A DETERMINED WOMAN – original short story

Posted: June 7, 2020 in Life
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My mother’s character was forged early, when she left school at 14 and somehow forgot to tell her parents.

Rather than attend Mrs Llewellyn’s Academy for Young Ladies she spent her days tramping the black hills above Swansea for a view over the shining bay, when the rain relented long enough to do so, or down at the docks watching fishing boats unloading their catch. Sometimes she would patrol the centre of the town, admiring the new “flapper” dresses in the shop windows.

She figured she wasn’t learning anything that would be any help in life’s coming endeavours. She had no interest in discovering how to comport herself to good effect at a middle-class cocktail party full of silly boys who laughed too loud and coughed over their Craven As, and even less enthusiasm for delving into the mysteries of creating a Crème brûlée for some future husband.

She did not make a fuss, just quietly absented herself. And as her father kept paying the fees, so no one from the Academy bothered Mr Reynolds as to why Betty’s chair was empty. Such an indiscrete enquiry would have been considered infra dig. Her wayward wanderings were only discovered when her mother was walking home clutching another bottle of nerve tonic after one of her regular visits to a local physician who never hesitated to relieve her of a shilling for needless consultations, and she happened to discover Betty skipping stones on Cwmdonkin Reservoir.

The confrontation with her father over her behaviour lasted a little over ten minutes. “I am not going back, and you can’t make me.” She pursed her lips with obdurate certainty. Her father looked at her resignedly. He had never thought it worthwhile educating the girl anyway, and had only reluctantly agreed to satisfy his wife, who had some notion that it was the modern thing to do. “You can’t just moon around doing nothing,” he argued. “I won’t,” she said. “I’ll come work in the shop.”

The fishmonger looked at her balefully – he enjoyed escaping to the little shop in Sketty every day, without the responsibilities of dealing with the females in his family for a few hours. And he knew his wife would play merry hell over the thought of the girl standing behind the counter. On the other hand, he knew the girl could be trusted, and was quick-witted. “I can’t pay you much,” he said, doubtfully. “Whatever you can manage,” she replied, smiling. And so it was done.

She took to the work immediately. Her peaceable manner quieted her worrying father and went down well with customers. She seemed to have a natural instinct for those who could be trusted to take some food “on tic” till next payday, and very rarely got that judgement wrong. The gratitude of those customers struggling to survive what they were now calling The Great Depression was palpable. Her father even took to enjoying a quiet pint of a lunchtime at The Vivian on Gower Road, where he would catch up with old comrades from the trenches who, like him, had somehow survived the carnage at Ypres. The lick of gas had left him perennially short-breathed, but some had got it worse. Billy had been blinded, after all. They would talk, and sometimes a runner would take half-a-crown to the local bookie, but only when he knew the business could stand it.

Back at the shop, Betty bobbed and weaved, enjoying the responsibility, and became adept at totting up lists of figures on a scrap of paper, and blindingly quickly. It was a skill that never left her, at least until her mind failed into her dotage, and a useful talent which she eventually passed to me. To this day I surprise work colleagues and my own family with my capacity to glance at a column of figures and deliver an approximation of the total in moments, accurate to within a few pennies at least. Give me a pencil and paper and I’ll give you the exactly right answer in seconds. “Thank the fish,” I sometimes grin, obscurantly.

She married, and moved. But my father died of a massive coronary when I was just two, worn out by six years on destroyers in the second war, ultimately the victim of too many fags and one too many scotches. There wasn’t any money, and she adapted to life as an impoverished single mother with the same resolute and unfussed purpose that she applied to all the other areas of her life. Stoicism was her watchword. She just got on, and did.

Despite the pressure cooker existence of being a single mother with a precocious only child, she and I rarely argued, mostly because early on I worked out it was a pointless exercise.

Once her mind was made up, it was unmade so rarely as to be a news event, and in turn her mulish stubbornness had been passed down to me.

We took it in turns to ignore the adopted position of the other, always moving the conversation onto safer ground when argument loomed. It was, thus, an unproductive relationship by modern standards, but a peaceful one. Where today parents and children would be urged to “have it out” and “find common ground”, we simply left patches of emotional turf unexplored.

She rarely cracked the whip, except when I reached the fringes of adulthood, and then only ever over the time I was due home, as she used to say she had enough to worry about without lying in bed concerned I had crashed the Triumph Herald on the way back from the pub.

Eleven meant eleven. The cold stare I received if I rolled the little white car down the drive at ten past the hour was too high a price for an extra ten minutes of freedom.

And if I was ever going out for a drink she would warn me, as if by rote, against drinking scotch. “It doesn’t agree with the men in our family,” she would intone solemnly. “You do as you like, boy, but I tell you I always knew when your father came back from the pub if he’d been drinking whisky, just by the look on his face. It doesn’t agree with our men.”

She was right. It didn’t. And much as I love a peaty, oaky single malt, to this day I always ration myself to one or two at most. I can guzzle a crisp bottle of Chardonnay, smash down a vodka or three, and above all drown myself in good, chewy bitter ale with the best of them. But if I drink too much scotch, my head is thicker than usual, and my mood next day is always one of black despair. She knew things.

She ignored my choice of women, figuring it was none of her business, and only tut-tutted mildly at my occasional business misadventures. “Better to give it a go,” was her placid judgement.

There was really only one disagreement that echoed down the years between Betty and me.

It grew from what she regarded as her encyclopaedic knowledge of fish, and a defiant desire on my part to win one argument – just one – on her home territory.

It began one Christmas, when we received our customary creaking crate of fresh fish delivered to our local railway station from Uncle Ken, her brother, who still worked his stand on the docks in Swansea, buying the catch wholesale and shipping it to hotels all over the country in rough hewn planks packed with newspaper and ice.

This was long before the days of refrigerated transport, of course. By the time the crate arrived it would always be showing signs of melting, and smelling strongly. But if the railways managed to get it to us overnight, the fish inside was still fresh enough to add a touch of luxury to our otherwise somewhat bare Christmas feasts. Usually a cod, from Iceland, maybe a ling or two from down Cornwall way, perhaps some langoustines from Scotland or Brittany, and always a sea trout – or sewin as the Welsh call it – Salmo trutta cambricus – because that was her special favourite. Brown trout that had escaped the river for the open sea, and were richer and deeper in colour and flavour as a result.

She would nestle the gleaming silvery fish lovingly in her hands, often three or four pounds in weight, and show me that the mouth of the sea trout is slightly longer than the salmon, reaching behind the line of the eye. At that time of year they often turned up in nets off the North Wales coast, or were caught on lines as they returned to their home river to spawn. She would explain how despite its pink flesh, the real difference between salmon and sea trout is in the taste. “It feeds like a salmon on whatever the ocean has to offer – often small crabs and things – it looks likes salmon, but it will always taste like a trout.”

She would smile in delight. “It always tastes of the river, wherever it’s been.”

The white fish she would bake in a pie with leeks and a potato and cheese crust. Langoustines would be saved for a Boxing Day party with the Sedwells from next door, made merry by a naughty second glass of sherry before lunch, and then helped along with the luxury of a bottle of Mateus Rosé as we cracked the shells, praying our thanks for Ken’s generosity, and afterwards there was always an obligatory game of Pontoon, but for matches only, as Betty didn’t hold with gambling.

But the sewin was always carefully sliced into neat parcels wrapped in greaseproof paper, carefully husbanded to provide her with a few meals, and piece by piece in the coming few days a fillet would be braised on the stovetop for her private lunch, always served with impossibly thinly sliced but thickly buttered Hovis bread. She would eat it alone, at the little lino-topped kitchen table, chewing slowly, with a dreamy, faraway look in her eyes.

Our disagreement came when one year Ken dispatched some skate in the crate.

“Ugh”, she muttered. “Skate. Why on earth would he send us skate?”

I looked at the curious ՙwings’ of fish lying sodden against a background of racing results and a weather report for the Swansea Valley. They were about the size of my spread hand, thicker at the top than the bottom, with curious ridges running the length of the fillets.

“What is it?” I asked, intrigued.

Her lip curled ever so slightly contemptuously. Skate, she opined, was not something that should ever be seen at a polite table. “They’re ’orrible ugly buggers, for one” she said, explaining how the stingray-like fish sometimes came up in the deep nets on the edge of the continental shelf. “Good for cat food, is all.  You have to throw most of the fish away, and they stink of ammonium sometimes, too. All you get are these little bits.” She gestured at the wings with distaste. “Why on earth would he send us this? ’Spect he couldn’t sell it anywhere else.”

Something about her untypical annoyance encouraged a little devilment in me. “We should cook it though, yeah?” I pointed to the clock. “It’s near lunchtime, anyway. How bad can it be, eh? It’s a meal.”

She looked irritated. “The Sedwell’s cat can have it. I wouldn’t thank you for it.”

I persisted. “That’s a waste, Mam. ‘Waste not, want not’ you’re always saying. We should give it a go. How do you cook it, then?”

She picked up the little parcel and thrust it at me. “Stick it in a pan and fry it up with a bit of fat if you must. But I don’t want any.” She scowled.

I chuckled and grabbed an old pan and melted a knob of butter in it. She watched my out of the corner of her eye, and I whistled a few notes, pretending I didn’t know she was watching. I used the Welsh Shir Gȃr from Camarthenshire, as she had treated herself to a pat because it was Christmas, although I found it far too salty.

“You make sure you get it cooked,” she grumbled, “got to be cooked right through.” Despite herself, she glanced at the pan. “See that pink bit? You don’t want that. Hasn’t been bled proper.” And she got the butter knife and carved a small portion off one of the fillets and threw it away, murmuring “Skate” to herself disapprovingly as she did.

The wings browned nicely, and when the fillets were flipped so the ridges were pan side down, that side crisped agreeably, too, although I hadn’t floured them. I flipped a little butter over them, and turned them out onto a plate.

“Mum, “ I urged with my first mouthful, “this is delicious. Really. Try a piece.”

When pressed, she accepted the tiniest morsel of milky-white flesh from me on a fork, and daintily popped it in her mouth. Then turned away, and mumbled “Skate” again, making a disapproving clucking noise. Nothing I could say would induce her to try any more, although I was ploughing through the delicately flavoured flesh at a rate of knots. “You enjoy it, boy”, she said, “if you like it. But it’s not for me. No, thank you very much.”

And no matter how I pushed her for why she didn’t like it, nothing else was forthcoming. Which was her all over, truth be told.

As the years past, and the humble skate metamorphosed into the poisson du jour for so many food experts and critics, her implacable opinion never wavered. I sat her down once in front of a television and made her watch some famous chef produce a clutch of wings in brown butter, with some deep-green baby beans. A picture on a plate. “Not for me,” she insisted, with a steely tone.  And changed the subject.

Towards the end, her mind went walkabout. She would confuse me with my father, grumbling that I hadn’t fixed the side gate yet. She would worry who was minding the shop she had stopped working in 70 years earlier.

One day, the nurse said she was being “difficult”, and would I mind popping in to calm her? And as I made my way into her room, she was banging a fork on her tray, clearly agitated.

“Skate!” she cried at me when she saw me come in. “Skate! Not for me boy, you can take this away. Give it to the cat.” And she pushed the table towards the end of her bed on its roller feet, glaring at me.

She died the next day. 93.

Just sat up in bed, apparently, insisting it was time for a nice cup of tea, then fell backward again, and that was it.

She was a determined woman, my mother, who ate a lot of fish.

But not skate.

No, thank you very much.

 

Copyright Stephen Yolland, 2020

 

 

 

 

 

Comments
  1. tonyshep76 says:

    A lovely tale and oh so apt….

    Like

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