few years when they married, there being no housing they could afford and of course the post war shortage.
It was August, the summer holidays and they were shortly to meander on the long convoluted route to his Grandparents in South Wales. Blaengwynfi a mining village tucked in beneath the mountain, near the source of the river Afen that flowed to Port Talbot at Aberavon. The beach with its rainbow water polluted from the nearby oil refinery with lumps of tar worked into the sand. The kiosk selling ice cream and tar remover, a necessity to end a day on the beach.
From their home in Worcester Park the journey was a relentless ten hours, their prefered route over the River Seven at Chepstow arriving there at lunchtime for a welcomed stop and stroll around the castle. An imaginary game saving his sister from the fire breathing dragon assailing the rear battlements. The villain riding astride its neck, shot through the heart with an expertly aimed arrow, the dragon crashing into the river vaporizing water into a steam filled cloud.
Then over the mountains the car struggling with its load up the steep, forever winding narrow roads. Luggage on the metal framed roof rack. Four brown leather suitcases with brass clip catches, covered in the always flapping black polythene held in place with elasticated clips. The rain starting as the first mountain climb commenced. An endless grey summing up the many days to come that would involve clear pacamacs with hoods even on the vast sandy beach of Porthcawl. Where the best pools were. Where the best crabs were. The best pool along the slippery rocks, big with overhanging limpet encrusted ledges. Tease out the nippy blighters with dextrous use of the bamboo pole supporting the sturdy net then swiftly flip them into the bucket. Carefully avoiding harm, releasing them shortly after the size logging, the competition for the biggest always intense especially when joined by their cousins from Neath, the same age and confident they would be champions.
Arriving about six o’clock and down the very steep, one in three short drop from the higher Abergwynfi on the opposite side of the river. Then the right turn into Granny’s road, Margaret Terrace and Granny’s rented house. Jimmy and his sister now very excited. Pulling up outside number thirty three and a toot on the horn. Car back doors open and they both fall into the arms of Granny who had been expectantly waiting talking to the neighbours. “My youngest daughter’s coming for two weeks” she had been saying.
“Granny” they both yell in unison as she gives them that massive Granny hug everyone is familiar with.
“Hallo Mum.” says Mary who is quite emotional.
“Been looking out for you for about an hour now. Dad’s inside. How was the journey Graham?”
“Not too bad. Stopped at Chepstow as usual then hit the rain. I see you missed it though.”
“Come in, Dad will have the kettle on. Would you two like one of my special biscuits?” Nothing spectacular just normal digestives but with a magical title. “Granny’s biscuits.”
Mary’s Mum was from Somerset and went to London to work in service but found Mary’s Dad instead. He had been refused call up for the Great War due to chronic asthma. A master baker, but after the war it was hard to find work so when they married he took the job in Blaengwynfi in the Co-op baking for the village. They raised three boys and three girls all crammed into the small terraced house.
Dominating the village was the slag heap associated with the coal mine on the other side of the river behind Abergwynfi. A huge black mound with the constantly moving clanking bucket belt tipping and adding, growing the pile into a monstrously dark extension of the mountain. The tall lift shaft towers with their massive spinning wheels and long steel cables punctuating the rock strewn skyline adding to the surreal nature of the drab environment.
Running down the mountains from opposite directions, two streets converge at the bottom to form the small centre containing the few shops, pub and station. Puffing gusts of blue grey smoke engulf the bridge as the train departs leaving a line of slowly rising density as it disappeared into the tunnel. Granny’s street consisted of one continuous terrace of houses on the uphill side furthest from the river, maybe fifty in total. Their back gardens stepping up the steep mountainside.
Home for some of the many families bombed out of Port Talbot and other nearby towns, the Prefabs opposite had been constructed shortly after the war. The solution to an acute housing shortage, designed to facilitate rapid erection and to last ten years but destined to survive much longer. Formed with concrete panels that arrived by lorry and were bolted together. Mrs Jenkins the first to move in said to Mary “It’s compact but comfy and compared to my dump in the town it’s a palace. I have a fridge. I’ve never had a fridge before and there’s a cooker built in next to the gas water heater. With a grill, so easy for toast. It’s marvellous, no damp and there’s an open fire with back boiler for heating and hot water. My husband fits in the bath and there’s an indoor toilet. Imagine that, me with an indoor toilet.”
Inside Granny’s, Graham is constructing the two camp beds for the kids, the sprung metal legs fitting into a canvas covered steel frame that had been slotted together. In the front room that is so rarely used. Special occasions only, when the minister comes perhaps. Two best chairs and one display cabinet filled with the few family ornaments mostly of little value but sentimental, presents and heirlooms. The red and blue rug in pristine condition, testament to the lack of use unlike the overused threadbare coverings to the other downstairs rooms. “Remember no larking about in here. This is Granny’s special room.” Each year this same stern indelible instruction. Every hour, resonating tuneless dongs of the round topped mahogany mantel clock matched the time. Within the house there were five chiming clocks, two with Westminster bells, a single ding to mark each quarter then a crescendo on the hour all slightly out of synch so midday and midnight were extended affairs.
Behind the front parlor was a similar ten by ten room with a dining table. Both rooms had open fireplaces but neither were lit except to favour honoured guests. Most activity was in the rear addition, a long room but quite narrow. Dominating the end wall a huge fireplace contained a complicated black cast iron stove, an open grate in the centre, hot plates that could swing over the embers and an oven each side. A square butler’s sink with one tap for cold water was within a small cupboard to the side of the fireplace. Wash board propped against the wall. An electric heater fixed behind the sink with its own spouted outlet providing a limited supply of hot water. A small square red plastic-covered folding flap table suffering from years of constant varied use and two tired dining chairs, a sliding rocker and comfy armchair both facing the fire. The cosy spot that elderly people loved on cold winter nights. Granny knitting and Grandad smoking his virginia flake stuffed into the bowl of his favourite pipe. Aggravating his asthma, necessitating a few squeezes of the old rubber air sack type puffer. Maybe listening to the radio that Graham repaired a previous year. A large galvanised metal bathtub hung above the fireplace, used once a week, the water being shared. Granny first. Then bailed until light enough to be manhandled to the yard where the contents were poured down the centre drain.
Every morning at five thirty Grandad would get up, empty the po into the outside toilet, revive the kitchen fire and give each clock a few turns. The same routine for thirty five years originally necessitated by work starting before six to begin the village baking. Now simply habit and the need to have the fire hot for cooked breakfast and to heat the kitchen in winter before Granny came down.
Upstairs the main bedroom was a reasonable size with two much smaller rooms. Mary said “This was my room. It had one double bed that I shared with my two sisters. My three brothers shared a double bed in the other small bedroom. There was one wardrobe that we all used, the few clothes we had easily fitting.” No bathroom or toilet, chamber pots took care of night time need. The toilet outside the other side of the small yard accessed via the back door from the kitchen.
Jimmy loved coming to Granny’s. He loved the mountains. He loved the cooking on the old fire, Grandad letting him use the toasting fork for breakfast. He even loved having to go outside to get to the loo. It was so different to his house and it was that he loved the most. The adventure. It rained a lot but Granny had a weather barometer, a small house with a man and woman hidden behind their own doors. If it was to be wet the man would come out. Dry and the woman would appear. If the man was there in the morning when Jimmy got up he pushed him back to make the sun come out and sometimes was amazed by his power. And he thought he would like to stay.
But his mother said, “You might not like it in the winter. It gets very cold and the toilet freezes. Baths are difficult. In our house you can bathe your football mud away whenever you like. Here you would stand outside and get washed down with water from a galvanised bucket filled from the outside tap. That’s what my brothers had to do. Or they would go up the street to the river where the men made a dam, a big pool, and soak in the ice cold water. Staying for holidays is not the same as living here all the time. Your adventure would soon end. You would suddenly understand the difference and want to come home where we have all the modern ways of living.”
“But I could go to the beach with Granny whenever I wanted.”
“Not if you lived here. Granny and Grandad have a lot to do. They don’t have much money. You would have to help them the way I had to help. There would be no beach, no school, you would have to go to work like I did. The house needs a lot of upkeep and if you had many brothers and sisters they all had to work, to do their share. Things are different for us, your father has a good job. We have a nice new house.”
“When will we be going home?”
“In two weeks. We are here for two weeks, to visit. Long enough for many adventures and memories to take home. It’s memories that are important, you can be here whenever you want. Just with your memories. Tomorrow we’ll go to the beach even if it’s raining. We’re meeting your cousins so you can all play together.”
“Before we go I will help Granny. I will cook all the toast for everyone’s breakfast. With Grandad’s big fork.”