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Speaking for the Skin and the Bone

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Sian's mother had once told her that being brave didn't mean not feeling fear. That was stupidity, not courage; only fools were never afraid. No, bravery - according to her mother - was being afraid but doing something anyway, because she knew in her heart that it was the right thing to do.

Sian had been gifted with this little pearl of wisdom early enough in her life that she didn't remember the specifics of the occasion. Maybe she had been frightened to sleep in her big girl bed without her nightlight or to apologise to a neighbourhood child who she'd pushed down or to let go of her parents' hands and walk through the doors of her local primary school alone. But those words had got her down the aisle of the church to her Martin when she was only sixteen. They'd soothed her when she'd held her newborns in her arms and felt the grave weight of their needs pressing down on her and they'd propelled her into action when she'd looked at the pinched and frightened faces of people she'd known all of her life and decided that no one was going to go hungry so long as it was within her gift to prevent it. Her mother's words had compelled Sian to open her mind and her heart to a group of life-changing young men and women from London and, though her mother had been dead and buried for years, Sian still would have sworn that she'd heard her voice whispering in her ear as she'd filled out her mature student application.

Mature student. It still made her laugh. It sounded good, sure, but Sian was a pub keeper's daughter from Neath and she believed in calling a spade a spade. She was no more mature than she was vintage, well-seasoned or comfortably broken in. Compared to all the kids that had surrounded her ever since her first day at Swansea University she was simply old, no two ways about it.

And that was fine with her, generally speaking. Every wrinkle on her face was well-earned and even if they hadn't been then wishing still wouldn't make them go away. As she often reminded herself whenever finding a new grey hair threatened to spoil her mood, there are those who never get to grow old. And then her eyes filled up with tears at the thought that followed. Mark. She blinked the tears away; it was neither the time nor the place for them. After all, it was one thing to be an old lady sitting awkwardly in a seat near the back of a crowded lecture hall and quite another to be the crazy old broad who started blubbering for no reason in a small seminar group of only twenty people.

Although presumably bursting into tears would get her out of the quick-approaching ordeal of having to introduce herself. It was almost laughable. Sian had experienced no problems at all speaking in front of huge groups of men and women, miners and their wives with a hell of a lot on the line. She had known those people, even the ones she'd never actually met. Their worlds were her world and their problems were her problems. But sitting around this table, surrounded by the fresh-faced kids that comprised her cohort, by lads with greasy faces trying valiantly to banish their hangovers, by a Boy Georgette with her hair sprayed into a helmet and her makeup applied as thick as armour, she wondered if anyone there was even the slightest bit interested in anything she had to say.

"I'm Sara Stephens and I'm eighteen years old."

"I'm Rhodri Jones and I'm nineteen years old."

Some of them added a sentence or two – they were from Cardiff or enjoyed reading or supported Manchester United. But most simply offered up names and ages, as if they knew that they were still forming their identities and that any other details they could include would be as temporary as the number of years they had lived.

Sian wasn't going to volunteer her decades; she wasn't ashamed of her obvious maturity, as the uni would have no doubt charmingly phrased it, but no one needed to know the exact numbers behind it. She just wasn't sure what it was that she could say instead.

My name is Sian James, and I'm a homemaker?

Was it even still true? She supposed it was. She had no intention of allowing Martin to live off frozen TV dinners or go off to his job at the packing plant (three quarters of what he used to make and they needed to pay tuition now too, but it wouldn't help to worry about it) in soiled clothes. She had pressed and cleaned the lace curtains in her sitting room only two days ago and there was a jumble of red and green wool in her knitting basket at home, the very beginnings of her son's Christmas jumper. She had been proud, for so many years, of the warmth and tidiness of her home, her children's manners and her husband's contentment. But she was here, in part, because once the strike had ended she'd looked at herself in the mirror and realized that she'd outgrown the role that she'd stepped into when she was really still just a girl. She didn't want to leave it behind but she wanted to add to it, to expand it. And until she found the right way to do that, she didn't want it following her around here.

My name is Sian James, and I supported the miners?

That one was definitely true of course, but more and more these days all it elicited from the young was a rolling of the eyes. They thought that they had supported the miners too; they'd eaten beans on toast for their teas more often they'd have liked for a full year and had suffered a no doubt disappointing Christmas in the winter of 1984. But their parents had most likely done exactly what she and Martin had, and tried to shield their children from the worst of the deprivation and fear. What she would say and what they would hear were worlds apart, and Sian had learned that perhaps it was best to save some of her war stories for those who had been in the trenches with her.

My name is Sian James, and I'm a gay rights activist?

Now that would surprise them; Sian was sure of it. And in the case of several, it would earn their respect; Sian was so happy to see that the younger generation was growing up to shed many of the prejudices of the past. But the truth was, she didn't feel right about saying it - not yet. What had she really done, after all? Marched in a few annual parades? Talked to a few reporters, confronted a few bigoted parents? She had petitioned the National Union of Mine Workers to vote in support of including gay rights in the Labour constitution; she was proud of that. But she hadn't done enough yet, not by her way of thinking. The more she talked to her old friends from LGSM the more she was coming to understand the magnitude of their fight. Sian would claim her status as a soldier in that particular war once she'd earned it and not a moment sooner.

My name is Sian James, and I'm not sure if I picked the right major?

Only a gratifyingly small number people back home had been surprised that Sian had decided to get her degree. Her friends and neighbours knew her well and had seen the writing on the wall possibly even before Sian had. But more than a few eyebrows had been raised when she'd talked about studying Welsh language. Surely business, or something else practical, would have been a better choice! Sian herself had debated political science; if she really wanted to make a difference then it had seemed impractical and even self-indulgant to study anything else. But yet she had found herself being inextricably pulled towards the Languages department as if by some invisible tether. Because sometimes it seemed to her like the native language of her home was just as much a part of the land as the dark seams of coal under her feet. Both were regulated beyond her control, subject to the whims and caprices of people in London who looked at her and saw only a joke. And yet, unlike the people who made the decisions, she felt both of them deep within her veins.

And then, suddenly, she knew just what to say.

She rose to her feet, ignoring the squawk of the chair scraping against the floor tiles. She smiled and was gratified to see some of the kids, her new peers, smiling back at her.

"My name is Sian James," she began, in a voice that knew how to project itself. "And I'm Welsh to the core."