Monday, 23 August 2010

A Tale of Three Flats


          Our friendship developed over the next year or two, with a mutual respect for each other and a solid bond forming between us. I had been living in the nurse’s residence at Prince Charles Hospital, where I was studying to be a nurse. I had recently introduced Fletcher to my younger brother Jimmy, and they too had struck up a sound friendship.
                 Fletch had married in his teens. It was a doomed union from the outset, as best as I could figure out from his account of the tale. By his own admission he was a very young and naïve man. When he found himself in his first steady relationship, he thought that the next step was to get engaged. He duly asked his sweetheart “Would you like to get engaged?” And he was chuffed when she accepted.
          However, he was completely taken aback when after buying her a ring, she then asked when he thought they might get married. “Married, what do you mean get married? I only asked you to get engaged!” When his new fiancée explained that getting engaged was an agreement to get hitched, he was too much of a gentleman to back down. The brief marriage failed, but not before the arrival of twins.   Fletch always regretted and felt guilty about the errors that he had made, but more so the fact that he played no further part in the twins lives. He would have dearly loved to make contact, and for a fleeting moment it seemed that he might get his wish. Unfortunately, the longed for reunion never took place.

Fletcher’s Flat

       Fletch had taken lodgings in a furnished bed-sit above the garage of someone for whom he often did odd jobs. It was a bit of a dive, but it was clean and dry. It was located near the top gates of Cyfarthfa Park and it consisted of a first floor open plan living area, off which was set its’ single bedroom, and a bathroom on the ground floor. He had settled into a carefree bachelor lifestyle.
          Fletch had been earning good money working at a local quarry and behind the bar in the Bernie Inn as well as claiming dole and making a few quid at cards, and had indulged himself with a whole new wardrobe. He spent most of his nights at one drinking emporium or another, sometimes joining me at the Hospital Social Club. He was well liked by many of my fellow students, and had shared an intimate moment or two with a couple of the girls. However, I could see that he was afraid to get close to any of them as he couldn’t face the prospect of being hurt again.
          He also indulged his love of gambling by staying behind after hours at Charbonniers Nightclub, where he would play Three Card Brag with the bouncers until five or six in the morning. It was following one such night that fate dealt him another body blow.
          I was woken from my slumber by my flat mate John Jolly hammering at my door in the early afternoon. I was in the usual deep sleep that always followed a nightshift, and it took several moments before I came to my senses. “It’s Fletcher on the phone, he says that it’s an emergency or I wouldn’t have woken you,” John said apologetically. John was Born Again, but he didn’t bash the Bible. He was a good mate and we had got on well together following a difficult first meeting.

My Flat

          John had moved into the flat just before the New Year, nearly thirteen months before. The hospital was less than ten years old then and had a modern nurse’s residence. Each flat comprised of four private bedrooms which shared a bathroom and kitchen. He had arrived fully stocked up, seemingly with enough food to last him until he qualified. At the time I was on the sick following a nasty rugby injury, which had required the attention of the Metalwork Consultant, two operations, a steel screw and some K-wire. I was in a below knee plaster cast and had returned to my parents home for a couple of weeks recuperation, prior to escaping back to the flat before they killed my with kindness.
          It was the Christmas period, with numerous parties both in the Club and also in various nurses’ flats. Unfortunately John was unable to find any fridge space due to the fact that it was jammed to capacity with my supply of lager and cider. I was forced to make enough room for him to squeeze in some of his perishables, by drinking several cans in a very short period of time.
          I answered the phone, still half asleep, “Alright Fletch, what’s the matter?”
“I’ve burnt my f**king flat down!”
This woke my other half up instantly. “How….um…. what the f**k happened, are you all right?”
“Yeah, I’m alright, but I’ve lost everything except my work clothes. Do you mind if I stay at your flat for a couple of days?” “Of course not, stay as long as you like.”

          Fletch was in an awful mess when he arrived at the flat, wearing muddy work clothes and his face and hair streaked with soot. He had obviously tried washing, but the soot was ingrained into his skin. Although he was a couple of inches shorter than me, we had similar waist and chest sizes. I ran a hot bath and picked him out a pair of jeans and a couple of t-shirts. “You can try these on after you’ve had a bath.”
          I made him a cup of coffee and took it into the bathroom. “What the f**k happened Fletch!”
“Smoking in bed,” he replied curtly, taking a sip of his coffee, before elaborating. “I played cards in Charbonniers until about five this morning. I did OK, maybe fifty quid up. It was still dark when I got home and I can remember lighting a fag and getting into bed. Anyway, the next thing that I can remember is waking up – I don’t know what woke me, but I would be dead if I hadn’t woken up just then. The place was filled with thick black smoke and I could see bright orange embers next to me in the bed. I started coughing my guts up and I decided to get the f**k out of there and made my way to the stairs.
          “My eyes were burning and streaming with tears, I crawled along the floor, but in the darkness and the smoke I must have lost my bearings and ended up by the lounge. I could hardly breathe and I struggled to open the f**king window, but I couldn’t get it f**king open so I punched out the glass. I took a deep breath of clean air and again made for the stairs, but somehow I ended up in the kitchen. I had to smash the window there as well and if I hadn’t found the stairs then, I wouldn’t be here now.”

“You were f**king lucky to get out,” I sympathised.

“Too f**king right,” Fletch continued. “Because when I opened the f**king door the whole f*king place burst into f**king flames. I ran outside in my pants and grabbed a bucket and filled it with water, I started back up the stairs and threw the water at the f**king fire, but it was like pissing in the wind.”
          “I put my dirty work clothes on, which I always take off as soon as I get through the door and then knocked on the door to my landlord’s house. He took me inside and called 999. The place was absolutely gutted. I’ve lost everything, my clothes my money, my trophies and all my photos and personal mementos.”
“At least you’re f**king alive,” I tried to find other words of solace, but there weren’t any.

From The Ashes of Disaster...

          He tried on my clothes which fitted him well once he had turned the jeans up about six inches. “Five feet eight, with two foot legs,” we’d always ripped the piss out of his size (in the way mates do). “I’m nights tonight so you can have my bed, but you’ll have too crash on the floor tomorrow.”
“Thanks Rich, I won’t stay long. I’ll go down the Council and sort it out tomorrow.”
“Don’t worry, you can stay as long as you need, you know that.”
          The next day he asked if I would mind helping him sift through the wreckage of his flat and we set off solemnly to see what we could salvage. I had never witnessed the aftermath of a house fire, and I have to admit that I was completely unprepared for the scene set before me. I parked a little way down the street and noticed immediately the blackened paintwork surrounding the remains of the window frames. I sensed the caustic smell even at a distance. As we approached the flat and entered through the unlocked door, the stench became almost unbearable.
          The stairway had remained relatively unscathed, with only moderate smoke damage. The Fire Brigade had attended within a few minutes and had performed an unremarkable, but swift and professional job. The first floor, particularly the lounge and bedroom areas, had suffered incredible damage. The television set had twisted and shrunk to about a third of its size, but there was nothing else recognisable at that end of the flat. Fletch pointed out that he’d borrowed it from Mack in the Bernie Inn.
          The kitchen, which was situated at the other end of the building, had only moderate fire damage although the heat was so intense that cutlery had melted on the dining table. He had an old radiogram against the wall near the top of the stairs. It had been sheltered from the full force of the flames by the panelling at the top of the stairs. Inside we found that all his albums were warped and obviously unplayable, but he also found a couple of pool trophies and a few old photographs. There were tears in his eyes, and I felt myself filling up too, so I wandered off to explore the rest of the bed-sit and left him to his thoughts for a few minutes. He managed to fill one Tesco carrier bag before we left, our mood almost funereal. We sat silently as I drove the short distance to the hospital, each of us unable to share our thoughts for fear of breaking down.

The Fall Guy (or the Dambuster)

          The days spilled into weeks and several parties were enjoyed before Fletch got his new bed-sit on the fourth floor of Dowlais Flats. A doorway led into a small passage with a tiny bathroom to the right and a kitchen to the left. The living/bedroom was about fifteen feet by ten. It speaks volumes for the kind of bloke that he was that although the fire had left him without any possessions; by the time he left my flat he had a large sports holdall full of clothes. He had also acquired carpets, a three piece suit, a colour television, a cooker and a washing machine. All of which were given to him by his various mates. However, this didn’t discourage him from applying for a Hardship Grant from the Social.
          We continued to drink together regularly, often Jimmy would come too, and we particularly enjoyed a good Wednesday night out. A good Wednesday night out more often than not consisted of a pub crawl through Merthyr, starting with upstairs in The Imp. Further stops followed at the Express, Vulcan, Belle Vue, Hotlips and The Bernie Inn, usually ending in The Kirkhouse nightclub. In those days there was a choice of four clubs: Dollars and Charbonniers in town, The Kirkhouse in Georgetown and The Brandy Bridge which was the best part of a mile from the town centre.
          The Kirkhouse was our favourite for two reasons. Firstly it was usually quite full on a Wednesday Night, often having quite a few out-of-towners and secondly it was free to get in before ten O’ clock. Oh and thirdly (OK, I know I said two reasons, but I’ve just thought of another) there weren’t too many kids out being a school night.
          One Wednesday we decided to try Dollars (Argos now for all you youngsters) for a change, but were dismayed to find the place almost empty. Dollars was quite a big club on two levels. The lower level had a large oval shaped dance floor, gaudily surrounded by fake palm trees. There was a bar at either end of the club, and a snack bar adjacent to the dance floor, all of which were raised above the dance floor with a rail preventing drunks from toppling over onto the lower level. There were six steps leading up from either end of the dance floor. We were swigging bottles of Pils, undecided on whether we should stay or go somewhere else, when we noticed six or seven student nurses from the residence. We went over for a chat, joining them at their table between the snack bar and the dance floor. Excluding us there could only have been about thirty people in the club.
          After a while Fletcher went for a wander and I think that Jimmy was dancing with some of the girls. Quite suddenly a fight developed by the further bar. I recognised a young lad who was in the same year as Jimmy when they were at school. His face was bleeding profusely, but from this distance I couldn’t see where the blood was coming from. I stood up to get a better view and noticed that Fletcher was standing by the snack bar eating a burger. I walked the short distance, grabbed the rail and hauled myself up to the same level as Fletch. “What the f**k is going on?” I asked. Then it suddenly went quiet and the lights went out.
          It was still dark, but I could hear faraway voices. I struggled to listen but was unable to understand what was being said. It was as if someone was controlled a dimmer switch, as the darkness imperceptibly lifted. The voices became nearer and clearer. I could make out a feminine voice saying “Keep him in the recovery position. Pass me that jacket. I can put it under his head.” Then a male voice “I think he’s coming round, his eyes are opening. Richie! Richie, are you all right? Open your eyes!” At first I didn’t realise that the voice was now talking to me. But the speaker kept repeating the same lines, like a stuck record player and gradually I realised that I was Richie and I tried to obey the command to open my eyes.

          After what seemed like an eternity, I managed to open my eyes to a squint. The light hurt like f**k and I wished that I knew where the dimmer switch was. I slowly looked around and I could see Joanna Walsh and Alison Gambold, girls with hearts of gold who could have both packed down for Wales. They were kneeling besides me, with the former cradling my head on a blood splattered jacket.
“What the f**k happened?”
“A bouncer punched you and you were knocked off the outside of the rail into the middle of the dance floor. Don’t worry, you’re alright, you’ve just got a bit of a cut lip. A couple of stitches and you’ll be fine.” Joanna tried to reassure me.
          I hadn’t noticed the warm sticky feeling inside my mouth until now. I let my tongue investigate, but the terrain seemed to be foreign to its touch. I was told some days later that I had actually managed to poke my tongue out without opening my mouth as I had slightly f**king more than a bit of a cut lip. Indeed I had a cut to my lip, but it was actually a huge gaping wound. Then I noticed Jimmy. “Come on Rich, let’s get out of here. You need to go to hospital. It was not the only time that Jimmy would have to utter those words to me, but that’s another story.
          I slowly regained the use of my legs and scrambled to my feet with the aid of my friends. “Who hit me? Who the f**k, f**king hit me?” I asked no-one in particular. “I’m going to get my own back!”
“Don’t be f**king stupid, you’re going to casualty,” said Joanna. I was more frogmarched than supported towards the exit, trailing blood in my wake. I said that I had to get my coat and we headed first to the cloak room.
          However, we were attacked by another bouncer, who ended up taking a bite out of Jimmy’s back. The melee didn’t last long as the girls dragged off the bouncer and sent him packing. We obtained our jackets and were surprised to see a Police Constable standing in the doorway, casually observing the proceedings, obviously having no intention to intervene. I told him I wanted to make an accusation of assault and he told me to go to the Station in the morning. I asked if he could use his radio to call for an ambulance, but he told me to get a taxi. (The same PC some months later gave me a producer for a bald tyre. F**king tw*t!)
          We managed to get one and I was taken to casualty. Ironically I had started an eight week stint there a fortnight earlier. I was x-rayed and then stitched up. The doctor, an excellent Irish female House Officer did a superb job with the needle. She also decided that I was concussed and would need to be admitted for observation. I gave Jimmy the keys to my flat, and told him to stay there for the night and to keep an eye out for Fletcher, who had disappeared whilst I was unconscious.
          The girls told the doctor that Jimmy had been bitten. She examined him too, then asked a nurse to prepare injections of Tetanus Toxoid and Tryplapen, and told an uneasy Jimmy to wait in the next cubicle. When the nurse returned with the jabs, Jimmy was nowhere to be seen.
          I spent an uneventful night on Ward 3, one of the two orthopaedic wards in the hospital. Upon my discharge, I donned my bloodied clothes and paid a visit to the School of Nursing to inform them of the previous night’s episode and that I would be on the sick for a while.
          Jimmy was at my flat when I returned, and Fletch turned up shortly after, his face puffed up and bruised. “What the f**k happened to you?” I asked.
          “After you got knocked out, I went after the bouncer who hit you. He didn’t half catch you with a beauty; the way you went down was like the f**king dam busters. Anyway, I followed him into the bog and he started on me. I covered my head and let him f**k himself up,” Fletch put his arms up in front of his face to demonstrate. “I was taking most of his punches on my arms. When he was knackered I started giving him a right f**king hiding, but then three or four other bouncers came in and kicked seven lumps of sh*t out of me.” (Fletch had obviously given more than a good account of himself, and Dai Marsh liked his CV enough to offer him a job on the door soon after!)
“Where did you stay last night?” Jimmy enquired. “I somehow got myself up here but I couldn’t get in. So I crashed out under the stairs.”
          We spent the morning going over the previous night’s events, wondering why I was the victim of a totally unprovoked attack, before Fletch and I decided to take the matter to the Police. Jimmy didn’t want to get involved, so I went to the station with Fletch and we made our allegations and gave our statements. We then proceeded to the pub where we got sh*t-faced, purely for medicinal purposes of course.

The Tale of Billy Beale, Stewart and a 2CV

          “Why are you drinking squash?” The bewildered question came from our short, but extremely stocky blind-side. “It’s all I can afford.” I said pitifully. “I started my nurse training on Wednesday, and I won’t be paid for a month.”
          “He’ll have a pint of lager please barman. Don’t argue with me or I’ll knock you f**king out, alright!” I tried to protest that I couldn’t buy him a pint back, but I swiftly realised that my protestations would be in vain. “Ok, thanks Fletch,” I said and sipped very slowly on the amber nectar.
          My name is Richard Phillips. At five foot nine inches I was a few inches taller than Gerald Fletcher, but unquestionably no match for him physically. Then again, very few men were. Over the seventeen years of our friendship, I was to witness colossal feats of strength and physical endeavour that would have been impossible for ninety-nine percent of the population. Fletcher was in his mid twenties and at the peak of his physical prowess, his body hewn from good Welsh granite. He was a stranger to the gym; his awesome attributes were due to the physical toil of hard labour. His power to inches ratio would have embarrassed competitors in Strongest Man contests.
          You would want someone like Fletcher with you in the trenches, when your back was against the wall. In a nightclub, when you get knocked unconscious by a bully boy bouncer. Or when you are lying at the bottom of a ruck and the opposition eight are rubbing their hands with glee at the opportunity to do the two step shuffle all over your back. However, I wouldn’t say that he was fearless. What most people didn’t see was the inner man. The soft and caring father, who was not too self-conscious to play the fool with humans of the smallest variety. Years later he was also wonderful with my baby daughter Katie, in the short time that he knew her, and with Jimmy’s kids. He too, had a soft spot for dogs, although he certainly was not the Barbara Woodhouse that he thought he was. Above all, Fletch was a man who shared the same feelings of fear, loneliness and inadequacy that all humans occasionally have to bear.

          It was September 1985 and I had completed my A’ levels and spent an idle summer awaiting the commencement of my Nurse training. We talked about the match for a while. I stated that senior rugby was slower than youth team rugby, but was much more physical. I had witnessed the brutality of the rugby played in the lower echelons of the Welsh game from the comparative safety of full back on this occasion. Observing that the more punches thrown by the two warring packs of forwards, the louder the ineffectual referee blew his whistle.
          At that time, Dowlais Rugby Football club was a member of the Rhondda and East Glamorgan Junior Rugby Union, and certainly had its’ share of fighters, from professional boxers and karate black belts to back street brawlers. Ken Morgan, Shushie, Gary Animals, Bowie, etc, etc.

          Fletcher finished his beer and went off to the bar, whilst I continued to sip at my slowly diminishing and rapidly warming pint. Fletch returned with two more pints. “Don’t argue” he barked. “Every time I buy a pint, I’ll get you one too.”
          You would expect a good mate to look after a skint butty, but in truth we barely really new each other. I had come through the youth team ranks and this was my first season in the seniors. I was still nineteen. Fletcher had joined the club about a year or so before and he was about seven years older than me. I was aware of whom he was, from training sessions and seeing him in the rugby club after matches during the previous season, but you couldn’t have described us as friends.
          Following the after-match ceremonies, Fletch invited me to a game of 15-ball pool. I quickly found that he was as tenacious on the green baize as he was on the rugby field. We played several games, and drank more beer. I realised that we both shared a competitive streak, a desire to win, not at all costs, but certainly by using all available legitimate methods.


          We had become so engrossed in our battle for supremacy, a battle which would last another seventeen years without providing a conclusive result, that we did not notice the passing of time. On returning to the players bar we realised that all the other players, supporters and committee members had left without us.
          We were stranded in Deri. Luckily Deri was and still is only a few miles over the mountain from Dowlais. We decided to wait for ten minutes, phone the club and get someone to return for us. Whilst we were waiting we returned to the pool room and started a new game. Shortly afterwards Billy Beale and Stewart, two Dowlais locals tottered unsteadily into the pool room, evidently much the worse for wear.
          Billy explained that they had travelled to see the match, couldn’t find the ground and had spent the afternoon enjoying the excellent hospitality afforded by an adjacent pub. They joined us for a game of pool.
          Billy was a short, rotund, red-faced chap with white hair, probably in his sixties, who always had a smile on his face, and an infectious laugh. Stewart was younger, taller and more serious and had often been likened to Windsor Davies, who played the officious Sergeant Major in the 70’s sitcom 'It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.'
          When we explained our predicament, Billy immediately offered us a lift. I doubted the prudence of getting into a car that was being driven by a man who had obviously consumed a not inconsiderable amount of beer, but was reassured that he did not drive at all fast. I too had now devoured several Fletcher-bought pints, and so was persuaded to accept this lift.
          Fletch and I climbed into the back of the 2CV, folded the window down and held on tightly. There was no need for concern as Billy demonstrated that he had not exaggerated his driving prowess, and we proceeded over the mountain at fifteen miles an hour, with the in-car entertainment at full volume. The 2CV was far too modest a car to possess a radio, so we were treated to Billy and Stewart’s rendition of Windsor Davies and Don Estelle’s version of Whispering Grass, with the back seat backing singers accompanying with their own special harmonies. We arrived safely back at Dowlais Rugby Club some half an hour later, but our night had only just begun.

Bhaji and Chips

          After several more beers in the Rugby Club, and a number of retellings of our short adventure, Fletch persuaded me to go to town with him. “I’ve just got to thank Billy for the lift, and then we’ll go,” he slurred. Fletch had an incredible constitution. He would appear drunk after six pints, but as I was to witness on many future occasions, he would seem no more inebriated after a further ten pints.
          I watched Fletch as he talked to Billy and then I saw Billy give Fletcher some money. Fletch came back and gave me a tenner. “You can pay me back next week,” he said. I told him that I had seen him borrow money off Billy. “You spent all your money on me and now you’ve had to have a sub off Billy,” I admonished him. Fletch shrugged his shoulders, “Don’t worry about it; I couldn’t see you without a pint, could I?” And that was the end of that.

          We trawled our way around the bustling Saturday night pubs of Merthyr Tydfil town centre, still carrying our kit bags. Most of that night is a blur, a memory that cannot be accessed.
          However, we found ourselves outside the Taj Mahal Indian restaurant. “Do you fancy a bhaji and chips?” asked Fletch as he went inside. “We can eat it on the way home.” If Fletcher liked one thing more than beer, it was food. "You can have my money. You can have my fags. You can have my booze. But don't you dare touch my f**cking food!" I heard him say more than once.

        Once inside, we went up to the counter, Fletch asked for the feast of two bhaji and chips to take away. The unhelpful waiter refused as we would have to order a main meal. A heated discussion followed as Fletch questioned the validity of the policy, but the waiter was more stubborn than us, and we eventually ordered one curry and chips as our combined resources would not run to anything more.
          As we waited for our meal Fletch broke into a song, “Hold me close don’t let me go, oh no, Cos I, I think I love you and I want you to know, do you know.” As he sang, some of the diners joined in and before long a full sing-a-long was in progress, with people now standing on their chairs with their arms around their companions. We managed to sing a couple more songs before our meal was hurriedly put in front of us and we were ushered hastily out of the door by the relieved waiter, to a rapturous round of applause from the happy diners, several of whom had fallen from their lofty perches during the unexpected reverie. Fortunately no-one appeared to be hurt.
          Eating a bhaji and chips each would have been a feat that we could have accomplished whilst walking home. Sharing a curry and chips was a different proposition. We put our kit bags on the floor of a shop doorway and sat on them until all the food was gone. Some of it eaten and some of it now worn on our faces and clothes, but all of it gone.
          We strolled along, wobbling like two Weebles, continuing to sing as we went. Fletch was living in the Gurnos Estate and I lived in Penydarren and we decided to walk up the Avenue together before going our separate ways. When we reached the bottom of the Gurnos, we sat on a grass verge to have a rest, laying our weary heads on our versatile kit bags. We sang a song or two, and talked a while.
          The next thing that I knew, I was being awakened by a warm wet feeling on my leg, and a man asking if I was alright. He was out for an early morning walk with his dog, which had relieved itself over me, and his owner was concerned for me. It was getting light and there was no sign of Fletch. I assured him that I was fine, and soggily made my way home to bed.
          And that was just the start!

Time Gentlemen Please

The time of your life.
Let the good times roll.
It’s better to burn out than to fade away.
If I had my time again.
Time waits for no man.

An infant cannot understand the concept of time. Seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, et cetera.

A teenager thinks that a twenty-something is a relic of a bygone age and a twenty-something thinks that he is indestructible.

By the time you reach your forties, you are attending more funerals than weddings and you finally become conscious of your own mortality.

Sadly, by letting the good times roll, whilst having the time of their lives, many drink, smoke and eat themselves to death before they emerge into middle aged wisdom.

However, whilst they are burning away, many carry a torch that illuminates the dark recesses of our memories, long after the flame fades away. A light so bright that we can still warm ourselves on a cold winter’s night with the one hundredth telling of the time that….

With the benefit of hindsight would we all do things differently? Would we lose the spontaneity, the spark that first set the torch burning and would our world be the colourful place that it has been? Or would we have nothing but an old blanket to warm us through our winter years?

As I approach my forty-fifth year, I have to pay homage to the most dazzling of my contemporaries, who burnt out nine years ago after burning brightly for forty-two years.

And as time waits for no man, I must chronicle some of the good times before my flame fades away. I apologise if I omit any details - I was off my face most of the time in those days.

Please add comments. Fill in the blanks or tell your favourite story about Fletch.

To the one and only Gerald Fletcher, put a pint over the bar, I’ll catch you later.