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A Toy Epic

Emyr Humphreys


I was brought up in a broad valley in one of the four corners of Wales. On fine days from my bedroom window I saw the sea curve under the mountains in the bottom right-hand corner of the window frame. My sister and I played in the garden. Hiding behind the soft forest of asparagus grass, climbing the apple trees. My name is Michael.

I was brought up in the kitchen parlour and bedroom of No 15 Cambrian Avenue. Cambrian Avenue is in Llanelw which is a busy seaside town. Under the kitchen table I first saw motes swimming in a beam of sunlight, and crumbs lying white and edible near me on the floor. At three and a half I played in the cul-de-sac, and numbers 13,14,15,16,17 and 18 stood on guard about me, watching me with square indifferent eyes. My name is Albie.

I was brought up in the heart of ninety acres, at the end of a broad valley, at the headquarters of Noah, in an anchored ark. My growth was calf-like from the semi-twilight of the darkened kitchen to the sharp light of the empty front garden. I followed my mother, going to riddle cinders, sheltering behind her skirt from the aggressive eloquence of the geese. I followed my father to view the new hunt bull, and my small fist groped along the resistant corduroy breeches he wore. The cart-horse, the duck pond, the cowshed and the hayshed, the stable and the granary constituted my city. My name is Iorwerth.

The Rectory was my home, said Michael. My mother believed the house was far too big. My father’s stipend was £300 a year and to this I may add a small private income of £60 a year, the rent of a smallholding far away in Cardiganshire, left to him in the will of his great-uncle Job. I went to the village school and mixed with the village children, being different only in as much as I retired from school or play down a drive sheltered by elms to a large house instead of going home to a terrace house in the village; or in as much as I could watch the parson in his white and distant surplice, with the inward knowledge that I could sit on his knee and even put my finger inside his hard gleaming collar.

My mother was firm and well-bred, the daughter of a vicar, accomplished in playing the piano and embroidery. Because there was little prospect of my going to a Public School my mother strove particularly hard to give me the advantages of a good upbringing, at all times desiring me to be conscious of my good origins.

One rainy afternoon Wil Ifor Jones came to play with me in the Rectory stables. Wil was the daring boy of our class. But his father was a farm labourer, famous for his hard work, for his drinking bouts and for sometimes beating his wife.

“Nid fel yna mae gwneud”6 said Wil as I failed to spin my top, as my mother came to call us in for tea. “That’s not the way to do it, you silly fool.”

“Don’t you call Michael a fool, Wil Ifor Jones, and don’t you use the ‘ti’ with him either.You should know your place.”

I felt vaguely elated that I should be accounted better than Wil, who was a daring boy, and I looked at him curiously. I was more than ever anxious to secure his permanent friendship, but he never came to the Rectory to play again, and at school, for quite a long time, he treated me rather roughly.

In the garden, my mother always wore gloves, and my sister and I, uprooting weeds, moved obedient to her refined remarks. We pulled up weeds in the flower bed around the lawn while my mother clipped the laurel bushes, or, in her absence, we ran about among the laurels and the rhododendrons.

In the house, my mother commanded Mary, the maid, to scrub the large square slabs on the kitchen floor, to wash the dishes, iron our clothes, clean the grate, and sundry other domestic duties, which we watched, my sister and I, with pleasure.

“Mary!” my mother would call in various tones. “Mari-mary! Mary-mari! Mary-this-house-needs-two-or-three-maids-not-one!”

“Mary!” my father would call in his deep, kind, parsonical voice. “Have you seen my pipe, my hat, my gloves, the red book, the blue book, this, that, or the other?”

Mary, fat and unattractive, would confide in us, and speak to us as equals, and Mary’s opinions were ours. She had too much work to do. We agreed. George Jones was a daft fellow. We agreed. Our father-in-the-study had a memory like a sieve. We agreed. Mary was our mentor, our adviser of the business of living. We were credulous clay in her red, scrubbed hands; her rights and her wrongs were ours. We were on her side.

In the evenings she read children’s stories to us in hauntingly monotonous English: What said Dobson are you game for a lark the beak is out we could hide the tuckbox in his study too ris-ky said Peers…

Mary enjoyed the stories as much as we did and she told us which were best and which ones were no good. Mary was English, she said. Her father was born in Chester, but her father could speak Welsh when he had a mind. Only old Methodies7 spoke Welsh all the time. We agreed, and answered our father in English which pleased my mother, I think, apart from our accent which we got from Mary. But my father never gave up what must have appeared then a losing battle. That is why my sister and I prefer to speak English. It was Mary’s idea. One of her principles.

I run around the cul-de-sac, said Albie, steering my way with a broken stick between my hands, my lips being my engine.

“My father drives a bus!” I shout to anyone who happens to pass. My father comes through the back door for tea, throwing his stiff peaked cap on the sofa and hanging his leather money bag behind the door.

“Near thing today, by the S bend, between Pantbach and Pydew.”

“Oh, yes, Dic. What happened?” my mother’s voice is soft and patient.

“Just as I’d got round the first bend, there was a fool of a fellow coming racing towards me. I couldn’t see through the hedge, could I?”

“Well, no, Dic, of course you couldn’t.”

“Good job for him I was going slow or the b …” My father looks at me and does not finish what he was going to say.

“He could have had it. Smashed up!”

“Oh, dear.” My mother shakes her head and I feel I want to shake mine. “Another cup of tea, Dic?”

“Diawch, Nel!8

I heard a good one down in the yard today.You know little Archie, fellow from Llansannan, conductor on one of our double deckers. You know, little fellow, very small. The one who always says ‘A-way John Jones’ every time he rings the bell?”

“Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t, Dic bach.” My mother cuts bread and butter effortlessly, watching also the kettle on the verge of boiling, my father’s plate, and me.

“Diawch, you do, Nellie! Terrible temper for such a small man. Like a Lucifer.

Anyway for you, he got into a quarrel with one of those Royal Yellow chaps. D’you know what he did?”

“I’ve no idea.” My mother holds her head on one side expectantly. My father pauses dramatically now that she has given him all her attention.

“Threw his ticket punch at him!”

My mother looks shocked and startled, but my father is still laughing so I know it is all right.

“He did. Threw his ticket punch at him!”

My father belches. Sitting down all day, gripping the large steering wheel that vibrates constantly between his hands, staring down the winding roads and breathing petrol fumes with every breath of air: he says himself it’s no wonder his digestion is bad.

“I get shaken to death to earn my living,” he says quite often. As a joke. My father loves to make jokes.

“Wish they’d leave me on this circular run for ever more, Nellie,” my father says, drinking a cup of tea standing by the open back door. “Nice to pop home for tea. Much better than the country run.”

“Well ask them about it, Dic. See if you can get a transfer.”

“I will do that, Nel.”

“Nel! Nel!”

“Here’s your cup of tea, Dic. What’s the matter?”

“Thanks. Just a sip. Can’t wait. They are saying at the yard that Foster’s going to sellout to the Royal Yellow. You can’t tell. It’s hard to say.”

“Jim Morris was saying that the working on the buses is the best place these days. You don’t get the sack so easy. You can’t tell. It’s hard to say.”

“Nel! Nel!”

“Here’s your cup of tea, Dic.”

“Sorry, Nel. Can’t stay long. There’s talk of a strike at the Royal Yellows. Have you heard?”

“You don’t know what to believe, Dic bach.You can’t tell.”

“It’s hard to say. Must be off now. Don’t you dance too much attendance on those visitors, Nel. So long, little ’un.”

“So long, Dad.”

The cap with the glistening peak once more on his head, and his money bag hung over his shoulder, his face turns towards us, smiling between two steps as he passes the kitchen window.

“So long, Dad. Take care, Dad. Ta-ta! ta-ta!”

The first time I am ever allowed to carry out a pint tin of hot tea to the field where my father and Llew are busy hedging, said Iorwerth, it is winter and I am well wrapped up.

“Hedges are cut with the aid of a two-foot rule, aren’t they, Llew?” My father is jolly as I run about him. Everything he says seems jollier with the wind blowing it. Indoors he is always more serious. “Look out, my boy. Don’t stand too close, my love!” He wields his bill-hook with ardent pleasure, the slim, white-haired man in corduroy trousers and a torn old coat. Half the hedge is bent and neat and half stands untidy and upward, remaining to be tackled.

If you happened to look into my father’s diary – Boots’ large farmer’s diary which he keeps in his desk, – for the year 1926, you would read an account of how, in February, it being cold outside, he allowed me into the barn to watch him chaffing hay for the cattle, breathing heavy and hungry in the warm adjacent byre.

“Ho!” I shouted and danced about.

Clec! Clec! Chuff! Chuff! Chuff! said the oil engine, and the chaff-cutter rattled like mad. My father stuffed hay along the trough into the false teeth of the machine. Those false, false teeth, for when his back was turned I put my hand in thinking I might experience the ecstasy of the shaking machine, and although I cannot remember, the false teeth took my finger, and, I suppose, chaffed it. My right hand now has three fingers and a stump in addition to my thumb. Everyone notices I write with my left hand.

I think it is an advantage to be brought up in the country, spring, summer, autumn and winter. “It is an advantage,” said Miss Roberts, our teacher, “to be brought up in the country, and especially on a farm, isn’t it Iorwerth?”

“Oh, yes, Miss Roberts,” I blush.

“There are little children,” continues Miss Roberts, “living in large cities who have never seen a blade of grass.”

“Oh, pity. Pity,” Our whole class sighs.

Spring, summer, autumn, winter, smartly, slowly, slowly, fast, I walk a mile and a half to school alongside hedges and across fields. Picking the flowers according to the season, a handful of primroses for school, a handful of bluebells home, harebells for Miss Roberts, violets for Mam; or strapped in high gaiters I march as well as I can manage through the more navigable snow.

“Robert Jones! Aren’t you ashamed of yourself living almost next door to the school, and ten minutes late! And here’s Iorwerth Hughes, who has to walk a mile and a half, never late, never late. Take that impudent grin off your face.” Yes, Robert, please, Robert, take it off. Don’t annoy him. Don’t scold him. Let’s all be friends.

“Iorwerth Hughes has had all his sums correct this morning. He is a very good boy. Come and sit in the front, Iorwerth, here, sit next to Michael.”

I slink happily to the front with my pencil and book and I slide my behind along the seat, and Michael, looking at me curiously, slides up.

“Mam,” I said, out of breath in the evening when I got home for tea. “Mam, Miss Roberts said I was a good boy today. I got all my sums right. She moved me to the front to sit by Michael Edwards.”

“There’s a good boy. Tell me, Iorwerth, did Michael get his sums right, too?”

“No, Mam. Only me.”

The first day I went to school, said Albie, I was escorted by my mother.

There’s Nellie Jones taking her darling to school. She makes too much of him she does. Like a one chick hen. She’s sure to ruin him. Mark my words.

“Goodmorning, Mrs Jones. Nice day, isn’t it? Albie off to school? Hello, Albie! Hello, love!”

Doesn’t he look nice and clean.

“Ta-ta, Albie.”

Sulky little chap. Most unloving. Like a little old man. Not natural I call it.

Passing the little gates and little gardens, the housewives bare-armed in doorways, passing the shops and the fish and chip saloon not open yet, I see Mr Pike, the fruiterer, carrying cauliflowers out in round wicker baskets. He speaks to my mother.

“Morning, Mrs Jones. Beautiful morning. Off to school, is he? Big day, eh?”

I see the assistant brushing in the gloom of the shop towards the daylit door sawdust and bits of paper; I see the newsagent and the tobacconist pulling out the placards for the day, which I linger to look at as I believe he wants me to do. But my mother tugs at my arm.

“Come along, Albie, or we’ll be late.”

My mother hates being late. It is wrong to be late.

“If you don’t go to school you’ll never learn anything. Come on now, there’s a good boy.”

What are these tall railings that stand between us and a broad asphalt yard and a dirty red building? What is the wrought-iron gate half open to allow us through? What are these bright and shining faces, these groups, these running figures, this echoing choir of voices? We walk, my mother and I, among talking, shouting girls of all sizes, and very small boys.

My mother has gone. I am alone sitting in a desk among a lot of children of my age. There are blocks on the desk and beads for counting. There is a young lady standing in front of us, and a blackboard. The young lady has a lot of fair hair and a kind face. Like me, please, young lady. We get up, stand in rows between the desks and march out of the room along a corridor, through a glass-topped door, into a large room, a huge room, filled with children, hundreds and thousands of children, and we march to the very front. The young lady makes us stand in rows. I stand trembling with nerves, my nose almost on the gleaming gable of the upright piano. I see a blurred reflection of the endless rows of children that stretch behind me. Bang goes the piano, and I jump with fright.

“ There’s a home for little children

Above the bright blue sky…”

The September sunlight streams through the high churchlike window across rows of singing faces, rows of wide open mouths. Could there, anywhere, be room for them all? A mighty noise fills the earth, pours through my tender ears. It is not a bad noise; if only it was not so loud; which pause will be the last … how long will it go on? Aaaaaamen. It is suddenly quiet.

The man with grey hair and a finger inside a book opens the book. The grown-ups bend their heads and close their eyes. The man with grey hair is speaking with eyes closed. I look along the row of teachers and I am able to see the top of their heads. I look around and the children have bent their heads and closed their eyes also. Now is my chance to understand. They are all silent, their eyes are closed. No one looks at me and I look at everyone. I have begun to explore a new dimension.

Since I was the Rector’s son, said Michael, and the village school was a church school my talent received early recognition. At Sunday school also I was expected to give bright answers. Here there were four teachers; Miss Meurig, babies; Mr Jones, boys; and Miss Watkins, girls; my father took the young men and a few grown-ups. Miss Meurig with a cardboard alphabet on her knee taught us the alphabet in Welsh and read Bible stories to us and showed us bright pictures: Ruth gleaning the field of Boaz, Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah.

I gained an early promotion to Mr Jones’s class and became its youngest member. Here we memorized the Creed in Welsh. I caused some commotion because I refused to acknowledge that I could read Welsh. Mary, the maid, I suppose, sowed the seed of sedition in my mind. Mr Jones was afraid of my father and hated a fuss. So eventually I had my own way. I would sit in a corner of the pew and eagerly await my turn to read when we read through Psalms together, one verse after another because we read them in English, and I could read English better than the others. If it was a long verse I was delighted and read as fast as I could to emphasize my superiority. For this the others disliked me and kept me out of their games and conversation. I looked back at them, over my shoulder, delighted with my superiority, as I ran alone through the graves to the Rectory gate and they made their way down the broad path to the litch-gate. The advantage of having a path of one’s own to come and go by! The advantage! The superiority!

My father had his churchwardens to tea on alternate Sundays, in the seclusion of his study. The one was a farmer with whom he discussed farming and local gossip, and the other the village schoolmaster in whom he endeavoured to awake an interest in archaeology. I was allowed to join them after tea if the conversation was at all fit for young ears. I sat near them, and listened intently until it was time for evensong. Sometimes I had a story book with me, and as I grew older I grew less interested in the conversation and more interested in the book.

But at this time I am a patient audience to Mr Lewis, the schoolmaster, who loved to talk about football more than anything in the world, and my father who wanted to talk archaeology, and to Mr Williams and my father who both talk of the wonders of farming and the genealogies and the strange histories of the families of our parish.

The Daily Mail had a good shot at the Labour Party yesterday. Did you read it, Rector?”

“Llwynhendy is an interesting old farm, you know, Lewis, very interesting. The farm road is definitely the only remaining part of the Roman sarn in this parish. I’ve established that.”

“Rector bach, I never saw such a cow in all my life. She had a bag, well, I’ve never seen anything more perfect.” “Hughes bach’s mother and Twm Tan Twr’s grandmother were two sisters, as you say, but I still don’t see how they can be related to Lias Tyn Gors, Rector, quite honestly.”

“I’ll show you the book, Williams. I’m quite certain. Michael, pass me that large blue book on the bottom shelf, over there.”

“I’ll have a look in the old Parish Register, Mr Williams. Get my keys, Michael. I’m sure John Morris is over sixty-five. Quite sure. But I’ll be able to tell you for certain.”

Mr Lewis speaks slowly. In his anxiety to please, he leaves a sentence unfinished, as though inviting his listener to draw the conclusion he found most agreeable. To myself I say, almost in pain, oh, please yourself, Mr Lewis! Just please yourself, and I devise a conclusion for him that I feel couldn’t fail to please anybody, which is what would please Mr Lewis most. But he never knows what I have done for him.

Mr Williams crosses his short fat legs so that I see his under-pants above his thick woollen stockings. Oh! I say to myself, almost in agony, adjust your trousers, please, Mr Williams. Mr Lewis taps his finger-tips together and stares through his glasses at something beyond me.

Mr Williams smokes like a furnace, I can hardly see his face behind the cloud of smoke that hangs and eddies around him in the windless study. Then perhaps my father will discern the face of the water-clock on the mantelpiece and say:

“Duw, Duw! It’s five to six. Come along, Lewis Williams, we must go to Church. They can’t get along without us, you know Michael, go and wash yourself.”

“It’s Welsh tonight, Dad. Can I stay at home please?

“Go and wash, and don’t try and tell me you can’t understand Welsh! Go along. It’s this maid of ours, you know, Mr Lewis. She can’t speak Welsh, she says. If you heard her English! Sheep’s English! But then maids are so scarce, so what can we do?”

Mary gets all the blame, but in fact it is my mother who is sending my sister to a boarding school at Llandrindod, for the sake of her accent. Her cousin is the headmistress and therefore my sister gets special terms.There is no talk of a boarding school for me.

My sister, who has spent the time between tea and evensong with Mary or my mother, now comes to view and races after me across the lawn to climb over the wall into the churchyard. Or, at other times, my mother catches us in time and leads us through the white gate and along the official footpath.

In Church the lamps are lit ready for the darkness that falls during the second lesson. There is a smell of paraffin, and the heating apparatus is boiling over. From a tank in the top corner of the back of the Church comes the sound of mighty rushing boiling waters, and a small cloud of steam. John Elias is ringing the bell, one hand behind his back, his fingers playing about the slit in his jacket. His hair is scanty and parted in the middle, his thin weather-beaten face is creased into a broad toothless smile as he nods at us and raises his eyes at the tank, creasing his forehead neatly, and stretching his smile still further.

The rushing boiling waters roar as we kneel in prayer. My sister and I are afraid. She whispers: “Dolgarrog,” and I see the front page of the Christian Herald that Mary showed us last week – a woman clinging to the branch of a tree with a baby on her other arm, and the water from the broken dam filling up the picture. The sound of mighty rushing waters assails my ears. If the tank of boiling water burst, if the pipes exploded? The tank was at the back of the Church, we sat neatly and quietly in the second pew from the front. Could we get out in time? Through the stained glass window? Or could we climb up the pulpit and stand on the Bible above the rising boiling water?

Rhif yr emyn dau gant tri deg a phedwar,11 two hundred and thirty-four.” Thank God for my father’s firm voice from the back of the Church. All will be well. Long ago my mother has stopped me from turning round, but the twitch in my neck still remains. Miss Morris at the organ is behindhand again. Oh, the painful interval. A fat spinster with a straw hat and pince-nez fumbles with her hymn book and peddles away the while, getting wind into the organ’s tired lungs.

She’s off! We get up. My father in a white starched surplice walks solemnly down the aisle, passing us without as much as a glance. He sinks gracefully to his knees before us. We sing on.