Photo of the aftermath of the Aberfan mining disaster. Source: BBC
The following short story was inspired by the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster that killed 144 people - 116 of them children - on October 21, 1966 in Aberfan, Wales. The cause of the disaster was the sudden collapse of a pile of waste from the local coal mine. For more on the event click here and here.
Having grown up in the Valleys, she had a weakness for working-class men. She loved the way they would seam stories of adoration, stitching one improbable emotion onto another, until they stretched suspended in the air around them. Men with names like Gareth, Geraint, Gwyn--all those G beginnings. She loved them so much that when her own son was born, she called him Gwilym, ignoring her mother’s sniggering down the phone at this choice of old man’s name.
One Christmas Eve, twenty-year-old Carys sat in the pub for a moment with a friend and her father. A cheerful man who looked like Bruce Forsyth, he was a retired fire officer for the region. Something – the weather, the whisky, the music on the sound-system – took him back. Describing how they had lifted body after body of the children buried in the collapsed spoil tip at Aberfan, he began to cry. Carys’s aunt was a Disaster survivor. A teacher at the infants’ school, she had apparently gotten her class out through a window. Carys was unsure of the details. It wasn’t her story to know or tell. It was only in middle age that she learned that her grandfather – lame from a football accident as a young man – had gone to help with the digging. ‘Everyone did,’ was the brief explanation offered by her father.
What Carys knew about coal came ten, twenty and thirty years after Aberfan. The slag heaps which framed her childhood – black in Hirwaun, white in Merthyr – gradually disappearing as they were cleared or landscaped to look like hills. The miners’ strike and the playground taunts of ‘scab’, whilst the children of the striking fathers stood in silence waiting for their free school meals. Carys’s family had teachers, not miners, but it was still poor. All the same, her parents scratched a few pennies here and there and gave tins of food to the cause. ‘They are starving,’ her mother had said. The sight of food banks three decades on reminded Carys of an unhealable grief.
Some things you should never get over. If a lost love can chip you to the bone, what do you do when there are no chipping places left? Whole families marooned in villages on the side of mountains. Her village made the headlines when the miners bought back the mine with their redundancy pay. Hirwaun – "long meadow" in Welsh – with the fields of fine, smokeless coal underneath. At the time, Carys had been dating a miner’s son. The father decided not to take the risk, opting to work for a neighbouring opencast. The mother was afraid there would be fighting at the party held at the pub where Carys worked, serving the men who came in with an eyeliner of coal, drinking one pint quickly to quench the thirst and then slowing for the second. ‘No man wants their son to be a miner,’ one of them told her that night. Still, they raised a glass to militancy.
When the Tower Colliery finally closed, it was because it was all mined out. The newspaper photos of the empty shower stalls are a ghostly reminder of South Wales’s last deep pit--a dream of generations in the dust.
Ceri Morgan is a Senior Lecturer at Keele University, UK, where she teaches classes on the Canadian urban novel, spatial theory and place-writing.