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Torfaen Tales

The Man Who Built Little Houses

Dedicated to the memory of Harry and Sheila Wooles, this story was short-listed in the 2005 Webster Writers' Competition

My Gramp worked in the mines until lung disease, arthritis and vibration white finger meant he couldn't carry on any longer. After that he went into the construction industry. You wouldn't think his poor health would have allowed him to work at anything more strenuous than chief stamp-licker in the village Post Office, but somehow he became a stonemason. When we drove out into the country on our regular Saturday afternoon outings he'd point out some of the grand houses he'd worked on.

"See that roof?" he'd say. "I aged the new tiles with horse muck so they'd match the old ones."

Or: "Those gargoyles are my work. I modelled them on your mother in one of her moods."

However eventually illness took its toll and my Gramp was invalided out of the work force.

He was bored and restless. He'd get under my Nan's feet while she was trying to clean the house. He'd go down the bookies and spend money they didn't have on horses that invariably came last. He needed something to do.

One Saturday afternoon I arrived at my grandparents' house to find Gramp dragging a bag of cement the short distance from his car to the front garden. He was all red in the face, gasping for breath and sweating buckets. I made him sit down and use his inhaler while I unloaded the car. He had several bags of cement, a large sack of sand, a roll of chicken wire and some pieces of timber.

"What's this in aid of, Gramp?" I asked.

"I'm going to build little houses," he replied wheezily.

And so he set to work. He fashioned wooden moulds for the walls and filled them with cement which he mixed on the front path. My Nan came out to see what was going on.

"Hywel, what's this mess you're making?" she said angrily.

"Oh, be quiet, woman! Go back to your sweeping and leave us men to it," he said with a conspiratorial wink in my direction.

He ran out of timber before too long, so I offered to go into Pontypool for more. By the time I returned his neighbour, Biff, had turned up with a six pack of lager. Biff offered constructive criticism while Gramp and I mixed more cement and knocked up more moulds.

The first little house was taking shape. The walls were about a foot tall, and he'd cleverly constructed his moulds allowing spaces for windows and doors. Then he shaped a length of chicken wire for the roof and slapped cement onto it.

"I think you need to make the mix a bit drier, boyo," said Biff from the sidelines, taking a slurp of lager. "It's falling right through the holes. Either that or you need to get a finer wire mesh."

So I was dispatched back to the builder's merchant for some finer wire mesh. Gramp and Biff looked such a sight when I came back. They were sprawled on the doorstep, cans of lager in hand. Gramp was covered in cement from his fingertips to his elbows, and he had splodges on his face and in his hair. I realised I had my camera in the car so I took a few photos of them with the prototype house in the foreground.

As the sun slipped down below the roofs of New Inn at the end of the afternoon my Gramp's first house reached completion. He made tiny roof tiles from a couple of pieces of slate he had in the shed, and when the cement was dry enough he painted the window sills white. He made little wooden doors which he painted green. He was a bit tipsy but his hand was steady enough.

By the time I visited a couple of weeks later the front garden was looking like a miniature village. He'd made a variety of cottages, a Post Office and a little church. He'd even made a replica of the Folly Tower.

Nan was still grumbling that the cement he'd dropped was killing off the lawn, but when I went into the kitchen to help her carry in the tea she whispered that she was really very proud of what her Hywel had achieved.

"And it keeps him out of the house as well," she added with a twinkle of her blue eyes as she cut me a large slice of her fruit cake.

People started to notice the little houses. One afternoon when I was in town I heard a complete stranger telling someone about the little village he'd seen in a garden down in New Inn. I glowed with pride to think that my Gramp was responsible.

Shortly after this my Nan was laid low with 'flu. She had to stay in bed for a whole week, which wasn't like her at all. And even when she was back on her feet she still looked pale and frail, and she had a terrible hacking cough.

"I want to take my Sylvie off to Barry for a week," said Gramp while she was out in the kitchen. "The only problem is I haven't any money now that I'm not working. The Invalidity doesn't hardly stretch to the basics, let alone a trip to the seaside."

"Wish I could help out, Gramp, but I'm skint. I had to pay out nearly two hundred to get my car through its MOT this week."

"Never mind, our Iestyn. Where there's a will there's a way."

He phoned me a few days later.

"Guess what!" he chortled. "A man offered me a hundred pounds for my little church, so I sold it to him on the spot! Come and get me tonight, lad, and we'll go out for a drink."

"Now hang on, Gramp!" I protested. "I thought that money was to take my Nan for a week at the seaside."

"Don't worry, lad. Ten pounds for a couple of drinks won't break the bank."

So I called by at seven to pick up Gramp. I could hear the shouting even before I'd got out of the car. Nan was having a right go about something or other. She opened the door to me, and her eyes were on fire.

"That stupid old fool has sold my little church!" she raged. "He says he wants to take me on holiday for my health! Take him out of my sight, our Iestyn, before I clobber him one!"

"Oh, dear," sighed Gramp as he got into the car. "How was I know she'd got so attached to that little church? I offered to make her another but she said it wouldn't be the same. Your Nan can be very pig-headed on times, Iestyn."

Nan was very pig-headed indeed. She steadfastly refused to go on holiday, saying she'd never forgive Gramp for selling her little church. Her cough went eventually as the summer progressed, and the frosty atmosphere between my Nan and Gramp lessened with time. Gramp painstakingly made another church, and vowed never to sell any more of his little houses.

They stayed in that front garden for many years. They were something of a local landmark. People would say things like 'turn right just after the garden with the little houses'.

My Gramp eventually succumbed to his illnesses and died, and my Nan followed him a year or so after. Now my mother has most of her father's miniature village in her yard. My little brother painted the roofs, doors and window frames with glow-in-the-dark paint last hallowe'en, and gave Mam a terrible fright when she opened the back door to let the cat out. She nearly fell down the back steps. When she told me what our Dai had done I was about to hammer the living daylights out of him, but it occurred to me that our Gramp would have enjoyed the joke.

So instead I took some photos, and from time to time when I'm feeling sentimental and reminiscing about my Gramp I take out my album and smile at those photographs and the ones I took the day he started making his little houses.

By Karenne Griffin

Last Modified on: 05-11-2015

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