When Olwyn Met Gawain
I’ve always hated Barry. I had the misfortune to live there between the World Wars, when I was young, and I hated it. It was the biggest coal port in Britain and there was coal everywhere. Rail wagon loads of it squealing and rumbling their way to the docks. Great black mounds of it looming over the grimy rows of the dockside terraced houses. And the perpetual cloud of smelly, choking coal dust. Settling everywhere, getting into everything and turning into a sticky, black slime when it rained. Then there were the ships, dozens of them crowding the docks. And ships meant sailors, washing away the taste of coal dust in smoky pubs. And where sailors and beer combined there were pimps and where there were pimps there were hookers. Like me.
I was in one of those dingy pubs close to Dock View Road. Can’t remember what it was called, but it doesn’t matter now, they were all the same. It was not my usual beat; but uptown pickings had been lean that evening. And my feet were killing me. I needed to sit down and you never knew, a customer was a customer wherever you found him.
And I had a prospect. A man sitting on his own nursing a half pint. Powerfully built and, by the state of his suit, probably a sailor. But reasonable looking and by appearances still sober. I tried one of the standard hooks.
“You look like you could use some company?”
“What?” he glanced up, surprised to see a young woman hovering beside the table.
“You look as if you could use some company,” I repeated, stressing the lilting Welsh accent that some men seemed to find attractive. “Do you?” I took the plunge and dropped into the chair opposite him.
He looked at me silently. I could tell what he was thinking. What they all thought, looking at my exotic colouring and facial features, and my thick mane of black, curly hair; the product of an unlikely and drunken encounter between a Somali stoker and a teacher from Swansea. Not one of the usual girls from the depressing coal ports of South Wales, down on their luck with nothing to earn a living with apart from a pretty face and a soft body. Men wondered what it would be like, with a coloured girl, and whether they could afford me. But perhaps not this man, who was still silent and I wondered if I’d made a mistake.
“Talkative aren’t you?” He met my gaze and for a moment I looked into eyes the faded blue of the wave tossed horizon; deep and mysterious as the ocean. I tried a note of appeal. “At least you could offer me a cigarette, or a drink.”
He sighed as if I had asked him to part with his last shilling and then reached into a pocket and pulled out a crumpled pack of Players, flicking one out for me and taking another for himself. He struck a Vesta and held it up, instinctively shielding the flame in powerful, work creased hands. I inhaled a lungful of the peppery-rich smoke and softly blew it out through pursed, crimson lips, the way I’d seen Marlene Dietrich do it at the cinema.
“What’ll you drink?”
“It speaks!” I caught the warning in his eyes, “Thanks, I’ll have a gin and bitters.”
He rose and walked over to the bar, feeling into his trouser pocket for some coins and weighing them in his fingers.
“Gin and bitters, and another half.” He deliberately counted the coins onto the bar. Tight fisted, I thought, this was going to be hard going. He brought the drinks back to the table and reached for the water jug.
“Say when.” He poured water into the bitters laced gin watching the brown tinged liquid turn into a pale rose pink.
“When. Thanks for the drink. And now that we’re on speaking terms why don’t you tell me your name.” I took another drag at the cigarette, picked up the pink gin, and waited for a reply.
I was trying to act cool and sophisticated, smiling at him over the rim of the glass, hoping he’d find me attractive. Was it bravado or naivety? It was a tough life being a working girl in dockland pubs. And this was not one of Barry’s better ones. A dimly lit, tiny dive with nicotine stained paint peeling off the walls and ceiling. The windows grimy with coal dust. The faded threadbare carpet quilted by beer stains and cigarette burns.
“William, but most people call me Bill.”
“Well, William, I’m very pleased to meet you. You can call me Olwyn.” I held out my hand; small and coffee coloured, the manicured nails lacquered deep-red. He stared at if for a moment as if he thought his own powerful fist might break it. But when he held it he was gentle and his grip was reassuringly warm and dry.
“Do you have another name, then?” he asked, releasing my hand.
“No, Olwyn is my name. My mum gave it me. It means ‘white footprint ‘in Welsh … and that’s about the only part of me that is white, the soles of my feet. But not many people call me that, they like to make up other names for me.”
“Well, men. Gives them a sense of possession.”
“What sort of names?” he asked, curious.
“You know,” I squirmed, suddenly uncomfortable, “exotic ones like Ashanti and Ebony or Sheba.”
“Because they think you’re exotic.” It was a statement rather than a question.
“Well I’m not like most of the other girls you see round here, now am I?”
I watched while he slowly scanned the bar. “Matter of fact I don’t see many other girls here at all,” he said. “Not the usual sort of place for your quality of trade is it? Roughing it are you?” Despite the dark skin I’m sure he could see me blushing; but I was angry, not embarrassed.
“Look mister if you don’t want my company that’s one thing, but there’s no need to be rude.” I stubbed the butt of my cigarette viciously into the ashtray and started to rise. He placed a firm, restraining hand over mine.
“At least finish your drink. I didn’t say I didn’t want company, but let’s not pretend it’s just the pleasure of my company you want. You’re a nice looking girl and if you want to have a drink with me where it’s warm and dry, until someone makes you a better offer, then that’s okay.”
I hesitated. I could have walked away, but I needed that drink and in my experience a man’s “no” didn’t always mean no. Sometimes they just needed persuading. “Well you really do know how to make a girl feel welcome,” I said, smiling now. “I can see there’s no taking advantage of you, William bach. But you’ll forgive a girl for trying.” I clapped a hand over my mouth in mock horror. “You’re not married are you? I’d hate your reputation to suffer being seen talking to a girl like me.”
He laughed, a deep, rumbling, chuckle and his eyes creased with merriment. “No, I’m not married and my reputation is in no danger from you. Fact is you might improve it, things being what they are.”
“And how are things?” I asked. “Forgive me for saying so but you look just as out of place in this bar as you say I do.” It wasn’t true; but flattery sometimes works wonders.
His mouth twisted into a rueful grin. “Aye Olwyn, I’ve seen better times, that’s for sure. But the beer’s good here, and cheap, and the landlord doesn’t make a fuss if I sit for an hour over half a pint.” He took a swig and his mouth curled appreciatively. “It’d be good to get a ship though.”
“Thought you were a seaman as soon as I saw you,” I said. “Too well dressed for the foc’sle though and there’s not much dirt under your fingernails so I’m guessing you’re looking for a mate’s berth?” I watched him bristle at the reference to his personal appearance.
“I’ve sailed in plenty of foc’sles girl,” he growled. “With dirty hands and dirty clothes. There are times when you don’t have the luxury of being too choosy.”
“You and me both, boyo.” I snapped back. And then, softly, “Present company excepted of course. Anyway you won’t be finding a ship at this time of night.” It was time to try some coquetry. “But finding a berth where you could have a little fun, that wouldn’t be so bad now, would it William bach?”
The desire in his eyes was plain and his gaze so direct that I felt as if he could see right through my clothes, but I did my best to smile demurely. He had to be tempted and not just by the colour of my skin. If he was hard up and not married then it might have been weeks, months even, since he’d been with a woman. I could almost feel his urgency. But even cheap hotels, ones where the night manager didn’t ask too many questions, cost money. Would he be able to afford the room as well as me?
“Seems you find the idea tolerable then?” I said, managing to split tolerable into four distinct syllables and sexily rolling the middle ‘r.’
“You’re not from round here are you?” he said.
“Changing the subject are we? You want to know more about me before you decide if I’m worth it. Is that it? Well if you must know I’m from Swansea.”
“Thought you didn’t sound like one of the local girls.”
“Worst accent in Wales, that’s what they say about Barry. Worst accent, worst coal dust and worst girls.” I laughed and winked across the table. “Surely you’ve found that out by now, William bach?”
“Chance would be a fine thing,” His suddenly blushing face betraying an enforced period of monasticism.
“Chance is it?” I replied, encouraged by the sudden chink in his armour. “Not too shy to ask a girl to dance are we?”
“Dancing?” It was his turn to laugh. “Haven’t seen much of that in Barry, been too busy chasing work.” He hesitated, perhaps unsure whether to continue. Perhaps afraid that I might scorn or pity him. “And the truth is Olwyn, I’m skint. If I don’t find a mate’s berth tomorrow, well I’ll be sleeping rough or back in the foc’sle on the next collier out of here.”
“That’s a no then?” I replied, trying to keep the dejection out of my voice, realising that if he could not afford it I would have to find another prospect as soon as possible, before all the reasonable looking ones were tucked up in bed with their wives or lovers, leaving just the sweepings of Barry’s dockside pubs.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted, Olwyn. But –“
“There’s always a ‘but.’”
“But,” he continued determinedly, “much as I’d be happy to see the landlady go short, I can’t get by on fresh air, no more than you can. “ He glanced around the bar. It was almost closing time but the remaining patrons were either too old or too drunk. “Look, you won’t have any luck in here, but I’ll walk you up towards King’s Square and perhaps you can find someone coming out of the cinema or one of the big hotels.”
He pushed his chair back and stood up, holding out his arm. I decided to make the best of it. “Thank you, kind sir. A gentleman to offer me his arm.”
He led me towards the door, mouthing good night to the landlord. Then we were outside in the cold, damp air, the darkness intensified by the stinking, coal dust tainted mist that had settled over the town. I gripped his arm for warmth as we walked away from the docks towards the town centre.
“Where do think you’re going then?” A familiar, but unwelcome voice hissed from the darkness and its owner stepped out of an alley way into the cone of pale, yellow light under the corner gas lamp, barring our passage.
He was a nasty piece of work that went by the improbable name of Bertie. Rakishly dressed with his trademark green scarf and with deceptively boyish good looks he looked anything other than what he was, a vicious petty crook and a pimp. My pimp. Which had its benefits because most of the other pimps were afraid of him and left me alone. And he was not overly fond of sampling the merchandise. Perhaps he found my colour a threat to his sense of superiority. On the other hand he was not averse to raising his hand when business was not as brisk as he liked it.
“I’m on my way to King’s Square, this gentleman has offered to walk me there.”
“Gentleman, is it?” The voice was harsh and sneering.
“Now Bertie we don’t want any trouble,” I said.
“There won’t be no trouble, will there mister?” It was a threat as much as a challenge. “I seen you in the pub, chattin’ her up, takin’ up the best part of an hour of her time.”
“I’ll make it up to you Bertie, I just needed to sit down for a while and this gentleman offered to buy me a drink.”
“Very nice, very cosy in the pub the two of you were, while I’m out here in the cold waiting for you to earn some money. You’ve wasted Olwyn’s time boyo, you’ve wasted my time. Time’s money. Time has to be paid for.”
“Bertie, there’s no need -”
“Step away from him girl, he’s not going to hide behind your skirts.”
I wasn’t expecting Sir Gawain; but William looked more than a match for Bertie so I was shocked when he dropped my arm like a hot brick and shrank backwards. “I didn’t mean no harm, Bertie,” he whined. “I didn’t mean to cause her any trouble.” He huddled protectively and grasped his hands pleadingly in front of his chest.
Bertie’s mouth twisted into a sadistic sneer. “Makes no difference to me boyo whether you’ve had her or not. Now you’re going to pay.”
“Please don’t hurt me.” The tone was craven and William crept further away from the pool of light, as if the darkness could protect him.
Bertie reached into his coat pocket. I heard a sharp click and a switchblade glimmered in the lamp light. “You picked a right champion in this one.” He spat the words at me, then beckoned William with his fingers. ”Come on boyo, let’s see the colour of your money.”
William raised trembling hands and slowly reached inside his overcoat, drawing out his wallet and offering it out towards the advancing Bertie.
“Give it here,” barked Bertie, lunging impatiently.
Which is when I realised that I was mistaken about William, and so was Bertie, although for him the consequences were near fatal.
William easily sidestepped the outstretched hands, flicked the wallet into the suddenly startled face of the off-balance Bertie, locked his two powerful fists onto the hand holding the knife and twisted it back sharply. I heard the bones crack and Bertie’s scream; the knife clattered to the pavement. Releasing the shattered wrist, William smashed a fist into Bertie’s face, the blow sounding like a cleaver chopping through bone. Bertie’s legs crumpled and he slumped, senseless to the pavement where William delivered several vicious kicks to his ribs. I’d seen men fighting before, but the ferocity of William’s attack frightened me and I grabbed his arm. “Don’t kill him.”
His eyes blazed in the lamplight and the veins bulged in his neck. Then the anger drained from his face. “Sorry, but when I knock a man down I like to make sure he stays down, or at least if he gets up he’s in no state to do any further damage.” He bent down to pick up his wallet then knelt beside the unconscious Bertie and placed two fingers on the side of his neck. “He’s not dead, but he’ll have a broken wrist and some very painful ribs when he wakes up, he’ll need a doctor.” He reached inside Bertie’s coat, located his wallet and stood up, stepping into the lamp light to examine its contents.
“What are you doing?”
“I don’t see why you’re so worried about him. He was going to cut me, or worse. And I bet he’s knocked you about before?”
My silence was agreement enough.
“He’ll be all right and I’ll send for help in a minute. But look here,” he pulled a handful of notes from the wallet. “There must be almost sixty pounds. No wonder he was keen to keep you working if men paid that well for you. Here,” he thrust the notes towards me. “Take it, you earned it.”
I slapped him hard. “How dare you talk to me like that? I might be a working girl, but I still have some respect.”
He slapped me back. It stung but I knew he wasn’t trying. I’d had far worse from Bertie. I raised my hand and swung it at his face, but he caught it, laughing. “Okay, were even now. I’m sorry, but really, it is your money.” He pushed the wad of notes into my hand, then paused, then paused. “Was he from Swansea like you?”
“No, he’s from North Wales, Wrexham I think. I met him after I arrived here.”
“Any friends or family in Barry?”
I thought for a moment. “No, he never mentioned anyone. I think he came here just before I did.”
“It’ll be a while before he wakes up and he won’t feel up to much when he does. So my advice to you, Olwyn, is to get the next train out of Barry and find somewhere to make a fresh start. Somewhere far away from places like this and men like him.” He glanced up and down the dark and still deserted street. The whole encounter had only taken a matter of moments and perhaps the residents knew better than to get involved with two men fighting over a woman.
“Let’s get away from here. I’ll walk you towards Holton Road and look for a phone box to ring the police.”
“What about you?”
“Never you mind about me, I can look after myself.”
I grinned in the darkness and took his arm. “You can indeed, William bach.”
On well-lit Holton Road, away from the grimy lanes around the eastern docks, William found a telephone box and dialled the police station, reporting a fight and an injured man beside an alley off Jewel Street. The desk sergeant asked for his name, but he declined to give it and hung up. There was sheepish grin on his face when he turned around.
“This is embarrassing Olwyn, but I need to ask you a favour. Can you lend me five quid?”
“You want me to give you money?” I couldn’t resist enjoying the irony of it.
“It’s just a loan, I’ll pay you back at the end of the voyage.” His eyes were sparkling.
“I bet you say that to all the girls,” I counted out ten pounds and pressed them into his hand.
“We’re quits now Sir Gawain.”
“One of King Arthur’s Knights. He was Welsh and kind to maidens in distress.”
“I’m not Welsh, and you’re hardly – ”
I put a finger over his lips. “Don’t spoil it now, unless you want another box on the ear. Thank you for getting me away from that pig. But I’m curious as to why.”
“Don’t get me wrong Olwyn. I’m no saint, I’ve had my share of hookers. My mother was one, but she had little choice after my father was killed in the Great War. Perhaps if just one of the men who took advantage of her had stopped to help, she’d still be here now.” He stuck out a hand. “So long Olwyn and good luck. And I hope I never see you round here again.” His tone was surprisingly stern.
I took his hand and shook it, afraid that if I kissed him I wouldn’t be able to go. “Thank you Sir Gawain. You really do know how to make a girl feel welcome.”
I watched him disappear into the darkness. In the distance I heard the bells of a speeding ambulance. Pulling my collar up against the cold, I stepped out briskly in the direction of my digs. I had fifty pounds in my pocket and a train to catch.