Second Chanceby Sian James
Returning from London to Wales for her mother’s funeral, actress Kate Rivers is overwhelmed by painful memories from her past as well as regrets about her current childless, unmarried life. Teetering towards a midlife crisis, Kate is unable to find the emotional support she needs from her lover, Paul. Instead she finds herself falling for her beautiful and
Returning from London to Wales for her mother’s funeral, actress Kate Rivers is overwhelmed by painful memories from her past as well as regrets about her current childless, unmarried life. Teetering towards a midlife crisis, Kate is unable to find the emotional support she needs from her lover, Paul. Instead she finds herself falling for her beautiful and married cousin, Rhydian. But is her affair a second chance at happiness or a dangerous infatuation? This absorbing novel retells the familiar human tales of love and family relationships in a sympathetic yet unsentimental way.
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By Siân James
Poetry Wales Press LtdCopyright © 2011 Siân James
All rights reserved.
It was ten o'clock, a Tuesday morning in late September. I was standing outside my mother's cottage, savouring the weak sunshine and remembering my childhood, the first days at school, walking reluctantly down the track, turning every few steps to wave to my mother standing where I now stood, the smell of autumn, the nip in the air, the blood-red berries, hips and haws, in the thinning hedges, a gulp of fear as I rounded the bend and could no longer see her. There'd been a strong bond between us, not surprising, really: an only child, an absent father.
About to turn back into the house, I saw someone coming up the lane towards me and waving – a postman pushing a bike, no, a postwoman. I stayed at the door.
'Hello,' the woman said. 'Kate, is it? We were all so sorry to hear about your poor mother. When is the funeral? We'll all be there. Everyone had a good word for your poor mother, and she seemed so well at the moment. I'm Lorna Davies, by the way. I feel I've known you for years, your mother told me so much about you. Whenever I had a letter for her she used to make me come in and listen to your latest exploits. You and I are the same age, it seems. Forty-three last spring, is it? Is that right?'
'Come in and have a cup with me,' I said, smiling a little wanly. I hadn't yet found it necessary to lie about my age, but realised that I still thought of myself as thirty-something. Forty-three last spring, I told myself firmly. It seemed a time for facing all sorts of unpalatable truths.
'No, please, I was about to put the kettle on. I haven't had breakfast yet. Had a bad night and slept late.'
'No need to make excuses. I know about you actresses. Parties all night and up at midday. Well, I won't say no. The tea is in that tin on the mantelpiece. No, the blue one with peacocks. Shall I make up the fire while you get yourself some toast? No, I won't have any, thank you. A digestive biscuit, I usually have. The square tin with the Queen Mother. I can't stay long at the moment, but my mother-in-law would come up and help a bit, you know, a bit of baking and so on. A cup of tea and some cake in the vestry is all people expect these days, perhaps some sausage rolls and slices of quiche, no need for any fuss. My mother-in-law would be glad to see to it all if you don't feel up to it.'
'No, I don't feel up to it,' I said, sitting at the table and frowning at the toast I'd made which was too crisp, and black and frilly at the edges.
'The marmalade is in that little cupboard, look. And margarine in the fridge, the butter'll be too hard. How long can you stay? Have you fed Arthur this morning? The cat, girl. He hasn't been in? Oh, he's grieving. They do, you know. He might be down Tan-y-Bryn way. Gwenda Rees will feed him with hers. Lovely cup of tea – I like it good and strong. But don't let him stay there too long. He's an indoor cat, Arthur, and the farm cats will torment him. I must go now. My mother-in-law will be up this afternoon. Maggie Davies, she is, Mrs Tudor Davies when she's trying to impress. Only a little word: don't let her take over. You say exactly what you want. She'll do what you tell her as long as you're firm. Look, why don't you phone Gwenda and ask her to fetch Arthur up? No trouble for her, she's got a car of her own, and he'll be company for you. Nice cat. I'll tell you what, I'll call in on Gwenda, she's a friend of mine, and tell her you're a bit moithered at the moment. No, don't come to the door, I'll let myself out.'
She's gone. A good, wholesome woman with a square jaw and big hips. The salt of the earth. And a voice to fill the Albert Hall. It's the great open spaces that give you a voice like that. Mine used to be as good, but I've become cityfied and refined.
Oh God, this is going to be even worse than I thought. Grief is one thing, but I hadn't reckoned on funeral bakemeats. I've been away too long. Oh God, I've got to pull myself together and see the minister this afternoon to choose hymns and so on. Which were her favourite hymns? I've no idea. Was she religious? Not as far as I know, though she never liked it when I spoke up for the devil.
I didn't have an easy childhood. Easy? What am I talking about? We're facing the truth, here. It was hell.
The earliest memories. Going back and back.
My mother screaming and throwing herself about even as my Auntie Jane held her. 'Don't you worry, bach. Your mummy's got a nasty pain, but she'll soon be better. You go back to bed, bach. I'll come up in a minute to tuck you in again. As soon as she's better.'
Screaming, screaming, screaming. Because my father had left her. 'Your daddy's had to go away, bach.' And because of the thing in the chamber pot. The thing Auntie Jane poured into the enamel bucket and tried to hide. 'Only blood clots, bach. Because your mummy's had a very bad stomach ache and that happens sometimes. Now, don't go and worry your mummy about it because she's having a little sleep now and it will do her good. Oh, she'll be better in no time at all. I'll make you some chips for your dinner. All right? Yes, you'd like that, I know, and Listen with Mother on the wireless after.'
Auntie Jane was my great-aunt, my mother's aunt, though only about ten or twelve years older. Life was bearable when she was with us, but she couldn't come too often because she had a farm and children of her own – big rough children who swooped about on bikes – and a demanding husband. I remember that word, 'Ted is so demanding,' she'd tell my mother, 'Ted wants more than I've got. And he's getting mean as well in his old age. He begrudges me every shilling.'
'You bring too much up here,' my mother would say, suddenly calm and wise. 'He can't support two families.'
'Don't you stick up for him. Never stick up for a man, Miri. He's mean to the bone. If he won't be able to do someone down in the mart tomorrow, he'll take it out on us. I have to tell the lads to keep out of his way. Don't you marry a farmer, Kate, whatever you do. Remember what I say. Now, you're not to fret, Kate, because I've got to go. Your mummy's going to be much better soon. She cries because your daddy had to go away, bach. But it's not your fault, Kate. You keep telling yourself that. And remember, if you say you want a cup of tea and some bread and butter, then your mummy'll have some as well. You take care of her, bach, because she's had a hard time. But she's getting better every day. And I'll be up again next week.'
Why had my father left us? Forty years on – yes, forty years – and I'm still not absolutely sure. Even now, I know very little about him, hardly anything. There was once a photograph on the dresser, a wedding photograph, but it was taken away. I suppose Auntie Jane took it away.
When I was sixteen, full of self-confidence, my life opening up, I pressed my mother for any information she might have. I only knew his name, Philip Rivers, and that he'd worked in a bank in the nearby town. Was he English, as his name suggested? Where had he come from? Was he still alive? Did he have a family? I wasn't sure I wanted to find him, he'd caused us too much anguish, but I wouldn't have minded grandparents, cultured people perhaps, with a house called 'The Old Rectory' or 'The Malt House' with a library and a garden with a stream, like the people in the books I read.
'Why are you interested in him?' she asked harshly. 'He's never sent us any money, he's never been in touch, never shown a moment's interest in either of us. Let him go.'
'Perhaps he cheated the bank. Perhaps he had to disappear.'
'Yes, your Auntie Jane thought of that. She got Haydn Williams, your Uncle Ted's solicitor, to make enquiries, but there was no sort of trouble. He'd even given them a month's notice, saying he'd got a job in an accountant's office in North Wales. The staff had collected for a leaving present, a glass biscuit barrel, the manager said it was.'
'Did the solicitor contact the accountant's office?'
'He hadn't given them an address. But Haydn Williams put adverts in all the North Wales papers asking for information about him – it cost your Uncle Ted plenty – but there was no reply. No clues to follow. Nothing.'
I lowered my voice. 'Did you quarrel much?'
'We never had a quarrel. Not once.'
'But you must have suspected that things were ... well, not as they should be between you.'
'I didn't suspect anything. No one did. There wasn't any gossip about him and some other woman, either. Not as far as your Auntie Jane could discover and she talked to everyone, the girls at the bank and the women at the Gwalia where he sometimes had his lunch. No one had anything to say about him. Only that he was always polite, always quiet.'
'You must have contacted his parents?'
'He didn't have any parents. He was a Barnardo's boy from up Wrexham way, I thought you knew that – I thought your Auntie Jane would have told you that. Rivers was a name they gave him at Barnardo's. That's why I wanted you to go back to Williams when you went to big school, but you didn't choose to.'
'I'd got used to Kate Rivers by that time.'
'They gave them tidy names at Barnardo's, I will say that. Hill and Field, Bridges and Forest. Nature names. Anyway, you'll change your name when you get married and that will be soon enough, I dare say.'
'Why should I get married? It didn't do much for you.'
I was hard when I was sixteen, resenting all the hardship I'd suffered.
I can't ever forget the screaming; that was the worst part. The way she flung herself from side to side even when Auntie Jane was holding her. I've used that scream in so many parts – Hester in The Deep Blue Sea, Bertha in Jane Eyre, Constance in King John. It seems callous, I know, but you have to make use of everything. I'll even be watching people at the funeral, I know I will, noting their backs, straight or slumped, the little furtive glances in my direction, and who's that man at my side, the chapel clothes, not necessarily black these days, but dauntingly respectable, the lace handkerchiefs dabbing at the eyes and the corners of the mouths.
'Try not to worry, bach. Your mummy's getting better every day.'
Better? God, it must have been all of five years before she was even moderately sane. I was doing the housework and the cooking before I'd started school. Well, not cooking exactly, but cups of tea and bread and butter and tinned soup and boiled eggs, with no one to worry if I cut my hand or scalded myself. I suppose I'd have been taken into care if it wasn't for Auntie Jane who did our shopping once a week; four large sliced loaves, tea, margarine, sugar, baked beans, vegetable soup, processed cheese and bananas, always the same items, and eggs from the farm; far too many eggs. 'Now, don't worry, bach. Your mummy's getting better, I notice it every time I come. You look after her nicely, Kate, and see that she gets dressed every day. You tell her, "Mummy, I won't get dressed unless you do." You're a little champion, you are, there's no one like you in the world. Now, you eat a slice of my fruit cake every day and see that your mummy does too. It's very nourishing, my fruit cake, and it will keep you regular as well.'
It was Auntie Jane who took me to school that first day. The other new children, two girls and a boy, were crying at being left, but I had grown-up worries. Who'd give my mother her dinner? Who'd remind her to eat when I wasn't there?
My teacher is Mrs Evans. She's big and fluffy as a bear and she smells of lavender soap and some darker smell as well, like beds. She's always surprised by my work. 'I'm astonished,' she says every time she comes round the tables. 'Absolutely astonished.' She tells the headmaster how astonished she is and he nods his head so hard and long that I'm afraid it will fall off. When the other children have gone out to play, she cuddles me, and I tell her about my daddy leaving and my mummy crying and she says it's very sad. 'Lucky your mummy's got you,' she says. 'You're as smart as paint, you are. The cleverest little girl in the school.'
'I wonder if her mother's getting all the benefits she's entitled to,' she whispers to the headmaster when he comes round for the register. 'I think I'll call and see her next Saturday.'
'Mrs Evans is coming up here on Saturday,' I tell my mother the very moment I get home. 'It's about money, I think. She whispered something to Mr Adams. About helping us, I think.' I'd been uneasy about it all day – my mother was frightened of strangers – but as there's no sort of response from her, I stop worrying.
On Saturday morning, though, she's taken up a position by the window even before I come downstairs, and she's standing there still as a post. 'Waiting,' she says in a voice which makes me shiver. I make her a cup of tea with two sugars, but she won't have it. She won't sit down either.
It's well into the morning before she sees Mrs Evans' little blue car coming up the track. As soon as she does, she turns and pulls me with her into the cupboard under the stairs and closes the door on us. The cupboard is dark and smells of firewood and wet earth. I know my mother is frightened because her arms round my shoulders are shaking and shaking.
We hear Mrs Evans knocking on the front door and then the back. She isn't going away. 'We're here, Mrs Evans,' I want to shout. 'We're in the cwtsh under the stairs,' but I don't, because I know my mother is even more frightened than I am. Mrs Evans knocks again on the back door then goes round to the front and shouts through the letterbox. 'Mrs Rivers. Mrs Rivers. It's Christine Evans, Katie's teacher. I'd like to talk to you, Mrs Rivers.' We strain to listen, but we don't hear any footsteps; she isn't going away. Suddenly there's a sound like a tap running and something splashes over my feet. It's my mother doing pi-pi. 'Don't cry,' my mother whispers and she hugs me tight.
At last we shuffle out. My mother smiles for a moment because Mrs Evans has gone away. I haven't seen her smile before. She smells of pi-pi and there's a big dark patch on her grey skirt, but I don't say anything. When Gethyn Owen wet himself in class, Mrs Evans picked him up and carried him off to the cloakroom and when he came back he had different trousers on, but Mrs Evans said no one was to mention it. I think my mother is wet and cold, but I don't mention it and she goes to sit close to the fire and after a while she stops shivering and I make her a big mug of tea and to my surprise she smiles again. Perhaps she is getting better. She smells of pi-pi though, and so does the cupboard under the stairs, but I don't do anything about it. Things sometimes get better if you just leave them alone.
There's a knock on the door. It's an effort to get back to the present.
It's Gwenda Rees, a pretty, dark-haired woman, with a cat in a basket: Arthur. He looks around him but doesn't bother to get out, not at all sure, it seems, whether he intends to stay. I stroke his head and smile at Gwenda Rees. 'Do sit down. How kind of you to bring him back. No, we've never met before. Hello, Arthur. I wonder if he'd like to come back to London with me. Do you know how old he is?'
'I don't think your mother knew. He arrived here one day fully grown and determined to stay. But I think she must have had him two or three years. One of my lads used to come up and leave him a bowl of milk out the back when she was away visiting you. Yes, I've got two boys, Gareth and Dafydd. Two villains ... You never came home much lately, did you? Well, you were always busy, that was it. Your mother was always telling us how busy you were. Not your fault.'
'It was easier for her to visit me, Mrs Rees. She liked London. Liked the shops.'
'Oh, I know. We heard all about it, girl. Harrods' Food Hall. No such place in the world, according to her ... And Gwenda I am, by the way. No one round here calls me Mrs Rees. But your mother, now, was always Mrs Rivers, never Miriam. She didn't like anyone being too familiar. Her age, I suppose. When you're older, you gather these shreds of dignity around you. What else have you got? Well, she had London, fair play. Not an easy life, by all accounts, but a daughter doing well and showing her the sights. And buying her smart clothes too. A hundred and sixty pounds that last navy-blue suit was, according to her, all except a penny. You've got nothing to blame yourself for, nothing at all.'
Excerpted from Second Chance by Siân James. Copyright © 2011 Siân James. Excerpted by permission of Poetry Wales Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Sian James was brought up and educated in West Wales. Her first novel, One Afternoon, won the Yorkshire Post First Novel Award; her second, Yesterday, won the Yorkshire Post Best Novel Award; and her fifth, Dragons and Roses, won a Welsh Arts Council prize. She has four grown-up children and one grandchild, and now lives in Warwickshire.
Sian James's first novel won the Yorkshire Post first novel award; her fifth won a Welsh Arts Council award. She lives in England.
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