The Raging Summer
Extract from Chapter 6 – The Rose of Tahiti
Hurricane, Song of the Islands, South of Pago Pago. It was just that time of the boom in Hollywood movies all about the South Seas. Rose of Tahiti was the big picture showing down the Scala that week and Dai Chavez was wearing his bus-driver’s cap all squashed on the side of his head and with the poke of it jaunty, like he was the mate off a copra schooner just sailed into Dowlais Top.
Girls were wearing their hair like Dorothy Lamour and outlining their mouths with thick red lipsticks with names like Pagan Love Song, Tropic Kisses and Trade Winds.
So you can imagine what a stir the Rose of Tahiti caused when she got off the train at Rumni Miners Halt with the box lashed with rope on one shoulder. And with that long wavy black hair that was slightly crimped in Melanesian-looking waves and hanging long and heavy down her back. She even had a red rose tucked behind one ear.
It caused a sensation.
Angelo di Piccolo Graziani and his family had stepped off the train here one rainy day not long before the war, their big wooden boxes lashed with rope and stuck with Italian railway labels. Angelo had with him his small son Alberto and his daughter, the hippy red-lipped girl of eighteen with a hot mouth and love-sleepy eyes, her eyelashes languorous still from the heat of south Italian afternoon suns.
Her hair was the colour of black grapes, blue-black, with the sheen of summer to it, and her name was Angelica. She carried herself swinging-hipped, a warm fruit of the southern sun, ripe for plucking from the vineyards of old Calabria, where they had come from. Walking through the Rumni rain did nothing to damp the warm beauty of her as she and her father and brother came up the hill from the station.
‘Duw! Look at this, look at this.’ Open-mouthed miners in the queue waiting for the colliers’ buses to take them over on the afternoon shift to Ogiivy pit, stared at Angelica as the little family went by.
The Italian family came trudging up the hill from Rumni station. The father, carrying his own big wooden rope-lashed suitcase, had a face that was burnt black with sun and sombre eyes under the brim of his trilby hat. The girl walked behind him carrying her own box easily and holding the boy with her free hand.
Angelo Graziani had no wife. He was a widower. His family now was just the boy and the red-lipped daughter.
‘Duw, look at this. Rose of Tahiti they ought to call her. I never seen nothing like it, boys,’ Dai Chavez said. ‘She’s like something off the bloody pictures, aye. The Rose of Tahiti, that’s what they ought to call her, honest. Straight!
‘Duw, what I couldn’t do to this. What I couldn’t do to this, aye.’
Dai Chavez had started doing a bit of part-time driving on one of Wil Faen’s colliers’ buses. He was smoking quick nervous puffs of half a Woodbine and leaning back against the steaming radiator of his old bus, with one hand over the juddering brass starting-handle poking out from the radiator.
‘What I couldn’t do to this, aye. She’s like South of Pago Pago and the Rose of Tahiti all rolled into one here.’
There could be only one thing that an immigrant Italian family had come to do in South Wales: open a fish and chip shop.
They moved into a closed-down fruiterer’s store opposite the Puddlers Arms and Angelica’s red lips appeared again gradually as she washed the grime from the windows and the father painted Gloria Fish and Chip Saloon And Dairy Ices across the shop front in gold lettering. Lusting miners waiting for Wil Faen’s collier’s bus over to Grosfaen peeked through the windows hoping to catch sight of Angelica as she polished upstairs. Soon the hungermaking smells of frying chips came from sputtering pans and a small queue formed outside.
The women came with basins to fetch chips. The men came to see the gorgeous Angelica Graziani. She wore the red rose tucked behind one ear and though she and her father spoke little English, the looks she gave the colliers crowding in the queue for chips on a Saturday night said enough.
They were looks of pure enjoyable contempt. She came from that part of Calabria where the Mafioso live with their grim secrets in blue-shadowed mountain villages, a country district of vendettas and quick ice-burning murderous love knifings in the dark. She knew her extraordinary powers.
Chopping up peeled potatoes for chips on the scrubbed wooden counter of the Gloria fish and chip shop, Angelica would stare savagely back through the window at the men looking at her, and cram another round slippery potato under the iron sharp teeth of the chipping machine and scrunch the handle down, splattering wet starchy slivers of chips into the bowl she held in her other hand. Then with a gesture of the torturer of the Medicis, she would empty the chip-bowl into the sputtery pan of fat in the range and throw one glance over her beautiful shoulder at the faces at the window, the raw chips splashing, as if it was the hot burning fat of the fires of the Inquisition she had plunged them into, to enjoy the scent of burning flesh. And Angelica would lift the wire basket of sputtering chip-fat and rattle it warningly over her shoulder at the hot-eyed men in the doorway.
The men would crowd into the Gloria to be served plates of chips by Angelica at the scrubbed wooden tables in the backroom. Her swinging hips brushing everyone as she set the plates down with a bang. The hot looks from the men burned her face as she passed. One hand on her hips, the rose tucked in her grape-black hair, she would lean tantilizing back again on the far end of the counter. Even the oldest miners, coughing and haggard under the wheezy strains of their coal-dust silicosis, would narrow their eyes cunningly in the smoke of the Woodbines cocked in their mouths, watching those superior thighs as the Rose of Tahiti bent over a table, whisking chip-plates away and whipping her cloth over the table. The old miners would whisper with their Woodbines cocking up and down in their mouths: ‘D’you think you could get behind that tidy now?’
The Grazianis never mixed with anybody, never spoke much, only a halting word or two, enough to see them through serving ‘sis-penth of sheeps, two-penth of sheeps, sis-penth of sheeps, won veesh and sis-penth of sheeps,’ wrapping hot vinegary handfuls of Angelica’s chips in the Western Mail, the Echo and the Merthyr Express. Sometimes furious bursts of Italian and quarrelsome pans rang out from the back-kitchen, otherwise Angelo the widower and his daughter and small son were a lone crew in this alien place. And Angelica, hot and blowing her lovely hair from her eyes, would appear at the doorway and lean her Renaissance hips against the door-post on the street and turn a slow contemptuous smile on the colliers clomping by with their tin jacks under their arms on the way to work.
The morning after the Grazianis had arrived in Rumni, Dai Chavez had been eating a pennorth of chips and straddling the crossbar of his pushbike, balancing and stuffing chips in his mouth with one hand, the other on the handlebars, giving half-turns to the pedals forwards and backwards just to keep balance.
‘Duw, is bloody cruel, aye. That’s a fact.’ A sore hurting sound gritting through his teeth. ‘Is bloody cruel. Honest to Christ now, boys. I never seen nothing like it. Is bloody cruel, aye, that’s a fact.’
Dai Chavez was wearing his bus-driver’s poke cap all squashed up on the side of his head and he jingled his Dole money richly in his trousers’ pocket.
Dai had scrumpled up the vinegary fire-crisped last of the chips in two fingers into his mouth and threw the bag away.
‘Hey, senorita!’ Dai rode his pushbike up under the Rose of Tahiti’s window. Dai angled himself on the cross-bar. He rode backwards under the Gloria chip shop window and stood on the handlebars and threw a smacking kiss on the palm of his hand to Angelica. ‘Senorita!’
He cycled back up to us. ‘They say about these Italian bits they’re so hot-blooded they can’t do without it.’
Dai had been running his comb through his hair. The Cisco Kid, starring Cesar Romero, was the big draw as the ‘B’ picture down the Scala this week, and Dai couldn’t make up his mind if he wouldn’t rather look like the Cisco Kid. He was already trying to grow a thin Mexicanish moustache.
Dai’s hair shone in the morning sun like a newly-tarred road. He grimaced his Cisco Kid moustache up under his nose.
‘How’s my tash lookin’?’
‘Great,’ Alwyn Bopa told him. ‘I fancy she fancies you, Dai,’ said Alwyn Bopa just to encourage him, but he winked at the rest of us.
‘I fancy she do, you know that?’ Dai rode backwards up to the chip shop window. ‘Hey, senorita!’
The door of the Gloria fish and chip shop opened. The Rose of Tahiti came out, glorious in the sunlight.
‘Watch this, watch this, boys.’ Dai Chavez had angled his pushbike under him, rode twice round us, knelt up on the saddle and raised his two hands clasped above his head to show off.
Angelica swung her hips up towards us.
Seeing the Rose of Tahiti coming, Dai stacked the pushbike in Alwyn Bopa’s hands. ‘Here, look after this. I’ll only be about half an hour.’
Dai peacocked. He knelt down on the road to show Angelica his hair like the Cisco Kid, bending down and pretending to tie up his shoelaces.
The Rose of Tahiti reached him. From behind her back she swung an empty frying-pan that she’d been holding all the time; she caught Dai with it, the frying-pan ringing on his ear, and Dai fell scrabbling at the roadway.
‘Hey!’ Dai shouted. ‘Wassamarrer with you?’ Holding his hand to his ear trickling blood, he grabbed for his pushbike and bounded back into the saddle like the Cisco Kid. ‘She just bloody brained me.’ He shouted back over his shoulder at the Rose of Tahiti. ‘You want your bloody head read, boy!’
‘That’s frustration, that. That’s how it do take some of ‘em, you know,’ Dai explained to us afterwards as he was dabbing at his ear. ‘But she’s too much of a bloody good thing, man…’