White flour, earth-flesh, cold fleece on the mountain,
Driven flakes from the chill black sky;
Snow like a platter, bitter cold plumage,
Softness sent to ensnare me.
Gwerful Mechain, englyn “Gwynflawd daeargnawd,” c.1590
Lost in my thoughts, I almost forgot to get off at New Cross Gate, but remembered just in time. It was not yet five, Sid’s Cafe was only a short distance back along the street, and there was no hurry. From the bus yesterday my eye had been caught by a large empty space, and now I walked a few steps ahead to look at it more closely. It was a vast wilderness of tumbled rubble, the largest bomb site I had yet seen. As in the exhibition that morning, the appalling destruction came home to me, the injuries, the waste of life …
“Oh God!” I muttered, still in English mode after a day with Stan. “How many dead?”
As usual, that was meant for myself alone. But a quiet answer came from beside me.
“Hundred and sixty eight. Woolworths, it wuz. Half the ladies of New Cross wuz inside. Delivery of saucepans jest come in. Queues all the way round. V2, direct hit. November ’44.”
Only a year and a half ago.
“Wuzn’t here myself, being busy elsewhere. But me Mum wuz. Not sure they ever found her. Any of her.”
Oh God, indeed. I dragged myself back to look at whoever was speaking. A young man, twenty or so, with a friendly face. Flat cap on head, fag in mouth, Daily Worker in hand.
“That’s me. And yer Dino. Saw yer get off bus. Reckernised yer straight off. Yer the spitting image of Madog.”
He put out a hand and, on the brink of tears, I shook it.
“Come and have a cuppa.”
Sid’s Cafe was sleazy, smoky and smelly, and populated by nondescript characters absorbed in their football pools. Rather than tea, I asked for coffee. It was on the menu on the wall, and I had not had any for years. I soon repented, though, for it turned out to be so-called Camp Coffee which is in fact made from chicory. I pretended to enjoy it, and luckily half was already in the saucer when it arrived.
Charlie and I inspected each other.
“Yus, the spitting image of Madog,” he repeated. “Me, I ain’t a gent and never will be. But he wuz. And I can tell yer anuvver.” His eyes strayed to his Daily Worker. “Not hoity-toity gents what needs a boot up their bottle. Proper gents. Yer bruvver wuz me best friend in the army, yer know. Helped me no end. That’s why I’m helping you. But best make sure we’re talking about the same floosie. She hoity-toity?”
“Yes. Very. So are her parents.”
“Know her name?”
“Yus. That’s her. Right then, here yer go. Half a dozen of us in the pub that night. Fine old time. All nicely oiled. Madog, he could hold his booze, and he wuz a gent. I can hold mine, but I ain’t. No, it wuzn’t Madog what shagged her. It wuz me.”
I let out a long breath.
“Yus. All the way back ter barracks she wuz begging me.” He put on a squeaky and unconvincing upper-class accent. “‘Oh Charlie, please take me, do. It’s all right, I’m clean. Actually I’m still a virgin. But I need it. Please do.’ Told her I din’t have a French letter wiv me, but she still wanted me ter shag her. So I did. In a nice quiet little spot I knew. And she wuz a virgin, too. But she loved it …
“So now I’m a dad, am I? Well, I ain’t going ter do nuffink about it. She can stew in her own juice. It wuz her what asked for it. And she knows well enough it wuz me, but she has ter go and drag poor old Madog into it.”
I thought he was going to spit, but no doubt Sid’s house-rules forbade it. And I thought I could see why Felicity had lied, both to her parents and to us. Mr and Mrs Grosvenor, gullible and over-trusting, had swallowed everything she said. Her tale that she was forced into an indiscretion rather than positively begging for it, yes, that was obvious enough. And she had pointed the finger at Madog not only because he was dead but because we Evanses were … let’s say a bit less ungentlemanly than Charlie, a bit less deplorably low. Her parents and friends would be that bit less shocked. She would earn that bit less condemnation. She would lose that bit less face.
As tactfully as I could, I put this to Charlie. “Does that make sense?”
“Yus. It do. Somefink like that. That’s the sort of bint she is. Look, Dino. I want ter keep out of this. If it comes ter it, if there ain’t no choice, yer can tell them it were Charlie what done her. But no more than me first name. No address. Not even that I lives in New Cross. I don’t want no paternity summons. Awright?”
“All right. But they live in Blackheath. Better steer clear of there in case she spots you.”
“Do they now? Din’t know that, but it adds up. Ta very much. Not that I goes up there often. Too hoity-toity for me. Oh, and Dino. If her Mum and Dad don’t believe yer, tell them she got a birfmark down here.” He pointed to his groin, on the left side. “Purple, size of a half crown. Can’t see it if she got her knickers on, but they’ll know all about it. And if it were Madog what done her, it ain’t the sort of fing he’d have told yer. But I seen it, and I’m telling yer.”
It was a huge relief. We parted, as the Victorians would have said, with mutual expressions of esteem, and I caught the next 53A to Blackheath.
I found them all in the drawing room, as they called it, drinking sherry and making, presumably, polite conversation. Walter was on Felicity’s lap. I gave Mam a cheery smile to indicate success, refused the offer of sherry, and addressed myself to Mr and Mrs Grosvenor. I pulled no punches. It was strange that I could do this so much more confidently than I could confront my own quandary.
“You won’t like what I’m going to say. But Felicity’s pulled the wool over your eyes.”
They gaped and Felicity’s hands flew to her mouth.
“It wasn’t Madog who got her pregnant. It was someone else in the Welsh Guards. Someone you’d see as even further down your precious social scale than us. That’s why she lied to you.”
Mrs Grosvenor was bristling. “You’re making it up! You’re just trying to save your brother’s name!”
“Yes, I am defending his name. But I’m not making it up. I’ve talked to the man who was responsible. I’ve no intention of saying who it was, though Felicity knows well enough. But as evidence that it really was him, he told me she has a birthmark on her, um, groin. The size of a half crown. On the left-hand side, here.” I pointed to my own.
Mrs Grosvenor looked as if she had been hit on the chin. Felicity burst into tears and dashed from the room, carrying Walter who was bawling in sympathy. Mrs Grosvenor ran after her. Mam was smiling privately. Mr Grosvenor was goggling like a codfish.
“Oh God!” he spluttered. “I’m sorry. I’m truly sorry. We believed her. What more can I say?”
“Nothing. I’m sorry for you too. But we can’t stay here, not after this. Can you direct us to a hotel nearby?”
“Yes. Yes, of course. You’re quite right. I’d suggest the Montpelier Hotel just along the road. Use our phone. No, I’ll phone them myself and tell them to send the bill to me. That’s only fair.”
He phoned. We packed hurriedly and with barely a farewell transferred ourselves from that damned house, leaving Felicity to face the music. We spent the evening in quiet satisfaction and went to bed early, where I dreamt not of Madog exonerated but of Oliver Twist redeemed. Next morning we took a 53A to Oxford Circus, and as we passed between the Elephant and Westminster Bridge I kept my eyes skinned for Stan. But there was no sign of him.
Over the next six months I thought often about him. I could not understand why. It was not a matter of looks, in which he was outshone by a number of local lads. There was no overlap of interests between my knowledge of mountains and his expertise in the seamier side of London. He was unlikely to have read Dickens and quite possibly had never even heard of Oliver Twist. I was worried for him, certainly, and I liked his spirit. But why did I think about him so much?
In other respects the year wound quite satisfactorily on. I turned sixteen and regularised things by getting a licence to drive the tractor. The coal industry was nationalised. After a wet summer and a poor harvest, bread went on the ration, but it hardly affected us because Mam usually baked our bread herself. And her state of mind improved, though not to its pre-war level. Time still seemed to fly, still with little to show for it. But more men were being demobbed and returning to the valley, which made our shared tasks a little easier.
But there had still been no word from Stan when far more urgent cares descended and pushed him clean out of my mind.
Our village has electricity, not from the North Wales Power Co whose tentacles do not reach this far, but thanks, as with the telephone, to the quarry company. Forty years ago, to supply the pumps and underground lighting, it had built a small hydroelectric power station at Blaencwm near the valley head, and lines were put in to supply the manager’s house just above the village and anyone else nearby who was willing to pay. When the quarry closed and was requisitioned for storing explosives, the pumps and lighting and therefore the power station were kept going. For a remote community we were pampered. That winter we learned just how pampered we had been.
It was the worst winter in living memory. Christmas and the New Year were relatively mild. But in mid-January the cold arrived with a vengeance. Cwm Croesor, on the edge of Eryri, faces south-west and the sea, and usually it fares better than more inland areas. But for two months the temperature never rose above freezing. Even the biggest lakes in the mountains like Padarn and Gwynant and Cwellyn, we later heard, were solid ice from end to end, which had not happened within the lifetime of even the oldest inhabitants. Nor does snow, round us, usually lie deep. But, from the end of January, valley and mountain disappeared beneath it, maybe five feet on average and much more in the drifts. Only on the crags did gradient and wind keep rock faces clear, and they were caked in ice. Telephone and electricity lines came down left and right, and power cuts were general. Even our hydroelectric station stopped when its reservoir and pipes froze up. So long as we could find the paraffin, we lived by the light of hurricane lamps. We normally cook by electricity, but mercifully our range was still in place and we could revert to the time-honoured method. In many a remote area all this was a normal and accepted part of life, but for us it was strange and difficult. We were cut off, too, from the outside world, and without newspapers, telephone or wireless we had no idea of what was happening there. The road to Garreg was impassable, even on foot.
The pigs were already under cover in their sty. I brought the cows into the beudy — the cowshed — and fed them on hay. I also dragged the hen coop into it, where the body heat of the cows kept the temperature up. But the stream off the mountain, which supplied our water, froze and Mam had to melt snow for the livestock and for us. We needed to be careful with fuel because we were more than half way through our winter coal supply. The only fire we kept going, therefore, was in the kitchen, and to stay warm Mam and I slept beside it. Even so, as time progressed, I had to sacrifice a couple of trees to see us through.
But by far the biggest headache was the sheep. Welsh mountain sheep are hardy. They have to be. And they have strong survival instincts, one of which is that when they smell snow on the way they move down from the heights to lower and greener grazing. But on this occasion they were caught unawares, and so too were all their owners. The mountain proper is divided from the ffridd, the enclosed rough grazing below, by the mountain wall, which has sheep creeps in it — holes big enough for them to get through. These are left open in winter, but now they were blocked by snow and much of the flock was trapped above the wall. And in more than a couple of feet of snow sheep, with their short thin legs, are incapable of moving. They can scrape down to get at the grass beneath, but within their range of movement it is soon consumed. Very quickly they were buried.
For weeks after the snow first descended I spent every daylight hour up on the mountain, struggling through the drifts, armed with a long cane. With this I probed along the walls, or in the lee of crags, where a sheep might be sheltering, until I felt the softness of a body below. When I did, I dug, often to find a cavity melted by the beast’s warmth but then frozen. There might indeed be several sheep in one cavity, still astonishingly sprightly. I had then to carry each on my shoulders down to a lower and slightly clearer patch, and then lower again. Sheep — at least mountain sheep — do not normally eat hay, but I had to try it. Bundles simply dumped on the snow, I found, were rapidly whisked away by the wind. I managed to drag up to the ffridd a hay rack which I sometimes use for the cows, and laboriously cleared snow from an area around it. Sheep relocated there did prefer the hay to nothing, once all the accessible grass was gone, but on returning next morning I often found my labours undone and the rack and the sheep reburied.
I was wholly on my own. Giff and Gaff were good at sniffing out sheep at modest depths, but in deep snow they were equally immobilised. No neighbours could help because they were searching for their own flocks. Nor could I help them. Charity begins at home.
There was never enough time. When darkness fell I would stagger home utterly exhausted, only to go out again at first light. There was no alternative. Sheep were our wealth, such as it was. The effort kept my body warm enough, but my extremities were often numb. One evening I found that even the warmth of the kitchen did not revive my right forefinger. Next morning the skin was bright red. The morning after, there was still no feeling in it and it was swollen and covered in a single huge purple blister. It was frostbite, and my own fault. I wore heavy leather gloves, and the seam on that finger had split without my noticing. Mam mended it, and I carried on. It was difficult because I am right-handed, but there was no alternative. After three weeks I was still finding sheep, some dead, some still miraculously alive.
By this stage tracks had been beaten between the village and the outlying farms so that we could communicate and help each other out — and especially the old folk — with food or fuel. Almost everyone had now run out of stores like sugar and tea which could only be bought at a shop. But we would never starve, because all we had to do was to bring a frozen sheep carcass down from the mountain, thaw it out, and cut it into joints for distribution.
And by this stage my finger, still totally numb in the top two joints but hurting like hell where sensation began, was discharging a thin pus, and it smelt foul. At Mam’s insistence I gave up the search for sheep and dragged myself to Cae Glas to consult Harry Parry, whom we regard rather as Red Indians do a medicine man. Because he is cheaper and nearer to hand than the professional doctor and vet, his services and his herbal remedies are much in demand for both man and beast.
Harry took one look and said the words I dreaded to hear, “Cig marw,” dead flesh, gangrene. “It’s got to come off. I’ll do it if I have to.”
Harry is also our unofficial butcher. Livestock, in theory, have to be slaughtered at registered slaughterhouses but, when it comes to feeding itself, Croesor is as usual happy to ignore such regulations. Harry always does the job, except when nature intervenes and kills beasts for us. But I was not much taken with the prospect of him chopping off my finger at his kitchen table, without anaesthetic and perhaps with his cleaver.
“I’ll think about it,” I said.
“Don’t think too long, or it’ll spread. And then it’ll be too late.”
Luckily Harry’s surgical skills did not have to be put to the test. The snow had stopped falling, but the other farmers had for some time given up their search for sheep and concentrated instead with tractors and shovels on opening the road down the valley. Word came back, at noon that day, that they had battered and dug a way through to Garreg. Down there on the flat lands of the Traeth, they reported, the snow was much less deep, and the road on to Penrhyn was just negotiable. And that gave me hope, amid my miseries, that my lambs wintering down below would not have suffered as badly as their elders on the mountain.
The neighbours, when they heard of my plight, took charge. That is what neighbourliness means. Gareth Croesor Fawr bundled me up in blankets, inserted me into the box of his tractor and, with two men following on foot in case of need, drove me slowly to the doctor’s surgery. As we passed Plas Brondanw they had a word with Clough. Our doctor — the only one in Penrhyn — is Robert Roberts, a member of the large clan of medical Robertses who for generations have served our corner of Wales. He too took one look and confirmed the diagnosis. The snag was that much the nearest hospital is at Blaenau Ffestiniog, and the road to Blaenau had been impassable since the snow began.
“Never mind,” he said. “I’ll have a go myself.”
Better Dr Roberts than Harry, much better. Better still, though he had no general anaesthetic himself because ordinarily he never needed it, he whistled up the dentist and his laughing gas. Between them they knocked me out. When I came round, my hand was swathed in bandages, the pain was reduced to a dull ache, and Dr Roberts was looking smug.
“You know, Dino, that was the first amputation I’ve ever done. I learnt the anatomy as a student, of course, but until now I’ve always been able to send amputations to the hospital. But I thought I’d better not tell you that until after the deed was done.”
I agreed wholeheartedly.
“All the dead tissue has gone, and what’s left looks nice and healthy. I’ve taken it off just below the middle knuckle.” He pointed to his own finger. “Which leaves you the stump. You’ll learn to manage quite fast.”
He gave me a large supply of lint and bandages and aspirin, and detailed instructions — which my befogged brain tried hard to take it — on how to look after the finger. At the first sign of gangrene recurring I was to come back to him, and in any event to return at weekly intervals. Meanwhile, to rest, because for several nights the pain had robbed me of sleep and I was all in. Leaning on Gareth’s shoulder I shuffled out to his tractor. Two more tractors had come down by now and were parked outside the grocer’s. They had brought down some frozen sheep carcasses as a present for the butcher and, Croesor having run completely dry of many foodstuffs, someone had collected the ration books from the whole village to secure whatever Penrhyn could offer. It was not much, for Penrhyn’s supplies were also low, but it was a great deal better than nothing. It was being taken to Croesor to be shared out. That is also what neighbourliness means.
I must have fallen asleep in my box, and the next thing I remember is being woken up outside Plas Brondanw. Clough was there, and he helped me out.
“For the next few days, Dino, you’re recuperating in our humble home. Doctor’s orders. You can’t do anything more on the mountain while the snow’s still down, and your Mam has plenty enough to do at home without nursing you. Gareth will tell her you’re all right and being looked after, and he’ll keep an eye on her too.”
He put me to bed, where I went out like a light. Two whole days I stayed there, mostly asleep. Clough had called the Plas his humble home, but it is a great deal less humble than Garth Llwynog, and in winter a great deal warmer. He has a generator and therefore his own electricity, and he owns acres of woodland so that a log fire was always burning in my room. After those two days the pain had disappeared and I was raring to go, but he kept me for a further day, giving me a job to restore some of my muscles to working order. Using my left hand only, I loaded wood from his monstrous log-pile onto trailers which he then towed up to Croesor to relieve the fuel famine. And that evening over dinner — which they had to cut up for me — he and Amabel his wife filled me in with what had been happening in the big wide world, for they had been able to listen to the wireless throughout.
The whole country was suffering. Despite having seen Hitler off, the nation had already been on its knees. Now it teetered on the edge of the abyss. The railway system had ground almost to a halt. Coal could not leave the pits, power stations and factories were closed for want of fuel, millions were laid off work, everyone was shivering, and with food distribution in disarray everyone was hungry. There was talk of even potatoes being rationed because so many, both in the ground and in store, had been destroyed by the frost. Amabel spoke with feeling, for her own brother was Minister of Food in the government. At least, Clough pointed out, there was selfish satisfaction in the fact that we were not alone.
On the third day he and I walked together up the valley, laden with knapsacks full of bottles of his home-made sloe gin to raise drooping spirits in Croesor. They were welcomed with rapture, except by the minister.
Mam welcomed me too with rapture. She had been lonely. And a kind of routine was restored. It was pointless to attempt any more above the mountain wall, where anything that was going to die would have died long since. But I moved all the sheep still in the ffridd down to the pastures by the house, where I shovelled and scraped as much snow as I could to expose the grass. By now we were just into March, and to prolong our miseries the snow returned. We were cut off again. I could not keep my appointment at the surgery, but my finger seemed in good order. This time, however, with no time-consuming sheep-searching to distract us, communication was restored quite fast. Before too long I was belatedly able to reach Penrhyn and the doctor, who was pleased and took the stitches out. But food was even scarcer.
At long last, in mid-March, the gods relented. Temperatures climbed and rain bucketed down. Except in the drifts and gullies the snow vanished almost overnight, but the ground was still frozen solid and could absorb nothing. The water flowed straight into the rivers, which could not take it. This brought the new misery of floods. Croesor was not too badly hit, for no houses abut our river. But in the next major valley to the north the Afon Glaslyn, attempting without success to carry the rainfall and the meltwater of half Yr Wyddfa, drowned Beddgelert. And, because the sluices at Porthmadog could not cope, the Traeth became an inland sea, much as it had been before it was reclaimed. Penrhyn could be reached only by tractor and with much care.
With the rain came gales. I was up on the ridge of Cnicht, beyond the summit, leaning against the buffeting wind and mournfully trying to count the white blobs below that were the corpses of sheep, when I looked across the valley. A fresh bank of clouds was sweeping in from the sea and enveloping the humped whaleback of Moelwyn opposite. I did not want to be fog-bound too, and it was time for me to descend. Then my eyes lit on Llyn Croesor above the quarry. The outflow from the lake was a foaming torrent which cascaded over the cliff. That was not unusual in very wet weather. Today, however, the waterfall began its descent but never reached the ground. It was snatched by the wind and dissipated into nothingness. Never before had I seen such a thing. It seemed a fitting commentary on what we had been through in the last two months.