By Roy Davies
There was a quietness that sat in the streets of the valley in those days. We would squat on the kerb of the main street in the hot Summer days poking pieces of stick into the hot melting tar between the chippings and making patterns in the soft, rubbery surface with our fingers. On some stretches of the road ponderous delivery bikes with their huge frames and baskets and advertising plate flush with the frame would hiss stickily as their tyres passed across patches of the hot tar bare of the small chips of granite. The alternating sound of hissing and crunching would fade away up the main street leaving the afternoon quiet once more.
It seems now that only on such days did Isaac Kidwelly appear. In the hot quiet of the late morning and afternoon we would hear him long before we could see him.
“Isaac’s coming”, someone would say and we’d all look up. A long way away but always in the middle of the road in a long shapeless once fawn mackintosh he would trot steadily towards us, the sound of his hobnailed boots slapping straight down onto the gravel ringing away in front of him for hundreds of yards.
The coat was so long and the boots so loud that I’m not sure any longer that they haven’t stolen from me Isaac’s face. I seem to remember that it was thinner and longer than most valley faces but old and with a small moustache and dead eyes.
I remember his hair as being grey and thin but I wouldn’t put money on any of these details. As I say, I remember best his coat and boots and old gaberdine trousers held up by belt and braces with a piece of string tied around each leg just below the knee in a way that even then was old fashioned. He wore a suit jacket above a waistcoat and an old flannel shirt done up to the neck and fastened by a collar stud. He never wore a collar or a tie but an old silk scarf wrapped once around his neck before the ends were secured by turning them several times around his braces.
Isaac would trot around the valley streets, his arms held square at the elbows and his slapping feet imitating the motion of a steam train.
“Chuff, chuff, chuff, chuff…..” He would accompany his trotting gait and Isaac and his engine would travel up and down the valley. As he came closer some of the boys would giggle at the familiar figure.
“How many stars out tonight, Isaac? we would shout, all knowing the answer before Isaac replied.
Isaac would stop and look at us sitting on the kerb. Then he would look up into the bright blue afternoon sky and move his eyes from East to West across the breadth of the narrow valley.
“Forty bright stars”, he would reply, looking back at us with those dead, staring eyes and without a hint of recognition though he had been brought up with all our families in that tiny place. “Yes, forty bright stars and a full, full moon.” And turning his head away from us he would look straight back up the valley and set off again.
“Chuff, chuff, chuff…..” and we would watch as he moved away from us, his boots ringing out again as the road bent around the village square and then straightened into the hill which led away up the valley.
I don’t ever remember seeing Isaac go out of sight. It seems now that we would all be back to our sticks and tar and chippings while his rhythmic beating was still in our ears. We saw him as a distraction, a figure of interest only because of his strange behaviour. When he was there he was of momentary interest. When he was gone he was immediately out of all our minds.
On some days when we would be sitting at the roadside and the old men squatting back on their haunches on the village square had the peaks of their caps pulled forward against the strong sun, Isaac would vary the pattern of his eternal circuit.
“Chuff, chuff, chuff, chuff….” He would come alongside and with the various groups of us watching, but more often not, he would stop dead still in the centre of the road. Then, without looking over to us or the men, he would take a block of chalk he always carried in his hand and in several confident arcs would draw a small circle around the spot on which he was standing in the middle of the main road. When it was completed he would step outside the circle and draw a precise cross inside it. He would stand inside again, carefully position his feet the way he had originally been going and then, with more sound effects, he would move on in his strange locomotive way towards other groups knotted along the main road through the valley.
“Duw, Isaac”, the boys would shout, “where are you going today,” and they would all laugh at the old man standing silently in the middle of the road. Isaac stock still and silent his eyes blank and fixed confidently ahead, would wait until he had us all safely aboard and carry us on another broken journey around the valley.
Isaac lived somewhere up the hill, somewhere near Elizabeth Road. One of the boys said he lived quite close to him and that Isaac lived with his aged mother. Just the two of them in the terraced house. But none of the rest of us bothered to find out exactly where. It wasn’t important. It was only Isaac He was twp of course, we all knew that, yet he was a valuable part of the valley fabric and loved for his harmlessness and the brief variety he brought to the valley streets on quiet afternoons.
No-one discussed Isaac when I was growing up. He was just Isaac Kidwelly, his nickname sugggesting the place where his family was established before they moved to the pits. Now with only remnants of his family left he was at once completely vulnerable and utterly safe. Nobody was going to harm Isaac in our village no matter how strange his ways. He was a figure of peace and of happiness and many men must have envied him his place in valley hearts.
However, somewhere Isaac had a past and a past that had to do with the craft of brickwork or stonework of some kind. No-one seemed to know Isaac well enough to discover what that past might have been and by the time the question was important to me Isaac no longer graced our village, but regularly and in the most surprising circumstances Isaac expressed himself as a craftsman of the highest quality. Few people, sadly, ever recognised his art which, by its nature, ensured that no examples of it ever remained to remind us of the time in that valley when we were in the presence of genius.
One of the most responsible secondary jobs underground was that of the packer. As the coal face moved forward day by day, the rock roofs left behind were allowed to collapse leaving only a narrow belt of open workings behind the colliers. Each of these dark worked out areas was called a ‘gob’ and one of the packer’s jobs was to build strong retaining walls from the large lumps of slag and ore which were pushed into the gobs rather than into the drams which were hauled to the surface full of coal.
Some men could build these walls and some couldn’t. Those who could were so good at it that the structures resembled the best dry stone walls surrounding the country villages many of them had left to seek work in the collieries. Some men were useless at it but Isaac Kidwelly made it an art form and yet I don’t know if he had ever even heard of a gob or if anyone else but me ever recognised his genius.
When the loose tons of coal, part of a collier’s wages, were dumped in the roadways outside the tiny cottages the entire house was cleared for the mess that followed. The women who had no men to carry it through the passage, the back kitchen and the scullery to the backyard where the coal was kept, sent for Isaac.
“If you see Isaac tell him I want to see him”, the message would be passed to neighbours going shopping down the main road. “Tell Isaac I’m expecting a load this afternoon,” others would confide. And that same afternoon, like some saviour out of the suns of Summer and the mists of Winter, Isaac would come to put in the coal. I remember that he was given half a crown whatever the season. It was never more and never less. That was his price and he was, it was agreed, worth every penny.
As the women rolled up the cheap mats and laid newspaper over the tiles and flagstones of their floors, propped open the doors and put an old mat on the front step to take some of the mess, Isaac would get out the tools and the shovel, put his old coat behind the front door, and tackle the mound of lumps and small coal on the road and pavement ten steps down from the fronts of the terraced houses.
He would position the zinc buckets close to and upwind of the coal so that the dust wouldn’t blow in his eyes. The shovel would rasp against the tops of the granite chippings and he would tip the coal off the loaded shovel blade into the buckets until they were full with some lumps sticking far above the top rims.
He would then leave the shovel loaded in the mound ready for his return, grab both buckets by the handles, bend and straighten his knees and with the buckets held out from his sides not to dirty his trousers, trot up the steps and through the house losing no more than a small lump or a few specks on each journey to be brushed up and collected later.
As Isaac loaded the buckets he had long since made up his mind where the contents were going to be emptied when he got through the house.
Small coal and rubble and medium lumps were tipped out at the back of the narrow alleyway. But the few lumps he could carry in the buckets or the really large shiny lumps which he carried through in his arms, were positioned carefully at the front to form the retaining wall and only when he had some kind of selection in front of him would he look at them closely. Then, bending down, he would select the largest lump with a flat surface and position it as the foundation stone of the wall that he was going to build so that not even a trickle of fine coal could get through the smallest of cracks and collect on the ground to be carried back into the house on the family’s shoes.
The wall grew as Isaac selected, uncannily, the one lump from those waiting to be used, that would fit whatever angled, odd shaped hole the previous lump had left to be filled. He worked quickly and with confidence, packing in the smaller coal behind to give support and strength to the smooth tight fitting wall that was growing in front.
There was a beauty in the way Isaac worked; and in the care and concern with which he fashioned his structure. Sometimes he couldn’t find a lump the right size and only then in artistic defeat would he take a sledgehammer to one of the largest lumps, aiming at one particular point on the surface and hearing the sound of the blows slowly change from a hard ringing sound to a low dull thump as the internal structure of the coal shattered and the lump reluctantly surrendered itself into the smaller pieces Isaac desired. One of them, uncannily only ever one, would be just right for the hole he needed to fill and it would be fitted and the wall continued with only a slight break in rhythm.
Up and down the steps with pieces of the soft black coal dancing on his clothes, Isaac would tirelessly trot and when the shovel was no longer effective he would brush the fine dust, all that remained of the one-ton mound, into the gutter and scoop the wet mixture into the bottom of the bucket. Then with only a black stain remaining on the road he would take in the buckets, brush and shovel and tip the last dregs of coal slurry onto the tightly packed load of coal.
I don’t remember him ever stopping to study the wall he had fashioned in the half hour since he had begun the job, and I don’t know how many of the men and women he served ever recognised the beauty of the structures and the craftmanship of his labour. I doubt that many did. After all, it was only Isaac.
But had they looked they would have seen that each lump fitted and shone and complemented the shape and size of those immediately next to it in a way that architects would be hard pressed to design and artists delighted to capture. But there was little time for such niceties even on the finest of days. There were other priorities and the first was to get Isaac out of the house so that the women could take up the paper, sweep out the mess and get on their knees and scrub all the floors before the next meal was due. Isaac would retrieve his coat from behind the front door without saying a word, take his half crown and be gone as suddenly as he had arrived.
The next day, on the main road, this artistic genius was once again a train driver of some importance in charge of many carriages with forty bright stars wheeling and circling above and a waiting room and convenient station for every group of men who, squatted and watching his strange ritual, noted his unremarkable prophesies and smiled knowingly as he passed.