Here, in North Wales, I christened my house, Heol Las
I grew up in Swansea, overlooking the curve of the bay. At night, the street lamps along the Mumbles Road twinkled and glowed then faded as the steel furnaces flamed across the bay. Cars curved the junction opposite my house flooding and sweeping my room with light only for the dark to press in again. This was the “posh” end of Swansea, the western end where a century before, the owners of the copper works retreated from the pollution that flooded the lower end of the Swansea Valley.
Here, in the shadow of The Swansea Vale Works my mother played along train tracks, jumped ditches, lost a shoe in a heap of wet slag, attempted to grow flowers – nothing would flourish in that soil- and furnished a bomb shelter with sisal matting, old blankets and a mattress. A mile away flanked by two mineshafts, a farm and two chapels, was the hamlet, Heol Las, where my father was born; smelly, even in the nineteen-sixties with cow dung, petrochemicals, and coal dust. Dusty hedgerows filled with elderflowers and blackberries lined the long back gardens that stretched to the park. Here, the black earth was fertile, growing potatoes and vegetables – an apple tree , gooseberries marrows and housing a pig, for slaughtering. And in one house, Arosfa, seven children where the new baby always slept in a warm lined drawer.
Dad once said to me,”Your grandmother would have loved you.” And I like to think she would have. Stephanie, my cousin and I made our appearance nine months after her death. My bond with Mamgu is one I have created: based on a gleam in her eye, the rakish angle of a hat, her wish to save “for a best coat for chapel”, the occasional anecdote from my father and my uncle’s comment,”She looks like a gangster in that picture.” The woman who bought two houses rented one out to family and housekept the two. The mother who quietly sat outside the office of the Director for Education, until he saw her three days later, andwhom she persuaded that her son, really should go to Grammar School!
I love Heol Las, the overgrown and almost neglected chapel cemetery of Ainon Baptist Church, where a generation of nineteen twenties babies –friends relatives and neighbours — are buried together. And the roots stretch back to rural Wales, to Breconshire and Carmarthenshire: Defynog and Llannon. From subsistence farmers to copper workers to miners to rail workers, to housemaids ,kitchen maids and grocery girl, they black-leaded grates,copper smelted, split metal in munitions factories, placing crosses on censuses. I wish I could know them all, know of their heartaches and happiness, their triumphs and what made them despair. I want to know how they lived,laughed, loved and cried.
I’m proud to be a “Jones Girl” from Heol Las.
A ribbon of road and a string of
terraced houses separate the farm and park.
The road curves below a red bricked villa – the miner’s house –
where my father grew.
Here is the farm where he
drove the cows at milking time
leaving cowpats on the A road; and
herded hens at dusk from their nesting places
where the eggs were spring warm.
Here are the copses where
he felled logs for the fire and the singing black kettle on its black leaded grate
with baked loaves and welsh cakes and damson jam for tea –
in the cups.
Above stands the elderflower champagne that waited for celebrations
Tea, the colour of Hafod copper,
in blue china cups on the rust chenille cloth,
covering the table;
and the baby sleeps in a drawer.
Mamgu’s waistline hair is bundled dishevelled;
threaded with grey and her cheeks are shiny
with heat and with love for the babies
lining the table edge, like starlings.
In the hip bath
Tadcu’s broad back is whitened with suds that are grey,
his coal dust sluiced by the oldest girl,
in a pinny to keep her clean.
Later, the dresser-best china gleams in the lamplight
the grammar boy is hard at his books,
head bowed before his sepia relations.
There’s no mining for him.
The cemetery’s more ancient than chapel
the yews more ancient than graves.
Here, the tussocky grass is light for summer and heavy for winter funerals
The grave stones are faded, the
proof we were here today; beneath which lie
children with parents or grandparents -a web
of old bone friends
deaf to the M4
couched in birdsong and
buried by bramble
the waiting place a
holding place the
singing place of home
Arosaf– I wait