Mary, Mary not so Contrary

 A story about a very little dark haired blue eyed girl in 1930’s Swansea.


The source of the River Tawe lies to the northeast of Llansamlet a long way up the valley.    There the spring spurts clear from the rocky ground on the edge of the Brecon Beacons.   Overhead, curlews cry and seagulls often mew warnings of the storms of autumn and winter.  Some miles to the southwest the river spills into the curve of Swansea Bay. Today the water is uncontaminated. It sparkles. Now it only changes colour in response to the weather. In the thirties it was polluted: brown with acid, contaminated by the detritus of waste products spewed from factories that lined the valley on both sides from end to end.  Ten miles or so from Swansea Docks, in Llansamlet,  beside the arterial railway, stood a row of terraced cottages.  Behind, each had a long strip of ground, bound by the iron tracks.  Along this railway, trains laboured daily: hauling ore and raw materials to the factories in the valley basin and transporting the finished goods in the opposite direction to the seaport.

As far as Eirwen could see, in front of the house and westwards, towards Morriston, black chimneys and walls dominated the skyline.  Across the road from the rented cottage lay a spelter factory,  Swansea Vale Works, hidden behind a seven-foot high brick wall.  Its bricks had blackened within a short time and Eirwen believed bricks were black. The wall could not hide the chimneys: each day they belched smoke in the direction of the wind.The pollution from the Swansea Vale Works contained a deadly legacy.  The fallout poisoned the soil and rain turned to acid as it fell through the sulphurous clouds that enveloped the railwayman’s cottage. The garden stretched at the back of the house bare and brown. Nothing could grow there. In spite of, or perhaps because of this, the child loved flowers; symbols of  colour, the way in which she learned the seasons; yellow in Spring, pink and red in summer and orange in Autumn.

Mrs Williams lived further along the main road, well past the vale walls beyond Llansamlet Square on the road to Heol Las.  Her garden was the prettiest, Eirwen thought, a proper cottage garden where chives and parsley poked through the geraniums and sweet peas.  It seemed miraculous how Mrs. Williams managed to fill her garden with potatoes, cabbages and onions with tomatoes and marrows under the cold frame. At the back, an old twisted apple tree still bore fruit and Mrs Williams often made a present of windfalls for Eirwen.

It was a warm day, in late July and Eirwen had been sent to the post office by her mother to post a letter to Auntie Katie who was working as a domestic in London. Eirwen looked about. The Rag and Bone man walked his horse and cart up from the square. The sun shone and the air was still. The smoke from the stacks spiralled vertically so that the air smelled fresh. Sparrows squeaked in the dirt picking for crumbs outside the bake house. A delivery truck bumbled over the cross roads while, a tram clanged on its way to Morriston. She ran her hand along the bubble stone wall as she walked wiping the dust on the skirt of her dress.Mrs Williams was on her hands and knees scrubbing the front door step. She wore a floral cross over apron tied at the back in a huge floppy bow. Eirwen could see a hole in her slippers. A Woodbine hung sidewise from her mouth yet somehow, the song ‘Kathleen’, emerged clearly.The soapy water sloshed on the step rasping satisfyingly as Mrs. Williams scoured a day’s worth of grime and pollution with carbolic and ‘alf a pound of elbo’ grease as she liked to say to her flighty, an cheeky, mind you, daughter in law. Her beige lisle stockings – carefully darned — wrinkled as she stood up catching her breath, making her seem ancient.

Afternoon, Mrs Williams. Eirwen stood on tip toes and peered over the gate.

Ello, bach! Where are you going to then?

Mam wants me to post this to Auntie Katie in

What? All the way to the post office? By yourself? That’s quite a long walk for liccle legs like yours!

I know, it’s ‘ot too. But Mam said the letter ‘ad to go today or else! She needed other stuff as well, stamps and string. Mrs Williams leaned on the gate post. Listen. You run there and back, and if you get me three penn’orth of stamps as well, you can ‘ave some ‘omemade lemonade.

Oh thank you very much, Mrs Williams. The old lady felt in her apron pocket for some pennies and Eirwen skipped off to the post office. Inside, the post office was cool. The colours were drab and it smelled of string and brown paper, though Eirwen could smell bacon being fried in the back kitchen. She stood in front of the enormous glass window; the counter level with her nose. Though she tried not to show it her legs shook just a little bit. Davy-John-the Post was renowned in Llansamlet School for his abrupt nature. He’d caught one of the older, junior boys trying to pinch pencils and had made him clear the yard and sweep the pavement outside the shop front for weeks afterwards. Some women from Moreia, part of the Merched y Wawr, stood gossiping. Eirwen saw their cloche hats and crocheted gloves and felt their eyes upon her. Edrych! Merch pwy ‘di hon te?

Well girl, what is it you want? Davy-John’s white eyebrows creased together over half moon glasses. The lump in Eirwen’s throat grew bigger. A-a-a letter to London, please, some stamps and string for Mam, and three penn’orth of stamps for Mrs Williams. Eirwen’s words tumbled over the counter.

Duw Duw! Davy John boomed, shopping for the village, now, is it?

No Mr. Davy John. Jus’ Mam and Mrs Williams, Ty Canol. I think it was too ‘ot for old Mrs Williams to walk this far and Mam said to Bugger off for ‘er to ‘ave  ten minutes peace an’quiet ‘fore the baby wakes.’ David John Jones, postmaster, lay preacher, ten years older than Mrs. Williams, coughed violently. He opened a bag of humbugs, took one and gave the rest to Eirwen.  Thank’iw, Mr. Jones. She licked the stamp carefully, thumped it twice into place tasting the combination of glue and mint. Mmm . Diolch yn fawr, Mr Davy John.

Pleser fy merch i.He watched her leave. Thin and small, her hair tumbled down her back against the faded blue cotton dress that was tram lined and brighter where it had been let out and lengthened several times, and was far too short. He scowled at the tutting women who had overheard the exchange, and shook his head. Not a word, ladies, he said. Dim gair. Little Miss Jenkins has good manners and comes from a respectable hard working family. I won’t hear a word. The mint humbugs rattled satisfyingly in Eirwen’s pockets as she skipped towards Mrs Williams’ house oblivious to the ruffled chapel feathers that trailed in her wake.

She lifted the wooden latch and tap danced along the red square tiled path. Set at an angle, she tried to tap in the centre of each tile as if she were Shirley Temple in a musical. Come in, Cariad. Mrs Williams Ty Canol smiled.   On the table waiting for Eirwen was a glass of homemade lemonade. Next to it a huge wedge of bread covered with butter and slathered in homemade strawberry jam. Oh, Mrs Williams, thank you. This is lovely. Now tell me all about your shopping trip, Eirwen.  The old woman bent her head and continued the week’s mending while Eirwen chattered. Mrs Williams why is your garden so colourful? Why is it that we never grow flowers or veg or strawberries in our place? You’ve always got geraniums, roses, and marrows growing?

Well, girl, a garden takes time and love for it to grow. The ground needs to be cared for. You live so close to the Vale Works that it’s impossible to grow any veg or flowers. Your Mam is busy working and your Dad too, so that there isn’t enough time in the day to do everything. And my plants and seedlings are like my children.

Why? Where are your children now, Mrs Williams? My children?  Douglas was killed in 1916, in France and Edwin married Effie Williams a young girl from the middle of Swansea.  They moved in with her mother and they’ve got a boy called Dougie ‘bout your age. I don’t see very much of them and with time on my hands I can do some gardening and grow flowers. There’s chives in with my geraniums and alyssum, I’ve got marrows in cold frames. I grow enough  lettuce and tomatoes for summer – to save money, you see. And I grow runner beans as well.

Eirwen pointed to pastel coloured flowers that smothered the wall. What flowers are those? Mrs Williams pulled one. Smell it! she said and held out  the cream and lilac blossoms. These are Sweet Peas. They love to climb and spread out but you have to pinch them out early or they get leggy.  These here, are sweet William. They have clusters of flowers and always look proud.

Mrs Williams allowed Eirwen to run her fingers the length of their tall purple columns. Please can I take a small bunch home for Mam? She begged. Of course you can, bach. Run and get a scissors to cut some. Eirwen danced along the stone path to the kitchen singing Mary Mary quite contrary. She tripped over her tight shoes and fell headlong into the lavender lined border. She blinked dazed. Around her the bees droned and the smell of lavender curled about her like a blanket.  She lay looking at the garden from this unusual angle. The earth smelled black like wet coal.  It was gritty beneath her cheek. She moved her hand over the rough surface and dug her fingernail. It was black. She rubbed it into her hands and sniffed then she rolled like a cat. Above her Mrs Williams’ face hovered anxiously.  Eirwen, fach! Are you alright? Eirwen smiled. This is comfy. It’s like the den me and Reggie made in Dooley’s Field. But it smells much nicer. Eirwen rolled over again and began to rise.

Arglwydd, Mrs Williams said, watch those flowers- the seeds are deadly. Eirwen caught her breath. The scarlet petals shimmered like a heat haze, paper thin and wrinkled. Their centres were the same brown black as the soil they grew in. They shimmied in the warmth of the sun. These are poppies, Eirwen and you must be careful. I grow them every year from seed.

Can I grow them too?

You can try but you must look after them well. Sew them indoor in March and you can move them out after the frost.

Back in the house, the old woman pulled an envelope from the dresser drawer.  She shook it gently next to Eirwen’s ear.  Listen. That’s next year’s flowers whispering to you. Eirwen gasped as Mrs Williams placed them in a basket that contained a pot of jam and a loaf of bread. She wrapped the flowers in brown paper adding sprigs of lavender and rosemary and two roses. Eirwen carried the flowers carefully up the street. It was close to her teatime. Inside the cottage, her mother thumping the flatiron ominously. Where the hell ‘ave you been this time? You been makin’ a bloody nuisance of yourself? Here, Mam. Mrs Williams sent you these. Eirwen held out the bunch of flowers.

Effie Jenkins snatched the flowers from her daughter and tossed them on the stove. More bloody work again. The rose petals curled on the hotplate. The herbs smoked and burned filling the kitchen with bitter smoke. Quietly, Eirwen put away the food in the basket, and then she stole upstairs and hid the envelope of seeds in her drawer where they would keep dry until next spring.



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