Authors: Sian James
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Poetry Wales Press Ltd
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Wales, CF31 3AE
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To Anna, Dan and all their pretty brood
It was ten o'clock, a Tuesday morning in late September. I was standing outside my mother's cottage, savouring the weak sunshine and remembering my childhood, the first days at school, walking reluctantly down the track, turning every few steps to wave to my mother standing where I now stood, the smell of autumn, the nip in the air, the blood-red berries, hips and haws, in the thinning hedges, a gulp of fear as I rounded the bend and could no longer see her. There'd been a strong bond between us, not surprising, really: an only child, an absent father.
About to turn back into the house, I saw someone coming up the lane towards me and waving â a postman pushing a bike, no, a postwoman. I stayed at the door.
âHello,' the woman said. âKate, is it? We were all so sorry to hear about your poor mother. When is the funeral? We'll all be there. Everyone had a good word for your poor mother, and she seemed so well at the moment. I'm Lorna Davies, by the way. I feel I've known you for years, your mother told me so much about you. Whenever I had a letter for her she used to make me come in and listen to your latest exploits. You and I are the same age, it seems. Forty-three last spring, is it? Is that right?'
âCome in and have a cup with me,' I said, smiling a little wanly. I hadn't yet found it necessary to lie about my age, but realised that I still thought of myself as thirty-something. Forty-three last spring, I told myself firmly. It seemed a time for facing all sorts of unpalatable truths.
âNo, please, I was about to put the kettle on. I haven't had breakfast yet. Had a bad night and slept late.'
âNo need to make excuses. I know about you actresses. Parties all night and up at midday. Well, I won't say no. The tea is in that tin on the mantelpiece. No, the blue one with peacocks. Shall I make up the fire while you get yourself some toast? No, I won't have any, thank you. A digestive biscuit, I usually have. The square tin with the Queen Mother. I can't stay long at the moment, but my mother-in-law would come up and help a bit, you know, a bit of baking and so on. A cup of tea and some cake in the vestry is all people expect these days, perhaps some sausage rolls and slices of quiche, no need for any fuss. My mother-in-law would be glad to see to it all if you don't feel up to it.'
âNo, I don't feel up to it,' I said, sitting at the table and frowning at the toast I'd made which was too crisp, and black and frilly at the edges.
âThe marmalade is in that little cupboard, look. And margarine in the fridge, the butter'll be too hard. How long can you stay? Have you fed Arthur this morning? The cat, girl. He hasn't been in? Oh, he's grieving. They do, you know. He might be down Tan-y-Bryn way. Gwenda Rees will feed him with hers. Lovely cup of tea â I like it good and strong. But don't let him stay there too long. He's an indoor cat, Arthur, and the farm cats will torment him. I must go now. My mother-in-law will be up this afternoon. Maggie Davies, she is, Mrs Tudor Davies when she's trying to impress. Only a little word: don't let her take over. You say exactly what you want. She'll do what you tell her as long as you're firm. Look, why don't you phone Gwenda and ask her to fetch Arthur up? No trouble for her, she's got a car of her own, and he'll be company for you. Nice cat. I'll tell you what, I'll call in on Gwenda, she's a friend of mine, and tell her you're a bit moithered at the moment. No, don't come to the door, I'll let myself out.'
She's gone. A good, wholesome woman with a square jaw and big hips. The salt of the earth. And a voice to fill the Albert Hall. It's the great open spaces that give you a voice like that. Mine used to be as good, but I've become cityfied and refined.
Oh God, this is going to be even worse than I thought. Grief is one thing, but I hadn't reckoned on funeral bakemeats. I've been away too long. Oh God, I've got to pull myself together and see the minister this afternoon to choose hymns and so on. Which were her favourite hymns? I've no idea. Was she religious? Not as far as I know, though she never liked it when I spoke up for the devil.
I didn't have an easy childhood. Easy? What am I talking about? We're facing the truth, here. It was hell.
The earliest memories. Going back and back.
My mother screaming and throwing herself about even as my Auntie Jane held her. âDon't you worry, bach. Your mummy's got a nasty pain, but she'll soon be better. You go back to bed, bach. I'll come up in a minute to tuck you in again. As soon as she's better.'
Screaming, screaming, screaming. Because my father had left her. âYour daddy's had to go away, bach.' And because of the thing in the chamber pot. The thing Auntie Jane poured into the enamel bucket and tried to hide. âOnly blood clots, bach. Because your mummy's had a very bad stomach ache and that happens sometimes. Now, don't go and worry your mummy about it because she's having a little sleep now and it will do her good. Oh, she'll be better in no time at all. I'll make you some chips for your dinner. All right? Yes, you'd like that, I know, and
Listen with Mother
on the wireless after.'
Auntie Jane was my great-aunt, my mother's aunt, though only about ten or twelve years older. Life was bearable when she was with us, but she couldn't come too often because she had a farm and children of her own â big rough children who swooped about on bikes â and a demanding husband. I remember that word, âTed is so demanding,' she'd tell my mother, âTed wants more than I've got. And he's getting mean as well in his old age. He begrudges me every shilling.'
âYou bring too much up here,' my mother would say, suddenly calm and wise. âHe can't support two families.'
âDon't you stick up for him. Never stick up for a man, Miri. He's mean to the bone. If he won't be able to do someone down in the mart tomorrow, he'll take it out on us. I have to tell the lads to keep out of his way. Don't you marry a farmer, Kate, whatever you do. Remember what I say. Now, you're not to fret, Kate, because I've got to go. Your mummy's going to be much better soon. She cries because your daddy had to go away, bach. But it's not your fault, Kate. You keep telling yourself that. And remember, if you say you want a cup of tea and some bread and butter, then your mummy'll have some as well. You take care of her, bach, because she's had a hard time. But she's getting better every day. And I'll be up again next week.'
Why had my father left us? Forty years on â yes, forty years â and I'm still not absolutely sure. Even now, I know very little about him, hardly anything. There was once a photograph on the dresser, a wedding photograph, but it was taken away. I suppose Auntie Jane took it away.
When I was sixteen, full of self-confidence, my life opening up, I pressed my mother for any information she might have. I only knew his name, Philip Rivers, and that he'd worked in a bank in the nearby town. Was he English, as his name suggested? Where had he come from? Was he still alive? Did he have a family? I wasn't sure I wanted to find him, he'd caused us too much anguish, but I wouldn't have minded grandparents, cultured people perhaps, with a house called âThe Old Rectory' or âThe Malt House' with a library and a garden with a stream, like the people in the books I read.
âWhy are you interested in him?' she asked harshly. âHe's never sent us any money, he's never been in touch, never shown a moment's interest in either of us. Let him go.'
âPerhaps he cheated the bank. Perhaps he had to disappear.'
âYes, your Auntie Jane thought of that. She got Haydn Williams, your Uncle Ted's solicitor, to make enquiries, but there was no sort of trouble. He'd even given them a month's notice, saying he'd got a job in an accountant's office in North Wales. The staff had collected for a leaving present, a glass biscuit barrel, the manager said it was.'
âDid the solicitor contact the accountant's office?'
âHe hadn't given them an address. But Haydn Williams put adverts in all the North Wales papers asking for information about him â it cost your Uncle Ted plenty â but there was no reply. No clues to follow. Nothing.'
I lowered my voice. âDid you quarrel much?'
âWe never had a quarrel. Not once.'
âBut you must have suspected that things were... well, not as they should be between you.'
âI didn't suspect anything. No one did. There wasn't any gossip about him and some other woman, either. Not as far as your Auntie Jane could discover and she talked to everyone, the girls at the bank and the women at the Gwalia where he sometimes had his lunch. No one had anything to say about him. Only that he was always polite, always quiet.'
âYou must have contacted his parents?'
âHe didn't have any parents. He was a Barnardo's boy from up Wrexham way, I thought you knew that â I thought your Auntie Jane would have told you that. Rivers was a name they gave him at Barnardo's. That's why I wanted you to go back to Williams when you went to big school, but you didn't choose to.'
âI'd got used to Kate Rivers by that time.'
âThey gave them tidy names at Barnardo's, I will say that. Hill and Field, Bridges and Forest. Nature names. Anyway, you'll change your name when you get married and that will be soon enough, I dare say.'
âWhy should I get married? It didn't do much for you.'
I was hard when I was sixteen, resenting all the hardship I'd suffered.
I can't ever forget the screaming; that was the worst part. The way she flung herself from side to side even when Auntie Jane was holding her. I've used that scream in so many parts â Hester in
The Deep Blue Sea
, Bertha in
, Constance in
. It seems callous, I know, but you have to make use of everything. I'll even be watching people at the funeral, I know I will, noting their backs, straight or slumped, the little furtive glances in my direction, and who's that man at my side, the chapel clothes, not necessarily black these days, but dauntingly respectable, the lace handkerchiefs dabbing at the eyes and the corners of the mouths.