She kissed Billy's cheek. "I told Mrs. Jevons the housekeeper that we were running out of boot polish and I'd better get some more from the town." Ethel lived and worked at T? Gwyn, the vast home of Earl Fitzherbert, a mile away up the mountain. She handed Billy something wrapped in a clean rag. "I stole a piece of cake for you."
"Oh, thanks, Eth!" said Billy. He loved cake.
Mam said: "Shall I put it in your snap?"
Mam got a tin box from the cupboard and put the cake inside. She cut two more slabs of bread, spread them with dripping, sprinkled salt, and put them in the tin. All the miners had a tin "snap." If they took food underground wrapped in a rag, the mice would eat it before the midmorning break. Mam said: "When you bring me home your wages, you can have a slice of boiled bacon in your snap."
Billy's earnings would not be much, at first, but all the same they would make a difference to the family. He wondered how much Mam would allow him for pocket money and whether he would ever be able to save enough for a bicycle, which he wanted more than anything else in the world.
Ethel sat at the table. Da said to her: "How are things at the big house?"
"Nice and quiet," she said. "The earl and princess are in London for the coronation." She looked at the clock on the mantelpiece. "They'll be getting up soonthey need to be at the abbey early. She won't like itshe's not used to early hoursbut she can't be late for the king." The earl's wife, Bea, was a Russian princess, and very grand. Da said: "They'll want to get seats near the front, so they can see the show."
"Oh, no, you can't sit anywhere you like," Ethel said. "They've had six thousand mahogany chairs made special, with the names of the guests on the back in gold writing."
Gramper said: "Well, there's a waste! What will they do with them after?"
"I don't know. Perhaps everyone will take them home as souvenirs."
Da said dryly: "Tell them to send a spare one to us. There's only five of us here, and already your mam's got to stand."
When Da was being facetious there might be real anger underneath. Ethel leaped to her feet. "Oh, sorry, Mam, I didn't think."
"Stay where you are, I'm too busy to sit down," said Mam.
The clock struck five. Da said: "Best get there early, Billy boy. Start as you mean to go on."
Billy got to his feet reluctantly and picked up his snap.
Ethel kissed him again, and Gramper shook his hand. Da gave him two six-inch nails, rusty and a bit bent. "Put those in your trousers pocket."
"What for?" said Billy.
"You'll see," Da said with a smile.
Mam handed Billy a quart bottle with a screw top, full of cold tea with milk and sugar. She said: "Now, Billy, remember that Jesus is always with you, even down the pit."
He could see a tear in her eye, and he turned away quickly, because it made him feel weepy too. He took his cap from the peg. "Bye, then," he said, as if he was only going to school; and he stepped out of the front door. The summer had been hot and sunny so far, but today was overcast, and it even looked as if it might rain. Tommy was leaning against the wall of the house, waiting. "Aye, aye, Billy," he said.
"Aye, aye, Tommy."
They walked down the street side by side.
Aberowen had once been a small market town, serving hill farmers round about, Billy had learned in school. From the top of Wellington Row you could see the old commercial center, with the open pens of the cattle market, the wool exchange building, and the Anglican church, all on one side of the Owen River, which was little more than a stream. Now a railway line cut through the town like a wound, terminating at the pithead. The miners' houses had spread up the slopes of the valley, hundreds of gray stone homes with roofs of darker-gray Welsh slate. They were built in long serpentine rows that followed the contours of the mountainsides, the rows crossed by shorter streets that plunged headlong to the valley bottom.
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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