Fall of Giants / Chapter 18

Chapter 18


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CHAPTER EIGHTEEN  -  Late July 1916

Ethel thought a lot about life and death after Billy went off to France. She knew she might never see him again. She was glad he had lost his virginity with Mildred. "I let your little brother have his wicked way with me," Mildred had said lightheartedly after he left. "Sweet boy. Have you got any more like that down there in Wales?" But Ethel suspected Mildred's feelings were not as superficial as she pretended, for in their nightly prayers Enid and Lillian now asked God to watch over Uncle Billy in France and bring him safely home again.

Lloyd developed a bad chest infection a few days later, and in an agony of desperation Ethel rocked him in her arms while he struggled to breathe. Fearing he might die, she bitterly regretted that her parents had never seen him. When he got better, she decided to take him to Aberowen.

She returned exactly two years after she had left. It was raining.

The place had not changed much, but it struck her as dismal. For the first twenty-one years of her life she had not seen it that way but now, after living in London, she noticed that Aberowen was all the same color. Everything was gray: the houses, the streets, the slag heaps, and the low rain clouds drifting disconsolately along the ridge of the mountain.

She felt tired as she emerged from the railway station in the middle of the afternoon. Taking a child of eighteen months on an all-day journey was hard work. Lloyd had been well-behaved, charming fellow passengers with his toothy grin. All the same he had to be fed in a rocking carriage, changed in a smelly toilet, and lulled to sleep when he became grizzly, and it was a strain with strangers looking on.

With Lloyd on her hip and a small suitcase in her hand, she set off across the station square and up the slope of Clive Street. Soon she was panting for breath. That was something else she had forgotten. London was mostly flat, but in Aberowen you could hardly go anywhere without walking up or down a steep hill.

She did not know what had happened here since she had left. Billy was her only source of news, and men were no good for gossip. No doubt she herself had been the main topic of conversation for some time. However, new scandals must have come along since.

Her return would be big news. Several women gave her frank stares as she walked up the street with her baby. She knew what they were thinking. Ethel Williams, believed she was better than us, coming back in an old brown dress with a toddler in her arms and no husband. Pride comes before a fall, they would say, their malice thinly disguised as pity.

She went to Wellington Row, but not to her parents' house. Her father had told her never to come back. She had written to Tommy Griffiths's mother, who was called Mrs. Griffiths Socialist on account of her husband's fiery politics. (In the same street there was a Mrs. Griffiths Church.) The Griffithses were not chapelgoers, and they disapproved of Ethel's father's hard line. Ethel had put Tommy up for the night in London, and Mrs. Griffiths was happy to reciprocate. Tommy was an only child, so while he was in the army there was a spare bed.

Da and Mam did not know Ethel was coming.

Mrs. Griffiths welcomed Ethel warmly and cooed over Lloyd. She had had a daughter of Ethel's age who had died of whooping cough-Ethel could just about remember her, a blond girl called Gwenny.

Ethel fed and changed Lloyd, then sat down in the kitchen for a cup of tea. Mrs. Griffiths noticed her wedding ring. "Married, is it?" she said.

"Widow," Ethel said. "He died at Ypres."

"Ah, pity."

"He was a Mr. Williams, so I didn't have to change my name."

This story would go all around the town. Some would question whether there really had been a Mr. Williams and if he had actually married Ethel. It did not matter whether they believed her. A woman who pretended to be married was acceptable; a mother who admitted to being single was a brazen hussy. The people of Aberowen had their principles.

Mrs. Griffiths said: "When are you going to see your mam?"

Ethel did not know how her parents would react to her. They might throw her out again, they might forgive everything, or they might find some way of condemning her sin without banishing her from their sight. "I dunno," she said. "I'm nervous."

Mrs. Griffiths looked sympathetic. "Aye, well, your da can be a Tartar. He loves you, though."

"People always think that. Your father loves you really, they say. But if he can throw me out of the house I don't know why it's called love."

"People do things in haste, when their pride is hurt," Mrs. Griffiths said soothingly. "Specially men."

Ethel stood up. "Well, no point in putting it off, I suppose." She scooped Lloyd up from the floor. "Come here, my lovely. Time you found out you've got grandparents."

"Good luck," said Mrs. Griffiths.

The Williams house was only a few doors away. Ethel was hoping her father would be out. That way she could at least have some time with her mother, who was less harsh.

She thought of knocking at the door, then decided that would be ridiculous, so she walked straight in.

She entered the kitchen where she had spent so many of her days. Neither of her parents was there, but Gramper was dozing in his chair. He opened his eyes, looked puzzled, then said warmly: "It's our Eth!"

"Hello, Gramper."

He stood up and came to her. He had become more frail: he leaned on the table just to cross the little room. He kissed her cheek and turned his attention to the baby. "Well, now, who is this?" he said with delight. "Could it be my first great-grandchild?"

"This is Lloyd," said Ethel.

"What a fine name!"

Lloyd hid his face in Ethel's shoulder. "He's shy," she said.

"Ah, he's scared of the strange old man with the white mustache. He'll get used to me. Sit down, my lovely, and tell me all about everything."

"Where's our mam?"

"Gone down the Co-op for a tin of jam." The local grocery was a cooperative store, sharing profits among its customers. Such shops were popular in South Wales, although no one knew how to pronounce co-op, variations ranging from cop to quorp. "She'll be back now in a minute."

Ethel put Lloyd on the floor. He began to explore the room, going unsteadily from one handhold to the next, a bit like Gramper. Ethel talked about her job as manager of The Soldier's Wife: working with the printer, distributing the bundles of newspapers, collecting unsold copies, getting people to place advertisements. Gramper wondered how she knew what to do, and she admitted that she and Maud just made it up as they went along. She found the printer difficult-he did not like taking instructions from women-but she was good at selling advertising space. While they talked, Gramper took off his watch chain and dangled it from his hand, not looking at Lloyd. The child stared at the bright chain, then reached for it. Gramper let him grab it. Soon Lloyd was leaning on Gramper's knees for support while he investigated the watch.

Ethel felt strange in the old house. She had imagined it would be comfortably familiar, like a pair of boots that have taken the shape of the feet that have worn them for years. But in fact she was vaguely uneasy. It seemed more like the home of familiar old neighbors. She kept looking at the faded samplers with their tired biblical verses and wondering why her mother had not changed them in decades. She did not feel that this was her place.

"Have you heard anything from our Billy?" she asked Gramper.

"No, have you?"

"Not since he left for France."

"I should think he's in this big battle by the river Somme."

"I hope not. They say it's bad."

"Aye, terrible, if you believe the rumors."

Rumors were all people had, for newspaper accounts were cheerfully vague. But many of the wounded were back in British hospitals, and their bloodcurdling accounts of incompetence and slaughter were passed from mouth to mouth.

Mam came in. "They stand talking in that shop as if they got nothing else to do-oh!" She stopped short. "Oh, my heavens, is that our Eth?" She burst into tears.

Ethel hugged her.

Gramper said: "Look, Cara, here's your grandson, Lloyd."

Mam wiped her eyes and picked him up. "Isn't he beautiful?" she said. "Such curly hair! He looks just like Billy at that age." Lloyd stared fearfully at Mam for a long moment, then cried.

Ethel took him. "He's turned into a real Mummy's boy lately," she said apologetically.

"They all do at that age," Mam said. "Make the most of it, he'll soon change."

"Where's Da?" Ethel said, trying not to sound too anxious.

Ma looked tense. "Gone to Caerphilly for a union meeting." She checked the clock. "He'll be home for his tea now in a minute, unless he's missed his train."

Ethel guessed Mam was hoping he would be late. She felt the same. She wanted more time with her mother before the crisis came.

Mam made tea and put a plate of sugary Welsh cakes on the table. Ethel took one. "I haven't had these for two years," she said. "They're lovely."

Gramper said happily: "Now, I call this nice. I got my daughter, my granddaughter, and my great-grandson, all in the same room. What more could a man ask of life?" He took a Welsh cake.

Ethel reflected that some people would think it was not much of a life Gramper led, sitting in a smoky kitchen all day in his only suit. But he was grateful for his lot, and she had made him happy today, at least.

Then her father came in.

Mam was halfway through a sentence. "I had a chance to go to London once, when I was your age, but your gramper said-" The door opened and she stopped dead. They all looked as Da came in from the street, wearing his meeting suit and a flat miner's cap, perspiring from the walk up the hill. He took a step into the room, then stopped, staring.

"Look who's here," Mam said with forced brightness. "Ethel, and your grandson." Her face was white with strain.

He said nothing. He did not take off his cap.

Ethel said: "Hello, Da. This is Lloyd."

He did not look at her.

Gramper said: "The little one resembles you, Dai boy-around the mouth, see what I mean?"

Lloyd sensed the hostility in the room and began to cry.

Still Da said nothing. Ethel knew then that she had made a mistake springing this on him. She had not wanted to give him the chance to forbid her to come. But now she saw that the surprise had put him on the defensive. He had a cornered look. It was always a mistake to back Da up against the wall, she remembered.

His face became stubborn. He looked at his wife and said: "I have no grandson."

"Oh, now," said Mam appealingly.

His expression remained rigid. He stood still, staring at Mam, not speaking. He was waiting for something, and he would not move until Ethel left. She began to cry.

Gramper said: "Oh, dammo."

Ethel picked up Lloyd. "I'm sorry, Mam," she sobbed. "I thought perhaps... " She choked up and could not finish the sentence. With Lloyd in her arms she pushed past her father. He did not meet her eye.

Ethel went out and slammed the door.

{II}

In the morning, after the men had gone to work down the pit and the children had been sent to school, the women usually did jobs outside. They washed the pavement, polished the doorstep, or cleaned the windows. Some went to the shop or ran other errands. They needed to see the world beyond their small houses, Ethel thought, something to remind them that life was not bound within four jerry-built walls.

She stood in the sunshine outside the front door of Mrs. Griffiths Socialist, leaning against the wall. All up and down the street, women had found reasons to be out in the sun. Lloyd was playing with a ball. He had seen other children throw balls and he was trying to do the same, but failing. What a complicated action a throw was, Ethel reflected, using shoulder and arm, wrist and hand together. The fingers had to relax their grip just before the arm reached its longest stretch. Lloyd had not mastered this, and he released the ball too soon, sometimes dropping it behind his shoulder, or too late, so that it had no momentum. But he kept trying. He would get it right, eventually, Ethel supposed, and then he would never forget it. Until you had a child, you did not understand how much they had to learn.

She could not comprehend how her father could reject this little boy. Lloyd had done nothing wrong. Ethel herself was a sinner, but so were most people. God forgave their sins, so who was Da to sit in judgment? It made her angry and sad at the same time.

The boy from the post office came up the street on his pony and tied it up near the toilets. His name was Geraint Jones. His job was to bring parcels and telegrams, but today he did not appear to be carrying any packages. Ethel felt a sudden chill, as if a cloud had hidden the sun. In Wellington Row telegrams were rare, and they usually brought bad news.

Geraint walked down the hill, away from Ethel. She felt relieved: the news was not for her family.

Her mind drifted to a letter she had received from Lady Maud. Ethel and Maud and other women had mounted a campaign to ensure that votes for women would be part of any discussion of franchise reform for soldiers. They had got enough publicity to ensure that Prime Minister Asquith could not duck the issue.

Maud's news was that he had sidestepped their thrust by handing the whole problem over to a committee called the Speaker's Conference. But this was good, Maud said. There would be a calm private debate instead of histrionic speeches in the chamber of the House of Commons. Perhaps common sense would prevail. All the same she was trying hard to find out who Asquith was putting on the committee.

A few doors up, Gramper emerged from the Williams house, sat on the low windowsill, and lit his first pipe of the day. He spotted Ethel, smiled, and waved.

On the other side Minnie Ponti, the mother of Joey and Johnny, started beating a rug with a stick, knocking the dust out of it and making herself cough.

Mrs. Griffiths came out with a shovelful of ashes from the kitchen range and dropped them in a pothole in the dirt road.

Ethel said to her: "Can I do anything? I could go to the Co-op for you if you like." She had already made the beds and washed the breakfast dishes.

"All right," said Mrs. Griffiths. "I'll make you a list now in a minute." She leaned on the wall, panting. She was a heavy woman, and any exertion made her breathless.

Ethel became aware of a commotion at the bottom end of the street. Several voices were raised. Then she heard a scream.

She and Mrs. Griffiths looked at one another, then Ethel picked up Lloyd and they hurried to find out what was happening on the far side of the toilets.

The first thing Ethel saw was a small group of women clustered around Mrs. Pritchard, who was wailing at the top of her voice. The other women were trying to calm her. But she was not the only one. Stumpy Pugh, an ex-miner who had lost a leg in a roof collapse, sat in the middle of the road as if knocked down, with two neighbors either side of him. Across the street Mrs. John Jones the Shop stood in her doorway sobbing, holding a sheet of paper.

Ethel saw Geraint the post office boy, white in the face and near to tears himself, cross the road and knock at another house.

Mrs. Griffiths said: "Telegrams from the War Office-oh, God help us."

"The battle of the Somme," said Ethel. "The Aberowen Pals must be in it."

"Alun Pritchard must be dead, and Clive Pugh, and Prophet Jones-he was a sergeant, his parents were so proud... "

"Poor Mrs. Jones Shop, her other son died in the explosion down the pit."

"Let my Tommy be all right, please, God," Mrs. Griffiths prayed, even though her husband was a notorious atheist. "Oh, spare Tommy."

"And Billy," said Ethel; and then, whispering in Lloyd's tiny ear, she added: "And your daddy."

Geraint had a canvas sack slung across his shoulder. Ethel wondered fearfully how many more telegrams were in it. The boy crisscrossed the street, the angel of death in a post office cap.

By the time he passed the toilets and came to the upper half of the street, everyone was on the pavement. The women had stopped whatever work they were doing and stood waiting. Ethel's parents had come out-Da had not yet gone to work. They stood with Gramper, silent and afraid.

Geraint approached Mrs. Llewellyn. Her son Arthur must be dead. He was known as Spotty, Ethel recalled. The poor boy did not need to worry about his complexion now.

Mrs. Llewellyn held up her hands as if to ward Geraint off. "No!" she cried. "No, please!"

He held out her telegram. "I can't help it, Mrs. Llewellyn," he said. He was only about seventeen. "It's got your address on the front, see?"

Still she would not take the envelope. "No!" she said, turning her back and burying her face in her hands.

The boy's lip trembled. "Please take it," he said. "I got all these others to do. And there's more in the office, hundreds! It's ten o'clock now and I don't know how I'm going to get them all done before tonight. Please."

Her next-door neighbor, Mrs. Parry Price, said: "I'll take it for her. I haven't got any sons."

"Thank you very much, Mrs. Price," said Geraint, and he moved on.

He took another telegram from his sack, looked at the address, and walked past the Griffithses' house. "Oh, thank God," said Mrs. Griffiths. "My Tommy's all right, thank God." She began to cry with relief. Ethel switched Lloyd to her other hip and put an arm around her.

The boy approached Minnie Ponti. She did not scream, but tears ran down her face. "Which one?" she said in a cracked voice. "Joey or Johnny?"

"I dunno, Mrs. Ponti," said Geraint. "You'll have to read what it says by here."

She ripped open the envelope. "I can't see!" she cried. She rubbed her eyes, trying to clear her vision of tears, and looked again. "Giuseppe!" she said. "My Joey's dead. Oh, my poor little boy!"

Mrs. Ponti lived almost at the end of the street. Ethel waited, heart pounding, to see whether Geraint would go to the Williams house. Was Billy alive or dead?

The boy turned away from the weeping Mrs. Ponti. He looked across the street and saw Da, Mam, and Gramper staring at him in dreadful anticipation. He looked in his sack, then glanced up.

"No more for Wellington Row," he said.

Ethel almost collapsed. Billy was alive.

She looked at her parents. Mam was crying. Gramper was trying to light his pipe, but his hands were shaking.

Da was staring at her. She could not read the look on his face. He was in the grip of some emotion, but she could not tell what.

He took a step toward her.

It was not much, but it was enough. With Lloyd in her arms, she ran to Da.

He put his arms around both of them. "Billy's alive," he said. "And so are you."

"Oh, Da," she said. "I'm so sorry I let you down."

"Never mind that," he said. "Never mind, now." He patted her back as he had when she was a little girl and she fell down and scraped her knees. "There, there," he said. "Better now."

{III}

An interdenominational service was a rare event among Aberowen's Christians, Ethel knew. To the Welsh, doctrinal differences were never minor. One group refused to celebrate Christmas, on the grounds that there was no biblical evidence of the date of Christ's birth. Another banned voting in elections, because the Apostle Paul wrote: "Our citizenship is in heaven." None of them liked to worship side by side with people who disagreed with them.

However, after Telegram Wednesday such differences came, briefly, to seem trivial.

The rector of Aberowen, the Reverend Thomas Ellis-Thomas, suggested a joint service of remembrance. When all the telegrams had been delivered there were two hundred and eleven dead and, as the battle was still going on, one or two more sad notifications arrived each day. Every street in town had lost someone, and in the close-packed rows of miners' hovels there was a bereavement every few yards.

The Methodists, the Baptists, and the Catholics agreed to the suggestion of the Anglican rector. The smaller groups might have preferred to remain aloof: the Full Gospel Baptists, the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Second Coming Evangelicals, and the Bethesda Chapel. Ethel saw her father wrestle with his conscience. But no one wanted to be left out of what promised to be the largest religious service in the town's history, and in the end they all joined in. There was no synagogue in Aberowen, but young Jonathan Goldman was among the dead, and the town's handful of practising Jews decided to attend, even though no concessions would be made to their religion.

The service was held on Sunday afternoon at half past two in a municipal park known as the Reck, short for Recreation Ground. A temporary platform was built by the town council for the clergy to stand on. It was a fine, sunny day, and three thousand people turned up.

Ethel scanned the crowd. Perceval Jones was there in a top hat. As well as being mayor of the town he was now its member of Parliament. He was also honorary commanding officer of the Aberowen Pals, and had led the recruiting drive. Several other directors of Celtic Minerals were with him-as if they had anything to do with the heroism of the dead, Ethel thought sourly. Maldwyn "Gone to Merthyr" Morgan showed up, with his wife, but they had a right, she thought, for their son Roland had died.

Then she saw Fitz.

At first she did not recognize him. She saw Princess Bea, in a black dress and hat, followed by a nurse carrying the young Viscount Aberowen, a boy the same age as Lloyd. With Bea was a man on crutches with his left leg in plaster and a bandage over one side of his head, covering his left eye. After a long moment Ethel realized it was Fitz, and she cried out in shock.

"What is it?" said her mam.

"Look at the earl!"

"Is that him? Oh, my word, the poor man."

Ethel stared at him. She was not in love with him anymore-he had been too cruel. But she could not be indifferent. She had kissed the face under that bandage, and caressed the long, strong body that was so woefully maimed. He was a vain man-it was the most pardonable of his weaknesses-and she knew that his mortification at looking in the mirror would hurt him more than his wounds.

"I wonder he didn't stay at home," Mam said. "People would have understood."

Ethel shook her head. "Too proud," she said. "He led the men to their deaths. He had to come."

"You know him well," Mam said, with a look that made Ethel wonder whether she suspected the truth. "But I expect he also wants people to see that the upper classes suffered too."

Ethel nodded. Mam was right. Fitz was arrogant and high-handed, but paradoxically he also craved the respect of ordinary people.

Dai Chops, the butcher's son, came up. "It's very nice to see you back in Aberowen," he said.

He was a small man in a neat suit. "How are you, Dai?" she said.

"Very well, thank you. There's a new Charlie Chaplin film starting tomorrow. Do you like Chaplin?"

"I haven't got time to go to the pictures."

"Why don't you leave the little boy with your mam tomorrow night and come with me?"

Dai had put his hand up Ethel's skirt in the Palace Cinema in Cardiff. It was five years ago, but she could tell from the look in his eye that he had not forgotten. "No, thank you, Dai," she said firmly.

He was not ready to give up yet. "I'm working down the pit now, but I'll take over the shop when my da retires."

"You'll do very well, I know."

"There's some men wouldn't look at a girl with a baby," he said. "Not me, though."

That was a bit condescending, but Ethel decided not to take offense. "Good-bye, Dai. It was very nice of you to ask me."

He smiled ruefully. "You're still the prettiest girl I've ever met." He touched his cap and walked away.

Mam said indignantly: "What's wrong with him? You need a husband, and he's a catch!"

What was wrong with him? He was a bit short, but he made up for that with charm. He had good prospects and he was willing to take on another man's child. Ethel wondered why she was so unhesitatingly sure that she did not want to go to the pictures with him. Did she still think, in her heart, that she was too good for Aberowen?

There was a row of chairs at the front for the elite. Fitz and Bea took their seats alongside Perceval Jones and Maldwyn Morgan, and the service began.

Ethel believed vaguely in the Christian religion. She supposed there must be a God, but she suspected He was more reasonable than her father imagined. Da's ardent disagreements with the established churches had come down to Ethel merely as a mild dislike of statues, incense, and Latin. In London she occasionally went to the Calvary Gospel Hall on Sunday mornings, mainly because the pastor there was a passionate socialist who allowed his church to be used for Maud's clinic and Labour Party meetings.

There was no organ at the Reck, of course, so the puritans did not have to suppress their objection to musical instruments. Ethel knew, from Da, that there had been trouble about who was to lead the singing-a role that, in this town, was more important than preaching the sermon. In the end the Aberowen Male Voice Choir was placed at the front and its conductor, who belonged to no particular church, was put in charge of the music.

They began with Handel's "He Shall Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd," a popular anthem with elaborate part singing that the congregation performed faultlessly. As hundreds of tenor voices soared across the park with the line "And gather the lambs with his arm," Ethel realized that she missed this thrilling music when she was in London.

The Catholic priest recited Psalm 129, "De Profundis," in Latin. He shouted as loud as he could, but those at the edge of the crowd could hardly hear. The Anglican rector read the Collect Order for the Burial of the Dead from the Book of Common Prayer. Dilys Jones, a young Methodist, sang "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling," a hymn written by Charles Wesley. The Baptist pastor read I Corinthians 15 from verse 20 to the end.

One preacher had to represent the independent groups, and the choice had fallen on Da.

He began by reading a single verse from Romans 8: "If the spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you." Da had a big voice that carried strongly all across the park.

Ethel was proud of him. This honor acknowledged his status as one of the principal men of the town, a spiritual and political leader. He looked smart, too: Mam had bought him a new black tie, silk, from the Gwyn Evans department store in Merthyr.

He spoke about resurrection and the afterlife, and Ethel's attention drifted: she had heard it all before. She assumed there was life after death, but she was not sure, and anyway she would find out soon enough.

A stirring in the crowd alerted her that Da might have diverted from the usual themes. She heard him say: "When this country decided to go to war, I hope that every member of Parliament searched his conscience, sincerely and prayerfully, and sought the Lord's guidance. But who put those men in Parliament?"

He's going to get political, Ethel thought. Good for you, Da. That will take the smug look off the rector's face.

"Every man in this country is liable, in principle, for military service. But not every man is allowed a part in the decision to go to war."

There were shouts of agreement from the crowd.

"The rules of the franchise exclude more than half the men in this country!"

Ethel said loudly: "And all the women!"

Mam said: "Hush, now! It's your da that's preaching, not you."

"More than two hundred Aberowen men were killed on the first day of July, there on the banks of the Somme River. I have been told that the total of British casualties is over fifty thousand!"

There was a gasp of horror from the crowd. Not many people knew that figure. Da had got it from Ethel. Maud had been told by her friends in the War Office.

"Fifty thousand casualties, of which twenty thousand are dead," Da went on. "And the battle goes on. Day after day, more young men are being massacred." There were sounds of dissent from the crowd, but they were mostly drowned out by the shouts of agreement. Da held up his hand for quiet. "I do not say who is to blame. I say only this. Such slaughter cannot be right when men have been denied a part in the decision to go to war."

The rector stepped forward, trying to interrupt Da, and Perceval Jones tried unsuccessfully to climb up onto the platform.

But Da was almost done. "If ever we are asked again to go to war, it shall not be done without the consent of all the people."

"Women as well as men!" Ethel cried, but her voice was lost in the cheers of support from the miners.

Several men were now standing in front of Da, remonstrating with him, but his voice rang out over the commotion. "Never again will we wage war on the say-so of a minority!" he roared. "Never! Never! Never!"

He sat down, and the cheering was like thunder.


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