Monday, August 16, 2010

William and Rachel's story

If you're looking for a happy ever after story, I'm sorry but this will disappoint you.

They moved from Rachel’s aunt’s home to a rented house as a young married couple. William tolerated the fat, ugly baby who, anyway, spent a deal of time with his great-aunt.

In the late Summer of 1916, Rachel fell pregnant again. This wasn’t in the Great Plan. She had not wanted another baby and was terrified of going through days of labour. As far as possible, she ignored her pregnancy and tried to hide it from everyone especially William. Far from rejecting her, he was delighted to have another baby of his own. This still did not mollify her. Taking no notice of nagging backache, she set off for the Spring Fair with her sister. Throughout the day, the pains increased and eventually, they got home moments before the baby boy was born nearly two months early. A tiny scrap, Rachel hoped he would not survive. She had given all her love to one son and had none left for this red, angry baby who ruined her figure and her plans.

William persuaded his sister-in-law to help him bottle feed the little reject who refused to die. Reluctantly, Rachel came round to the baby,Eric, but made sure that there would be no further mistakes. She put a bolster down the middle of the bed and this stayed in place for the next forty-five years.

But love did not deepen for William and Rachel; they endured each other. The household eventually fractured into two separate parts. Rachel loved the first baby forever and tried to give him every opportunity, saving pennies to buy him small treats. William’s indifference to his stepson turned to stone when the boy showed no aptitude to learn how the world worked. By contrast, his own son showed a keen understanding of everything mechanical. In 1925, they sent off for a kit and instruction book to make a cat’s whisker radio. Everything that William lavished on Eric was denied to his stepson. At three years old, Eric became desperately ill leaving him almost totally deaf. William sent him to private school and when he was nineteen, he bought a car for him to learn to drive. The other son was allowed nowhere near the car. Eric took his lead from William and learned to despise his half brother. The common currency between William and Eric describing the older boy was "that silly bugger".

In 1921, William and Rachel and Rachel’s sister and brother-in-law bought a plot of land and built two houses with large gardens. Rachel and Hannah were close companions and Eric played with his young cousins who could follow his awkward speech.

Every Summer, when William’s holiday came round, Rachel would take his holiday pay and buy wallpaper and paint. He spent the next week decorating while she went away with her sister. One year, William returned the materials and, stripping off the wallpaper on the stairwell, he painted a fresco of a remarkably evil looking horse. Since it was applied directly to the plaster, it remains to this day, hidden under wallpaper.

Rachel was furious and they had one of their infamous rows where she hurled a kettle of boiling water followed by a flat iron. He fended her off with the ironing board. That was the last year of decorating summer holidays. William had achieved what he wanted and he and Eric took off on their own travels every summer.

After Eric had learned to drive in 1936, they went to Devon and Dorset just following their fancy. The ferry from Weymouth to the Channel Islands caught their eye and then it was just a short hop to St Malo where they meandered along the north coast of Brittany for a few days. Lord knows what the Bretons made of this strange pair.

Rachel developed a taste for charabanc trips to Scarborough and Blackpool with her sister and best friend. She became a pillar of the Church and, when war broke out, she joined the Red Cross as a volunteer nurse in a local convalescent home.

Both sons married in the 1950s leaving William and Rachel to rub along on their own.

In 1961, William’s health began to fail and in November, he and Rachel made a momentous decision. They got married. William was eighty-two and Rachel was sixty-eight.

You’ve probably done a double-take at this point. No, go back up and re-read it. William and Rachel set up home “as a young married couple”. Just without the getting married bit.

William and Florence were married in 1905 and by the Summer of 1914, they had parted. I don’t know exactly when or why. But by 1914 he was no longer with Florence. Rachel was said to have given him this watch on their wedding day in June 1914. It’s inscribed.

But there was no wedding. William was still married to Florence.

Moreover, there was no divorce either. When Florence married Abraham in 1921, she was still married to William. William certainly lost touch with Violet and Felix.

Rachel sported a modest wedding ring and a band of diamond chips but had never been married. Her first son had no father named on his birth certificate and carried Rachel’s surname. But William is named on Eric’s birth certificate and he carried his father’s surname.

So just why did they marry? Was it just to be respectable? Certainly, there was a grat risk that the whole sorry tale it would have come out when William died.

Was it because Florence had died and there would have been no hindrance? No. Florence went on until 1979 when she was ninety-five. Abraham had died in the sixties but, of course, their "marriage" remained irregular too.

William knew that, since he and Rachel were not actually married, Rachel had no property rights over his estate. He intended to leave his whole estate to Eric and therby exclude her first son. But Rachel knew William’s secret. Somewhere, there was his wife and legitimate children. She could bring the whole poisonous ediface down around the one person whom William truly loved. Eric would be exposed as illegitimate. It’s hard to understand how terrible that was before the swinging sixties. Anyway, the swinging sixties took a bit longer to reach the South Wales valleys and even in the mid seventies people were still shocked by illegitimacy. In a contradiction of double standards, in the late fifties in some areas more than 50% of brides were pregnant when they married. The dishonour was in the illegitimacy.

So, back to William and Rachel. They owned up to Eric that they had never married and that they planned to have a civil ceremony from his sister’s home. Hurt and shocked, he drove them to Swansea on a cold day in November for the wedding.

His old will was destroyed when they “married” and he left everything to Rachel. He declined over the Spring and Summer of 1962. In his last days, Rachel saw what a miserable life they had created. Holding his hand as he lay dying, she wept for the bitter years. “Don’t go Will. Don’t leave me”. He died a few days before his eighty-third birthday. Make of her pleading what you like.

After his death, Rachel did her best to obliterate his presence from the house. All his artist’s materials, jewellery making tools, violin and harp were thrown out. Eric rescued a few pieces but most of it was lost. All the photographs were destroyed.

William had intended leaving the large garden to Eric so that he could build a house. During the shady dealings of sham marriages and wills, this never took place. Rachel gave Eric the land and he built the home of his modest dreams. Next door to Rachel, he and his family were on hand.

Old age was reasonably kind to Rachel. Her first son was married with one son and they visited occasionally. Eric continued to love and care for her despite everything. Occasionally, she would lash out at him with the spiteful reminder that he was the child she had never wanted. She didn’t get on with his wife who found Rachel’s bitterness and duplicity loathsome. Sometimes there were nasty rows and Rachel and her daughter-in-law did not speak for months and in one case for more than a year. But mainly she accepted the kindnesses with or without thanks; the Sunday lunches, the laundry and the jams and preserves went on even when they didn’t speak.

At the start of 1982, Rachel went downhill rapidly. Through the hard snows of January 1982, Eric struggled to carry on working while caring for his mother. By March she needed 24 hour care. Eric drove to the local hospital nearly every day. On April 8th, he spent the afternoon in the garden planning to go for evening visiting. But he didn’t make it that day. Finishing in the garden, he lit a cigarette, leaned on the garden fork and died.

Telling Rachel that he had died was hard. “Not my Eric. Not my boy”. Ah yes, Rachel. The boy you didn’t want, who spent his life trying to please you. Rachel died three weeks later.

And what about her will? She left it all to her two sons. Eric’s half went to his widow. There was a deal of confusion and solicitor’s fees spent resolving the fact that, although Rachel had given Eric the land for building, no legal paperwork had ever been completed. Eric’s half brother disputed the title claiming that, although they owned the bricks and mortar, they did not own the land on which it was built. Eventually, common sense won.

William and Rachel were my paternal grandparents.

Like I said, no happy ever after.

1 comment:

  1. What a fascinating tale. Reality is so often better than fiction.


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