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The television picture was grainy and indistinct, but still the image of jar upon jar of severed body parts made Beth Williams shiver. ‘Did they really need to show that?’ she murmured half to herself.
The scene changed to an outside shot of a handcuffed young man, his head lowered, almost shyly, as he walked between the two police officers, the camera following them to the waiting squad car, lingering on it until it drove off and disappeared from view.
‘But thank God they’ve caught him at last.’ She turned toward the bed. ‘They’re already talking about him going down in history as the most famous serial killer since Jack the Ripper.’
‘Famous?’ The old man lay motionless against the hospital pillow. For days he had been drifting in and out of consciousness, barely clinging to life, but now a little of his old spark seemed to return. ‘That’s an odd choice of word.’
‘Serial killers are big news these days, Jimmy.’
James Jimmy Hawkins looked up at the TV screen. ‘They always were,’ he said as the presenter’s face was replaced by a series of black and white photographs showing Victorian London; the streets and alleyways of Whitechapel finally dissolving to show a close-up of a dead woman’s face, taken from the foot of the plain wooden coffin in which she lay.
Beth followed his gaze. ‘I guess so. It’s strange – I’ve always thought the world was a nicer, safer place back in your day.’
The photograph of the dead woman gave way to another, her rounded features relaxed in death, then another, and still another, this one more horrific, the naked body hanging from mortuary hooks in the same way that dead gunslingers had once been displayed, the savage mutilations to the woman’s face and torso clearly visible. Then, lastly, a photograph showing the interior of a room. It wasn’t a good photograph, too much contrast made it hard to discern the true subject, so it was several seconds before Beth realised she was looking at the grotesquely mutilated body
of a young woman. She wanted to look away, but there was something so horribly compelling about the image that she reached for the volume control instead.
‘… And culminating in the murder of Mary Jane Kelly in the early hours of November ninth, 1888.’ The presenter reappeared, looking stern as he stared out of the screen. ‘Despite killing five women, Jack the Ripper was never caught – and to this day his identity remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries. Thankfully, following today’s arrest, the same will not be said about…’
Beth lowered the volume again and crossed to the bed, looking down at her patient. His eyes were closed once more, and he lay so still that she instinctively felt for his pulse. It was weak, but it was there, and she felt a wave of relief.
For two weeks the old actor had clung on, and in that time she had grown closer to him than she should have allowed. It was unprofessional and she knew it – but in a city where yesterday was ancient history, who else would spare the time for a forgotten old man whose hey-day had been in the silent era. ‘Sleep well, Jimmy,’ she said.
The television news programme had begun showing photographs of the shy-looking young man’s victims: colour snapshots of smiling faces, a chilling twenty-seven in total. Beth shook her head. ‘I think the world was a safer place back in your day, Jimmy,’ she sighed. ‘Even the infamous Jack the Ripper only killed five.’
In the stillness of the room, the murmured reply was barely audible. ‘Three,’ he said, before slipping into unconsciousness once more.
Frankie Stoweski was mopping the floor in the hospital reception area as Beth came on duty the following morning. ‘Hi, Frankie,’ she smiled. ‘How’s it going?’
He grinned. ‘Bad. Real, real bad. It’s going to end in bloodshed.’
‘Doesn’t it always?’
‘Not always – but this guy Nero is really asking for it.’ He pulled a heavy book from the cleaning cart and handed it to her. ‘Did you know he used to go out at night, dressed as an ordinary Joe, and attack people – just for the heck of it. Wouldn’t surprise me if he hadn’t killed even more people
than this guy they’ve just arrested.’
Beth looked at the book. ‘The Roman Empire?’ she said, handing it back to him. ‘I thought you were still working through the civil war?’
‘No, finished that last week.’
She laughed. ‘How on earth do you remember all this stuff you read?’
‘Don’t know. Just got that kind of brain, I guess.’ He shrugged, put the book back on the cart, and picked up the mop. ‘So how’s it going with that new boyfriend? What was his name? Richard? Still certain he’s the one?’
‘Uh-uhhh,’ she grinned. ‘He just needs a little more convincing that I’m the one.’ She made to leave – then paused. ‘Frankie? You ever read anything about Jack the Ripper?’
‘Oh, nothing, really. I was just wondering… do you happen to know how many people he killed?’
‘Good question,’ he said, looking thoughtful. ‘Most people say it was five. The first was a woman called Polly Nichols.’ He began counting them off on his fingers. ‘Then… let me see… Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Katherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly. I’m pretty sure that’s the right order.’
‘But you say that only most people think it was five – so it might have been fewer?’
Frankie looked surprised. ‘Fewer? No, I’ve never heard that. There are some who think it could have been more. There were two other women murdered that same year – a woman called Smith, can’t remember her first name, and another called Martha Tabram – but the murder weapon was different in both cases, and they aren’t generally considered as Ripper killings. There were also a few women killed in the area a year or two after Mary Kelly’s murder, but most people don’t connect them. Five is pretty much the accepted number. Why do you ask?’
‘Just curious. There was mention of Jack the Ripper on the television yesterday. I was talking to Jimmy about it – and I thought I heard him say there were only three.’
Frankie shook his head. ‘No – definitely five.’
‘So, I suppose you’re going to tell me you knew Jack the Ripper?’ she smiled as she straightened his pillow.
Jimmy’s eyelids fluttered open. ‘And why would you suppose that, my dear?’
‘Just something you said yesterday.’
‘Oh, you shouldn’t go taking any notice of me. Nothing more than an old man’s ramblings.’ For an instant his eyes held a look of secret amusement – the passing ghost of the expression that had once been his trademark. ‘Just like when I told you about the film I made with Fairbanks, and he cut me open with his …’ He began to cough, deep wracking coughs, and she held his hand, gently stroking the papyrus skin, trying to soothe him.
‘Well, how about I read to you?’ she asked, once the attack had passed.
Too weak to answer immediately, he lay staring up at the ceiling, until with great effort he said, ‘You know I’d love you to – but you shouldn’t spend so much time in here with me. You’ll lose your job.’
Beth glanced at her watch. ‘I’ve been off duty these last ten minutes – so I guess I can choose for myself who I spend time with, huh?’ She settled herself on to the chair by his bed. ‘So? What shall it be? The book?’
He gave a tremulous smile. ‘How many times have you read that to me, now?’
‘This will be the third,’ she grinned. ‘But it’s okay. I know how much you love that story – and I’m getting to like it pretty well myself. Besides, on my salary, I don’t get to read too many classics in first edition.’
His hand found hers. ‘How old are you, Beth? Nineteen? Twenty?’
‘Twenty-five, you old flatterer.’
‘Too young to waste your life watching an old man ride off into the sunset. This movie has gone on a reel too long as it is.’
She made to protest, but the words would not pass the sudden constriction in her throat. ‘Well,’ she said at last, almost achieving a lighter note, ‘I was always the type to stay put all through the end credits.’
Barely possessing the strength to smile, he watched her pick up the book. ‘Then – if you really don’t mind reading to me…’ He hesitated. ‘There’s… there’s another story I should like to hear for one last time.’
She squeezed his hand. ‘Of course. Is it here?’
‘In a box… in my valise.’
He heard her cross to the cupboard and take out the old-fashioned
travelling bag – but he could no longer see her. Despite the sunlight that filled the room, his vision had been growing increasingly dark – now it had faded to black.
‘It’s a diary – or some kind of journal,’ she said in surprise. ‘Is this the book?’
She flicked through the pages. ‘Such beautiful handwriting.’
‘I want you to have it … I want you to have all my books, but… this one is just for you.’
‘I couldn’t, Jimmy. It’s wonderfully kind of you, but it’s against all the rules.’
‘Then… just look after it for me… until I ask for it back?’
She brushed at her eyes. ‘We’ll see,’ she said, coming back to sit by him, squaring her shoulders, hiding behind the caricature of starchy professionalism. ‘Now, are we going to read this or not?’
Beth opened the book on her lap.
Beyond the window, the distant hills shimmered in the heat; across town, in a small, run-down movie theatre, a handful of people sat in the dark, watching a young and athletic Jimmy Hawkins battle his way through a horde of costumed extras – and in the quiet of the hospital room, Beth began to read:
There was a hill, just outside our village, where we would play in those distant, happier days – before my father’s illness. In fine weather the climb was manageable for a young girl’s sturdy legs, and we would clamber to the top, dancing with joy, and feeling such mastery over this part of our world.
But then the rain would come, making the steep sides slippery so that my small feet would slide, unable to gain a purchase on the muddy earth. The older boys and girls, or even my brother Henry, would pull me up, encouraging me to try harder, but no sooner would they let go my hand than I’d lose my footing, sometimes falling so badly that I would slide past my original clinging spot.
Time and time again I would try, determined to join them, only to slip down and out of their reach until, finally, I could fall no further.
I think of this hill often when I look back over my life. My name is Mary Jane Kelly and I was born in 1863…
‘In Ireland? You are a liar, Mary Kelly. A damnable liar!’
Sitting primly at her desk, Mary’s cheeks flushed as the neatly written pages of her essay were hurled into the air – falling like large white leaves amongst her giggling classmates.
‘Well?’ Mr Griffiths’s face was darkly crimson, his breath snorting, bull-like as he loomed over her. ‘What do you have to say for yourself?’
‘They… they aren’t lies, sir, they’re…’
‘Aren’t lies? – Aren’t lies?’ His voice climbed an octave before slipping into menacing sarcasm. ‘Born in Ireland? In Limerick, is it? In the family castle, I suppose, eh? Well, you would need a castle wouldn’t you? With all those brothers and sisters. Six was it?’
Mary stared into her lap as howls of merriment rang out from a class grateful for the interruption. Behind her, Davy Briggs, a scruffy, gangly boy, leaned forward and gave her a sharp poke in the back, but Griffiths chose to ignore it, unwilling to be distracted from the matter at hand.
‘Lot of servants, were there, hmmm? Maids and butlers, no doubt –and surely a governess? Oh yes – but, you know, I’m surprised she didn’t explain to you the difference between fact and fiction!’ His patronising tone became one of irritation. ‘Well, we’ll have to remedy that, won’t we!’
Seated next to Mary, Gwyneth Davies stiffened, her hand creeping beneath the desk to find Mary’s as Griffiths strode to the front of the class to pick up the cane.
‘Come out here, girl!’
Frightened, Mary kept a firm grip on Gwyneth, but then a look of defiance crossed her face, and she let go, making her way to the front, her attention fixed on Griffiths’s gold watch chain to avoid meeting his eyes or seeing the fearsome stick in his hand.
‘I had the misfortune to be teaching your idiot of a brother on the very day you were born – right here in Wales.’ Griffiths flexed the cane. ‘That’s
a fact, Mary Kelly – and that’s what you need in this world! Facts and only facts! Not damn fairytales! Now, put out your…!’
Without waiting Mary raised her left hand, holding it in front of her, palm upwards.
Griffiths noted the small act of defiance and gave another snort. ‘Were you born in Ireland?’
Gritting her teeth, Mary gave a small nod, and immediately the thin brown cane sang through the air, searing her palm. It was a harsh stroke that stung her to tears, but she kept her hand outstretched.
‘Limerick, sir – in Ireland.’
Griffiths brought the cane down again.
From behind her Mary heard Gwyneth start to cry, and determinedly she forced open her fingers where the stroke had curled them into a fist.
‘Where?’ Griffiths’s voice was loud in her ear, and she could feel his breath against her cheek.
‘Lim… Lim…’ The sobs she had been trying to suppress burst out, preventing her from speaking, but Griffiths had heard enough. He whipped the stick across her reddened palm yet again. This time the pain was too much, and she snatched her hand away, wedging it under her arm as great tears ran down her cheeks. ‘Wales… I… I was born in… in Nant-y-Pridd, in Wales.’
Griffiths gave a snort of satisfaction, and put down the cane. ‘Return to your desk. You will re-write the essay and deliver it to me first thing tomorrow morning. And this time I expect it to contain the truth!’
It was only the first week of the Michaelmas term, and the early autumn sun was still warm as the two girls started for home, walking in silence for a good part of the way.
At a point where the road curved to skirt the hills, a footpath followed a more direct route along the side of the river, and they took it, walking by the slow moving water and pausing to watch a dragonfly skimming over the surface.
‘Do you ever think of doing things, Gwyn?’
‘Doing things? Like what?’
‘I don’t know…’ Mary closed her eyes and tilted her face to catch the sun. ‘Just something different. Maybe even something – shocking.’
‘No – and you shouldn’t be doing that,’ said Gwyneth, moving into the shade of a tree. ‘You’ll get all brown, like a gypsy, then no one will want to marry you.’
‘Who says I want to get married? And besides, I should like to be a gypsy.’
‘Stop being silly.’
‘What’s silly about it? There has to be more to life than getting married. Just think – roaming all over the world in a caravan. Wouldn’t you like that? I think it would be so romantic!’
‘I don’t think it would be romantic at all. Very uncomfortable and smelly I shouldn’t wonder – probably dangerous, too!’
‘Oh, Gwyn!’ A desperation filled Mary’s voice. ‘I just want… Oh, I don’t know what I want, but…’ She looked down at the water, a mischievous glint coming to her eye. ‘Actually – I do! I want to swim, naked, in this river! Right now!’
Gwyneth’s eyes widened. ‘You wouldn’t?’ Then, with an anxious note, ‘Would you?’
‘I will if you will.’
‘I would never!’
For a moment, Mary remained staring at the river, feeling the warmth of the sun on her skin, then with a forlorn sigh she turned back toward the path. ‘Come on,’ she said with a sad smile. ‘Let’s go home.’
The Davies’ house was one of a row of colliery cottages that lay on the outskirts of the village, and Gwyneth’s mother was standing in the doorway as the two girls arrived. ‘I’m afraid you can’t come in, Mary. The boys are just back from their shift, and our Thomas is in the bath. But if you’d like a bite of something to eat before you go, I can bring it out to you?’
‘That’s very kind of you, Mrs Davies, but I can’t stay. Mother’s waiting for me, I expect.’
Meg Davies struggled to maintain her smile. ‘Oh, yes – I expect she is. Well, just wait you there a minute. I’ll be right back.’ She disappeared into the house, and her place in the doorway was taken by Gwyneth’s second brother, Alan, still black with coal-dust.
‘I hear you got a proper whacking today.’
Gwyneth shot him a harsh look. ‘You just leave her alone. And how do
you know, anyway?’
‘Oh, news travels fast enough, ’specially when it’s on them skinny little legs o’ Davy Briggs!’ He laughed, giving Mary a wink. ‘Old Griffiths was it? By, but he’s a mean old bugger! You just say the word, Mary, and I’ll go up there, and give him a taste of his own medicine.’
Thomas, the eldest of the Davies’ offspring, appeared in the doorway, still buttoning his shirt, his wet hair glistening. ‘You’ll do no such thing, and stop embarrassing the girl.’
‘By heck, that’s got to be the fastest I’ve ever seen you out of that bath, boy!’ said Alan. He winked again at Mary. ‘You’ll have to come by more often, my love. Makes a nice change to get the water while it’s still hot!’
‘Get away off with you,’ Thomas growled. ‘And mind my clean shirt while you’re at it!’
‘Don’t worry, I’m going.’ Alan paused, grinning. ‘Here, you’ve gone a bit red in the face you have. Water too hot, was it?’
Thomas glared at him, but remained standing awkwardly in the shadows, and when his mother came back moments later carrying a paper-wrapped package, he was almost grateful to be shooed away.
‘I’m sure your mam’s got your tea all ready,’ said Meg, ‘but here’s some bread and cheese, just in case you get hungry on the way, like.’ With some embarrassment she handed over the parcel, hovering uncertainly for a moment. ‘Well, I suppose I should be getting tea ready, myself. Proper gannets my lot are these days.’
Gwyneth waited until her mother had gone, then looked down at Mary’s hand where it hung by her side. ‘Can I look?’ she asked nervously.
‘If you want to.’ Mary held it out for Gwyneth’s examination. ‘It didn’t hurt you know. I just pretended it did.’
A small crease formed between Gwyneth’s eyebrows as she looked at the reddened flesh. ‘Oh, Mary…’
‘Hey, Kelly! Can I come and stay in your castle?’
The sudden shout startled them both, but Mary quickly recovered, aiming a smack at the boy’s head as he ran past.
‘I’ll do for you at school tomorrow, Davy Briggs, you see if I don’t!’
From a safe distance, Briggs affected a pained expression and shook his hand. ‘Hurt, did it? Never mind, eh. Get the butler to see to it. I would!’ Then, laughing, he turned and disappeared up the road.
Gwyneth watched him go. ‘Why do you do it, Mary? You get yourself into such trouble.’
‘I don’t care. Griffiths doesn’t frighten me – and I’ll be born where I please.’
‘Mary! Listen to me! You’ve got to stop making up these silly stories. Everyone knows about you and your family – and they just laugh at you.’
‘I told you, I don’t care.’
‘But I do! I can’t bear it when…’ Gwyneth broke off, biting her lip. ‘You don’t need to make up stories for them!’
Resentfully, Mary started away, but after just a few paces she stopped and turned. ‘I don’t do it for them,’ she said.
‘Fight. Fight. Fight. Fight. Fight.’
Drawn by the sound of chanting, Nathaniel Abrahams went to his study window and looked beyond the school gates to where a large group of children were gathered around two boys and a girl.
He placed his cup back on to its saucer and took out his watch. Ten minutes to nine; too early to ring the bell. ‘Mr Griffiths,’ he said, turning his head a fraction. ‘There would appear to be several members of your class involved in a fracas. I think you had better step out and put an end to it.’
Griffiths sauntered over, peering with mild interest at the melee. ‘Oh, Briggs, is it? And Kelly, of course – can’t quite make out the other one. Ah, Harris! I should have known! Nothing for us to worry about. They’ll sort it out amongst themselves.’
Abrahams looked at him. ‘Possibly, Mr Griffiths. But I should prefer you to sort it out.’
‘With respect, Headmaster. When you’ve been here a few years, well, you’ll see the wisdom of turning a blind eye to this kind of thing – the odd scrap, like. They’re a rough lot of kids around here, and I’ve always found it better not to get involved in their high spirits when it’s off school property.’
Abrahams gave the man a penetrating look. ‘I have been in this profession for over forty years, and in all that time I have never thought of two boys fighting one girl as high spirits! I very much doubt my opinion will change during the few years that remain to me.’
‘It won’t do her any harm,’ Griffiths snorted. ‘Might even take her down a peg or two! And if she’s anything like the rest of her family she’ll probably flatten the two of them. Her mother’s quite a brawler when she’s…’
‘Mr Griffiths! I will not have this! You will go down and stop the fight immediately – then bring the three of them to my study. Is that understood?’
Griffiths’s nostrils flared, and the broken veins on his cheeks darkened. ‘As you wish, Headmaster,’ he said.
Like a solid living thing, the tightly packed ring of spectators moved this way and that, following the progress of the fight as Mary wrestled with the two boys, hitting and kicking for all she was worth. ‘Leave her alone! You bloody well leave her alone!’ she screamed, grabbing Harris by his hair, wrenching him round and slapping at his head, while Briggs tried to pin her arms from behind.
‘Break it up!’ boomed Griffiths, striding through the gate, the crowd parting to make way for him.
Harris broke free from Mary’s grasp to stand wild-eyed and panting, but Davy Briggs kept his arms around Mary, as though he had a tiger by the tail.
‘Stop it! The pair of you!’ Griffiths prised Briggs off, pushing him back. ‘Now, what’s all this about?’
‘It was Briggs and Harris, sir,’ piped up a small girl from the crowd. ‘They threw muck all over Gwyneth Davies, sir.’
‘Is that so? Where is she?’
The far end of the circle opened to reveal Gwyneth, huddled against the railings, tears running down her cheeks, and horse dung splattered over her face and clothes.
‘God, will you look at you!’ Griffiths snorted. ‘Making such a fuss! Get inside and clean yourself up, girl!’ He watched her start toward the school, then turned his attention back to the three protagonists, looking at each of them in turn. Harris’s lip was cut, and both Mary and Davy Briggs had blood running from their noses. ‘Right, the Headmaster wants to see you, so you’d better get to his study, sharpish! And he’s a bit hot on fighting, see, so I wouldn’t go expecting anything less than a good thrashing!’
Standing alone in front of the Headmaster’s desk, Mary fretted at her torn cuff. Her face was still flushed from the fight – and the closeness of the room added to her discomfort, for despite the mild autumn weather there was a fire burning in the grate.
‘Is it a little warm for you?’ Mr Abrahams enquired pleasantly, closing the door. ‘I’m afraid that as my years advance so does my susceptibility to the cold.’
‘I’m alright, thank you, sir.’
He crossed the room and seated himself behind the heavy teak desk. ‘Gwyneth Davies is a friend of yours?’
On the scuffed leather desktop lay the cane that had recently been applied to the backsides of Harris and Briggs, six apiece, the sound of the strokes clearly audible to Mary as she’d waited outside. She stole a nervous glance at it. ‘Yes, sir. My best friend, sir.’
‘And you thought to avenge this disgusting attack? You didn’t think it better to come and report it, rather than take on these two boys yourself ?’
‘I had to stop them, sir. They were…’ She paused.
‘They were what?’
‘They were trying to make her eat it.’
A look of horror crossed Abrahams’s face. ‘Surely not! She has said nothing of this to me!’
‘She wouldn’t, sir.’
The fingers of his left hand tapped at the desk. ‘I see,’ he said, then after a few moments, ‘How is your nose? It appears to have stopped bleeding.’
‘It was nothing, sir – just a scratch.’
‘It looks to have been rather more than a scratch from the amount of blood on your pinafore.’
‘I… I don’t think it’s all mine, sir.’
He resisted the urge to smile. ‘I cannot condone fighting, Mary. I want to make that quite clear to you.’
He nodded, then cleared his throat. ‘Now, I see from the punishment book that you feature quite prominently. Indeed, although he has not seen fit to enter it, I believe Mr Griffiths had cause to cane you only yesterday.’ Some papers lay on the desk, and he picked them up, sifting through the four pages of beautifully executed copperplate. ‘The cause of the trouble was this essay, entitled My Life, was it not?’
‘Yes, sir. I was just…’
Mr Abrahams raised a silencing hand. ‘I can see why Mr Griffiths might take exception to this – but the work is not without merit.’ He read for some moments more, then he asked, ‘And your father, is he a painter?’
‘Yes, sir. That is – he was. He doesn’t have to work now.’
Abrahams steepled his fingers and looked up at her. ‘I see,’ he said softly. ‘A fortunate man. So there would be someone in the house now?’
‘Well, I am sending Gwyneth Davies home since she is in no fit state to sit in class – and as you are in a somewhat similar condition, I think perhaps you should accompany her.’
Mary brightened. ‘Thank you, sir. We can walk together.’
‘Walk? Goodness, no. That is quite out of the question. I shall take you myself.’
‘Oh,’ said Mary, suddenly anxious. ‘Oh, yes… I see.’
They rode most of the way to the small mining village of Nant-y-Pridd without speaking. Abrahams made a few attempts at conversation, but though the girls answered politely enough he could tell they were ill at ease, and as the outskirts of Caerphilly gave way to open countryside he fell silent, content to sit quietly and watch the unfolding scenery.
With its mountains and valleys, impressive views and grim little mining towns, Wales was a far cry from the softer, prettier landscape of Surrey where he had spent most of his working life. But children were children wherever one went, and so, he thought, were schoolmasters. For every half-dozen decent ones, there was always a Griffiths – dull, pedantic, bullying, and invariably too lazy to bother with pupils who were troubled in the way the Kelly girl seemed troubled. Abrahams glanced at her, finding it hard to reconcile the few snippets of gossip that had come his way with the girl who appeared at school each morning in the clean white pinafore and brightly polished shoes. In his mind he went back over the pages of the punishment book; so many entries with the name Mary Jane Kelly.
The road swung away from the river, beginning a gentle climb into the distant mountains, and as the gig crested the first rise he reined in the mare. To his left, the sparkling ribbon of water wound its way toward the village with its turning pit wheel and smoking chimneys, and in the misty morning sunshine the scene possessed an austere beauty he found breathtaking.
‘It’s really quite beautiful,’ he mused. ‘I shall have to make a point of returning with my camera.’
Mary looked at him with interest. ‘You have a camera, sir?’
‘Yes, rather a good one, actually. Though I must confess to achieving very mixed results. Are you interested in photography, by any chance?’
‘I don’t know, sir.’ She turned, gazing at the village beneath its haze of chimney smoke. ‘I suppose it is sort of beautiful – when you look at it in that way,’ she said at last.
Gwyneth followed their eyes, puzzled. ‘It looks just the same as always.’
‘Well,’ he said kindly, ‘perhaps the trick is knowing how to look?’ Then he flicked the reins, and the gig started the gentle run into the village.
The surprise and confusion Megan Davies exhibited on opening the door had quickly given way to thinly veiled anger toward the two boys responsible. Abrahams had done his best to reassure her that they had been adequately punished, and he’d left feeling confident the matter was closed – at least as far as the Davies’ were concerned.
But Mary still worried him. It was obvious she didn’t want to be taken all the way home, and now, as they moved beyond the village toward a shamble of jerrybuilt hovels, he began to understand why. Even in the bright sunlight the place looked wretched, and he shuddered to think how it must appear in the depths of winter. He could only see it as an area where all hope had died – and his words to Gwyneth, just twenty minutes earlier, suddenly sounded very hollow indeed.
A little way off from these decaying heaps of brick, wood and slate stood a labourer’s cottage that had once seen better days, and it was to this that Mary reluctantly directed him.
‘Will you come in, please, sir?’ she asked as she climbed from the gig. ‘I think my father is at home.’
Abrahams tethered the horse and followed Mary into the house, pausing just inside the doorway to let his eyes adjust to the gloom. He shivered. The place had a damp, unhealthy feel that the few pathetic embers glowing in the grate did nothing to dispel.
‘Mr Kelly?’ he called.
In a large, wooden-armed chair pulled close to the fireplace sat a man, and Mary ran to him. ‘Father!’ she chided, kissing him on the forehead. ‘You’ve let the fire go out, now whatever will Mr Abrahams think?’ She crouched down, putting pieces of wood and scraps of coal into the grate
where they smouldered and smoked. ‘Mr Abrahams is the Headmaster of the new school, and he’s come all this way to see you.’ She straightened, tucking back her hair and brushing at her dress with a quaint primness. ‘We’re not so used to visitors these days, Mr Abrahams, so you will rather have to take us as you find us. Of course, it hasn’t always been this way. We used to have such parties – you couldn’t possibly imagine.’
Astonished by the sudden transformation, Abrahams watched her move about the sparsely furnished room, tidying this, rearranging that, all the while keeping up the unnaturally cheerful stream of conversation. ‘Mr Kelly?’ he tried again.
In the chair, the man moved restlessly, but said nothing.
‘Will you take some tea, Mr Abrahams? I shall be making some for father – so it will be no trouble.’
She was standing bright-eyed by the chair, barely recognisable but for the torn, bloodstained apron, and Abrahams felt suddenly very cold. He came forward, looking down at her father. The man’s eyes stared fixedly ahead, and his mouth hung loosely open, his body twitched into agitated movement by occasional spasms that would have toppled him from the chair had he not been bound to it with leather straps.
Mary caught Abrahams’s fleeting look of horror, but for a few seconds more kept the bright look on her face. ‘It’s really so nice… so very nice of you to…’ Then, as he turned to her, she saw the dreadful reality mirrored in his eyes, and the effort of keeping up the pretence became too much.
Abrahams reached out to her, and in the next moment she was in his arms, sobbing against his chest.
‘How long has he been like this, Mary?’ Abrahams asked softly, sipping the tea she had prepared for them.
‘Not long, not like this, anyway. He’s been ill for about three years.’ Her voice tailed away, and sitting on the floor by her father’s side she rested her head against his thigh. ‘But he will get better, you know – then it will be just like it was before.’
Abrahams put down the cup. ‘Mary…’ he began, but lost for words he turned his attention to the fire that now burned brightly with the last of the coal. ‘Well, it’s a little warmer in here now.’
John Kelly had fallen asleep, his head lolling against his chest, and Mary got quietly to her feet. ‘We could sit outside now if you wish? I know it isn’t so very grand in here.’
Although the room was bare and badly in need of repair, Abrahams
could see the cottage had once been a very respectable household. Along the wooden mantelpiece, pencil sketches had been pinned in an attempt at decoration, and the re-kindled fire had gone some way to dispelling the musty dampness that pervaded the room – but still he found the idea of escaping to the warmth of the sun a temptation. ‘Perhaps we might take your father outside? I’m sure the sunlight would be beneficial.’
Mary looked down, embarrassed. ‘We can’t do that. Mother won’t allow it. She doesn’t like anyone to see.’
‘Then let us sit here – the three of us.’ Abrahams turned his face from her, making a show of examining the nearest drawing where it hung from the mantel-shelf.
Mary refilled his cup. ‘I am partly Irish, you know,’ she said, breaking the silence. ‘My mother comes from Cardiff, but Father was born in Limerick – a descendent of the Irish Kings of…’ she broke off guiltily.
‘And are these his sketches?’ The drawings were unpolished, even a little crude in places, and Abrahams guessed the man was already ill at the time of their execution. Yet for all that, they showed a natural ability and a good grasp of perspective.
‘No, sir. They’re mine.’
He turned back in surprise. ‘Yours?’
‘They’re something for him to look at during the day. Mother… well, she has to work, you see.’ She unpinned one of the drawings and held it out for Abrahams’s inspection. ‘This is our family.’ A man with a head of fair, curly hair, a woman, and a large group of children were pictured around the door of a splendid cottage. The figures had been drawn only after a great deal of trouble, but the house and background were beautifully rendered. ‘I’m not very good at people – but this is Mother and Father, and these are the five boys – Matthew, David and John. The tall one is Huw – he’s the eldest and the nicest – and very strong, too! He never lets anyone pick on us. And that’s baby Glyn, we all spoil him because he’s so little. Father says he’ll turn out a little horror, but we just can’t help it. And this is me – and this…’ she pointed proudly, ‘is my twin sister, Emma. We do just everything together.’
Abrahams studied it for several moments. ‘This is very good, Mary, really very good – but I don’t understand. You actually do have more than just the one brother?’
She looked into her lap. ‘No… not really. They’re just stories I make up. I tell them to Father when it’s just the two of us here. I know he likes them, and… well, it’s how I would like things to be.’
Abrahams cleared his throat, giving himself a moment as he looked slowly and thoughtfully along the line of drawings, studying each in turn. ‘You’ve had lessons?’ he asked at last.
‘No, sir. Mr Griffiths doesn’t care for drawing.’
‘From your father, then? Before his illness?’
‘No, sir. He… well…’ She looked down again. ‘He’s only an artist in our stories. Before he became ill, he was a boot-maker.’
‘I see. Well, you have a talent, Mary – and we must see what we can do with it. What I would …’ He broke off, rising from his chair as a young man stepped into the house to stand warily just inside the door.
‘Henry,’ said Mary, running to her brother. ‘This is Mr Abrahams. He’s the new headmaster.’
Henry Kelly gave a curt nod, eyeing him suspiciously. ‘Somethin’ we can do for you, is it?’ he asked with undisguised hostility. ‘Our Mary not been behavin’ herself?’
‘No, nothing like that, I assure you.’
‘Oh, English you are, is it?’ Henry regarded him with even greater distrust. ‘So, what you here for, then?’ His eyes narrowed as he looked from Mary, to the headmaster, then back again. ‘Oh,’ he said slowly. ‘Oh, that’s the game, is it? Well, it’s nice to see you finally earnin’ your keep, Mary. And none too soon, neither, I reckon – wastin’ your time at that damned school.’
‘Mr Kelly – or may I be permitted to call you Henry?’
‘Stow that. We don’t go in for fancy manners here.’ He grasped Mary by the arm, making her wince as he pulled her close. ‘If you want our Mary, then let’s see the colour of your money. A nice young ’un like her ought to be worth a fair bit to a dried up old man like you.’
Abrahams tried to conceal his disgust. ‘Mr Kelly…’
‘Look, do you want her or not?’ snapped Henry, shaking his sister roughly. ‘She’s never been touched to my knowledge – so she’s clean.’
‘Mr Kelly. Will you please let her go. You’re hurting her.’
Henry gave a contemptuous laugh. ‘What’s that to you? Now either pay up, or get about your business and leave us be!’
‘Mr Kelly, I must insist…’
‘Insist, is it?’ Anger flared in Henry’s eyes, and he threw Mary from him. ‘Listen, you stuck-up old bastard. You’re not in your bloody school now, playin’ the great lord and master! This is my house, where I make the rules – and I reckon you just broke ’em.’ He moved forward, threateningly, fists raised. ‘Mister high and mighty headmaster, eh? Well, this time it’s you who’s for a thrashin’!’
‘Please, Mr Kelly. There’s no need for…’
Henry feinted with his left, then brought his right up to deliver a hard, open-handed slap to the side of Abrahams’s head.
Caught off guard, Abrahams reeled backwards, his hand to his face. ‘Mr Kelly, please …’
Mary flew at her brother, tugging ineffectually at him, screaming for him to stop, but Henry thrust her away, sending her crashing against their father’s chair, jarring the man into a grotesque wakefulness.
Half-dazed, Abrahams tried to take in the nightmarish scene, but Henry Kelly was advancing upon him, his voice mocking. ‘That was just a little smack, like. Now I’ll show you what a real beatin’ is!’ He repeated the feint, this time following up with a hard-fisted right – but Abrahams had no intention of being caught a second time. Shifting on to the balls of his feet, he dropped into a crouch, letting the blow pass just over his head.
For an instant, surprise showed on the youth’s face, before Abrahams delivered a straight right to the jaw that sent Henry Kelly sprawling on the floor.
Mary went to her brother, but Henry pushed her away, his eyes fixed on Abrahams, the aggressive bravado of moments before, replaced by a sullen, almost childish petulance. ‘I… I’ll have the law on you,’ he whimpered, dabbing the blood from his broken lip. ‘Comin’ into a man’s house, and…’
‘Mr Kelly,’ Abrahams was breathing hard, but he kept his voice steady. ‘It is not my place to advise you on the matter, but I doubt it would do much for your reputation to have it known you were knocked down by a dried up old man, now would it? I am more than happy to forget this unfortunate incident if you are.’
Hesitantly, Henry got to his feet. ‘Just a lucky punch,’ he muttered, keeping his distance. He dabbed again at his mouth, glancing to where Mary was trying to soothe their father. ‘Can’t you keep him quiet?’ he growled, venting his anger in a safer direction. ‘Bloody noise to have to listen to!’ He looked furtively back at Abrahams. ‘So, what do you want?’
‘Nothing, I assure you. Just to help if I can.’
‘He brought me home,’ said Mary. ‘There was a fight – at the school.’
Henry Kelly’s lips curled into a sneer. ‘That’s why you’re lookin’ like somethin’ the cat dragged in, is it?’ he said, edging away to take down a small gin-trap that hung from a peg on the wall.
Abrahams remained on his guard, but Henry had had quite enough. From the safety of the doorway he spat in the headmaster’s direction. ‘Well, we don’t need your help, see? So don’t come crawlin’ round here again, or you’ll be sorry. And you…’ He glared across the room at Mary. ‘You’d better have my dinner ready when I get back – or you’ll be more than sorry.’
With Henry gone, Abrahams took a deep breath and inspected his grazed knuckles. He knew he had grown soft with age, yet still the slowness of his reactions had surprised him. It had been a close thing, but years of coaching boys in the art of boxing had stood him in good stead,
and he was not too displeased with his performance. Half way to a smile, he became aware of Mary staring at him. ‘Yes, well…’ he said, giving an embarrassed cough.
Mary looked equally embarrassed. ‘I’m sorry about my brother, sir.’
‘He seems a very angry young man.’ Abrahams looked at her with concern. ‘You will be alright?’
Mary nodded, but the way she kept her eyes lowered, left Abrahams troubled. ‘Very well,’ he said at last. ‘But if you should ever need my help.’
She nodded again, and after a moment more he turned his attention back to the sketches pinned to the mantelpiece. ‘Then, as I was saying before we were interrupted, what I should like is to buy one of your drawings from you, if I may?’
‘I’m sorry, sir. I couldn’t sell any of these.’ She put her arm about her father’s shoulders.
‘Yes. Yes, of course. I do understand.’ He gave her a brief smile. ‘Well, I really should be getting back. I shall see you at school tomorrow?’
John Kelly had grown still once more, and Abrahams reached down, taking his hand in his own. ‘It’s been a pleasure to meet you, sir,’ he said into the expressionless face. ‘I hope we shall meet again soon.’
Mary walked with Abrahams to the door and stood watching as he climbed up on to the seat of the gig. ‘I… I could draw you a picture,’ she began uncertainly. ‘A special one, just for you – if you wanted me to?’
‘A commission?’ He considered the idea. ‘Yes, a capital suggestion. A landscape perhaps?’
She nodded excitedly. ‘The view from the hill – where we stopped?’
‘That would be perfect.’ He stroked his chin. ‘I suppose we should discuss payment? Winter is approaching, and you seem to be low on coal. A bag of the colliery’s best, do you think?’
‘Oh, no, sir…’
He smiled. ‘I see you drive a hard bargain, Mary. Very well, two bags. But I shall want a favour from you in return.’
Her forehead creased into a small frown. ‘Sir?’
‘That business back there with your brother.’ He gave the reins a gentle flick, urging the horse into motion. ‘I shouldn’t like it to become common knowledge. As I said earlier – I really can’t condone fighting.’
From the window of his study, Abrahams watched a group of girls run across the puddled playground, their hands clasped to skirts and shawls against the raging wind.
The morning had started fair, but leaden clouds driving in from the west had made it dark enough by two-thirty for the classroom lamps to be lit, and now a heavy rain was falling.
‘I apologise for presuming upon you with yet another meeting,’ he said, turning to address the small gathering, ‘but I thought it might be time for us to evaluate our progress.’
Perched on a chair, Miss Peebles, stick thin and dressed from head to foot in black, twitched her head in his direction, while behind her, Mr Griffiths sighed as he leaned against the wall, his arms folded.
‘I’m pleased to see the changes are being implemented,’ Abrahams continued, taking his seat. ‘But it seems to me we are not yet one school. Rather, we are still a collection of small village schools gathered under one roof.’ He noticed Griffiths beginning to fidget, and he went on quickly. ‘It is no easy matter to change from running your own establishment, with your own methods and routines, to becoming part of a grander design – and you have both done extremely well under the circumstances. But, unless we can alter our whole way of…’
Griffiths pushed himself from the wall to stand with his feet apart and his thumbs shoved into the pockets of his waistcoat. ‘With respect, Headmaster.’
‘Yes, Mr Griffiths?’
‘Your ideas may work very well in English public schools, but you have no experience of the people in these parts. They go into the mines, the lucky ones. A few to the factories, else it’s on the land. Not much call for drawing and music, whichever way.’
Abrahams kept his voice calm. ‘Surely there is always a place for art and music? This country is famous for its choirs, after all.’
‘Choirs are one thing, but giving these children aspirations over and above their situation does nothing but harm. There’s precious little for them in this life but damned hard work.’
‘It doesn’t have to be that way.’
‘That’s how it is! Nothing to be done about it. Filling their heads with fancy ideas won’t help them when they’re hacking coal in a three foot seam, will it? To read and write and know the word of God is what they need – and enough arithmetic to count their wages.’
Abrahams stared at him. ‘You surely cannot believe that?’
‘I’m afraid he’s quite right, Headmaster.’ Miss Peebles gave him an apologetic look. ‘They mostly go to thelucky ones. A few to the factories, else it’s on the land. Not much call for drawing and music, whichever way.’
Abrahams kept his voice calm. ‘Surely there is always a place for art and music? This country is famous for its choirs, after all.’
‘Choirs are one thing, but giving these children aspirations over and above their situation does nothing but harm. There’s precious little for them in this life but damned hard work.’
‘It doesn’t have to be that way.’
‘That’s how it is! Nothing to be done about it. Filling their heads with fancy ideas won’t help them when they’re hacking coal in a three foot seam, will it? To read and write and know the word of God is what they need – and enough arithmetic to count their wages.’
Abrahams stared at him. ‘You surely cannot believe that?’
‘I’m afraid he’s quite right, Headmaster.’ Miss Peebles gave him an apologetic look. ‘They mostly go to the mines. It’s a shame, I know, but…’
‘Shame be damned!’ Griffiths roared. ‘The money’s better than they’d earn working the land or sweating in a factory. It’s the best they can hope for. If you must pity anyone, pity the poor devils who can’t get into the mines.’
The Headmaster placed his hands on the desk. ‘No, Mr Griffiths. That won’t do. There are always exceptions. Those with a special talent.’
‘Occasionally there are,’ conceded Griffiths, ‘and I’ve known one or two. But you only have to look at those we have here at present…’
‘I have looked, and I see potential – Mary Kelly for instance.’
‘Mary Kelly is a damned fool! I’ve tried my best …’
Abrahams leaped to his feet. ‘Your best? Beating her for daring to show a little imagination? Is that your best?’
‘And what would you have me do?’
‘Encourage her! Help her to make something of herself .’
‘Mary Kelly’s only talent is for telling lies!’
‘Stories, Mr Griffiths. She makes up stories. There is a difference.’
‘There is indeed a difference, Headmaster. Stories are told by those who can afford it. Those who can’t are merely liars – ridiculed by their own kind and deemed unemployable by their betters!’ He paused, his tone becoming more restrained. ‘Mary Kelly’s father is a cripple. It’s thought he’ll not see the spring. Her brother is a bully and a wastrel – but at least he’ll poach the odd rabbit to keep them in meat – that is until he gets caught. Her mother is a tuppenny whore who spends the time she’s not on her back, drinking herself into a stupor.’
‘Mr Griffiths! I have warned you about repeating such gossip.’
Griffiths was unperturbed. ‘It is not gossip, Headmaster, it is common knowledge! Everyone knows it – and if you were not an outsider you would know it! Oh, I know you’ve been over to Nant-y-Pridd, but are you also aware that Mary Kelly works for two hours every morning, washing and cleaning, just to pay her school pence and keep herself dressed? She’s thirteen, for God’s sake. She should be out at work, not wasting her time here in the vain hope of bettering herself.’ He gave a mirthless laugh. ‘If she manages to be better than her mother she’ll have achieved a small miracle! She’s not a bad looking girl, and in a few years time she’ll probably find a husband who’ll knock this damn foolishness out of her. But in the meantime she should find a position as a maid, a kitchen skivvy, anything that’ll keep her respectable. But she won’t! Her head’s too full of fanciful ideas – and you want me to encourage them? What Mary Kelly needs is both feet planted firmly on the ground – and for her own sake I’d beat her bloody to achieve that!’
Caught in the crossfire, Miss Peebles studied the floor in embarrassed silence.
‘Well,’ Mr Abrahams sat down. ‘I take your point, Mr Griffiths – but I believe you are wrong. So, from the start of next week, I shall be forming a new class from the most able children – a class which I, myself, shall teach. Now, if we might turn our attention to some of the other matters I have outlined.’
The rain was still falling hard the next morning when Mary awoke, stretching her leg across the straw‑filled mattress to the chill space where her mother should have lain. Outside it was pitch dark, and a howling wind buffeted the small window, lifting the edges of the board that covered a broken pane.
Her nose and cheeks were cold, and she gave herself a few extra minutes beneath the blankets, listening to the reassuring rhythm of her father’s
breathing on the far side of the wooden partition. Then, reluctantly, she climbed from bed.
With the fire lit, and some tea stewing in the pot, she went to her father’s room. He lay asleep, with no sign that Henry had been there at all that night, and she sighed, knowing that without help she would never get her father out of the bed and into his chair.
She brushed her fingers against his cheek. ‘Time to wake up, Da,’ she said softly. ‘Mother will be having the breakfast on the table in no time at all.’
The man’s eyes opened slowly, and for a
moment she thought he was smiling up at her, but then his lips drew into a travesty of a grin, as they jerked and snatched in spasm.
‘I’ll bring you a nice cup of tea in a minute,’ she said making her way back to the fire. ‘It’s a terrible day out there – blowing a gale, it is. And it’s such a shame. Mother wanted to take the boys into Caerphilly today. Huw’s getting so tall now he’s fairly out of that new jacket she bought him, and she says she won’t have him going up to university looking anything less than the gentleman.’
From a cupboard on the wall she took the stale remains of a loaf, and holding it against her chest, she sawed off two slices.
‘I was hoping to go, too. Poor Emma desperately needs a new piece for her pinafore.’ She speared a slice of bread with a long fork and placed it before the smoking coals to toast.
‘I really shouldn’t be telling you this, Da – but she got in a fight at school the other day. Oh, of course, it wasn’t her fault. Some of the boys were being beastly and – well, I don’t know what I would have done if she hadn’t been there. She was very brave – but her pinafore was ruined. It really needs a new frill, and though mother would mend it in a minute, I would so like to do it myself.’
The pinafore, dress and thin coat she had worn the previous day lay drying over the backs of two chairs, and she moved them closer to the fire. ‘Would you like to play a game later, Da? You know how much John and David love those guessing games you make up. Do you remember how they laughed last time – and mother was laughing too, and trying so hard to keep a straight face, and calling us all silly monkeys?’
She poured some tea into a cup and took it, with the toasted bread, to where her father lay. ‘Breakfast, Da,’ she said.
Sitting on the edge of the bed she raised his head, helping him to eat the dry toast, giving him sips of tea to wash it down.
‘Mother’s done us proud this morning,’ she said as she worked the last piece of toast between his lips. ‘She must have been up ever so early to get all this baking done. I don’t think I could eat another bite.’
Lowering him on to the pillow, she kissed him lightly on the forehead, then made her way back to the meagre warmth of the fire, to wash herself from head to toe with the remains of the hot water.
Outside it was beginning to lighten, but only enough to show the trees as silhouettes against a brooding sky and the rain slanting down with a vengeance. ‘You know, Da? I do believe the rain is letting up.’ She shuddered as she pulled on the wet clothes. ‘So I think I might just pop into Caerphilly after all.’ Wrapping her dry shift and dress in an oilskin cloth, she put them ready by the door. Her boots were still wet through, but with the long walk ahead of her, it hardly mattered.
‘I’m going off now, Da.’ She opened the door and scanned the road in both directions, hoping her mother, or even Henry, would come home so that she might leave with a clear conscience, but there was no movement other than the driving rain. For a moment she hesitated, then she closed the door and walked to the room where her father lay. Even from the doorway, Mary could smell the evidence of his incontinence. ‘Oh, Da,’ she said, a tremor in her voice as she pulled back the blankets, ‘Oh, Da…’
Hubert Llewellyn, proprietor of the small guesthouse known as The Cross Keys Hotel, Caerphilly, was bristling with indignation. ‘What time do you call this, then!’ he demanded.
At the back door, half in the shelter of the porch and half in the rain, Mary stood drenched to the skin, her fair hair plastered to her head and across her face. ‘I’m sorry, Mr Llewellyn. It was the rain and…’
‘Well, I can’t help the weather, can I? Half past six we needed you here, not quarter to seven, see?’
Behind him the portly figure of his wife hove into view. ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, let her in, Mr Llewellyn. Can’t you see the poor girl’s wet through?’
‘I’d be obliged if you’d let me deal with this, Mrs Llewellyn!’
‘I’m sure you would, Mr Llewellyn! And in the meantime she’s going to catch her death, and then where will you be? In prison! On a charge of murder I shouldn’t wonder! And who’s going to have the trouble of coming to visit you? Me, I suppose!’ She bustled past him. ‘Don’t you mind him, Mary, dear. Just you come on in.’
‘I have brought some dry clothes.’ From beneath her coat Mary produced the oilskin parcel. ‘And I’ll come early tomorrow – to make up the time.’
Edith Llewellyn put her hands on her ample hips, giving her husband a sharp look. ‘There! There you are Mr Llewellyn! You see! She’ll make up the time!’
‘Well, that’s not exactly the point, is it, Mrs Llewellyn? It’s very
considerate of her, but she’s still late today! No good being late in this business! We’d soon be out on the street if I was late paying the bills, now wouldn’t we? Out on our ears, we’d be, lock, stock and barrel, we would! Oh yes!’
‘Well, then it’s a good job I pay them, isn’t it!’ She turned to Mary, ‘Now you go upstairs and get yourself dried off. The last room on the second floor isn’t being used. Oh, and while you’re up there you can tell Alice to come down to me. That girl will idle away half the day if I let her!’ She waited until Mary had gone upstairs then glanced sideways at her husband. ‘ Just like someone else I know!’
In the act of picking up his newspaper, Hubert’s eyes widened. ‘What? What are you implying?’
She gave him a withering look. ‘Just that I have some jobs for you!’
‘Oh, jobs, is it, Mrs Llewellyn! I see! And what might these jobs be?’
‘Just what I say, Mr Llewellyn. Jobs! I’m not having you slipping off.’
He began to protest, but she cut him short. ‘You always were a lazy man, Mr Llewellyn. I remember my dear mother remarking on it! Watch out for lazy, idle men, she said to me! Oh, she should have lived to see how right she was!’
‘Y’know it’s a quarter t’ nine?’ said Mrs Cartwright, coming to the door of the pantry. ‘I’d get a move on with that floor if I was you. Missus won’t be ’appy if it ain’t finished.’
Kneeling on the cold flagstones, Mary scrubbed, clasping the brush with both hands and using the whole weight of her body to propel it back and forth. ‘I’m – nearly – done,’ she gasped, her breath clouding in the unheated pantry. ‘Just – this last bit.’ Beside her a metal bucket held a harsh mixture of water, soap and soda, and with each dip of the brush, she winced as it seeped into her cracked and reddened knuckles. But worse was the agony in her knees when she finally stood up and, almost crying with pain, carried the bucket into the scullery to empty it.
‘Come on, cheer up. Worse things ’appen at sea – or so they tell me,’ said the cook, looking up from the pastry she was rolling out.
Wiping her cuff across her eyes, Mary gave a half smile.
‘That’s more like it. Yer can’t let it beat yer, y’know. Now, I’ve ironed yer clothes – though Gawd knows why. It’s rainin’ cats and dogs out there an’ you’ll be as wet as when you arrived by the time yer get t’ school. Ain’t yer got no umbrella?’
Mary shook her head.
‘Lawd! I suppose they ain’t been invented where you come from! Why, even the littlest mites ’as umbrellas back ’ome!’
Though she’d lived the greater part of her life in Caerphilly, Mrs Cartwright had never lost her Cockney twang nor her love of singing London’s praises, something Mary found both amusing and exciting. ‘I thought you said it never rained there,’ she smiled, changing into her freshly ironed clothes.
‘An’ no more it don’t – least, not like it does ’ere. I remember when…’ Mrs Cartwright gave her a sideways glance. ‘’Ere, you ain’t got no time for stories – an’ anyway, you’ve ’eard ’em all afore – an’ if yer don’t get off soon you’ll be late for school. I’ve put a smidgen o’ polish on yer boots, though what’s ’oldin’ ’em together, I don’t know!’ She chuckled. ‘Now that’s one thing yer don’t get too much of in London – bloomin’ miracles!’
Mary laughed. ‘Well, I’d best not go there, then,’ she said, pulling on her pinafore and slipping her feet into the damp boots.
‘Maybe I should go back – afore it’s too late.’ Mrs Cartwright sprinkled flour on to the pastry in a thoughtful manner. ‘See London an’ die. That’s what they say, ain’t it?’
‘I think that was Venice,’ said Mary, apologetically.
‘Was it? Well, if it was, I expect it was said by one o’ them foreigners what never got no further than the channel.’ The old woman busied herself cutting out pie cases. ‘See yer tomorrow, then?’
‘Yes, see you tomorrow,’ said Mary, putting the rest of her clothing into the oilskin and making ready to leave.
Rain was leaping from the stone steps that led up to street level, and Mrs Cartwright watched the girl hesitate. It was only a brief dash to the school, but she didn’t envy her even that short trip. ‘’Ere, yer can borrow my ol’ mushroom, if yer want,’ she said, going to a stick stand by the door and bringing out a battered umbrella. ‘But I want it back, mind!’
Owen Davies peered with hungry expectation as his wife placed the steaming crock on the table. ‘Mutton stew, is it?’
‘You know it is.’
‘Always mutton stew on Tuesdays,’ chipped in Alan, giving Gwyneth a nudge. ‘Better than a calendar, I reckon.’
Owen shot him a warning look. ‘Mind your cheek, boy. You’re not too old for a damn good hiding yet, you know.’ But there was humour in his voice, and Alan grinned as he reached for a slice of bread.
‘Now that I won’t have.’ said his father. ‘You just wait till your mother is seated. Whatever else a man might have to go without, manners cost nothing, and he should have his full share.’
Meg scowled as Alan replaced the bread. ‘Seventeen, is it? You act more like seven sometimes.’ She ladled the stew into a bowl and set it in front of her husband.
‘By heck, that smells good! Fit for a king, that is!’ he said, reaching round to pat her behind.
He feigned innocence. ‘What is it woman? Can’t a man pay his wife a compliment, then?’
She filled another bowl and passed it to Thomas. ‘Fine example, I must say,’ she muttered – but there was a blush to her cheeks, and the trace of a smile on her lips.
Alan watched hungrily as a brimming bowl was passed to him. ‘I hear there was an explosion over at Merthyr this morning. Twenty killed, so they’re saying – and another fifty or more still under…’ He stopped short as Thomas gave him a warning kick. ‘Ah… well, that’s what I heard,’ he finished lamely.
Meg appeared not to notice, but the smile had gone from her face.
‘So, Gwyneth, my little petal,’ said Owen in the awkward silence that followed. ‘How was school today?’
Gwyneth set down the bowl her mother handed her, guiltily licking her thumb where it had slipped over the edge and into the stew. ‘We went out to Caerphilly Castle – drawing!’ she said importantly. She had been waiting for this moment, and now gave the statement its full dignity.
Her father leaned back in his chair. ‘Drawing, is it? Well, well! I didn’t know we had an artist in the family.’ He gave a sly wink as Gwyneth looked proudly about the table. ‘Mind you, I’m not surprised. I like a bit o’ drawing, myself – ’specially when it’s my wages on a Saturday morning.’
Alan laughed. ‘You can draw my bath water tomorrow, if you like, Gwyn.’
Blushing, Gwyneth turned sullen. ‘I’m no good at it, anyway.’
‘Oh, come on, now.’ Her father placed his hand on her arm. ‘No need to go taking yourself so seriously. You’re not thinking of making your living at it, are you? Well, then. What’s it matter whether you’re good at it or not?’
Gwyneth brightened a little.
‘Mary can draw a bit, can’t she?’ asked Thomas.
‘She seems to draw you,’ chuckled Alan.
It was Thomas’s turn to blush. ‘Get away with you! She’s just a kid! I was just asking because…’
Meg took her seat at the far end of the table. ‘If you are all quite finished?’ she said pointedly.
They fell silent. Owen waited for them to bend their heads, then did likewise, speaking the words of the short prayer in a low voice.
‘I was just asking,’ Thomas persisted the moment his father lifted his head, ‘because she could teach Gwyn – help her along a bit?’
Alan looked up from his bowl. ‘Damn fool idea!’
‘We’ll not have that kind of language, if you please!’ said Owen.
‘Sorry, Da. But it sounds a waste o’ time if you ask me.’
Meg turned to him. ‘Well, no one did ask you. So I’d be obliged if you’d mind your own business.’
‘She is good, though,’ said Gwyneth. ‘She gave a drawing to Mr Abrahams at the school. Proper fine it is – he thinks she could be an artist.’
Owen looked puzzled. ‘Abrahams? Who’s he then? I thought it was
Griffiths that taught you.’
‘Mr Abrahams is the Headmaster they brought in from England,’ said Meg. ‘He’s the one who drove Gwyn home the other day – in a gig, no less.’
‘Oh, England, is it?’ said Owen. ‘Griffiths not good enough for Gladstone, then?’
Meg looked up. ‘My, but you’ve never had a good word for Mr Griffiths in all these years!’
‘True enough. But at least he’s a local man. Doesn’t seem right, putting an outsider in charge.’ He turned to Gwyneth. ‘What do you make of this Abrahams, Gwyn?’
‘He seems nice enough. Not like Mr Griffiths.’
Alan gave a grunt. ‘No one’s like Griffiths!’
‘Griffiths isn’t so bad,’ said Thomas. ‘Not really.’
‘Not bad? Why, he’s a devil, man! He’s given me more stick than I can remember – and Da had to be stopped from going down there and teaching him a lesson after he laid into you!’
‘Well,’ said Owen. ‘I may have been a wee bit hasty there. Schoolmaster’s got to be a bit hard, I suppose. This new chap won’t last long if he’s not.’
Meg shook her head. ‘I don’t believe you sometimes, Owen. I really don’t!’
Grabbing her daughter by the hair, Annie Kelly dragged Mary across the room. ‘You… you bloody, bloody little cow!’ she screamed, slapping at her head and face with all her might. ‘The minute I turn my back!’
Mary was close to hysteria, blood and mucus running from her nose to mix with the tears that streamed down her cheeks. ‘No, Mam – it’s not true!’
‘You lying little bitch! Where’d that come from, then?’ She shoved Mary, sending her sprawling into the coal from the newly delivered sacks. ‘I’ll give you a whipping you won’t forget, you little whore!’ She swayed drunkenly toward Henry. ‘Give me your bloody belt!’
Standing in the door to block his sister’s escape, Henry Kelly unbuckled the thick leather belt, then leaned back to watch with satisfaction as his mother wrapped it around her fist, leaving a two-foot strap.
‘I didn’t do anything, Mam! I didn’t!’
‘Don’t you lie to me!’ Annie lashed the belt across the small of Mary’s back, making her scream with pain.
‘It… it was a present, Mam! Don’t! It was a…’ she screamed again as the leather snaked across her shoulder.
‘She had that old feller from up the school,’ goaded Henry. ‘I caught ’em here together the other mornin’. I knew they was up to no good.’
‘You damned little whore!’ Annie Kelly lashed again, then again, but in her gin-soaked anger she missed her mark, and the blows struck the coals, sending small pieces skidding across the floor.
Seizing her chance, Mary flung herself from the fireplace and ran to the far side of the room, staring out from beneath her dishevelled hair like a hunted animal. ‘I’m not!’ she shrieked. ‘It was a present!’
‘Present, my arse!’ Annie wiped the spittle from the side of her mouth, and advanced on Mary.
‘It was a present – a payment – for a drawing. That’s all! Go and…’ The leather seared across her left arm, and she dashed into the refuge of the corner. ‘Go and ask if you don’t believe me!’
‘Oh, you’d like that! Make me look a right bloody fool, wouldn’t it!’ Annie began lashing from left and right, swinging wildly and striking the walls more often than not, but still landing enough strokes to elicit screams of agony.
‘You don’t think I have enough to contend with!’ She jerked her head toward the room where John Kelly lay. ‘It’s bad enough I’ve got a useless cripple for a husband – but to think that a daughter of mine would…’
Stung by the reference to her father, Mary’s eyes flared angrily, and she drew herself up, as though suddenly impervious to the lashes. ‘Would what? Follow your example? Two sacks of coal would be a good price, wouldn’t it? How much do you charge?’
Taken aback, Annie let her arm drop, the strap dangling by her side. ‘What do you mean?’ she hissed.
‘Do you think I don’t know what you do when you go to Cardiff ? Everyone knows!’
‘You know nothing… none of you! How dare you! You ungrateful little whore.’
‘You are the whore – you!’ Mary’s eyes filled with tears. ‘You bring the stink of it into our bed when you come creeping home – when you bother to come home!’
‘Don’t take that from her!’ shouted Henry, disappointed at the turn of events – but Annie had lost her momentum. ‘You keep out of it!’ She
turned to Mary, staggering a little, reaching for the wall to steady herself. ‘You think I like it? What else am I supposed to do?’
No longer sobered by fury, Annie’s voice became slurred. ‘How else do you think we’ve managed all these years?’ She waved an arm toward the place where her husband lay befouled in his bed. ‘He’s been no good these past years – useless – a millstone, that’s what he’s been – a bloody millstone round my neck.’
‘Don’t you dare say that!’
‘Oh, don’t I dare? He’s been a millstone alright – dragging me down – and so have you – both of you – bloody great millstones.’ She turned to look at Henry, ‘What use have you ever been?’
But Henry had heard it all before. Snatching back his belt, he spat on the floor at her feet, then pushed his way through the door, making off to the fields and his snares.
Annie looked down at the spattered ground, trying to focus, her body listing precariously. ‘Just you and me, now, eh, Mary?’ she said, looking up with mocking affection. ‘Dear little Mary – clever little Mary – Da’s little pride and joy. Too good to go out to work. Da says little Mary must stay at school.’
‘It’s what he wanted,’ Mary protested bitterly. ‘He said I should…’
‘Better yourself?’ Annie tapped the side of her nose with her finger and leered. ‘I wonder what Da would say if he knew what his clever little girl had been up to, eh? Letting old men have her for a few bags of coal.’
‘That’s a lie – you know it is!’
But her mother was no longer listening. ‘Clever, pretty little girl you are, but I shall tell him – he won’t think you so bloody perfect then! Oh, dear me, no!’ She started towards the bedroom but fell against the table, reeling backwards to slump on to a chair.
For a moment she sat there looking confused, then she gave a lopsided smile. ‘I was pretty – once upon a time – had my pick in those days. Dances! Oh, such dances – such strong, handsome boys. Now look at me!’ She jerked up her head. ‘Well, you take a good long look, pretty little Mary. This is what you’ll be seeing in the mirror before too long. And there’ll be no presents of coal from gentlemen then!’
Mary’s lip quivered. ‘I know, Mam,’ she said quietly, seeing her mother for the pitiable creature she had become. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Sorry? I don’t want your sodding pity!’ Annie glared, her mood turning belligerent once more. ‘I do what I do because I have to, see? To put bread on the table! Because no one else will. Because I’m surrounded by a lot of damned millstones! God knows what I did to deserve this. Stuck with a cripple, and a wastrel – and a daughter that thinks she’s too good for the rest of us.’
Fresh tears brimmed in Mary’s eyes.
‘You? You don’t know the half of it!’ Annie went on. ‘You think I like doing it? Do you? Going out night after night – with all those men? All those… those big, dirty men.’ Then she gave a little giggle. ‘Well – I’m entitled to a few drinks, aren’t I? A few little drinks and a bit of fun?’ She gave her daughter a lewd grin. ‘And I can still give them what they want.’
Horrified, Mary watched the crude accompanying gesture, her lips trembling – then choking back the sobs she ran from the house.