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.