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Mamgu’s Letter by Ifor ap Glyn

Published 18 December 2017 - By Ifor ap Glyn, National Poet of Wales
Image: Rhys Llwyd

The monologue below was written by National Poet of Wales, Ifor ap Glyn, to mark 50 years since the Aberfan disaster. The piece was commissioned by Wales Millennium Centre and read at the Aberfan Memorial Concert on Saturday 8 October.


Mamgu’s Letter

(A grandmother is trying to compose a letter, with pad and biro in hand)

“My dearest grand-daughter…”

Na… “Annwyl wyres…”

You’ve asked me to write what I remember for your school project, so I suppose you want Mamgu to do it in Welsh, ond cariad bach, smo i’n gwpod beth i weud tho ti…

Silence is a hard habit to break… right from day one, this wasn’t something we talked about… it was a non-subject.

Mae’n rhyfedd pan ti’n meddwl am y peth. Tra bod y byd a’i bartner yn ein trafod ni, a’u editorials, news items ac yn y blân, tra bod beirdd yn sgrifennu cerddi amdanon ni, a’r holl eirie ‘na’n golchi droson ni… ôn ni’n gweud dim…

The thing is, how could you find words to express what we’d seen? We were numb, in a void – and the words rushed in from outside to fill that void… it was like… a tipslide of sympathy… they meant well, of course they did, but we were just trying to keep going…

Felly… beth alla’i weud tho ti ‘bach? Like I say, silence is a hard habit to break…

It was foggy that day …niwlog ac ôr… and your dad and your aunty dressed for school by the fire. I gave them both a shilling for their dinner money (-that’s like five p now) – and your aunty didn’t want to go, but I wasn’t having it;

(cajoling but firm)

‘Dim ond ‘eddi ‘to – a fydd dim ysgol am wsnoth wetyn’

Your aunty was the same age as you now…

Rôdd y swllt yn ei llaw ’i o ‘yd, pan dynnw’d ‘i mâs o’r llacs…

She loved singing… and hide an’ seek…

I often wonder what she might have become… what all those children might have become…

It was difficult for your dad after that. He stopped playing in the street, so that other parents ‘wouldn’t see him and get upset.’ When he went to hs new school, hard by the railway line, he ran home the first day when he heard the coal trains thundering by, on the tracks – it sounded like when the tip came down.

We were tested in different ways.

For months afterwards, your Bampy used to put his finger in my mouth when I was sleeping – as if he was sweeping my mouth clean of muck. It’s what he’d been doing that day down at the school with the children, when they were fetching them out. He didn’t know he was doing it – he was still in his dream.

In one sense, it was all a dream. He would go to the Mac more often. ‘I’ve only ‘ad four,’ he’d say, ‘…’elps me see clearer…’ But it was the fog that he really wanted… to wind back to that foggy morning, and make it all… un-happen. Is that a word? Byddi di’n gwpod yn well na Mamgu, wi’n siwr…

So… how much should you know? Mae’n rhan o dy ‘anes di … rhan o ‘anes ein teulu ni. But I can’t share my guilt with you, for making the child I lost go to school that morning. I wish I’d never shared that with your Bampy even… and that I felt guilty for having a child that lived. But I wouldn’t have you otherwise!

None of this makes sense…

Let me show you some pictures from afterwards…

Dâth bachan o America gyta’i gamera ar ôl y drychineb a buws gyta ni am gwpwl o fisodd wetyn. Rapoport his name was. Shgwla di ar ei lunie fe.

There’s the first baby born afterwards… the first wedding… the first smiles. (How many hundreds have been since then, thank God?)

Those pictures show us carrying on… because we had to… but there are things that those photos can’t show…

Like… candles in pockets. Your aunty was afraid of the dark… I would light a candle for her in the cemetery. Lots did. It was like a second home to us for a long time afterwards… I would take extra candles in my coat pockets, in case someone else’s had burnt down to nothing…

These are things I will carry with me till I die. But do you have a right to them?

Because it was so terrible, should you feel (like so many before you) that it’s your duty to comment, to sympathise, to identify?

Elli di ddim, cariad bach – ond smo’i isie iti anghofio chwaith. I can only give your aunty flowers… ond rhanna’i beth alla’i ‘da ti…I’ll give you the memories that I can…

 


Ifor ap Glyn said:

I was five when this happened and my chief memory is seeing my mam crying in front of the television, and asking her what was wrong. But even fifty years later it’s still difficult to discuss Aberfan. There are so many questions: ‘How should we remember the disaster?’ ‘Is doing so an intrusion on the private grief of the families and survivors?’

These are the questions at the core of this monologue, which  draws heavily on ‘found text’ and the memories of those who were there. I am particularly indebted to the author of ‘Aberfan’, Gaynor Madgwick,  for sharing her own painful memories and those of others – and for doing so in a moving but respectful manner. I hope that this monologue will be received in the same way.