Richard Hughes Williams (a.k.a. Dic Tryfan; b. Rhostryfan, Gwynedd, 1878; d. Tregaron, Ceredigion, 1919) was a writer and journalist and an early innovator and populariser of the short story in Welsh. His short stories were published in a range of Welsh magazines and newspapers during his lifetime, and in two volumes of short stories, Straeon y Chwarel (Cwmni y Cyhoeddwyr Cymreig, 1914) and Tair Stori Fer (Hughes a’i Fab, 1916). A collection of his work, Storïau Richard Hughes Williams, was published postumously (Cardiff: Hughes a’i Fab, 1932/1994); while an individual short story, ‘The Wastrel,’ was translated by Dafydd Rowlands as ‘Good-for-Nothing,’ and appears in Alun Richards (ed), The Second Penguin Book of Welsh Short Stories (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1994).
The following is found in my own translation of the short stories of Richard Hughes Williams, Going South (Cockatrice, 2015).
Going South: A Short Story by Richard Hughes Williams
Winter is a wearisome time for quarrymen. Finding work is hard, and even for the quarryman who works every day, the wage at the end of the month is a small one.
No one but those who have felt the pinch can understand the feelings of the quarryman on pay day. No one but the quarryman himself knows what it is to stand at the office window on a cold evening and wait for the steward to call his name. Looking at their pained faces, covered with sweat trails – the quarryman knows what it is to sweat when everything around him is freezing – one might think they are there to be executed, not to be given their wages. How their hands tremble as they take the money and count it once, twice, three times! Just £3 for a month, and a household of seven or eight to feed! But that is enough. I have a story to tell.
About eight years ago it was especially hard in the quarry, and as the quarrymen say, it wasn’t worth taking your dinner there. The market for slate was unusually slack, and the steward swore at the men every hour of the day until he was as hoarse by evening as you are when you’ve caught a cold.
No one likes to be sworn at; and every day a quarryman would pick up his tools, grasp the sack that served him as a cushion, and leave the shed with his bench on his shoulder, and nothing more would be seen of him.
‘There’s decent work in the south,’ he would say, ‘and decent money as well.’
And to the south he would go.
Who has seen the quarryman leaving his home? Isn’t it a sad sight? There he is starting out with tears in his eyes, and with a smile on his face like the smile of the sun on the snow. He does his best to smile for his mother, his wife, or his sister. God knows there is no urge to smile in his heart. In his hand is a small tin trunk that has never been out of his bedroom before. In it are a few collars, white as the snow, half a dozen pairs of socks that have been darned a hundred times, four shirts carefully patched, and pieces of cloth and wool with a little thread round them, and an iron needle stuck through the middle. That’s all. No, wait. At the bottom there’s a little Bible, a book of hymns, and the poems of Ceiriog, Islwyn or Mynyddog.
But I’m wandering again.
I was saying, wasn’t I, how the workers left the quarries? It was mostly the young quarrymen who left. It is hard for an old man to leave home while the mountains are covered in snow. It’s hard for him to go far when his grave is so near. But the young man has no thought for the grave, so he leaves with his heart full of hope.
The steward hated watching the young workers leave. He and his masters would have preferred to be rid of the old, but the old stayed in the quarry; and each day the steward swore enough for three – that is, until he was too hoarse to swear again for three days.
But there was one young man who hadn’t left. He was called Jim.
Jim worked with his father, old Ben. Ben was deaf – too deaf even to hear the steward swearing – and that was why Jim had not gone south.
The quarry is a dangerous place for a deaf man. Jim knew this, and stayed home. But the steward carried on swearing, and one day he mistakenly swore at Jim instead of Ben.
Without saying a word, Jim took his coat and started for home.
Ben saw that something was wrong, and with baby steps he ran after him, and tripped over a piece of slate.
Ben had forgotten how to run properly.
‘Jim,’ he said, getting up and rubbing his elbow. ‘Jim.’
Jim waited outside the shed, and the other quarrymen heard the conversation that followed.
‘Where are you going, Jim? That slate over there, I banged my arm. Where are you going, Jim lad?’
‘I’m going home, dad,’ shouted Jim, until the shed resounded.
‘Home, Jim? I’ve hurt my arm, you know; it’s definitely sore. Are you ill, son?’
‘Then what are you going home for, Jim? My arm’s going to hurt me badly tonight. What are you going home for, Jim?’
‘That Robin swore at me, dad. He swore at me. Robin!’
‘He swore at you, Jim? You know, I’m going to have trouble with this arm of mine. You say he swore at you, son?’
‘And that’s why you want to go home, Jim?’
‘I want to go south, dad.’
‘I said I want to go south.’
‘Go south, Jim?’
For the next few minutes there was a silence, and the quarrymen held their breath while they considered the results of this. It was the first time Jim had thought of leaving his father.
‘Are you really going south, Jim?’ asked the old man in the end, and his voice was quavering.
‘Yes, dad, I am.’
‘You’d do better to stay at home, Jim. My arm is really sore, you know; I’m not just putting it on. Are you really going south, my son?’
‘Yes, dad. I’ll get decent work and decent pay.’
‘Decent work and decent pay, Jim?’
That was all. Jim went home, and the old man returned to the shed with tears in his eyes.
‘Where did he go, Ben?’ asked Dic Evans, one of the quarrymen, pretending he had not heard a word of the conversation.
‘Home, Dic. My arm hurts terribly bad, you know.’
‘Home?’ said Dic.
‘Yes, Dic, home.’
‘What’s he going home for, then?’
‘You’re married, aren’t you, Dic?’
‘As far as I know, I am, yes.’
‘And Beti’s alive, isn’t she?’
‘She was when I left the house this morning,’ answered Dic, thinking Ben had lost his wits.
‘I was married too once, wasn’t I, Dic?’
‘That’s what I always thought.’
‘But Barbara’s dead, isn’t she?’
‘Beti can wash and do the ironing, can’t she, Dic?’
‘I’d like to see a woman who could wash and iron better than she does.’
‘Barbara could too when she was alive, Dic.’
‘I dare say she could.’
‘But she’s dead now, Dic.’
Dic nodded again, and there was silence for a while.
‘Can you think of anything harder for a man than washing and ironing?’ said the old man presently.
Dic shook his head.
‘You don’t know what it’s like, do you, Dic?’
‘No, I don’t.’
‘Well, I do. For seven years, yes, seven years this Christmas, I’ve tried to be a mother and father to Jim. I’ve tried, Dic. Every shirt he wore, it was me that washed it, every collar that went round his neck, it was me that ironed it, and every patch you see on his trousers, it was me that sewed it on. I’m not saying this to boast, Dic, but to show you what a fine boy Jim is. He never complained, you know, not even the first week, when his collars were as limp as a one-year-old child’s. You see why Jim went home now, don’t you, Dic?’
‘He doesn’t have enough clean shirts and collars to go away?’
‘You’ve got it exactly, Dic; you’ve understood, my boy.’
‘I’ll tell you what we’ll do, Ben,’ said Dic, drying his eyes. ‘I’ll send little Robin for his things tonight, and Beti can get them ready.’
‘Will you really do that, Dic? Will you, boy?’
So he did, and in two days Jim went south.
Every Friday he sent his father a letter with fifteen shillings enclosed.
Ben could not read, so the following Monday during the dinner hour in the cabin, he’d take the letter out of his pocket, and ask the quarryman sitting next to him to read it.
‘From Jim,’ he’d say, opening his lunch tin.
It wasn’t easy to read to Jim’s letters, so if the person reading the letter was ‘creative’, as they call it, so much the better. Sometimes, as Dic Evans said, it was impossible to make head or tail of the epistle, but whoever read it was careful to lay Jim’s news before the old man in the best light possible, and to end the letter by saying that there was decent work and decent pay in the south.
One day, however, a cloud came over the quarry. It was rumoured there had been a terrible explosion down south, in the pit where Jim was working. A few days later, Dic brought a copy of the Herald Gymraeg to work, and inside was a list of those killed.
Jim was among them.
What could they do?
It was Thursday already, and if Ben didn’t get his letter from Jim on Saturday, something would happen. A committee was formed to consider the matter. ‘Would it be wrong to forge a letter for Ben every Friday?’ asked one. They all came to the conclusion that it would not. ‘But what about the fifteen shillings?’ asked Dic Evans, running his hand through his hair.
This caused concern.
‘Do you think the boys down south would send money if we asked?’ suggested Dic again. ‘We’re as poor as church mice here.’
The committee thought they would, and laid the matter before them at once. On Saturday, Ben received a letter from Jim, but no money. As it happened the old man did not miss the money. Wasn’t the letter enough?
That Monday, Ben took the letter out of his pocket, and gave it to Dic Evans to read.
‘From Jim,’ he said, opening his lunch tin.
Dic looked pleadingly at the others, but they took no notice of him.
He wiped away the sweat that was trickling brightly on his brow, and started to read.
Jim was well as usual. No time to send money this week. He’d send thirty shillings next week. Decent work in the south, and decent pay to be had. The old man smiled as he took a sandwich out of his lunch tin.
No one else smiled, and no one else had a sandwich on his knee. None of them had any appetite. ‘Ate too much yesterday afternoon.’
For the next two months, Ben got a letter and fifteen shillings every week from Jim. There was decent work and decent pay in the south.
One day, Ben decided it wouldn’t be a bad idea to send a letter to Jim. Couldn’t little Robin next door write as well as a clerk? The letter was written, and two days later it came back in a different envelope. Ben called little Robin again. ‘What does this say, Robin?’ he asked, putting his thumb over the message on the letter he had sent to Jim.
‘Jim Jones is dead,’ said Robin, and his face was like chalk.
‘Jim’s dead?’ said Ben. ‘Jim’s dead?’
‘Yes,’ said Robin, getting ready to run.
Ben went home and took to his bed. That evening Dic Evans came to see him. The kitchen was empty. Where was Ben?
He looked through the bedroom door.
Ben was in bed.
What was the matter with Ben?
He wasn’t asleep, because his eyes were open.
‘Ben?’ said Dic.
Ben tried to get up.
‘Is that you, Jim?’ he said. ‘Is it you, son? Wait for me, I’m coming.’