It was this place, in those days, those years,
rivers ran blackened as night in the valley,
and open coke oven doors lit the sky red,
and green fields drowned in spit black spoil.
It was this place where slow hunger and poverty
stamped down, slammed its feet on the ground.
Children starved and mouths slept empty,
soup kitchens fed families, hunger thinned,
this place, this place where malnutrition and disease
looked through every door, every window
except the rich few in their great houses.
And men marched to far away cities to plead
assistance for so many in a time of great need.
Men marched the length, the breadth of the country
to meet the slit closed eyes of cold indifference.
She told the stories of those days, those years,
and when it was her time to pack, to leave,
she was small, just fourteen years of age.
She was a small child travelling as a stranger
in those greyed days of the great depression.
Think of a child travelling from a valley
to work in a grand Bankers Chelsea mansion.
She spoke of survival, the cruel vicious lips,
the vindictive unsmiling eyed housekeeper,
just because she couldn’t speak words of Welsh.
She worked as a maid for a florin, a few pennies,
to send back home to her family in the valley,
to support her parents, her brothers, her sisters,
and in that she was like so many valley children.
In that time, in that place in those years.
And in those times, in that place in those years.
when the cruelty became too much to bare,
she left to work in a Rabbi’s home,
as a young nanny to their children.
She recalled the words of kindness,
the different foods and the music,
Sophie Tucker’s My Yiddishe Mama.
We would laugh when she danced,
a mischievous smile, those dark brown eyes,
the slow easy dance movements
memories of happy days lingering.
But she would recount listening
to the stories of families from Germany,
who’d escaped and told their stories,
of the treachery, the butchery of Crystal Nacht
of the barbarity and disappearances,
and the wearing of yellow star badges.
While our country pretended it knew nothing,
when people were fleeing for their lives.
And so the war came as it was bound to,
and my mother packed her belongings
and furniture into an old Pickford’s van,
to make her way back to the valley,
to bring up her child while her man,
was recalled to serve, to do his soldiers duty
over five long years fighting in others lands.
She stood with a red-cross box on the square,
and at night worked in the arsenal soldering,
the fuses on bombs while the blitz flames
lit the skies over Bristol, Cardiff and Swansea.
In that time, in that place in those years.
And in that time, on that day in that year
her mother ran to tell her the lost man was returning,
the village decked out with ribbons and bunting.
But he was not the man he was before the war,
his temper a short fuse and his hands heavy,
and then he saved himself again in the silence,
of growing vegetables in a high stone walled garden,
and he always said after it saved his sanity.
He never spoke of the war, never wore his medals.
They were locked in the black box under his bed,
with those memories of men who didn’t return,
lost on an Italian beachhead called Anzio.
So they brought up a family of three children,
grew food in the garden in a time of austerity,
bottled it, jammed it and stored the food too,
ready for the harshness of black iced winters ,
plates were ladled with scrag end of lamb stews,
and when neighbour’s children tapped at the door,
frightened from sitting alone in a cold dark house,
more plates were laid, the food divided and shared.
But the boy who stared wasn’t allowed in again,
and was taken away for the murder of a friend.
The summers were hot, autumns wet, grey-cold
winters were hard winters and that’s when it snowed.
That’s how it happened year after year until 1966,
the year when life and what mattered changed forever,
the year when the boys lungs tried to drown him,
and in the dimmed light of his room the priest spoke quietly,
it was touch and go, six months in bed, a year off school.
In that place, in that time, in those days in that year
And in this place, in those times, in those years
the couple who came through the war grew old
and there should be a happy end to the story
But the man died on a dirty ward infected with MRSA,
his unfair death prolonged and pain filled,
and the doctors and nurses betrayed him,
and we closed his eyes with our great loss.
She bore the separation with grace and dignity
told their story with some laughter, of the chance
meeting with the tall man at Speakers Corner
that bought their lives and their story together
and she asked the question “Was this how it had to end?”
On that day, on that year, in this valley, in this place.
© 2017, Rob Cullen