6. White plague

There is a dread disease … in which the struggle between soul and body is so gradual, quiet, and solemn, and the result so sure, that day by day, and grain by grain, the mortal part wastes and withers away, so that the spirit grows light and sanguine with its lightening load and, feeling immortality at hand, deems it a new form of mortal life — a disease in which death and life are so strangely blended, that death takes the glow and hue of life, and life the gaunt and grisly form of death — a disease which medicine never cured, wealth warded off, or poverty could boast exemption from.

Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby, 1839

The floods, like Noah’s, subsided. The gales abated. Electricity and the telephone were restored. Food and coal supplies began to trickle through. My finger behaved itself and, as the doctor predicted, I was rapidly adapting to life without it. I could easily grip things between thumb and stump, and I wrote with pen between thumb and middle finger. By the beginning of April everything, including the weather, was approaching normal. And the day of reckoning — two days of reckoning — were approaching too.

First I helped Croesor Fawr and Bryn y Gelynen to gather on Moelwyn. Long since, like me, they had painfully brought down from the snow as many of their sheep as they could find, and as we scoured the mountain with our dogs we rounded up more. There are always some that escape the net, but at the final tally both Gareth and Owain Bach reckoned they had lost about a fifth of their flocks. Then it was my turn. Cnicht is much more rugged than Moelwyn. Only about six hundred of my breeding ewes were already down or — including the ewe lambs which had just come back from the lowlands — a total of some eleven hundred. It should have been fifteen hundred. The gathering increased my tally by only another hundred, and I was prepared for the worst.

But postcards and phone calls began to arrive from distant farmers in Nanmor and even Nant Gwynant, to report that in gathering their own sheep they had found numbers of mine, identifiable by their green G mark. When the snow came these sheep must have strayed much further than usual and looked for refuge in foreign territory far to the north and east, too far for me to think of searching. Hasty trips to reclaim them with tractor and trailer brought my total up to around thirteen hundred. I had lost about an eighth of my flock. It was bad, but much less bad than it might have been. Some farms, we heard, had lost a quarter.

The next and even more crucial test was the lambing. Surely, what with the cold and the poor nutrition, many ewes would have aborted. Surely there would be stillbirths aplenty. But, to repeat, Welsh mountain sheep are hardy. To my delighted astonishment nearly all my ewes gave birth, and more than usual had twins. My labours had been worth while. Yes, even the loss of my finger had been worth while.


One afternoon in mid-April I was contentedly mucking out the beudy. The cows had been in the field for nearly a month, but I had had no time to do it before.

“Dino!” Mam called across the yard. “Phone for you. It’s Dai y Gorsaf.”

I went in. Dai is the stationmaster at Penrhyndeudraeth. Although I was not expecting anything, I assumed it was about some package or other that had been held up by the chaos on the railways. But it was not.

“Ah, Dino,” he said. “I’ve got someone here waiting for you to pick him up.”

Someone, not something? I was bewildered.

“Who on earth?”

“He says his name’s Stan.”

It sounded as if Dai was trying not to laugh, and I was trying to recover my breath. I had hardly thought of Stan for months. I had indeed told him he would be welcome should he find his way here. But never for a moment did I expect him to take the invitation up, let alone appear out of the blue.

“He got off the train,” said Dai, “asking for Dino. Just Dino. No surname, no address. Good thing there’s only one Dino round here, isn’t it?”

My wits were slowly returning. “Right, Dai. Thanks. I’ll come straight down. Is he in your office?”

“No, in the waiting room with a mug of my tea. And bring a bite for him if you can. He’s been asking for food, but I’ve nothing to give him. He says he hasn’t eaten all day. And he doesn’t seem to have any money.”

I rapidly washed and put on some slightly better clothes. I told Mam I was going to Penrhyn. I asked her to make up the spare bed for a guest — Stan, the boy who had given her the nylons at the Elephant — at which she understandably gaped. I begged a large chunk of the cake she had just baked for our tea. I asked her to lay on as big an evening meal as she could. I said that while in Penrhyn I might as well kill two birds with one stone and get the doctor to look at my finger. With luck it would be for the last time. Then I hooked the box on the Ffergi and was off.

Why, I wondered as I went, had he come without any advance warning at all? Was he in trouble? Was he on the run from his rozzers? How long was he expecting to stay? At least he had arrived at a fairly convenient time. Had he tried a month or so earlier, what with the snow and the floods, he could hardly have got through. And if he had got through I would have had no time for him. Now that he was here, what was he looking for? A place to escape? A holiday? Maybe even a relationship?

Outside Plas Brondanw, Clough was conferring with his gardener, and we waved to each other. Outside Y Ring, Lowri waved to me, and I almost gave her two fingers — or a finger and a half — in reply. I roared down though Penrhyn, stopped outside the station and, clutching the chunk of Mam’s cake, ran in to the waiting room.

There he was, in a silk shirt and the same extraordinary velvet-collared coat. He had grown, but it was still far too big for him. His garish kipper tie was no doubt borrowed or stolen from Ernie. His curly fair hair was much longer, and on top of it was perched his broad-brimmed hat. His shoes were winkle-pickers. With him he had the little suitcase I had seen at the Elephant. All that was missing from this juvenile spiv was the sideburns and the pencil moustache. I could see why Dai had been trying not to laugh.

Stan spotted me. With a cry of “Dino!” he leapt up and flung his arms around me. I could do nothing but hug him back. He began to sob in my ear. “Oh, Dino!” Was it just because he had reached the end of a journey into the unknown which had possibly been the greatest adventure of his young life, or was it something more? I might have half-forgotten him, but he had certainly not forgotten me. After a while I gently pulled away, eased him down again onto the chocolate-brown-painted wooden bench which was all the comfort the Great Western Railway offered its passengers, and sat beside him.

“It’s good to see you, Stan.” That was true. Somehow he lightened my heart. “Hungry?”

I held out the cake, which he grabbed and attacked.

“Ar. Fanks,” he said, his mouth full. “Ain’t ate nuffink since yesterday.”

“But how did you get here? I mean, by train, obviously, but why?”

The answer, as he chewed, came out in confusing dribs and drabs, but became clearer when the cake was gone. Ernie had been endlessly nagging at him as an idle mouth who earned nothing for the household. Rosie had sided with Stan and urged him to get away. Stan was already thinking of me and of Wales, but had lost the address I had given him. Dino and Penrhyn-something was all he remembered. He took a handful of coppers to the nearest telephone box and rang up Paddington station. He asked how much a child’s single ticket was — even though he was now above the age limit — to Penrhyn-something. The clerk looked up his list of stations. “Do you mean Penryn in Cornwall?” “Nah, not Cornwall. Wales.” “Well, the only Penrhyn-something in Wales is Penrhyndoodrath.” Armed with the price and some train times, he went back to Rosie, who gave him the exact fare. For him, and indeed for her, it was a lot. Next day he dressed up in his best clothes for this special occasion, packed his little bag, and for want of the bus fare walked to Paddington, which was quite a long way. He caught the train, managed correctly to change at Shrewsbury and Ruabon, and here he was. Never before in his life had he been out of London.

An adventure indeed, for a boy like him.

“Dino,” he said earnestly, answering one of my unspoken questions. “I’ll work fer yer. Honest I will. I ain’t here jest fer a holiday.”

That was encouraging. He had not yet explained why he had been contributing no money to Ernie’s household, but time was getting on.

“Stan, we ought to be on our way home. But do you mind if I drop in at the doctor’s before we go? It won’t take long.”

“Nah. Fine by me.”

I picked up his tea mug and returned it, with thanks, to Dai. The surgery being only just round the corner, I left the Ffergi where it was. As we walked up the street, Stan’s coat flapping almost around his ankles, people stared, but he seemed not to notice.

“Dino, would the doc look at me too? Ain’t seen one fer munfs.”

“I’m sure he would. What’s up? Did you go to your own doctor after we last met?”

“Course I did. Yer told me to. And most of the time since then I’ve been in ruddy horspital.”

“Good God! What with?”

“Too-ber-coo-lo-sis.” He said it carefully, syllable by syllable.

Oh Lord! That explained a lot. I was hardly well-informed, but I did know that, if untreated, TB is a killer. Some years ago it had killed someone in Croesor. I did know too that, if it is caught in time, treatment is prolonged. But before I could ask him what state he was in now, we had turned the corner and there was Dr Roberts himself, getting out of his car. I hailed him, and he blinked at the sight of Stan.

“Doctor!” I cried in English. “Do you have a moment to look at my finger, please? And this is my friend Stan.” I did not even know his surname. “He doesn’t speak Welsh. But he’s been in hospital and he’d like a check-up.”

“Of course, Dino. You’ve timed it well — I’m just back from a visit. Come on in.”

As we went, Stan had a quiet but urgent question for me.

“Will I have ter pay? I ain’t got no bees and honey.”

It was clear enough what that meant. “I don’t think so. He usually forgets to send us bills. But if he does put you on our next one, don’t worry, we’ll pay.”

“Right,” said Dr Roberts, sitting down at his desk. Out of courtesy to Stan he stuck to English. “Dino, you first. How’s it going? Still healing nicely?”

“Very. I’ve kept a dressing on, but I think it can probably do without.”

He took hold of my hand. “Not quite the cleanest of dressings, is it?” He bent down to sniff. “Stinks of cow shit. Oh well, better than gangrene, I suppose. Right, let’s have it off.”

He removed it and peered closely.

“Yes. Very nice.” He prodded. “No pain?”


“All right. Leave it off. But do try to keep your hand clean.”

Noticing that Stan was craning to see, he beckoned him up for a better look.

“Dino!” cried Stan, horrified. “Wotcher done?”

“I chopped it off,” said the doctor proudly. “Nice job, eh? Though I say it myself.”

Dr Roberts is a friend. Because he brought me into the world, he has known me longer even than Sergeant Pritchard has, and we too can have our jokes.

“Yes,” I agreed. “He’s quite a good doctor really. I got frostbite in the snow, you see,” I explained to Stan, “and it went bad. So I let him have his fun.”


“It was fun, too,” the doctor said. “Well, Dino, for once that was a nice and easy consultation. Now you, young man. Where are you from and what have you been up to?”

“Well, I’m from Lunnon, see,” said Stan. “And last year I went ter the doc cos Dino said I had ter.”

“Why did you say that?” That was addressed to me.

“He was wheezing. Coughing badly. Blood in his phlegm.”

“Good lad! Well done! I can guess what’s coming next. Pla gwyn?” he asked in Welsh — white plague, which is our vernacular for TB.

“That’s right.”

Stan went on to explain that (to put it in slightly more technical words than he used) a sample of his sputum was taken and tested. TB bacilli were found. An X-ray showed that only the right lung was affected, but that lesions in the lung wall were already on the point of developing into actual holes. He was whisked into St Thomas’s Hospital opposite the Houses of Parliament where he was kept for …

“Two blooming munfs.” Stan was waxing indignant. “Talk about boring! Read every flipping comic fer the last ten years. Beano and Rover and even Hotspur, though I ain’t so keen on Hotspur. And they stuck a ruddy great needle inter me and pumped me full of air like I was a blinking inner chube. Cor!

Dr Roberts was rubbing his hands with professional pleasure. “Nice, very nice! Iatrogenic pneumothorax, we call it. It’s the usual treatment, and currently the best. There is a new drug on the way, but it’s not available yet. What they did,” he explained to me, “was syringe air into the space between his lung and his rib-cage. That made the lung collapse and gave it the chance to heal without being stretched by every breath. And it also squeezed out the phlegm, which cured the coughing. That right?” he asked Stan.

“Yus, that’s it. And arter two munfs they didn’t find no more of them bugs. Fort I’d be going home, but they had ter push me off fer anuvver free ruddy munfs to a sanny … sanny …”

“… torium,” the doctor supplied. “Where every so often they refilled you with air. And when they stopped pumping you up, the air was gradually absorbed into your body, and your lung expanded again. So you’ve got the all-clear now?”

“Sort of. Worked a treat, in the end. But they told me ter go home and do nuffink fer anuvver two blooming munfs. And arter that ter get away and start getting some exercise in the fresh air. And ter get a doc ter test me spit again, ter check them bugs ain’t come back.”

“Which is why you’re here now. Good. Plenty of fresh air around here, and I’m sure Dino can lay on plenty of exercise. All right, I’ll get a sputum test done. Cough as hard as you can, please, and spit into this.”

He handed over a glass phial, and Stan obliged. It sounded much less unhealthy than last time I heard it.

“And I’d better give you a quick physical check-up too. Would you undress? Except for your underpants.”

Stan, giving me an unfathomable look, obeyed. Naked but for a disreputable pair of pants, he was a pitiable sight: painfully thin, every rib standing out, arms and legs almost sparrow-like. His face was still pale and his cheeks hollow. The doctor pursed his lips. He put his stethoscope into his ears and listened while he tapped Stan on the chest and had him breathe hard and cough.

“At least it sounds reasonable in there,” he reported. “No rattling, no wheezing. But just stand on the weighing machine, would you?”

He slid the weights. “How old are you? Fifteen? Hmmm. Six stone three isn’t enough. Not nearly enough. Right, you can get dressed.”

As Stan did so, Dr Roberts turned to me. “Background?” he asked quietly in Welsh.

“London slum. Orphan — father drank himself to death, mother killed in the blitz. Opportunist but not a crook. Family poor and not over-caring.”

“Hmmm. How long are you here for?” he asked Stan, reverting to English.

“Er. Dunno.”

Stan was looking at me again, imploringly this time. I could not let him down by saying ‘a week’ or ‘a month.’ I took the plunge.

“As long as he wants.”

Stan tried to hide his beam.

“Then what I prescribe,” said the doctor, “is exactly the same as you’ve been told already. Lots of fresh air — no shortage of that round here. And exercise, starting gently, building up — Dino, it’s your job to organise that. And last but not least, plenty to eat. Dino, get your Mam to feed him up. Meat. Eggs. Milk. No problem over those, is there? And you need extra vitamins too. What’s your name?”

“Stan Dyer.”

Dr Roberts scribbled a prescription. “Take this to the chemist. Right then, that’s it. I’ll let you know when the results of the test are in. Glad to have met you, young man” — and I was sure he meant it. “In the old days, you know, the only outcome of TB was death. You’ve only got to read Dickens.” He cocked an eye at me.

“Yes,” I said, knowing that story well. “Smike in Nicholas Nickleby.”

“Exactly. But death isn’t the outcome now, not if it’s caught in time. Which yours was. If it was Dino who got you to the doctor, then he’s saved your life.”

“It wuz you, Dino,” Stan said as we opened the front door, “what saved me life. Fanks.” And he gave me a little hug.

The chemist’s was only a few doors along, and we reached it just before it closed. The prescription, which I had tried to read but had been defeated by the vile handwriting, turned out to be for half a dozen bottles of orange juice concentrate.

“How much is that?” I asked as the girl put them in a paper bag.

She looked at the prescription again. “Nothing, cariad. It’s on Dr Roberts’ own account.”

A friend indeed: a friend who cared. That put me in mind of something.

“Did you have to pay at St Thomas’s?” I asked as I led Stan back to the tractor.

“Nah, fank God. All free. In Lunnon, council pays.”

The time was coming, the government assured us, when health care would be free for everyone. May it be soon.

“Blimey!” he cried as we stopped beside the Ffergi. “We going in this?” He was now grinning with excitement.

I got him to stand in the box, holding me by the waist, his suitcase by his feet, and we set off. We passed Sergeant Pritchard, who stared in astonishment and gave us a mock salute to which I waved back.

“Stone the crows!” shouted Stan in my ear above the noise of the engine. “You friends wiv the rozzers?”

“With this one,” I shouted back. “We’re breaking the law. Or I am, carrying a passenger on a tractor. And he doesn’t mind.”


A little beyond the Ffestiniog Railway crossing and the summit of Pen y Bwlch, I stopped to give him a foretaste of the real mountains, on which snow still lingered along walls and in gullies. The evening was splendidly clear and the vista wide. On the left, Moel y Gest, Ralltwen and Moel Hebog. Straight ahead, Yr Wyddfa — “Snowdon,” I translated, “which is the highest mountain in Wales” — but he had not even heard of it. And half-right, Cnicht. “Our mountain. We live just this side of it. But you can’t quite see Garth Llwynog from here.”

His face was a picture of delight and wonder. “Cor!” he said again. “Saw lots of hills on the way. And sea, too. Never seen the sea before. But these here hills is even bigger. Cor!

On across the Traeth and into Garreg, where Lowri was as usual lying in wait, like a spider in her web, at the door of Y Ring. Too surprised this time to wave, she simply watched us open-mouthed. Through the arch of the gatehouse. At Plas Brondanw, as I hoped, Clough was still outside, and I stopped again and switched off. He came over. He was too polite to stare, but he did blink. Stan, however, goggled unabashed. He was probably no more familiar than I was with London’s West End, and even there, I suspected, Clough’s favourite clothes would be hard to find. But I got the impression that he was even more taken with Clough’s characterful face than with his wardrobe.

For a moment they inspected each other, the suave and dapper Edwardian gent and the urchin masquerading as a spiv. The worldly-wise Clough must have seen members of the species before, but surely never in the wilds of Wales.

I introduced them — “This is Stan Dyer, a friend from London. And this is my very good friend Clough Williams-Ellis” — and sat back to enjoy the encounter. I did not think Stan would be intimidated.

“How do you do, Stan.” Clough held out his hand and, like royalty from a dais, Stan reached graciously down from the box to shake it. “I’m glad to meet any friend of Dino’s. Welcome to this humble corner of Wales. I hope you won’t find us too strange.”

“Wotcher, mister.” It was clear that Stan was already captivated. “Me too — glad ter meet Dino’s friends. Hope yer won’t find me too strange.”

I doubt if Clough had ever been called plain ‘mister’ before, but he took it in his stride.

“Stan’s here,” I put in, “to convalesce. He’s been in hospital with TB.”

“TB? That’s nasty! You might have died.”

Stan grinned. “But I din’t. Dino saved me. Mebbe he’ll wish he han’t. But too late now and that’s one consolation, as they says in Turkey when they chops the wrong chap’s head off.”

Clough and I exchanged an astonished glance. I was far from the only one locally with a love of English literature, and he too was familiar with Dickens. We both recognised Stan’s remark as a quotation, almost word for word, of one of Sam Weller’s famous sayings. But Stan was most unlikely to have read The Pickwick Papers. It must be something that Dickens had heard in London over a century ago and was still current in the Cockney world.

“Yer lives here?” asked Stan, unaware of our surprise and nodding at the tall stone-built house. “Old, innit?”

“Very old. Four hundred years, the oldest part.”

“Lumme! And big. Must be a right bugger ter keep warm.”

Clough smiled. “It is.”

“Well,” I said, smiling too, “we’d better get on. The first thing is to take Stan home and feed him up. Doctor’s orders.”

As he bade us farewell, Clough’s expression was a mixture of amusement, appreciation and questioning. Even if Stan had not been with us, I could not have answered the questions in it. I did not know the answers.