The sun illuminated the vastness of the ocean at Penarth Beach, uninterrupted by the peaks and troughs of the valleys inland. Sand sifted through Eleri’s fingertips. The waves licked at her toes.
“Come over here, love,” said a voice. Jack.
She ran to him. Showers of pebbles shot up behind her. “What are you doing?” she said.
“I’m looking for luckies.” He held up his hand. Something glinted. “But I’m not having much luck.” He pulled a face. “Can you help me?”
“I can try,” she said, surveying the rockpool. A sunbeam winked back at her. “But I only ever find them when I’m with you.”
Jack grinned. “Well, we’d better have a look together then.”
He knelt. Then, shattering his reflection in the water, plunged his hand deep into the pool. His fingers bored deep into the crevices, releasing a flurry of tiny sparkles.
“Pixie dust,” he whispered.
She smiled indulgently, then arranged her lips in a reverential ‘o’. “How do you do that?” she said, when Jack’s cave of wonders turned up a shimmering coin.
“You just rub the lamp.” Jack’s eyes shone like the sixpence he was drying with his hankie.
Later, when the last rock pool had revealed its secrets, they travelled home with their spoils. Before long, the bus paused at the top of the hill which overlooked Caerphilly. She searched for the neat little row of houses where her father would once have been waiting for her, kettle singing on the grate. But Geraint’s house, rising prison-like on the crest of the valley, engulfed her vision.
“Let’s get off here,” she said, leaving the thought behind her as she dragged Jack from the bus.
They found the nearest tearoom. Inside, a cheery lady approached with a notepad, and the treasure was transfigured into two steaming mugs and a buttered hot cross bun. Jack pretended to take a bite before pushing it across the table to her. She licked her lips, pausing dramatically before delivering her verdict.
“Delicious, Jack. We should get one each.”
“Well, then I wouldn’t be able to give you this.” Jack took out his handkerchief and produced the shining sixpence with all the flourish of a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat. “I want you to take this and keep it safe. So that whenever you see a sixpence, you’ll think of me.”
“Why do I need to do that?” said Eleri. “It’s not like you’re going anywhere…”
Jack’s face clouded over for a moment and the ghost of someone else – bespectacled, greying – seemed to be speaking for him. “Things change,” he said. Then the ghost was gone. He brightened. “But today is not for thinking about that.”
She looked up, mouth full of more than her fair share. “Why not?”
“Because today is your birthday.” He beamed.
She stopped chewing. “Today is my…? No. That’s not right.” She tried to swallow. The bread stuck at the back of her throat. “Wait. How old am I?”
“Don’t you know?” Jack spoke with a tone she didn’t quite recognise.
“I…I…” She faltered, as if searching for the answer to a difficult sum. “I don’t.” Her own voice had a foreign timbre, now.
The world began to shudder around her. Teacups shifted on the tables.
“Jack?” she croaked over the thundering of crockery crashing about her. “What’s happening to me?” Her voice cracked like the cup she held in her hand. “Don’t leave me here!” she cried. “Don’t leave me here with people I don’t know!”
The building creaked and groaned around her.
“Can you help me? Please?” she called to the tea-lady, who had exchanged both her apron and her expression. Now, she wore a look of concern, along with a badge she couldn’t quite read. “Can somebody help me, please, I’ve been left here…”
Her voice trailed off as a familiar smell crept into her nostrils, coursed down her windpipe and stole the breath which should have carried her words. She retched and pushed the table away, but no force travelled down her arms. Tremors passed up her forearm and reverberate across the layers of skin which now hung loose and impotent about her bones. The lady moved towards her, and a cold hand gripped her shoulder.
“Don’t worry, Eleri, you’re home now.”
As soon as Eleri Bellamy had set foot in Primrose View Care Home, she knew she’d been sold a lie. The view was devoid of primroses, nobody seemed to care, and this certainly wasn’t home.
“There’s a lovely little place just down the road from us, Mam,” Ceri had said, before she’d been moved here. “We’ve been to see it and there’s a beautiful view of the hills. You’ll soon forget you’re not in Wales.”
The vocabulary was clumsy.
“Oh yes, of course I’ll forget.”
“I didn’t mean—”
“Yes. You did. You all think I’m past it. I still see things, Ceri. I still hear things. I’m not dead yet.” Forget this place? Where lilting voices rose and fell like the peaks and troughs of the Rhymney valley? Where all her memories were anchored? Never.
“I know you’re not.” Her daughter picked at a split end. The silver strand glistened like her eyes.
Now, a few days – weeks? – later, she was looking out at the Malverns. Steep, cloud-kissed, they were offensive in their Englishness. That little house on Bron Rhiw had been stripped and sold – to people for whom the rayon curtains held no deeper meaning, to whom the peeling wallpaper revealed nothing more than a desperate need for a lick of paint. Her life there was being painted over, obscuring her mother’s thin smile, her daughter’s first steps, the news she was having a granddaughter. A granddaughter she’d never met.
Not for the first time, Eleri longed to go back. To see her life with the perspective only a retirement home can offer. But then, there were some things perspective could not alter. Age for one. She was now, empirically old. The double-helix of her curls had long deserted her. Her skin, too, was clammy – never quite fully clean – and her nails were coarse and brittle to the touch. The room reeked of her daily decomposition of her body on its journey towards death. It smelled faintly, yet acridly, of urine, as if all the antibacterial in the world could not quite disguise the frequency with which she lost control of her bladder.
And yet…if she could be the age she felt, she could sort it all out in five minutes. She could jump in the shower, scrub herself free of the scent of age and casually clip her hair back into place. Better still, she could start again. Take herself back to the moment the music skipped and set the record straight.
She longed for the ease of youth: to feel her limbs stretch idly in front of her, to walk barefoot on the lawn outside her window and dance in the dappled sunlight. Oh, to feel a brush glide along a canvas – her hand, no longer crabbed, supple as she guided a multitude of colours across cloth. She longed to be purged of the past and run through the fields like she used to as a girl…Not simply surviving, living. Living as she had never truly had the chance.
The door clicked open. And there it was. A dream willed into reality.
In the doorway stood her younger self. Poised on the threshold of existence, shimmering between past and present.
All his life, Jack Thomas had felt like a failure. Until the day he’d made Eleri Bellamy smile. In that moment, anything had seemed possible.
He’d known her for as long as he could remember. And, for as long as he could remember, she’d been too good for him. The prim, goody-two-shoes who’d known the books of the bible off-by-heart by the age of five. The little girl who’d moved to the big house near the colliery when she was nine. That lucky eleven-year-old who’d got a place at the grammar school. The young woman who would never look twice at him.
It had started off as a joke. A race between friends to see who could be the first to invert that frown. When they were six, he and the Lewis boys took it in turns to sit behind Eleri in Sunday school, tugging at her ringlets and whispering in her ears. But though she changed her seat plenty of times, she never changed her expression. The glower she wore could not even be shaken by the licks of Togo and Spot, who bounded towards her whenever Eleri approached.
“Down, you silly creatures!” she’d shout as she ran, squealing, from the muddy paws which skittered towards her. “I’m going to kill you, Jack Thomas!”
Over time, the others lost interest, giving up on the Girl Who Never Smiled. But Jack didn’t. His tricks always aroused an identical response: a raised eyebrow, a powerful glare. The twitch of a smile barely contained. As his jokes had become more sophisticated, so had his feelings. His body ached to please her. Now, when they meandered home from chapel, his impressions, his card tricks – his one-foot-in-the-gutter walk – all were tailored to his audience, honed in the hope of raising that half-smile. He longed to make it whole, to see it travel upwards to her eyes where it would sparkle and dance.
Then, one day, it did.
He was out walking his dogs, opting for the route which would take him past Eleri’s door. He was in luck. As Jack approached the smug pebbledash houses of Bron Rhiw Road – a far cry from the squat bungalow his father could barely afford – he saw Eleri hovering on the threshold of her home. Something was stopping her from entering.
He made to send his dogs to greet her – the old prank-turned-joke from which their friendship had grown – but she looked so forlorn he found himself running towards her, instead.
‘El!’ he called as he neared her.
Eleri looked up, face streaked with tears.
“El, what on earth is the matter?”
“I just asked Mam for the extra money I need for the train. It’s my interview today,” she said.
Jack had long since left school to work down the pit; his father cared more about alcohol than education. Eleri was finishing her final year at the grammar school, and she wanted to go to teacher training college.
“And she said that we don’t even have money for the train, least of all for me to train. It’s not true. It’s all Geraint’s doing; he just wants to sell me off to Gareth Davies so he can get that under-manager’s position. But I won’t. I won’t…”
Eleri’s voice cracked. Jack tried to repair it. “Don’t you go worrying about that. If I know you, Eleri Bellamy, you won’t ever be told what to do.”
He hoped against hope this was true. To think of Eleri married to that…tylwyth teg. Well, it twisted up his insides. He swallowed away the thought.
“Besides, there’s always money to be found. You know that better than anyone.” Jack rooted around in the depths of his pockets for the sixpence piece he’d been about to use for his lunch. “Here,” he said, dusting off the blackened coin between his equally sooty fingers.
“I don’t need it. There’s more where that came from. It’s payday soon. Plus, Dai Pritchard has asked me to work on his car this weekend. And if that’s not enough, we’ll go down Penarth beach to look for luckies.”
“You remember me telling you about that?” Eleri turned her huge eyes up to him. It had been years since her father had disappeared, but Jack knew Eleri held his memory dear.
“Of course I do, El,” said Jack. The words tumbled out before he knew what he was saying. “I remember everything you say. I know you. Inside and out.”
“I know, for example, that you used to sit in the same seat at Sunday School every week because you were worried, if you didn’t, something terrible would happen.” Eleri opened her mouth to protest, but Jack carried on. “I know you kept a woodlouse in a matchbox as a pet and cried when it died – no, don’t pretend you didn’t!” Jack laughed. “But most of all, I know that you won’t let anything stop you from getting what you want. So go and catch that train before I set Togo and Spot on you and make them chase you all the way to the station.”
The corners of Eleri’s mouth moved…and something remarkable happened: a smile, like a butterfly breaking free of a chrysalis, spread across her face.
“Go,” he said, though he could have looked at that smile forever.
“Okay,” she said, her face aglow. “Thank you, Jack.”
Eleri ran down the street – squealing, this time, with excitement – and Jack realised that he now knew something else about Eleri Bellamy. He knew that, finally, she was running towards – and not away – from him.
He stood, transfixed, for a long time. Then, turning to leave, he saw out of the corner of his eye a curtain move at the top of Eleri’s house. A figure appeared, still as a picture in a frame. Geraint. A chill ran down Jack’s spine, though the day was mild. He was in trouble all right. And it was his turn to run.
Ceri put her foot down all the way to Primrose View, angry more with herself than with her mother, for once. Despite all that had gone before, Ceri knew that she would never forgive herself for letting her mother get to this state. She couldn’t have prevented it, of course, but she could certainly have acted sooner – before her mother had walked the streets of Caerphilly at 3am and been stopped by the police. She was looking for Ceri’s father, she’d said. He was coming to see her, she’d said. Ceri hoped this wasn’t why the care home had called her tonight.
A cacophony of horns told Ceri she’d run a red light.
She pulled up outside the home and was immediately filled with the same sense of dread she always felt when it came to dealing with her mother. It hadn’t always been this way. But, since Dad had left, something had closed between them. Mam had become preoccupied, depressed. Mad with grief. In one fell swoop, Ceri had lost both her parents. It was only twenty-three years ago that she’d truly understood why.
She wrenched the handbrake and pushed that day from her mind.
As Ceri entered the home, her attention was caught by a commotion in the so-called ‘Café’.
“Thanks for coming so quickly, Mrs Sheppard,” said the nurse who greeted her. “We can’t seem to coax her out of this one…”
Her mother was a ball on the floor. “I need to find him,” she moaned.
“Who?” asked a carer Ceri recognised, who was stroking Mam’s hair. She felt oddly replaced.
“Her father – my grandfather,” Ceri said, uncomfortable as ever about a stranger knowing the truth. “He left when she was young—”
“No, no, no,” Mam interrupted. “Lies. All of it…Why does everybody leave me?”
Ceri hovered in the middle of the dining room like a spare part.
“No-one’s leaving you,” said the carer. “Look – your daughter’s here now. Let’s get you up.”
“I’ll help you,” said Ceri, leaping at the chance to get involved. “What can I do…uh…” She stole a look at the nurse’s name badge. “Susan?” Putting names to faces had never been her strong point.
“Nothing. Just your being here has done the trick.”
But Ceri needed to do something. She settled for making an apology. “Sorry about all this.”
“Don’t worry,” Susan replied cheerily as she set about hoisting her mother into a wheelchair. “It’s normal.”
“None of this is normal,” said Ceri, frustrated with the word. The ease of it. The insinuation that there was somehow a standard to be deviated from. That, once again, she had fallen short.
“Promise you won’t leave me again, Cer?” her mother said as Susan wrestled her feet onto the metal pads.
“Of course not, Mam,” Ceri replied, feeling weight of the impossible oath. She handed Mam her handbag to distract her.
As the three of them made their way down the corridor, passing a long series of open doors, Ceri felt as if she were looking through portals into other worlds, or whatever alternate reality each resident was living in: one man was conducting an orchestra, another was calling his pillow a whore.
“Let’s go to the dayroom. After all, a cup of tea makes everything better,” Susan chirruped, her tone at odds with the hopelessness which exuded from every pore of the place. A deadly organism thriving on the price of old age, its every room was a cell. Its whole: a lurid reminder of a body’s imprisonment by mortality. Ceri shivered.
Thankfully, the dayroom was not far. Susan scooped her mother’s fragile body up and lowered her into her ‘favourite’ chair. Mam was calmer now, and Ceri found herself hoping she could soon get back to the half-peeled potatoes which currently adorned her kitchen worktop.
When Susan disappeared off to get some biscuits, Ceri looked warily around her. The chairs were arranged around the perimeter of the room, as if to encourage conversation. But many of the residents were conversing with themselves.
“I have to go soon, Mam,” Ceri said, loitering awkwardly in the centre of the circle.
“Not without me. I won’t spend a minute longer in this place.”