by Mike Day
A story of miners and a choir in Wales. (Warning contains strong language)
Men of Harlech
By Mike Day
He stood under the broad arms of the oak, both his and the tree's silhouette stark against the sun’s dying light. In the miner's calloused hand a shovel hung half forgotten, as he pushed the last of the thin soil over with a coal blackened boot.
It had started a little over a week before. The small mining town was to hold its annual Eisteddfod, a competition for Singers, Musicians, Poets and Bards of every kind from all over Wales. The colliery choir was to have pride of place at the opening ceremony and David Evans was due to conduct them in a powerful rendition of Men of Harlech.
David was humming a slow tune to himself that morning as he walked the half mile to the pit head.
Framed between the mountains that crowded the valley like pit men at the bar on a Friday night, the stars had begun to die from the ever paler sky.
Music filled his mind that cold early morning; some of the men that he would be leading in the choir were on his shift. Down in the darkness, where the black coal shone in the helmet lamps, they would sing, their voices rumbling into echoes until the cutting machines and pneumatic drills at the coal face drowned them out.
He picked up his battery pack and helmet after changing into the Coal Board orange boiler suit and walked with the other men towards the cage. They each in turn hung a brass token on a peg board to confirm that they were below ground; to forget could cost a man his life if the roof came down. Every young miner was told the same stories of men left underground because no one knew that they were there, trapped behind fallen rock.
They climbed into the basket and the winding gear supervisor checked the double gate. ‘Right lads the next stops men’s wear,’ the same joke for nearly twenty years.
One or two men gave a two fingered salute as the cage began to drop into the impossible black depths of the mine shaft. No one spoke, not for a long while. The air rushed up between their feet and the gears made the familiar song of squeals and rattles, clangs and bangs, that always terrified the new boys on their first decent. The only human sounds were the guttural coughing of men too long exposed to coal dust; give them another ten years and half the men in that plunging lift would be dead or dying.
‘So David, are we rehearsing tonight?’ The voice came from a tenor who kept the conveyor belts working.
‘Course we are. You need all the practice you can get Jones the belt.’ Down in the pit men still used the old way of naming each other. With so many Joneses and Williams and the like men often became referred to by their job underground.
David was Evans the Choir, a special honorific, signifying the importance and pride that the men took in their musical heritage.
They plunged onward, deeper, darker, the patch of light from the pit head growing fainter every second. With nothing to fix their eyes on they found it hard to gauge their speed until a sodium safety light hurtled up reminding them that they were only a cable’s thickness away from free fall.
‘Have you got a replacement for poor old Terry?’ asked a shadowed face from behind a helmet lamp.
‘No. Poor bastard, you know the doctors took both legs?’
The man paused, digesting the news. ‘Oh Christ… Have the bosses seen him ok?’
‘Have they bollocks. He can have his pension early if he agrees not to take them to court. I told him to get on to the union. Pension my arse; he should get enough to set him up for life. It was their prop that gave way, their bloody Mine, stands to reason.’ Evans the choir looked round and saw nodding head lamps.
‘So what are you going to do about the Eisteddfod?’ asked a deeper voice, this time from a big man who seldom spoke.
‘I’m holding trials at the chapel tonight. There has got to be another tenor in this place.
Someone sucked air between their teeth doubtfully but ruined the effect by breaking into a wracking cough after a few seconds.
‘You’ll want to take more water with that, Bollockchops,’ laughed the choral master.
Once the choking man had sufficiently recovered his breath he started again. ‘All I’m saying is that if you don’t find him then that’s us out of the competition.’
David grinned in the bobbing lights, ‘Don’t worry your head about it. If the worst comes to the worst you can do a ten minute solo.’
‘Can I bollocks!’
The lift clanged loudly and shuddered to a stop. Men adjusted the satchels that contained their lunch and waited for the gates to open.
Several dark hours later the choir master laid down the heavy pneumatic drill and wiped the sweat from his brow. It left a temporary clean patch across his forehead that would soon enough disappear under the camouflage of coal dust.
To his left, Jones the prop was busy winding the screw support of another temporary pit prop. ‘You have a fair voice for a Cardiff supporter.’ David shouted above the noise of the other drills.
‘Better than following Llanethli like you soppy lot,’ he grinned, revealing brilliant white teeth in a coal black face.
‘Well can you sing more than rugby songs?’
‘I did a bit at school, the choir and the like,’ the young man shouted with an exaggerated shrug.
Prop work was a young man’s game, each steel column had to be man handled into place then laboriously wound like a jack until it fitted tightly against the roof. Get too far behind the miners or place a prop at a bad angle and a million tonnes of welsh rock could end the lives of a dozen good men.
‘Come round after work and we can give you a try for the slot in the pit choir,’ David shouted back.
‘I don’t know, feels a bit bad stepping into Terry’s shoes like.’
‘Look, you didn’t have anything to do with him getting crushed, you didn’t even place the prop that gave out, so there’s no reason to be like that see?’
Jones wiped his hands on a rag and looked off into the darkness, ‘I’m not much of a singer.’
The conductor knew he had him, ‘Just come along tonight, our Mary will have something on the stove.’
A shout from the foreman brought their focus back to the work. And it was hard work, dirty and dangerous, it bred men who would look you in the eye and never feel second best. A very few years later that spirit would bring them into conflict with Mrs Thatcher and see the destruction of the coal industry.
Mary had the chops in the oven and the potatoes on when the he got home.
‘Is that you love?’ She called from the kitchen.
‘No, it’s the milkman come for an afternoon romp.’
‘Well you better make it quick; that daft sod of mine will be back in a minute.’
He strode into the steam filled kitchen and swept her up in his arms, ‘You had better not be with the milkman, and if you are, are you getting extra Co-op stamps?’
She was in her early fifties, still slim, with hair as black as a raven’s wing flecked with silver and deep dark lustrous eyes that sparkled with laughter at the same joke that he told every time he came home.
Billy Jones the prop man coughed theatrically from the doorway.
Are you going to introduce me to your friend then David? Mary asked as she straightened her hair and brushed down her calf length skirt.
‘I’d forget my bloody head if it wasn’t nailed on,’ he said shaking it as though to prove his point. ‘Mary this is Billy Jones, prop man and tenor for the forthcoming Eisteddfod.’
‘Pleased to meet you I’m sure,’ she said sticking out a freshly wiped hand.
Billy, somewhat out of his depth took her hand and shook it respectfully, ‘Pleased to make your acquaintance Mrs.’
‘Well,’ she said turning back to the gas stove, ‘sit down. David, there’s beer in the fridge if you want some.’
‘Please,’ he said grinning broadly at the younger man.
‘Well get it yourself then, what did your last slave die of?’ she chided.
He rubbed at the end of his nose with the palm of his hand and mooched off, shaking his head, towards the coal shed where the fridge sat humming to itself. He plucked out two cans of Double Diamond Best Bitter and started back.
As he crossed the back yard he stopped for a moment and looked up at the late evening sky, a few stars were already shining and a tiny bat streaked past, eager to take over from the birds on the day shift.
Funny, he thought as he stared up into the void, Solid rock is black above your head, so is all this emptiness; both absolutes, both absolutely black.
Billy looked up as he came back into the room. ‘Your wife was just telling me that Terry used to come here every Sunday for his lunch.’
‘Yeah… sort of the son we never had,’ David handed him a can and sat down it the armchair. The soft, valour covered, cushions folded him in like a baseball in a catcher’s mitt.
Mary put her hand lightly on her husbands shoulder as she left the room, heading for the kitchen. ‘Your tea will be about ten minutes,’ she called back from the hall.
‘I heard you doing a karaoke number down at the working man’s club awhile back, got a good tenor voice,’ David said before taking a swig of his beer.
Billy looked troubled and took a long drink before he spoke, ‘Look, I know it’s sort of an honour to be asked to sing in the choir. And I do appreciate the invitation, I really do… but I’m not that good a singer, not really,’ he waved his empty hand vaguely.
The conductor smiled good-naturedly and shook his head. ‘I heard what I heard. You might have had a few of these,’ he waved the can gently, ‘but what came out was pure gold, so there is no point denying it,’ he looked at the young man for a long moment, ‘It’s like a gift from God see, not using it would be like robbing the Almighty.’
The young miner nodded slowly, his eyes never leaving the can in his hand.
‘Course we can’t expect you to fill his shoes, at least not first time out.’
‘I really don’t think I can do this Mr Evans. It just feels wrong with Terry crippled like that,’ he looked awkward and uncomfortable sitting there.
‘Now look here, the mining board of enquiry said that no one was responsible for the cave in. No one could remember who put in that prop… besides it might have been a fault in the mechanism not negligence. You know you didn’t do it and that’s good enough for me.’
Billy looked up and there were tears in his eyes, ‘I swear it wasn’t me.’
David scratched his forehead with the edge of the cold can. ‘No one is accusing you of anything. It’s all done and dusted, the findings said it, “No one is to blame.” and that’s the end of it.’
Just then Mary backed into the room carrying three plates mounded with mashed potatoes, gravy and somewhere underneath, pork chops. ‘I hope you’re hungry I always make enough for twenty according to Billy.’
They both took a plate and balanced them on their laps. After eating in appreciative silence for a moment Billy looked up. ‘So it would be sort of in honour of Terry like?’
The older man paused with a forkful of pork and mash halfway to his mouth. ‘Yes…yes it would.’
The boy nodded and continued to industriously shovel in his food.
A black cat with a white underbelly stalked into the room, tail high, stepping so lightly that it seemed not to touch the floor.
‘This is Myfanwy, she’s Terry’s but she spends most of her time scrounging titbits from Mary. Daft old thing has kind of adopted us.’ David shook his head sadly. ‘Now,’ he said springing back to business, ‘we rehearse every other day in the Scout hall at the bottom of Victoria road. The next one is tonight at eight thirty; I assume you’re not busy?’
Billy scratched the back of his head, trying to summon up a good enough reason to get out of it. ‘No… I’ll be there.’
The cat slinked over and brushed against the prop man’s leg.
‘She likes you.’ Mary said pointing with her fork.
‘I used to have a cat but it got run over last Christmas. A tabby called Tiger,’ he reached down and scratched the cat behind its ear.
Mary looked across at David who smiled and nodded. ‘We can’t keep him I’m afraid. He sets off my asthma something fierce, we were going to take her down to the RSPCA…’ she left the thought hanging in mid air.
He looked up at her, across to the conductor and then down at the purring moggy, ‘I guess I could find her a home, if that would be ok with you both?’
‘I don’t see why not, until Terry gets out,’ David smiled.
Mary brushed at some invisible lint on her skirt in evident satisfaction.
After he had finished eating his dinner, Billy made his excuses packed the cat into its travel basket and promised to meet David at the Scout hut at eight thirty on the dot.
After the front door closed Mary turned to her husband, ‘Well?’ she asked.
‘Well what do you think?’
He looked at her for a long moment, ‘I think that if he did make a mistake with that prop it is between him and his conscience.’
She looked sad for a moment, ‘I meant will he turn up tonight?’ She regarded him carefully, ‘you don’t think he did it do you?’
‘He was there; it had to be someone.’
‘But you said that the inquiry cleared all of the prop men.’
‘Only because they all clammed up, traumatic group amnesia the union lawyer called it. Covering somebody’s arse more like,’ he coughed and spat black phlegm into his handkerchief.
Eight forty five and the choir were just warming up when the door at the far end of the hall creaked open. As if by command, they all stopped singing at the same moment.
David turned round and there stood Billy.
From behind him he heard a sotto voce voice, ‘He’s one of the prop men from the same shift as our Terry.’
By the look on Billy’s face David could tell that he had heard as well.
He half turned and looked towards the door, then back at the Conductor, ‘Perhaps I should go…’
‘Nonsense, were all miners here. We don’t have any of that rubbish in this choir. You’re just the same as any man here, so anyone who doesn’t like it can sling there hook, right?’ this last part was delivered over his shoulder to the men behind him.
The mumbled assent was far from fulsome but no one disagreed. One man, Owen Thomas looked more truculent than the rest.
‘Owen, do you have something to say?’ the Conductor asked in a strong confident voice.
Owen stuck out his chin and raised his head slightly at the challenge. ‘They never found the locking collar off that prop. It seems to me if a man was hiding something he would hide that.’
‘And what would that go to prove?’
‘If it was whole then someone forgot to put it in place. If it had snapped we would have found the two halves.’
David looked back at the angry miner and shook his head slowly, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that you sifted through thirty five tons of rock, coal and scrap metal looking for that one two inch collar. How long did it take you? Or did you save time and just assume that a miner caused the cave in and not those tight fisted bastards who run the place?’
Owen scratched the back of his neck and glanced at Billy. ‘Look… sorry mate,’ he said. ‘Nothing personal, we just liked Terry that’s all. Welcome to the choir, I hope you can keep a tune better than Cyril here,’ he grinned and shoved another man good-naturedly.
Billy nodded solemnly and let David lead him to his place.
‘Right, gentlemen now that we have harmony of purpose lets see if we can attempt something similar with your voices…’
They practiced till half past ten and then called it a night.
Billy was flushed and his eyes shone at being part of the magic that transformed thirty men into a single powerful, living instrument.
‘See you on Wednesday,’ said David as he slapped him on the back, ‘Remember, keep practicing those vowel sounds. We need clear words if we are going to win next week.’
David and Mary walked into Terry’s hospital room. He was in a private, a sign perhaps of the seriousness of his injuries. ‘Are you still in bed you lazy sod?’ David asked with forced joviality.
Mary slapped his arm, ‘Oh you do say such terrible things David Evans.’
Terry grinned, ‘You know when you are in trouble when she starts using your full name.’
David looked at Terry; he saw the dark patches around his eyes, the too white skin and the pipe that led to a bag of clear fluid off to his left. He felt himself begin to crumble inside. Being a Welshman and a miner he wasn’t about to start crying so he did the only thing he could do with all that unwanted emotion, he got angry.
‘Have they sorted you out yet?’ he asked in a gruff voice.
Mary glanced at him, she knew him too well to mistake her husbands terse statement for rudeness.
‘The doctors you mean?’ Terry asked as he pulled the thin sheets straight.
David pulled a chair over for Mary and one for himself. He dropped into his own with a grunt. ‘Well I suppose them as well. I meant the company, have they offered you a settlement?’
Terry went red as he remembered his own anger. ‘You’ll never believe this. Just guess what the bastards said yesterday, go on have a guess?’
David just shrugged and remained silent.
‘The company lawyer said, ‘Best not get the Union involved or it could drag on for years. Better to sign up for the pension and save all the hassle. Can you believe that? The compensations a hassle, try living in a bleeding wheel chair. Oh sorry Mrs Evans,’ he added.
She held up a black gloved hand as if to brush away his apology.
‘Did the Union man turn up?’ David asked.
‘You bet he did. Walked right in on the other guy; almost literally threw him out. Never seen someone that angry and not use bad language, amazing.’ He moved himself a little in the bed and winced at the pain. ‘Anyway, he says that it was a good thing that they never found the collar. If it was someone’s fault the company could argue that they were not liable.’
‘Yeah I can imagine you trying to get a million pounds out of some poor sod in a terrace house.’
‘He said it should be about two hundred and fifty. Mind you, I wouldn’t say no to a million.’
‘That’s not much for a man’s legs.’
Terry looked down at the empty third of the bed, ‘No… I guess not.’
Mary opened her large handbag and pulled out a bunch of grapes and a bag of jelly babies, ‘I thought these would keep you going. I know how bad the food in here was last time I came in for my, err, operation.’
‘Operation?’ Terry asked.
David lent over and muttered, ‘Women’s things.’
The invalid was none the wiser but nodded as though he understood. To change the subject he asked ‘How’s the choir?’
‘Not bad. We found a temporary replacement for you. He’s okay, not as good as you, but okay.’
Terry looked down at the flat white sheets, ‘Temporary?’
‘Now don’t get starting on that. You’re coming back to the choir and that’s that.’
‘Who did you get? Not that fat sod from the canteen?’ his smile was forced.
‘No… we got Jones the Prop he’s…’
Terry burst in ‘A fucking Prop man. Are you kidding?’
‘He’s a good lad, best I could find before the Eisteddfod anyway.’
‘He might be the one! Singing in my place, I ask you, is that right?’
David pushed his hand through his curly black locks, ‘He swears he didn’t. For all we know no one did. I mean, is it fair to black-ball him because someone might have? It doesn’t to me?’
‘Fair? What’s fair about some fucker taking both my legs? I was in there for an hour, in the darkness, alone…’ he trailed off and looked out of the window at the rain outside. His chest heaved as he fought down the raging emotions that washed over him.
David was looking at the place where Terry’s legs should have been. ‘I know, I was there, digging with my hands till the rescue team arrived.’
Still looking out at the grey sky Terry shrugged, ‘I didn’t know that.’
‘I’m sorry I couldn’t reach you lad,’ he mumbled, half to himself.
Nobody spoke; the rain ran in snaking rivulets down the window pane, in the guttering opposite water splashed and overflowed, adding to the downpour on the street below.
Suddenly Terry looked round, ‘You did your best and…’ he smiled wryly, ‘you always were fucking slow with a shovel.’
‘Now that’s quite enough of that.’ Mary said as she stood up, she picked up the water jug from beside the bed and took it to the little sink in the corner. ‘They never change the water in these things from one day to the next,’ she complained.
David and Terry exchanged a knowing smile.
The Scout hut windows were beacons of warm light as Billy hurried across the car park to the timber built porch. He shook out his rain coat and stepped into the humid fug of the rehearsal room.
‘Here he comes, late as always. Can’t you ever keep up with proper miners, Slowcoach?’ It was Owen, his way of showing acceptance.
‘It’s bloody easy to get here if you knock off an hour before your shift ends.’ Billy said hanging his coat on a spare hook.
‘Here Owen, the kids calling you a lazy bastard,’ chuckled Cyril.
‘No, no I’m not. He’s not La… Oh, yes he is that; but he’s not a bastard… Oh yeah, actually your right I am calling him a lazy bastard,’ he said grinning broadly.
The choir erupted into good natured laughter. They loved nothing better than a good insult.
‘What would you know kid? I used to knock around with your Mom.’ Owen called above the others.
‘So that’s where she caught the clap then,’ this time it was David.
Both men turned to stare at him in surprise before cracking up.
‘Now,’ shouted David above the rising noise, ‘places everyone, time to make some music.’
To a man, they threw themselves into the work, singing with heart and pride, filling the room with sound.
The windows of the wooden hall first misted over then single dribbles of condensation ran down their insides. Two hours later and whole gangs of droplets had run claw marks down the panes.
When they finished Men of Harlech nobody spoke. They all knew it was as good as they could get it.
Only David saw the tears running down Billy’s cheeks that were hurriedly wiped away in a faked cough before anyone else could see. He lingered by the door as the choir left and caught Billy by the arm as he passed. ‘Got a second?’ he asked.
Billy shrugged and stepped out of the remaining men’s way.
‘Oh you’re in for a bollocking from the teacher you are,’ laughed Owen as he passed.
When they were alone David turned and closed the door. ‘You’re fitting in well,’ he said it as a statement rather than a question.
‘So it seems.’
‘Is there something you want to tell me; something that’s bothering you?’
Billy opened his mouth then closed it again. ‘No, just getting into the spirit of things I guess,’ he said finally.
‘So you are going to stay with us then?’
The young man looked David in the eye and then back towards the row of steps on which the choir had stood. ‘No, I’m doing this for Terry, after Saturday I’m out.’
‘It’s a waste you know. You have real talent, we’d be happy to have you stay you know with us.’
Billy pulled on his coat and opened the door. ‘Thanks, but like I said it’s just for Terry.’
The day of the Eisteddfod dawned clear and sunny. The local roads and car parks filled with traffic as the great marquee rose like a giant white soufflé above the trees in the park.
David spent the morning marshalling his forces, organising replacement bowties and cajoling hardened pit workers into re-ironing creased shirts.
Billy arrived at eight o’clock, his clothes were perfect, the blazer David loaned him hung in a dry cleaners bag in his car, ready to go.
At eleven o’clock the choir master gathered them together and on-mass led them across the grass to the stage.
They stood silent, tense, waiting for their cue to walk on and assemble behind the curtain. In the darkness David reached out and put his hand on Billy’s shoulder. He was startled to feel the young man shaking. ‘Piece of cake,’ he said hoping to ease the man’s nerves. In the half light he thought he saw a terse nod.
The Compare of the show stepped in to the spot light and began his speech. Meanwhile the choir crept silently onto the wide steps built up on the stage in the darkness behind him.
The lights came up to wild cheering from the crowd.
David held up his hands, the choir tensed, a hush fell over the audience.
Down came his hands, ‘Wele goelcerth wen yn fflamio’ they sang to thunderous applause. They were moving now, like a train on its tracks their voices moved with growing momentum and power.
The second verse, this time in English, ‘Hark I hear the foe advancing’ they were flying, above there own voices they could here those of the crowd joined in song with the miners.
David Evans, Miner and Choir Master had their voices in his fingertips. He moved and they followed, everyone drew a mighty breath and began the last, controversial, verse.
This last verse had been created for the film Zulu, but so ingrained had it become in the public psyche that to leave it out would have caused more disappointment than offence at its inclusion.
He scanned the choir, each face was a friend, a colleague; he felt pride beyond expression for these men. Then he spotted Billy Jones, Billy had his eyes fixed on some distant point, his head back his voice ringing out with the others and once again tears running down his cheeks.
They finished with the words ‘Welshmen never yield.’
The crowd roared their approval and the Eisteddfod had begun.
That evening the choir pressed in at the bar, the beer tent was heaving with bodies and everywhere that David turned he saw yet more people. A big miner passed back to him a pint over the heads of his shorter brethren.
After shouting his thanks he carefully inched his way to the door, pint held precariously, protectively in hand. Outside the stars were out, tiny pin points of light against the blue black cloth of night. He walked over to a bench close by the stage and sat down. The air tasted good to him, cleaner out here than in the tent. Just as the conductor took a first sip he heard a voice coming from the stage.
‘Do you think Terry would be proud?’ it was Billy.
David continued to stare up into the heavens, ‘yes I expect he would.’
‘There’s a woman next door to my Mam has taken in his cat, she say she can look after it until he’s ready,’ his voice sounded distant.
David frowned, ‘I thought you were going to do it?’
‘Can’t, I’m leaving tonight.’
He turned round to look up at the darkened stage, ‘Why?’
There wasn’t any sound for a long moment, then a oft noise, like something metallic rolling down the stages cambered surface towards him. Whatever it was clanked against the stage’s edge and came to rest.
David let a breath out slowly through his nose and stood up. He hardly dared to approach, a deep hollow feeling having settled into the pit of his stomach, but he placed his drink down on to the grass and made his way to the stage.
In the near complete darkness he felt along the low barrier until his hand touched a cold circular tube, just over two inches in diameter with a fastening catch on one side, a locking collar; cold, hard evidence.
David picked it up and hefted it from hand to hand. ‘You stupid fucker,’ he muttered under his breath. Then he slipped the ring into the deep pocket of his overcoat.
All the next day he thought about the Prop man who hadn’t turned up for work and the locking ring still in his own coat pocket at home. If he handed it in then the boy would be found out and one way or another, punished. On the other hand if he didn’t then although Terry might never know who had caused his accident his case would go a lot smoother.
He still hadn’t decided what to do when he got home late that afternoon. Mary was waiting by the door when he turned into the street. As soon as he saw her face he knew that she had found it.
‘Evening love how was work?’ She searched his face, trying to see what he might be feeling.
‘Slow, Billy the Prop man quit so we had to double up.’ He sounded tired.
‘Will he be coming back?’
‘Well tea is nearly ready, why don’t you go for a walk? Take your coat in case it rains again’
He looked at her and she smiled kindly.
‘Get rid of it. It won’t do our Terry any good to know now,’ and with that she turned and disappeared off to her kitchen.
He stood for a long moment before putting on his overcoat and fetching the spade. At the bottom of the street he turned left and started walking up hill towards the big oak tree.
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