A tour of Abertump and a description of some of its odd characters.
Gwen's Cafe and her exploding tea urn
If we have to choose a social headquarters for Abertump, a place that represents its beating heart, it has to be Gwen’s strange café in the middle of High Street, next to the bus stop. It has not benefitted from a lick of paint for at least 50 years and retains a 1950s monochrome scheme of very dark brown. The original brown Lincruster wall covering remains, the brown theme continuing across the nicotine-stained ceiling. The cobweb-festooned, but thankfully disconnected, gas light together with numerous and heavily populated fly papers, provide at first glance, an attempt at decorating the place. In the very centre of the floor resides a precariously balanced, bulbous cast iron stove with a leg missing; it is fired by coal, the commercial source of which is uncertain. Long ago, the iron tray beneath the stove burned away, so that nowadays hot, smoking ash drops onto a sheet of aluminium nailed to the floor.
It is not only the poisonous sulphurous smoke from stove that gives the establishment its unique atmosphere, but also the hot-water boiler sitting on the end of the counter. After many years of faithful service, it seems to have taken it into its head to give itself an upgrade: to generating high pressure superheated steam. The pressure gauge having blown off under the newly increased pressure, now meant that the dangerous device had to be ‘relieved’ from time to time by Gwen opening fully the steam valve if she is to prevent an explosion. This may sound a dangerous tactic, but she has found the deafening noise of exiting high-pressure steam and the accompanying cumulonimbus clouds rising to the ceiling a valuable defence against obstreperous customers dissatisfied with her service or her refreshments.
The menu is very limited and consists of only tea and Welshcakes, the latter being her principle source of revenue. Narrow her cuisine may be, but bearing in mind that Gwen can persuade (threaten is a better word) any customer of any size, shape or nationality to have a Welshcake or two with every cup of tea, then her income is quite satisfactory. Especially when complemented by an illegal income from the so-called 'public' telephone that the GPO mistakenly installed in her establishment years ago. It is rumoured that she is particularly friendly with a telecoms engineer who spends the night with her twice a year, having emptied the thing and shared the profits. "She'll do anything for a couple of bob," is the opinion of most women in the town. The men, meanwhile, feel that anyone bold enough or stupid enough 'to interfere with Gwen's cash box' need either a medal or to be sectioned under The Mental Health Act.
Map of ABERTUMP
The Cwm Tiddly Mine
The east of the town (the bottom of the map) is characterised by transport links. The main road and the railway to Swansea pass this way. A small station (the Abertump Halt) has been maintained here. That the railway exists is due to the need for transporting coal from the Cwm Tiddly mine to the coast. The mine was founded in 1877 by the grandfather of the current occupant of Fogle Towers, the grand, but rundown stately home of the Fogles, situated to the north of the town. The unfortunate founder of the mine died of spontaneous combustion one November 5th, a tragic and entirely unexplained event. Before the mine was opened, the canal was the means of heavy transport for all seven mines in the valley. What remains of it can be seen at the top of the map. Most mines are further up the valley, to the north. Rich in high quality anthracite, they enjoyed great success in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Cwm Tiddly Mine was no exception and because of its later rail link, the mine quickly established itself as one of the most profitable.
The Fogles of Fogle Towers
This is the great land-owning family of Abertump. Its fortune had been built up by the grandfather of the current Fogle, who is Nathaniel Fogle, MBE, Welsh Guards Catering Corps (retired). Nathaniel is not made of the same stuff as his entrepreneurial grandfather; he'd rather bake cakes. Luckily for him, the fading fortune of the family had been boosted by his marriage to the Hon Cressida Ophelia Guinivere Rothsmucker, a rich mining family in North Yorkshire. The Fogles have a son, Marmaduke Wellington Fogle, or Goofy as he is known in the town, who is rapidly draining away any money that his mother brought to the marriage. The reason is simple: he likes tobogganing - in Austria, Switzerland, Norway, in fact anywhere very expensive. He took the occasional break from his obsession and usually headed south to Italy. His long sojourn in Venice, where he spent a fortune unable to stop hiring gondolas, resulted in his recall to Abertump by his mother. The Fogles are, of course, Horatio Evans' capitalist enemies, but due to luck as much as anything, he never manages to score points off them. Cressida, being the only Fogle with a brain, somehow manages to keep her cake-baking husband and her peculiar goofy, tobogganing son in line.
The Miners' Institute
Like many mining communities, Abertump has a Miners' Institute. Situated near the mine, the land was donated by the Fogle family in the early 20th century. It has an assembly hall and two bars. The offices upstairs had been intended for a library, but were converted into a snooker room and a bingo room. Although distinctly left wing, the miners deny Horatio and his communist brethren the use of these facilities, judging their antics as undemocratic and distinctly seditious. Instead, the Brethren meet either in a back room of the toilet bowl factory (‘Flushed With Success’) or a dingy back room (Room 101) at The Mad Shepherd pub.
The Toilet Bowl Factory - 'Flushed With Success'
The toilet bowl factory may at first appear to be in rather an odd position, situated as it is almost in the centre of town. Its founder had wanted it established near the mine from whence coal for its furnaces could be conveniently obtained. But that would have placed the factory on Fogle land. The family refused steadfastly to have a facility that manufactured such unsavoury items built there. Their very own Cwm Tiddly Mine, however, did not, in their opinion, offend the eye or their sensitive upper-class natures.
The Rev Dafydd Thomas of Bethesda Chapel
Such clashes of opinion are, of course, quite usual in communities; and they are by no means restricted to the location of buildings or industry. There are clashes of conviction and these readily occur between Horatio Evans, a staunch communist, and the Rev Dafydd Thomas, Bethesda Chapel preacher. The latter gentleman lives in a roomy, semi-detached, rectory-like house near the chapel. Although his house is larger and more substantial than most of his neighbours’, he feels comfortable there, among his flock. He also finds that being close to the school helps. He teaches Religious Instruction there twice a week to the under-elevens. That Bethesda is behind Horatio's house is rather a pity, because it can sometimes be affected on Sunday mornings by Horatio's disruptive and sometimes dangerous DIY attempts. Horatio's wife, Gladys, however, finds its location ideal. It takes her barely five minutes to walk there. Within its plain walls she feels safe once a week.
Terry and Iolo, the on-board crew of the Horatio Express (a Volvo Mark IV refuse collection vehicle)
Terry was the illegitimate nephew of an embalmer's assistant who had been sacked for some strange malpractice from a funeral home in Bristol and sought refuge in Abertump. Terry followed him. The move was a clue to one of Terry's traits: he was a follower, not having a clue as to what he should do next, relying on others to guide him. He made an ideal assistant to Horatio who could hone his undoubted leadership skills on the poor lad. Terry was very grateful for the attention he thus received, but he could do little with the knowledge Horatio imparted to him. The problem was simple: Terry's IQ was very low, in fact so low, it was off the chart. If we survey the spectrum of Darwinian evolution, he had an IQ somewhere between that of a bacterium in a pot of yoghourt and seaweed. But he was happy and compliant and that mattered. He obeyed orders immediately and never tried too hard to understand them. He would jump off a cliff if asked, only to query why he was doing it on the way down.
Iolo Williams was a very different character. Although a giant of a man (someone from Swansea once suggested he resembled a taxidermist's first attempt at an orangutan), his heavily Brylcreemed hair and round NHS glasses betrayed a gentle, sensitive side. This sensitivity he exploited by playing the harmonica, rather badly. His sensitivity could not have been eased when his father was suddenly absent from the marital home after falling into the clinging arms of a limbo dancer on a miners' outing to Tonypandy. He went on the bus, but never came back. The event hurt Iolo and especially his mother, little Mrs Williams, who had taken up crocheting on an industrial scale, an activity which Iolo's father claimed drove him away. Although she continued her manic crocheting, covering the small cottage in a rising tide of the stuff, she couldn't help wonder if her giant son would one day also leave her for the fleshpots of some distant Welsh town.
Gladys' Heavy Legs - Les Jambes Lourdes
Fragile Gladys Evans found a protector, Goronwy Davies, the slaughterhouse foreman. He is the only person to have identified one of her most depressing ailments: Heavy Legs, or les jambes lourdes, as the French name them. She first read about the affliction in Goronwy’s medical column in the Abertump Herald, where he writes under the nom de plume of Caradog. Although totally unqualified medically, his knowledge comes from observing the disturbingly visceral activities of the slaughterhouse. In spite of his lack of qualifications, and his only knowledge of anatomy being that of a sheep’s innards, he nevertheless got the job. He has a strange knack of satisfying the worries and complaints of many a neurotic Abertump resident, Gladys being his biggest fan.
Goronwy Davies' Slaughterhouse
The slaughterhouse was established by Goronwy’s great uncle in 1937 to cater for the demand for meat in the valley. To the north of the town sheep are numerous on the hills, whilst to the south, notably on Eli's farm, cattle are abundant. The slaughterhouse still does a good trade, although Goronwy was not to inherit the business; it was bought by a large abattoir company in 1967; but he retained his supervisory role and with some of the money the sale generated, he bought himself one of the few new houses in the centre of the town, albeit next to the smoking toilet bowl factory and Maurice the Fogles' accountant who he hates. In fact he hates all men who go to work with cufflinks.
PC ('Useless') Eustace and his police cottage
The police station is a building once seen is never forgotten. The original station was further up High Street, near Jones' Emporium (Suppliers of All Things Sanitary to the Gentry). It was hit by a German bomb in the Blitz. Bearing in mind that Swansea, the real target, was some 25 miles away, the German aimer must have left his glasses at home. As a stop-gap measure, a cottage was requisitioned and the war-time station set up in its front room or parlour. Seeing that the arrangement worked just as well as the previous custom-built station, no change was made after the war. Constable Eustace ('Useless' to his fellow-citizens) now inhabits the tiny station with his sergeant from Clydach calling in from time to time. The area given over to tea and minor food preparation is larger than that given over to citizens wishing to report a crime. And that is just how PC Useless likes it. His priorities are clear: he prefers catching a nap to catching criminals.
In his defence, so little crime occurs in Abertump that he may just as well wait in his comfortable and well-disguised police cottage for a crime to be committed, as to continually walk around the town looking for one. As an example of how seriously the town takes even the most minor event, the Herald's headline one week was 'PC Loses Whistle - Investigation in full swing'. Voters, however, think PC Eustace's clear preference for sitting in his cottage is indicative of a pretty useless guardian of the law and thus is he named, especially by Horatio Evans, on whom he calls if any misdemeanour of any kind has been reported. He applies this bias against Horatio when investigating car crimes and Horatio doesn't have one.
The Evans Opera House
In an area to the south of the police station can be seen an open space of waste land that Horatio has suggested several times at council meetings should be reserved for an opera house, his opera house, a memorial to him for future generations. We can deduce the reaction of his fellow councillors by noting that this proposal has never been noted in the minutes of that august group of citizens or appeared on an agenda.
The Hall of the Great Bison
The site of the proposed Evans Opera House is adjacent to the Buffalos' temple, the Temple of the Great Bison, who is head of the herd of the Swansea Plains, Abertump Prairie. This was once a World War II Nissen hut and has been fitted out for its new purpose. The problem with these erections is not only that after 70 years of service are they falling apart, but also that the space within is not wholly useable. Since the roof slopes severely at the edges, no-one can either sit or stand at these points. Such huts also have very strange acoustics, capable of convincing the unwary that they are trapped within a steel drum.
Almost directly across the road from the Buffs' HQ is another HQ: that of the council's refuse depot where Horatio's refuse collection and disposal vehicle (a Volvo Mark IV) is garaged. It is also Dai Balloon's 'prison'. His nickname comes from his constant worry that Horatio will let him down. Condemned to sit in a smelly wooden shed adjacent to the entrance gates, Dai is another of Horatio's adversaries. Not that poor Dai has sought conflict; but it was inevitable from Horatio's first day there. Dai's futile attempts at keeping him on the straight and narrow, has been his greatest challenge. The effect on his health has been embarrassing and chronic, resulting in what he calls ‘gaseous difficulties of the lower bowels’. The health of Dai’s predecessor was also ruined by Horatio. The poor man took medical retirement and is now cared for in a home far from Abertump, somewhere in Northumberland. It is said he has to be heavily sedated on Fridays, which are ‘bin days’. Dai is not only imprisoned in his hut at the refuse depot, but also in his home (Balloon Castle). His wife likes to keep up appearances and keep the sight of her neighbours' wrecked front gardens from view. A nine-foot hedge surrounds her small cottage, which Dai is condemned to maintain or he'll have his tobacco money cut.
Madame Bonnie De Douche (really Mavis Scragg)
There may be one building in the town that defies immediate understanding as to its function. The Iron Room was once a mortuary, but although it kept the deceased very cool in winter, it tended to heat them up in summer. Iron was not the best material to have used. Its current use is for something not too far removed from life and death: it is the scene of spiritualist performances by the gifted medium with the stage name of Bonnie de Douche, but who is blessed with the original name of Mavis Scragg. Being close to The Mad Shepherd pub is a disadvantage; too many of the pub's customers seem to find that exiting the place full of drink suddenly requires them to seek a place in which to relieve themselves and they do so against the metal wall of the building. The sound of such a secretive urinary activity frightened the building’s ‘parishioners’ more than once, notably when one lady asked the medium if her late fire-fighter husband was hovering around somewhere in the atmosphere. The immediate sound of running water sent her dashing out of the building convinced he had returned to haunt her with his hosepipe.
Jones' Emporium (Suppliers of All Things Sanitary to the Gentry)
Besides Gwen’s Café on High Street there is a second commercial establishment especially worthy of note: Jones' Emporium (Supplier of all Things Sanitary to the Gentry). Mr Jones inherited the emporium from his wife's father who ran a large business there, one that was also a corn merchant, the heyday of which passed many years ago. Sadly, immediately after Mr Jones took over the shop, its fortunes began to ebb, which was entirely predictable. Before marrying, Mr Jones had been a plumber and he treated the shop as his own Aladdin’s Cave for the entire profession, stocking spare parts that few had heard of and even fewer needed. It was even rumoured he had a secret contact in far away England from whence further rare items could be obtained from France.
But gradually the shop’s fortune reversed, when it became the only place in Wales where a plumber from, say The National Trust, could pluck off the shelf a hand-made left-handed brass ball cock with a reverse Whitworth thread and in a choice of finishes. As a result of this risky approach to business, plumbers across Wales gradually realised that here was a store of outdated and rare items that could be obtained nowhere else. His fortunes rose again, although under the watchful eye of his wife who persuaded him to stock modern innovations, such as copper piping.
In addition to creating and maintaining what was effectively a museum of plumbing, Mr Jones resisted all attempts at adopting the annoying modern habit of insisting a customer buy a ready-priced pack of ten screws when all he wanted was one. He would serve a single screw from one of many beautifully labeled drawers comprising a towering stack that lined the whole wall behind the counter and the screw would be wrapped in brown paper and sealed with sticky tape. If Jones didn’t have something, it didn’t, and never did, exist.
Last but not least, we must visit Horatio's home, The Kremlin, at number 74 Slaughterhouse Terrace. It occupies a central location in the town, one of a terrace of small cottages that are ubiquitous in mining valleys. It attracts more than its fair share of interest, if not notoriety. This began shortly after his marriage to the frail and fragile Gladys, when he decided to extend the house by constructing a lean-to, or as it became known, and was in fact, his lean-over. In fact, little in the house seemed remotely familiar with the concepts of the vertical or horizontal. In the back garden he built a shed which also leaned, attracting the name of the Leaning Shed of Pisa, a tag that was promulgated by one of his immediate neighbours, Mr Davies the savage cage fighter of Abertump. Upstairs, the wardrobe he had found standing lonely and rejected in a back lane, had to be sawn in half to get it up the stairs and that too leaned, the two halves resisting a geometrical reconciliation.
Downstairs in the living room, the replacement fireplace found at the back of the Mad Shepherd pub, leaned outwards, refusing to send smoke up the chimney, preferring the short cut into the room. This did nothing to help Gladys' chronic chest complaints, which, when reaching a distressing climax could be eased by popping into her other next door neighbour and taking deep whiffs of Neville-the-Oxybottle's oxygen.
And so it is that the lovely town of Abertump presents itself. A quiet, contented town, nestling in the once-green hills of the Swansea Valley. It is a pity that the arrival of a certain Horatio Evans is destined shake it from its complacency. Something lit his blue touch paper and is destined to cause an explosion in the town, like it or not.