Amser

Hed amser, meddi? Na. Erys amser, dyn â.
Time flies, you say? No. Time stays put, man moves on.

On a sundial at Bangor University

This is a period piece, set in Britain immediately after the Second World War when life was very different from today. Those ancient enough to have experienced it will hardly need reminding, but for others a few explanatory notes may help.

The dear old London trams, for example, were still running, but people rarely travelled any distance unless they had to, and the shortage of petrol meant few cars were on the road. There were massive waiting lists for telephones. Although television broadcasts, suspended throughout the war, resumed in June 1946, coverage was limited and few homes had sets.

Rationing was at its most severe: one egg per person per week, 2 oz butter, 1 oz cheese, 2 oz tea, 8 oz sugar, 3½ pints milk and about 1 lb meat; 8 oz jam or marmalade per month and about 1 lb soap (including powder); 1 ton coal per year and clothing points enough only for a man’s suit or three pairs of shoes. Most foodstuffs could be bought only at shops at which you were registered. You had your own ration book from which the coupons were cut out or cancelled. Food at restaurants was ration-free but menus were tightly controlled. Such ‘luxuries’ as oranges, lemons, bananas and coffee were virtually unobtainable.

In the telephone boxes of the day, you dropped two pennies into the slot (for a local call) and dialled. If there was a reply, you pressed Button A and were put through. If there was not, you pressed Button B and your coins were returned.

The settings of this story are all real, both in Wales and in England, except that I have seriously altered land ownership and boundaries in Cwm Croesor. The history is also real. But, with one major and one minor exception (both now long dead), the speaking characters are fictional.

You must imagine, in the tale, that the Welsh normally talk to each other in Welsh but to the English in English until … but it should be obvious. Everything quoted in Welsh, except the most minor of phrases, is translated. For those who would like guidance on pronunciation, see http://www.cs.brown.edu/fun/welsh/Lesson01.html.

My thanks for their usual helpful comments to Hilary, Pryderi, Ben, Jerry, Paul, Roger and Phyllis, and to Jonathan for his support.

13 Ionawr 2013

1. Elephant

Its voice has the rasp of trams, trains and trucks. Its eyes have the blaze of street stalls, eel stands, pin-table arcades and chestnut cans. Its anatomy is decked with sooty bricks, cast iron spires and the marble pillars of pubs. Its heart is that of its people — kind as a housewife, rough as a worker, busy as a tradesman and wide as a wide boy.

A. L. Lloyd, “Life in the Elephant,” in Picture Post 1949

Fog, dense fog all the way, visibility ten feet at best. The bus crawled at walking pace down Blackheath Hill. It crawled past New Cross. It crawled the interminable length of the Old Kent Road and, bearing left at the Bricklayers’ Arms, it crawled along the New Kent Road.

Oh, we know about fog at Croesor. Often enough it engulfs us, slinking stealthily in from the sea or sliding silently down from the mountain. But ours is a different fog. It is no more than thick mist, no more than cloud lying low. It may be cold, it may be damp, it may on occasion limit visibility to ten feet. But it is clean.

This fog was filthy, the spawn of two million domestic hearths, the belchings of thousands of factories and gasworks and power stations and railway engines. It invaded even the inside of the bus, oily, clinging, yellow-green-tinged, smarting in your eyes, clogging your nostrils so that when you blew your nose it left a foul stain on your handkerchief. It was known, we had been told, as a pea-souper, and to us it was as novel and repulsive as the city itself. Who in their right mind would live in a hellhole like this?

But we had a train to catch, and our problem was time. At first we thought there was plenty to spare, for we had been warned of delays and started early. But was there now? Fretting, we consulted our London Transport map. We had meant to stay on our 53A bus to Oxford Circus and from there take the Bakerloo line to Paddington. But, we found, we could cut our losses and change to the Bakerloo at the Elephant instead. The Underground would surely be fog-free, and could hardly be slower than our present snail-like progress. I asked the conductor, whose hands were in his armpits in search of warmth, to tell us when we got there and to point us to the tube station.

The Elephant and Castle, I should explain, is an area of south London a mile out from Westminster, named after a pub at a major road junction. When we passed through a couple of evenings before we had seen something of its delights. Even in its heyday it had probably verged on the seedy, but now it was fringed with a desolation of ruined buildings and a wilderness of empty bomb sites. There was not much more in business than the odd pub and pawnbroker and a few barrow boys trading by the roadside.

Elephant!” the conductor sang out at last. “Straight over the road to the chube,” he added to us. “Mind the trams as you cross.”

Collecting our modest bag from the luggage hole, we stepped off the bus. The suffocating atmosphere felt Dickensian, as if it had seeped out from the opening pages of Bleak House. Crossing the road, we thought, should be easy. Such noises as there were seemed far away — the clanging of tram bells, the squealing of their wheels on bends, the slow chuffing of a railway engine — and we plunged hopefully into the murk. But barely had we gone a few yards when a bell, no longer muffled, jangled shrill beside us and the tall bulk of a tram loomed up. We leapt back to let it past before feeling our way forward again. A lorry hooted madly. And as we made it to the pavement on the other side, unnerved but unscathed, there was a fusillade of what sounded like gunfire.

“Dino!” cried Mam, clutching my arm. She was prone, these days, to take fright at sudden noises. “What in heaven’s name was that?”

I peered fruitlessly into the fog.

“Haven’t the faintest idea.” We were speaking, of course, in Welsh. “But surely nothing too bad,” I added by way of comfort. “After all, the war’s been over for six months.”

“Wotcher!” came a voice out of nowhere.

The dialect of east and south London, as I am sure you know, is called Cockney. In extreme form it can be difficult for the uninitiated to understand. Authors from Dickens onwards have attempted to write it as it is spoken but, when riddled with apostrophes to mark dropped aitches and missing consonants, it is also difficult to read. Because Cockney plays a sizeable part in this story, and because words are more important than their spelling, it seems best not to be too pernickety. I will record the most obvious differences and leave the rest to look after itself.

“Ain’t never heard that lingo before,” this disembodied spirit remarked. “Nuffink like it.”

Out of the emptiness beside me there materialised a strange apparition. It was a slip of a boy, who looked and sounded several years younger than my fifteen. His face was peaky but full of mischievous character. He wore a broad-brimmed trilby hat and an extraordinary velvet-collared coat, almost ankle-length and much too wide for his narrow shoulders. And he carried a small suitcase.

“Where yer from?”

“Wales,” I replied, in English.

“What’s Wales?”

“A country.”

“Where?”

“Well, to the west of England. Two hundred-odd miles away.”

“Blimey! But yer can talk proper too!”

“Of course we can. What was that noise just now?”

“Them bangs? Detonators on railway. Cos of the fog.” He was contriving at one and the same time both to stare at me and to laugh at me. “Wuz yer frightened?”

“Just puzzled. Please, where’s the tube station?”

“Right beside yer.”

Dino!” Mam had gone exploring, and was lost. “Dino, where are you?”

Here, Mam!

“Dino?” asked the boy. “That yer name?”

“Yes.”

“New one on me! Here.” He flipped open his suitcase and pulled out a flat box. “Lady might like these. Can’t flog nuffink today. Not an hope. Can’t see the punters and they can’t see me. Go on, take it.” He thrust it at me. “But,” he added urgently, “don’t let the rozzer see!”

Bemused, I tucked the box inside my coat. With a cheeky grin and a quick “ta-ta!” he vanished in one direction, and simultaneously the solid form of a policeman loomed up from the other. This was, presumably, the rozzer in question. Either the boy had a sixth sense or he had X-ray eyes.

Mam! Oh, there you are. Look, the station’s here.”

We went inside, out of the murk, and I bought tickets to Paddington. Once we were rumbling merrily along the Bakerloo line I took out the box and, as instructed, passed it over to Mam.

Oh!” she exclaimed, looking inside. “Nylons! Good ones, too. Where on earth did you get them?”

“From a boy in the street.”

“How much did you pay?”

“Nothing. He gave them to me. For you.”

“But why?”

“Perhaps he took a liking to us. A few people do, you know. Once in a blue moon.”

“Well, I admit I’m very glad to have them.” Mam did like to keep up appearances. “Pughs haven’t had any in for months.”

“Black market, I expect. He didn’t want the policeman to see.”

“Oh dear.” We were law-abiding folk; or at least Mam was, and she was rather shocked. “Why did you accept them, then?”

“I didn’t get a chance to say no. And I’m not going up there again to give them back.”

“No, I suppose not. Well, never mind. We’re not likely to see him again.”

In which she was proved entirely wrong.

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