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May 26, 1999

Meredith Toop Evans & His Butty, Ernie the Egg

In the villages all down this valley, from Senghennydd down to Caerphilly, they call me Ernie the Egg.

I do not mind this, but for the record I am Ernest Jones, poultry farmer, son of Robert Jones, deacon, and they are my hens that run amok on the hill above the town. It is my eggs that you shall have on your plate if you sup anywhere in the valley from Park Hamlet right through Abertridwr. My eggs is on the plates for most the best part of Caerphilly, too, though I know of some Cardiff eggs there.

Yes, I am rich, and the boys in the villages, and the old men, make jokes about me. Yes, Ernie the Egg I am, and with a few bob, and sought after by the Revenue, too, but I am wealthy by fortunate accidents and hard work, and with the help of God, and because of a great and ordinary man, Meredith Toop Evans, collier, and because I am shot in the neck in the Great War, and because I am a failed scholar.

The hens have been my livelihood, but this have not always been so. Once I was to be a teacher, then a collier, then dead underground, then dead from a bullet in the Great War. That I am not any of these is an odd thing for me, peculiar altogether, but facts is facts, which is why I will relate my story.

I was done with school two weeks short of my fourteenth birthday, and I was timid, a bit too quiet. I had done an extra year, because Robert Griffiths, teacher, had persuaded my dada I had a brain and could get a scholarship, but then when I didn't win a scholarship after all, dada said, "I am sorry, son, it is time now to earn your keep." So I was late to go down.

Because I was late a collier, the other boys marked me down as different. They were already pit-hardened, with their broken finger-nails and their coal-darkened scars, and they had that look already that the men got from working twelve hours a day in the dark. But me, I still noticed how black they got, and me, I was still afraid of that awful drop in the lift cage, the way you could feel the earth, and how you knew she smelt you were there, the way the darkness swelled. Too thinking I was, and cursed with it, and the boys knew it and played it up. Which was how it was I became buttied, that is apprenticed, to Meredith Toop Evans.

The first thing about Meredith Toop Evans was he was big -- and no bones -- I do mean bloody big. He was huge and slow, shoulders like a milk cart, fists as big as an apprentice's head, bigger than anyone I ever saw play in the pack for Wales, bigger than anyone I'd ever seen in all my fourteen years.

Toop was so big, it should have been a wonder he never played forward for Wales, but the other thing about Toop was that he was toop, I mean, that is, daft, only half-there, short of a pit-prop or two. It was said that he was so toop he didn't even mind being called Toop, and it was true that he had a slow way, in his body, and in his speech, and in his head.

I remember once, when Ivor Price the Pontypool flanker was playing for Wales against England at the Arms Park and there was a loose ball fell at his feet like bread from Heaven. All Ivor had to do was pick it up and fall over the line but the silly bugger passed it. We won the game, but after, Captain Dewi Thomas said, "Fer Christ's sake, Ivor, why didn't you think?" and Ivor said, "I'm big, I push. You can't push and think."

Well, Meredith Toop Evans was like that, made to push, not to think, and when I started down the Universal, they made me his butty.

I had been set to start as butty to Mr. Geraint Williams, but that first day, frightened enough to faint, I was in the lamp room when one of the boys said something cruel to me and I said something angry back. It was that or cry, and I made a face of it, but Toop saw what was really in that face and said to the foreman, "Dai, give me Jones."

Well, Geraint Williams didn't mind either way, so I was switched. Toop grunted, looked at me until I acknowledged him, and then lumbered towards the cage. I ran to put myself alongside him, like I was a pale tug under a huge, dark ship, and even in a place full of the odors of men I could smell him, the damp grip of underground, strong tobacco, and over it all, the spearmint leaves he chewed.

I was not sure I should live, but I survived that terrible morning, hidden like a lamb in a hollow, in the lee of Toop's huge chest, my eyes closed, my teeth biting my tongue lest I might still cry, my stomach sensing the cage drop and my damn intelligence tormenting me, listening for signs of distress in the winding gear, the physics of the shaft. But I did not die of fear, and months later I was walking to the lamp room at the pit-head to meet Toop. My dreams of being a teacher had faded, and I had become a collier.

On the day of the "Universal Disaster," that was October 14, 1913, I started as I always did, at four-thirty. It was damp and dark in the huts, and we ate our bread and black currant-jam breakfast while the colliery officials were down for their two-hour check (mostly walking and little inspecting, but we all knew that). Then it was stamp to work and in our stalls by six. That was the way with piecework; you worked.

I must explain now, for this is a story told looking back, that some things that happened that morning were not as clear in the happening as they are now related. I know, for instance, for I have been told since, that the explosion was just before eight o'clock, and that it was smaller in its first occurrence than the 1901 disaster, and that an accumulation of coal dust in the tunnel ceilings sent death in fizzing jumps toward the levels where we lay dug, and loaded.

Duw, but it was a terrible, terrible experience! Some men were crushed under roof falls, some shocked to a sorry quick death by the blast or burned bad by the fire racing along the miles of tunnels. And some were pepper-pocked by a storm of dust that flayed men's arms and faces in a way so cruel, so cruel, they would have been better dead by flying tools or under one of the many falls.

Our district was the Bottanic and we were working the level the miners called Beck's Heading. As the blast roared through, the boys loading trucks were all blown down and tumbled in the wind, none of them breathing, not one ever to be a father. By rights I was another dead boy, but Toop had just called me under to help loose some coal. For us under, by chance, and some of the colliers also under, there was only the sudden emptiness of air, and a howl was all for us, like a wounded monster that rushed past us and away into the lampless dark.

I may have fainted, I do not know, but my next recollection was the close breath of spearmint and the voice of Toop calming me, telling me to be still.

I said, "Toop, what has happened, Toop?" and he told me that there had been a terrific explosion and many were surely killed.

"And we must go out, boy, and walk."

We crawled out from under. Even now there were thuds and bangs distant, and quick roars of air, like wild rushes of Hell. But then the air became still, and we heard boys crying, and men groaning, and it was hopeless, confusion, awful, and I was frightened almost dumb. But then I felt Toop's huge hand on my shoulder, and his rough, dirty fingers touching my face. He came close, so close I smelt his chew.

"We must walk," he said. "And we must not stop walking."

"Yes, Toop," I said.

"Give me your hand," he said.

And I felt Toop turn his back, then my hand was on his shoulder, taken by his and laid on him like an epaulette, his hand still on mine for comfort, he understood me so well. Then he bade me be silent, and we waited.

Be deliberate quiet for ten seconds against your nature. It is a long time. Do much the same and wait for half a minute, wait longer. That is an eternity. After a while I thought I would burst from my fear.

"Toop?" I said.

"Shush, boy," he said.

We waited, but the darkness, the faint crying, were too much and I spoke again. "Toop?"

Toop did not speak, but I know he turned round. For I felt his fists, now open hands, take my head, my face to his, and I felt his lips on my forehead, not a kiss, but as if Toop was breathing some of his hugeness into me. Very quiet he was. He said, "Boy, be bigger now, for we are suffocating, and there are men here who do not know what to do."

Then he let me go and called out.

"I am Toop Evans, Newbridge," he said, big and definite, like a lighthouse blows its horn to guide ships home. "Shout out, one by one, your name, your stall, and are you injured. Is David Thomas spared?"

Thomas answered. "Yes, but not my butty."

"Will Morgan?"


"No? Alun Parry?"


Like this, we found there were five men, Toop, and me. None bad, but all so tired we each felt like it was Sunday afternoon and a nap by the fire was the thing.

"Get up and walk!" Toop said. "It is after-damp making you silly. If you sleep you will never wake up."

"Monoxide?" I said half thinking, half whispering, but Toop did not hear me. He was moving along the heading, punching men's legs, shouting into their faces. "If you have wives, then get you up and walk!"

The seven of us began to walk, but the feelings in us were very strange. My head was in half-addled shape, but from my extra time with Mister Griffiths, teacher, and my Saturdays spent in the library down at Caerphilly I knew that Toop meant we suffered bad there from carbon monoxide, a poison that kissed men to death, for it smelt of nothing, tasted of nothing, and first it seduced, made men soft, like perhaps they had drunk a little too much. The men wanted to sit down, for they were tired and stupid, but the after-damp was like this, a temptress, and to sit down was to die. Now after twenty years of miners' jokes that he was slow to light up, Meredith Toop Evans was our intelligence.

"Walk," he said, "Or feel my fists!"

And the men walked, to sweeter air.

It might have been all, that as that, but we still had to get out. The men were now behind Toop, but we were still very tired and the after-damp whispered to each of us, "Rest, just a minute, you will feel so much better."

But Toop continued. "Walk!" he insisted.

Later, I cannot know enough to be exact, but would guess the time to have been perhaps ten o'clock, about then, we came upon an opening, a crossing place for tramlines, some men and a boy. They were sitting. Their leader was a man called John Pugh, a hard, rough chap known for fighting in the village, and a foreman.

"John Pugh," Toop said respectfully.

"Mister Evans."

"We have walked, I calculate, best of a mile, Mister Pugh," Toop said, "from Beck's Heading along to here. We are looking for better air. The after-damp has gentled too many into a long sleep already."

"The air is good here, Toop Evans, and safe enough. And here is where rescue is most likely. We should sit."

"Mister Pugh," Toop said slowly, "Most respectfully, I do not think the air here is that good."

"I am foreman," Pugh said. "And you are Meredith Toop Evans. I say sit."

"The air is bad, Mister Pugh."

"And thou art toop, Mister Toop."

In the soft darkness, I felt Meredith pause, and if there is a sound or a smell to great decisions, I sensed both.

"I will come closer, then, John Pugh," I heard said, very friendly, and then in answer, "Come across, then," from Pugh, and then a scuffle of coal dust, some shout or other, a heavy blow, more blows, and then Meredith speaking.

"Now, I am Toop Evans and the foreman is of an accident and resting. It is time to walk and any man disagrees, he can back his judgement against my fists. You get up now and follow my butty."

Dai Pugh was not Toop Evans but he was still a big man. He would be carried or die but none were fit enough to do it. Then Toop spoke. "Walk on, Ernest Jones!" and I heard him cough, then grunt as he shouldered up the foreman. "Yes, sir, Mister Meredith!" I said.

At one minute to eight that morning, there had been four hundred and fifty-six men and boys underground, and four hundred and thirty-eight were killed, one more dead above ground when the cage spat from the shaft and took his head as he was looking down at the sound.

Three hundred had survived the blast, but tall, short, clever, or toop, one by one they went to sleep. But Toop Evans saved us, and they gave him a medal. On it was written Meredith Evans, collier, for gallantry, but I say it should have been for intelligence.

When John Pugh woke, we were sixteen of the eighteen spared and were in a pocket, sitting now, but breathing sweeter air, and more likely to be found. At first John Pugh was angry, but Toop whispered to the foreman and they came to an understanding, an arrangement about forgetting. But even this sweeter air was treacherous and when rescue came at last, all of us, even Toop, had given in to the sweet whisper of the monoxide and needed oxygen to return to life.

They brought us out two at a time, into rain, but I asked to stay with Toop and come out last, proud now to be his butty, and me I thought, just a little bigger than I had been at breakfast. But it was into silence, not cheers, for the numbers of certain dead was growing and hope for the rest not so high.

Truth is, after something like that, which only those who experience it can ever hope to understand, to be carried on a litter through the wives, the sweet rain falling, was to wonder at your own fingers and toes, to taste every drop of rain, and to feel and savor every breeze, the flapping of shawls, the crunch of boots in the wet gravel. And I was both terrible sad and terrible proud, almost in the pink, as if I was specially saved and saved because I was special.

Fifteen of us went to The Miners' Rest at Porthcawl, but not Meredith. I was not sure where he was going but he bade me take care of myself and to roll up my trousers if I paddled in the channel. He asked me would I ever go under the ground again and I said to hell first and at that he grinned, pushed his huge fist at me and walked away, his hands in his pockets and him whistling.

But then old Joe Kaiser started up and we were called to service. I was working in a bicycle shop in Fleur-de-Lys, but I went to sign up for the shilling as soon as I could. I was rejected. My lungs, they said, were bad. The after-damp, the accident, all that had made me unfit to serve the King. They had lots of volunteers, they said, but if I worked at my rehabilitation I could try again in three months. I was given a badge to show I was no coward and could drink in peace and was sent away.

It was the same later that year, the same again in 1915, in 1916 and 1917. But then, in the attrition, requirements fell, and in 1918, they took me on, fitted me out in khaki, and sent me to France, where I was shot. So laugh at me boys, but I have been underground, and to France, and I was shot.

When a bullet goes by, it's like a buzz, something angry. I heard that buzz. I was with another lilywhite, a borderer like me, and the bee zing happened and Arthur went limp. I was too new to think, and as I turned to him and bent down to help, I was shot too, no sound, this time, just my face hot, my neck strange, and then, within a second I had voided and my legs gave up.

The bullet had missed my head and entered me at the collar, coming out somewhere lower, my backside, and now I could not use my legs. There was never any pain, and never any glory. I had been at the front two days and got a blighty one. They sent me to Southampton on a stretcher, then on crutches, I came back to Porthcawl, then in 1919, with a walking stick, I went to Barry and they taught me how to keep chickens.

That's how I became Ernie the Egg and wealthy, but I have been under the ground and I have been shot for my country. I limp of course, money can't cure that, but I have a daughter and now a grandson, Meredith. I like to walk and I like the sweetness of the air on top of the mountain. I do not like the dark, but most times it cannot rain hard enough to disturb me. When it does, I wait in the lee of a mountain and rest, thinking myself toop for being out without a coat. And I wonder about Meredith Evans, collier, but he is gone.

Join a conversation on fiction in the Arts & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

See an index of fiction from Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Alex Keegan is the author of five books. He was born in Wales and lives in Bath.

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