Read Winners and Losers Online

Authors: Catrin Collier

Winners and Losers (5 page)

A large square table, covered by a dark green, fringed chenille cloth, dominated the centre of the room. It held a pink pressed-glass bowl filled with wrinkled winter apples. Eight, high-backed oak chairs were pushed tight beneath the table. A rexine-covered sofa and two matching chairs were grouped around a cast-iron, tiled hearth, its fire banked high with small coal. A glossy-leaved aspidistra stood on a small hexagonal table in front of a window hung with crisply laundered white net.

Joyce pulled a pair of green and gold brocade curtains across the nets. ‘Sit down.'

Ianto took one of the two easy chairs and Megan perched on the edge of the sofa, facing the fire and revelling in its warmth after the damp, freezing night air.

‘What wages are you offering, Mrs Palmer?' Ianto questioned briskly, when Joyce sat in the chair opposite his.

‘First things first, Mr Williams. I need to know if your daughter really wants the job and secondly if she's up to it.' Joyce looked intently at Megan. ‘It will mean living in and working long hours. I serve a first breakfast for the early shift at six in the morning and a last supper for the afternoon shift at nine at night. And even then, there are sandwiches to be cut for the men on overtime and nights. There'll be some time off during the day, but not much. And things being as they are at the moment, I won't be able to give you more than one afternoon off a week.'

‘I'm used to long hours and hard work, Mrs Palmer,' Megan answered resolutely.

‘I believe you are. Your uncle is a good man but he had quite a houseful between his brothers and his children. You did your own laundry?'

‘My uncle couldn't afford to send it out.' Megan's smile faltered when she thought of the bed linen and towels a lodging house full of policemen would generate, and that was without their clothes. Would Mrs Palmer expect her to wash those too?

‘Can you cook?'

‘Plain cooking, roasts, soups, stews, pastry, simple cakes and biscuits –nothing fancy.' Megan knotted her fingers. She was desperate to stay close to Victor but not enough to lie about her skills. She sensed that Joyce Palmer wouldn't be kind to anyone she had employed under false pretences.

‘My daughter has been keeping house for my brother-in-law for five years and he had no complaints,' Ianto said impatiently.

‘And you want the job, Megan?' Joyce ignored Ianto's testimonial.

‘My uncle is leaving for Canada tomorrow and he can't take me with him.'

‘I've heard.'

‘I'd like to stay in Tonypandy because I have friends here, and there aren't any other jobs going in the valley.' She and Victor had never seen any point in keeping their relationship secret. The whole town knew they were courting, including Mrs Palmer.

‘I own a hill farm in the Swansea Valley, Mrs Palmer. It's back-breaking work trying to scratch a living from rough grazing,' Ianto whined. ‘Megan has been sending a little home, not much, just enough to make a difference, but I've had nothing from her since the strike started. That's why I need to know what wages you'll be paying.'

‘If I took her on, Mr Williams, I would start her at fifteen shillings a week plus keep.'

‘Those hours and that work warrant at least a pound.'

‘If Megan proves suitable I will raise her wages to a pound a week after a month's trial. If she is unsuited to the work I will give her a week's wages in lieu of notice.' The tone of Joyce's voice made it clear that her terms were non-negotiable.

‘Please, Mrs Palmer, will you give me a trial?' Megan begged.

‘One month starting tomorrow,' Joyce affirmed unsmilingly.

‘My uncle and his family are leaving on the six o'clock train tomorrow morning. I would like to clean the house after everyone has gone. May I move in afterwards?'

‘You may, but the sooner the better.' Joyce left her seat at a tap on her door.

‘Just a couple more things, Mrs Palmer.' Ianto remained in his chair and held his hands out to the fire as if he were settling in for the evening. ‘I've brought Megan up to be a good Baptist -'

‘She will have time off on Sunday to go to chapel.' Joyce went to the door.

‘And I don't want her associating with riff-raff. No men and absolutely no Catholics.'

‘Your daughter is a respectable young woman, well regarded by everyone in the town, Mr Williams. I have no intention of monitoring her movements during her free time while she lives under my roof. So far as I am concerned she may go wherever she chooses and visit anyone she wishes.'

‘Are you a Catholic?' Ianto Williams enquired suspiciously.

‘My religion is my own affair, Mr Williams. But as it happens I am not.' Joyce opened the door at a second tap. ‘I will be with you in a moment,' she said to someone in the hall. ‘If there is nothing else, Mr Williams, I have a lodging house to run.'

Ianto sniffed at the dismissal but finally left the chair.

‘You are happy for your daughter to be working here, Mr Williams?' Joyce asked.

‘Why shouldn't I be?' Ianto pulled his cap from his pocket in readiness.

‘This is a lodging house for police officers. Given that they have been brought in to control the strike, there aren't many men in the Rhondda who would allow their daughters to work here.'

‘My family needs Megan's wages and from what I've seen of the miners, it's just as well that she will be living in a houseful of policemen, Mrs Palmer.'

Megan followed her father into the hall. Police Sergeant Martin was standing at the foot of the stairs talking to two constables. One she recognized as Constable Shipton, who had trodden on her dress and knocked down Betty Morgan in the town that afternoon. They all turned and stared at her.

Sergeant Martin was the first to break the silence. ‘We meet again, Miss ...'

‘Williams,' Ianto supplied. ‘Can I trouble you, sir, to tell me just how you know my daughter?'

Chapter Three

Joyce Palmer had never been so angry on behalf of another woman. Ianto Williams appeared to be looking to the police officers to confirm his worse suspicions about his daughter. But before the sergeant could enlighten him as to where and when he had met Megan, the door of the lodgers' sitting room opened and the doctor walked out in company with Sergeant Lamb. Both were grim-faced, serious.

‘I have arranged for Constable Lamb, the sergeant's brother, to be taken down to Cardiff Infirmary on the next train, Mrs Palmer. I have also sent for a brake to convey him to the station, it should be here any minute. Gentlemen, Megan.' The doctor acknowledged the officers, Megan and her father.

‘How serious are Constable Lamb's injuries?' Sergeant Martin asked.

‘He has a fractured skull, and his shoulders have been scalded.' The doctor glanced at Sergeant Lamb who remained silent.

‘But he will recover?' Sergeant Martin enquired uneasily.

‘The doctors in the Infirmary will find out more about his condition when he regains consciousness. I have sent for a second brake to convey Constables Jones and Pritchard to Llwynypia Hospital. Their injuries are comparatively minor. Scalds, bruising and exhaustion. However, I think everyone in Tonypandy is suffering from that last complaint, myself included. With rest and care they should be fit for duty again within ten days.'

‘And then the savages in this town can try to kill them all over again,' Sergeant Lamb declared venomously.

‘I am extremely sorry to hear about your brother, Sergeant Lamb,' Joyce Palmer sympathized. ‘I hope he will make a full recovery.'

‘As do we all. We'll find out who did this, Sergeant Lamb,' Sergeant Martin assured his fellow officer.

‘Do you wish to accompany your brother to Cardiff, Sergeant?' The doctor took the overcoat Joyce handed him.

‘We can cope without you for one night,' Sergeant Martin assured him.

‘You know things are looking ugly in the town and our officers are likely to be out all night again.'

‘We will cope,' Sergeant Martin reiterated.

Sergeant Lamb noticed Megan for the first time. ‘Good evening, Miss -'

‘You all seem to know my daughter?' Ianto interrupted.

‘Not in a professional capacity.' Sergeant Martin studied Ianto with a practised eye. ‘She was shopping this morning when we were patrolling the town, Mr Williams.'

‘Miss Williams will be working here, as my assistant housekeeper from tomorrow,' Joyce supplied.

‘I am glad to hear it, Mrs Palmer,' Sergeant Lamb observed caustically. ‘Perhaps once she starts we'll have no more cause for complaint about the slow and pathetic service in this house.'

‘I hope so, Sergeant Lamb.' Joyce's clipped reply fell just short of being discourteous. She opened the front door. ‘Goodnight, Mr Williams. I'll see you tomorrow, Megan. Will you need help to bring your things down?'

‘I'll manage, thank you, Mrs Palmer.' The drizzle had become a downpour but Megan was glad to leave the officers. She pulled her hood over her hat again and, ignoring the noise coming from Dunraven Street, turned up the hill.

‘You will send fifteen shillings a week home, starting next week,' Ianto Williams stipulated, as they ran through the rain. ‘If Mrs Palmer should up your wages next month you may keep the extra five shillings for yourself.'

‘Yes, Dad,' Megan answered mechanically, her mind in turmoil. The thought of living in the same house as Sergeant Martin, Sergeant Lamb, Constable Shipton and the other officers terrified her but she couldn't think of any other way she could remain in Tonypandy. And she simply couldn't bear the thought of leaving Victor.

‘And you stay away from that Catholic boy.'

‘I won't have much time to call my own, Dad.'

‘I need you to promise me that you won't see or contact him again.'

‘Tonypandy is a small town.' She tried to sound respectful. ‘I can't promise you that I won't see him.'

‘Think you're so clever, don't you? I warn you now, girl, your carrying on with him will lead nowhere. I was serious when I wrote that I'd rather see you dead than married to a Catholic.'

‘In a year and a half I'll be twenty-one -'

‘Marry him and you'll never see me, your mother or your brothers and sisters again. Your name will be counted among the dead in the family. It's your choice, girl.'

Megan's heart sank as she opened her uncle's front door. Although she hadn't seen her family in five and a half years, they all wrote to her from time to time and she still felt close to them. It would be a wrench to lose them. But she lifted her chin determinedly. A great deal could change in eighteen months. Possibly even her father's mind.

Sali was turning Welsh cakes on a griddle she'd heated on the hob when Megan and her father walked into the kitchen. A lightly sugared, steaming pyramid of cakes was piled high on Megan's largest meat platter. The bowl she'd used to mix the cakes in stood empty on the table.

‘I noticed that you had some flour and sugar in your pantry and we had leftover currants and sultanas, so I made a few cakes for your uncle and the children to take with them tomorrow.'

Megan's flour and sugar bins had been empty for over a month, and since the strike had begun there was no such thing as ‘leftover' dried fruit. But Megan was touched and grateful that Sali had taken the time and trouble to make the cakes because she suspected that her father wouldn't put his hand in his pocket to buy food for Sam and Daisy on the long journey to the farm. ‘Thank you, they'll appreciate it.' She shook the raindrops from her cloak and hung it in the passage.

Ianto folded his cap into his pocket, lifted half a dozen cakes on to a plate and crouched close to the fire to eat them.

‘Did you get the job?' Sali eased the last cake on to a spatula and flipped it on to the plate.

‘I start work in Joyce Palmer's lodging house tomorrow.' Megan closed the door behind her.

‘You're going to work for Joyce Palmer?'

‘And what's wrong with that, Mrs Jones?' Ianto demanded. ‘I have just been there and from what I saw, Mrs Palmer runs a clean and respectable house.'

‘She does,' Sali agreed hastily, responding to the pleading look in Megan's eyes.

‘I'll wipe that down and put it away,' Megan offered, as Sali slid the griddle from the hob and closed it.

‘Sam and Daisy are asleep and the other three came in an hour ago. I sent them straight to bed.'

‘Thank you for staying with them.'

‘No trouble.' Sali saw the concerned expression on Megan's face and realized she hadn't taken the job lightly. She picked up her cardigan from the back of a kitchen chair. ‘I'll be in first thing tomorrow to help you clean the house before you leave for Mrs Palmer's. Goodbye, Mr Williams, have a safe journey home. It was nice to meet you.'

‘Mrs Jones, are you a good friend of Megan's?'

‘I like to think so,' Sali replied guardedly. ‘Why do you ask?'

‘Can she spend her afternoons off with you?'

Realizing that Megan's father hadn't made the connection between her and Victor, Sali had difficulty keeping a straight face. ‘She is more than welcome to spend as much time as she likes with me, Mr Williams.'

‘Then it's arranged, Megan. You are to spend all of your free afternoons with Mrs Jones here.'

‘Yes, Dad.'

Not knowing whether Megan was trying to stop herself from laughing or crying, Sali gave her a reassuring hug. ‘Goodnight. See you in the morning.'

Betty Morgan turned down the wick on the oil lamp that burned on her kitchen table, opened the door and stole along the passage to her front parlour. She waited a moment for her eyes to become accustomed to the gloom before lifting the corner of her curtains and peering outside. The street gaped back at her, empty, quiet and glistening like tarnished pewter in the wet darkness. She dropped the curtain. ‘They've gone.'

‘You sure?' a muffled voice asked from beneath her parlour table.

‘The street's empty and I went out to the ty bach a few minutes ago to check the back and the lane. I can't be certain, but as far as I can see there's no one around.'

Joey lifted the edge of a heavy woollen cloth and scrambled out from under the table. ‘Thanks, Mrs Morgan. Did they get any of the others?'

‘Not that I or Mrs Rees next door have heard. I've just spoken to her over the wall. But that's not to say the coppers won't recognize you or the others the next time they see you and if they do they'll make your life hell.'

‘As opposed to the bed of roses Mr Morgan, my father and Lloyd are lying on.'

‘They've learned the hard way to keep a cooler head than you, Joey Evans, and that's why my Ned and your father keep a watchful eye on you youngsters when you man the picket lines. Take care of yourself, boy, and that means no going home through Jane Edwards' house. And don't go giving me that innocent look neither,' she advised tartly. Like everyone in the town, Betty knew Joey's reputation, but she'd watched him grow up and had a soft spot for him. ‘I've seen you creeping in and out of her back door a couple of times since her Emlyn was sent down. Your mother would turn in her grave if she could see the way her youngest was behaving. Mark my words; it'll only be a matter of time before someone else notices what you two are up to and when her Emlyn comes out of clink, you'll be for it.'

‘I don't know what I would do without you, Mrs Morgan,' Joey said smoothly.

‘You'd be playing punchbag for the coppers,' she pronounced sternly. ‘And it would be a pity to spoil those pretty looks of yours. But I'm telling you now, it's high time you stayed away from women who think nothing of making fools of their husbands and playing games that can only end in tears. Go find yourself a good, clean-living girl. Preferably one who knows how to handle a boy with your wandering ways.'

‘I've found one,' he kissed her cheek, ‘but you're spoken for, and there's no one else in the town who can hold a candle to you.'

‘None of your nonsense now.' She pushed him away.

‘I can take a hint. You're expecting Mr Morgan any minute and you want me out of your house.'

Betty stifled her laughter at the thought of Ned showing any signs of jealousy after forty-two years of married life. ‘You'd better go the back way, just in case.'

She led the way through the kitchen and opened the door. While she went into the ty bach, Joey vaulted her garden wall. He crouched low on his heels in the lane, studying the shadows. The rain had stopped and there was no sound or movement. He remained stock still for a moment then looked to a house two doors up from Betty's. The curtains were open in the back bedroom and a candle stub burned on the window sill. Moving close to the wall he crept towards the light.

The back door was unlocked, but then so was every door in the Rhondda except those of the shopkeepers and the crache. He walked through the basement and up the steps to the kitchen. Feeling his way in the darkness, he went into the passage and climbed the stairs.

‘What kept you?' Jane whispered.

‘How do you know it's me and not a bogglie?'

‘Because I watched you walk in through the back and you haven't said why you're late.' She kept her voice low although there wasn't anyone else in the house.

‘There was trouble in Dunraven Street. The police were chasing us and I had to hide until they stopped looking.'

‘I would have hidden you,' she reproached.

‘Betty Morgan's was nearer. Besides, there's gossip about us as it is.'

‘I don't care.' She moved over in the bed to make room for him.

‘You don't care if your Emlyn thumps me when he gets out?' Joey was alarmed by the thought. Emlyn might be over fifty but he was also a haulier, and battling pit ponies that balked at dragging heavily loaded trams had helped him develop muscles to rival Victor's.

‘Seeing as how he's spent as many nights with Rosie Green, the barmaid in the Pandy, as he has with me since we married, he has no cause for complaint. What's sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose.'

‘Is that all I am to you, sauce?'

She laughed as he pulled off the last of his clothes and climbed into the bed beside her. ‘You're cold.' She shrank away from him.

‘No, I'm not. You're too hot.'

‘You saying I need cooling down, Joey Evans?'

‘Just for a moment.' He dived under the bedclothes and lifted the hem of her nightdress to her waist. ‘Get this off and I'll demonstrate a different way to get warm.'

‘You will keep coming round after Emlyn gets out, won't you?'

‘If you can fit me in between the baker's boy and the milkman.'

‘You -'

‘We're here now, Jane. Let's make the most of it.' His fingers moved tantalizingly and expertly between her thighs. When he'd succeeded in rousing her, he took her nightdress from her hands, pulled it over her head and dropped it to the floor beside the bed.

‘Megan's father is leaving at three in the morning with the two youngest. Her uncle, the boys and his brothers are catching the six o'clock train; I told her I'd call round after they've gone to help her clean the house. She'd welcome another pair of helping hands if you're not due on the picket lines.' Sali set a cup of tea in front of Victor.

‘I wish she hadn't agreed to work for Joyce Palmer.' Victor sat hunched over the table.

Sali replaced the teapot on the metal stand and covered it with a knitted cosy. ‘You'd rather Megan left Tonypandy?'

‘No!'

‘Megan's only doing what the rest of us are,' she reminded him mildly. ‘Trying to survive until better times. She won't be nineteen for ever, Victor.'

‘From where I'm sitting it feels like it,' he complained miserably.

Other books

Jessica's Ghost by Andrew Norriss
Shades of Sexy by Wynter Daniels
La pista del Lobo by Juan Pan García
Mignon by James M. Cain
Sated by Charity Parkerson
Thread of Betrayal by Jeff Shelby