Barry November 1934
I never liked Barry. I had the misfortune to spend too much time there in between ships. It was the biggest coal port in Britain during the Great War, and even though it had never really recovered after the Depression, there was still 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.
There were ships too, of course, dozens of them crowding the docks, waiting for their turn under the coal tips, while their crews crowded into the grimy dockside pubs to wash away the taste of coal dust. The Chain Locker was one of them. Not the worst place I’d ever drunk in, but it had seen better days. The side bar of Culley’s Hotel on Dock View Road, it was where sailors and dockers went to fill up on Brains — the Welsh beer not grey cells. No one would have accused the Cardiff brewed ale of making a man any smarter, although there were those who swore that if you drank enough it made women more attractive. This might have been an advantage, as all the better ones avoided the Chain Locker, preferring the lounge bar, or the Barry Hotel on Broad Street.
It wasn’t hard, therefore, to tell that the working girl that had just pushed open the door was outside her usual beat. In an expensive coat and heels that looked impossibly high, she was too well dressed for the Chain Locker, so perhaps uptown pickings had been lean that evening. Or maybe her feet were killing her. A single man was a potential customer though, wherever you found him. And that’s what I was, a potential John, on my own, still sober, nursing half a pint and reasonably presentable in my shore going suit. My only suit in fact. With frayed trouser cuffs, a shiny, threadbare seat and a faint musty odour from prolonged storage in a damp locker. Even so, I thought I deserved better than one of her standard pickup lines.
“You look like you could use some company?”
“What?” I glanced up, as if the last thing I expected to find was a young woman hovering at my elbow.
“You look as if you could use some company,” she repeated, stressing the lilting Welsh accent that on her lips sounded surprisingly attractive. “Do you?” She took the plunge and dropped into the chair opposite me.
I regarded her silently, although I expect she could tell what I was thinking. What any lonely seaman would have thought, looking at her exotic features and the thick mane of black, curly hair, wondering what it would be like with a coloured girl, and whether they could afford her. She was certainly not one of the usual toms from the depressing coal ports of South Wales. She held my gaze with a pair of unexpectedly blue eyes, and for a moment I wondered if I’d made a mistake.
“Talkative aren’t you? At least you could offer me a cigarette, or a drink.”
There was a note of appeal in her voice, practised at flattering a man into parting with his last shilling, and sufficient to have reach into my pocket for the crumpled pack of Senior Service. I flicked one out for her, took another for myself and struck a match, instinctively cupping the flame in my hands. She 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!” She caught the warning in my eyes. “Thanks, I’ll have a gin and bitters.”
I reached into my trouser pocket for the last of the coins, counting them onto the bar as I ordered her gin and another half for myself. I carried the drinks back to the table and reached for the water jug.
“Say when?” She watched me pour water into the bitters laced gin, turning it a pale rose pink.
“When!” She held up a hand. “Thanks. And now, since we’re on speaking terms why don’t you tell me your name?” She took another sophisticated drag at the cigarette and picked up the pink gin, smiling coolly at me over the rim of the glass. It was a reasonable attempt at looking glamorous, and I admired her bravado. It was a tough life for a working girl in dockland bars, and despite the hotel’s respectable, imposing facade with its gables and domed clock tower, this wasn’t one of Barry’s better ones. It was a long narrow room interspersed with circular pillars and with a scuffed wooden panelled bar along one side. The ceiling was stained brown from the constant fug of nicotine and tar laden tobacco smoke, the windows were grimy with coal dust, and the faded, threadbare carpet a patchwork of 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.” She held out a small hand, the manicured nails lacquered deep-red, in contrast to her dark skin. I stared at if for a moment, wondering if it would break in my work hardened fist, but when I held it her grip was confidently firm.
“Do you have another name, then?” I asked, releasing her hand.
“No, Olwyn is my name. My mam gave it me, she was a teacher. 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 mostly. Gives them a sense of possession.”
“What sort of names?” I asked, curious.
“You know,” she squirmed, suddenly uncomfortable. “Exotic ones like Ashanti and Ebony, or Sheba.”
“Because they think you’re exotic?” I said. I guessed this was not quite the outcome the Welsh schoolteacher had expected following a drunken one night stand with a Somali stoker, or one of the many coloured seamen who frequented the Welsh coal ports. Or perhaps their union had been more romantic, either way I doubted her mother approved of her current profession, even if it was the world’s oldest.
“Well I’m not like most of the other girls you see round here, now am I?”
“Matter of fact I don’t see many other girls here at all,” I said, coolly scanning the bar. “Not the usual sort of place for your quality of trade is it? Roughing it are you?”
Despite the dark skin, I’m sure I could see her blush; but her reply 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.” She stubbed the butt of her cigarette viciously into the ashtray and started to rise. I placed a firm, restraining hand over hers.
“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.”
She hesitated. She could have walked away, but perhaps she needed that drink, and in her line of work 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,” she said, smiling again. “I can see there’s no taking advantage of you, William, bach. But you’ll forgive a girl for trying.” She clapped a hand over her 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.”
It was the first genuinely funny thing anyone had said to me for ages, but the deep, rumbling chuckle that heaved my chest showed I hadn’t forgotten how to laugh.
“No, I’m not married and my reputation’s in no danger from you. Fact is you might improve it, things being what they are.”
“And how are things?” she asked. “Forgive me for saying so, but you look just as out of place in this bar as you say I do.”
It was far from true; but flattery sometimes worked wonders, even on me. “Aye Olwyn, I’ve seen better times, that’s for sure,” I said, my mouth twisting into a rueful grin. “But it’s warm in here, the beer’s cheap, and no one makes a fuss if I sit for an hour over half a pint.” I took a swig of the thin tasting excuse for beer. “It’d be good to get a ship though.”
“Thought you were a seaman as soon as I saw you,” she said. “Too well dressed for the fo’c’sle though, and there’s not much dirt under your fingernails so I’m guessing you’re looking for a mate’s berth?”
“I’ve sailed in plenty of fo’c’sles, girl,” I growled, bristling at the reference to my personal appearance. “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,” she snapped back. Then, switching to coquetry, “Present company excepted of course. Anyway you won’t be finding a ship at this time of night. But finding a berth where you could have a little fun, that wouldn’t be so bad now, would it, William bach?”
I was tempted, and not just by the colour of her skin or her confidence. It had been weeks, months even since I’d been with a woman and the interest must have been plain in my eyes. The alluring smile she flashed did nothing to quell the urgency. But even cheap hotels, ones where the night manager didn’t ask too many questions, cost money, and I could hardly afford the room, never mind her.
“Seems you find the idea tolerable then?” she said, managing to split tolerable into four distinct syllables and sexily rolling the middle R.
“You’re not from round here are you?” I 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.” She laughed and winked across the table. “Surely you’ve found that out by now, William bach?”
“Chance would be a fine thing,” I said, my suddenly blushing face betraying the enforced period of monasticism.
“Chance is it?” she replied, encouraged by the sudden chink in my armour. “Not too shy to ask a girl to dance are we?”
“Dancing?” It was my turn to laugh. “Haven’t seen much of that in Barry, been too busy chasing work.” I hesitated, wondering if the truth would expose me to scorn, or worse to pity. “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 fo’c’sle on the next collier out of here.”
“That’s a no then?” I could hear the dejection in her voice and I realised she would have to find another prospect as soon as possible, before all the reasonable looking men 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,” I 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.” I 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 hotels.” I pushed my chair back and stood up, holding out my arm.
A weary smile acknowledged her decision to make the best of it. “Thank you, kind sir. A gentleman to offer me his arm.”
I led her towards the door, buttoning up my coat. 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. She gripped my arm for warmth as we turned the corner into Kingsland Crescent and walked away from the docks towards the town centre.
“Where d’ya think you’re going then?” An unwelcome voice hissed from the darkness, and its owner stepped out of an alley into the cone of pale, yellow light under the corner gas lamp, barring our passage.
I’d seen plenty of pimps in my time, and this one looked a nasty piece of work, despite the rakishly fashionable suit and brooding good looks.
“I’m on my way to King’s Square,” said Olwyn, gripping my arm more tightly. “And this gentleman has offered to walk me there.”
“Gentleman, is it?” The voice was harsh and sneering.
“Now Rhys, we don’t want any trouble,” she said, the collective noun somehow roping me into her predicament.
“There won’t be no trouble, will there mister?” It was a threat as much as a challenge. “I seen you in the Chain Locker, chattin’ her up, takin’ up the best part of an hour of her time.”
“I’ll make it up to you Rhys, 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.”
“Rhys, there’s no need —”
“Step away from him girl, he’s not going to hide behind your skirts.”
I doubt she was expecting a musclebound Charles Atlas, although I probably looked more than a match for Rhys, but her face crumpled when I dropped her arm like a hot brick and shrank backward. “I didn’t mean no harm, nor to cause her any trouble.” I huddled protectively and grasped my hands pleadingly in front of my chest.
The pimp’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.”
Aw, don’t hurt me.” I crept further away from the pool of light, as if the darkness could protect me.
Rhys reached into his coat pocket. I heard a sharp click and a switchblade glimmered in the lamplight.
“You picked a right champion in this one.” He spat the words at me, then beckoned with his fingers. ”Come on boyo, let’s see the colour of your money.”
I raised trembling hands, and slowly reached inside my overcoat, pulling out my wallet and offering it to him.
“Give it here,” he barked, lunging impatiently.
At that moment Olwyn realised she was mistaken about me, and so did Rhys, although for him the consequences were more severe.
I easily sidestepped the outstretched hands, flicked the wallet into the suddenly startled face of the off-balance pimp, locked my two powerful fists onto the hand holding the knife and twisted it back sharply. I heard the wrist bone crack and the agonised scream; the knife clattered to the pavement. Releasing the shattered hand, I smashed a fist into Rhys’s face, the blow sounding like a cleaver chopping through bone. His legs crumpled, and he slumped senseless to the pavement where I delivered several vicious kicks to his ribs. No doubt Olwyn had seen men fighting before, but the ferocity of my attack frightened her, and she grabbed my arm.
“Don’t kill him!”
The lamplight reflected the fear in her dark face, and I allowed her to hold onto my arm while the anger drained away.
“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.” I bent down to pick up my wallet, then knelt beside the unconscious Rhys and placed two fingers on the side of his neck. His head had cracked onto the pavement when he fell, there was a weak pulse and I was pretty sure he’d broken his skull. “He’ll have a broken wrist and some very painful ribs when he wakes up,” I lied, knowing there was an even chance he wouldn’t wake. “He’ll need a doctor.” I reached inside his coat, located his wallet and stood up, stepping into the lamplight 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?”
Her silence was agreement enough.
“He’ll be all right, and I’ll send for help in a minute. But look here” — I pulled most of the notes out of the wallet — “there must be almost sixty quid. No wonder he was keen to keep you working if men paid that well for you.” I thrust the notes towards her, “Here, take it, you earned it.”
The slap stung.
“How dare you talk to me like that? I might be a working girl, but I still have some respect.”
I slapped her back. I wasn’t trying, she would have had far worse from the pimp, but her eyes flashed dangerously and the second slap was as hard as any I’d taken from a woman, and harder than some men. I raised my hands in mock surrender.
“Okay, okay, we're even now. I’m sorry, but it really is your money.” I pushed the wad of notes into her hand. Her eyes narrowed and her nose wrinkled as if I’d handed her something noxious, then she shook her head and stuffed the notes into her handbag.
“Was he from Swansea like you?” I said.
“No, he’s from North Wales, Wrexham I think. I met him after I arrived here.”
“Any friends or family in Barry?”
She 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.” I reached into my pocket for my handkerchief. I didn’t know if fingerprints could be lifted from leather, but I didn’t want to take that chance and wiped the wallet clean before replacing it in Rhys’s jacket. Straightening up I glanced up and down the deserted street. The whole encounter had only taken a matter of moments, and perhaps the residents knew better than to get involved in a fight 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?” she said.
“Never you mind about me, I can look after myself.”
She grinned in the darkness and took my arm. “You can indeed, William, bach.”
On well-lit Holton Road, away from the grimy streets around the eastern docks, I found a telephone box and dialled the police station, reporting a fight and an injured man in an alley behind Culley's Hotel. The desk sergeant asked for my name, but I declined to give it and hung up. There was a sheepish grin on my face when I turned around.
“This is embarrassing Olwyn, but I need to ask you a favour. Can you lend me a few bob?”
“You want me to give you money?” I could see from the smirk that she couldn’t resist enjoying the irony of it.
“It’s just a loan, I’ll pay you back at the end of the voyage.”
“I bet you say that to all the girls.” She reached for a fiver, but I shook my head. I didn’t need charity, just enough to set the landlady right. I accepted ten shillings, and she pressed the note into my 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 —”
She put a finger over my 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 toms.” I paused, surprised that I felt the urge to tell her, “But my mother was one and I wonder how different her life might have been if someone had offered her a second chance.” I stuck out a hand. “So long Olwyn and good luck. I hope I never see you round here again.” My tone was surprisingly stern.
She took my hand. “Thank you, Sir Gawain. Remind me to look you up if I ever need rescuing again.”
I watched her 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 in Thompson Street. I had ten shillings in my pocket, and hopefully my luck had changed.