Most of the ground floor was taken up by the living room, fifteen feet square, with a table in the middle and a fireplace to one side, and a homemade rug on the stone floor. Da was sitting at the table reading an old copy of the Daily Mail, a pair of spectacles perched on the bridge of his long, sharp nose. Mam was making tea. She put down the steaming kettle, kissed Billy's forehead, and said: "How's my little man on his birthday?"
Billy did not reply. The "little" was wounding, because he was little, and the "man" was just as hurtful because he was not a man. He went into the scullery at the back of the house. He dipped a tin bowl into the water barrel, washed his face and hands, and poured the water away in the shallow stone sink. The scullery had a copper with a fire grate underneath, but it was used only on bath night, which was Saturday.
They had been promised running water soon, and some of the miners' houses already had it. It seemed a miracle to Billy that people could get a cup of cold clear water just by turning the tap, and not have to carry a bucket to the standpipe out in the street. But indoor water had not yet come to Wellington Row, where the Williamses lived.
He returned to the living room and sat at the table. Mam put a big cup of milky tea in front of him, already sugared. She cut two thick slices off a loaf of homemade bread and got a slab of dripping from the pantry under the stairs. Billy put his hands together, closed his eyes, and said: "Thank you Lord for this food amen." Then he drank some tea and spread dripping on his bread.
Da's pale blue eyes looked over the top of the paper. "Put salt on your bread," he said. "You'll sweat underground."
Billy's father was a miners' agent, employed by the South Wales Miners' Federation, which was the strongest trade union in Britain, as he said whenever he got the chance. He was known as Dai Union. A lot of men were called Dai, pronounced "die," short for David, or Dafydd in Welsh. Billy had learned in school that David was popular in Wales because it was the name of the country's patron saint, like Patrick in Ireland. All the Dais were distinguished one from another not by their surnamesalmost everyone in town was Jones, Williams, Evans, or Morganbut by a nickname. Real names were rarely used when there was a humorous alternative. Billy was William Williams, so they called him Billy Twice. Women were sometimes given their husband's nickname, so that Mam was Mrs. Dai Union.
Gramper came down while Billy was eating his second slice. Despite the warm weather he wore a jacket and waistcoat. When he had washed his hands he sat opposite Billy. "Don't look so nervous," he said. "I went down the pit when I was ten. And my father was carried to the pit on his father's back at the age of five, and worked from six in the morning until seven in the evening. He never saw daylight from October to March."
"I'm not nervous," Billy said. This was untrue. He was scared stiff.
However, Gramper was kindly, and he did not press the point. Billy liked Gramper. Mam treated Billy like a baby, and Da was stern and sarcastic, but Gramper was tolerant and talked to Billy as to an adult.
"Listen to this," said Da. He would never buy the Mail, a right-wing rag, but he sometimes brought home someone else's copy and read the paper aloud in a scornful voice, mocking the stupidity and dishonesty of the ruling class. "'Lady Diana Manners has been criticized for wearing the same dress to two different balls. The younger daughter of the Duke of Rutland won "best lady's costume" at the Savoy Ball for her off-the-shoulder boned bodice with full hooped skirt, receiving a prize of two hundred and fifty guineas.'" He lowered the paper and said: "That's at least five years' wages for you, Billy boy." He resumed: "'But she drew the frowns of the cognoscenti by wearing the same dress to Lord Winterton and F. E. Smith's party at Claridge's Hotel. One can have too much of a good thing, people said.'" He looked up from the paper. "You'd better change that frock, Mam," he said. "You don't want to draw the frowns of the cognoscenti."
Excerpted from Fall of Giants by Ken Follett. Copyright © 2010 by Ken Follett. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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