1. Keeping Up With Half The Valleys Phone Book
"To take with me:
Tea bags. Screwdriver. Pyjamas.
Luchwen for making Welsh cakes, also for brandishing at people who snigger if They beat Us at the Millennium Stadium next March.
Dictionary (until my French gets fluent)."
I looked up, but I might have been speaking that fluent French for all the interest they showed. The three of them were sitting there, listless. Despite my list.
“Suitcase,” I added.
The back page of the South Wales Echo rippled with indignation. "There's no need for silliness," came Dad's voice from behind it. "And there's no need for you to go abroad at all. Young girls, roaming about the countries…" His disapproving tone made it plain he considered foreign travel by females under retirement age to be the root cause of most of society's ills.
Griff, my brother, rolled his eyes. "How do you expect Holly to get her degree if she doesn't do her year abroad?" He glared at the Echo, which remained impervious where a lesser paper would have crumpled. "Where's she going to learn to speak French in this town? At the Co-op, reading the labels on the bags of croissants?"
"The Cwarp hasn't got any cross ants in, at the moment," said Mam, helpfully. "I had a look, this morning."
Griff looked almost as cross as the ants. Before he could bite back, Mam turned to me: "And you've started packing a bit smart. The college haven't even told you where they'm sending you yet."
"The college doesn't know," I recited. "The college has sent my application to the people who organise these exchanges. Everyone in my class had to apply. It's the exchange people who decide which part of France you're sent to, and which school you'll be teaching in."
I was beginning to sound like one of our university language lab tapes. We’d been over this a dozen times since I’d first broken the news that I was going to have to spend a year in France, working as an English language assistant, as the third year of my degree course. But Mam and Dad still couldn't cope with it. They'd been proud enough when I’d been accepted at university - Dad had had visions of me drilling the Valley schoolchildren in their three times table, or one day, making deputy supervisor in Pontycynon steelworks' typing pool. But when they'd found out the course included a year abroad, they'd decided Higher Education was the route of all evil.
I think if Dad had realised that the French lessons I'd started aged eleven would lead to such depravity, he'd have had the school bus clamped. He didn't like the thought of me crossing the Bristol Channel, let alone the English one.
"Not much shape on that college." This was Dad's well-honed critique of the university's administrative system. "They ought to have wrote to you by now with the name of the school. Then we could have found you some people to stay with, nearby."
Griff's voice could have drawn blood. "Why would the college need you to arrange this one?" He paused, then delivered what Mam would have called the Cwarp de grâce. "You've never even been to France."
"Neither have Holly," pointed out Mam. The familiar crease appeared in her forehead. "And how are you going to teach English to French schoolchildren? You've never taught a class in your life."
It was a question I'd been asking myself, but I wasn't going to admit that. "How hard can it be?” I asked. “There are websites with lesson plans, and film clips to play in class."
Mam sniffed. "But the school will have a French computer. As well as them squat toilets.
I bet a pound you'll be home by Christmas."
I was stung. How dare she assume I wouldn't last three months abroad?
"Actually, I'm planning to stay in France for the whole year," I announced. "I'd like to spend Christmas and Easter over there." I remembered flicking through library copies of Paris-Match. "They have oysters for Christmas dinner, not turkey. And they have their big meal on Christmas Eve - it's called the réveillon. It lasts for about eight courses."
Mam snickered. "You'll be taking up two seats on the Eurostar."
I bridled. Mam had a knack of going below the belt. As did most of the meals I ate between snacks. Instinctively, I pulled my T-shirt down to hide my stomach.
"I wouldn't blame you if you stayed in France for Christmas, Holly," remarked Griff. "More fun than being here with these two, listening to Dad's chesty cough. Although you'd miss the street's annual blackout when he plugs the tree lights in."
"Don't be so whass'name," grumbled Mam. "And we're not getting a tree this Christmas. Last year, I asked you to fetch one from over town, and you made out you'd strained your elbow at the office party. It was me that had to carry the bucket up Watkins the builder's, and hoik it home, full of sand." She looked suitably wounded at the memory.
"Oh, no tree this year, is it?" jeered Griff. "That's a new one. It used to be: 'You two'll get a lump of coal in your Christmas stockings.'"
"I wish I'd done it," grumbled Mam. "You might have more respect for your mother."
Griff raised his eyebrows. "I'd certainly respect someone who'd climbed down a closed shaft to excavate two lumps from an empty seam."
The Echo rustled menacingly. I got up. "Let's have a cuppa. Griff?" To my relief, Griff not only rose and followed me, he didn't even slam the kitchen door behind us.
"They haven't got a clue," grumbled Griff, twisting an innocent teacloth to within an inch of its life. "But don't let them get to you. You've got a chance to go somewhere, do something. I'd go for it."
I hid a smile. One of my childhood memories starred Griff, stamping on the Ker-Plunk box in frustration at the death rattle of marbles cascading into his tray. Still, I was touched. He'd gone straight from school into his clerical job, no further than a bus ride from home. Now he was watching his little sister packing for reckless adventure on the Continent. In a surge of affection, I filled his Newport County mug first.
By the time we brought the tea in, Mam and Dad were cackling. "I've got a bone to pick with you," Dad told me, holding up a hardback book. "Just found this behind my cushion. Dug into my back, it did. I thought it was your mother’s lump of coal."
I took the book. Its title stared up at me. Improve Your Memory.
"Memory be blowed," chuckled Dad. "It was due back yesterday."
I checked the flyleaf. "Oh, no. I'd better get up the Tower."
"But they’ll be closed," said Mam. "That Mrs Whipple's always out on the stroke of five. And late opening, in the mornings, ’cos she do stop at the bakery first. She've had all the ice slices by the time I get there. And then your father creates" - she frowned at him - "when we have Welsh cakes for tea instead."
Dad hadn't looked so pained since the time he'd got his big toe stuck in the fireguard. "I told you, I don't see a lot in them old Welsh cakes," he defended himself.
"Yes," shot back Mam. "After we'd been married thirty years." She turned to me. "It's ridiculous, isn't it? Stuffing yourself with sweet things, then saying you've got to watch your figure."
I looked at Dad, surprised. I'd never heard him fret about his weight, whatever Mam served for afters. Mind, that was probably because he usually had his mouth full at the time.
Mam warmed to her theme. "Parading about, dressed like a teenager. Coming out, like that, when you're over fifty."
Griff and I exchanged horrified glances. Coming out? Were there other, darker secrets Dad had closeted from us for the whole of his married life?
"Mam?" I hesitated. "How do you mean - Dad - coming out?"
"Not him." Mam was scornful. "That Mrs Whipple. She’s in her sixties and she still dresses like Cher. Can't leave her house without showing her knickers."
Relief flooded me. Now we wouldn't be a shattered family, crushed beneath the debris of our broken home.
Mam's cup clattered into her saucer. "And she keeps you waiting at the counter while she's fiddling with her bangles."
"I don't see you wearing that chain I bought you in Twickenham," said Dad, unexpectedly. "I had to queue half-hour in the shop to get it. Nearly missed kick-off."
Mam flared up. "What do I want to wear jewellery for? When do we ever go anywhere?" She pointed a suitably underdressed finger at Dad. "I haven’t forgotten the birthday you bought me a mousetrap."
"And we've never seen you wearing that, either," said Griff.
I suppressed a giggle. Mam was saddling up her high horse. I decided to make my escape before she brought up the Great Fridge Defrosting Nastiness of 1983. I reached for my jacket. "Doesn't matter if the library's shut. Lin will let me in."
Mam was intrigued. "What will she be doing there, if they'm closed?"
I leaned over her and hissed: "Opening a bottle of gin. They keep one behind the Maeve Binchy hardbacks."
"Oh, go on with you." Mam pushed me away, clearly tickled at the thought of a secret cache of liquor behind the Binchies. "Drinking in the library. The council will be having you."
"Oh, the gin's not for drinking," said Griff. "It's for cleaning Mrs Whipple's tongue stud."
I closed our front gate behind me. A pity Mam and Dad kept creating about my going to France. That was going to spoil my last few weeks at home, when normally, we all got on like a torched holiday cottage. I turned and headed uphill, my breath becoming shorter. Like in all small Valleys towns, you couldn't walk ten steps in Pontycynon without meeting someone who knew all your -
"Hello, Holly!" screeched Mrs Flook, from her doorstep. "When are you off to France, then?" She leaned on her broom expectantly.
I returned the greeting, maintaining a careful distance from the broom. Mrs Flook was rarely seen in public without it. Griff used to say that if the roof fell off her house she'd have swept the rubble into next door's yard before the fire brigade arrived.
"There's lovely, going abroad," enthused Mrs Flook. "Hello, Sylvia. Holly's going to France, did you know?"
I turned to see Mrs Stockley, another neighbour, approaching us. I just had time to smile before Mrs Flook rushed on: "Going all that way. There's brave. And all that studying for college."
Suddenly I was starring in a remake of The Corn is Green. I wondered if I should offer to give up my university place and marry the village trollop, just to keep in character.
You could tell Mrs Stockley was a relative newcomer to Pontycynon. She missed her cue to interrogate me about my trip, my studies and whether or not I was Courting Strong. Instead she smiled and told me: "Come and say au revoir to us before you go."
I liked Mrs Stockley. She and her husband had emigrated here from Surrey ("up England way" © Mam 1998) a few years ago. They'd needed time to adapt, though. At first they'd thought Dad was Welsh-speaking, until he'd put his teeth in.
"Our Georgia's doing well in school, and all," said Mrs Flook. "She passed her dancing certificate last week."
I nodded and excused myself. By and large, Pontycynon wasn't used to students. Half the town thought their grandson should have made the national news for passing GCSE History, while the other half was practising smirking for when you failed your Finals.
I turned the corner, relieved to be on a flat road. After more than twenty years of walking up hills, I still moved with the effortless grace of a bread pudding. In the High Street, the only sign of life was the flickering light from Derek Pugh The Bookie's window. Derek must have been calculating that week's dividends from his equine investment plan, a popular scheme tailored to supplementing the individual's weekly State benefit. (Our town wasn't nicknamed Ponty Sign-On for nothing.)
The Tower loomed at the top of the High Street. Once a tavern, it had reformed and become the town library a few years ago. The ground floor was now Pontycynon Computer Centre, equipped with four trestle tables, four computers and a worn but optimistic Welsh alphabet teacloth. Not many of the locals were keen to sign up for courses, though. Most of them had graduated to the town’s other hostelry, The Nelson Arm.
"You've caught me with my files open," joked Lin, opening the door. "Only chance I get to work in peace. Mrs Whipple’s been chopsing to me all week about Owen's summer project."
Owen, Mrs Whipple's son, was at art college. He lacked his mother’s flamboyance, being something of a wet mac to her fuschia sarong. He’d sighed after Lin for years, although she hadn't the heart to tell him that his designs on her were never going to get beyond the pencil and paper stage.
“This is Owen’s project," explained Lin, handing me a scroll of paper. The look on my face as I unrolled it sent her into a fit of giggles.
I put the poster down. "Lin, he can't hold a fashion show in a library. What will the models wear, dust jackets?"
Lin laughed. "He couldn't find anywhere else at short notice, so his Mam said he could have it here. Next Friday. You will come, won't you? I'm afraid to go on my own, less Owen ropes me in as a model." She giggled. "He might try to get me into his reversible hipsters."
"You'd better watch he doesn't squeeze you into a figure-hugging nightie." I spoke lightly to hide the ache inside. At least Lin had an admirer, even if he was a bit of a hopeless case. Nobody wanted to hug my figure.
I shook my head. “There's some goings-on in this library. It’s ever since they took on that school-leaver."
It had been two years since our A-levels, but I still remembered the moment when Lin had set her glass of champagne down on our kitchen table and told me she'd turned down a place at college in favour of a job at the library. I'd sprayed a mouthful of Tesco's finest over Mam's Harlech Castle placemats. Rather than venture beyond the valley, Lin had chosen to surround herself with testy pensioners and Dick Francis. Still, she was earning her living, and not faced with repaying a massive student loan. In my circumstances, I couldn’t afford to bring my library books back late.
“Mr Wheeler’s going to take photos, at the fashion show,” said Lin. “You know Mr Wheeler Upper Waun Street? He does photography. And he’s going to work the projector on the night of the Mauvoisins slide show." Lin looked at me. "Are you sure...? You won't...?"
I was, and I wouldn't.
"Lin, I'm not wasting an evening listening to that Twinning Committee bragging about how they spent a whole week out there without speaking a word of French."
Pontycynon had been twinned with Mauvoisins, a town in west France roughly equal in size and ineptitude at rugby, fifteen years ago. Since then, a small, but self-important band of Pontycynon folk had organised trips there twice a year, returning to regale the stay-at-homes with tales of how they'd made the Frogs cook them bacon and eggs, none of that Garlic muck. Whatever else was uncertain about my year in France, I knew one thing for sure. I wasn't going anywhere near that town. I was going to explore France for myself, not follow the path trodden by half of Pontycynon.
"Oh, there's a pity." Lin had a twinkle in her eye. "Guess who was in here today, telling me he's writing up the evening for his newspaper?"
I felt my face grow hot. "Kim was here?" I'd had a crush on Kim Meredith for years. Kim was a few years older than us, but I sometimes saw him around the town, and pored over the articles he wrote for the Valley newspaper, Y Llais. It was unusual to find a Ponty boy who used his head for something other than butting another Ponty boy through a plate-glass window. But, like Owen’s, my feelings were strictly one-way traffic. I'd hardly ever been close enough to Kim to stammer hello.
No-one but Lin knew my secret, although Griff sometimes remarked on how it took me forever to read Y Llais, these days. Griff hadn't had much time for the local paper since it had ruined his tenth birthday by erroneously naming him as bronze, not silver, medallist in the school sports day Potato and Spoon (no grass omelettes - our headmaster wasn't daft). Griff, outraged, had promptly nicknamed Y Llais "The Lies", an epithet that had softened, over the years, to the more affectionate "The Fibs".
"The slide show's on Tuesday at eight, in case you still don't want to come." Lin's remark interrupted my rêverie as I glanced at the bookshelves to check that Kipling's Kim was in its usual place. "Kim could interview you about your trip to France."
“Don’t be daft,” I said. "Hey, he didn’t borrow a book called How To Meet A Fat, Plain Languages Student, did he?"
"I can’t remember," said Lin, turning back to her files. "And you're not plain, Hol."
I gritted my ears at my best friend’s honesty. I’d jog all the way home, to burn off some of my fat. No, better not. People would be slowing down their cars to laugh.
I turned the corner into our back alley. I'd slip into our house through the back gate and nip upstairs for a wash. I reached the gate and fumbled with the catch.
"Holly?" said a voice. I turned to see Mam, holding our black plastic dustbin in her arms. Behind her was a grey-haired lady of commanding height who looked oddly familiar.
"Well, open the gate for me,” said Mam. "Don't you know Mrs Hathaway? Taught you in the Juniors?"
The memories came flooding back. That prison-door smile. The screams of fury if you forgot your daps for P.E. Your knees trembling in case she selected you for that day's humiliation in front of the class.
"Hello, Mrs Hathaway," I said weakly. “Nice to see you, after all these years."
Mrs Hathaway stared at me. I felt the impulse to wet myself, thought better of it, and stood quietly, WITHOUT fidgeting, instead.
"Holly." It was a statement, not a greeting. "Your mother says you're going to France."
Mrs Hathaway smiled. "Angeline often travels with her job - France, Germany. She speaks French fluently."
I remembered Angeline, Mrs Hathaway's niece, from junior school. She never used to share her Smarties, declaring, with her mouth full, that she didn't have enough to go round. I had a feeling that, grown up, Angeline was running the loans department of a High Street bank.
"Holly's university is arranging her year abroad." I recognised Mam's bay-window voice.
"Angeline thinks of France as a second home," stated Mrs Hathaway. "She's been going there every summer since she was twelve, with school exchange trips."
I'd never been on a school exchange trip. We'd gone on summer holidays to Mam's cousins in Tenby, when we'd gone at all.
"Holly will be teaching in a French school," said Mam airily. "We think it's a wonderful opportunity."
I nearly gasped. Not even pausing to blush, Mam took aim again. "Didn't Angeline once apply to do teacher training?"
Mrs Hathaway's smile stayed in place. "She feels more suited to being a personal assistant. She's been to quite a few company dinners, where she can use her French and her German."
Mam and I exchanged glances. Mrs Hathaway wished me a safe journey, pointed out that Angeline's company always paid for her trips abroad, then took her leave. Dismissed, Mam and I headed indoors.
"Hear her brag," snorted Mam, banging the kitchen door behind us. "That Angeline never got in to university. She haven't done half as well as Maggie Hathaway makes out."
"What is she doing, then?" I hadn't seen Angeline since I was eight. One day, she'd run up to Lin and me in the playground to tell us that her parents were having her transferred to a better school, and the next she'd gone.
"Secretary with some firm in Cardiff,” grumbled Mam. “Typing letters."
"In French and German," I sneered. Knowing Angeline, she’d only learned the imperatives. Bossy? She dictated the book.
"Maggie Hathaway always tiptoed around Angeline," scoffed Mam. "'Course, she never had kids of her own. Remember when Angeline pushed your tennis racket down the drain? Maggie Hathaway never even told her off."
Mam tried to get her nose level with the curtain rail. "Angeline, dear," she brayed. "Remember that Gethin child who used to beat you in the spelling tests? I met her and her mother and their dustbin. I'm glad you don't have to mix with such common people now you're Wales' top businesswoman, with your own briefcase."
I yawned. "Not now, Aunt Maggie. I've got to go to tonight's company dinner." I grabbed the tablecloth and swathed it around my shoulders, a checked evening wrap. "And if they ask me to pass the salt, I'll tell them I haven't got enough to go round."
"That Holly Gethin is going to France," sniffed Mam, mincing back and forth on invisible red Axminster.
"Well," I replied, adjusting my pashmina, "if I catch her on the Eurostar platform, I'll push her ticket down a drain."
The kitchen door opened behind me. I swung round to make a particularly snide face at Dad or Griff. The tablecloth, caught up in its role, swept around me and nearly wiped the nose of our neighbour, Mrs Price Opposite.
"Oh, excuse us, Mrs Price." Mam was quick to recover herself. "Just some silly joke of Holly's."
"Bullfighting, is it, Holly?" asked Mrs Price Opposite. I shook my head, darting an indignant look at Mam. Trust her to put the fault on me.
"I thought it was France you were going to, not Spain," continued our visitor, apparently unperturbed. "I just popped round to ask could someone help me put my bin out. The ashman do create, if you do leave it in the yard. Our Mansel would have done it, only he’s gone to keep it real in Barry Island.” Mrs Price Opposite’s son, Mansel, was a part-time DJ and full-time rock obsessive.
“Leave it to me,” said Mam. “Griff!” she scraked. “Go and help Mrs Price! And Holly, the phone went, for you. My memory’s getting as good as yours.”
Griff appeared, his sleeves rolled up for bin management. "A lady from your college phoned," he explained. "Olwen."
"Olwen's the secretary of our French department," I reminded Mam.
"Olwen said the professor wants you to come in for a chat on Monday." Griff said. “She said there was a problem with your year abroad. They thought they had a school for you, but apparently it’s fallen through. You haven't got a place."