Ogmore-by-Sea © David Garry / iStock
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster, we’re posting this short story by Carys Davies taken from her 2007 collection, Some New Ambush.
MARY OWEN FOUND the baby in the sand on the afternoon of her forty-sixth birthday, a Tuesday. She stepped off the bus in the usual place and walked slowly towards the dunes — very slowly, Mary Owen being by this time a vast and sluggish woman. She left her shoes where she always left them, in the shadow of the wooden turnstile, and continued down towards the beach beyond, the blue plastic bucket for the cockles swinging off the crook of her elbow.
She always came on Tuesdays to look for cockles. She’d developed a yen for them, dressed in vinegar and eaten with a spoon. (We used to say she was gobbling up her own bitterness with each sour bowl.) Sometimes, the local boys came up from Ogmore to watch the fat lady with her blue bucket, her cotton dress tucked up around her great thighs, bent over the wet sand in search of the little creatures. But today no one had come to watch. Even by Ogmore standards, the grey sea was uninviting. The occupants of a green car were already too far away to observe Mary, and in another moment, their car had disappeared altogether along the curving road to the east, in the direction of Southerndown. Which only left the gulls, and the sheep, nibbling the tarmac in the car park up above the big ﬂat rocks. Mary walked unseen between the clumps of bloomless thistles, crunching the coarse grass under her soft, fat feet, until she came to the edge of the dunes and the beginning of the hard strand where the cockles would be. She was, in spite of the cool of the day, red-faced and perspiring. She stopped to fan herself with the lip of the blue plastic bucket, and there, almost at her feet, where the wind had blown a hollow in the sand, was the baby, waiting for her.
Waiting for her — that’s how she thought of it. She’d always believed (in spite of everything her mother had told her) that life should be fair, and it hadn’t been fair to her. She was sad and disappointed, and we all said it was disappointment that had made her fat. At twenty, she’d been a slip of a girl, but then she’d married Will, who loved her but couldn’t seem to give her a baby, and slowly she began blowing up. Every year, thick new layers of herself settling around her resentful heart like the rings of an ageing tree. Her face hadn’t changed so much — it was much the same face Will had fallen in love with twenty-six years before. It was recognisably the face of the girl in the photo on the gate-legged table in the Owens’ front room. It was only, now, slightly overwhelmed by its surroundings, and there was a look of shock in the round blue eyes, shock at the way life had turned out. The look Mary had was not unlike the small face you see on a coconut, full of sadness and surprise.
Later, watching the Tuesday sun sink behind the mountain, Will would wonder how his wife could go off on the number 12 bus with only cockles on her mind and come back with a baby. But he was wrong, of course, about his wife’s mind. Childlessness had ferried Mary into another world. She was ill, wasn’t she? Ill with craving.
The baby, a boy, was still mucky from its birth and daubed all over with sand. His skin darkish under its redness, his hair fair in the places where it had been dried by the wind. He was quiet — only his arms ﬂailed in the salted air, as if he thought he were falling and was trying to hold onto something. He was wrapped in a length of clean, white linen which the breeze from the distant water had blown into loose coils around him. More sand blew in gentle gusts off the sloping dune, and had begun to drift softly against him in the hollow. It occurred to Mary that with a little more wind, he might have been quite buried in the sand if she hadn’t come. It occurred to her that she’d been guided to this place.
Even so, crouching uncomfortably over the infant, she hesitated. She caught the sour scent of her own anxiety in the air. Grains of sand clung to her warm cheeks. Smooth and unlined in spite of what she’d had to put up with, they had grown slick in the cool sunshine. It was a long time since she’d taken anything that didn’t belong to her and tried to keep it as her own. As a girl, she’d taken things. She had a longing for the nice things other people had in their houses, like Ruth Pritchard’s mum’s jewellery (a jet necklace and a gold ring set with a huge, milky opal). The Pendelphin rabbits Mrs. Bessant had sitting on doilies in her front window. Daffodils from the Gaynors’ garden. But Mary’s mother had always discovered her daughter’s crimes. She’d reminded Mary of the Commandments. Thou shalt not covet. Thou shalt not steal. Even the daffodils had to go back, laid on the ﬂowerbed in the Gaynors’ small garden with a note of apology tucked into the wet soil. The only stolen thing Mary had ever managed to keep was the chocolate she took once from the Co-op at the bottom of the hill, and that was because she ate it straightaway, wolﬁng it down in gulps behind her hand, right outside the shop on the pavement before anyone could come and make her take it back.
It plagued her now, the idea that she’d only be allowed to borrow the baby, that one day she’d have to give him back. While she continued to stoop, and to hesitate, a gust of wind tugged at the length of white linen around the baby and it unfurled like an escaping kite until only a corner remained secured beneath the boy’s tiny, ﬂat feet. Mary saw then that the piece of linen resembled a tablecloth, embroidered along one edge. Where it was hoisted high into the air by the wind, she saw there was a half-embroidered ﬂower, one blue petal and the toothed edge of a leaf. A needle, and a length of blue silk thread, ﬂuttering from the spot where a second petal had been begun next to the ﬁrst. She’d rather this had not been the case. She would rather the linen had been a piece of rag, or an old sheet, because she was no fool. She knew, as she stood there in the cool sunshine, that there’s a tendency among babies abandoned at birth — babies tucked into bull rushes, babies cast upon the barren ﬂanks of mountains — to come swaddled in invisible complications. And the cloth, with its piece of interrupted sewing, struck her then as a possible complication.
But there was nothing in the whole world she’d ever wanted as much as she wanted this half-buried boy. In the chilly, rising wind, he pursed his blue-brown lips against the dry whipping of the sand. His wrinkled face, not much bigger than an orange, puckered and prepared to cry. He repeated the frantic ﬂailing with his arms in the air. She couldn’t help herself. Her hot, swollen heart was pushing up into her throat, telling her that this baby was a thing she was meant to ﬁnd and to keep. Quickly, she gathered him into her large hands, and carried him, bound warmly now in the tablecloth, back up over the dunes. At the turnstile she slipped her shoes back on and walked carefully up the road to the bus stop.
It takes about an hour on the bus from the beach at Ogmore to our town in the valleys — one bus to Bridgend, then another to bring you the rest of the way. The bus still carries you in the same way it brought Mary that day — past the Co-op at the bottom of the hill, then up between the two matching rows of terraced houses that face each other along the steep slope of the narrow street. The bus comes slowly, it lolls and staggers between the changing of the gears, and looks as if it might start rolling backwards all the way down to the sea. The children said it went extra slowly on a Tuesday with Mary Owen inside it. God, they were noisy weren’t they, our children? We had to clamp our hands over their mouths in case she heard.
Half way up, through a gap in the terrace, Mary could see over to the coal mine and, off to the side, the slag heap. The slag — the dark mound of coal waste spat out by the pit — rose up against the green and purple mountain behind our town. All her life, Mary had watched it get bigger every year, up there on the hillside above the school. By the summer of her forty-sixth birthday the slag had grown to be practically a mountain by itself, which some people said they could hear groaning and shifting in the night, as if it were trying to get comfortable. Our town hasn’t changed much to look at since that day.
There is the Co-op, and the mine, and the bus stop still in the same place between the Blue Lady and Jerusalem chapel. Only the slag is gone, and the school is in a different place. There is a quiet too, which is new. It is quiet as Hamelin in our little town.
At the stop, between the pub and the chapel, Mary climbed slowly down onto the pavement. Her big hands shook as she walked, she hardly trusted herself to keep the baby safe now she’d got him almost to the maroon door of her own house. She’d been considering, on the bus, how one day she would tell her little boy the secret of his birth. Present him with the mysterious cloth, like a birth certiﬁcate. The thought was still there as she stood by the ﬁre in the front room (they always had a ﬁre, even in summer), the piece of linen with its half-done pattern of leaves and ﬂowers lying across her open hands. It was still there when she mounted the narrow stairs to her bedroom, and when she lifted the big, bowing mattress of the old bed, and placed the folded cloth underneath. But by the time she’d gone back into the kitchen, the thought had slipped quietly away. He was hers now.
She stood for a while, looking at the boy where he lay in her own front room, warm and clean and wrapped in a fresh pillowcase and sleeping in the lap of Will’s chair. His hair was very fair now she had washed him in the green Fairy soap. She walked back over to the sink where she’d bathed him, and pushed the sandy water down into the plug-hole with the palms of her hands. She wiped the deep sink all round with a dishcloth until there was no trace of the beach left. From the folds of her wrists and her elbows, and the moist spaces between her ﬁngers, she picked away the last grains of sand. When it was all done, she took up the baby again in her arms and sat down in Will’s chair by the ﬁre, exhausted from her labours.
There were parties, that evening, when we were told that Mary Owen had given birth to a baby boy on the beach at Ogmore-by-Sea. In the lounge bar of the Blue Lady, the men began toasting the sudden baby before they even noticed Will was there, sitting quietly in the corner, sipping his pint. Talk of a new baby had drifted towards him from the bar, and he’d wondered whose it might be, and then they were dragging him up to the bar, ribbing him about the lead in his little pencil and calling him an old bugger. ‘You dark horse. You old dog,’ growled Frank Gaynor, the colliery manager, thumping Will’s thin back inside its soft brown jacket. His eyes watered and the air seemed to catch inside his narrow throat so that he couldn’t speak. When the others were too drunk to notice, he slipped back into his corner and sat there, pressed hard against the bench seat, like a folded shadow. He stared into his pint. He took small, ferrety sips of it, and blushed like a bridegroom. He knew his wife was lying. Poor Will, he thought he was the only one who knew, but the truth was, we all knew. Everyone knew all along that she must have made the story up but nobody said so. The men knew it when they wet the baby’s head that night with seven hundred pints of Brains bitter. And the women — we knew when we went piling into Mary’s front room with all our make-shift presents. Talcum powder and cotton sunhats, booties and blankets, all the stuff we had lying around at home. I gave her Huw’s Christening frock and she gave me a kiss for it, sweetly scented with the sherry we were drinking out of tea cups, marzipan crumbs on her lips from the Battenberg someone had brought along for the celebration.
You could say there was a conspiracy from the very beginning. Nobody laid their hand on Mary’s thick arm and said gently, ‘Now, Mary . . .’ We went further, said it was the pregnancy that had given her the yen for the sour cockles. Even young Dr. Clare, who surely should have known better, went along with it, arriving at Mary’s house without his black bag, as if he’d already made up his mind not to look into things too closely. We all wanted her to be happy, you see, to have what she wanted, to have what the rest of us had. It was only fair. I remember leaving her house that night, looking back into the room, and seeing Mary by the ﬁre, the baby looking so warm and peaceful on her huge pillowed chest you almost wanted to climb up there yourself and go to sleep.
Would she have tried to pull off such a preposterous lie if she hadn’t been so enormous? Probably, yes, I think she would have. She began to forget she’d found a stranger’s baby in the sand. She began to believe the story she told, how she’d lain down in the coarse grass and with three long and agonising pangs, pushed out the boy she hadn’t even known was inside her.
She called him Thomas. Mr. Davies, our minister, baptised him in the chapel. Mary dressed him in Huw’s frock.
Thomas Owen became part of our town. For a year he rode up and down the hill in a navy-blue Silver Cross pram. When he was three, Mary bought him his ﬁrst pair of Startrite sandals, the red ones with the pattern of holes in the toe, the ones she’d lusted after, the ones she’d seen the other mothers buying, paying the extra because it was worth it, because you got the proper ﬁtting. And there was the picture on the box she liked too, with the two Startrite Children, safe in their good shoes even though to Mary they looked as if they were heading off on their own into a dark wood.
Thomas had ﬂat, narrow feet, like Will. ‘Look,’ Will said to Mary one evening when the boy was in the bath, ‘he has my feet.’ It always happened like that to Will — by the time the words in his head got out across his lips, they had knitted themselves into different shapes. He said the things Mary liked to hear and kept his worry to himself.
He pictured a fairground girl, a freckled creature with oily hair falling onto her blouse. A dull patterned skirt like the ones worn by the gypsies who used to camp under the lime trees by the river when his mother was alive. The girl had something of the look of the Blue Lady too, who had gold earrings and swung on the painted sign over the pub door. At night she wormed her way into his sleep, searching frantically through her pockets for the thing she had lost. Sometimes a hank of her hair blew against her mouth, and when Will woke, in the night, he felt the girl’s matted hair on his own parched lips, dry and salty, and staggered out of bed to fetch a glass of water, past his sleeping wife and baby. When he climbed back into bed his thin body shifted itself about for hours before he ﬁnally fell asleep again. He knew nothing then of the folded length of linen with its half-embroidered ﬂower lying buried beneath the mattress, but in the mornings he woke with all his bones aching, as if something hard had got into his dreams and turned him black and blue. He felt sure he would know her if she ever came looking.
When Thomas was four years old, Mary bought him a leather satchel from Howell’s in Cardiff and he went to school with the rest of our children, a hundred and twenty-three of them in the low brick building under the slag. Another year passed, and a second, and Thomas Owen turned six.
It is strange to hear a sound and not know what it is or where it is coming from. It began softly, but seemed from the start to be very close — so close that at ﬁrst, I looked for it in my kitchen. In his house next to the chapel, Mr. Davies, the minister, heard it too. He paused in his writing. There it was — a low grumbling, and a gentle shifting, which became a roar. A vast deep moan of protest that seemed to rise up from the bottom of the world and come shuddering through his soul.
Through the bedroom window, Mary saw the slag move. The whole mountain seemed to swell, and then to billow, and to burst open and pour down in a ﬁlthy deluge onto the school. She watched as all the men in the town came swarming up over the muck. She watched them digging for the children. She gaped at the women standing about in small groups, very still and quiet, as if they’d had their hearts plucked out.
She shrank from the window, trembling and sick. The water in the glass on the dressing table still quivered. In the narrow bed, less feverish than he’d been in the morning when she’d decided to keep him home from school, Thomas slept on.
Another minister had to come to help us with the funerals because Mr. Davies couldn’t do it. On the ﬁrst Sunday after it happened he stood up in our chapel in front of the whole town and held out his arms to us as if he had something to give us, but then he put them down again without speaking and gathered up his pages of foolscap paper and went out through the big chapel doors, leaving us with nothing but the echo of his polished shoes clicking across the stone ﬂoor.
He didn’t come back into the chapel after that, and spent his days at home, coming out from time to time to fetch bread and milk from the Co-op.
I began to cook for him. I took him hot soup and a bit of pie a few times a week, though more often than not he wouldn’t eat them, and we would just sit by the ﬁre in his quiet front room while he ate his loaf from the bag and drank the cream off the milk when it was still in the bottle. Sometimes he said he was very sorry that he had nothing to say to me, but that when your faith has disappeared into the mountain with a hundred and twenty-two children, it is probably better to shut up and be quiet.
On Sundays in chapel, Thomas sat between his parents in a new black suit and you could see, in Mary’s little coconut face, that all her peace had gone, and that she remembered now what she’d done. People couldn’t help looking at Thomas. We all sat with our empty hands folded in our laps, and looked. Everyone seemed to be watching him all the time. It was like a hunger. Mary felt it, and began to hide her golden-haired boy away. One night, she went with Will to see Mr. Davies, and in front of both of them she poured out the details. How she’d found him and wrapped him up like a birthday present to herself and kept him. How in her mind the two things, her theft of the baby and what had happened to our town, had become connected. Thou shalt not covet. Thou shalt not steal. What was she after? Forgiveness? Whatever it was, she didn’t ﬁnd it in the minister’s house because he had nothing to tell anybody anymore, he was lost for words.
The Owens have left our town. I saw them climb on the bus at the stop between the Blue Lady and the chapel. I could see Thomas’s fair head, like a bright coin against the grey stone of the buildings. I watched the bus through the window until it disappeared.
Mr. Davies is gone now, too. I miss cooking for him. To pass the time, I come down to the beach at Ogmore and sit here in the prickly dune grass, looking out across the empty sand, the puckered water. I have been trying, these last few days, to dig a hole, but it’s hard work, digging a hole in a sand dune, because the sand keeps running endlessly back through your empty ﬁngers like dry salt. Sometimes, the local boys come up to the beach. When they pass close to the dunes, their high voices distract me brieﬂy from my digging. Then they go running off up the beach and leave me to it again, calling to each other, and glancing back over their shoulders at the funny looking woman on the dune — the sad lady from the valleys, digging for babies in the sand.