Poppies for Eirwen

This is a story I have struggled to write for years, in various guises, forms and from different perspectives. In fact, it is now more about the planting and hope, more about a relationship with the father than it is about  the blossoming of flowers. And to be honest, the story is not doing what I want it to!

It is also how I vaguely remember the basin of the Swansea Valley before it was cleaned up and filled with service industries, superstores and Zero hour contracts. The regeneration of the Swansea Valley began in the nineteen seventies, when I was about six or seven. Family friends worked in the Swansea Vale and I can remember the enormous walls and gates of the Swansea Vale Works. I never saw Midland Cottages but they too existed.  Everyone was employed in some heavy industry or another. I remember too, the years when the gates of the Vale Works were padlocked shut and rusted, before being flattened for the Tesco development. Eirwen is not real.

A Swansea heroine, Amy Dillwyn, turned  around the family fortunes, paid off her father’s debt,making the Vale works profitable, and at some point,she sold to Siemens. Amy Dillwyn dealt with the good and great industrialists on her own terms, famously and scandalously smoked cigars, and lived in luxury,if not happiness, across the bay away from the pollution. I am ambivalent about her success and ambivalent about her as an extraordinary woman; simply because I remember up until the 1980 s various  people dying of diseases acquired in the heavy industries, and knew well the leafy suburbs where the industrialists built their homes. Still, they kept the communities in employment. But it came at a cost.

The Valley  is now as green as the title of a Cordell novel and each time I return there is less and less visible evidence of the industrial past. 

Eirwen tiptoed up the wooden stairs to the bedroom she shared with her younger sister, Mair. Today was the day! The baby was asleep in her cot, blue eyed and blonde as a Shirley Temple doll, so Eirwen was extra quiet as she eased open the stiff drawer of the bedside cabinet. She rattled the poppy seeds in their brown envelope. Mrs Williams hadn’t long died of Old Man’s  Friend, which didn’t make sense to Eirwen because Mrs Williams had been an old woman; but everytime she had tried to ask her mam about it she was told, ‘Mind yer own business. Don’t go asking about  other people’s business. It’s rude.’

‘But Mam…’

‘Enough, Eirwen Jones, or you’ll get a slap.’ Eirwen had had enough bare legged slaps to know when to be quiet but it still didn’t  make sense that an old woman had died of old man’s friend. Couldn’t have been much of a friend either if he made her die. Eirwen sighed. She missed old Mrs Williams. She’d always had time for a chat and had always been nice to Eirwen, providing  toffees  and mintoes in church, lemonade and home made bread, and the poppy seeds. ‘One day when I grow up I’m goin to ‘ave a garden just like hers,’ Eirwen thought, as she closed the bedroom door gently. It wouldn’t do to wake the baby. Mam would be cross. Again. 

Eirwen jumped the last three steps of the stairs closing her eyes as she did so. ‘Behave!’ Her mother grumbled as her feet clattered on the floor. ‘When we goin out the garden,dad?’ Eirwen cuddled up to her dad.

‘After dinner, love.’Dad looked at her over the top of his crumpled newspaper then patted her hand. ‘Mam’s goin’ out with Mair, so you and me will ‘ave the afternoon together.’

‘Where you goin’ Mam?’ Her mother thrust a bunch of knives and forks at the tiny dark haired girl. ‘Set the table for dinner, there’s a good girl. I’m going to visit auntie Joyce. She ‘asnt been well and I thought I’d take Mair on the bus to see her. We’ll have a walk in Brynmill Park, and a cup of tea in Lyons. It’ll do Joyce good to get out.’ Eirwen thought it would do her mam good to get out too. And it would be lovely just her and dad and no one scrubbing or dusting in the background. ‘It’s cold though, mam. Is auntie Joyce too ill to go in the cold? Won’t she get a chill? That’s what you always tell…’

‘What ‘ave I said about mindin’ your own business? Stop it now. Set the table… Not like that!’ In her haste Eirwen tipped the salt and her mother tossed a pinch over both their left shoulders. ‘Careful now, we don’t want no bad luck.’ Her mother dished up the corned beef stew and mashed potatoes. ‘Go and get Mair.’ She said to Eirwen while moving the high chair; and  Eirwen ran upstairs to get her little sister. Four years younger than Eirwen,everyone loved Mair, and said that she was the spit of Shirley Temple. Eirwen didn’t know what to make of this. Mair couldn’t sing and even though Eirwen had dark brown sausage curls, it was she who could tap dance and sing. 

Eirwen giggled and sang that afternoon as she polished the brassware with her dad. After tuning the Radio to the Light Service,  he wrapped her in a pinny tied three times around her waist and folded over. Then he poured Brasso into the large brass plate that usually stood on the linen chest. He dipped a cloth into the puddle of pink and then polished each item carefully: candlesticks iron plate, platter, letter holder pot stand. Finally he unhooked the kettle from its holder and polished both of these. Meanwhile Eirwen cleaned off the dried whitened powder. As she polished her hands became blacker and blacker.’You look like a collier,’ her dad said, as he rolled another woodbine. Finally, ‘At last!’ Eirwen thought, they were finished. The brasses gleamed and clouded with his smoky breath as her father gave one last rub, ‘for luck,’ her dad said, and they were set back in place. ‘Let’s go and  plant your poppy seeds.’ Dad said.

After the warm hours in front of the stove, the April air was cold. Easter 1934 had been cold and April was slow to warm up. Eirwen, warm in a hat and old coat,  watched Dad rake over the earth. He dug in some old manure and turned over the ground with a fork. Eirwen drilled holes with her finger; wrinkling her nose in distaste. ‘They’ll need something extra to flourish here, ‘ he said. ‘Why, Dad?’ Eirwens father pointed to the factory across the road. ‘It’s the factory, love. It’s the acid from the chimneys.’  Eirwen  watched the yellow smoke curl upwards onto the sky. ‘But dad! The smoke goes up. Look!’

‘What goes up must come down.’ He quoted patiently. Then explained how the rain made it difficult for anything to grow in the acid soil of their gardens. ‘It’s why mam never leaves clothes out on the line – in case they turns yellow.’

‘But what about old Mrs Williams garden? It’s full of flowers.’

‘Mrs Williams lived  far enough away. You take a look at the rest of the row.’

Hand in hand, Eirwen and her father wandered down the row of railway cottages. Midland Cottages, owned by the L.M.S. The backs consisted of scrubland, with dusty gray grass. And it was true, the front gardens were empty.’Look at the colour of the front walls.’ The stones were black with pollution. He lifted Eirwen high on his shoulders and carried her to Llansamlet Cross. As he walked, he pointed out the chimneys of the various factories lining the basin of the Swansea Valley: Copper works, tinplate works,steel works, petrochemical plants. Steam trains criss crossed the tracks behind the houses, carrying coal and ore. He showed her the slag heap in the railyard. ‘Never play there.’ He said. ‘It’s dangerous, ‘specially  in wet weather.’ 

‘So will the poppies grow,dad?’

‘We’ve given them a chance, we’ll just have to wait and see.’

Dad had banked the fire before going out. Home again, he tipped on more coal and the firelight flickered in the brasses around the room.  Eirwen sighed as she washed her hands in a basin. She speared the bread on a toasting fork as the menyn twb – butter from the market- softened in the warmth. Dad poured the tea and turned  on the radio for the evening news. ‘They will grow won’t they dad?’

‘Like I said, love. Wait and see.’

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3 Responses to Poppies for Eirwen

  1. LYNDELL WILLIAMS says:

    Thank you for another lovely story Anne. It reminds me so much of my own childhood in the upper Swansea valley. Times were simpler then but life was harder.

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