The Stacks of Llandarcy
I remember the Catherine wheel got stuck on the wooden line post and I cried when it fizzled out without spinning.
“Never mind,” said my father, pointing across the town. “Do you know what that is?”
Far away to the east, beyond the docks and the water meadows of Crymlyn fen, the night sky was aglow in shimmering red. Beneath it lay a city of light and flame, as if a huge chasm had opened up in the earth and hell itself had risen to the surface.
“Bomb fire!” I cried.
“No, David,” he laughed. “That’s an oil refinery. It’s where I work.”
And that is my earliest memory – standing in our garden on Kilvey Hill in thrall to the lights and flare stacks of Llandarcy.
My father was a shop steward there for the Transport and General Workers’ Union, and I remember playing with the watch his members had bought him for all his hard work on their behalf. It wasn’t an expensive watch, but for Dad the inscription made it priceless: To a tireless fighter for equality and justice. Best wishes, Tom, from the T&G lads at Llandarcy. Christmas, 1970.
Much of his success came from his speaking skills, but he was never a tub-thumper; my father was a quiet and reflective man who confronted difficult issues with wisdom and sensitivity.
When I was eleven and Katie nine, I frightened her with a tale I made up about the phantom Phoogle-Boo. She was terrified of monsters and ghosts, and that sort of nonsense really annoyed me then.
The Phoogle-Boo, I told her, was a ghost that preys on little girls. “It enters the bedroom in the middle of the night,” I said. “No one knows exactly what happens next, but the bed is empty in the morning and the little girl is never seen again.”
Katie’s scream will haunt me forever. Dad was on night shift, I remember, but Mam warned me I’d have to answer to him the next day.
He was asleep when I left for school, but after tea he asked me to help him work on our car.
“That’s quite a story you told your sister, David,” he said, with his head under the bonnet. “You know she refuses to sleep in her own bed now and has moved in with your mother and me?”
As is often the way of children, I concealed my guilt by becoming defensive. “It’s her own stupid fault,” I said, “for believing in ghosts. It’s all rubbish.”
He straightened up and handed me the spark plugs. “And you don’t believe in ghosts, I take it?”
“Of course I don’t.”
“So if someone asked you to prove it by spending a night alone in a reputedly haunted house, you’d do so?”
I had never lied to my parents, and so answered truthfully. “I’m not sure, but I think I’d be brave enough to try.”
“Ah,” he said, “but if you need bravery then you still fear ghosts. Don’t you see? To prove you really don’t believe in ghosts you’d have to spend the night there alone without being the least bit afraid.”
He paused to wipe his hands with a rag, giving me time to ponder my self-contradiction and feel the full weight of my shame.
He clapped me on the shoulder. “Now, are you going to clean those plugs for me or must I do it myself?”
The first redundancies came in the months that followed. There was to be an important union meeting to consider BP’s offer, and my father became pensive and withdrawn.
On the eve of the meeting I awoke to the muffled sounds of my parents’ voices downstairs. It was twenty-past one, long past their bedtime. I crept out of bed and sat on the top stair, hugging myself against the chill. The only light was the orange strip beneath the living-room door and a few scattered stars from the landing window.
“The severance pay isn’t bad, Tom,” I heard my mother say, “and there are jobs coming up at that new Morganite factory.”
“But not enough, Beth. Oh, I know what’s happening to the mines and the steel works. I’ve no illusions about saving the refinery. But we have to hold out for a few more years to give the men time to find alternative work.”
“And in the meantime,” said my mother, “releasing more poisonous waste over Llandarcy village.”
I could picture the agonised look on my father’s face. The refinery’s pollution was a great worry to him, and I understood then the awful dilemma he faced: jobs or health?
He was due home from the meeting about nine o’ clock, but when he hadn’t arrived by eleven, Mam became worried. I’d been allowed to stay up; at least, my mother’s demands that I go to bed lacked their customary conviction.
When we heard his key in the door she sprang to her feet, then winced when he entered the room. “Go to bed now, David. I mean it this time.”
“No, Beth,” said Dad. “Let him stay.”
His face was white and he’d clearly been drinking. As he slumped in the armchair he seemed to have aged, and there was an air of defeat about him I’d never known before.
“The motion to accept the redundancies was carried,” he said.
I saw the look on my mother’s face, a mixture of pity and relief.
“I’m sure you did all you could, Tom.”
“No, Beth, I didn’t. There were a group of young people distributing leaflets outside the Elysium as we went in – Friends of the Earth. It almost broke my heart to see what the pulverised fuel ash had done to the plants and wildlife of Crymlyn Bog.
“When the chairman invited speakers, I sat in silence. One after another they got to their feet, speaking for or against. But I didn’t raise my hand. Heads turned, Beth. I could practically hear the men pleading. Come on, Tom! What are you waiting for? Even the chairman looked at me directly. ‘Is there no one else who wants to speak on the motion?’ he asked.
“I rose to leave, and reached the foyer when I heard him proclaim the motion carried. What I did next must be obvious from my condition.”
Nothing more was said on the matter until a few days later. It was Katie’s tenth birthday and Dad and I had escaped to the garden – a respite from the noise and flashing lights of the kiddie disco in the house.
How innocuous those giant cooling towers looked in the daylight, I thought, as we both focused our attention on them. And what was the place, after all? An evil Phoogle-Boo sucking the life out of humanity and nature, or a thing of awesome beauty? It was both, of course, like that ambiguous illustration in which you alternately see a beautiful young woman and an old crone.
The silence between us lingered until I could restrain myself no longer.
“Where’s your watch, Dad?”
“Right now, I expect it’s price-tagged in the window of the Oxfam shop.”
“Because I am no longer worthy of it.”
“But you did your best, Dad.”
“I did no such thing. I should have spoken against the motion, David. As shop steward it was my duty to protect my members’ jobs. I failed to do that, and so betrayed the trust placed in me. As for my concern for the environment, you’ll recall that neither did I speak in favour of the motion.”
He turned to face me.
“Don’t you see, son? It’s why I wanted you to stay and hear me when I came home from the meeting. I lacked the will to do what was expected of me and I lacked the courage to do what was right. I did nothing. And that amounts to treachery compounded by cowardice.”
“Enough now. Let’s go back inside before Katie and her horde drive your mother insane.”
How I wish I’d put my arms around him then and told him I loved him, but I was twelve, and that was not a manly thing to do. But now, as the coffin sinks from view, I put them around Mam, wedged tightly between Katie and me.
As we’re ushered out of the chapel, I gently rub the scarred surface of his watch in my pocket. I’d retrieved it from the charity shop the day after he told me what he’d done. I didn’t tell him, of course; he wouldn’t have thanked me.
Looking now at Thomas hugging his grandmother, I note again how much he resembles Dad. And if I’ve managed to be half the father Dad was, that resemblance will run deeper than mere appearance.