'Better Death than Dishonour' Sarah Reynolds

‘Better Death than Dishonour’ Sarah Reynolds

The fourteenth instalment of our Story | Retold series takes its inspiration from ‘Shacki Thomas’ by Gwyn Jones.

Mair had been seeing Harry everywhere of late. Only that morning she’d been passing Will the Barber’s when she’d stopped in her tracks. A thin pale nape presented itself towards the window. Narrow shoulders. A gentleman’s posture. Feeling her eyes on him, Will tipped an imaginary hat at her. She smiled but her eyes were stuck to his razor as it scraped away the foam. The man in the chair emerged with a rakish grin – Betti Siencyn’s eldest – Griff was it? Really, the likeness was so slight, Mair felt quite ashamed of herself.

A hand landed on her shoulder like a taloned bird. She reeled round to see the minister’s wife, Mrs Roberts standing there, her brow pleated with concern and a carrot poking out of her string shopping bag like a witchy finger.

“Don’t be having a pull now on your wedding day,” she said, taking Mair’s basket and offering up the back of her hand to Mair’s forehead.

“It’s nothing. I forgot an errand, that’s all.”

“You don’t want to be fetching errands today, Mair fach. You do look very pale.”

“Then a bit of air’ll be just the tonic,” said Mair, reclaiming her shopper, and in a voice she pitched as jaunty, “I’m off to fetch my button holes.”

As she turned off onto Lime Street, Mair watched Mrs Roberts’ bulky frame heading for Clarence Road. The old sticky beak. Mam wouldn’t thank her for interrupting preparations for the wedding breakfast. Though, perhaps she might be recruited to the production line. There were cucumber sandwiches to be made, ham salad. It was the devilled eggs that chased Mair out, the smell congealing on the back of her tongue.

“I don’t know why you’re taking on so daft,” said Mam, “You’ve always loved an egg.”

“It’s nerves is all,” said Anti Mags, emerging from the pantry with the damson jam, “Fresh air’ll put the roses back in your cheeks. Go and fetch the flowers while I make a start on the tarts.”

And so Mair found herself on the trusty old eighty-three, juddering its way up the valley. From her seat by the window she observed the narrow furrow into which she’d been sown. Lime on the fields gave them a sickly hue, the colour of camphor ointment. She felt the grey threat of the sky above, its clouds sticky as cobwebs. Sheep chomped at the grassy verges of the road and it seemed to Mair that she was one of their number; a dumb animal fattening for the slaughter.

Howell’s Department Store was a world away. The little navy suit she’d dreamt of wearing, the starched white collar, as distant now, as the moon. Freshly pressed and awaiting her in the parlour, her future was laid out in lemon rayon; a wedding dress conjured from offcuts and sewn with love. It hung from the lip of the cabinet where Mam kept things for best – the rosebud tea set, the silver candlestick and standing sentry over these, encased in glass, Mamgu’s stuffed fox, a dead thing, feigning life. The thought of those blank eyes gave Mair the chills. Fear began to gnaw at her, worm-like. She felt it writhing in her belly like a disease, an infection got from Jack.

A woman got off the bus at Pensarn, toting a pair of china spaniels. To the pawnshop on New Street, Mair supposed. Same place Mam picked up her Singer 66. Bought for a song, she’d said. Mair watched the woman waddle off with a spaniel under each arm and wondered what particular misfortune had befallen her.

“The pit makes men of boys,” her father always said, “and widows of girls,” would come her mother’s weary reply.

In the distance, Mair could make out the cenotaph angel standing in a pool of poppies. There’d been whispers of another war. She pictured Harry in uniform – the smooth brow, the square chin, teeth the colour of buttermilk. She’d beg him not to go. He’d talk of honour and duty. Did she want to end up like Connie Edwards? – Unable to show her face in town, no hope of a job at the pit for her boys. Better death than dishonour, he’d tell her.

It was churlish but Mair found herself looking out for Harry even now, scanning all the bobbing hats on the High Street for a tuft of strawberry blonde. As if he might appear for their rendezvous, eight weeks late. Or perhaps it was herself she was looking for; the girl she’d been back in June, with all her dreams still alive.

 

She’d been to Pensarn that Tuesday in June, to deliver Mrs Vaughan’s jacket. She’d taken the mending too and a pair of booties, knitted in a cheerful buttercup yellow.

“No charge for those Mrs Vaughan, they’re a gift.”

“Well Mair fach, that’s kind… and you’ve done a lovely job on that jacket.”

“A smashing wife you’ll make that Jack,” chipped in Mr Vaughan with a wink.

“Let Mair have a cwtsh now Glanmor, your cawl is getting cold.”

Before Mair could protest, the baby was thrust into her arms.

“Don’t worry, you won’t break him,” said Mrs Vaughan but the baby knew better and started mewling for his Mami. Mair was happy to pass him back and rescue her good pea-green jacket from the threat of milky dribble.

“I’d best be on my way Mrs Vaughan.”

“Well remember me to your Mam, now.”

“And give my best to your… stepfather,” said Mr Vaughan.

His wife’s face said she’d have kicked him if he were closer but Mair smiled politely through the flush on her cheeks.

No matter that Huw Davies loved Mair as his own, his surname had never quite stuck. The stain of it had made her shy – seventeen and never been kissed. Not for want of trying on Jack’s part; he’d never cared who she called ‘Dad’. She worried what Harry would make of it though. He was different, respectable. She’d have to tell him if things progressed. No point him hearing it from someone else on their wedding day. She flushed again at the thought of it, scolding herself: Don’t get carried away now Mair. It’s only a cup of tea.

As she made her way towards the bus stop at Pensarn, she spotted the two-thirty on the brow of the hill, chocolate and cream like a biscuit. Her fingers wouldn’t stop fidgeting, straightening her ribbon, smoothing out her collar. Had he really come? As the bus drew up to the stop, her eyes ran frantically down its length. Perhaps he was sitting at the back. Every window but two was blank. There was a woman in a headscarf and a man as old as her dad. No Harry. She’d have to ask the conductor only it wasn’t Geraint Pryce today and this new chap looked crooked.

“Did a young man leave a message for me at The Red Lion?” Mair asked.

He leered out from his cabin.

“Yes my dear, he told me special you was to let me give you a nice kiss.”

The disappointment of it felt like a wilting bloom. She’d get no sense from this chap and now she’d be left to wonder. Perhaps Harry had been delayed. Perhaps he’d been taken ill.

The older man piped up from his window seat. She pegged him for a pitman even before she saw his bandy legs. He’d a face as creased as her father’s and freckled with blue coal scars. ‘Mapped’ Dad called it.

“Indeed there was a young man at the Red Lion,” he said, getting to his feet, “Ran after the bus like a milgi.”

All Mair’s hopes rekindled.

“Fair?”

“I rather fancy he was a fairish sort of chap…”

“Tall?”

“…’bout as big as our conductor here…”

“It must have been Harry!”

So he’d come. He had come and her heart puffed up with the thrill of it. The old collier bowed his head and thanked her, though she felt it were she who ought to be doing the thanking. But the doors were closing and the bus was away and her mind was whirling with possibilities. How might she get a message to Harry? Had she ought to wait? He’d be kicking himself for missing that bus. The next one wasn’t for an hour. Mam would be tacking out Miss Llewelyn’s wedding dress by now. She’d need Mair to get going on the seed pearls. And with her circus mind spinning these thoughts like plates, she walked all the way back to Mutton Tump and was home within the hour.

 

That evening, she was on her way out to choir practice when Jack collared her on the back step. He’d been waiting for her by the coal shed.

“Jack! What you doing lurking out here like a bwci-bo?”

He sucked on his twiggy cigarette so that the tip flared red.

“Thought I’d walk you over to the minister’s… just looking out for my gel.”

“I am perfectly capable of looking after myself and Jack, I am not your girl.”

“Don’t talk soft. You been my girl since we was ten years old.”

It was the same conversation they had every time. She blamed herself. She’d been too soft hearted over the years – let him carry her satchel, let him walk her home from chapel and then, in a moment of weakness a year back, she’d let him take her to the new picture house over in Johnstown. He’d been itching to spend his first wage packet and Mair had wanted to see the big screen. They’d shared an ice cream afterwards and it was the sound of his teeth on the spoon that sealed it; she knew she’d never grow deaf to that clank.

“You’ll go to the pictures every week Mair fach, now that you and me is courting.”

She’d tried to put him straight many times.

“Save your pennies Jack,” she’d say, “I’m much too staid for you. You want a gel as makes you laugh” but “There’s none for me but you,” he’d say.

Indeed, his heart was set.

In time, he might have worn her down with his steady devotion. He’d an appealing sweep of black hair, a full set of teeth and was known for his honeyed baritone. Yes, Mair might have grown used to the idea of Jack, if it hadn’t been for Harry.

In the dusk, Jack’s shadow took up the breadth of the path. Tump colliery had put muscles on his lanky frame. Mair had to step into the vegetable patch to get past him, snagging her cardigan on a raspberry cane in the process and sending sheet music fluttering every which way into the mud.

“Now look what you made me do!”

“I’m so sorry Mair, I didn’t mean…”

He was on his knees and scrabbling, gathering the precious sohs and fahs to his chest so that Mair felt a sudden flush of pity for the boy. He’d be sweet if he weren’t so bungling.

“Come on or I’ll be late now,” she said but he wouldn’t give up her music.

“What were you doing in Pensarn today?” he asked, hugging the sheaf to his breast.

“I went to see Mrs Vaughan and her new baby… not that it’s any concern of yours.”

“A jealous man might think you been courting some other chap…”

Sweat prickled down her spine.

“And where am I likely to meet a chap?”

He moved towards her slowly, his eyes glittering with the threat of angry tears.

“I’m not dull, gel,” he said.

She left him smouldering on the path. He could keep the blasted music. Picking her way between bean stake poles and the cucumber frame, she emerged in the gwli – the lane that crossed between the back of her house and the minister’s.

So Jack knew. How on God’s green earth did he know? Someone must have seen her in Howells.

 

She’d been sent up town to fetch notions for Miss Llewelyn’s gown. Howells’ haberdashery was second to none and she’d spent many a tedious afternoon’s mending fantasising about a job in the department store. The uniforms were smarter than Mair’s Sunday best. She could picture herself wearing the starched white collar; the neat little jacket in navy percale. She’d be in her element! Harry thought so too. He’d offered to put in a word with the department manager.

Harry Parker: twenty-two and already deputy manager of Millinery. Indeed, it was in the millinery section that they’d become acquainted.  She’d had her eye on a smart little felt beret. There’d been two older ladies competing for the same mirror and as she’d turned to inspect her profile, a gentleman’s voice had crooned in her ear, “You are a rose among thorns, my dear.”

They’d shared a pot of tea during his dinner break and arranged a second assignation. It was Mair who suggested Pensarn. Mrs Vaughan’s condition offered the perfect pretext for a bus ride without arousing her mother’s suspicion. She’d deliver the jacket, then meet Harry from the bus. Perhaps they’d take a stroll by the river or share a bite to eat in the Tea Room. It would require three changes of bus for Harry but he insisted that Mair was worth the trouble. He’d even rearranged his shift. Poor Harry. To have come all that way and missed the bus. It’d have been a different story had Ger Pryce been the conductor. Still, these things couldn’t be helped and Mair went in to choir practice feeling certain that things would right themselves. Somehow they always did.

“What time do you call this Miss Davies?” Patti said, with a wagging finger.

“Don’t blame me, blame Jack,” said Mair, following her through to the parlour. The air was moist with warm breath. The other girls were clustered around the piano, at which Mrs Roberts was firmly ensconced. Her generous rump rocked from side to side as she crashed through the major scales.

“I’m only pulling your leg, Mair. Here,” said Patti, tucking a slip of folded paper into the pocket of Mair’s cardigan, “Ger Pryce picked up your fancy man at The Red Lion. Gave him a shilling to pass this on to you.”

Even in the stuffy parlour, the thrill of it sent chills scattering along her limbs.

“You’re a pal, Patti, thanks,” said Mair.

The girls were corralled into their various sections and Mair fell in line with the sopranos.

The bleating of the choir was interminable, every hymn a dirge. Mair fingered impatiently the note in her pocket until it became limp, moistened with each sweaty caress of her fingers.

“Put some welly into it Mair,” said Mrs Roberts with a peevish expression, “You’ve better lungs than that.”

“I don’t feel well,” said Mair, ignoring the twitch of Patti’s eyebrows. Mrs Roberts sighed impatiently.

“Very well then. Off home with you,” she said, dismissing Mair with a flick of her fingers.  It was true. Mair felt quite sick with anticipation as she weaved through the singers’ sweating bodies. She emerged from the backdoor like a diver gasping for air.

The light over the minister’s back porch was little more than a candle in a jam jar. Still, it had attracted its share of moths and Mair too, clung to its glow. As she unfolded the damp notepaper, a shadow separated itself from the dark.

“What you got there?” said Jack, snatching up Mair’s note and waving it aloft.

“Give it back!”

He dangled the note into the jam jar.

“What you playing at, Jack?”

“For a kiss, it’s yours,” he said.

Mair jumped up to grab the jam jar just as Jack pressed his mouth down towards her, scraping his stubble across her lips. She slapped him. With his cheek and his pride smarting, Jack let the note fall onto the flame. Mair watched in dismay as the paper curled and singed, the little flame devouring Harry’s every word. She’d not dignify Jack’s behaviour with words. Instead, she shot him a look as black as the coal under his fingernails and gathering up her dignity, stalked off towards the gwli and home.

The moon was thin and sharp as a scythe. It bled a watery light over the hedgerow, casting shadows down the gwli, black and jagged as bats. Mair felt his presence behind her but before she could turn, his hand clamped around her mouth and he was whimpering in her ear,

“Mair fach, I’m sorry. Don’t you know I love you? I’d do anything for you, anything.”

His arm was an iron bar across her breasts, his knee bony and pushing at the back of her legs until she buckled like a calf. Her back bowed with the weight of him, the palms of her hands clapping against hard, dry mud, crumbs of soil catching in her nostrils as she snorted in the dirt. His voice, thick with phlegm, sobbing in her ear, “I love you I’ve always loved you” even as she screamed. Salty fingers in her mouth, the skin thick as leather against her teeth. Grubby nails clawing the flesh of her thighs, yanking her apart. The sound of ripping fabric and then pain, like a rusted blade. Pain, like a deep, dry dredging. Pain, like a flame unfurling. It sucked the breath from her lungs, choked her until she was limp.

The choir had got to ‘Duw a Sych Pob Deigryn’. Mrs Roberts’ soprano wobbled through the open windows of the vestry. She sang like a woman falling, clinging to the notes for salvation. The music carried Mair’s thoughts home, to her mother. She’d be sitting in the parlour with a basket of darning, the stuffed fox at her side, dead eyes staring, jaws forever locked around the throat of a collared dove. Mam would laugh at that.

“Hark at her and her collared dove! It’s a pigeon, plain as day.”

At last, the weight lifted from Mair’s back. She lay in the dirt, listening to the metallic clatter of Jack’s boots as he fled. Heaving herself up, she brushed the soil from her hair, rubbed at the indentations on her cheek and straightened her skirt. The pain between her legs thumped like a balled fist. She staggered home and into the thin timber lean-to out back. Without a candle, she felt her way in the reeking dark. A warm slurry dribbled towards her knee. She dabbed at it blindly with the newspaper squares Mam kept by the lavatory and vomited into the bowl.

 

“You’re back early,” said Mam, when Mair came through the backdoor. She was in the kitchen, scrubbing shirt collars in a large enamel basin. It was a blow. Mair had counted on her being in the parlour. She’d planned to sneak upstairs unseen, to get to her washstand, to scour away every trace of Jack.

“Not feeling the ticket,” said Mair, sliding past her mam’s enquiring gaze. She was almost at the doorway to the front room when she felt a cool hand on her arm, dared not raise her eyes.

“Better get that frock on to soak, pet.”

For a moment, Mair stood in silent confusion. Her mother’s eyes sought her out, studying her with grey concern.

“You all right, cariad?”

The truth trembled on Mair’s lips so she bit them, mustered a nod instead.

“Well give me that dress – you’ve been caught short, bach. There’s some fresh rags in the drawer in your room.”

Mam released Mair’s arm, and the relief felt like a balloon, rising on a warm current.

She’d got as far as the front room when she saw what lay in wait for her. Mud-smudged but stacked neatly on the side table, her sheet music had been returned. Hearing Mair’s halted steps, Mam called out from the kitchen,

“I meant to say, your dad had a visitor this evening.”

When no response came, she put the basin down and followed Mair into the front room, barely able to keep the grin from her lips.

“Someone with an important question to ask. Looks like I’ll be fitting your Dad for a new suit before long.”

She tapped her finger to her nose and wandered back to the kitchen, trailing the words behind her,

“You could do a lot worse, Mair fach. You could do a lot worse.”

 

Rumbling along Pensarn High Street, the eighty-three had just passed The Griffin when Mair’s eyes fell level with those of an angel. Mair wasn’t one for signs and yet, the bus was no longer moving; it had stalled outside Capel Seion. And while the driver cursed and cajoled the engine back to life, the window offered Mair its frame: the cenotaph angel and the chapel beyond, from which music swelled up like smoke. The last chords of ‘Duw a Sych Pob Deigryn’. The worm in her belly turned. The angel eyed her with blank certainty, a Titaness, all naked stone and streaming wings and at her feet, emblazoned on the hulk of the cenotaph, the words, ‘Gwell angau na chywilydd.’ Better death than dishonour.

It was no more than a moment. A grinding of metal levers and the bus was moving again, creeping over the hill. All day, the words hummed in Mair’s head like flies – as she rode back to Mutton Tump with her buttonholes, as she bathed her face and flowered her hair, as she fastened the clasps on the lemon rayon dress, as she made her way through the graveyard to the tomb-cold chapel, as she stood, at last, before Jack, her breath swelling the veil between them. Better death than dishonour.