Richard Pritchard and the Saesneg Scrummage

Richard Pritchard had been the only private detective in the town of Bryngwyrdd Mawr, picking up where the heddlu left off to be the last line of defence against cheating husbands, sheep rustlers and myriad miscreants and wrong’uns. And all this he achieved despite being so short-sighted as to be virtually blind.

But when he got his sight back through state of the art laser surgery, his new outlook on life and broadened horizons made him wonder about the world beyond Bryngwyrdd Mawr. Soon he was taken away from his home town, and his beloved Catherine Zeta Jenkins, and recruited to go deep undercover as a secret agent in a foreign country where the people talk funny and the customs are strange: England.

*

Richard and his contact, Special Agent Lee Delamere, met up at their secret location on the English side of the bridge for some last minute preparation, before Richard could try to blend in to the capital itself. The first thing they had to work on was the voice.

“You know that catchphrase of yours,” said Lee, “That ‘right you are then’?”

“That’s not my catchphrase is it?”

“It is, Richard; you say it all the time.”

“Oh. Right you are then.”

“Exactly. You need to stop rolling the ‘r’ when you say that – you sound like someone’s trying to start up a motorbike.”

“Oh, do I? How should I say it then?”

“A true Londoner would pronounce it ‘ry choo ar den’.”

Richard pulled a face as he tried to get his mouth round this alien tongue. “Ry choo ar den?”

“Much better, Richard. By the time I’ve finished with you, you’ll be wearing a bowler hat and be rubbish at rugby.”

Richard did his best to put on an English accent, “I’m Richard, and I’m rubbish at rugby.”

Lee put his hands over his ears. “Is this the Isle of Man TT?” he shouted, “Stop rrrrolling those r’s!”

“Oh, rrright – I mean right you are then.”

*

Richard adopted the Saesneg version of his name – Ri-cky! – and managed to pass himself off as an Englishman working in a civil service office in the heart of London. Until there came a challenge which threatened to blow his cover and reveal his true identity: the annual inter-office rugby match. Even when he was half blind he was better at rugby than any Englishman; if he could actually see the ball he would be so superior as to make it obvious he wasn’t one of them.

“Oh Lee, do I really have to play?” asked Richard at their next secret meeting.

“It’s imperative that you do, Richard,” replied Agent Delamere, “Because the whole point of your being stationed to London was to recover a piece of state of the art surveillance equipment known as the All Seeing Eye. This is kept at the Greenhill Building, which is guarded at all times and nearly impossible to get into – except for the winning team in the rugby match who get invited to a special reception there. So your mission depends on your team winning that match – but you have to do it without revealing yourself as a Welshman.”

“Oh. Right you are then.”

*

Richard looked across at the opposition; they weren’t bad, for Saesnegs. They practised tackling, threw the ball to one another, and even caught it some of the time. His own teammates, in their suspiciously spotless and well ironed shirts, seemed less familiar with the game. Some of those who held a ball stared at it in wonderment, amazed that it had two pointy ends instead of being completely spherical. The rest of those who held a ball didn’t do so for long, hopelessly fumbling for no good reason and running round in circles as they tried to catch up with it. None of them looked like potential match-winners, and only Nigel, the team captain, showed any promise – and that was just because he was looking at his side with the same grim apprehension that Richard felt.

At least the weather wasn’t too bad. Cool and bright, but with still a bit of squelch in the turf from the previous day’s rain. The tops of the trees were beginning to sway a bit, which was a concern because half of his team looked like a stiff breeze would knock them over. Still, it felt great to be back on a rugby pitch again. Other than in the arms of Catherine Zeta, there was nowhere he’d rather be.

The opposition took the opening kick, and immediately Richard’s fears were realised. Their centre sashayed effortlessly through weak tackles and was soon up against Richard himself. Not wanting to stand out by making a great tackle already, he let the centre slip past, hoping that Nigel was covering behind. He was, but the opponent managed an offload. It passed the other centre, the winger flailed at it and missed – but crucially, never knocked it on – before the full-back managed to pick it up on the bounce and touch it down over the line. 5-0 already; the other lot weren’t bad for Saesnegs. Fortunately, the conversion was scuffed and bobbled wide of the upright and under crossbar height anyway. They weren’t bad, but they were still Saesnegs.

The remainder of the first half saw the opposition enjoying the majority of the ball, but Richard knew they couldn’t afford to let the margin grow. He started to make some tackles – not too many, and none too spectacular, and Nigel picked up plenty of others. Once or twice, Richard simply picked up a nearby teammate and flung him at the ball carrier: spectators seemed not to spot this, and the unwitting tacklers were happy to take the credit. Along with the opposition’s frequent handling errors and inaccurate goal kicking, that kept the score down, but Richard’s team could do nothing with the ball. Richard knew that he could run in for a try every time he got the ball, but to do so would be a dead giveaway. He passed the ball on to Nigel usually: he’d make some ground, but then be engulfed by the entire opposing team. Assuming he was the only decent player, the rest of his team were left well alone – they were only making plans for Nigel. Any of the other 13 players would have had a free walk to the line if they got ball in hand, but every time Richard passed to any of them, they either dropped it or missed it completely.

Just before half-time, the opposing number 10 tested Richard with a high, spiralling Garryowen, which swirled around in the wind and came down with snow on it. Without thinking, Richard leapt into the air, thrust out his right arm and caught the ball one handed as he called for the mark. Only when he saw the looks of shock on the faces around him did he notice his mistake. His heart pounded and the panic started to rise within him. The whole field had gone completely silent as everybody seemed to hold their breath.

Hoping it wasn’t already too late, Richard deliberately slipped as he took the clearing kick, allowing the ball to squirm apologetically off the outside of his boot and into touch, a little bit behind him if anything. There was an audible sigh of relief all around him, interspersed with a few sympathetic chuckles.

Nigel was supportive: “Good try Ricky; you found touch, that’s the main thing.”

The referee blew for half-time before the lineout could be taken, so at least it was still only a five point deficit. Trouble was, having nearly given the game away already, Richard couldn’t afford to score any of those points himself.

The second half wore on in the same vein, with neither side having the quality to add to the scoreline, and as time ticked away, Richard felt he had to be bolder. He started to make ground with the ball and break tackles, time and time again: it would have been an obvious star performance to any true rugby aficionado, but the average Englishman only noticed whoever took the ball over the line. So as long as Richard could set someone else up for the vital score it would be okay, but his teammates repeatedly knocked on one yard from the try line.

With time expiring, Richard went on one last run, slaloming at will through wayward tackles, but dare he score the winning try himself? As he approached the shadow of the posts, he looked around to assess his options. To his left was the fresh faced work experience boy, newly on as a replacement because the original winger started crying when he got a graze on his knee. To his right was the ever dependable Nigel, but as ever marked by at least half of the opposing team. Richard flipped the ball to his left, and hoped for the best.

The boy caught it. He himself was more shocked than anyone: he stood motionless, frozen in shock and disbelief. He looked as frightened as if he held a bomb in his grasp, and with good reason as the opposition charged towards him. With a squeal so high-pitched that only dogs could hear it (and Richard, who still retained heightened senses from when he was nearly blind), the boy threw the ball back just behind Richard. He gathered it in a smart pirouette and passed it on once more to Nigel, who had taken up a smart position in front of the posts, finally free of the following posse. He dived jubilantly over the line, and the scores were level. Only an under the post conversion stood between them and victory.

Nigel didn’t seem to fancy taking it himself. “I’m no kicker,” he mumbled, but all of his teammates averted their gaze and refused to make eye contact. He looked to Richard, for a moment, but seemed to remember his sliced mark clearance, and thought better of it.

So it fell to the skipper to win the match. He stepped up, swung his right foot … and dragged the kick wide of the posts! But at that exact moment, the wind which had been increasing all day, unleashed a huge sudden gust which took the ball the other way, back through the posts and over for the win.

There was jubilation from the rest of the office workers, and the friends and families of the players. “That was brilliant!” said one, “Did you see the way he used the wind?”

“Nigel does it again!” cried another, “Man of the match once more – he’s been our star player for years!”

Richard smiled; he didn’t want or need the credit. So even as he joined in with the three cheers for Nigel, he was making plans for the Greenhill Building, and the All Seeing Eye.

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Jay’s Four Star Plus Club (Supplemental)

Rivers of London – Ben Aaronovitch
Very clever story full of memorable characters and written with real verve and swagger. Finds a harmonious balance between comedy, crime, adventure, the supernatural, and the character study of an amorous young man, consistently hitting the spot on every level.
4 Stars

The Innocent – Harlen Coben
This boasts a highly complex plot with a wealth of twists and turns. Even if some can be predicted and not all of them ring true, there are plenty here that do hit the spot. This is an inventive work with much to enjoy.
4 Stars

Zombie Apocalypse: Endgame – Stephen Jones (and others)
The most obvious reference is to Max Brooks’ World War Z; this is unlikely to match that for commercial success, but to my mind surpasses it. By using a multitude of authors, the variation in voices is that much more convincing, and inventive layout adds even greater verisimilitude. Most writers do a very good job, but top contributions are from Paul Kane, Pat Cadigan, Conrad Williams and especially Peter Atkins.
4 Stars

The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
This is talked about as being one of the most disturbing novels ever written, but it’s so much more than that. It looks at the cause and effect of cruelty and social detachment with as much sensitivity as brutality, and feels true to itself at every turn. The plot twists are surprising in the extreme, but all these shocks are consistent with what has gone before and make sense under further examination. I’m badly understating it here, so please visit http://www.gingernutsofhorror.com/15/post/2015/04/my-life-in-horror-its-just-a-phase-i-was-going-through.html for a longer and better review.
5 Stars

A Study in Scarlet – Arthur Conan Doyle
We effectively have two different mini novels here: one marking the debut of two of crime fiction’s most loved characters, and the other, surprisingly, an epic western taking a barbed look at the early days of the Mormon faith. Doyle cleverly turns this around to gives us a murderer who’s more hero than villain and victims whose fate is long overdue.
4 Stars

The Cabin in the Woods – Tim Lebbon
Lebbon inherits Whedon’s inventive concept, and too big to comprehend ending, but makes his own mark too. He relishes the chance to go splatterpunk, writing with joie de vivre and killer turn of phrase: “A unicorn gored a scientist against a wall, its horn probing through his stomach and chest, grinding, tearing, and his spurting blood painted its gorgeous flowing mane red.”
4 Stars

The Girl with all the Gifts – M.R. Carey
Works perfectly well as a zombie novel, but does so much more besides, exploring themes of growing up, adhering to authority, crises of conscience, and above all, the eternal question of what it means to be human. Furthermore, it does all this without ever feeling preachy or deviating from the story arc. This stands up there alongside Alden Bell’s work as a testament to how good zombie fiction can be, and is pretty much the book I want to write when I grow up.
5 Stars

The Death House – Sarah Pinborough
Once again, those themes of growing up, adhering to authority, crises of conscience. This delivers ideas and intellect, but above all this delivers real and raw emotion: compelling, heart-rending and ultimately so inspirational. Once I’d towelled the tears away I went on a 7 mile run, played the guitar for the first time in months, and vowed to write more, and better.
5 Stars

The Silence – Tim Lebbon
A Wyndhamesque apocalypse with shades of The Birds and The Mist, this tightens the tension to almost unbearable levels. The technical aspects are plausible and well thought out, creating a solid base for the characters to shine through. Excellent and innovative choice of first person narrator too.
4 Stars

Little Girls Lost – J.A. Kerley
Bravely deals with difficult subjects in a clever, interlinked plot, with the crime thread running parallel to a political one, in the form of a mayoral election. The Gumbo King is a cut above the usual secondary character, and really steals the show as this races to a breathless climax.
4 Stars

Dubliners – James Joyce
This gives numerous understated, but piercingly accurate demonstrations of the psychological weakness of the human condition. ‘Two Gallants’ shows how desperation and a lack of self-respect can be projected onto others, while ‘Eveline’ and ‘A Painful Case’ offer heart-breaking depictions of damaging ourselves through decisions that we weren’t brave enough to make.
4 Stars

The Hunt – Tim Lebbon
A tense and thrilling ride, reminiscent of Mark West’s novella ‘Drive’, albeit on foot instead of in car. I’m sure you don’t need to be a parent or a runner to be moved by this, but as both it put me right in there, nerves stretched to breaking point and never knowing what would happen next. Also great to see such strong and dynamic female characterisation in a mainly male POV novel.
4 Stars

Whitstable – Stephen Volk
A sensitive and low key portrayal of bereavement, facing up to old age, and the personal life of a much loved figure. This deals with a difficult further subject matter in a deft and believable way, and one which is satisfying, even inspirational for the reader.
4 Stars

Beyond Here Lies Nothing – Gary McMahon
This packs a double punch; as both an inner city exposé and a supernatural tale, juxtaposing moments of philosophy with unflinching violence. It provides all the darkness and intrigue you can bear, paid off with sudden epiphanies and moments of redemption.
4 Stars

Rubbernecker – Belinda Bauer
Stunningly audacious and innovative use of point of view, mostly coming from a coma patient and a teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome; this so defies all standard conventions of crime fiction that the main police character is not even introduced until page 333! This is consistently adroit in the clues and breadcrumbs it leaves, and ingenious in the coalescence of the seemingly disparate strands, but also with bags of heart to go with the intellect.
5 Stars

The Secret Life of Girls – Chloe Thurlow
This slice of erotica is cerebral as well as sexual, with Thurlow using an unreliable narrator to great comedic and satirical effect. Refreshingly, this ain’t romance, and although the main character isn’t always entirely likeable, the joyous way she hurtles from one new experience to another draws you in and drags you along for the ride.
4 Stars

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Aberfan

Author’s note: The interview that follows, and the character of Mary, are fictional, but most of what she says is adapted from real life witness and survivor testimony:

The woman behind the counter scoffs when I tell her she needn’t have closed the café for us: this is them open for business. But with only one other person here, my interviewee isn’t difficult to find.

Mary’s hair is grey, and her face lined. She looks aged, but anything but frail, as if time and experience have toughened rather than weakened her. Nevertheless, she sits with her back to the window through which you could once have seen the mounds of waste from the coalmine. I stare out over the scarred valley, but Mary does not turn to follow my gaze.

I set up, and Mary peers accusingly at the digital recorder. “Is the tape running?”

I explain that there is no tape, but the machine is on and, in effect, running.

“Shall I start then? Right you are. Well, it was the last day before half term, see, so I was looking forward to a week off with my cariad Thomas. He was going to take me to Barry for a few days – do you know Barry?”

I tell her that I do; I’ve been there twice now, and it’s cracking.

“Yeah, a lot of you young Saesnegs are going there since that TV programme.”

She positively spits out the ‘S’ word, as if it were something unpleasant she’d just coughed up. I choose not to be affronted by that; instead I register my surprise at her knowledge of BBC 3 sitcoms, and take the flattery from her description of me as young. I was late making it to university and have recently turned 40, although I suppose that does make me young in comparison to Mary.

“Anyway,” she says, “We were all set for half term at the seaside – yeah, it was off season and not exactly sunbathing weather, but we liked to get away and it always had to be in the school holidays, what with us both being teachers. Thomas taught at Pantglas too, you see. It’s how we met.”

I ask if she and Tom lived together back then.

“That’s Thomas,” she snaps, “No one ever called him Tom. And although we were engaged, we never lived together. Unmarried couples didn’t back then – especially not in Wales; that would have been a scandal. You should know this, being a history student; don’t you kids do any research these days?”

I feel myself blushing slightly under the pressure of her chiding, and reveal that I am a student not of history, but creative writing.

“Oh, that’s bloody brilliant, that is! So you just make it up, then? Well, you’re not the only one, lad; Aberfan’s been full of that these last fifty years.”

I ask her to elaborate.

“Hundreds of people came to the village, thousands, but not all were here to help. Half of them of them had only come to get a story for the next day’s papers or the evening news. I heard a photographer trying to get a kiddie to cry on demand so he could take the perfect picture. And God help you if you actually spoke to the reporters. We’d never met any before, so we didn’t know to be careful – it’s a different world to us. They’d turn your words all the wrong way round so you ended up saying exactly what they wanted you to, whether that’s what you meant or not. If they’d left us alone, we could have settled down afterwards a lot quicker than we did. I’d love to say it was just your lot, the London papers making the trouble, but it was some of our own as well, that was the real betrayal.”

She looks at me with some hostility, and I feel her projecting the sins of all reporters, and all Englishmen, on to me. I sense that she neither understands nor welcomes my presence, or that of any would-be documentarian or dramatist, and start to fear that she will terminate the interview before offering her account. In a desperate bid for acceptance, I tell her that my great-grandfather was a miner in a South Wales colliery, and that he too was involved in a major disaster. He was working in the Universal Colliery in Senghenydd at the time of their 1913 explosion and cave in. 439 miners died that day; my great-grandfather was not one of them, but he suffered leg injuries severe enough to require an amputation. Mary expresses no approval, other than to nod along as I tell my story, but when I am finished she resumes her own.

“I still remember the last song playing on the wireless before I left the house: Beach Boys it was, Good Vibrations. Loved that song then, I did, can’t even listen to it now. But it was still in my head when I called in at Thomas’s house. He must have had the wireless on too, because he was whistling it all up the road on the way to school. We passed in the shadow of the waste tips, just like always. They were just part of the landscape by then really; people would say ‘Oh, those things are going to come down one of these days,’ but we never thought any more of it.

I got to the school, and there was a real happy atmosphere. All the kids were excited about their week off and acting a bit silly and giddy. So when this big rumbling noise started up, and got louder and louder, some of them were clapping and cheering in delight. They ran to the window to see it because they thought it was a plane flying over. But planes never flew over here.

Young Rhys, lovely boy he was, said ‘It’s black, Miss … there’s a tree in it!’ How’s that for last words, eh?”

Mary pauses, dabs at her eyes for a moment, and continues.

“I told the kids to get under their desks. I did too, but it came just a few seconds later and the kids by the window never made it in time. It hit fast and it hit hard. It blew the windows in first, but that wasn’t all. I shouldn’t have looked up, but I couldn’t help myself. I saw the walls cracking and bending in, and then they were just…gone. And everything went black.”

There follows another long pause. Conscious of the interminable dead air, and because, you know, I’m not entirely inconsiderate; I pause the recorder and offer Mary a cup of tea.

A great weight seems to have been lifted from Mary’s shoulders, and she speaks easily about any subject other than the disaster. Of course she regrets the recent General Election result, but proudly announces that her constituency voted in the Labour candidate with a majority of 11,000. I can beat that though, so I boast that my home constituency of Southampton Test was the only one on the central south coast to elect a Labour MP – if you crop the colour coded election result map in the right place, my old home is the only red island in a vast blue ocean. What I don’t say is that as soon as I could afford to, I moved away from there and into a true blue Tory stronghold, so my son could be in the catchment area of a better school. As a former teacher, she might appreciate the high value I place on education, but it’s a middle class cliché I don’t even like admitting to myself, let alone be prepared to discuss in a South Wales mining community.

Mary drains the last of her tea with a sad sigh, and I feel guilty for transporting her back to that terrible day.

“I’m afraid my life didn’t flash in front of me,” she says, “When it stopped, there was such an eerie silence. I remember…there was nothing, there was just this deadness. I was trapped up to my waist in desks and rubble and goodness knows what else. I looked up to the roof and I could see a young lad in my class right up there, climbing down what was then a tip inside my classroom. The other children were trapped amongst their desks, and I remember this boy climbing down. He climbed to the door; I was trapped nearby, and he started kicking the top half of the door in. So I said to him, ‘What are you doing?’ and he said, ‘I’m going home’. The reality still hadn’t come home to me I think, because I felt like giving him a row for breaking the glass. So he kicked the top half of the door in, and then he went out. Suddenly that didn’t seem like such a bad idea anymore, so I got all the kids to climb out from under their desks and go out the same way. All of those that were alive, anyway. When I looked I could see there was enough room for us to crawl through sort of a tunnel. So I went back to the children and I said we had a fire drill and I wanted them to walk out of class quietly. I was told later that my quick thinking saved 21 lives that day: I’m not sure that’s true, and even if it is, I’ll never stop thinking of the four boys and one girl who died in that classroom.”

There is another long, sad, and difficult silence. I realise with hindsight that I jumped in too early with the break before, and this would have been a better time for tea and sympathy. But Mary is far from finished, and carries on.

“Those five were just a tiny fraction of the overall death toll. We thought we were the only ones this had happened to, that this monstrosity came hurtling down the hill just for us. But our classroom had only caught a glancing blow from a small offshoot of the main landslide, and other rooms had suffered much worse damage, or been wiped out completely. Like Thomas, and his class.”

Mary’s hands begin to shake, and she is clearly fighting to try and keep control. She is resolute and manages to refrain from crying, until she notices that I am, and we cry together.

When we resume once again, Mary is composed and frankly, all cried out. She is able to recite the bare facts and statistics with a cold detachment that is, if anything, even more chilling.

“There were 144 deaths in total: 116 children and 28 adults, five of which were teachers at Pantglas. The rescue effort was massive, but basically pointless: by the time the people came flocking in from the other towns, everyone who could be saved had been saved. No one was brought out alive after 11 o’clock.

As soon as the surviving children were moved safely clear, I got on with digging in the rubble. Pulled two boys out of my own class, Rhys and Aled, but I could tell there was no saving them. After that I moved on to the class next door. Was I wrong? I’ve mulled over that decision a lot this last half century; that’s for sure. I tell myself it was too late to save the other children in my classroom, and by moving on I was more likely to rescue someone who still had a chance. But that was also Thomas’s class: was I being selfish? Who was I trying to save: the strong young man I was supposed to marry, or the two dozen children he had pledged to look after, as I had pledged to look after mine? This is a question I’ve asked myself since, but at the time there was nothing in my mind but digging. I was clearing the scree and coal waste as quickly as any of the men; big burly miners with years of pit experience came straight from their shifts to join in the rescue effort, but even they could barely match my pace. They were amazed that this little woman, and I was such a delicate looking thing back then, could work a coalface like a dedicated pitman. It was no use though: that room had taken the full force of landslide head on. We couldn’t get any of them out for hours, and by then we knew it would be far too late. No one survived; not Thomas, nor any of the children. No one.”

I offer to stop the recording once again, but Mary waves me off.

“I’ve got this far, so I might as well get it over with. The rescue attempts weren’t going much better anywhere else. Like I said, reporters arrived by the coachload; able bodied men wielding notebooks and cameras instead of picks and shovels. Other people came along and tried to help, but they just got in the way, scrabbling about with their bare hands and undoing the good work of the experts. Not that there was anything that could be done by then anyway.

The worst part, by far, came later. A hundred times worse, a bloody million times worse than actually being under the rubble, was when we had to identify the bodies up at the Bethania chapel. The parents waited in a long patient line to be let in: I had hoped that they were using it as a hospital, but as I went in, people were coming out who had been told their children had gone. Until then I still had hope that they were just lost. When I went, all the pews were covered with little blankets and under them lay the little children. My Thomas was six foot two though; it took two blankets to cover him, so I spotted him straight away. It was harder for the parents I suppose; some of them had to look under almost every blanket until they finally found their own child.”

I ask, as sensitively as I can, if there was ever anybody else.

“No. Well, there were men, but none of them wanted to marry me. Some of them were already married, actually. There was a lot of that went on after the disaster, but they don’t report on that so much. Couples couldn’t even look at or speak to one another without reminding themselves what had happened, so they’d look more and more to their neighbours for intimacy, or other bereaved parents, or me. I’d close my eyes and imagine they were Thomas. It didn’t heal my pain, and it didn’t heal theirs, but it didn’t make it worse either, and that’s the best thing you can say about it.

And that was just about all we had to help us get over it anyway. The government didn’t help, not really – Labour government it was and all, a Labour Government, a Labour council, and a Labour-nationalised Coal Board, and none of them stood up for us. We had donations from the public, and a disaster fund was set up. But we had to use that fund to pay for the removal of the tips – can you believe that? Coal Board didn’t even have the decency to clear up their own mess; they’d have seen it happen again before dipping into their own pockets.”

My final question is to ask what effect the disaster still has today.

“It’s nearly fifty years now; anniversary next year. The rest of Britain will remember us for one day, and then forget again and go back to their lives. But we here can never forget. Even those born after it happened, or youngsters whose parents weren’t even born then. I’ve taught successive generations, and they all seem to have something…missing, and you can’t put your finger on what. It’s like the whole identity of the village: Aberfan isn’t the name of a place anymore; it’s the name of a disaster. It looms over the place like those tips once did, just as oppressive and ominous, and it always will, long after everyone who survived that day has reunited with those who didn’t.”

That sounds like a good ending point, so I wrap it up there. I thank Mary for her time, and on the way out she asks me the title of my piece.

“Aberfan,” I say, and she smiles knowingly. There is nothing more to be said.

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