Authors: Carole Llewellyn
By the same author
Â© Carole Llewellyn 2010
First published in Great Britain 2010
Robert Hale Limited
London EC1R 0HT
The right of Carole Llewellyn to be identified as
author of this work has been asserted by her
in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and
Patents Act 1988
2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1
Typeset in 10Â½/13pt Palatino
by Derek Doyle & Associates, Shaw Heath
Printed in the UK by the MPG Books Group
Amy and Sophie
Robert and Clare
Paula and Paul
With all my love
My thanks to everyone at Robert Hale Ltd. My thanks also to my writing friends at Brixham Writers' Group, for their help and encouragement. Finally my love and thanks to Barrie for his love and support.
Rhiannon Hughes sat crouched in the darkness on the top stair. She shivered with cold and fear. Her winceyette nightgown pulled over her knees proved scant protection against the chill of the early November night. Her chest was tight, her mouth dry. What would the next few hours bring?
âWhat on earth are you doing sat out there? Come back to bed before you catch your death,' Mair called out.
Rhiannon quickly turned to face the bedroom. âShhhh! I don't want Dad to know I'm here,' she whispered, her fingers brushing aside a few unruly chestnut curls that had fallen loose over her eyes. âAs soon as I hear Nellie come in, I'm going to go down and try to keep the peace.'
âYou'll be lucky.' Mair sniggered. âMy mam's really gone and done it this time. God help her when she comes in, and I say, serve her right!'
âYou know you don't mean that.'
âI do too. Dai's been good to us. Why does she have to go and spoil it?' Mair asked. âRhi? What if Dai throws us out?'
âDon't be daft! My dad would never throw you out. He loves you.'
âNo buts. He loves you and that's all you need to believe. Now get to bed.'
âAll right, Miss Bossy-Boots, I'm going.'
It surprised Rhiannon that Mair hadn't put up more of an objection but she needed to be on her own to listen intently for the sound of the back door opening: the signal that her stepmother had returned. Although part of her agreed with Mair, she felt she had at least to try to stop the row. She had never seen her father so angry. It was obvious to her that he had come home early from the pit especially to catch Nellie out.
These past weeks her father and Nellie had argued a lot â mainly about her stepmother's choice of friends. Thankfully, up to now her father had managed to hold on to his temper. Rhiannon sensed that he kept control mainly for her and Mair's benefit; while one of them was in the room things never got out of hand. As the elder of the girls she felt it was left to her to run downstairs the minute she heard Nellie's voice â even though she knew it was going against her father's earlier wishes.
âRhiannon, it's time you and Mair were in bed. You'll have to take yourselves up tonight. And, whatever happens when Nellie gets back, you stay where you are, do you hear?' her father had ordered.
âDad, I'll go with Mair, but, please, let me come back down. I could make you some supper.'
âI'm not hungry,' he snapped. âJust do as you're told. Get to bed!'
The tone of his voice convinced Rhiannon that she had better do as he asked; she didn't want to risk upsetting him further. She looked across to Mair. Mair, ever the pessimist, ran the edge of her hand swiftly across her throat as if it were a knife â that's how much trouble she thought Nellie was in.
âCome on, Mair, it's time for bed,' Rhiannon said.
âDo I have to?'
âYea, 'fraid so.'
âAre you coming too?' Mair asked.
Even though Rhiannon was fifteen and a half â a good three years older than Mair, Mair still objected if Rhiannon stayed up later than she did.
âWe're both going. Now come on.'
Reluctantly Mair crossed the room to kiss her stepfather goodnight. As she placed a soft kiss on his cheek, there was no response. Other nights he would have insisted on taking them up the âwooden hill'. Tonight he obviously had other things on his mind.
As Rhiannon stepped forward to place her own kiss on her father's gaunt, grey face, she made a last attempt to pacify him,
âI'm sure Nellie won't be long. I suppose she didn't expect you home so early.'
âThat's bloody obvious,' he snapped. Then, checking himself, âSorry, love. I shouldn't swear and definitely not at you. None of this is your fault. I still can't believe she left the two of you on your own.'
âIt doesn't happen that often, honest, Dad,' Rhiannon lied, in an attempt to calm him, her fingers crossed in the hope that God would
forgive her fibbing, and she threw Mair a look that told her her fate if she dared contradict her.
It worked. For once Mair said nothing.
âRhiannon, love. You don't have to lie for her. For months I've ignored the whispered rumours of my butties down the pit. You see I thought they were just trying to goad me â they've done it to others before, “just for a laugh”. But this time it seems they were speaking the truth and the laugh is on me.' He put his head in his hands.
âGoodnight, Dad,' Rhiannon said. Instantly followed by Mair's âGoodnight, Dai.'
Dai lifted his face, his eyes full of sadness. âGoodnight and God bless the both of you. You really don't deserve this.' He gave them a tender smile before adding, âRhiannon, love, do your dad a big favour and turn that lamp down before you go up. I need to sit alone in the darkness for a while.'
They left him sitting in his old rocker, staring into the fireplace. His silhouette was highlighted by the huge fire in the grate. His breathing was laboured, nostrils flared, fists clenched to his mouth. He bore no resemblance to her once mild-tempered father â this man looked as if he were possessed by the devil.
Mair Parsons was fuming. Who did Rhiannon Hughes think she was ordering her to bed like that? It probably looked as if Mair, for once, was doing as she was bid â but in truth Mair really couldn't see the point of sitting on a draughty landing, especially on such a cold night, so
took herself off to bed.
As she snuggled under the bedclothes she prayed her mother would come home soon. Dai was a good man and didn't deserve the way her mother was behaving. She'd obviously gone back to the way she'd behaved when they lodged at the Tredegar â they'd shared a room there, and many a night Mair was left to fend for herself while her mother was down in the bar drinking. More than once she had to suffer being pushed from the bed to sleep on the floor when her mother brought a man back. When that happened Mair would spend most of the night with her fingers in her ears â it was at these times that she truly hated her mother.
Although Mair had only been eight years old at the time she clearly remembered the cold November day, four years ago, when she and her mother had made the mile walk from the Tredegar Pub to Dai's house in Ponty, one of the many small mining villages in the Nantgarw Valley.
âNow, you be on your best behaviour when we get to Dai Hughes's house. Don't say a word. And don't contradict anything I say, do you hear? I don't want you to bugger up my chances,' her mother had said.
Mair nodded. That morning Nellie had insisted on them both making a special effort with their toilet and clothes. Nellie had dressed in a crisp white shirt, grey flannel long skirt, and shawl; her light-brown hair was gleaming with health and her blue eyes were so full of life. Mair had never seen her mother look prettier. She instinctively knew that this Dai Hughes, whoever he was, had something to do with their future well-being.
âGood morning, Mr Hughes,' her mother had said as Dai answered the door of his terraced house. âI've heard that you're looking for someone to keep house and look after a young 'un.'
âYes. That's right. And who might you be?'
âI'm Nellie Parsons and I've come to offer myself for the position,' she said with confidence.
Mair couldn't help but smile to herself. These were the exact words her mother had been repeating as they walked.
âMorning, Dai,' a middle-aged woman called from next door.
Dai mumbled a quick, âGood morning.' At this moment he could do without Ethel's idle chit-chat.
âYou're up bright and early, Dai, but then you've got more sense than my Jack; he's still sleeping off the bellyful of ale he supped at the Tredegar last night.' She turned to the, good-looking, tousle-haired, young lad leaning against her doorframe, âI ask you, what sort of an example is that to be setting my Frank here, not to mention the young 'uns?'
Frank shook his head, âCome on, Mam. After working a full week down that stinking pit he deserves a few pints.'
âI suppose you're right. Let's hope you don't go to work there, eh?'
As Ethel turned her attention to cleaning the door knocker, Dai breathed a sigh of relief â but he hadn't bargained on Frank.
âMr Hughes, I was just thinking of calling on Rhiannon. Is she in?' Frank asked, his eyes darting from Nellie to Mair and then to Dai.
âNo â no, she's gone on an errand for me â mind you she'll not be long. I'll have her give you a shout when she gets back, eh?'
Frank and Rhi had been friends since they were toddlers. If the truth be known, young Frank Lewis had more than a soft spot for Dai's daughter and, while Dai never objected to their friendship, he wanted more than an early marriage and a houseful of kids for
âI hope she's back before your visitors leave. If I know Rhiannon, she'd be that put out if she missed them â and who could blame her?' The lad flashed a cheeky wink at Nellie.
Dai threw him a disapproving look.
âI think you'd better come inside. Although I'm not promising anything, mind,' he said, turning to Nellie. Then, by way of explanation, âEthel Lewis, from next door, is a kind soul. But she can be nosy with it. I dread to think what she and her son will make out of you two turning up on my doorstep.'
âIt's all right; with a family like mine I've had to grow a thick skin where valley gossips are concerned.'
Dai looked uncomfortable. âPlease, take a seat in front of the fire.'
Before taking her seat Mair couldn't help but notice the way her mother deliberately brushed herself against Dai.
For a moment he looked flustered.
âAre you all right, Mr Hughes?' her mother asked, in an unusually sweet voice.
Dai gave a nervous cough. âYes-yes, I'm fine,' he answered. âThe thing is ... I was really looking for someone older. It's a big responsibility tending house and looking after a ten-year-old child.' Dai appeared to be trying to put her off.
But her mother was having none of it. âI'm twenty-five, so you needn't worry on that score. And I've had years of practice looking after all my mother's brood.'
Mair and her mother had lived with Grandma Lily and Grandpa Jack in Carn Terrace at the top end of the valley, for as long as she remembered. With her grandpa in and out of prison and her gran always drunk it fell on her mother to run the house as best she could â often at Mair's expense.
âLook, Mr Hughes, I'll tell you the honest truth. I recently lost my job at the Home and Colonial â a job I really enjoyed until my dad had to go and spoil it by breaking into the shop and stealing the takings. I suppose you've heard he's back in gaol?'
âYes, I've heard. But it's never fair. Surely you shouldn't be penalized for something your father did?'
âIt's kind of you to say so, but it doesn't alter the fact that with my father in prison and me losing my job â it's thanks to him that we couldn't pay the rent and have been evicted from our house in Carn Terrace. My mother has buggered off to Nantymoel, taking my four sisters, to live with our gran. There's no room for Mair and me, so we're
lodging with Dilys Morgan whose parents keep the Tredegar public house. Mr Hughes, I desperately need this job if I'm to pay my way.'
âIt sounds to me as if we're as desperate as one another. Since my wife's death, almost a year ago, I've found it very difficult to juggle going to work and looking after Rhiannon.'
âYou work at Glengarw colliery, don't you?'
âYes, at pit bottom. Up to now I've been lucky. If George Evans, the foreman, hadn't been so sympathetic since the loss of my wife, making sure I only work the day shift, I don't know what I'd have done. But recently a few troublemakers have made complaints; they say I've been given special treatment. So there's nothing for it, I'm going to have to work my share of the night shift every other week. Which is why I'm looking for someone to live in and be here for my Rhiannon.'
âIt must have been very difficult for you â left on your own to bring up a young daughter?'
âI suppose it has been. Mind you, Rhiannon can cook and sew as well as the next â my Rose made sure of that. And the neighbours have been good. Especially Ethel from next door â twice a week she brings us a large saucepan of
. I offer to pay but she won't hear of it, insisting that a bit of end of lamb and a few vegetables cost next to nought â she's a heart of gold that one. Anyways, I need to know that there's someone here to get Rhiannon to school and put a good hot meal on the table when she gets home.'
âI've never had trouble getting up of a morning and as for my cooking, well, since I took over the cooking duties at home, there's been no complaint from my lot.' Nellie flashed him a smile.
Dai scratched at the stubble on his chin. âLook, if I was willing to take you on for say ... a month's trial, what about your own daughter?'
Mair held her breath.
âI did think to bring her with me. We could share a room. She's no trouble, honest.'
Dai looked down at the young girl; with the same blue eyes and light brown hair, a miniature of her mother. âHow old is Mair?' he asked.
âShe's eight. Look, if you'd rather I didn't? I know Dilys's mam wouldn't mind her staying on at the pub, and for her trouble Mair could help her wash the pots of an evening.'
Another lie; earlier that morning Mair had overheard Dilys tell Nellie, âDon't even think about leaving your brat with me. If you go
then she's got to go too!' Mair was about to remind her mother, but thought better of it.
Dai looked concerned, âThat won't be necessary,' he said. âI'll not have my daughter being looked after at your daughter's expense. So, yes, you can bring her with you. She can go to school with Rhiannon; they'll be company for one another.'