(first published in The Cabinet of Heed, March 30th, 2021)
There was no phone signal in that narrow valley. Three days of heavy rain had caused the river to burst its banks and flood the road, just above the bridge. The flood swept the car half off the road and into the hedge. I’m not as nimble as I used to be, but I managed to get out with nothing worse than a soaking. Fortunately, I’d remembered the torch in the glove compartment; the night was black as pitch.
Downstream, the valley broadened and there was the chance of a phone signal, but I didn’t dare to cross the old humpbacked bridge, already flooded except at its apex, and with part of its parapet swept away. Instead, I chose to struggle back up the valley road, battling against the flood, even though I couldn’t recall any houses this high up the valley.
A tree had been uprooted and had fallen obliquely across the road (it must’ve happened very soon after I’d driven past). As I struggled over it, I caught sight of a light, up above the road to the right. It was a steep climb up the bank; I broke off a dead branch to help propel me upward.
The house proved to be an old farmhouse, converted into a holiday home. As I hit the door-knocker, soaked through and shivering uncontrollably, I was conscious that I wasn’t looking my best.
The householder was a cautious, elderly party, about my age. I felt I was at my last extremity: I shouted my pleas through the closed door. It seemed an age before the door was opened, but it was probably only a minute or so. Once I was in his porch, my saviour was most apologetic, explaining (curiously) that it was the storm that concerned him, rather than the visitor. He parked me in front of the kitchen range, fetched me a towel and a whisky, and then we made plans. Owen, as he was called, had a Land Rover and offered to run me home, after the storm had blown over. We’d have to go the long way round, on the Heads of the Valleys road, because of the fallen tree.
I learned that he was a ships engineer by training, but in the 1980s he’d struck out on his own and set up an engineering workshop manufacturing components for the new Liquefied Natural Gas carriers. He’d prospered and his company now had more than a hundred employees at two sites in the South Wales Valleys. But now he was semi-retired and spent quite a bit of his time working for the local charitable trust he’d established with the company profits.
I’d been involved in the shipping industry myself and we bonded (as old men do) over the unfortunate turn of past events. In this case, it was the sad shrinkage of the once enormous British mercantile marine over the last forty years.
Emboldened by Owen’s kindliness and his whisky, I wondered how, considering his fear of storms, he ever could have gone to sea.
Owen fell silent and I felt that I had abused his hospitality. I apologised, and Owen smiled and shook his head. ‘No, no. That fear only crept up on me gradually as I got older. It’s post-traumatic shock syndrome. You see, I’m an Aberfan survivor. Like some of the other school children who survived the disaster, I only began to suffer flash-backs and panic attacks as I got older.’
Startled out of the state of numb stupefaction that I’d settled into, huddled beside Owen’s warm kitchen range, I was taken back to those dolorous black-and-white TV images from 1966. The sight of the miners from Merthyr Vale Colliery toiling away in the ruins of Pantglas Junior School, looking for the bodies of 109 of their own children. Children that were suffocated and crushed by countless tons of black slurry, when the spoil tip above the valley was swept down onto the school by torrential rains. I remembered my shock at witnessing my big, strong father’s silent tears as he listened to a Welsh Baptist minister speaking on the TV at the end of the same news item.
I saw Owen with new eyes. ‘You know, that surely makes your achievements in life all the greater… To have come through all that, built up your business, set up your trust…’
Owen shook his head again and threw a couple more lumps of birchwood into the range. ‘Did you know that Elvis had a still-born twin?’
‘No, I didn’t.’
‘Yeah. Elvis reckoned that he was living for his twin, as well as himself. He was driven.’ Owen pushed at the logs with a poker. ‘Well, that’s sort-of how I feel. I’m living for those dead children too. I need to do my best for them. That’s how I justify being a survivor.’
He walked to the window and looked out; the porch light shone in the yard. ‘The rain’s almost off. We’ll give it a couple of hours and then get you home. Meantime, how about poached eggs on toast.’