Every year I went on holiday in late September with two former colleagues, Winifred and Stella. We’d met when we were employed in the office at Associated Porcelain Products in Stoke-on-Trent, a firm no longer in existence. As Winifred says jokingly, “Everything went to pot after we’d left.”
We’d retired all at the same time. The company was asking for voluntary redundancies, so we applied, along with a lot of others. It didn’t do the firm much good, though. Before the year was out, they were outsourcing to Indonesia but even then couldn’t compete, and were taken over by a bigger company. The workforce, despite their skills, were out of work en masse, and there was a lot of deprivation in the area. The same thing was happening with one pottery after another. It was a crying shame.
We, though, had been very fortunate. Another year, and our houses’ values would have plummeted. As it was, I’d been able to sell mine for a good price, and with the money from that, and my redundancy pay, I was able to move to a large village/small town. I bought an ex-council house, in a cul-de-sac with only five other houses, and with a small garden both front and back. I blessed the day I’d found it.
Winifred had started her retirement staying with her widowed sister, who lived near the canal in Stone, whilst she looked around. She eventually found a flat in one of the large houses near the Catholic Church. We had neither of us wanted to stay in Stoke, once we didn’t need to be near to work. Stella already had a nice house, in Newcastle-under-Lyme. Her husband had died a few years earlier, and her only son had emigrated to Australia. She was happy to stay put, where she knew her neighbours, and had friends round about.
The three of us kept in touch, and met regularly. We had a rota: one Friday a month at Stella’s, the next at Winifred’s, and the third at mine, for coffee, cake, and a chat. You may wonder what we found to talk about. Well, Stella talked mainly about her son Graham and his wife Elaine, and her grandchildren whom she missed all the time. Winifred talked about her neighbours in the other flats, the details of whose lives she appeared to know inside out.
And I? I didn’t say much; I just listened. After all, what could I talk about? I could have bored them with tales of my cat – but Suki was old now, and slept most of the time. My neighbours were out at work all day, and the hedges between my house and theirs were high enough to prevent any hob-nobbing over them. And of course, at the heart of my reticence was the secret I carried, which could never be shared.
Our main topic of conversation, though, was the holiday we took together each September. Every year, we planned meticulously, searching pamphlets and newspaper supplements and magazines, to find an area we’d like to visit. It had to be somewhere which had a couple of stately homes, with pleasant countryside. Once we’d decided on the area, we researched for accommodation, usually settling on a modest hotel, where we could have dinner, bed, and breakfast. Then we’d book two rooms, a twin for Stella and Winifred, and a single for me. I was glad it was like that. I’d have hated to share.
The holiday I’m going to tell you about was the one where we were based in Caernarfon. There was a lot to see round about. We planned to visit the great castle which dominated the town, and have a day at Port Meirion. There was also Plas Newydd, just over on Anglesey. We also thought we’d like to go to Abersoch, just because we liked the sound of it. Stella was happy to take her car, and do all the driving, so Winifred and I chipped in with the petrol money.
All went to plan. The late September weather was kind to us, with warm sunny days. And although the evenings were chilly, we sat in the warmth of the hotel’s bar after dinner, drinking coffee, and talking about what we’d seen that day, and where we’d go tomorrow.
I found the castle fascinating, but hard to get around. Steps and my knees did not agree any more! Plas Newydd was good, too, and the views over the Menai Straits from its gardens were superb. What I liked most of all, however, was Port Meirion. I know it is all ersatz, just a fantasy, a folly, but I loved it all. The buildings! The bright colours! The views across the bay! Walking around, I could imagine myself in Italy, in the bright Mediterranean sun.
The only fly in the ointment was my companions. I had never before found them annoying, but walking round Port Meirion I did, in Spades. I just wanted to look, to soak up the atmosphere. All they seemed to want was to gossip with each other about the group of people staying at the hotel. In the end, I sneaked off when they weren’t looking, and went exploring alone.
The following day we’d decided to drive further down the Llyn Peninsula, to visit Abersoch and Aberdaron. It was strange. I was becoming increasingly irritated by Winifred and Stella. They never seemed to shut up, even in the car. It was a wonder we didn’t have an accident; Stella seemed to find it imperative to look at whoever she was speaking to, taking her eyes off the road for a minute at a time. Why hadn’t I noticed this before? I was glad to be sitting in the back, and able to keep silent.
We went to Aberdaron first. It’s a fairly small place, and didn’t detain us long, so we were soon travelling back towards Abersoch. There was more to see there, and we wandered around for a bit, and had coffee in a pleasant café. The rest of the day stretched ahead.
“Why don’t we go into the countryside, find a nice pub, where we can have lunch?” I suggested, “and then we could continue to see Hell’s Mouth, which I’ve read about.”
“What is it?” Stella asked.
“I think it’s a bay, or a beach, where it isn’t safe to go. I’m not sure if it’s because of quick-sands, or rip tides, just that a lot of people have lost their lives there. It’s supposed to be very atmospheric.”
“How cheerful,” Stella said. I saw her and Winifred exchange glances. Winifred said, in the tone one uses to humour people, “If you’d really like to, it’s all right with us, isn’t it, Stella? You’ve had a long face all day, and perhaps looking at somewhere gloomy might brighten your mood.”
Stella nodded, and they both laughed, but not unkindly, and I felt a bit ashamed. They had been my good – nay, only – friends for many years, and who was I to sit in judgement over anyone, after all?
We got back in the car, and drove off. I could see in the driver’s mirror, and they were pulling faces and sniggering, probably at me. Despite my good intentions, I was suddenly furious. Their constant wittering was ruining my holiday, and there was nothing I could do about it. If they felt they had to put themselves out a bit for me, so what?
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Anyway, they were happy to look for somewhere to have lunch, so we set off in the general direction of Hell’s Mouth. The narrow country lanes were dotted with signposts at various little junctions, with place names which all seemed to begin with ‘Llan…’ We eventually reached one such village, and there on our left was a pub which looked very spruce and respectable. The board outside said ‘Home-Made Food’; always a good sign. I’d been told to avoid ones which said ‘Home Cooked Food’, because that food wasn’t home-made, just frozen stuff bought in from the Cash-and-Carry, and then heated up. Home-made food was different.
There were a few parking spaces available behind the building, but not many. The place was obviously popular. Stella’s little Austin looked a bit out of place among the Range Rovers and BMWs that took up most of the space. I am sure I’m not the only person who feels a bit daunted, going into somewhere where the majority appear to be from a higher social class – or at least, considerably wealthier. (I don’t count footballers as a higher social class!) Mind you, I often feel a bit uncomfortable anyway, as I’m so small and thin. I get overlooked, in every sense of the word.
A wave of noise met us inside, people talking and laughing, making that ‘Haw haw haw’ sound that some English people go in for. I’m quite good at identifying accents, and I didn’t hear one Welsh voice. We edged our way between the groups to the only vacant spot, a small table set for three, crammed into a corner. There was a menu on the table. I’m sure I blanched when I saw the prices.
“I think I’ll just have the starter,” I said. “Soup and a roll.”
“Good gracious!” Winifred exclaimed. “Have you seen this? And it’s lunchtime! Whatever must they charge in the evening? I’ll have soup and a roll, too.”
“Make that three,” Stella said.
We waited, and waited, and waited, but the ‘waiter’ managed not to see us, as he went back and forth nearby. Eventually, Stella got up. “Right! I’ll go to the bar and order, and complain whilst I’m at it.”
A few moments later she returned, the waiter following her with a tray of three tonic waters, which he put down in a dismissive fashion, looked through us superciliously, and went off.
“No tip for that one!” Stella said. “Not that I’d give one anyway, at these prices.”
We settled down to wait for our soup, and at last I could look around. Almost by us was a table with eight people, all ‘Hooray Henry’ types, from the sounds they made. Two of them, a man and a woman, were a bit older than me, I’d say; very expensively dressed in a country-casual sort of way; and there were six younger people, three men and three women. One of the young women was holding forth, telling some convoluted story which was causing great hilarity, to the disturbance of anyone round about who was trying to have a quiet conversation. I thought, ‘What an annoying person.’
Then Winifred said to me, “How strange. That garrulous young woman sounds just like you – her tone, and so on. You have such a distinctive voice. I’ve never before heard anyone whose voice-sounds resemble yours.”
“You’re right!” Stella exclaimed. “I’ve been racking my brains, trying to place where I’ve heard her before, but it’s Jean to the life!”
They both stared at me.
“She even has a look of you. Have you got a secret relative you’re not telling us about?” Stella joked.
I could feel myself blushing, and my heart was pounding.
“Have you?” asked Winifred. “You’re very red. What is it?”
“I’m just embarrassed with you remarking about my voice,” I said, clutching at straws.
Stella shook her head pityingly. “Oh, Jean, you’re such a little mouse sometimes. It’s a lovely voice. You mustn’t be embarrassed.”
I forced myself to smile deprecatingly. “Oh, you know me,” I said, “Squeak, squeak;” and I put my hands up like a mouse’s little paws as I said it.
They both laughed, and the moment passed. They began to chat to each other again, something about getting new towels. I tuned them out. I kept glancing surreptitiously at the young woman whose voice was like mine. I was aware of my racing pulse, and of the adrenalin I’d released.
She was the right age. It was now 1985, and she looked as though she could be twenty-six. I wanted to get up and stand by her table, facing her, and say, ”Were you born on the fifteenth of May in 1959, and adopted?”, but knew I could never do anything like that. The thought made me go weak, and shrink inside myself. Suppose I were wrong? Stella and Winifred would know the secret I’d never told anyone, and it would be common knowledge in no time. But suppose I was right? There was I, a non-descript middle-aged woman, a born spinster in appearance, in non-descript clothes, in the company of two other non-descript women. We must look a sad trio, the sort of people no-one really notices, their eyes skimming over us, never seeing us, part of a vast sea of nobodies.
There the young woman was, part of a vibrant, colourful, socially-confident group, the sort of people everyone notices: brightly and expensively dressed, with the type of clear carrying voices which exude sophisticated superiority. And the older couple could well be her adoptive parents. I had signed papers to say I’d never try to find her, or do anything to affect her new parents. I had always hoped with all my heart she’d been happy with them. Why should she want to know me?
At the bottom of it all I had another reason for not doing anything. When my father and mother had packed me off to the home for unmarried mothers fifty miles from home, they had impressed upon me the shame and disgrace I had brought upon them. They would give me no support, beyond paying for my board at the Home, and as a teenager I had no resources of my own, and nowhere else to go. Afterwards, when I went back to live with my parents, I was not allowed to speak about what had happened, and the one time my mother found me crying, she slapped me. I had hoped to go on to college, but they made me leave school. They did pay for me to do a year at Secretarial College, though. I had loved my baby so much, but at sixteen, without money, I was helpless before my parents, and also the attitudes of society at that time. The feelings of shame stayed with me, even now.
I had never ceased to mourn, never ceased looking everywhere I went, wondering if various girls, and later young women, might be my beloved Helen. Until now, I had never come across anyone who might be.
Winifred and Stella were gathering their things, ready to go. What could I do? All my instincts were telling me I was in the presence of my daughter at last, and I was frozen. I had kept the secret of her all these long years. I couldn’t let it go now, in front of my two friends, to have it talked about; and I could say nothing to my darling girl. This was it. It was probable I would never see her again - and I could do nothing.
I got into the back of Stella’s car – my usual place – and we drove off. My thoughts and feelings were all over the place. I remembered I had thought her annoying. May God forgive me! All my imaginings down the years of a joyful reunion were just so much nonsense. How could I ever have thought she’d want me? Me! A grey little mouse.
My reveries were cut short when we got to Hell’s Mouth. We got out of the car, and stood and looked out over the wide, empty stretch of sand, to the crashing waves. The wind was howling and the sky had darkened. I could not have imagined anywhere out-of-doors with such a menacing atmosphere. Even Stella and Winifred were silent for a while.
I spoke first. “I want to go,” I said. I could not bear to be there a moment longer. I had never felt so alone and hopeless, even in my worst despair. What I was feeling was truly Hell’s Mouth – and I was looking into its abyss.