Mam was not amused. She was wearing an old brown wool dress with patched elbows and stains under the armpits. "If I had two hundred and fifty guineas I'd look better than Lady Diana Muck," she said, not without bitterness.
"It's true," Gramper said. "Cara was always the pretty onejust like her mother." Mam's name was Cara. Gramper turned to Billy. "Your grandmother was Italian. Her name was Maria Ferrone." Billy knew this, but Gramper liked to retell familiar stories. "That's where your mother gets her glossy black hair and lovely dark eyesand your sister. Your gran was the most beautiful girl in Cardiffand I got her!" Suddenly he looked sad. "Those were the days," he said quietly.
Da frowned with disapprovalsuch talk suggested the lusts of the fleshbut Mam was cheered by her father's compliments, and she smiled as she put his breakfast in front of him. "Oh, aye," she said. "Me and my sisters were considered beauties. We'd show those dukes what a pretty girl is, if we had the money for silk and lace."
Billy was surprised. He had never thought of his mother as beautiful or otherwise, though when she dressed for the chapel social on Saturday evening she did look striking, especially in a hat. He supposed she might once have been a pretty girl, but it was hard to imagine.
"Mind you," said Gramper, "your gran's family were clever, too. My brother-in-law was a miner, but he got out of the industry and opened a café in Tenby. Now there's a life for yousea breezes, and nothing to do all day but make coffee and count your money."
Da read another item. "'As part of the preparations for the coronation, Buckingham Palace has produced a book of instructions two hundred and twelve pages long.'" He looked over the paper. "Mention that down the pit today, Billy. The men will be relieved to know that nothing has been left to chance."
Billy was not very interested in royalty. What he liked was the adventure stories the Mail often printed about tough rugby-playing public-school men catching sneaky German spies. According to the paper, such spies infested every town in Britain, although there did not seem to be any in Aberowen, disappointingly.
Billy stood up. "Going down the street," he announced. He left the house by the front door. "Going down the street" was a family euphemism: it meant going to the toilets, which stood halfway down Wellington Row. A low brick hut with a corrugated iron roof was built over a deep hole in the earth. The hut was divided into two compartments, one for men and one for women. Each compartment had a double seat, so that people went to the toilet two by two. No one knew why the builders had chosen this arrangement, but everyone made the best of it. Men looked straight ahead and said nothing, butas Billy could often hearwomen chatted companionably. The smell was suffocating, even when you experienced it every day of your life. Billy always tried to breathe as little as possible while he was inside, and came out gasping for air. The hole was shoveled out periodically by a man called Dai Muck.
When Billy returned to the house he was delighted to see his sister Ethel sitting at the table. "Happy birthday, Billy!" she cried. "I had to come and give you a kiss before you go down the pit."
Ethel was eighteen, and Billy had no trouble seeing her as beautiful. Her mahogany-colored hair was irrepressibly curly, and her dark eyes twinkled with mischief. Perhaps Mam had looked like this once. Ethel wore the plain black dress and white cotton cap of a housemaid, an outfit that flattered her.
Billy worshipped Ethel. As well as pretty, she was funny and clever and brave, sometimes even standing up to Da. She told Billy things no one else would explain, such as the monthly episode women called the curse, and what was the crime of public indecency that had caused the Anglican vicar to leave town in such a hurry. She had been top of the class all the way through school, and her essay "My Town or Village" had taken first prize in a contest run by the South Wales Echo. She had won a copy of Cassell's Atlas of the World.
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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