Short story: The Onllwyn Train by George Brinley Evans
Continuing the celebrations of the 96th birthday of George Brinley Evans, Nation Cymru are delighted to share this previously unpublished short story of a young soldier on his journey home to his sweetheart
He hurried along North Road. He knew he had missed the train. He had stopped to change into his sports coat and greys at his billet before leaving the base by the side gate.
It was hardly a base anymore, just a collection of huts, only two of which were in use: one as a billet and one as a small mess hall. A deserted coastal gun station, the gunners long gone. But it wasn’t a bad location to await his demob. It had a fine view out, high over the River Tamar emptying into Plymouth Sound.
On being posted to Plymouth he had become part of what the Press called Monty’s New Army. He felt he was enjoying the benefits of experience. The new Prime Minister, Mr Attlee, had been an infantry officer in the Great War thirty years earlier. He had fought at Gallipoli and had been lucky to survive.
Fifty thousand men had not been so lucky. Mr Attlee went onto fight in Mesopotamia and on the Western Front in France. Mr Attlee understood the common soldier. And now all those years later he was Prime Minister and had begun building the Welfare State.
He was also concerned about making the lot of the British soldier a lot more bearable. For the first time in the history of the British Army, soldiers had been issued with bed sheets, pillows and pillowcase. Until then the regular issue had been a groundsheet and two blankets, one of which would become the soldier’s shroud and coffin if he was killed on active service with the cost of the blanket charged to his last pay.
It was by chance or luck that he found himself in Plymouth. He had reported to Southampton to board the trooper ship, the Corfu. He was to be shipped back to Burma, to re-join his unit. But the crew of the Corfu had gone on strike. They were striking for better conditions.
When a British merchant ship was torpedoed and sunk, the time the surviving crew members clambered into the lifeboats was logged by any Royal Navy escort. When and if the survivors got picked up, they found the time, which could be days or even weeks spent in the freezing cold or blazing heat often without water or food, was docked from their pay because they weren’t considered to be on duty.
It was a time of change alright. It was not worth sending him back to Burma. He had become surplus to requirements and was getting used to it.
North Road railway station was quiet. He had a long time to wait for the next train to Bristol. It was mid-summer and warm. Plymouth had been reduced to rubble by some of the most ferocious bombing raids of the war. The roads were now all passable and many of the bombed sites cleared by German prisoners of war who had been detained to help clear up the mess. Many of the sites that had not yet been cleared had become beautiful rock gardens, each one an exquisite delicate scented eiderdown, hiding the shattered brickwork and rusting steel.
The rock-rose, with its downy white leaves and bright yellow flowers thrived among the ruins while dandelions, bold dark yellow spread across the disturbed ground. He remembered the girls in school had insisted if you picked one, you would pee the bed. He dozed in the Summer evening.
It was gone midnight by the time the train pulled into Bristol. The station café was open. The next train onto Cardiff was due at five in the morning. He sat in the café and ordered a cup of tea. A few other soldiers were hunched over the tables. In the army you got used to waiting.
The early morning sun was just above the Cardiff rooftops as the station announcer informed them that the Paddington Fishguard express was approaching platform two. It would be stopping at Bridgend, Port Talbot, Neath, Swansea, Llanelli, Burry Port, Carmarthen. He knew the names well.
At home they would be wondering what had happened to him. He was expected back on Friday night, at midnight, on the last bus. He knew the routine of the weekend well.
On Saturday morning he would wait for the clatter of the letter box when he would rush out to meet Peggy. The risk of buggering off without permission was worth it for that first sight of her. Emerald green eyes, a spotlessly fair complexion from her Irish and Welsh genes and a smile that, if she had wanted to, could have persuaded him to do anything, even rob banks. Peggy would have already chosen where they would be going that Saturday night.
Fish and chips
They had a choice of the Windsor or Empire cinemas in Neath or the extravagance of a live variety show at the Grand theatre in Swansea. There would be a train back. Fish and chips at Jeff’s, eaten as they walked to the Neath and Brecon low level railway station, over the river bridge, to catch the train for Onllwyn.
It was the way most valley courting couples travelled on a Saturday evening. The non-corridor carriages, with their low voltage wartime light bulbs, offered the young lovers the only privacy they could hope to enjoy because of the chronic housing shortage. Then warm and full after the journey there would be supper at Peg’s mother’s, then home.
Sunday morning came early, breakfast, a read of the Sunday papers and a check of his mother’s football pools’ coupon. Sunday dinner, listen to the Forces Favourites on the radio. Then a bath and a change and all ready to travel back to Plymouth.
He needed to be back into his billet before reveille and before he was missed on Monday morning. Peg would borrow her father’s 1938 Morris 8 and drive him to catch the 8 o’clock evening train to Bristol. There would be time for food on the station at Neath. Delicious, steamed steak and kidney pies, that hissed when they were prodded with a fork, and a coffee in the café cum billiard hall at the side of the station.
At almost every window of the train, there would be a service man leaning out kissing his sweetheart or his wife goodbye. Soldiers were still being killed eighteen months after the war had ended: from Malaya to Palestine. For any one of the young couples it could very well be their last kiss goodbye.
The day stretched ahead for him. At last the London to Fishguard express pulled into Cardiff. There was plenty of room on board. Once the war had ended the trains were not as crowded. Hundreds of thousands of allied servicemen had returned to their own countries. There was more elbow room all round. After a bitter Arctic winter, the lovely summer of 1947 was more than welcomed by everybody. It was a time of hope.
There was a young woman sitting in the compartment he entered. She was sitting in the far corner facing the engine. He sat in the nearest corner, also facing the engine, that way they wouldn’t be looking at each other and wouldn’t inadvertently embarrass her by appearing to stare at her. He remembered Peggy telling him, ‘Being ogled at makes your skin crawl!’
The summer sun was warm on his face, made warmer by the window glass. He had been on the go for twenty-four hours and had to make an effort to keep his eyes open. Station staff were running up and down the platform slamming doors shut, the shrill sound of the guard’s whistle, a loud chuff, the clink of buffers, a slight lurch and the train was under away.
Without turning his head he looked at the young woman. She was good looking, very good looking. A secretary or a nurse perhaps, not a teacher, teachers – even very pretty ones – were, in his experience, always a touch untidy, tending to put bits and pieces into their cardigan pockets: this Miss was super prim and very neat.
She’ll wake me, he thought as his eyes closed. She didn’t.
The carriage was empty, and looking out through the window the only thing he could see was water, mile upon mile of muddy, shining water. The train was running along the side of a big estuary. It was high-tide and they were following the shoreline, and would be soon heading into Llanelli station. He had never been in this part of Wales before. The train slid to a stop alongside a busy platform, people rushing and porters waiting like runners for the sound of the starter’s gun.
He handed his ticket to the ticket collector who was watched over by the Station Master, with cap worn square on his head and wearing the look a judge would wear on donning the Black Cap.
The station master stepped forward to inspect the ticket.
“I’m sorry I’ve passed my stop… I went to sleep.” He explained. From what little he knew about travel in Wales he knew that his country, like everywhere else, had its fair share of self-important, self-centred pompous, officious types. And he had the feeling he had just run in to one of them.
The Station Master glared down at him.
“You have travelled from Neath to Llanelli without paying your fare.”
“But… but… I fell asleep.”
“No buts about it. It’s an offence to travel on the railway without paying your fare!” He sounded excited, triumphal even. “You come with me!” He ordered and took the ticket off the ticket collector.
He meekly followed the Station Master along the platform.
“Wait by here.” The man ordered, pointing his finger at him before strutting into an office.
He had none of his army papers with him, nor did he have a civilian identity card, which by law civilians still had to carry. He thought the inspector was going to the police. He’d be hauled back to Plymouth on charge. There would be no hour-long ride in the dimly lit compartment of the non-corridor train to Onllwyn this Saturday night.
The very thing they both really looked forward to most of all on his, every other weekend, three-hundred-and-eighty-mile round trip. The hour on the Onllwyn train.
He stood outside the office, waiting. The train he had arrived on had pulled out. Other trains were pulling in and going out.
“Where’s that old twat got to?” he muttered to himself.
“Take hold of this!” a voice from behind him ordered. A platform porter had hold of one side of a five stone box of fish. It had come up from the docks. “Come on! Catch hold!” the porter urged him impatiently.
They shuffled the few paces across the platform to the open door of a goods wagon. “Go on… step up! And pull this in after you. Come on look lively!”
He did as he was told. The porter slid the door closed. It was dark, except for some light filtering through the small vents. There were other boxes of fish besides the one he had helped dragged on board. There was the clean smell of fresh fish. He heard the guard’s whistle, he held on to the door handle not to be thrown to the floor, the buffer clinked, the van shook and they were moving.
He had glanced at the station clock it had been just past nine. The day would be gone before he got home. The porter who had helped him must have had something in mind, he wished now he’d asked him what. And wherever it was he was heading he had no ticket. He had left that with the ticket collector and the stationmaster had taken it off the collector.
He wondered what there was about him that seemed to have aggravated the Station Master. Was it because it because of his Glamorgan valley’s accent? Some west Walians like some Northerners got real up tight and all patriotic about it.
Stuck in the dark, in a railway van smelling of fish, hungry, without a ticket and knackered made him, angry. ‘Bloody Welshie bastard!’ he muttered. And almost immediately he felt guilty.
His father’s first language was Welsh. When his father was with his brother and his sisters they spoke only Welsh to each other. As they had done since the days when they were children at their home at the Neuadd in Heol Senni.The other side of the mountains.
The train slowed down, it stopped. He waited, people moved about, orders were shouted but the van door stay closed. The guard’s whistle blew and they were off again. The train stopped twice again but the door remained shut. But the next time it stopped the van door slid open.
“Castell Nedd! Neath!” Announced the grinning porter who had got him to help with the box of fish. The porter held out his hand “Mr Price, the Station Master asked me to give you this!” he laughed and handed him his ticket. “This was the first train he could put you on, to get rid of you, and get you back to Neath!”