Neighbours at War

I’ve negelected this blog since May: It wasn’t physically possible to type anything or edit. So here is the beginning of a narrative of why someone might lose their hair colour overnight.

Eirwen looked into the mirror in the dim light, and began untying the rags that had held the curls overnight. She untied each knot, dropping the rags into the dressing table he had made of old orange crates he had scavenged from the dockyards. She looked again. She started at the long white patch above her widows peak. Transfixed, she thought that things like this could only happen in bad fairy tales. Except she couldn’t remember ever being told any — bad fairy tales that is. She’d heard of Rapunzel whose hair hung down the wall; Snow White, Rose Red,Cinderella, nothing had ever happened to their hair. And they were happy ever after  – just  like in the films during the war.

Gently,  she rolled the dark brown strands around her fingers, making the sausage shapes. Waves or curls? she wondered. Then rolled the sides and pinned them under. A diamante clip over her right ear.She looked again: Just right she thought and added the fake pearls she had bought in Woolworth one Christmas after meeting Gwil during the war.   But nothing could disguise the snow-white strands that fell softly over her blue eyes. Strands that had appeared overnight.

Gwil, her husband, had left early to catch the train from Llansamlet Station into Swansea. Had he noticed her hair this morning? He had held her last night when she cried and told her that it would be fine. She just couldn’t see how; and,she suspected, neither could he. She wondered what he would say when he came home and saw her hair. Why now? She was only twenty-two and not exactly care free but war free and newly married in her own rented home. She sighed. Should she clean upstairs or downstairs first? Upstairs, her mothers voice snapped in her head…

She was feeling low, and thinking about her hair and how old it made her feel so she dressed in her second-best dress and placed a floral pinni crossed over and tied at the front to protect it. She decided to forgo the turban scarf. Lipstick? She thought. Why not? She needed colour And a bit of glamour to boost her morale. She painted her lips carefully, blotting them with powder so that it would last and not run. She slicked her eyebrows into a perfect arc with Vaseline and  pulled some rogue hairs.  Vanity, Cleaniless  Godliness? Mrs Evans’s voice from next door whittered in her head. To hell with it, Eirwen  thought. After what had happened to her hair, it was a day for vanity not cleanliness!  Her old carpet slippers ruined the look, but she felt equal now to tackling the Monday Morning housework.

Eirwen opened the bedroom window and flung back the bed clothes smoothing the flannelette sheets and the old Welsh blanket.She shook them out releasing them from their tight hospital corners; and decided that as it was breezy and sunny, and there was no smoke belching from the Swansea Vale (the old Siemens factory), she would hang the bedding to air in the sun in the yard at the back of the small house. Beyond the lane  where the two houses stood joined together, she could hear the morning traffic and the trains puffing along the branch line. Dadi would be there, she thought, with his book and pencil, ticking off the carriage numbers and container numbers matching them to their engines; ensuring they were on the right line: docks, Merthyr,Swansea Vale, collieries,  the steel works and the petrochemical factories.

Her father knew where all the goods were transported. Eirwen sighed as she thought of him. Happily married, she still missed his quiet presence; missed the way he rolled his Golden Virginia in the tobacco roller slicking the skins with his tongue. He counted them carefully each morning- 10 a day – no more. She missed listening to the BBC Light Programme with her dad as they polished the brasses together. Homesick,perhaps, even though she was newly married. And she missed the radio . She and Gwil didn’t have one yet which was why she made her own music.

Quietly she hummed a song – smiling as she did so; Singin in the Rain, from the film, Little Nelly Kelly. Once, it had been her show stopper in Llansamlet Parish Hall. The plea for a song, her flirtatious look as she acquiesced to etiquette and danced as Eric Rogers played the melodies on the well tuned piano.  Gwilym had been there one night, looking aloof and askance, and it was Nancy, her friend, who had reintroduced her to the glamorous looking navigator in RAF uniform, the farm boy who had once pulled her hair. Glamorous? Yes.  But very shy and nervous, he had been home on leave before being assigned to his bomber squadron.  She remembered how intently he had stared at her as she had sung Stairway to the Stars.  Later they had danced to String of Pearls. She had agreed to write to him on the base in Lincolnshire. It’s not like here at all, it’s very flat; but I know I’m safe when I see the cathedral spires he had said.

Now, back in civvies he worked for a chain of opticians while she kept house. Eirwen watched the sheets and blankets ripple in the breeze on the washing line as she beat the bedroom rugs to the remembered rhythms of Judy Garland. Not much dust flew from them – heaven knows she beat them most days. Their underwear soaked in a bucket of sunlight soap ready for scrubbing: Lights then dark so you don’t waste waste soap and hot water, her mother admonished her crossly and telepathically from across the square it seemed.

Eirwen didn’t mind scrubbing and soap stoning the doostep while the clothes soaked  — it was satisfying to watch the smog, fumes and coal dust wipe magically from the doorstep as she wove from side to side soapstone in hand.  A wolf whistle stopped her and made her blush.  Alun Williams! you dirty old man – get on with you.  She laughed. Alun hauled her to her feet and kissed her on the cheek. Jeanie says, come over later for a cup of tea. Ollie’s been baking bread, he said. You can have a loaf for your tea.  Eirwen smiled. She loved auntie Olwen, Alun’s mother in law, and she knew there’s be a jar of marrow chutney to go with the bread. I’ve got to nip to Gwil’s mam’s first, she said, I’ll be there are soon as I can.

Shameful child, old Mrs Evans muttered as she bent to soapstone her own step, next door.   Eirwen could practically hear the old lady’s joints whine in protest. Mrs. Evans, let me help you with that. Eirwen offeredGood heavens no! A scrap like you? Look at the way you behave! Wearing make  up,  singing, flirting with married men – I’ll  tell Olwen Owen, I will! Like a loose woman you are: Hwren fach! 

Eirwen’s eyes  filled with tears, dripping onto the already damp soapstone.  What was it with Mrs Ifans? She had had nothing but jibes and insults since she and Ifan had moved in. Come and live with us her mother had said. Don’t  go livin next to that old woman. Vinegar and salt, she has, running through her veins! That and a bit of aresenic. 
Be kind to Mrs Evans, her dad had said, offer to help. She’s old and her only money comes  from renting out the other half of her house. Don’t forget she lost her son and husband in both wars. She’s strict chapel too!
Watcha  di honna her mother in law had said.  Watch her. Pay her rent money on time, keep the house clean ond gad lonydd  iddi hi – leave her alone.

A hwren  – tart- Eirwen was not. She had made mistakes yes! A certain charming sailor who had left her languishing outside the Star Inn had led her to break off the seven week engagement and the crushes she had had on several pilots from Swansea had led her her dance and kiss more than she should. It was that bloody raid! She thought now.  The raid on a cold February night that had seen her caught in Castle Square in Swansea — the raid  that had led her to be ‘missing’ for two days. Fourteen years old,she had promised: God if I live, if I get home, I promise I will dance with every airman that asks me, I will help every soldier who gets lost, I will sing all the songs they ask me to in the parish hall. I’ll be a good girl for mam and Dad and help when there’s a rush on at the Vale. I’ll look after Gwenno my sister. But I will I’ll be the best girl I can be. And if they ask me to kiss them, I will. I don’t  want to die without ever being kissed.

All through those long two night, incendiaries and then the heavy bombs had rained down. No buses had left the town and the warden had been reluctant to let them out when the ‘All Clear’ had sounded that morning. Eirwen emerged from the shelter, sweaty, smelly,tired and thirsty. The kids from Marsden street where her gran lived had been too much. Even their mothers had told them to shurrup and given them clips around the ears.

The warden told her that  the bus would be leaving st Mary’s Square. Except the church was charred, and the square obliterated. How can I get to Morriston? She asked and another  warden had pointed the way towards Castle  Square. The posh shop, Ben Evans was reduced to rubble, and the arches along The Strand were cracked and charred. She saw a UXB army officer astride a crater and an unexploded device. She never told anyone in detail how her dress and coat were stained or that she had had to wash her face in the fountain which miraculously still ran in the street. A kindly bus driver had held her while she vomited, and then promised a detour to Morriston.

Eirwen shuddered in the post war sunshine.

She loved Gwil and wanted to be a good wife. She thought of Huw John the flasher, who had stood in his bedroom window every weekend she had sung in the Parish Hall. What do I do dad? He’s scary!

Laugh at him. he’ll hate it, then as you come through Scotts’s lane, make sure that you’re singing.

Why dad?

Cause it’s the only noise that lets me know you’re safe and miserable people can’t bear being around happy people who sing. And remember, you’re a good girl Eirwen. Don’t ever let anyone think otherwise. Dad had hugged her and cried on her wedding day and Gwil had promised he’d look after Eirwen.

You see, Gwil, she’s  always been delicate, not sickly or moany but she takes things to heart. She always worries about what people think. All that singing in front of people gave her dreams, and made it easy for people to talk about her.
Eirwen threaded the underwear through the mangle ,watching the grey suds drip into the trough,then she pegged them out on the wire line like victory flags or semaphore. It was a song from Oklahoma that came next: Don’t throw bouquets at me

Stop it you tart, stop it! Stop disturbing the peace with those heathen songs; they’re disrespectful. Mrs Evans spat at her over the red bricked wall.

No Eirwen said, If the song is good enough for Princess Elizabeth it’s good enough for me.

Hell and burning for you then my girl. Shameless! And Eirwen shivered as she started into the old woman’s yellow eyes knowing that her reputation had made her enemy.



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