On the 30th of July, 1966, the nation celebrated and then, three months later, on Friday the 21st of October, it mourned. Aberfan. Just like Nobby Stiles’ victory jig at the end of the World Cup Final, the ruins of the school in Aberfan will always appear to me in black and white, images on a television screen. One accompanied by roars of triumph, the other, by deathly silence.
Fatty Carter had told us about it in Geography but it was only in the evening that I was able to fully appreciate the horror of what had occurred at a quarter past nine that morning. It was on the News and my mum’s handkerchief was out again.
What remained of the school reminded me of St. Nicholas’ Infants which I cycled past every day on my way to and from the grammar school. The rest, engulfed in coal waste, looked as if it had been destroyed by the lava flow from an erupting volcano. I thought about the illustrations from a book about Pompeii I had once borrowed from the library. Screaming mothers and children ran in wild panic across the forum as a shower of rocks and clouds of ash descended from the skies.
Half of the children in the school and five of their teachers had been killed, crushed and suffocated by the landslide, a black avalanche of liquid coal and mud. It was still raining there – even now – as it had been all day in Boston.
I thought about what I had been doing at a quarter past nine that morning. A bunch of us would have been jostling down the corridor on our way from Assembly to History. And in the cloakroom, my cape would still have been dripping onto the concrete floor when the mountain started to move.
‘Suffer the little children...’
A man’s voice, sober and dignified, began to croak on a quotation from the gospels. Although I felt uneasy, I didn’t want to cry like my mum. I sat in silence and stared at the screen. I imagined Mrs. Tonks’ reception class at St. Nicholas’ and then the graveyard with my friends’ names and ages engraved into the stone crosses.
‘Died aged five.
Suffer the little children to come unto me...’
So many small coffins. All lined up, in military fashion, in the playground. Piled high with wreaths of flowers.
My mum took hold of my hand and squeezed it and I could feel the damp from her handkerchief on my fingers. I turned my head to smile at her but she had already started to cry again.
To be continued