‘Gambo’s a big fucka, butt,’ said Mevin (fly half).
Gwilym ‘Gambo’ Bowen was the first choice prop forward for Aberreba rugby football club first XV. As strong as an ox and looked like one too, if you tattooed ‘Muriel’ on its shoulder and two eyes on its arse.
‘They say a good big fucka will always beat a good little fucka,’ said Idwal (flanker), calling a spade a shovel but still getting his point across.
‘Woh yew sayin en?’ said Bans (prop), knowing the answer.
‘I’m sayin eesa big fucka,’ said Idwal, raising his hand then pointing at Bans, ‘an yewra little fucka compared to ‘im, no matter who’s lookin atiw.’ Idwal had a old-fashioned name that no one made fun of because he was hard as nails and right about most things.
Bans was pissed off at the jibe but couldn’t raise a response as he’d stood next to Gambo every Tuesday and Thursday night for three years since he came up from the youth team. Four inches taller and a good three stone heavier than him, Gambo was a big fucka.
‘E cahn geh no bigger, mind, though cun e, Id?’ said Mousey (scrum-half), speeding through the sentence. ‘Twinny-three now, see. Stopped growin’ now, avn e. Less e’s a late blooma. You a late blooma Bans? Got all yew pubes yet?’ The last words tripped over Mousey’s nervous laughter as he slugged his pint.
‘’Course e av,’ yelled Mugga (centre). ‘But e shaved ‘em off cause they itched like fuck after e caught em crabs off tha looka on oldays last Augus.’
Jeers and laughter from the surrounding tables in the Player’s Lounge.
‘Dur, dirty bitch she musa bin to take a pop at yewr floppy three and half, butt. Dew keeper knickers?’ Mugga sniffed his fingers before rubbing them under Bans nose.
‘Fuck off!’ Bans pushed his hand away. ‘Serious this is by’uh, mun! I’m stuck in no mans land!’
Four weary heads, a table away, turned towards him like water buffalo disturbed mid-graze.
‘Watch y’mouth now Bansy, boy,’ Mal said cooly. ‘There’s fourteen other men y’uh happy enough to show you th’way to subsville if y’carry on.’
Mal, forty-three, along with Bill Dare and Dai Tapp, both forty, and Graham Lout, forty-one, (all forwards) stared silently at Bans. The Old Guard, emphasis on the ‘ard. Nobody plays rugby past forty unless you’re stupid or solid and these boys weren’t stupid.
Ken (lock forward), unscrewed the jar of pickled onions, picked one out and leaned over to Bans, ‘If you don’t want to vegetate. Pollinate.’
Bans scrunched up his face in typical confusion at Ken’s metaphors, ‘Fuxa’ mean?’
Idwal tapped him on the shoulder, ‘It means do sumin bout it.’
‘If God gives iw lemons, squeeze em in the fucka’s eyes and pinch ‘is lemonade.’ Ken clarified.
‘Whatever you do won’t make a difference, mun,’ Mousey continued. ‘Gambo’s only twenty-three. He’ve got ages left in him’
‘Cheers butt. Fuckin’ lovely that is. Really.’ Bans tried to flick a beer mat at Mousey but it clung to the table. ‘Fuxake.’
‘Sayin’ I am, that’s all. Builder inee? Lumpin’ stuff round all day’s all e does, mun. Keeps iw fit n strong tha does, dwnit? I mean even when e’s no’ tryin’, e’s trainin’.’
Bans sank further down into his seat.
‘Don’t worry butt, I erd the girls say e got a tiny knob if thas any consolation.’ Idwal said.
‘Lies that is,’ said Mugga. ‘ Sorry, butt. Avniw seen ‘im in the showers?’ He stood and swung his arm between his legs. ‘Like a baby elephant’s nose it is.’
‘Bollocks mun!’ said Bans, rising in a huff.
‘They fuckin ewj an all!’ Mugga grabbed his crotch, as the boys bellowed laughing.
Idwal raised an eyebrow, ‘Hold on now. What you bin staring at his knob for, Mug?’
‘Couldn’t help it, mun! He turned round to fetch his towel last week and the fucking thing almost took my eye out!’ As Mugga spoke, he swung his arm towards Ken who flicked the pickled onion into the air and grabbed his eye, howling in mock cock-chopped agony. The pickled eyeball flew across the table and plopped into Ban’s pint, soaking his lap and dampening his spirits even further.
‘Oh fuck iew lot! I’m off for a fuckin shit!’
The boys pissed themselves laughing, throwing beermats at Bans as he stormed across the stained and scuffed clubhouse floor.
Bans sat on the toilet, his trousers round his ankles, his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. Like an angry comic-strip character, steam rose from his body. The toilet was technically outside, even though it was linked to the main function room. The off-white tiles would sweat constantly and the only light was a fizzing fluorescent strip above the sink. The wire-meshed window opened about an inch if you were lucky, before hitting the bars on the outside, but if you had to open it at all, it meant someone had baked a good enough stench in there to warm the room. Then the rancid toilet was best avoided, since the stench was such that you wouldn’t even last long enough to piss, rendering the toilet out of action for health and safety reasons.
Bans had been trying for two years to break through into Aberreba’s First XV but his position (tight-head prop), was coveted by Gambo. He knew what the boys had been saying was right but he didn’t want to admit that it was so obvious. Gambo was taller, broader, heavier and generally better than him. Bans wanted to be a serious rugby player yet he knew that it would take a hell of a lot more than extra training to be able to shift Gambo from the cornerstone of the Aberreba pack. But he’d be buggered if he was ever going to play for another team. There was only one other team near enough to play for and they were too near by half. Glyngelyn. He’d have to move away, change his name and his accent if he ever considered playing for them. Sworn local derby rivals and geographical enemies at approximately three miles down the valley. Absolute bastards. Filthy, stinking thugs who couldn’t play tidy rugby so they’d resort to dirty tactics, off-the-ball cheap shots and mind games. They wore illegal studs so they’d draw blood when they stamped all over you in the rucks and then there were the high tackles, the sly digs in the scrum and their habit of whacking you in the bollocks whenever they ran past you. They’d key your car on the way to a match and try to shag your missus afterwards. And they made a point of never saying thank you to Moira up the club, when she served them their sausage and chips after the game. Of course, They say exactly the same things about Aberreba.
It was a rivalry born from decades of bi-annual local derbies. It started famously after a particularly tough match one weekend, the miners from Aberreba, on a rare occasion, got lost underground in the Twlldu Colliery and came up the shaft on the Glyngelyn side. Since everyone is black-faced underground they ended up slagging Glyngelyn off to the very men who played for Glyngelyn rugby football club.
Such rivalries have forever been fuelled by battles on the field for nothing but bragging rights settled with blood, muck and mucus for polished mantlepiece pride: The Pen-ôl Pick. Whichever side won the derby (by any means necessary), would be able to carry the coveted bronzed pickaxe back to their clubhouse, usually aloft through the streets of their hometown like celebrated heroes home from war.
The ‘by any means necessary’ tactic was usually appointed to specific marksmen who, with a certain skillset, could manipulate the outcome of a game based purely on single acts of courage and in most cases, self-sacrifice. These marksmen were known down the years as ‘characters’. Their courage was honoured locally by never looking them straight in the eye or sitting in ‘their’ seat at the club. Their self-sacrifice was recognised by a chronology of league statistics from penalties through to red cards and ultimately, lifetime bans from the game of rugby football. Although with the art of doctoring names in club contracts, a lifetime was never literal.
Framed photographs of local internationally-capped schoolboys, silky-skilled scrum-halves and side-stepping wing wizards covered Aberreba’s clubhouse, but those who were truly respected did not need their faces up on the nicotine-stained walls. They were ghosts of rucks and mauls, unsung champions of the early shower, those who would only need a nod or a wink as incentive to weave their magical thread of intimidation with just a hint of good old-fashioned violence. Giants like ‘Talking’ Tommy Stanley who would merely have to ‘have a talk’ with his opposite number and said player would have left the field before half time. Haydn ‘The Salmon’ Solomon: as the salmon would leap and leap up rivers and waterfalls, so opposition players would leap from rucks and mauls as if they had been overcome by the spirit of the striving shoals. Or Phil ‘The Dentist’ Moses, who did not make a living from removing teeth but was very adept at it. Nicknames bestowed on the cult heroes of grassroots foul play.
Among these men stood the primary reason Bans’ was adamant he was never chosen to play for the firsts. His link to a local legend: The man with no nickname, Glyn Jenkins. Glyn Jenkins wasn’t a big man but he had hands like shovels and a mind as sharp as a pickaxe. He was, literally, the special arm of Aberreba’s team from 1972-84. A genius of the discretionary dark arts. He could take down a star player in the blink (or rather, the gouge) of an eye, and find a way of taking the legs off an outside-half without even leaving the scrum. Referees suspected him of at least forty-eight unconscious men, twenty-seven broken bones (not including fingers), over a hundred broken noses and four, possibly five, unexplained absences of opposition players before kick-off. But his genius lay in the fact that he was never ever caught. Throughout those twelve years with Aberebba, no one actually saw him breaking a single rule of the game.
Glyn Jenkins invented the term ‘the covert clout’ in 1983, the same year that Sony invented the handheld camcorder, which would prove to be the catalyst to Glyn’s early exit from the game. Although every referee knew of Glyn’s penalty circumventing prevalence on Saturday afternoons, they were almost unanimous in their frustration at never catching him in the act. But one Saturday afternoon, at The Gwli, Aberebba’s home ground, the Sony Betamovie BMC-100P, poking out from behind the bushes at the back of the Kev’s Fish sponsored stand, did.
Every game Glyn Jenkins played during the 1983-84 season was recorded on tape. On a sunny afternoon in May, as the eagerly anticipated highlight of the season between Aberreba and Glyngelyn for the Pen-ôl Pick was about to kick off, the Welsh Rugby Union was handed a Betamovie video cassette. This video cassette contained a compilation of every suspicion they ever had of Glyn Jenkin’s infamous tactics. His guilt was grainy but undeniable. The home changing room received a knock on the door at 2.29 pm that Saturday afternoon and Glyn Jenkins never played another game of rugby.
He received three successive life bans for four full pages of sighting offences, not including copping off with one referee’s wife as she waited outside the changing rooms. The memory still rankles Aberreba players and supporters alike, as the loss that fateful afternoon was the end of their eleven-year unbeaten run against Glyngelyn. The Pen-ôl Pick has been begrudgingly handed back and forth like the village copy of Debbie does Dallas ever since.
Though rumour and inter-clubhouse committee gamesmanship accusations were levied against Glyngelyn, the film-maker remains anonymous to this day. Many suspect they may be in the WRU’s witness protection programme somewhere in north Wales.
Glyn took his exit from the game badly and couldn’t bring himself to return to the clubhouse, not even for a pint after the match. Cutting him from the game he loved was too much; the wound too deep. He returned only once, coaxed after a few beers to the summer disco where he met the woman he was to marry, Charlamaine Pugh. A few years later they had a son, Michael. Aberreba has a population of 1528, one road in and the same road out, one pub, one shop, a post office and a school. The boy, traditionally bored, as so many before him, was inevitably drawn to the social hub that was Aberreba RFC.
Nicknames are a badge of acceptance in bastions of physical and psychological dominions, and just like in the shower room, everyone is eventually compared. So they honoured a fallen soldier by initiating his offspring in the only way a small town rugby club knew how. Michael Glyn Jenkins would be passed the mantle of the eponymous ‘man with no nickname’ via a moniker that would have awaited his father, had he returned: Bans.
But this, to Bans’ constant despair, carried the burden of association in the eyes of every official. Even though Bans could not grow a moustache anywhere near the virility of his father’s and lacked the distinctive butter-wouldn’t-melt blue eyes, he was still unmistakably the man with no nickname’s son. Bans was constantly looked upon with questioning eyebrows raised by referees, as they checked studs before the match. They would be halfway through musing, ‘I’m sure I know you from somewhere…’ when the penny dropped and their attitude towards young Michael Jenkins was forever changed.
Some referees didn’t know his father. They were the matches Bans relished. Walking onto the field before kick off he’d feel like Maria at the start of The Sound of Music but as soon as he was recognised he wanted to cross the Alps in clothes made from curtains, to escape the sporting prejudice that would follow. Any foul play, collapsed scrum, high tackle, punch thrown, even swearing, Bans would be on the end of a long talk from the referee, which always ended in, ‘You’re just like your father.’
‘Ow Bans, guess wha?’ yelled Mugga as Bans shuffled back from the shithouse.
‘Dwn care, butt,’ said Bans
‘Yew fuckin will do, butt, when I telliw,’ said Mugga.
‘Gambo’s bust his leg.’ Mousey stole Mugga’s line.
‘’Av e?’ said Bans, still believing he was being taunted.
‘Aye, the fucking fucker’s fuckin fucked, but. Out. Full season. Op and everything, probly.’
‘Fuck off! Really?’ said Bans.
‘Where d’e do it to?’ asked Idwal.
‘Thasa best part’ said Mousey. ‘E done it inis worx van. N’guess aw––? John The Bastard pulled out on Bryn Hill and Gamb ad to swerve. Ended up smashin’ into a lamppost by Gill Gob’s house!’
John The Bastard was Glyngelyn’s gangly 6’6” second row forward. Not the brightest spark, in fact, more of a dull glow, but in the line-out was almost guaranteed to win the ball. He was like a kite with hands. John the Kite would have suited him better but nicknames are hardly ever given on attributing merits. His nickname wasn’t through chastising of his mother’s premarital sins, but through the incredulous dismay of the crowd watching his first derby match. Aberreba lost by a single point, scored through a last minute accidental drop-goal fluke by none other than the player formerly known as ‘Lanky’ John. For the first two hours after the final whistle he was John ‘The Jammy Bastard’, but beer breeds contempt and he soon became, simply, John ‘The Bastard’.
‘Aviw seen ‘im or is ’is bollocks again, now?’ Bans wanted to be sure.
‘No, tellin iw now, Gill Gobb just rung Glyngelyn’s clubhouse to try to claim compo off ‘em for a fucking Council lamp-post, daft twat.’ Mousey was too excited for simplicity. ‘She told ‘em John the Bastard was an even bigger bastard f’doin what his father shoulda done.’ He looked around, waiting for the inevitable question.
‘Whassat en?’ Idwal finally asked.
‘Fuckin’ pull out innit?!’ said Mousey before spluttering into high-pitched laughter.
‘Unlucky f’poor ol’ Gambo, mind,’ said Idwal. ‘But yew might be in witha shout now, Bans.’
‘Glyngelyn week Saturday and John will be in that fucking side. John the car swerving bastard, smiling that bastard smile of his,’ said Mugga.
‘Bastard’s gonna need a fuckin’ bodyguard,’ said Mousey, musing the possibilities of injuries.
‘Personal now, innit?’ said Idwal. ‘Yers yew chance, Bans boy.’
But Bans wasn’t listening. He was already there, scoring winning tries and scrummaging like a rhino as the crowd chanted his name.
Over the next few hours Bans drank as if they had already won the Pen-ôl Pick. The great Gambo-shaped boulder had rolled back down to the bottom of the hill and his Sisyphus-like struggle for a place in the Firsts was over.
By ten o’ clock a well-oiled Bans sat in the corner of the clubhouse like the cat that got the creamflow, when Bill Dennis, the Firsts’ coach, bald, twice-broken jaw with ears more cauliflower than cartilage, walked into the bar. He greeted everyone with his trademark of adding ‘Big’ to the start of everyone’s names – Big Ken, Big Id, Big Mugga – apart from Moira and the barmaids, they were always, ‘love.’
After noticing Bans he made a beeline, sat down next to him and began speaking to him fervently. The boys watched as Bans initially furrowed his brow and shook his head in acknowledgment of the severity of Gambo’s injury before nodding, beaming and then shaking Bill’s hand like he was wagging a tail. Bill pulled an approving jib and tapped him on the back.
Without hearing what was said, they all knew Bans had finally been asked to: ‘Step up’, ‘work hard’ and ‘Man for man, pound for pound’ prove his worth. His invite to the Firsts was finally here.
But now Bill moved in closer to speak to him, his eyes taking on the steely determination that had kept him coach for the last seven years. They would beat Glyngelyn, by any means necessary. So long as someone was willing to make the necessary sacrifices. He was giving Bans his own private pre-match speech, snarling and grinding his teeth as he spoke, passion flaring to contempt for the long standing rivals of the club.
But Bans’ high spirits appeared to ebb away as he listened. He was not engaging in the visceral battle cry of Bill Dennis. Instead his demeanour took on a slow transformation, a cold realisation that this personal triumph was not a sporting promotion but a successive legacy returning to haunt him. Bans had been tallying up a familiar record, taking the whistle blows and receiving the punishments of teammates’ penalties and match-time misdemeanours. It had not gone unnoticed. He had knocked out so-and-so, stamped on whatshisname and taken the consequence on the chin. Without realising, Bans had deluded himself to believing that his call up was for a display of improvement. He had become his father’s son.
Bans rose from his seat and shouted, violently shaking his head trying to deny the portrait that was being painted of him. Drunk and confused with emotion, he banged his fist on the table.
Bill pointed at Bans and then at the crest of the club above the bar and as the club quietly turned to listen, Bill looked him straight in the eye and said something slow and deliberate: ‘…It’s not always about you, it’s about the club.’
Wild-eyed, Bans took leave of his senses and picked up the jar of remaining pickled onions, veered around enraged and launched it at the crest. It shattered, cascading it’s contents across the room, tearing the wallpaper. Pickled onions pelted anyone unlucky enough to be near the bar and soaked the rest in vinegar. His chest heaving, he stood as the club fell silent, everyone staring at him.
He seemed to wake from the episode and was taken aback when Moira shouted from the bar, the inevitable sentence of any unwarranted violent behaviour at the clubhouse, ‘Bans, you’re Banned!’
Bans left and ran home down the gwli behind the club. The sun, almost setting above Aberreba, streamed over the terraced rooftops, illuminating the drystone details of backgarden walls, zink-roofed sheds and runner-bean-poled allotments. A mongrel terrier, mid-squat in the shadow of the chapel vestry, barked and scrambled out of Bans’ path just as a size ten dap left a perfect footprint in the dog’s steaming metaphor. As Bans ran, it slowly dawned on him that not only had he shamed himself and would have to wait for the committee to decide whether they would allow him back to the clubhouse, but his chances of ever playing for the Firsts were as shattered as the pickle jar.
As the boys watched his silhouette disappear down the gwli, one of the old stalwarts sipped his pint, ‘He’s nothing like his father.’
‘Just Like His Father’ is taken from Cawl by Siôn Tomos Owen, an anthology of short stories, poems, essays, and comics that will be published by Parthian in June 2016.
Siôn Tomos Owen was born and raised first language Welsh in the Rhondda Valley. After a BA in Creative Writing and Media at Trinity College Carmarthen, Siôn won the Tudor Bevan Bursary Award in 2007, was runner up in the Terry Hetherington Young Writers Competition in 2014 and 2013 for short fiction, won the Young Writer’s Prize in the Planet Essay Competition 2013 and was a specially commended in the Welsh Poetry Competition 2014. His writing has been published in a number of magazines and anthologies including Ten of the Best, Square, Nu, Nu2, Planet, Red Poets and Cheval. Siôn’s new documentary series Pobol y Rhondda starts on S4C at 9:30 on Thursday March 3rd.