It wasn’t until I was pleasantly full with warm bread and roast mutton, that I summoned enough courage to ask about Nainy about the events of the day. When we’d arrived back at the cottage earlier that afternoon, Genny had sternly advised against it.
“Nainy won’t care for it, Viv. She’ll probably fly into a temper. She doesn’t look it but she can be quite melodramatic.”
Nainy’s earlier encouragement to ask about what I wanted to know was still fresh in my mind however and I was determined to brave her disapproval rather than continue to wonder. At least that’s what I had told myself in my room earlier. Looking out on the calming sea had given me a peaceful bravery that I regularly misplaced. Running my hands absently over the embroidered quilt had encouraged me as well. As if each thread where chanting a spell that would strengthen my resolve. The feeling didn’t abate as I assisted in preparing our evening meal. Each potato peel that fell away was only another bit of bravery I added to my reserve. I completed each chore more steadily and determinedly than the last. The world was behind me, from the sea to the wind to the tiny pebbles lining the walk.
It wasn’t until we actually sat down and I looked directly into Nainy’s steely eyes that my resolve began to crumble. Her smile did nothing to strengthen it and when we bowed our heads and prayed, the last crumbling ruins were blown away by the slight but steady breeze that played about the garden.
“We won’t be having mutton every night, Vieva. It’s just because it’s your first night here. Mostly, we have fish.”
“Not fish and chips though,” Genny added. “That’s what I thought at first. What a lovely summer, to only eat fish and chips every day but it’s not like that at all. Still fabulously tasty but different.” Genny squeezed my hand under the table as if she could read on my face, the turmoil that was acting itself out in my mind.
I nodded and continued with my meal, allowing the warmth and love that had taken in preparing it to rebuild some of the courage I had lost. Genny was right next to me for support and Nainy had never shown me anything but kindness. I realised that I hadn’t lost my resolve due to fear of those around me but instead to being out of practise. I’d discovered the small ember of determination still burning deep in the fire.
“Nainy,” I could hear my voice breaking and swallowed to strengthen myself. “Are there fairies in Wales?”
Nainy turned and looked at me thoughtfully. Genny was completely silent, holding her breath in anticipation.
“And why would you be wanting to know about fairies?”
“You mentioned them earlier, with your watch.” I audibly swallowed again and then pushed my shoulders back, trying to instil myself with more confidence than I felt.
“Ahh, indeed I did.” Nainy’s hand brushed the watch instinctively. She looked through me as if searching my soul and smiled. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with that tale Bryn told you earlier today, would it?”
My heart sunk. The garden wind reached up, almost stroking my cheek and consoling me. “We found some shells on the fairy tree on the way back.” I reached into my pocket and presented her with the cockle shell that so mirrored her own. I wasn’t sure why I was afraid that she might laugh at the misadventure we’d had earlier that day. It didn’t seem in her nature but the whole idea that fairies had left us shells in exchange for tree leaves was so unbelievably ridiculous that I half felt that I deserved laughter for believing such a foolish notion myself.
Nainy reached for the shell respectfully and almost cooed to it as she picked it up. Her lilting Welsh rolled down the shell and over my ears, making the garden shine with the magic of an unknown tongue. It occurred to me that I should know more of this language, more of the heritage that ran through my veins. My blood called to those words, begged to understand them, and be included in the warmth of their familiar embrace. As it was, the magic just dripped away into the garden, wasted on those around it.
“This is a beautiful shell, Vieva. Do you know what it is?”
“It’s a cockle shell.”
“Yes, but this is a special kind of cockle.” She turned it over in her hand and pointed to a yellowish stain on the underside. “You have here, my dear, a blood cockle.”
I leaned forward inspecting the evidence for which I had no contribution. Nainy could have told me it was from the moon and with all the information I had about shells the most I could do would be to smile and nod. “Is your shell a blood cockle?”
She smiled, “No, Vieva. Just a common cockle for a common woman. Yours is special. For a blood cockle is only found in the far reaches of the South China Sea and is said to have the breath of life inside of it. We all have that inside us. The power to encourage those around us to live or encourage them to stop living. It’s not something to be used lightly. ” She turned the shell over and then laid it on the table between us. “Do you think the fairies left this for you?”
I pursed my lips thinking about how to phrase my response. “I want to believe that they left it for me but I don’t know why they would and Mr. Lewis said there are no fairies and we aren’t to believe such nonsense. So, that is why I asked you.”
She folded her hands in her lap a moment and looked out towards the water. Her right hand began to gently stroke her wedding band, as she cupped her chin with her left hand. She sat that way, thinking, for a few minutes. It seemed long, more like days than seconds. Genny and I exchanged glances across of the table. But Genny only shrugged away my questioning look and we both returned to studying the woman before us, who seemed to be studying the universe contained in the sea.
Nainy seemed to shake herself from her trance and looked down at both of us regretfully. “You may have noticed that your parents don’t often visit me here. If I were to be honest I would say that’s mostly my fault. My pride demands differently, but there it is. When your father agreed to your coming here this summer, Vieva, he only did so on the provision that I not stuff your head with the same disappointing and dangerous nonsense that I constantly bombarded him with in his youth. I made a promise to him not to speak of that which you have brought up and I made a promise to you to tell you what I know if I know it. The world is strange sometimes, pitting out promises against each other to see which shall come out ahead. In this case, I shall have to keep my promise to your father. I promised him first and he shall not forgive me should I break it. You seem to have curious soul. I think you shall find the answers you seek but I shall have to ask you not to ask me for them again.”
She smiled at me again and then reached over to squeeze my hand as if to ease the disappointment. “Now, merched. This table shan’t clear itself.”
As we lay that night in our beds, I thought of the days events and of Nainy’s words. Genny was talking quietly away about the story Nainy had told us as we were tucked into bed. She’d spoken about a beautiful lady in the stars, who’d thought to challenge the sea king with her beauty.
“Does your mother like Nainy?” I asked quietly when Genny had finished her story about one of the models who’d been in her mother’s magazine, who could have challenged the king of the world, let alone the king of the sea.
She was very quiet for a moment and then very softly said, “No.” I heard her roll over and turned to face her. The sun was still fighting to set, even though it was already nine o’clock. It streamed through the window, like sun trying to penetrate water, and weakly illuminated Genny’s face. “She calls her an old nutter when she thinks I can’t hear. I’d never met her before two years ago, when my mother put me on a train to come here. She didn’t want to see her, so I came by myself.”
“You went on the train by yourself at six? My mother didn’t want me to go by myself at nine.”
Genny sighed and rolled onto her back., “I do everything by myself. This wasn’t very different.”
“You’re so brave. I would have been so scared.”
Genny glanced out of the corner of her eyes and then suddenly smiled. “I was so terrified. The only way I made it through was because of Mr. Roberts. He was transferring trains from London to Bangor in Chester. He walked with me and helped me find everything. That man is an angel in disguise. I wonder where he hides his wings.”
We both giggled and then were quiet again, “Why do you think they hate her?”
I could almost hear Genny shrug. “It must have something to do with the fairies. Otherwise, why wouldn’t she have answered your question? It’s very honourable to respect your father’s wishes but ever so inconvenient for us.”
I nodded thoughtfully. “She seems to want to tell us but can’t. There must be someone else who can, who hasn’t made a promise to my father.”
“Parents can be quite crafty when they have a mind to be but luckily you can be quite crafty too. Just look how cleverly you handled Mr. Lewis today. Yes, you’ll work out the detail bits and I shall do the charming. People quite like me, you know.”
I giggled, “Yes. I know, Genny.” She continued talking about her plans to figure out the secrets that lay hidden here but I only half listened. I’d not been called clever in some time and it felt good to flex muscles that I knew were there. A small, secret confidence began to build in me again. Smaller and more sturdy than what I’d erected this afternoon. The curtains flitted in a small breeze that broke through the window pane and reminded me that something was building outside too, calling to be found and unlocked. We still had seven weeks here and I as my eyes drifted closed that night I was certain that in that time we’d be able to discover anything that needed to be found.