Read Winners and Losers Online

Authors: Catrin Collier

Winners and Losers (7 page)

‘You know your own mind, I'll say that for you,' Billy smiled.

‘The example you and Mam set us, you can't blame me for wanting what you and she had.'

‘I was lucky.' Billy's eyes clouded as an image of his wife came to mind.

‘We all were.'

‘Stay there, I'll be back in a minute.' Billy left his chair and went into the front room. It had been a parlour before his wife had become bedridden with the cancer that had killed her. When she could no longer climb the stairs, he had moved their bed into it, and after her death continued to sleep there, simply because it was the last room they had shared, the place she had drawn her final breath, and where he still felt closest to her.

He opened the cupboard next to the bed and removed Isabella's jewellery box. When he lifted the lid, the faint scent of Attar of Roses wafted into the air along with the tinny music box notes of ‘Greensleeves'. Memories he'd tried to suppress because they were too painful to dwell on flooded back.

His mouth went dry, his breath caught in his throat and his heart pounded erratically, exactly as it had done the first time he had caught sight of Isabella Maria Rodriguez. She had been standing behind the counter of the grocer's shop that her uncle had opened in Tonypandy, a small, modest establishment his daughter Connie had since expanded out of all recognition.

He had never seen a woman as beautiful before – or since. Tall, slim, with skin the colour of clotted cream, deep blue-black hair and the almond-shaped, dark eyes she had bequeathed to their eldest and youngest sons. When she had smiled and asked what he wanted, he completely forgot about the tobacco he had intended to buy. His heart was lost.

He left ten minutes later with her permission to ask her father if he could call on her. Six months later they were married, at her insistence in the Catholic Church. But by then, he would have done anything that she had asked of him.

He had carved the jewellery casket for her to mark Lloyd's birth a year later. The musical movement had cost him dear, he'd had to send to a London dealer to get it. He could have bought one in Cardiff but they hadn't stocked ‘Greensleeves' and the first time he had set eyes on Isabella she had been wearing a green dress covered by a white overall ...

‘Dad? You all right?'

He looked up. Victor was watching him from the doorway.

‘I'm fine. Go back into the kitchen, I'll be with you in a moment.' Billy removed a small red leather ring box that lay on top of the pile of neatly stacked cases in the casket. He pushed it into his pocket, closed the lid and the music died.

‘You would want him to have it, wouldn't you, cariad?' he whispered.

A youthful Isabella, elegantly dressed in her summer Sunday best of white lace and wide-brimmed straw hat, smiled back at him from the silver-framed photograph that stood next to his side of the bed.

‘Of course you would,' he answered for her.

He returned to the kitchen, walked over to Victor, picked up his hand and dropped the ring box into it. ‘You might not be able to marry Megan without her father's permission but given that he's over forty miles away, he doesn't have to find out that you are engaged. And once Megan's seen around town with that on her finger, there'll be no doubt as to whose girl she is. Given your size and our family's reputation for straight talking I doubt too many people will dare say much to her face about working for the police.'

Victor opened the box. ‘Mam's engagement ring ... I couldn't ...'

‘It's not doing any good shut away.' Emotion made Billy brusque. He hadn't seen the gimmel ring, with its two gold hands clasped around a single heart-shaped diamond since the day Isabella had asked him to remove it together with her wedding band from her finger. She had lain back on the pillows and watched him stow them in the casket. He could even recall her wan smile and the light in her eyes when she had said,
‘Keep them with the rest of my jewellery for our sons' wives, or even, with God's blessing, our granddaughters.'

‘But Lloyd's the oldest, he should have this,' Victor protested selflessly.

‘Sali doesn't want an engagement ring, only a wedding band, and I've already told him that she can have your mother's.'

‘There's Joey.'

‘If he ever goes out with a girl for longer than a week he can give her your mother's regard ring.'

‘Her what?' Victor asked in confusion.

‘Regard ring. I gave it to her a month after we started courting. They were all the rage then. Come to think of it, I haven't heard anyone mention them in years. They were called regard rings because they were set with stones in a flower pattern that spelled out the word regard.' He frowned with the effort of remembering. ‘A ruby, emerald, garnet, amethyst, another ruby and a diamond. Most of the boys I worked with bought their girls ones set with fake stones. My landlady called me a fool for emptying my bank account to buy your mother the real thing but I knew the first time I saw her that we were meant to be together.'

‘Like me and Megan.'

‘You loved her the first time you saw her?'

‘Yes, but she was thirteen, I was nineteen, and she preferred Joey. It took years for me to tell her how I felt. This is beautiful.' Victor lifted the gimmel ring from the box and held it to the light.

‘I hope it fits, but if it doesn't you should be able to have it altered. When you can afford it,' Billy added drily. ‘And you can tell Megan from me that your mother would have been proud to see her wear it.'

Victor watched his father walk to the door. Was it his imagination, or had he aged? His back was bowed and there was an expression in his face that went beyond simple tiredness. ‘If you're sure about giving me this ...'

‘I'm sure.' Billy went into his bedroom, closed the door and checked the curtains were tightly drawn before unbuttoning his jacket and waistcoat. Of his three sons, Lloyd had been the most ambitious. His desire to better himself had won him a place in mining school to study engineering and it irked colliery management to have a man of Lloyd's intelligence and status side with the strikers against them. Victor had always been the fairest; even as a child he wouldn't eat a cake or sweet unless his brothers had been given exactly the same share. And Joey –Joey had always been the wild one. It hadn't escaped his attention that it was after midnight and his youngest son hadn't come home. He only hoped he was with a woman and not in a police cell.

Chapter Four

Victor remained in the kitchen long after his father went to bed. Oblivious to the temperature, Joey's absence and the sounds of the house settling around him, he continued to sit, lost in imaginings of what Megan and his life would be like, not ‘if' but when they married.

He knew that if he asked him, Lloyd would happily exchange the house he'd rented to Megan's uncle for one of the others their father had bought. It had the double advantage of being furnished and next door to his family. He pictured himself living there with Megan, coming home from the pit after a day's work when the strike was settled, bathing in the cellar, walking up the steps into the kitchen to find her presiding over the stove, the appetizing aroma of roast meats and baking in the air. They would spend quiet evenings sitting by the fire: he would be reading, or carving something from wood, a love spoon or a toy for one of their children; she'd look up from her sewing and ...

The door opened and Joey strode in. ‘What are you doing up?' He made a beeline for the pantry. When Victor didn't answer, he said, ‘I've decided to go off to Canada with the others in the morning.' He emerged with just one of Sali's oatmeal biscuits. He was ravenous, but since the strike he had learned to curb his appetite.

‘What?' Victor murmured absently, finally focusing on Joey as he sat in their father's chair.

‘That got your attention, didn't it?' Joey grinned. ‘God, it's bloody freezing in here.'

‘Don't swear and don't blaspheme.' Victor glanced at the clock. ‘Where have you been?'

‘Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no lies.'

‘Joey, you're begging for trouble. One day an irate husband or father is going to cripple you.'

‘I'm careful,' Joey boasted.

‘No, you're not. You're the talk of Pandy.'

‘At least I do something about my women, unlike you.'

‘And what's that supposed to mean?' Victor demanded touchily.

Unlike the rest of the family, Victor's temper was slow to rise and even slower to fall. Joey dropped his bantering tone.

‘Big day tomorrow. If you're going to be up early to wave goodbye to Megan, shouldn't you be in bed?'

‘Megan's not leaving in the morning, she's taken a job in Joyce Palmer's.'

‘She what?'

‘She needs a job and it's the only one going.' Victor closed his fingers around the ring box in his pocket.

‘That's not going to go down too well with the people around here.'

‘The people around here are going to have to get used to it. One word out of line to me –or Megan –and I'll thump whoever said it.'

‘There's no need for you to look at me like that. All I did was point out what's going to happen. You know what people are like, and I can tell you something for nothing now. The women will be the worst, and you can't thump them.'

‘I can thump their husbands.'

‘You'll end up fighting every collier in this valley.' Joey finished his biscuit and left the chair. ‘You can sit up all night if you want to, I'm whacked.'

‘Who is she, Joey?'

‘Who's who?' Joey lit a candle stub from the oil lamp on the table.

‘Your latest woman. She has to be married or you'd be flaunting her around the town.'

‘No one you know,' Joey lied.

‘When are you going to see sense and learn to leave the married ones alone?'

‘They're the best.' Joey arched his eyebrows. ‘Ardent, experienced and no expectations beyond a good time, which I am happy to supply.'

‘One day someone could be saying that about your wife.'

‘Never.' Joey opened the door. ‘She'll be too worn out fulfilling my demands. And far too satisfied even to look at another man.'

‘I don't envy her trying to keep you in line, whoever she'll be.' Victor rose to his feet. He'd been sitting longer than he'd thought and the cold had seeped into his bones. He turned down the wick on the oil lamp and followed Joey out through the door.

‘Whoever she will be, she won't have to do anything for a while. It'll be a long time before I stop dipping into the variety box and settle for just one biscuit.'

‘One day you'll fall for a woman and you'll fall hard, Joey. And I can't wait to see it happen,' Victor whispered as he followed him into their bedroom.

Sali dropped the bundle of linen and blankets she'd stripped from Megan's bed next to the piles of laundry in the passage. ‘That's the last of the bedding. I'll take it next door and wash it when we next light the fire in the basement.'

‘It will have to be a fine day.' Megan gazed at the massive heap. ‘I feel guilty about leaving you with it.'

‘Don't. Your uncle told Lloyd he could keep whatever was left in the house. It may be easier to rent it furnished. When the strike ends.' Sali tried not to think when that might be.

Victor opened the front door and saw the bundles. ‘Want me to carry these next door for you?'

‘Please. Stack them in the basement.' Sali glanced from Victor to Megan and rolled down her cardigan sleeves. ‘If you don't need me for anything else, Megan, I'll take Harry to school and go from there straight to the soup kitchen.'

‘I can finish up what's left. Thank you for your help, I couldn't have managed without it.' Megan watched Victor follow Sali out of the door and returned upstairs to check the empty bedrooms. With the china washed and stacked on the washstands, and the wardrobes, dressing tables and mattresses shrouded in dustsheets, the rooms had a deserted air. As if the occupants had moved out years, not minutes ago.

She went into each room in turn, closing the doors behind her. Leaving her own room until last, she lifted the suitcase she had packed from behind the door, carried it downstairs and left it in the passage. The last of the bundles of linen had gone. She opened the parlour door. The room was freezing, the mantelpiece devoid of ornaments, the square of carpet gone, the furniture covered.

Her father had asked her uncle if he could take a few things back with him for the children. To her amazement, he had slipped the driver of the donkey cart an extra shilling to pick him and the children up outside the house and Megan was certain that even her uncle was shocked when her father's ‘few things' included all the linen in the house that wasn't actually on the beds, the everyday as well as the good china, the kitchen clock, saucepans, cutlery and all the rugs and carpets.

She closed the door and looked in on the middle room where her uncle's brothers had slept. The bed was stripped, the frame and mattress shrouded in dustsheets just like upstairs. Sali had done wonders in the hour she had helped her. There was only the kitchen and the basement left and neither needed much clearing.

‘Half the town was waiting outside the station to see your uncle's family off.' Victor was watching her from the passage.

‘He insisted on saying goodbye to me here.' Her eyes were unnaturally bright when she turned to face him.

‘I'm yours until you have to go to Mrs Palmer's, What do you want me to do?'

‘There's not much left. Sali did most of the work that needed to be done.' Megan went into the kitchen, took the brass fire tongs from the set of fire irons and started picking out the still warm coals from the fire she had raked out.

‘Here, I'll do that for you.' Victor laid his hand over hers and took the tongs from her.

‘Thank you. I can get on with the dusting.'

‘No, Megan.'

‘The place needs dusting -'

‘No one is queuing up to rent the place and they won't be until the strike is settled. It can be dusted then.' He dropped the last piece of salvageable coal into a tin bucket.

‘I'll clean out the pantry, then. Oh no ...'

‘What's the matter?' He jumped up.

She emerged holding a tiny handkerchief embellished by an embroidered daisy. ‘I made this for Daisy's last birthday. She took it everywhere with her. She must have dropped it when I sent her into the pantry to fetch one of the packets of Welsh cakes Sali made.'

‘It's small enough, you can send it to her in an envelope.' He wrapped his arms around her and handed her his own handkerchief.

She wiped her eyes and blew her nose. ‘All I've done since I got out of bed this morning is cry. It's so stupid ...'

‘No, it's not. Your life here is over and you don't know what's coming next.'

‘I didn't have a chance to talk over the job with you.' She looked up at him through tear-stained eyes. ‘My father wanted me to go home with him, but not to stay. He said he was going to take me to a hiring in Brecon next week. I couldn't bear the thought of being so far away from you. And he and my mother can't manage without the money I send them. Joyce is paying me the same as my uncle to start, so I can give them fifteen shillings a week. If there had been another job I would have -'

‘Megan! Megan!' He had to repeat her name twice before she fell silent. ‘You did the only thing you could have. I wouldn't have wanted to carry on living in Tonypandy without you.'

‘Then you're not angry with me?'

‘When Sali told me that you were going to work for Mrs Palmer last night, I talked it over with my father.' He reached into his pocket. ‘I would have liked to have given you this somewhere romantic and memorable, like the Old Bridge in Pontypridd or the walk alongside the river, or even on top of the mountain. But I want you to have it before you start in the lodging house.' He opened the small box. The diamond ring glittered in the lamplight on its bed of dark velvet. ‘It was my mother's. My father told me to tell you that she would have been proud to see you wear it.'

‘But my father -'

‘We both heard him yesterday, Megan, and frankly, I'd rather not discuss what he said. Your family are over forty miles away. They don't have to know that we're engaged. And we are, aren't we? You will marry me just as soon as you are twenty-one?'

Megan thought of her father's pronouncement that he'd rather see her dead than married to a Catholic, his threat to count her name among the dead in the family if she did marry Victor when she came of age. But as she looked from the ring into Victor's gentle, grey eyes she felt she had no choice. She loved him and she could never give him up. Not even for her family. ‘Yes, I'll marry you,' she breathed headily.

‘The day after your twenty-first birthday will be the twenty-fifth of August nineteen twelve.'

‘That seems a long way off.'

‘It will pass soon enough,' he said, as much to reassure himself as her. ‘And in the meantime I'll see you on your days off.'

‘Not days, only afternoons, but Mrs Palmer said I might have some time off in between.'

‘It won't be as good as having you living next door, but you'll only be around the corner and we'll just have to make the most of whatever free time you do have.' He locked his arms around her waist and hugged her. ‘Like now.' Pulling her close, he kissed her, long and lovingly.

‘I can't believe we're really engaged,' she said when he released her.

‘Now you've said yes, I'll never let you go. You do know that?'

‘Yes.' Her smile was tearful, but this time they were tears of happiness.

‘Let's see if this fits.' He took the ring from the box and slipped it on to her finger. ‘It's a little tight.'

‘It's perfect because I won't lose it.' She pushed it firmly down on to her finger.

‘I confess I have another reason for giving you this now. I don't want you going off with one of those policemen.'

‘As if I would.' She recalled the way the sergeant had looked at her in the shop and in the house last night and shuddered.

‘You're cold?'

‘No.' She looked up at him and smiled. ‘I'll wear it every chance I get, and thread it on the chain you gave me for my birthday and hang it around my neck when I'm working. And every time I look at it, I'll think of you and the twenty-fifth of August nineteen twelve.'

Victor finished cleaning the stove, and carried the sticks, newspapers and the remainder of the coals through the basement into the coalhouse he had filled only the day before. Deciding that he –or Joey, if he could bully him could ferry the coal into their coalhouse next door, he swept the basement floor, checked the garden and ty bach, closed the doors behind him and returned upstairs.

Megan was sitting, dressed in her cloak and hat. She looked at the spot where the clock had hung until her father had taken it that morning. ‘What's the time?'

Victor removed the watch he had been given by parents to mark his twenty-first birthday from his waistcoat pocket and opened it. ‘A quarter past seven. Would you like to come next door? The fire is laid. All I have to do is put a match to it and we could have tea.'

‘I told Mrs Palmer I would be with her as early as I could and I'd rather find out what I've let myself in for now than sit around worrying about it.'

He picked up her case. ‘I'll carry this for you.'

‘I never expected to see this house empty. My uncle's family have seemed like mine for so long, I thought I'd remain with them until I –we –married. And even then I imagined living close by, watching Daisy and Sam grow up.'

‘You'll see them again.'

‘You really think so?'

‘Daisy and Sam certainly,' he said brightly. ‘And who knows, if your uncle makes his fortune he could come back here in style some day. Rent the best rooms in the White Hart, and shower you with gold and Indian headdresses.'

‘You've been reading too many adventure stories about the Wild West.' She stared at the carver chair at the head of the table, the benches that ran down both sides, and saw her uncle's family sitting, as they done so many times, laughing and talking as they waited for her to serve them a meal. But that would never happen again ...

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