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Torfaen Tales

Steaming Away

Muriel’s husband hadn’t been keen on dancing, but now that she was widowed Muriel liked to attend the tea dance held on Saturday nights at the Rivoli Ballroom. She went with her friend Gladys who was an old hand at widowhood, her husband having passed away when they were only in their fifties.

There was usually a shortage of men, which meant she and Gladys usually ended up dancing together, taking turns to be the man. But on this occasion there was a team of male bowls players in attendance, and one of their number introduced himself as Albert and asked Muriel to dance. He was a dapper fellow with a smartly pressed suit, an upright bearing, and a twinkle in his eye.

“My Gwen died just over a year ago,” he confided while whirling her around the floor.

Gladys had warned her about widowed men. “When desperation kicks in they go looking for another wife.”

Seeing confusion and horror pass across Muriel’s face, Gladys elaborated.

“No, my dear, I don’t mean all that, er, unnecessary business. They want a wife to cook their meals, clean the house, wash their clothes, take care of their ills. Not all men are like that, mind, but a lot of our generation haven’t a clue when it comes to domestic matters and are in no hurry to learn.”

Trotting around the dance floor with Albert, Gladys’s words came to mind. The glint in his eye certainly smacked of desperation. Muriel was quite enjoying the freedom of widowhood. She’d loved Howell with all her heart, and missed him every day, but there was something quite liberating about doing exactly what she pleased with her days. And nights. She certainly wasn’t in any hurry to give up that freedom. It wasn’t as though she needed a man to provide financially: the house had been paid for years ago, and she managed comfortably on her pension.

“Sitting down already?” said Albert with a frown as Muriel made her excuses.

From the sidelines she watched him make a beeline for his next potential wife. Feeling thirsty, Muriel went in search of a cup of tea. The cakes were too much of a temptation, so she took a plate and selected three perfect specimens. As she took a bite out of a little butterfly cake that was light enough to float away all by itself, she was aware of a great, lumbering man pouring himself a cup of tea. No doubt another of the bowlers.

“You seem to like my cakes,” he said with a smile.

Muriel gasped and then choked on the dusting of icing sugar on top of her cake. When she’d recovered her composure she replied. “Quite the lightest butterfly cake I’ve ever eaten. Delicious.”

“I also made the raspberry jam myself,” he added, helping himself to a selection of cakes.

Was there no end to this man’s talents? While they took tea together Bill, for that was his name, confessed that he wasn’t part of the bowls team, but had tagged along with his friend Cuthbert who was. Before she knew what was happening Muriel had agreed to accompany Bill to a steam train gala next Saturday afternoon.

Bill called for Muriel promptly at half past one, opening the car door for her just as a gentleman should. He announced that he’d packed a hamper for their afternoon tea., and Muriel’s eyes widened with admiration.

The gala was being held on a six mile section of line which had been reopened with a lottery grant. By the time they arrived in the station car park Muriel already knew that there were three stations on the line, and that a selection of lovingly restored steam engines would be puffing up and down, pulling carriages full of enthusiasts.

It soon became apparent that Bill was well known to most of the elderly gentlemen who voluntarily staffed the station and drove the engines.

“Yes, I’m part of the crew,” he confessed. “It’s my turn for a day off, and a pleasure it is to enjoy it as a passenger instead of shovelling coal into a hungry furnace.”

Bill insisted they try each of the six trains, and went to great lengths to explain the history of them all. It was a warm afternoon and Muriel was finding it difficult to stay awake. There was something soporific about the way an old railway carriage rocked rhythmically as it rolled along. But Muriel pinned a smile on her face and tried her best to pay attention. At least she had Bill’s cakes to look forward to.

At last they arrived back at the first station for the final time. Muriel was parched, longing for a cup of tea.

“Over here a minute,” beckoned Bill. “What do you reckon to these traction engines?”

The field at the side of the car park was by this time filled with monstrous, steaming beasts. Bill insisted on taking a tour of the field, introducing her to each of the drivers. Muriel felt weak at the knees with the thought of tea and cake, while Bill engaged in lengthy conversations about the dimensions and specifications or whatever of these seemingly pointless machines which poured forth bursts of steam and whistled noisily while their workings whirred and dripped oil.

“Bill, I’m really gasping for a cup of tea,” she pleaded weakly about an hour later.

At last, back at the car, Bill opened the picnic hamper and poured Muriel a welcome cup of tea. And there were sandwiches and more of those delightful butterfly cakes.

“Perhaps you’d like to come again next Saturday afternoon and watch me drive the train,” said Bill as he poured Muriel a third cup of tea.

Muriel hoped the horror she felt hadn’t showed in her eyes.

“Thanks, but I’m visiting my daughter next weekend,” she said quickly. Sadly the attractions of a man who was a competent cook were outweighed by the mind-numbing boredom induced by his fixation with things powered by steam.

By Karenne Griffin

Last Modified on: 05-11-2015

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