BACK TROUBLE

MICHAEL BLOOR

(First published in Dodging the Rain, December 26, 2018)

Grandad moved in with us when I was seven, it must’ve been about 1958: Grandma Probert had died and his back injury made it difficult to look after himself. He and I used to hang out together when my mum was busy with my younger brother and sister. Grandad and Grandma were born and raised in the Gwendraeth Valley in South Wales. He’d been a miner – the Gwendraeth pits produced high-quality anthracite – but soon after his marriage he was injured in a fall. He had slipped and fallen badly on a slag heap, scavenging for coal during the 1926 General Strike. He then had to look for lighter work and eventually he and Grandma moved to Derby when he got a job in the Co-op Bakery (‘Our Product – The Peak Loaf’).

We were aware that his back often gave him pain, but he didn’t complain. Indeed, he once explained to me that he reckoned that his back injury had saved his life: “See young ’un, If I’d ’a carried on working down the pit, I probably wouldn’t ’a lasted very long – the pneumo would ’a got me, like it got nearly all my mates. That anthracite dust was a killer. In 1946, just after the war, they made pneumoconiosis an official industrial disease. But it was too late then for most of the boys in the Gwendraeth: their lungs was already shot. See, between the wars, the mine owners brought in mechanical cutters and mechanical conveyors. As soon as they came in, the dust levels in the pits rocketed up. The pneumo was bad everywhere in South Wales, but it was worst of all among the anthracite miners. See, those tiny bits of anthracite dust, they’re particularly hard – they cuts the insides of your lungs to ribbons.”

But Grandad’s most memorable story about his back, often told, was that of his paralysis and miraculous recovery. The first time I heard it was an afternoon in Trent Street Working Men’s Club. He’d settled me on a high stool at the bar with a packet of crisps and a bottle of pop. Him and Arthur Morton and a bloke called Cyril were playing dominos and discussing domestic furnishings, Cyril having just bought a new three-piece suite. Cyril had been enthusing about it at some length – the best damn’ thing he’d ever bought – when Grandad said suddenly:

“Now boys, did I ever tell you about when I was paralysed?”

“That would be your back injury, Evan?”

“I did have a back injury, it’s true, Arthur. But I was always able to get about. Always able to get about, that is, until one particular morning about twenty years ago… The alarm went off, as usual, at four o’clock to get me to the early shift at the bakery. Half sleep still, I tried to roll out of bed… And, damn’ me, I couldn’t move! I couldn’t get out of bed!”

“Well, you can imagine, I was in a panic. It had been a cold night, but I started to pour with sweat. I woke Myfanwy beside me. Told her I was paralysed, finished indeed. ‘Are you sure, Evan?’ she said and switched the bedside light on. To demonstrate, I made a great heaving effort. To no avail. No word of a lie, boys, I broke down: I started to sob.”

“There was a pause and then Myfanwy said, ‘Evan, there’s broken spring in the mattress hooked into your pyjama jacket.’”

“Well, boys, a new mattress was the best damn’ thing I ever bought.”

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