As a result of growing-up in the Salvation Army Children’s home Beria was a perfectionist, doing everything at double speed, even walking. Whenever we went out I held her hand, but keeping-up took an effort. ‘Ronnie, will you hurry-up, and how many times do I have to tell you? Don’t drag your feet when you walk.’ I cried easily. ‘Stop that,’ Beria growled, ‘or I’ll give you something to cry for.’
Beria was never familiar, addressing those ladies whom she considered to be only casual acquaintances in the most formal manner. While she was known to many by her nickname of ‘Rocky’, neighbours whom she had known for years were always addressed as ‘Mrs’. I never dared to call an adult by their Christian name: ‘Did I hear you correctly? I’ll tell you what, if I hear any more of that I’ll box your bloody ears. Now get outside and play, and don’t come in until I call you.’ Beria didn’t have to say a word; she controlled me with a look, a glance, an almost imperceptible movement of her head. If someone offered me a second piece of cake, I looked to Beria, and from a hardly noticeable flicker of an eye I knew the answer. The slightest backward tilt of her head meant: Outside and play – now! If I dallied, or pretended not to notice, it only needed for her to raise her voice a little – ‘Ronnie’ and give me a dirty look and I was gone without a word.
Beria made a point of ignoring Steve when told her to stay home all day while he was at work. Sometimes she’d spend time with Wint, leaving to be home in time to light the fire before he knocked off, and providing him with no clue as to what she had done for the day. One time she was surprised but not worried to discover he was already home and pacing like a caged lion. He had been home for two hours and was furious, abusing her and making all sorts of accusations: ‘You think you’re more clever than me. You’re pretend you stay here all day on your own and then come back in time to light the fire.’ Beria was not prepared to give in to his ranting: ‘For God’s sake, Steve, I went to see Wint, and if you don’t believe me, go and ask her why don’t you?. He became abusive: ‘What you want to go and see those bitches for?’ She wouldn’t let him have the last word: ‘Because I want to. I don’t have to stay here all day on my own just because you say so.’ Steve continued to bully her, but whatever the consequences, Beria was not going to be bossed around: ‘You don’t stay home, so why should I? And nothing you say is going to make me change my mind. I don’t know how many times you want me to tell you – you are not my boss!’ When Steve realised he was fighting a losing battle he retreated to the pub.
Most kids in Gwalia learned to swim in the cement swimming pool on the top of Staff Hill, which was also a holding tank for the boilers on the Sons of Gwalia. The daily water level varied, depending on the needs of the mine. The pool was open for three two-hour sessions from 1 December through to the last weekend in March. I rarely went at night. I was scared of the dark, and I hated the hundreds of iridescent green stink beetles which came out at night. Attracted by the fluorescent light suspended across the middle of the pool, they flew through the air and landed on you. If you tried to handle them or accidentally sat on one, they squirted a foul-smelling secretion from their tail, and no matter how many times you washed your hands with soap and water the smell wouldn’t disappear. One year the beetles came in such plague proportions the men killed and shovelled them into 44-gallon drums.
Our next-door neighbour, Vido Ivankovich, or Little Charlie as he was known, was the pool attendant for five years. Like so many of the foreigners in the town he was a mystery. We knew nothing about his life in Yugoslavia. Unsmiling and socially inept, he kept to himself. His only friend was Grinning Joe who owned the house we lived in. Grinning Joe lived about 100 yards from Little Charlie’s camp and most nights the two of them sat on the verandah drinking Muscat and talking. Neither of them went to the pub and Charlie was in bed by nine o’clock.
AND BE HOME BEFORE DARK is available direct from Roland.
Roland can be heard each MONDAY morning on 3BA at 10.30.