Later on, I was to discover Hilda’s little indulgence. During the school holidays, when I could accompany her on the market bus into Monmouth for the weekly shopping, we would make straight for the top of the High Street to Hall’s, the largest and smartest grocery store in town. As you entered a tantalising aroma invaded your nostrils, a mixture of home cured ham and cheeses blended with the smell of coffee beans and Demerara sugar contained in the coarse brown sacks beneath the varnished counter. Hilda would nod to the man behind the counter and whisper to him confidentially, “You’ve kept it for me haven’t you? My medicine?” The man would reach for a half bottle of something from one of the shelves at the back of the counter, wrap it in a brown paper bag and hand it with a smile to Hilda who quickly smuggled it away in the bottom of her shopping basket. It was several years later, when I used to visit Cartref after the war, that I realised that the medicine was half a bottle of Irish whiskey with which she used to lace her hot milk nightcap. I often wondered why it had to be Irish whiskey in particular and when she had first acquired a taste for it. During her time in service in that sinful city of London she loved so much, perhaps? But I never liked to ask. My dear mother, as she grew older, used to take her pills at night with a wineglass of whiskey drowned in fizzy ginger ale.
Something in the shop that fascinated me and stopped me from getting bored while Hilda bought her groceries, was the way the money was delivered to the cash desk. There was a brass container at the end of a wire above the counter. This wire extended all the way across to the cash desk in the centre of the shop where a rather stern looking lady in a black dress sat cocooned within a small wooden office open to the ceiling above. The customer paid the counter assistant, who reached up and placed the money in the container. This he sent whizzing along the wire to the cash-desk, where the cashier would retrieve it. If change was required, she would put it in another container with the receipt and send it flying back to the counter. I loved to see these brass containers whizzing back and forth and often wished I could have a go myself.
Just a little further up the High Street from Halls opposite Agincourt Square was Sterretts, renowned for their Chelsea buns. Here the more affluent townsfolk went for their coffee and cakes. I remember looking round in wonder the first time I entered this shop. The walls were painted in theatrical splendour with scenes from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. It was like entering a stage set; a background of green forest enhancing the fairy-tale characters, painted as Disney had shown them in the film. Snow White with her jet black hair and milk white complexion wearing her pristine white apron and the dwarves in their various guises. It was fun for a child trying to identify them. I can’t remember if the Wicked Queen and the old hag with the apple were there but, if they were, they couldn’t have been half as frightening as in the film. I had seen it at the little cinema in Church Street and was the first film I ever saw. Despite the characters being animated, it all seemed so real to me and I was terrified by the Wicked Queen. I was a teenager by the time I stopped being frightened of the cinema and even then anything ghostly or supernatural preyed on my mind.
I always, however, loved anything theatrical and The County Studio opposite Sterretts on the other side of Agincourt Square held more fascination. On every available space in the window and on the front door, postcard scenes of the local area were displayed, many of them sepia tinted or black and white. The owner of the shop was a photographic publisher but he was also a man of many other talents. I was taken one day through some curtains at the back of his studio and there to my delight was a little stage with velvet curtains around it. Auntie Hilda and I and a small audience were entertained to an amusing puppet show with quite sophisticated characters beautifully dressed, one of the female characters, ‘a fast lady’ apparently inspired by a real Monmouth character. The owner of the studio, Mr W.A. Call was a puppeteer and musician as well as a photographer and performed at summer shows in Blackpool. Monmouth was full of surprises!
The Englands would walk miles to visit friends especially if they were poorly. I could have been only six or seven years old when I walked with them to a farm called The Ffosse near Cwmcarven, a place several miles away, to visit an old farmer friend, who they told me had a carbuncle on his neck.
The memory of that walk is vivid to this day. It was warm and sunny as we started out and walked towards Trellech, the next village. I remember walking through a dark wood with shafts of sunlight streaming onto a path scattered with pine needles. We came to a narrow country road bordered with an abundance of lacy cow parsley and dog roses scrambling over the thick hedgerows. We went down a steep hill and eventually came to an ancient church nestling between green banks. We crossed some fields and came to a farmyard where the old farmer stood gazing out at his land. He came towards us and greeted us warmly. He clasped Rushton’s arm and, calling to his wife, entreated us to enter a large farmhouse kitchen smelling of freshly baked cakes. “Well, well,” said the farmer’s wife surprised and delighted, “There’s lucky! I’ve made junket today.” I didn’t know what junket was as I’d never heard of it. I was looking at the old man, who did indeed have a large swelling on his neck. I did not realise until later what this meant. Hilda gave me a stern look which meant I was not to stare.
We sat at a long wooden table for tea and I was served some junket, which I was assured was delicious and was good for me. I wasn’t too sure about the cheesy, milky taste and it took me a long time to finish it, which I did out of politeness. The light sugary sponge cakes and spicy welsh cakes I scoffed in no time at all. Suddenly, we noticed that the kitchen was getting darker and a rumble of thunder rattled the cups on the Welsh dresser. The farmer’s wife looked out of the window at the threatening sky. “There be a storm brewing. Best get along home afore it starts.”
The Englands took their leave of the couple, Rushton grasping the old man’s shoulder and nodding his head in silent sympathy. Hilda took the farmer’s wife’s hand and pressed it. No words passed between them but, even as a child, I sensed the feeling of empathy between the two couples. Hilda and Rushton must have known that this was almost certain to be the last time they would see their old farmer friend.
We made our way back across the fields and saw the Brecon Beacons outlined starkly black in the distance. The sky had turned to a strange violet hue and a clap of thunder was followed by a flash lighting up the distant hills. As we reached the country lane, the first large raindrop hit my cheek. I was wearing only a summer dress and cardigan and light shoes. “Bless us,” cried Hilda, “The child will be soaked through and catch her death!” “Don’t worry, Hildy,” said Rushton reassuringly. “I’ll put my jacket round her and she can have my cap to protect her head.” As we hurried on, the rain began in earnest and we stopped to shelter under a large beech tree. Hilda looked down at me completely enveloped in Rushton’s second best jacket and his cap still warm from his head coming down over my eyes. Hilda couldn’t help laughing despite herself. “Where’s our little Kath gone? That poor little orphan from the storm has completely disappeared!”
All at once there was a tremendous thunder clap overhead followed by a zigzag of lightning almost striking the tree where we were sheltering. “Best move from here,” said Rushton quickly. “We want to get back in one piece.” Until now I had been enjoying the drama of it all but the closeness of the thunder and lightning was beginning to terrify me. We hurried through the wood our feet squelching along the sodden path. The trees looked dark and threatening now there were no beams of sunlight shining through them. Every now and then a flash would light up the bit of sky above the tops of the trees making the wood look eerily haunted.
How relieved I was when we reached the familiar road that led back to Penallt and the little bungalow. I was longing to stroke Tibby’s soft fur and for Rono to lick my face to welcome me back to the cosy little house that I now thought of as home.
[Next: Life at Crick Farm]
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