Short story: Boyhood by William Glynne-Jones
Next week a blue plaque will be unveiled in Llanelli to celebrate the life of one of the town’s most distinguished literary sons. Nation.Cymru is pleased to mark the occasion by re-publishing a short story by William Glynne-Jones.
Boyhood by William Glynne-Jones
I have remembrance of a yellow day in childhood when all was fair and lovely and the air shimmered and danced, and the tiny windows of the houses in the long, winding street laughed at the sun. And in that day, when I was but a spot on the surface of my native earth, my heart leapt into my throat with the gladness and joy of living; the poppies, rising scarlet from the green of Moody’s field, swaying and nodding to the tune of the wordless songs I sang.
The world smiled around me in the sunlight and the warm shadows that reached from the high walls and the low walls of the houses and the school, and in that smile I basked, a child living and breathing the breath of innocence in days untroubled.
The apple tree next door thrust her fruit laden arms over the broken fence into our garden, and Jerry and I looked up in wonderment at the tempting juicy, redness round that shone before our eyes. And in the want and innocence of childhood we reached with our hands and plucked from the tree the fruit which God had planted on the earth. His fruit was ours. The tree that grew in the next door garden was our tree, and the broken boundary of fence mattered not. No one could tell us that to take the fruit from the tree was wrong. Fruit was for all, for everyone, else God would not have given the tree strength and life to bear it in its season.
We ate and tasted the wine of the red fruit, and we marvelled that such things were possible, for in winter, when the snow lay thick upon the bare and miserable branches, there was nothing, no bud, no leaf; and then, with the coming of the warmness of sun and earth and the spring winds and rains, the tree bore leaves, and the blossoms sprang into life from a thing which had been dead. The fruit grew green, then reddened into ripeness, the ripeness of which we had tasted, Jerry and I.
And in the yellow noon of that yellow day old Elen, the ginger-beer woman, sheltered in her brown, sun-blistered doorway, her apron thrown over her head. She waited for the clogged tinworkers to pass clattering up the stony pavement, their glistening tins tucked in the crook of their arms, shirts open to the waist, red scorched bodies bare to the sun which shone with less fire than the blazing mills from which they had returned in the summer day.
And old Elen smiled beneath the blue and white folds of her apron, for here was another day of labour ended. The cool slated stone in the close outside the kitchen, upon which the gleaming grey bottles stood, would soon be bare. The millmen’s thirsts would be quenched. Elen had laboured, and would gather the fruits of her labour.
* * *
Remembrance of the deep walled quarry in which we played; monstrous and ugly, yet filled with memories that are tender and sweet.
Of Jamesie, our ragged leader, swimming expertly among the stinking, rotted carcases of drowned dogs which festered the green waters of the quarry pool. Of sticklebacks, cock and hen – the red-breasted cock, and the plain brown hen. Of tadpoles, lizards, frogs, newts in a world of monsters.
Of games in the dusty streets pockmarked with gaping holes, and in the drab back-lanes behind the tumble-down houses: ‘Lick-a-locky’, ‘Follow-my-leader’, ‘Charles Peace’, Strong Horses All Over Again’, ‘Devil-up-the-pipe’, ‘Jack, Jack, show-a-light’, ‘Cap-y-wal’.
Memories of sand upon the kitchen floors, chalked doorsteps, white-washed walls, and black-tarred sheds; Tony Marino with his barrel organ; Strinati’s fish and chip cart with its crimson body and golden wheels; ice-cream cornets – pyramids of sweetness.
Of the Royalty gallery on Saturday nights, with its orange peel, paper bags, ‘Cinderella’ butts, and the far-away stage with its moustached, frock-coated villain, fragile, shivering heroine, cotton wool snow, abandoned baby. The refined protests from the stalls, and the jeers from the ‘monkey-run’ above.
And a memory of quoit-playing in the walled-in square behind the old brewery. How pleasant it was to watch the ring of silver fly from your upraised arm and curve into the sun’s eye. To feel the yielding softness of the blue clay bed beneath your arched foot. Then, to hear the sharp kiss of metal as the quoit struck downwards against the iron peg, and to feel the air of proudness swell within you until you had to open your throat and let it out into the world in a shouting word of praise.
* * *
And those friends of my boyhood!
Under the lamplight’s fitful glare, in the shadow of the stone wall of the little mission church, opposite Ifan Bach’s shop, we’d sit in a row, knees up: Jamesie, Shunshy, Tommy, Alcwyn, Eric, Gwynfor, Lew, Danny, Wally; Ezre, the haulier’s son, Harry ‘Cabbage’, Idris, Jerry and myself, and we sang with gusto, smiles upon our mischievous faces:
‘Ifan Bach is like a pumpkin, yes indeed, yes indeed,
Oh, Ifan Bach is like a pumpkin, yes indeed, yes indeed.’
In voices shrill and high we sang, and waited for Ifan to come running bow-legged, long apron clad, from his bulging, dirty, evil-smelling shop with a stick in his hand. And we laughed, and danced in rings around the lamp-post with Ifan puffing and blowing and snorting and wheezing after us.
‘I…I’ll have Jones…Jones polisman after you… That’s what… I’ll do,’ he’d threaten. But Jones never came, and Ifan never caught us – never.
How we enjoyed those nights under the gaslight! Nights that were filled with adventure and romance; where every shadow in the street held a mystery that was no mystery to us who had the eyes of a cat and the light-footedness of a panther. And oftentimes, when the moon laughed down at us we would skip to the fields behind Moody’s farm, striped jerseys on our backs, a pig’s bladder in our leader’s hand, there to laugh and shout and toss up for sides in a game of football in a world where everything black was turned to grey.
Our parents searched high and low for us, their truant children. Loud were the threats, and dire the threatened punishments.
‘Where has our Tommy gone to now again?’
‘Have you seen Jamesie? … I’ll give him Jamesie when I catch him!’
‘’Tis indeed worried I am, an’ his father waiting for him all evening. Ach, ‘tis the death of me Danny’ll be.’
‘Playing football in Moody’s field, is it? Well, just you wait till his father gets hold of him. He’ll give him what for!’
The interrupted match was postponed indefinitely, and home we ran, trembling at the thought of the leather strap behind the kitchen door, the clip across the ear, or the hard, calloused hand across the tender part where once we had a tail.
* * *
A grubby, smiling face topped with a wealth of golden hair smiles at me. I stare through the mist of years and I hear a voice call faintly: ‘Remember me, Ieuan?’
It is Jamesie, the incorrigible, the truant, a leader of boys – now, the leader of men. We looked to him in awe, for ‘Jamesie was the black sheep of the family fold. He stole from the market, from the shops. Even Ifan Bach’s store was not immune from Jamesie’s long fingers as they reached around the neck of a pop bottle, or grasped a sixpenny cake or reel of cotton, or a stray piece of corned beef – anything that happened to be near at hand. Still, Jamesie was our chosen leader. Jamesie the daring, with the heart of a lion; who climbed higher, dived deeper, ran faster, swam farther, jumped from the highest spot – who did everything better than any of us. Jamesie, with his beautiful body ill-clothed in tattered rags and soleless boots. Jamesie of the golden hair and silver smile. Defender of the weak, rival of the strong.
Once again I am a boy amongst boys. Up the steep, hard, hands-on-knees, back-bending, slippery hill to the little grey school standing proudly on the crest where the four winds blow, we trudge. No more, ‘Good morning, Miss Mallory, Miss Thompson, Miss Lee, Miss Mackintosh’ of the school below the hill. It is now: ‘Good morning, Mr. Harries. Good morning, sir!’
He is the headmaster; tall, fierce, unsmiling, deep-chested colossus, tramping through the classrooms, bellowing like a bull in hollow glade: ‘Boys! I want respect. You come here to learn. Bear that in mind … To learn!’
What a joke it was. To learn what?
Mr. Jackson, shuffling, knock-kneed, sweeping brush moustache, hiding behind his desk lid, cutting pieces of black tobacco twist all the learning day. Must we learn to chew tobacco, too? And let the dark-stained saliva trickle down baby-boy chins?
Poor old Mr. Jackson. He stands before the blackboard. ‘Now boys, look at this map. Here is Cardiff.’ The city is a small black spot staring at the end of the long pointer he holds in his hand. ‘Ah, well … it’s a fine place. Best rugby team in Wales, two years ago. I remember once, when they were playing against Aberavon in the final for….’
Geography becomes football history, and with mouths, ears and eyes open we listen to the sound of cheering crowds. The polished, oaken floor is a green field, Jackson’s desk a grandstand, and each and every one of us is a hero in a blue and black striped jersey and white football shorts. Then suddenly, into the room comes Miss Montgomery in her nice, clean, shining white apron. She trips daintily, lightly across the gleaming floor, her hair yellow as the sun-flashing corn, her cheeks flushed with red tint, lips smiling. In music she speaks: ‘Mr Jackson, I am surprised!’ And the spell is broken. The green field dissolves, the roaring of the crowd ceases, and we are no longer the heroes of our day.
And with the vision of Miss Montgomery comes a memory of Mr. Davies, the music teacher, whom we imagined to be in love with her. For twice a week, when he taught us music, he’d lean over Miss Montgomery’s shoulder, as she sat at the piano, his hands resting lightly on her shoulders, a gentle smile on his moon-like face. Mr. Davies, who gave Shunshy five on the hands and two on the seat for writing, ‘Mr. Davies is courting Miss Montgomery xxxxxx’ on the schoolyard gate.
But the tyrant of our world was Mr. Hughes, the assistant headmaster, teacher of the fifth standard, whose eyes shone like cars behind the bulging spectacles he wore over the bridge of his razor-sharp nose. He was the expert with the ‘jinny-cane’, and no matter how many hairs we plucked from our heads and place on our hands, the cane never failed to sting. He was past-master in the arts of punishment, and the flying piece of chalk that whistled from his hand never failed to catch the unwary pupil on the head. We nicknamed him, ‘Hughes-Four-Eyes’, this terror of the school; but Charlie Keast, who could swallow a pint of ink and had an anchor tattooed on his thigh, called him ‘Pussy-cat’.
Such were the mentors in the world of our learning. We were taught, we were punished; but in the main those days were lived in happiness, for they were days of hours that were not measured by the minute hands of the clock between the china dogs and the brass horses on the mantelpiece, but hours of love, laughter and innocence, when the world smiled around us.
* * *
William Glynne-Jones was born on the 19th December, 1907 in Llanelli and died on the 26th January, 1977 in London. Between the ages of sixteen and thirty-six he worked as a moulder at the Glanmor Foundry. William Glynne-Jones was the author of four major novel and 12 books for children as well as contributing to some fifty magazines such as Esquire in the United States and Strand magazine in the UK. He was awarded the Rockefeller Foundation Atlantic Award in 1946.
The short story ‘Boyhood’ was first published in December, 1946, in the WALES magazine No. 24 edited by Keidrych Rhys. The Druid Press Ltd., 21a Lammas Street, Carmarthen.
For further information on William Glynne-Jones see Phil Carradice’s BBC Blog: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/wales/posts/William-Glynne-Jones-forgotten-genius-of-Welsh-literature
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