In Wales everyone’s home is open to all, for to the Welsh generosity and hospitality are the greatest of all virtues. They very much enjoy welcoming others to their homes. When you travel there is no question of asking for accommodation or of their offering it. You just march into a house and hand over your weapons to the person in charge.
Giraldus Cambrensis, Description of Wales, 1194
A few yards short of the village I stopped again for Stan to take in its immediate surroundings. Cwm Croesor, as well as being a hanging valley, is a glaciated one, U-shaped in cross-section. It runs for another three miles above this point, straight and narrow, nowhere wider on the floor than a couple of smallish fields which provide much the best pastures. To the north rise the steep rocky screes of Cnicht, to the south the steep but grassier slopes of Moelwyn, while the head of the valley is equally steep, craggy, and almost semicircular. From the village, close up, the mountains display their real size. Here, Cnicht is no longer a distant spike on the skyline but towers high above. Here, man feels puny.
“Quite summat, innit?” he observed. “Yus, a sight bigger than Blackheath Hill! I likes Cernicht.”
“Not Cernicht. Cnicht.”
He tried again. Better.
Old Mrs Griffiths Tan y Bryn toddled past. We gave each other a ‘pnawn da,’ but her beady eyes hardly left Stan. In a miraculously short time the whole village was going to know about him.
We moved on. His introduction to Garth Llwynog was interesting. I pulled into the yard and Giff and Gaff bounded out, barking, to inspect him. He showed no sign of fear, but stayed in the box, probably because he did not want his fancy dress dirtied. When I called them off, he climbed out. He gazed round the yard at the house and barn and beudy and pigsty and the clothes flapping on the washing line, and at Cnicht presiding loftily over everything.
“Cor!” he said again.
Understood. The majestic setting is a far cry from the bomb sites of the Elephant. Our house is solid, stone-built, slate-roofed, small-windowed, thick-walled but capacious, a far cry from the mean brick streets of south London. While we do have a front door, we never use it. The back door leads straight into the kitchen which is where, essentially, we live. Mam came out from it and tried hard not to stare.
“Hullo, Stan,” she said. “Welcome! Come on in.”
In he went, very cautiously, and looked around. He could recognise a workaday environment when he saw one, different though it might be from his own. It was obviously not an upper-class establishment, nor wholly outside his experience. He visibly relaxed.
“Fanks, lady,” he said.
He took off his ridiculous hat and put it on the table alongside his little suitcase, which he opened.
“Got summat for yer, lady.”
I was terrified that he was going to give her another pair of nylons. But I had told him she was uncomfortable with the black market, and he seemed to have taken the hint. What he handed over was his ration book, at which Mam’s face lightened. She would have no more qualms than me about the cost of feeding him, for hospitality is in a Welshman’s bones. But she must have been wondering how — meat and eggs and milk apart — our meagre rations for two could be stretched between three.
“Oh, thank you,” she said. “But Stan, you can’t go on calling me ‘lady.’ Call me Mary.”
“Right char. Fanks.”
“And you won’t want your, um, best clothes to get dirty.” She eyed his suitcase, which was still open. “You haven’t brought much else, but I’m sure we can fit you out with old ones. We don’t dress up here. Dino, will you see what you can find?”
I showed Stan the spare room, which Mam had made up. He seemed disappointed, as if he had hoped to share my room or even my bed. But I was adamant in my mind that, whatever might or might not happen in the future, it must not happen too fast. I needed time to do what for years I had failed to do, namely examine my own soul. Clough’s lesson of twelve months before had partially sunk in, and I was no longer unhappy with my nature. But I still had no idea what, if anything, to do about it.
With clothes on points, you throw nothing away unless it is totally past redemption. Mam even unravels worn-out socks and knits the wool into new ones. We had kept all the cast-offs I had grown out of over the past eight years, and many of Madog’s too, as well as the final working gear he left behind when he went to war. I dug out an armful of clothes that were too small for me but would fit Stan perfectly well, and left him to change while I searched out some old working boots. On a farm like ours, winkle-pickers are emphatically out of order. Solid footwear is an absolute essential.
I also seized the chance to put Mam quickly in the picture. After my day with Stan in London I had told her the outline of how we met and what we talked about — the parts, at least, that I was allowed to tell — and there was not much more I could add now, except that he had had TB and had in effect been kicked out of his home. Whether he had come to us purely for fresh air and exercise or for something more, and for how long, was more than I could say. Fortunately her motherly instincts came into play.
“Poor boy! He’s no more than a skeleton. He needs feeding up.”
“That’s just what Dr Roberts wants you to do. And he wants me to give him plenty of exercise.”
When I returned to the spare room he looked much more like a Welsh farm boy than a spiv, and I gave him a conducted tour of the premises. This time, out in the yard, he greeted Giff and Gaff properly, scratched their ears and let them lick him, and they accepted him. He was introduced to the hens and pigs, and to Wmffra the cat who deigned to put in an appearance. He gazed up again at Cnicht, which has a hundred moods. Yesterday it had been misty and almost eerily soft. This evening it was sharp and hard and stern.
Inside the house, we ended in the parlour, where he pointed at the bust on the mantlepiece.
“Who’s the geezer?”
He inspected it more closely and nodded approvingly at its eyes with their irises and pupils marked in. But he had clearly never heard of Lloyd George, and soon lost interest. Then he found a basket containing a couple of lambs which their mothers had rejected, and went into raptures.
“Ar! Ain’t they sweet?” He was beaming. “Jest like the pitchers! Got an aristotle?”
At this time of year there is always a crock of milk warming beside the range, and I brought him a baby’s bottle full. He sat down, took a lamb on his knees, and fed it so gently and efficiently that my heart was touched. Perhaps he had had practice with Ernie and Rosie’s infants. When the second lamb had been fed, Mam called us in to tea. She had done Stan proud. On his plate was as much mutton, I guessed, as an ordinary person’s ration would run to in a week. He demolished it fast, and was given more.
“Luverly grub! Where jer get it?” he asked, looking at me. I knew he was thinking of the black market, but he was tactful enough not to say so.
“Sheep’s one thing we’ve plenty of. This one isn’t ours, but from Croesor Fawr — the highest farm up the valley. But the next one will be ours. We take it in turns to slaughter four-year-olds and share them round.”
When we had finished, Stan offered to wash up. I showed him our method, and he made a fair job of it. I found that reassuring. He was living up to his promise to work his passage. And the chore of washing up is made lighter by the fact that the window above the sink looks straight up to the summit of Cnicht. Then we sat down by the fire. The evenings were still on the chilly side, and thanks to Clough’s logs we were well off for fuel. Garth Llwynog is old; not as old as Plas Brondanw, but it has a huge inglenook containing the range and the bread ovens and a substantial grate. Mam sat on a chair on one side, we on the wooden settle on the other, and Wmffra alternated between us.
I demanded fuller details of Stan’s time in hospital and at the sanatorium, some of which he supplied, stressing — for Mam’s benefit, I supposed — my role, as he saw it, in saving his life. When I asked how he had passed so many months while under orders to do nothing — surely he had lived on something more than a diet of comics? — he was unforthcoming. “Oh, finking,” he said. The worst part, he did admit, was the two months at home, shivering in the cold, surrounded by squalling children, and assailed by constant complaints from Ernie. One reason he put up with the tedium was that if he had ventured out he might have bumped into Jack, who would have demanded what he had been promised. In Mam’s presence, Stan spelt out no more.
In turn, he demanded fuller details of the snow and the frostbite, which I gave. He picked up my hand to inspect the stump and, lifting it to his lips, kissed it. Mam’s expression was puzzled. I sympathised, for I was puzzled too. Indeed I was rather perturbed. He was now showing signs of a dog-like devotion. Did I want a friend to lick my face, to trot obediently behind when I called him to heel?
But he redeemed himself by returning to practicalities and asking about the flock. When he heard I had lost an eighth to the snow, he asked if I was going to buy replacements. Given that the intricacies of Welsh sheep farming would be foreign to him, it was a very fair question. I had to explain that Cnicht is an open mountain. On the valley side it is indeed walled off from the ffridd and the pastures on the valley floor, but on the mountain proper there are no walls for miles. If I bought in new sheep from elsewhere, they would stray who knows how far. On an open mountain like ours the sheep have to be home-bred. After countless generations in the same place they have an inborn knowledge of their patch and simply do not stray, unless in exceptional circumstances like last winter when they have to move away or perish.
“Howjer get new ones, then? Instead of them what died?”
“We sell off the older sheep every year, normally the same number as the new ewe lambs. So the total stays the same. Now, I’ll have to sell fewer old ones, and those I haven’t sold will breed. And the number will gradually build up again. It’ll take two or three years.”
But Stan was beginning to yawn. He had had a long and eventful day, he looked particularly drawn, and I suggested bed.
“Yus. Fink I needs it.” He made a little bob to Mam. “Fanks, Mary.” He gave me a modest hug. “Fanks, Dino. Ta-ta!”
Mam and I sat up for a short while longer. She had questions, some spoken, some like Clough’s unspoken, and none of them could I answer. I dreamt that night that Croesor had been invaded by spivs.
When Stan came down to breakfast, rather later than us, Mam offered him bacon and eggs. His eyes lit up and, as a plate of half a dozen rashers and three fried eggs was put in front of him, nearly fell out.
“Cor!” he said, predictably.
“Well, you’ve seen where these came from,” I pointed out, and as he tucked in I ran through the programme for the day. I had already discussed it with Mam. It seemed best to start him off with light jobs where he could help her in her daily round and learn at the same time. Collecting eggs, feeding swill to the pigs, milking the cows (a trickier task, that, until he found the knack), and turning the butter churn. Those should keep him busy until dinner time. I would finish the mucking out of the beudy which had been interrupted yesterday, and do some work on the Ffergi.
We went our separate ways. I had just finished the beudy when Stan came panting up from the meadow where the cows were.
“Yer Mam says please ter come. One of them cows ain’t happy.”
Worried, I went down with him. Last August I had borrowed Parc’s bull to serve a cow, and therefore the calf was not due until May. But that, it turned out, was where the problem lay. The cow was in very obvious discomfort, mooing, lying down and getting up again.
“I tried her milk,” Mam told me. “Look.”
In the bottom of a pail was a little pool of milk, very yellow. Beestings. The cow was in labour, a month premature. And a premature birth, if the foetus has not yet assumed the right orientation, is liable to be a breech birth. That, in a cow, is likely to be harder than in a human. A calf normally emerges front legs first, followed by the head, with the back legs trailing behind. In a breech birth it can emerge stern first, with the front legs at the wrong angle for a smooth passage. If the labour lasts too long, the calf will probably die, and perhaps the mother too. There was no time to call in the vet. No time, even, to call in Harry Parry. I had never tackled this for myself, but Owain Bach at Bryn y Gelynen had once asked me to help when he foresaw — as this time I had not — that one of his cows was heading for a breech birth. So at least I knew roughly what to do, and took charge. Mam was not good in emergencies.
I cajoled the poor beast up to the beudy, asking Mam to bring a bucket of soapy water and the petrolatum and iodine, and sending Stan ahead to spread out straw on the newly-swept floor. On this the cow lay down, and her waters immediately broke. With the soapy water I washed her tail area and squirted in some petrolatum as lubricant. Before long, as I feared, a rump began to protrude. That was doubly bad. If it had to be a breech birth, I wanted it hind legs first. In the birth canal, the bottleneck is the opening in the pelvis. If the calf is too big to pass through, a caesarean is the only answer. This one should not be too big — I was well aware that a big bull is likely to generate a big calf, and had gone for Parc’s because it is of moderate size — but in a breech birth you want all the space you can get. At least this calf, not being full-term, would not be full-size.
Down on my knees, I pushed the rump back inside past the pelvic opening, lubricated my arm, and inserted it. Feeling for a leg, I pulled it backwards. Next the other leg. All the while the contractions were going on, squeezing my arm to the point of pain. Out with my arm, and the two legs emerged, followed by the rump. So far so good. But then things stuck. The front legs must be catching on the pelvic opening. I asked Stan for a length of rope which was hanging from the rafters and tied it round the back legs. Pushing the rump a little further inside again, I inserted my arm once more. This was difficult, because the pelvic opening was now occupied by the calf’s body, but I got it through. I felt for a front leg which I managed to fold down. Then the second. Keeping my hand on them both, I told Stan to pull gently on the rope. The cow helped with a mighty push which almost crushed my arm against the pelvis, and the rest of the calf, along with my arm, slid smoothly out. A female, I saw. The umbilical cord broke, which was normal. I put a finger in the calf’s mouth to clear out mucus, but it was already breathing. Mam dabbed iodine on the cord.
The cow mooed with relief and turned to lick her new daughter. I untied the rope and, almost mooing with relief myself, sat back, flexing my bruised arm and with the clean one wiping sweat off my forehead.
“Sorry, Stan. Rather a brutal introduction to farm life.”
But he was not in the least repelled. His eyes were shining. “Blimey! Strornery! Woodner credit it! But tain’t always like that?”
“Thank God, no. That was my first breech birth. But look!”
The cow was heaving herself to her feet, and so too, weakly and totteringly, was the calf. I watched closely. Her legs were splayed, but they seemed in good order. Instinctively she homed in on her mother’s udder, and sucked.
“I’d call it miraculous.”
We watched for a little longer, and all was well. We washed at the pistyll — the water spout — and knocked off for dinner, which we had earned. Afterwards, the cow and calf were still fine. Tomorrow they would go down to the meadow. So I dealt with the tractor, changing the oil, adjusting the carburettor and tightening the clutch. Stan was in the dairy learning, under Mam’s guidance, the gentle but tedious art of turning the butter churn at a constant rate for a very long time.
That done, Mam found him other jobs. She got him to carry a supply of logs in from the pile to the inglenook. She asked him to go to the village to deliver some milk to old Mrs Lloyd in the village, who as a widow of a former slate quarryman can hardly afford to buy it, and at the same time to buy some stamps. The village is only a quarter of a mile down the track, and I went with him to show the way. After supplying Mrs Lloyd we headed for the post office. Coming out of it after collecting his daily fags was Bob Owen, who turned into the telephone kiosk outside.
Bob is another local character, of much the same age as Clough but, with his untidy moustache and shabby clothes, a great deal less exotic. He used to be a clerk at Croesor Quarry but is now a local historian and scholar of, I gather, international renown. His house next to the chapel is crammed with books in every conceivable corner including (I have been told, though I have not seen it for myself) under his bed.
Stan bought Mam’s stamps. Mrs Jones the postmistress, who would certainly have heard about him from Mrs Griffiths, inspected him none too covertly and seemed disappointed that he looked much like any Croesor lad, if more weedy. As we left, Bob emerged from the telephone box. Stan went in and pressed Button B. Out came two pennies.
“Hey mister!” he shouted. “Yer forgot yer tuppence.”
Bob is as Welsh as they come and can be frighteningly crusty. I still went in some awe of him, and was afraid he might explode at being addressed in that way. But perhaps Mrs Griffiths’ gossip had reached him too, by way of Mrs Jones. He looked carefully at Stan, held out his hand for the coins, and said, “Diolch yn fawr, ngwas. Which means thank you very much. If you’re going to live here, you ought to speak Welsh.” And to my amazement, for he had never done it before, he winked at me.
As Bob went off home, Stan was thoughtful.
“He’s right, Dino, ain’t he? I did oughter speak Welsh. Will yer learn me?”
“Of course. With pleasure.”
That evening we were in the kitchen as Mam was preparing tea, and I was peeling carrots for her. Stan asked if he could listen to Dick Barton. He switched the wireless on, found the Light Programme, and sat absorbed. Not being an addict like him, I could hardly follow the complexities of the story line, but I did pick up the catchphrase he had told me about last year — ‘with one bound Dick was free.’ He grinned meaningfully again, but I still did not understand.
Tea, that day, was remarkable for two things. First, the bread and butter. Wholly unremarkable, you might think. But Stan took a bite and gazed at his slice in wonder.
“Cor! Made this butter meself!”
Mam laughed. “And very well. When there’s time I’ll show you how to bake, shall I? Then you can make the bread too.”
And his lessons began. Mam and I had no idea how to set about teaching our own language. So we said simple things in English to each other or to him, then said them again in Welsh, and got him to repeat them. I wondered if his Welsh would come out with a Cockney accent. But I realised, when I thought about it, that nobody has an accent built into them. A child automatically imitates the way its family and friends speak, which becomes second nature. Now, Stan was imitating the way we spoke, and he did it remarkably well. Welsh has some vowels and diphthongs that have no close counterpart in English, whether in King’s English or Cockney, and he found them difficult; but so do all Englishmen. Harder still is our ll, a sound which simply does not exist in English. He tried fl, he tried thl. Never before had I even thought about how I produced it, and had to experiment to discover.
“Stan, put the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth, and breathe out.”
“Now grunt — ah — as you breathe out and at the same time drop your tongue down.”
“Yes! Llan, a church. Llyn, a lake.”
The r of Garth was not trilled enough, but the rather complex syllable of Llwyn was fine.
“You’ve got it! Try it in the middle of a word and the end. Allan, out. Arall, other.”
It was a good start.
As he went to bed, we thanked him for his help. But he would have none of it.
“Nah, s’fanks ter you. I likes Wales. I likes farms. This farm, anyway. And yer’ve no idea. When yer been sitting on yer fanny fer munfs doing bugger all … oops, sorry, lady … I means Mary … s’good ter have useful fings ter do. Yer really don’t mind me being here?”
“Stan,” said Mam firmly. “You’re welcome to stay until you’re ready to leave.”
He was beaming again as he went.
It was also good for us and good for me, I thought, to have an extra and willing pair of hands. A hill farmer cannot be made in a day, or even in a year. But if he stayed long enough, any time spent teaching him would be time well spent. Not only was he already a welcome guest, but he had the makings of a positive asset.
“You know, Dino,” said Mam, echoing my thoughts, “I really am hoping he does stay. You do need the help. You do need …”
She tailed off. Mam and I are close, but neither of us is outgoing. She likes to keep her cards close to her chest, and she resents probing. Did she mean companionship? Or more than that? I did not dare to ask.