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Book Of The Month

Remembering Rhondda
Pineapple Sundays
(An Excerpt)

Tom the car & the Tarzan sandwich
As a greeting the words were nothing out of the ordinary, but I knew instantly from the breathless urgency with which my best pal was delivering them that they held the promise of an exciting adventure though as yet there was no clue as to exactly what that could be.
“Hello, Mrs Swain, is Andy in? I gotta see him. Quick like.” The words were like an early warning as they drifted into the house. They had been aimed at Mammy who was outside, pegging clothes on the line. I knew who it was instantly, I recognised the voice and I knew that the next second Dinky Miles, who always called me Andy even though my name was Handel, would come barging into the kitchen where I was breakfasting on bread and jam washed down with a cup of tea. He wouldn’t bother to wait for Mammy to answer or even acknowledge him – he treated our house like his own.
Dinky could never just talk or say anything quietly. He had to shout as if it was some way of compensating for his diminutive stature, something that was confirmed by the noisy way he finally delivered his news.
“Andy! Come on – quick mun – outside. There’s a car. Some men are pushing a car up the ’ill. You gotta come an’ see it mun.”
He was puffing and panting, jumping from one leg to the other and waving his arms all over the place. He was wearing a well-washed, red jersey, black shorts below his knees and the mandatory hobnail boots. His small stature meant that Dinky always had problems with clothes, particularly trousers. His face was lit up, his cheeks glowing red with a bright soapy shine. It was a Saturday morning sparkle that would become grubbier as the adventures of the day left their mark.
Men pushing a car! This was big news. Dinky was in a hurry to share it with me and by now he was tugging at my arm as he followed his initial outburst with: “Where they taking it, Andy mun?” I was ten, a full year older than Dinky and because of this he thought that I knew everything.
It was the spring of 1946 and the war had been over for nearly a year. Life seemed to have become mundane after the euphoria and great rejoicing of the previous year when the air seemed to be constantly filled with the salutes of victory over Germany and Japan. Now it seemed that the nation had slipped into a state of limbo. We were told – and believed – that things were going to get much better now that the war was over.
By now men were returning from the war in their droves. There was plenty of work for them instead of the dreaded dole which many had faced before they had gone off to war, but in some respects things got worse. Food rationing was still in force and bread and potatoes, plentiful during the worst years of the war, were now strangely scarce. We even lacked the excitement of the latter years of the war which brought events like the arrival of the Americans in Swansea, the D-Day landings and victories over the enemy to brighten our lives. Worse still, now that Dinky’s father was back home, there was a stricter discipline in the Miles’ household. Little boys had to remain seen but not heard and their friends were no longer welcome, at least not when Mr Miles was at home. As a result my only access to a wireless had been lost. This meant Dinky and I could no longer share the adventures of classic BBC serials along with the light entertainment shows such as ITMA and Variety Bandbox that we also enjoyed listening to. There was a glimmer of hope though. We were holding our breath in anticipation after Mammy had hinted that, with my sisters Maggie and Molly now working, our household might soon have its own wireless.
For the moment however, Dinky was still tugging at my arm trying to pull me away from the table while I clutched an inch thick slice of bread and jam. Suddenly he stopped, momentarily forgetting about the men pushing the car. Instead he fixed his eyes on my breakfast. He thrust his head forward, his nose almost resting on my bread and jam.
“Give us a bite mun, Andy,” he hollered before opening his mouth as wide as he possibly could. I didn’t hesitate. I held out the bread and jam and soon there was a gaping, crescent-shaped chunk missing from one corner. It lasted in his mouth for all of two seconds before it was eagerly swallowed. This was normal. We had readily shared everything since our first meeting in an air raid shelter five years before. If he was eating an apple when we met up, without hesitation it would be thrust towards my mouth with the generous invitation to take a good bite. The same would apply to Welsh cakes or biscuits and if one of us was sucking a hard boiled sweet it would be cracked in two and a portion shoved into the other’s mouth. We were pals.
Soon, with me clutching the remains of my bread and jam and Dinky bubbling with excitement, we were rushing through the back door – for some reason we never used the front. As we tore past Mammy, still pegging out clothes, she shouted a warning.
“Handel! Mind you now, don’t be late for dinner.”
“I won’t be, Mammy,” I shouted back. Her words were unnecessary. I wouldn’t miss Saturday dinner for anything. My oldest brother Daniel had gone to Swansea market as usual and it would be fried cockles and laverbread on the table today.
“There they are Andy – I told you didn’t I?” Dinky said triumphantly as we reached the road where the two men pushing the car had now been joined by four boys. They were older than us – thirteen or fourteen perhaps – and among them was my brother Harry. One of the men, who turned out to be the owner, had his hand through the open window of the driver’s door, his fingers curled around the steering wheel. He wore a dark blue pinstripe suit which could have been described as smart once, but which looked baggy and grubby now through being worn to work. It was probably his demob suit. Lots of men were wearing these ill-fitting suits. There was another man on the other side of the car with the boys pushing at the back. It seemed hard work and their bodies were straining to keep the vehicle moving and on course, a task hampered by the fact that it was completely rusted up and its tyres were flat.
Eventually the car and the exhausted group reached the brow of the hill where the road widened and levelled out into Hafod Square. Here it seemed they believed the worst was over. Me and Dinky were standing on the road just outside my house watching them from a safe distance as they took a welcome breather from their strenuous efforts. Like Dinky, I wondered where they were going with the car.
After the group had rested for a while the proceedings got underway again. Moving the car was easier now as it was on a slight downward slope. As they came alongside us they came to a halt once more. The man steering took his hand off the wheel and joined his mate in front of the car. They were looking towards a row of five corrugated metal garages that stood in front of the Great Tip. The four older boys stayed at the back of the car with their hands on hips trying their best to look grown-up and important.
The men were alongside a wide gap in the bank which had been carved out by Sergeant Nick, a bulldozer-driving American soldier, during the war to allow easier access to the tip for the big Yankee trucks. The slope to get on to the land where the garages stood was not that steep and if the car had power there wouldn’t have been a problem in moving it to its final destination. By now I assumed this would be one of the garages, two of which were already in use – one on an almost daily basis by Mrs James who kept a grocer’s shop on the main road and the one where my brother Harry had broken a window two years earlier and landed up in the Juvenile Court.
After deliberating for a few minutes the men decided that there was nothing for it but to fill in some of the larger potholes on the roughly hewn track and, with the help of the boys, put their backs into shoving the car once more. Before they started, Harry shouted across to us.
“Keep away from ’ere ’andel, it’s dangerous. You too, Dinky,” he said with his chest puffed up to match his ego.
Neither of us intended doing anything other than keeping away. The only thing really dangerous there was Harry, but from past experience we knew better than to answer him back. Harry could be mean and vindictive. Anyway it was much more fun watching from a distance as the car, which they had started to push once more, seemed an awkward beast to handle.
For the first few yards they were helped by the slight gradient of the road. Harry and his pals, pushing at the back, decided to use this advantage by taking a run at it, with Harry shouting: “Right boys, push and run!” It seemed to work and the car gathered momentum. The trouble was that the man with his hand on the steering wheel couldn’t turn it quickly enough because of the vehicle’s flat tyres and he ended up bellowing “Stop you bloody fools! Stop!”
He struggled to turn the steering wheel while at the same time dragging his heels on the ground in a bid to slow the vehicle down. Worse still, the man on the other side was running so close to the front wheel that, as it turned, his boot was caught under the flat tyre. With the side of the car gradually bearing down on him he was on his knees before he finally managed to drag himself clear, by which time he was adding to the mayhem by cursing and shouting.
“You cowin’ stupid idiots! Trying to cowin’ kill me,” he screamed. With that the boys stopped pushing and backed away from the car, visibly scared by his anger. Two of them – Harry I must admit wasn’t one – were already doing a runner not knowing how the men would react, particularly the one on the ground who was now cradling his injured leg in his arms.
“Oh dear God! Iesu Annwyl. They’ve broken my cowin’ leg mun,” he moaned. From his cursing I could tell that his first language was Welsh. I had heard ‘Iesu Annwyl’ often enough from my Welsh-speaking mother when she was in a temper. The car was now in the worst possible position, slewed at an angle, half on the road and half on the gravel path. The man who had been steering went to see how badly injured his companion was. Although obviously in pain he was soon up on his feet shaking his fist and still swearing at the boys who were, for the moment at least, keeping a safe distance. I could understand their reasoning for keeping clear of the men until their tempers had cooled a little. In the event this took all of a few minutes of foot-stamping and furious leg rubbing by the injured man. Then after some words of encouragement from the car’s owner whose sole aim was to get it safely up to the garage, he was soon calling the boys back.
“All right boys, come on. No harm done is it, we still need your help,” he cajoled.
They needed little encouragement and came running back to the car eager to resume the action as the man steering shouted some instructions.
“Right boys, let’s straighten her up first – then we can get a good run at it,” he said.
His mate, believing the boys to be a malicious bunch of hooligans, chipped in with “And try not to cowin’ kill me this time. Right!”
The first part of the operation went smoothly. They reversed the car back out into the middle of the road, lined the front wheels up to the ash and clinker path then, with a man each side and the boys yelling at the back, they ran the car at the gradient. They got up a good speed and did it in one go, but not in the way I expected. As the car left the road and hit the ash and clinker surface it bounced into the air. The boys pushing at the back let go as the momentum took the car forward. The job was done, but the car was now minus one of its front wheels. Unfortunately the men, who hadn’t let go, were now sprawled on the ground. This time both of them were writhing and cursing.
Harry and his mates didn’t hang around this time. Instead they were haring for the park as fast as their legs could carry them. Me and Dinky turned and scooted back to the refuge of my house from where we watched the men as they picked themselves up. The car’s owner was leaning on the bonnet looking down and inspecting the damage to the wheels. His mate had given up and was already hobbling back down Pentremawr Hill. We watched as the owner of the car tinkered with it for a while, opening the doors, lifting the bonnet and boot lid. Eventually he gave the wheels a kick before he too walked off. The morning’s excitement was over.
Before long Daniel returned from the market with the laverbread and cockles for our dinner. As a family we thought laverbread – black seaweed chopped up into a thick paste – was delicious, though for some the mere sight of it was revolting. Harry, trying to put me off eating it said it reminded him of the cowpats in the fields of our uncle’s farm. That didn’t work with me, Walter or Eddie as we’d been weaned on the stuff, but in the past Harry had succeeded in putting off Dinky from savouring laverbread. Until today that was.
Dinky had decided that he was having dinner with us – bread and cockles – but no laverbread. Molly, my sister, had also arrived home. Saturday was her half-day from work and she was helping Mammy with the dinner. She had already cooked four slices of thick, salty Welsh bacon which was on a plate in the top oven keeping warm. Next into the frying pan, spitting and fizzing, went a mountain of fat, juicy, shelled cockles. Mammy tossed and mixed them into the sizzling bacon fat, sweating and slightly crisping them before quickly spooning them into a large dish which she placed with the bacon in the oven. She then scooped the laverbread which had been rolled in oatmeal, out of its greaseproof paper and into the remaining bacon fat which had now taken on the flavour of the cockles.
Saturday dinner was a mouth-watering experience when the house was filled with the mixed aromas of the strong Welsh bacon, the tangy cockles and the delicate laverbread. It was like a magic lure. The only person missing from the table was Harry. Suddenly he burst into the kitchen and sat on the bench opposite me, squeezing in alongside Walter and Eddie. Daniel, Dinky and I were sitting on the bench nearest the window. Mammy as always was at the head of the table with Molly at the opposite end where Maggie, my other sister, would normally sit. Molly had already cut a whole loaf of bread into thick slices, each smeared with a thin layer of our precious butter ration.
Eventually, Mammy began to fill the plates. First came the bacon – a slice each for her, Molly, Daniel and Harry with a small portion cut off each for me, none for Dinky, Walter or Eddie. The cockles were ladled on next before finally we all had a dollop of laverbread, all that is except Dinky. The traditional Welsh way of serving laverbread besides cooking it in bacon fat is to add vinegar and pepper. Mammy did this first for Walter and Eddie before the rest of us eagerly dived in.
It was then that Harry started his teasing. He was bolting his food down, but between swallows he began tormenting Dinky. “Go on mun Dinky ’ave some cow dung. It’s lovely cow dung this is.” Luckily for Harry, Molly was sitting near him and not Maggie. She was no match for him, but our eldest sister would have given him a clout without Mammy having to intervene.
“Stop that Harry,” Mammy warned. “Leave the boy alone or I’ll take your dinner away.” Her words stopped his tongue for a moment, but he rapidly continued devouring his dinner, heeding her threat that he could soon lose it. Within a couple of minutes his plate was clean even though the rest of us had only just started to eat. This was his opportunity to create even greater mischief.
Where Harry was sitting, just out of Mammy’s reach and close to the door, he knew that he could make a quick getaway. And he was going to need it. Molly wasn’t going to stop him, so everything was in his favour for his next move. Casually he picked up a slice of bread held it in the palm of his left hand and then, without warning, struck like a cobra. His right hand shot out and scooped up Dinky’s cockles almost clearing his plate. He was making a sandwich with them as he bolted through the door and as if trying to justify his rotten deed shouted back to Dinky “If you can’t eat the laverbread boy then you can’t eat the cockles.”
In a flash Mammy was blazing after him. “Iesu Annwyl. Wait ’till you get back. You’ll get a good lamping my boy.”
We were all left in a state of shock. Harry had spoilt the special Saturday dinner that we’d all been looking forward to. I felt angry, ashamed and sorry for poor Dinky who was now quietly sobbing. This in turn had set off Walter and Eddie. Hot and tired after sweating over the open fire cooking the dinner, Mammy tried to calm the little ones.
“Shh!!! Bachgen bach – hush little boys – come on, eat up before the food goes cold.” Her soothing words did eventually stem the flow of tears, but an air of gloom had descended upon us. Harry had ruined everything. Thankfully, Molly, loving and generous as always, found the ideal way to cheer us all up. Ironically she had probably taken her inspiration from Harry and the sandwich he made as he ran off with Dinky’s cockles.
“Look at me, boys. Look what I’m going to have,” she giggled, picking up a slice of bread, waiting for a moment and keeping us all in suspense before revealing her intention.
“I’m going to make a Tarzan sandwich,” she proclaimed.
As she did so Dinky’s sad demeanour changed instantly to sheer delight – Tarzan was his hero. Molly plastered the bread with laverbread then added little bits of bacon before topping it with a heap of cockles and completing the sandwich with another slice of bread.
“Who’s going to be first for a Tarzan sandwich?” she invited as she proudly held up her magical culinary creation for her eager young audience to scrutinise.
Dinky forgot all about his legendary dislike of laverbread.
“Me! Me! Me!” he shouted, determined to be the first boy to have a Tarzan sandwich.
His little face positively beamed as Molly handed it to him. Then, taking a gigantic bite he devoured it with relish. Of course Walter and Eddie now wanted Tarzan sandwiches too. They agreed with Dinky that it was the only way to eat cockles and laverbread. Molly had saved the day and everyone was happy again, but I don’t think she realised just what she had started with her Tarzan sandwiches.
After dinner we went outside again, in search of any development with the car that was now parked on the waste ground opposite our house. There was no sign of the owner or the older boys so we decided to give it a closer inspection. It was a black Standard 10 and must have once been quite a classy looking car in its prime before the rust and grime had taken hold. It now looked even worse as it sagged to one side with the loss of the front wheel. The bonnet was loose as well and half open and I realised why the car had bounced when it hit the bottom of the rough path – there was no weight to keep it down.
Family, friends and finding his way in life mattered most to Handel Swain, a Hafod boy immersed in the struggle for survival that was post-war Swansea. They provide the backdrop to an emotional roller-coaster which propels him through early adventures and into adulthood. It’s a journey punctuated by an endless mix of trials and tribulations. But there’s happiness too, as Handel’s exploits and growing pains are shared in a compelling blow-by-blow, docu-novel style. This book will both raise a smile and moisten the eye as its earthy incidents consume the reader.
Writer Haydn Williams shares a common bond with Handel Swain whose adventures he delightfully relates – both are proud products of The Hafod district of Swansea. Haydn has fond memories of his upbringing there, through what were often tough times. Now            
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