My Moment of Destiny

(From the memoirs of Horace Drake)

Last night for the first time, O Heart’s Delight,
I held your hand a moment in my own,
The dearest moment which my soul has known,
Since I beheld and loved you at first sight.


“The First Meeting” by Robert Fuller Murray

One balmy Summer evening in 1936 when we had finished the afternoon shift someone casually suggested that we go down to Aberkenfig to take a few rides at the Fair which was on the field near the Welfare Hall. It was on my way home so I agreed and when we arrived at the Fair, two girls came towards us. I knew one of them because her mother kept the Lion Pub; I did not know the other one but Billy ‘Top Note’ (so-called for his rich singing voice) knew her and introduced her to me as Gwyneth Davies. I shook her hand and decided she was going to be my wife. How could I know in that instant that we would share sixty glorious years together? Every life has at least one defining moment or watershed, and this was ours. She had lost her beloved mother Marie from a stroke only a few months earlier, and deep down I must have recognised her pain and a yearning for a more stable future.

 

Billy told me that Gwyneth was a grand-daughter of Mrs Davies, the tenant of Tondu Farm. Her eldest sister, Dorothy, who had been caring for her grandmother at Tondu Farm had to return home to Cefn Cross to look after the younger brothers and sisters after their mother’s sudden death. Consequently Gwyneth went to the farm to care for her Gran. Later that year I decided to go to night school to make a wheelbarrow for my father, and by coincidence Gwyneth also decided to go to night school to learn First Aid. It took me two winters to make the wheelbarrow because of the demands of my shift work and by this stage Gwyneth was in the Girls School next door. In the store of our woodwork room was a partition with a so-called knot hole in it. When it was time to go I would look through this hole and if she was putting her coat on – it was time to go. I would meet her outside, “Goodnight Miss Davies!”, and I would walk down to Aberkenfig with her.

Peeping scene from Once Upon a Time in America

If I had a penny I would buy some chips and share them waiting in a shop doorway until her bus came along. This was all that I wanted! I would go home delighted to have shared half an hour with her.

Gwyneth’s father Sam and her mother Marie came from big families firmly rooted in rural values and (several generations earlier on her mother’s side) the Welsh-speaking chapel communities of Cardiganshire. They were bound by a language, literature and music that gave them a sense of nationality that is still predominant in South Wales today. No words can describe the character and intellectual force of her father’s family as well as the photograph below taken shortly after the Great War ended. Sam became a respected local carpenter working for schools, Evan a preacher, Eddie went to Oxford and later became the High Commissioner to Ceylon, Oswald was an inventor of an improvement in agricultural harvesting, and Alec was also Oxford-educated and became a local GP in Kent and David became a schoolmaster in Bargoed. The seventh brother John (known as Jack the Milk) had a severe hearing impediment, and so he remained in Tondu to keep the farm. In those days there were no discrete ear implants to enhance the sound waves – just a big trumpet placed in front of the ear drum to ward off strangers. Her father Sam, in old age, would sit outside his house smoking his pipe high above the Bridgend to Maesteg Road acting like some biblical gatekeeper, apprehending every passer-by for a chat.

Gwyneth on the sand-dunes at
Merthyr-Mawr around this time

Meeting Gwyneth at the Fair: the defining moment of our lives

Once Upon a Time in Aberkenfig: Spying at Gwyneth through the knot hole

Gwyneth’s maternal family was resplendent with great characters straight out of ‘Under Milk Wood’. One of those was Oscar who had a wonderful tenor voice and joined the Carl Rosa opera company but was sadly killed in a road accident in Cefn. Perhaps the most colourful of them all – and the best raconteur was Aunty Bonnie, who used to visit us in Cardiff for a cup of tea, and two hours later she would still be telling stories at thirteen to the dozen, mainly about her early life. She was a shrewd businesswoman who had bought a string of houses in City Road, Cardiff and rented most of them out. During World War II one of her friends was a clairvoyant (the financial advisors of the time) who enjoyed reading the future into the arrangement of tea leaves in the bottom of a cup (each to his own!). One day she looked up ashen-faced at Bonnie and announced that the Luftwaffe would be dropping bombs along City Road that night. The “good” news was that they would fall on the other side of the road. Sure enough, that night the drone of bombers heading for the docks at nearby Swansea could be heard coming ever closer. She survived the night hi- ding under the kitchen table, and the next morning a whole line of houses opposite was in ruins. According to Bonnie, the bombs would have dropped on her properties but for a strong South Westerly breeze that deflected them across the road.

Clairvoyant reading the tea leaves for Aunty Bonnie

And then there was Wilf Jones, who married Gwyneth’s maternal Aunt Ceinwen. A blacksmith by training, he liked to recount tales based more on the hammer of his imagination than the anvil of truth. A Man of Gwent, perhaps the most delightful story he forged was that of a night he spent in a hotel on the Anglo-Welsh border. Here, he said with feigned solemnity, you could sleep on a bed with your head in one country and your feet in another.” I realised at that moment that although my head may be in England, my heart would always be in Wales!” he recalled. In any case, the love of both nations was passed on to his daughter Natalie, who married Tapan Roy-Chaudhuri from Bengal. Their children, Shunil and Anita, fondly recall how Natalie would sing Max Boyce’s ‘Swansea Town’ when approaching the Severn Bridge on the M4, only to revert to ‘Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner’ when hitting Slough on the return journey!

The Davies boys with their parents at Tondu Farm shortly after the Great War. Clockwise from bottom left: David, Eddie, Alec, Sam, John, Oswald and Evan

It was to be another fourteen years before Gwyneth and I finally took the walk of pride down the aisle as man and wife. I always console myself that it could have been a whole lot worse for me. Around the time of our meeting in 1936 the legendary Fred Perry had just won the Men’s Singles at the Tennis Championships at Wimbledon. When I first proposed to her, she might have “kicked it into touch” by saying “I‘ll tell you what Oz, I’ll marry you the next time a British man wins Wimbledon, or any other Grand Slam event for that matter” If so I would have been waiting outside the Church a long time! It was only in 2013 that a British player won the Final for the first time since I was a boy – Andy Murray won his first Wimbledon title and ended Britain‘s 77-year wait for a men‘s champion.

Andy Murray receiving a copy of Horace's book

With Fred Perry at Wimbledon

As a fireman I had many different shifts, so it was impossible to make definite arrangements to meet my new girlfriend. If I was finishing a night shift I would not go to bed. Sometimes I would get on the bike and do the circuit of Ogmore, St. Brides and home, lungs full of sea air and ready to go! Sunday was always a busy day. In the morning it was Improvement class and in the afternoon it was First Aid class. Although we only had two-cylinder engines at Tondu we had to learn how the four-cylinder engines worked in case we ended up in a depot with only the latter. In 1939 I became an instructor and I really enjoyed doing it. These classes were very important because you had no idea when your number would come up. On occasions we used to have class outings and once we ended up in Weston Super Mare. I still have a photograph of a class outing taken at Cheddar.

Some of the older members joined us on this trip, including our running shed foreman Jack Hussey, who was a driver at Aberbeeg with my father as a guard. His daughter played the piano and Jack Morgan was the saxophonist at the ‘threepenny’ hops at St. John’s Church Hall. I often passed the Hall on my way home; I couldn’t go in as I was not attired in dancing shoes and leotards. My imagination often got the better of me and I chuckled as I saw myself on the carpet in my working togs, accused of improperly presenting himself on the dance floor of a religious place. Of course I was dreaming about a future life with Gwyneth, and imagined us waltzing across the dance floor. I knew she liked a dance, but the only step I knew was the side-step on the rugby field – in every other situation I could not coordinate my feet!

This would be the last picture taken of many of my contemporaries before they went to War. My friend Ted Abel is on the left of Mr Barton. They all knew by then that dark days lay ahead, but their faces reveal pride and camaraderie with no trace of apprehension.

We duly arrived at his house on the Penyfai Road and he got down to business, explaining that music was written on five lines and four spaces. I can still remember them today: ‘F.A.C.E’ for the four spaces and ‘E.G.B.D.F.’ for the four lines which was remembered as ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Favour’! We had to attend practice every week at the Star Hotel in Aberkenfig. They issued me with a tenor horn and my pal taught me how to get a sound out of it – not so much blowing but more of a spitting movement which requires quite a bit of work to master! My horn was not very welcome in the house so I would take my music to the top of our field, prop it up on the long grass and let go without disturbing anyone!! In time I was able to play a few hymns; not well enough to play in the band but I did enjoy it while it lasted.

Playing my horn on Tondu Mountain

Bridgend station, designed by Brunel, in the late 19th. Century. After the Llynfi Valley railway arrived from Tondu, a separate station was built because the track gauge was different. Newcastle Church, where I was married, is in the background.

Extracts of handwritten version