I've listened to all my European colleagues yattering on about the long weeks that they've spent down on the Med while I've been waiting. Smugly, you know. Through the long not very nice summer, I've taken long weekends to watch progress on the building work on the house. As the showers came and went, and building was slowed down, my smug smile withered slightly but still hovered a bit Cheshire cat-like. Last week, as the school holidays trickled away, I watched the fields and gardens turn to mud. Still a bit smug but also fearful that those forecasts of wet until November might be true.
But now here I am smug, SMUG, SMUG. On holiday, in Wales with Fern Hill weather.
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 was born on the longest day of 1879, one of the younger children of a large and chaotic family in Merthyr Tydfil. Frank was a woodworker, his sister Jessie became a suffragette, Lizzie was a communist councillor, John set off to fight in the Spanish civil war. All the brothers and sisters were political radicals in the People’s Republic of Merthyr Tydfil. William was an artist and musician. He painted, drew and made jewellery winning first prize for jewellery making in the national Eisteddfod in 1950. He played the violin. Deciding to that he wanted to learn to play the harp and so started from first principles, making his own harp. But for everyday living, he worked in the pit as a coal hewer.
In 1905, he married Florence and in 1906 Violet was born. They moved to Aberfan where their son, Felix was born in 1910. New technology was coming to the mines; they were being electrified. William’s quick understanding of how things worked took him into the heart of this new technology. Florence took the children to live with her parents while William travelled around different coal mines, moving on again once electricity had been installed.
By 1914, he was lodging with a middle-aged woman and her pretty young niece and illegitimate baby. William became captivated by this young girl, fourteen years his junior.
Felix and Violet remained with Florence who married Abraham in 1921.
William's life took a different course. He had met Rachel.
Rachel was born in 1893, the eldest of three children. Her father had a small farm, mixing farming with open-cast mining. By the time she was sixteen, he had sold the farm for good money. Deep mining was eating its way through the valleys. Daniel spent the money on buying a pub. Sadly for Rachel and her brother and sister, their parents enjoyed the pub far too much and the money disappeared rapidly. She left home to work as a kitchen maid in a local manor farm.
Willow pattern blue eyes, strawberry blonde hair and her delicate build caught the attention of a young man in the house. By the spring of 1912, she was pregnant and by the summer, jobless. Returning home to her parents, she found herself unwanted there as well. Utterly rejected and homeless, she was found wandering the lanes by her widowed aunt who took her in. Her aunt was childless with no experience of childbirth. Rachel’s tiny frame struggled with the large baby for days of agonising and frightening labour. Rachel was nineteen and this was January 1913. Defiantly, she named her baby after his father who never acknowledged the kitchen maid and her unwanted baby.
Large, square and ugly, she adored him. But she knew that she had to provide a living and a home for them both. Her aunt ran a boot round, collecting and returning boots and shoes door to door for mending and Rachel joined her, expanding the business walking many miles pushing the perambulator with the boots piled in with the baby. Her brother and sister came to visit and, gradually, her parents allowed their daughter to visit.
Rachel looked for more than lodging in her aunt’s home. She wanted security and, at barely twenty-one was still young and pretty.
Meeting William put Rachel’s life on a completely different course. They met in 1914 and were together for the next forty-seven years. She had found a step-father for her baby and a man who could provide a good living for the little family. She settled into respectability and domesticity.
After marrying, they moved into a small flat above a shop. All Ann’s family except her brother were at the wedding. James was in the navy and hadn’t been able to make it back in time.
After saying goodbye to the family, they retired for the night. Trembling with anticipation, they lay in bed, chastely side-by-side. Hugh unwound Ann's hair and she threaded her fingers into his curls. Suddenly, a clatter and shout were heard outside. “A drunk, take no notice”, he whispered. “Ann, Hugh, c’mon. It’s me … James”. It was her brother. His ship had arrived at Cardiff docks and he had gifts for the newlyweds. His sailor’s bag was slung over his shoulder and balanced in his arms were a set of eggshell delicate bone china and a large wall clock. Realising that he had missed the wedding breakfast, he had enjoyed a glass or two before catching the last train up the valley. He spent the night on their sofa, snoring. They held hands all through a long unconsummated night.
The presence of an unexpected guest didn’t damper their ardour for long. Morfydd was born in August 1910, Mair in 1912, Eluned in 1914 and Iorwerth in 1916. In 1918 a still-born baby broke into their happiness. Eluned was so excited that there was going to be a baby and ran upstairs. Hugh stood on the landing glassy-eyed with tears and wouldn’t let the little girl go in. “I want to see the baby”, she bellowed. “There isn’t a baby for us today”, he murmured hugging her. Another baby girl, Irene, arrived safely in 1919. Glennys was born in the summer of 1921 but died at seven months. Eluned had knitted a dolly for her baby sister and hugged it on the day of the funeral.
But mostly, it was a happy home. Ann worked hard to keep a good house, blacking the range and scrubbing the front step. Cleanliness and godliness were level pegging in the home. By 1919 Hugh was the foreman-builder on a new development of council houses. He earned a good wage and they could afford a few luxuries. Shelves began to fill with books and occasional toys for the children. Hugh and Ann loved coffee and they would mill the beans for fresh coffee in the evening when the children went to bed. Little Eluned would beg for a sip of coffee but grimaced at the taste every time.
Hugh would bring home his account book and a bag of money to pay the workmen. Eluned and Iorwerth would be given the money to count while Morfydd and Mair bagged up and labelled each wage. Later, when Eluned proved to be adept with numbers, she would be given the columns of figures to check.
Two dogs trotted in and out of the house. There was always a spaniel and a terrier. Each Whit Monday and on the first Monday in August, Hugh would hire a pony and trap and take them to the seaside. A long day with Eluned and Iorwerth on the perch by the side of Hugh and the dogs sandwiched between them. Ann and the other girls would sit in the back with the baskets of provisions and the blankets. Eluned didn’t care whether they ever got to the sea; sitting up in the cart looking at the fields and hedges was the thing. Hugh was a fine horseman having been a teamster before leaving home. He would let the little ones stand between his knees and hold the reins as they trotted along the lanes. On the journey home, the two postillions would be adamant that they weren’t tired enough to need to travel behind but they often found themselves waking up under blankets by the end of the journey.
After Glennys, there were no more babies and Hugh and Ann looked forward to the children growing up. He was making a good living and thinking about throwing his lot in with his brother Robert who had started his own building firm. Robert’s wife still looked down on the shop girl and Alice was busily inculcating her nieces with the “we might be poor, but we’re not common” mantra. In 1924, Morfydd left school to work in the local Corn Stores, a sensible reliable girl. 1926 was a year of great change for the family. Mair left school to work in a dress shop. Eluned passed her scholarship exam to go to the grammar school and Hugh fell ill.
The cancer quickly took hold and one day in the Spring of 1927, the younger children were taken to the hospital to see their father one last time. They arrived too late. He had just just died and they couldn’t recognise the old man in the bed. He was forty-four.
Life changed completely for Ann and the children. The two elder girls became the breadwinners. Irene spent many months with her aunts and Eluned with her uncle and aunt. Iorwerth became the man of the family. He was ten. The light had truly gone out of Ann’s life. Scrimping and saving to keep the family together took away her sense of joy and was replaced by overwhelming sadness occasionally spliced with bitterness and anger.
In 1962, Ann had a small stroke leaving her permanently confused. She wanted to go home – to the house where she had lived with Hugh and their young family. Every day, she would dress her hair, put on her coat and hat and carefully put the two hatpins in place ready to go home. Eventually, she went home in June 1965.