Submitted by Roy Davies
Brynmor wiped a thin smear of dust from his mother’s photograph with his woollen cardigan sleeve. He pushed his glasses on top of his head and held the walnut frame further away as he refocussed on the familiar figure of his young manhood.
Being the woman she was, his mother had fixed the camera lens with her eyes so confidently that forty years later they followed Brynmor with a mixture of pride, curiosity and criticism wherever he went in that small back kitchen and, through his conscience, to every corner, stair and passage in the deserted house.
That hard gaze was emphasized by the pair of rimless circles of glass that had sat so firmly on her nose throughout the time they had lived together. In the early years it had worked equally powerfully with his brothers and sisters but by marriage or vagrancy or infant death they had, one by one, escaped until Brynmor the youngest, alone remained to help her run the small shop in the front room which served the surrounding streets.
She had looked very much the same when she died. The hair, bunched up above the nape of her neck was much greyer and her face a little fleshier than it was in the walnut frame but the set of her shoulders, which braced themselves on the mantelpiece every day against the weight of her chest and her plump folded arms, never changed.
Brynmor wiped the centre of the mantelpiece, this time holding the edge of his sleeve in his fingers to sweep off a large arc of dust and soot that had blown back down the chimney into the room and onto all the surfaces since he had last picked up the photograph. He replaced it between the row of heavy brass candlesticks, bent to poke the fire through the bars of the grate and then winced as he reached to move the black, sooted kettle from the hob to the fire. Brynmor straightened up slowly and, taking his right hand in his left, pulled his arm up and behind his head until he felt and heard the familiar “click” as something, somewhere, moved back into place. He turned his head to the left to test the result and reset the kettle on the uneven coals. A few drops of water were jerked from the kettle’s spout and spat and danced their way across the top of the hob until they dried away with a hiss near the brick wall at the back. Brynmor sat back in his wooden armchair and let his right hand fall gently onto the smooth wooden arm. The house was very quiet.
Brynmor watched the thin shafts of winter sunlight as they were shattered by the years of dirt on the panes of glass of the window which looked out onto the backyard. He saw the wallpaper curling down, damp and grey, and the brown ceiling that in other years had always been sparkling white and the grained paint that flaked off the one door that led out to the yard and the other open into the bare, square stone flagged living room which, he knew, was in the same condition.
But it was all too much for Brynmor and his bad leg and his shoulder which never gave him any peace. He had long since decided how he wanted to live out the few years he had left. He no longer wanted to clean and paper and mend and he certainly did not want anyone to do it for him. Yet, all the time, he was aware of his mother’s disapproval.
He knew he could have removed the photograph, but it was not as simple as that. His mother still lived with him. He had buried her forty years before, but he still bore her unvoiced criticisms with the same guilt.
She hadn’t always been like that – at least not to him. When his brothers and sisters were alive and living at home she was proud and supportive and deflected all criticisms of her family away from that end of terrace house where they lived. They had not then been shopkeepers but simply another mining family where the five boys and the father brought home their meagre wages and the girls prepared themselves for marriage. But they were respectable and clean and recognised in the community as a tidy family. They were also unswervingly religious, one of the rocks on which the Cysgod chapel was founded and all thoroughly Welsh in work and prayer.
On Sunday mornings and evenings throughout the year they would file out of the house and wait on the pavement while Brynmor’s mother checked that the front door was on the latch for few doors in that community were ever locked. She would then take the arm of her husband who was at least six inches shorter than she and lead the Morgans in procession down the hill into Fountain Street nodding recognition to neighbours who watched them from their doorsteps and extending a more elaborate greeting to families they passed who were about to make the same journey.
Brynmor could never get to the chapel fast enough. By the time they could hear the Cysgod organ warming up for the service he would have left his place at the back of the black file of Morgans and be striding along tucked in behind John and Mary his eldest brother and sister but never closer to his mother than that. She had once discovered him directly behind her and so distorting the family order that she had stopped the whole procession and taken Brynmor by the scruff of his neck and publicly marched him back to his proper place. He never tried to get that close again.
Brynmor just couldn’t help wanting to get there first. He wanted them all to run as they got closer. He didn’t see how they could restrain themselves as the organ talked to them of Jesus through the familiar and powerful hymns the whole village knew off by heart.
Brynmor loved the wood of the pews, carved with rounded edges, and he would run his hand along the varnished wood of the partition which separated the Morgans’ from that of the Watkins’ family who, traditionally, entered the chapel by the left hand aisle. His love for the chapel and the services was well known and remarked on by the other families who filled the Cysgod to the brim twice every Sunday. Brynmor would ache for the opening hymns and prayers to end so that the Reverend William Williams could begin to preach to them from the golden yellow pulpit.
There was a slight notch in the otherwise smooth surface of the wooden partition and Brynmor would stretch his fingers forward and search for it without looking as the Reverend Williams began to sway his flock, first with a smile as he selected the text and then with overlapping layers of sound and emotion as he stripped away from the congregation the false dreams and deeds and ideas collected and hoarded during another week of labour and drabness.
Brynmor wanted to stand where William Williams stood. He wanted to be William Williams with his authority and his wisdom and his first hand dealings with God and Jesus and that frightening being The Holy Ghost which he didn’t really understand. When the Reverend Williams’ voice spun and echoed among his family and neighbours Brynmor could sense the importance of the man in his society and his ability and dedication to leading them all away from temptation and unhappiness.
By the age of ten Brynmor had decided that he wanted to become a preacher. Despite the number of chapel-goers in the valley it was an extremely rare ambition and it wasn’t until he was fourteen that his mother, both pleased and proud, arranged that he should begin his religious studies with the Reverend Williams on Tuesday and Thursday evenings after his shifts in the colliery where he was being trained by his father as a miner.
This meant that Brynmor had to leave the tiny stall at the coalface a thousand feet below his own house at the end of a ten hour shift and rush home to bath and change in order to present himself clean and attentive at the Reverend Williams’ house in Higher Dale Street two hills and two minutes away on the stroke of six o’clock. He never failed and the Reverend Williams who was always waiting had never seen such enthusiasm and had not the least doubt that one day Brynmor would be a successful and influential preacher somewhere in Wales.
In the light Summer evenings and on cold and wet winter nights the Reverend Williams would test Brynmor’s resolve with deep discussion and hard work focussed on a knowledge of the Old and New testaments and particularly the life of Jesus. Brynmor never faltered. His Bible went with him everywhere, even to his father’s stall at the coalface where it would have needed light a hundred times more powerful than the flickering flame of his Davey lamp to allow him to read the closely printed pages of Genesis or the Gospel according to St. Matthew or whatever the lesson the Reverend Williams had planned for the next time they were due to meet.
The lessons went well and Brynmor was an excellent pupil. He began to feel that he knew Jesus personally and tried long and hard to imagine a more fulfilling way to spend the rest of his life than by explaining to those who did not yet know the importance of what he was discovering himself.
And then, quite unexpectedly, just as he was beginning his second year with the Reverend Williams, Brynmor’s father died leaving he and his mother alone in the house.
He had never really known his father who had worked out his life at the Ffaldau coalface. If he had had a personality then having no room to expand in the tiny back kitchen occupied by his mother and ten children it must, Brynmor had always concluded, have come out in the workingmen’s clubs down on the main road that his father liked to visit. In the house he had always been a quiet man but often he had come home from the clubs after stop tap totally drunk. On these occasions his mother would glare at him through her round circles of glass as he stood uncertainly in the doorway of the middle room and then walk across, pick him up under one arm, and carry him up the wooden stairs to their big double bed where she would drop him before loosening his collar studs and his bootlaces. The next day life would go on as normal.
Even while he was training Brynmor on the Gelli Deg coal seam, information and instructions about posts and wedges and flats and gas and tools and drams was always given clearly – but always with the air that the first five times of instructing his other sons had been once too many. And so Brynmor was sad to lose his father but felt that left alone together until he became a preacher and would have to move away to where he might be most needed, he and his mother could cope very well.
The evening of the funeral when Brynmor’s relations had all left the house, he overheard his mother talking in low tones to the Reverend Williams in the parlour. The door was half open and because the voices were low Brynmor thought they were talking about his father. Then he heard his own name and was drawn to eavesdrop on the conversation.
“Mrs Morgan he has a genuine calling. It would be such a shame.”
“Yes I know, Mr. Williams, but it can’t be helped.”
“But he’s so close to being ready to go to Cardiff.”
“Well now there’s no chance of that, I’m afraid.”
“But Mrs Morgan he’s worked so hard. Is there no way you can see…..?…”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Williams, but I need Brynmor here. I can’t live on a boy’s wages from the pit and so God is going to have to make do without him.”
“But God is calling him, Mrs Morgan.”
“He will not now be getting any answer, Mr. Williams, so he, and you, will be wasting your breath from now on. Brynmor and me are going to open a shop.”
Brynmor’s eyes burnt. He pushed himself out of the armchair where he had been listening and went into the back kitchen where he sobbed silently into the kitchen towel. He heard the door close behind the Reverend Williams and his mother stop behind him in the kitchen doorway. She saw he was crying.
“Poor Brynmor, you did love your father, didn’t you?”
But I’ve got more bad news for you, I’m afraid.”
“What’s that then Mam?”
“Mr. Williams says that no matter how hard you try he doesn’t think you will ever become a Minister. He is sorry but thought it best if you knew now and he also felt it would be easier for you if the news came from me.”
Brynmor looked at her but made no sign of emotion.
“Does that mean that I must give up my Bible lessons?”
“Well I don’t see that it will do you any good now, do you?
“And Mr. Williams thinks it would all be a waste of time?”
“That’s what he said,” his mother replied. “He thinks it will be best if you now concentrate on looking after me.”
“Of course, Mam,” said Brynmor. “Of course.”
And two months later they opened the shop in the parlour where the two adults had changed the course of his life.
The shop flourished, as so many did on the corners of the valley streets at that time. Brynmor and his mother working side by side seven days a week weighed out sackfulls of vegetables every day. They kept boxes of sweets on the shelves and on display in the front window. Tinned tobacco, twist, cigarettes, soap, starch, scouring powder, dried peas, toothpaste in round tins with three turretted castles on the lids, metal polish and blacklead for the old fashioned grates were piled precariously on the narrow wooden shelves lined with patterned oilcloth that ran around the room.
Supplies still in boxes to replace the goods on display marched up the stairs from the passage inside the front door and spilled over into the bedrooms overlooking the street. The middle room, stripped of its furniture was a warehouse and the supply vans first powered by horses and later by large diesel engines fought their way up the narrow hill to Brynmor’s shop. One day when the Cardiff potato merchant was delivering the week’s supply, his mother collapsed and died as she was counting the sacks into the shop.
When Brynmor reopened the day after his mother’s funeral, he was a different man. Released from his mother’s dominating presence in the tiny shop, where together they had hardly been able to move behind the counter, he began to flower. He teased and chided the mothers from the surrounding streets and made suggestions which, in a community of such strict morals, were almost unheard of. But the women would mostly smile and say “Oh. Brynmor”, and “Really Brynmor, if your mother could hear you”.
A few would show their displeasure at his familiarity, pay for their goods and put their noses in the air at his parting remarks as they struggled in their embarassment to get past the queue of women waiting to get into the shop.
But their disapproval made no difference to Brynmor and the way he carried on. If some mothers were not happy with his behaviour to them he set out to corrupt their children. He made it his life’s work to teach them the crudest words in English or Welsh from the vocabulary of the miners which were rarely brought up with the men when they returned to the surface after their shifts. He began simply:
“Say damn,” he would instruct the children who came into the shop.”Damn!”
“Say bugger”. “Bugger!”
“Say buggerdamn”. “Buggerdamn!”
“Bastard! Bloody bastard!”
“There’s lovely, my chicken. Have a toffee. Now go home and tell your mam.”
And they learned. How they learned. They practised in the quarries and behind the pigeon cots and up the mountains in the ferns where nobody could hear them. They practised and repeated and tried out the unfamiliar ideas and words they were being so carefully taught. Some, those who were caught practising too near home, were unlucky and received a hiding and sometimes their mothers would remonstrate with Brynmor. But only some of them. Most recognised that in such a hard and rough environment such ideas were only part of a learning process that would sooner or later thrust itself upon their sons and daughters.
Brynmor’s pride was that he quickened the process. Some people said that he made special efforts to teach those children and embarass the mothers from strong chapel going families, but all anyone realised after many years was that most of the community and some of the second generation had learnt all the ideas they didn’t like talking about in the chapels of the valley from that tiny shop on the corner.
It was even more blatant on Sundays when between nine o’clock, the time the whole of Brynmor’s family had once set off for chapel, and noon when once they would have been back home again for Sunday dinner, Brynmor would accompany his coarse lectures with the Welsh hymns from the Cysgod of his childhood in a strong baritone voice breaking off now and again only to chuckle at a rude word muttered by a frustrated toddler trying to poke a chubby finger into Brynmor’s display of sweets through his barrier of old chicken wire.
The singing and the rude tuition and the remarks to the mothers all blended together into an irreligious harmony where the music was familiar but the ideas distorted and disturbing. The mixture became even stronger as traditions in the valley slowly changed and few people went to the chapels on Sundays and even fewer spoke Welsh.
Of course there was talk about Brynmor’s drinking every night in the local workingmen’s club and even more serious talk of him visiting a succession of married women when their husbands were working the night shift. But most of it was only gossip and Brynmor dismissed it all with a broad grin and a verse from one of the many rousing hymns of his youth sung without embarassment at the person who confronted him with the stories. As he did so he would hold out his arms in some strange gesture of welcome and fix them with his smiling eyes.
One afternoon, when he was seventy, Brynmor closed the shop early. One of his arms was giving him severe pain. He found he could get some respite by stretching it up and behind his head but lifting a box in the shop or moving a sack of potatoes caused the pain to start again. Anyhow, he was getting slower. He knew it in the way he counted out the change and the reluctance he now felt in getting up on the stool to fetch items off the top shelf. Besides, business was only a fraction of what it had been when the valley was less mobile and less sophisticated. Supermarkets and chain stores had long since taken most of his trade. He was now more of a convenience for the street than a main source of supply.
And so that afternoon he decided to close the shop.
He sold the stock to a trader from another valley who also gave him a fair price for his scales and his safe. There had never been much else to the business except Brynmor himself and his mother in the very early days. Soon the house was empty for the first time Brynmor could remember and he was never to get used to that silence. The big, empty rooms and staircase cleared of all the boxes rang strangely to the merest sound and Brynmor was uneasy except when he was on his front doorstep chatting to the few children who still came looking for sweets. He had kept a few boxes for just such innocent demands and for their own sakes would always take a penny from each child as payment until, in the end, all the sweets had been sold. In time even the children stopped coming.
Then, and it began to happen more frequently in his seventy second year, some of the youths from the surrounding streets began to visit Brynmor in his dark, back kitchen in his empty house, to talk to him about local gossip and the olden days but, more often, to tell and hear dirty stories and to smoke cigarettes still forbidden in their own homes.
They and Brynmor came to form a kind of social club where he could keep in touch with the affairs of the people in the surrounding streets which he had shared with their mothers for so many years and they could enjoy the privacy and secrecy and warmth of an inner sanctuary.
It had been so long since there had been laughter and companionship and human warmth in that back kitchen. Certainly not since his brothers and sisters had left home and then the humour hadn’t been as broad or as uninhibited. He knew his mother would have disapproved – still did disapprove. Her photograph stared unhappily down at the unlikely gathering of village patrician and street urchins and he sometimes met her eye. At those moments he felt bad but as he caught up with the stories or the scandal he had good excuse to avert his eyes. He sometimes regretted that the photograph was in such a prominent position as the swearing and the smoke and smell of the company drifted up past the brass bar over the fireplace where Brynmor still dried his clothes, curled over the jutting mantelpiece and swirled around the walnut frame before thinning and disappearing along the dark, dirty ceiling.
Some of the women in the surrounding houses disapproved visibly of Brynmor’s back kitchen get togethers with the youths of the village.
“Why would an old man be interested in talking to young boys,” some asked, and because they were known to be smokers and at the scruffier end of village life others knew they couldn’t be up to anything but no good. Anyway they looked rough and untidy and some of them came from several streets away and they probably were cheeky to their elders and rude to their betters. What on earth did Brynmor see in them?
The boys came and went. Some were replaced by others; some, whose absence Brynmor regretted, were never replaced. But when they had all gone for the night and the doors were locked, no matter which set had been there to visit him, he always wondered what his mother would have said and, after so long, whether she would have said it in English or in the Welsh of her own time. He dwelt on such thoughts for hours on end and sometimes his worst doubts about the life he was leading – and that he had led – kept him awake for hours in his large bed with the brass and mother of pearl inlaid head-stead.
After one such sleepless Saturday night Brynmor, tired and disturbed, knelt down one Sunday morning before the grey, lifeless fireplace and was rattling the poker along the bottom rung to get all the soft ash to fall into the well of the grate so that he could begin to re-lay the fire, when he suddenly stopped and rested the poker on the hearth fender.
He didn’t look up, but from somewhere above his head, as if she was with him in the room, his mother’s voice spoke to him as steadily as she had when he was a boy of ten. When she had finished, Brynmor re-focussed on the grate. He set the paper on the bottom, patterned the sticks above to give support, put the larger cokes on the sticks and some small lumps of coal on top. He lit the fire and as the flames were drawn up and around the sticks by the chimney draught, he took the bucket of ashes out to the backyard and left it beside the door. A fine dust followed him as he went back into the house and shut the door behind him.
The first of the young boys who called on Brynmor that evening at a few minutes past six, stopped in the entrance to the familiar back kitchen and went no further. Brynmor who was normally sitting down waiting for them in his old cardigan and shiny trousers was sitting by the table with a pair of fine black boots. He was putting a layer of polish on one. The other, already treated, was alongside dull with dry polish and waiting to be shone.
As he dipped the larger of the two yellow wooden backed brushes to apply another coat to the black leather, Brynmor sometimes knocked the wood against the edge of the sole in his attempts to rediscover a rhythm he had not used for more than forty years. His face and neck washed in warm water for once, shone and his cheeks and chin were smooth after a close shave with his old open razor.
Brynmor had on the trousers and waistcoat of a dark grey suit, the jacket of which was hung carefully on the back of his chair. A watch and chain, cufflinks and a loose collar fastened only at the back by a large pearl collar stud, amazed the five boys who arrived in the next half hour to sit and talk in the tiny back kitchen. They saw him fasten the old fashioned high cut boots, struggle with the front collar stud and knot a tie around the white shirt and collar. He put on his suit jacket, took out the gold watch on the fob chain hooked through a buttonhole in his waistcoat, set the time and wound it elaborately by its large, knurled winding button. He put it back in his left hand waistcoat pocket and finally combed the wisps of hair with an old brown comb that lived on the soap ledge below the mirror and above the sink by the backyard door.
All this time Brynmor hadn’t said a word. He ushered the boys, some already smoking, before him out onto the street and slammed the door shut behind him. He checked the key was safe in his pocket and without a word began a limping walk down the street.
The boys, all dressed in blue jeans and pullovers, followed a few paces behind since Brynmor was obviously not acting himself and he might come to harm. He hadn’t told them he intended going out that evening when they were all together the night before, and whatever the time of day Brynmor always talked, he always said something. This pattern of behaviour they couldn’t understand.
With the boys always a few paces behind, Brynmor turned left down the steep hill and into Fountain Street. The large, angular Cysgod building was still dominating the street of tiny miners’ cottages and as he got closer, he began to remember the familiar cut sandstone shapes of each stone in the lower wall. He ran his hand through the curves of one and along the sharp chisel line of another, but he never looked around where the boys walking behind him had fallen into line astern almost a living echo of the way his own large family had approached the same building sixty years before.
But this time there was no organ playing and there was only one light burning as Brynmor, on the stroke of seven o’clock, pushed open the familiar sprung door at the entrance to the floor of Cysgod chapel and stepped inside.
Near the organ there was a small knot of seven men and women who all looked up as Brynmor in his best clothes stood unmoving one pace inside the door. The single light was directly above the organ seat and the worshippers put their hands over their eyes and spectacles as they strained their eyesight into the shadows to see who was there. One of the men, who had stepped forward from his companions, greeted and welcomed whoever might be there to come forward and take part in the service with them.
“Hello. Come in. Come and join us.”
Brynmor noted that the invitation was in English. It would have been very strange if English had not been used. Few people now spoke Welsh in the village. But it still felt strange. As a boy everything in that place had been in Welsh.
But instead of joining them by the organ he walked down the right hand aisle to the pew his family had always used and sidled across to his old familiar seat next to the partition.
As he sat down his left hand searched unconsciously for the familiar notch in the wood and he looked once more at the high golden yellow pulpit now in shadows and the curve of the balcony that took his eyes once again around the empty expanse of that vast building. Even now he could remember one by one the families who had occupied all the seats upstairs and down. He even thought he could hear the familiar sounds of their tread on the old oak block floor as they made their ways to the family pews.
He even thought he heard the echo of the sprung doors closing behind them again allowing the companions of his youth once more to attend the weekly services with the Reverend Williams and he imagined them shuffling into the seats immediately behind him. It would have been natural to look round but he kept his eyes on the group by the organ for the scuffling behind him had to have been an illusion. There would have been no one there.
As he waited for the service to begin he saw one old lady talk quietly to her neighbour who was even older. The second woman peered hard once more into the darkness beyond their pool of light.
“Brynmor? Brynmor Morgan? Is that you?”
Brynmor recognised her immediately.
“Yes, Mrs Parry, it is,” he smiled back across the chapel.
“Well, well”, she said to her companions. “Its Brynmor Morgan. After all this time. How lovely to see you again. Welcome back to Cysgod,” she said, “and how nice of you to bring all your young friends with you.”
Now Brynmor did look round. Sitting in the pew behind him were the five youngsters. They were all watching him, waiting for some sign of what to do next. They were, Brynmor could see, totally ill at ease. He knew that not one of them had ever been inside a chapel before. He smiled at them and leaving his old familiar seat he moved to the pew behind and sat among the boys.
Over the next half hour he led them through the sitting, singing, listening, singing ritual that he remembered so well. The organ was not played as well as in his youth and there was no preacher any more. As the group of worshippers explained afterwards, they could not afford one, nor the upkeep of the chapel either, really, but spare preachers were few and far between and those who could conduct a service in Welsh even fewer.
They were extremely kind to Brynmor and the boys who they kept referring to as his young friends. They said they hoped he had enjoyed the service and that he wouldn’t leave it so long before he came again.
Brynmor looked at the youngsters, heroic and prepared to follow him anywhere after the years of kindness he had shown them but now out of their depth with pleasantries and the social courtesies of yesteryear and wanting to get away. Now that he had been to chapel the one last time his thoughts were for them and he wanted to end their social suffering and lead them back to their own streets and familiar territory.
Brynmor found no difficulty in freeing himself from the worshippers without making any promises about the future. As he and the boys walked together back to his house they didn’t speak except to arrange that they would meet once again in Brynmor’s back kitchen the following evening.
When they had gone, Brynmor leaned firmly against the back of the front door to close it and he put down the catch. In the back kitchen he sat down in his armchair and bent to unfasten the laces of his best boots. He loosened his tie and took the front stud out of his collar.
As he did so he looked up and saw the picture of his mother looking down at him. And he knew what he had to do. He reached up, lifted the photograph off the mantelpiece, opened the drawer of the table alongside his chair and placed it face down and closed the drawer.
Brynmor took a minute or so to make sure he had done the right thing then he undid the first three buttons of his waistcoat, lay back in the chair closed his eyes and fell fast asleep.