When Coal Was King by Gareth Clarke

Gareth Clarke's character tells of his childhood in a not-quite-traditional Welsh mining town.

I was born in the mining village of Cwmstgwynfryn. My dad lives there still, and in the same house too - in his nineties now, and still cooking for himself. I make the journey back three or four times a year, or whenever I can. One of the few original terraces left (they've pulled most of them down and built a rash of one and two bed bungalows) though you'd hardly recognise it for the smoke-grimed terrace it was when we lived there in the late Fifties and through the Sixties. Now it's all bright colours, open-plan living, teak veneer and Audis parked outside.

The pit's long gone, of course, with little sign of it now but the concrete cap over the pit shaft. The slag heap's all grassed over, and there are woods on its slopes, mixed pine and deciduous. Different as you could possibly imagine from when I lived there with my mam and dad. The kiddies from the local school are taken for walks along the nature trails through the woods where we used to scrabble for fragments of coal for the fire.

I was an only child, unusual for those times. Now, whether that's because after having me my mother turned against all that sort of thing in an outpouring of Presbyterian virtue - striding along to the chapel as she would, massive legs placed firmly apart in her Sunday best breeches and donkey jacket, breathing in the spirit of the Lord along with the smoke-laden air - or whether she'd imposed a strict no-go policy on my father for reasons of her own, and which he would have had no choice but to respect, I don't know. Doesn't bear thinking about, to be honest. Still, there it is - at the end of the day I remained an only child.

But I had my friends, and life at home was happy enough even though we had nothing of the modern comforts. I can still see my mam coming home at the end of a shift in her working jacket, waistcoat, breeches and leggings, still covered in coal dust, her face black. Greeting me with a not unfriendly cuff around the ears, kicking off her massive steel-capped boots and throwing herself into the chair next to the fire while my father brought her a mug of sweet tea and a thick hunk of bread. My dad did the usual thing for those times and stayed at home and did all the housework and cooking. He used to say - I can hear him now with that gentle Welsh lilt that he affected (he was from Birmingham) - 'I've never felt more manly, boyo' - he always called me boyo (it was another affectation but I generally let it pass) - 'I've never felt more manly, boyo, than when I'm makin' a soufflé, or cassoulet au canard, or tartiflette, or crepes suzette'. The making of which, incidentally - or indeed any manner of cuisine (but French especially) - he was preternaturally talented.

And in due course he'd bring through the tin bath that hung in the kitchen and fill it with water while my mother stripped off, openly and shamelessly. And then there was the ritual of the washing, and the sitting down and the standing up and the soaping and the rinsing, with the mighty breasts flapping and bouncing and sending a steady spray into my upturned face, and later the great buttocks fanning by the open fire. No wonder I've never been able to look at a woman naked since.

'Pass that sackin', boy,' she said in her deep voice, water dripping off the contours of her powerful physique.

My father put his head around the kitchen door and drank in the vision of his mighty and beloved Aphrodite at the butt end of her ablutions. After several seconds he tore his gaze away.

'Go down the road, boyo,' in husky tones, 'an' bring your mother a jug of beer. Oh, and take your time. No hurry, now.'

Taking the two pennies he'd given me, I set off down the grimy, close knit street, the houses crowding in one upon another, smoke from every chimney swirling and dipping and filling the air with its acrid taint. My heart sank down to the very toes of my bare feet at the prospect of this daily ritual, bringing up the jug of beer from The Thirsty Collier to mam, bringing it down empty once more for a refill. Sounds of raucous laughter, loud and bawdy, and bursts of singing met me even before I cautiously peeped around the door. The place was heaving, rows of hob-nailed boots, some propped up on the tables, some faces still black from the pit, eyes livid in the dimly gas-lit room in the haze of smoke and beer fumes. Cowering behind the bar, as if trying to pretend he wasn't there, keeping order as best he could in a house jammed with big, sinewy, rowdy women, was poor, frail Mr Jenkins, shirt sleeves rolled up high on his thin arms, the few wisps of hair plastered cross-ways across his head, eyes darting fearfully this way and that from behind wire-rimmed glasses. I dodged stealthily and carefully between the outstretched boots, trying not to attract attention, and greeted Mr Jenkins. We exchanged a look of mutual unease. I asked him for the jug of bitter, and slid the two pennies across the bar.

It was the usual wild west atmosphere, what with the hooping and the hollering and the gruff bursts of shouting and the fights breaking out and tumbling through the door into the street and the occasional beer mug flying through the air and landing with a clatter and a clash. Before Mr Jenkins had finished filling my jug there was the thunderous approach of a burly miner with her great thighs and thick biceps demanding a round of ale, make it quick now. Mr Jenkins timidly asked if she'd mind waiting half a minute, but at the first sign of a mighty arm reaching around the bar he was up on the cupboard at the back where the glasses were kept like a monkey on a barrel organ, crouching and screeching in terror, trying desperately to keep free of the grasp of hands like fleshy vices. Then with a gibbering cry leaping down out of reach as the arm leaned further round and trying now to climb inside a cupboard and shut the door on himself. But with his rump still protruding and exposed she leaned further forward still and yanked him out by the back of his trousers, holding him firmly by the ears while she carried him back to the beer taps, wriggling and squeaking.

Meanwhile a burst of singing from one table had been taken up by the entire room, swelling and bursting in rhythmical waves so that the whole room seemed to be breathing with mighty breaths, like bellows, the walls and ceiling expanding, pressing outwards, then moments later sucked inwards like the cheeks of a giant. Only after a few beats of the mesmerising, pulsing swell of sound did we realise the extreme vulgarity of the words, a chorus of such explicit obscenity that Mr Jenkins, who had been released to fulfil his tormentor's drinks order, turned a bright red and clapped his hands over his ears. But moments later he realised that I, young and innocent as he no doubt thought I was, was now subject to this torrent of filth from all those uncouth, leering mouths, and at that he came dancing out from behind the bar and put his hands instead over my ears.

But then the blasphemous and anatomically accurate words once more so offended his fine and gentle nature that he let go my head and replaced his hands upon his own. Then guilt at my exposure overwhelmed him once again, and so began a dance that rang in time to the offensive chorus, Mr Jenkins leaping up and down and spinning around and his hands first over my ears and then his own, and round and around we span, the tumult around us following the beating rhythm of the singing, first unrestricted and deafening, then muffled by Mr Jenkins' hands.

Now from somewhere in the heaving, bellowing mass, a pigeon suddenly shot out, released from some concealed place, and after making several circuits of the room alighted on the scarlet dome of Mr Jenkins, attracted to it as by a beacon, so that now the unhappy publican had this perching interloper to contend with apart from everything else, so that his hands were a blur as they fluttered constantly from my ears to his and to the top of his head in a vain attempt to frighten off his novel adornment. Another pigeon appeared from another part of the room, and then another and another, until there was a circle of grey and white, humming and flapping and cooing and shedding feathers here and there like snow crystals floating in the smoke-filled haze. And at last the pigeon tormenting Mr Jenkins left its perch and flew up to join the others, and still the chorus went on, and the beating rhythm of the singing and the beating of the wings and the beating of our ears by Mr Jenkins. And the birds circled in one direction, and Mr Jenkins and I circled in the other, rotating and counter-rotating in the maelstrom of singing and beating and flapping amid the swirling smoke.

All of a sudden a latecomer, unawares, opened the door to the pub, and like a squadron of fighter planes the pigeons made one last circle then zoomed out of The Thirsty Collier line astern, and Mr Jenkins and I were somehow sucked out along with them so that we found ourselves sitting on the street outside the pub. And somehow I had the jug of beer in my hand, miraculously unspilt.

After a few moments Mr Jenkins got unsteadily to his feet, seemed to visibly collect himself, brushed himself down, rearranged the strands of hair across his skull, straightened his spine, threw back his head, adjusted his spectacles, and then, stupendously erect and with superb bravery, re-entered The Thirsty Collier. I heard a roar go up like the crowd in the Coliseum, but there was nothing I could do and so I turned my steps homeward under the ever darkening sky. And looking up I saw the circle of pigeons like a slowly diminishing halo in the darkly pulsing heavens. In the gathering gloom a group of girls were playing football with four unhappy-looking boys for goalposts. The light was fading fast, and from the dark, reluctant sky a few flakes of snow fell, black with the pall of soot like a shroud over the town and starting to lie in a grey wash here and there on the rough streets. I tried to hold the jug steady as the girls briefly paused their game to use my retreating back as target practice.

Back home at last I opened the door, and there was my dad kneeling in front of mam sucking her toes with an ecstatic expression on his face. Becoming aware of me he quickly removed my mam's toes from his mouth, grabbed a bit of sacking and started to buff up her feet.

'Where have you been, boy?'

Mam's voice had a hard, ominous edge.

'I came as quick as I could, mam.'

'You been dawdling, boy?'

'No mam, I came straight home.'

'Give me the jug, then.'

I gave her the jug, and she took a mighty draught as my dad worked furiously on her feet.

And so the years passed and life continued in much the same pattern. Until at last as I passed fifteen talk in our little house turned to my future.

'So what's it to be, boy?'

Mam was bigger and wider and stronger than ever by this time. Her shadow from the firelight and a couple of candles on the bare mantelpiece was like the outline of the slag heap that glowered over the village, covering one wall of our tiny living room with its bulk.

'Time you was thinkin' of makin' a future for yourself.'

'Yes, mam.'

'I think I know what the lad wants,' put in my father with gentle cheeriness. 'He'd like to be married, wouldn't you, boyo, an' look after a house of his own one day, just like your dad, eh boyo, an' do the cookin' and cleanin' an' shoppin', jus' like your dear old - '

'Let the boy speak for himself, now,' rumbled my mother.

My father, chastened, fell silent.

'I... I... I... I was thinkin' I'd like to go down the pit, like you mam.'

Mam and dad looked at each other, then roared with laughter, mam first, dad following her lead. They laughed and laughed until finally they ran out of laughter and wiped their eyes, blinking and groaning and catching their breath.

'Oh dear, no! No, boyo, you can't do that! Oh no, you can't do that, oh no, no, no, no! That kind of work's not for the likes of you or me, boyo. That's woman's work, that is. Terrible 'ard work, boyo. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!'

'No boy. There's nothin' round here for you. It's going to London for you I'm thinkin'.'

I looked up at her in anguish.

'But I want to stay at home and look after you both in your old age.'

'Stayin' home's not for the likes of you, boy. It's London for you, now.'

'But I don't want to go to London, mam.' I was almost in tears. 'I want to stay home with you and da'.'

She sat up suddenly, eyes like glowing coals in the soot-covered face. I leapt back and pressed myself against the wall, while my dad retreated to the other side of the fire on his hands and knees, panting anxiously, eyes downcast, long wet tongue lolling from his mouth.

'You'll do what you're told, boy.'

The room shook.

'Yes, mam,' I whimpered.

'I want to see you in media, boy. Or public relations, fashion design, hairdressing, events organiser. Somethin' like that, boy. That's the life for you. Somethin' real, proper man's work, now.'

'Yes, mam.'

So I did as mam said and settled in London and for these many years past now been a producer working for the BBC with a list of credits to my name. And now mam's gone to that great coal face in the sky, and dad's struggling on, though not what he was. But the memories are strong still of ma's great naked body dripping and wobbling and shooting spray in my face and her giant shadow filling the wall and my dad lying on the floor sucking her toes and the ritual of the trips down to The Thirsty Collier and the tormenting of poor little Mr Jenkins. But they were good times, and I wouldn't change anything for the world.


  1. This is fantastic. Brilliant, original idea and told with a 'straight face.'
    reminds me of Monty Python!
    Mike McC

  2. Indeed, Monty python in Wales. The brobdingnian mom and lilliputian fac Freud would have loved it. No wonder the guys a single BBC producer likely with real veneer. A sendup of Dylan Thomas's style esp in the pub scene. No more coal thank God for natural gas he he

  3. If Monty Python and JRR Tolkien could have a baby... it would be Gareth Clarke! Visually rich, and laugh-aloud hilarious!

  4. What a ride! Loved the gender role reversal, the tavern scene ... everything!

  5. This was a great read! Comical and yet a pointed commentary on how we are shaped by others expectations. Love the descriptions of Mam.

  6. Very strong sense of time and place and great insight into how someone's relationship with sexuality can be formed.

  7. Loved this piece so joyously descriptive in everyway the characters came to life !a very clear and enjoyable read thankyou.