South Wales in the early part of the 20th century and for Rhodri who was about to finish school, adult life in the South Wales valleys seemed to revolve around the coal mines. But Rhodri dreamed of more.
THE LLYNFI VALLEY
“Welshmen belong down the mines!”
Those were the words of Rhodri’s father that he spoke time and time again to his son as he went through his final days of school. Rhodri had shown promise in his lessons at his school in the heart of the Llynfi Valley. He seemed to have a genuine thirst for knowledge particularly about the world outside of the valley. Growing up in the valley in the first years of the twentieth century Rhodri and his peers knew only of the mountains that surrounded their small Welsh town. The valley, like so many in Wales, gave the impression that if God were a giant bird the valley would be his nest with his chicks, the people, safely secured in its centre with the mountains protecting his precious children from harm.
But the truth was it was a hard time for the people to live in. The protective appearance of the dark green hills disguised the truth that the people of the valley just like wild birds nesting in the trees of a great forest who know only how to be birds so to did many a Welsh family at the end of the Victorian era feel that they too knew only how to be one thing. A coal miner. If you were lucky maybe you could get a job in the factories or docks of Port Talbot, Swansea or even Cardiff, places that to many seemed a whole world away.
To someone of Rhodri’s character this was extremely frustrating. He learned this all too early as soon as he started school. His teacher had served in the British Army in Colonial India and on odd occasions would tell amazing tales of the people on the sub-continent. Their culture. Traditions. Their way of life that seemed so far removed from Rhodri’s that the stories themselves became almost a narcotic that he craved. More often than not his teacher denied them a story at the end of the day. But when he did Rhodri’s heart seemed to be fuelled by the jubilation of youthful curiosity. His mother, Gwyneth, would always know when he had been told one of these stories because they seemed to make him bolt home rather than his otherwise drooping trot through the front door.
“You need to wake up!” his father, Owen, often snarled angrily as he sat in the tin bath placed in front of the fire after he had finished his days work in the Dyffryn mine. “That teacher of yours outta be put right. It’s alright for him. English middle class children can do those sorts of things. Mark my words boyo! You’ll be down the mines with me and your uncles!”
His father’s words were devastating to Rhodri. He had heard them a thousand times before as he helped his father wash in the luke warm water that soon turned an inky black. Rhodri never ceased to be amazed at the transformation his father would undertake as the ever tired looking old man washed the dark black dust from his body to reveal the pale old skin underneath. More often than not cuts and gashes were revealed as the old stained cloth passed over his father’s back, wounds from his battle to produce the black gold that was coal. Once clean, or as good as, the seemingly new man that replaced the dark figure that always arrived home from the colliery was riddled with scars and cuts from various injuries he had sustained in work. This only served to frighten Rhodri and his mother further. But Owen Roberts could ever say was “That’s just the way it is! You wait boy! Once you’ve been down the mine for as long as I have you’ll look like this!”
“Don’t frighten the boy Owen!” his mother would occasionally snap when she could take no more.
“There’s no point lying to the boy is there? Not like that bloody teacher of his! He’ll be down the mines just like me and my father and his father and his father before that! The sooner he realises it the better off he’ll be!”
To the outside observer Owen’s anger toward his soon seemed almost misplaced. Irrational even. But the truth was he envied his son. Reflected in Rhodri’s optimistic eyes Owen could see himself over twenty years ago when he too was like Rhodri when the hopes and dreams affiliated with youth were still alive and powerful. But now the realisation and above all regret of the fact that Owen was almost chained to the lifeline that was the colliery caused him to lash out at his son. He tried to convince everyone, including himself that it was for his son’s own good. Better he face facts and not be disappointed but the truth was his son had become merely the vent to which he could lash out his frustrations upon and not even his mother, an often poorly and sickly looking waif of a woman, could not protect him from his brutish father’s aggression.
To say that Rhodri hated his father would be grossly incorrect. On the contrary he loved his father dearly for, as many often put it, they were more alike than either would perhaps care to admit. Both were adept at using their hands. Owen was indeed a skilled carpenter around the house and his son soon found that this was a trait he had indeed inherited and that Owen, in the few times that they were amicable which was usually on a Sunday, fostered within his son. Another trait they shared was that both of them were physically very formidable characters. Weither it be from the various times that the two had come to blows as Rhodri grew up or weither it was a Robert’s family trait no one can be sure but as Rhodri matured to the age of fifteen he was able to fight with the best of them including his father.
Then the time soon approached for him to leave school and go to work. Rhodri felt as though he was being sentenced to life in prison. Even his father’s mood seemed to drop as the day soon loomed. Sitting around the dinner table Owen repeatedly explained at great length the average day down the mine. But his voice had lost the enthusiasm it once had as the realisation that his son was indeed going to follow him down into the coilery and that no doubt in twenty years time he will be having the same discussion with his own boy weighed heavily on his broad shoulders.
Less than two days before he was due to start his training at Dyffryn colliery he dared speak up to his father and say to him very truthfully that he didn’t want to go down the mines. Rhodri braced himself ready to fight his father over the table if necessary. But to his and Gwyneth’s amazement Owen sat silently as he stared into a bowl of stew. Owen looked up from his food after a few minutes and looked into his son’s eyes. Silently, father and son communicated to each other everything they’d need to say. Rhodri understood the message his father gave him all too well for he had heard it all too often. What else do you think you could possibly do here?
That night the three of them ate quietly. Once he had finished his food Rhodri walked out into the back yard. It was a small place less than twelve feet long and cluttered with bits of old junk. The walls that separated the terraced houses that snaked down the street stood almost as high as Rhodri as he looked up into the night sky. It was a beautiful night with a large bright new moon shining magnificently down on him. His Sunday School teacher once told him that God existed all around us and was watching at all times and that if we ever needed help all we had to do was ask him.
“God!” he uttered solemnly his eyes scanning the land across Llynfi River where his father kept an allotment as if looking for someone to be there to answer him. “Sometime’s I get so confused. I know you gave me a purpose. But I-I feel lost. I don’t want to go to the colliery on Monday. I-don’t want my father’s life. I believe in my heart that you need me to be somewhere else or I wouldn’t be feeling this right now. Please God! Just-show me the way.”
Rhodri’s heart felt as if it was pulling him down. As if the world was tied around it and was ripping it from his chest. His chin shrivelled as his eyes filled. He could hear his father’s voice in his head screaming his disgust at his weak son. Rhodri shut his eyes. God hadn’t answered him. He breathed in deeply. He swallowed his heartache as he composed himself and the realisation that he was about to accept his position in society swept over him as if he were locked in a room with all the doors out locked except for one and standing in that doorway with open arms was his father.
He turned to go back inside. Then. Echoing through the night came a sound he had heard a million times before. But this time was different. Something about it caught him. He knew in his heart that God was answering. It was the sound of a train’s whistle. Suddenly his mind opened. It was time to go. It was time to leave the nest.
He gathered together a few clothes and bundled them up in a thin woollen blanket which he swung over his shoulders as he made his way downstairs as quietly as he could not to wake his mother and father. He went into the kitchen and opened the cupboards to take whatever he could fill his pockets with.
“Where are you going?”
Rhodri’s heart froze as his mother’s worried voice carried across the kitchen. He turned to look at his mother standing in the doorway. The pale moonlight cast long shadows on her face that seemed to exacerbate her aged features.
“Mam” he said sadly trying to find the words to explain his decision. He need not bother for she was his mother and she knew her soon. More importantly she knew his thinking.
“Is this what you really want?” she said to him her voice crackling with fear.
“Yes mam it is” he replied.
“I understand” she said. There was an unpleasant silence that filled the little kitchen giving it the air of a much larger room. Rhodri looked at her as if to silently say what could very well be his last good bye to his mother before turning to leave.
“Wait!” she silently wailed. Rhodri stood in the doorway with his back to her. This was not what he wanted. Not at all. He turned back to his mother to see her walking towards him with his cap in her hand. “You forgot it.”
“Thank you” he said smiling privately, laughing at the fact that this would be the memory of his mother he would take with him. Doing as she had always done, reminding him to take his cap. He placed it on his head as smartly as she could before hugging her tightly. “Look after Dad. He needs you more than he’ll ever let on.” With those words in her mind she watched as Rhodri, her only son, walked out of the house and into the night.
A railway line runs through the Llynfi valley from the tunnel under Caerau mountain through to the main town of Maesteg and on down through Llangynwyd and onto Bridgend. The local mines use this vital link to ferry their coal out of the valleys to their respective clients. Day and night these trains run through the valley.
Rhodri immediately headed for the railway line and began following it towards Maesteg. He had walked this track many times before when out ‘exploring’ his surroundings with his friends completely oblivious to the danger. As he neared Nantyffyllon he came across a set of signals. The black and white signal was up in the GO position. He glanced up at it slightly as he walked past it and only gave it a passing thought as his mind worked frantically to come up with a plan for what to do now. He hadn’t walked less than a few yards from the point when it suddenly clicked loudly behind him. He turned and saw that the signal was know in the STOP position. He made only the slightest note of it before carrying on toward Maesteg.
Then he stopped. He turned and looked back at it. Before long a train would be coming through here on its way through to the Caerau tunnel and up through to either the Neath or Rhondda valleys. It was going to have to stop here. Maybe I could jump on it when it stops? He stood there thinking for several moments when he heard the approach of the train through the night. He made up his mind. He was going to do it.
He hid in the ferns that lay beside the track and waited for the train to arrive. The large locomotive trundled passed him, its wheels screeching as the driver applied his brake to slow the train down. Steam expelled from the locomotive tumbled over his hiding place and he coughed bitterly as his eyes watered. His eyes cleared and he saw that instead of a coal train as he had expected he found himself lying halfway up the line of empty cattle trucks. Unable to believe his luck he rushed upto the train before the brakeman who sat in the rear of the train in the brake van could see him. He lifted up the simple lock on the outside of one of the trucks and jumped in.
Immediately his feet fell into a rather generous mound of hay and the leavings of what Rhodri believed was a rather large cow. He closed the door behind him just in time to see a light walking alongside the train. He quickly threw himself behind the large haystack and tried to remain perfectly still as the brakeman walked passed the truck. He lay there for several minutes before he watched the brakeman walk back towards the rear of the train to his brake van. Then after just a few more minutes the train huffed and hissed into life and Rhodri felt the train shudder as it began to move again.
Although the train was going in the direction he had been coming from he knew that now he was beginning his life. Now he was actually going somewhere. No longer in control of where he was going he knew that fate had put him on this train and he knew he was meant to be there. As the train huffed and whistled into the Caerau tunnel Rhodri felt like he was being reborn. Not even the smell of Cow dung was going to dampen his mood. I’m supposed to be on this train. This is where I should be. Even though he had no idea where he was going it didn’t matter. For the first time in his life he was free.