I am reading Bird Cloud by Annie Proulx. So many coincidences with my own experience: the book is about building a house in the wilderness; there is a water quality problem; the house is in conifer country (in Annie's case, lodgepole pine; in mine, Sitka spruce); the birds and animals are comparable except for elk; the flora ditto; there are access road issues; an architect named Teague (a family name). There is a need for a big room with long tables to put papers for various pieces of writing work on; the discovery that the road to get to the property is problematic in winter months; recurrent trouble with straying cattle . I decide to write to Annie Proulx.
I am spending a long weekend with a friend in South Wales, in Penarth. Penarth is a delightful Victorian/Edwardian seaside resort just west of Cardiff. Wonderful big houses built when Cardiff was the biggest exporter of coal in the world, with incomes to match. There is a promenade with the famous view painted by Sisley west to Cardiff Harbour, and east across the water to Weston super Mare on the Somerset coast. Sun is sparkling on the water. A good time of year to visit – still plenty of foliage on the trees laden with fruit, and colour in the gardens. It is so pretty that planning crimes and misdemeanours stick out: the new over-big ‘garage’ at the end of a plot with the little conservatory on the east facing back to the house – thereby betraying itself as not an outbuilding so much as another house, or guest cottage. A little further down, there is another suspicious bit of development: a ‘garage’ with velux windows in the roof, bolted on to another pitched roof structure; you cannot see more over the fence because it has been heightened by a two- planks- width extension.
My journey down by train was increasingly pleasurable: squashed like a sardine from Lockerbie to Carlisle across green rolling countryside. Then from Carlisle to Crewe, through Cheshire - places such as Nantwich near Alsager, where I started married life. The sun came out as the train wound south, and stayed all the way to Cardiff, increasingly stunning countryside, Ludlow, Abergavenny.. The train arrives on time, and Y is on the platform to meet me. I shout as I spot her. She continues to walk towards me, preoccupied,no sign of recognition on her face. Again: ‘Y!' We are face to face. ‘Y! It’s me!!’
The train on the first leg from Lockerbie to Carlisle, which goes on to Manchester airport, was packed with holidaymakers. I had a seat reservation somewhere on the train, which I had forgotten about. A kind man travelling with his wife and young son moved across to share a seat so that I could sit down. For the leg from Carlisle to Crewe, the train was also packed. I had to ask a woman to move out of my booked table seat by a window. For two hours we sat in uneasy proximity, and I waited in vain for a ticket inspection so that I could ask if I had to change platforms when I next changed trains. Eventually, the two other passengers sharing the table got up and left the train, and my neighbour moved to the other side of the table to give us both more room. As we approached Crewe, it turned out that we were both changing trains there for Cardiff, and we became allies; she turned out to be friendly. The train was running late, so we only had six minutes to find the platform or the Cardiff train, sprint up a steep flight of stairs, along and down another to just catch the train, the Arriva 14.08. What a contrast. There was practically no-one else on the train. A grandfatherly Welsh Indian with a grey moustache strolled up and down in a proprietorial way, checking tickets, quiet, calm and kindly. The elderly Fat Controller look-alike wheeling the trolley, was also inclined to be chatty and sat down in the seat across from me to gossip as if we were in a pub. Other, younger railway personnel got on at Newport, where my father was born in 1905; a new trolley was loaded – the ‘set’ goes as far west as Carmarthen and Pembrokeshire.
Y and I walked with my wheely case from Cardiff station to the site where the old Mail and Echo office, where we had both worked in the 1960's, had been – her car was parked in an alley just behind it. She showed me the new offices of what is now called ‘Media Group’ which we were invited to visit if we felt like it (in the event, we didn't). Her house in Penarth 20 minutes drive from Cardiff along the coast is in a pretty terrace of late nineteenth century brick houses with tiny front gardens and ornamental wooden porches on the street side, and gardens leading to an alleyway behind. Into a narrow hallway; up steep stairs: straight ahead is the bathroom, and round a turn in the stair two bedrooms back to back. Downstairs, to the right, off the narrow hallway is a through parlour with fireplace at one end and windows facing east to the garden and west, and beyond, a step down to a kitchen, with one window by the sink and another in the small dining extension overlooking a narrow garden full of mature fig trees, vines, jasmine, honeysuckle, a tamarisk and pink cottage flowers. A blue door leads from the end of the garden into the lane running along the back of the terrace, and beyond that are the back gardens of the larger houses beyond. Everything in the house is picturesque, second hand, unmatching, rickety but pretty and clean. The wallpapers and curtains are Colefax and Fowler, frayed. Carpets are threadbare, the furniture tilts and wobbles. The view from the bath is unrivalled, looking east across the garden to trees and sky beyond. The weather is autumnal, bright warm sunshine interspersed with heavy showers. Enormous white clouds scud across the western horizon over the blue grey and sandy coloured water. If only I had ever come to Penarth to look for digs in 1965 when I came to work on the South Wales Echo, instead of Splott. There has been a mining accident: four men killed and one critically injured following a botched operation to open up a new seam, releasing flood water from an earlier tunnel.
The first morning, after an excellent night’s sleep, I got up and decided to stretch my legs and get some fresh air by walking to the nearest paper shop. I forget to take my umbrella, and half way there I was caught in a such a heavy shower that I had to shelter under a tree until the worst had passed. The café/ shop is on the headland, warm and inviting, with big picture windows overlooking the sea. Two elderly men are sitting at tables far apart, one with his dog, both with their newspapers. A young woman serves me – no FT so I buy the Guardian for Y and the Daily Telegraph for myself. After breakfast, we decide to go for a walk during a break in the showers. We walk along past the big house where her partner of 20 years lived with his mother, until she died. Two weeks after he and Y moved in to their own terrace house, and shortly before he was due to retire, aged 65, he died in the newspaper office where had worked all his life. We turn down a steep path onto the promenade, past a smart modern looking café set in an old seaside building with a lovely Victorian wrought iron verandah, and wicker chairs set out on the sun-filled terrace with sea view. We sit and talk on a bench for a bit. A light shower, so we put up our umbrellas. Two or three couples or families pass us. Then we decide to walk on, up the hill and past the same café where I had bought the papers, back to the house. By now it is one o clock and Y cooks a fry-up of bacon eggs mushrooms and laver bread – my first ever experience of this uncategorisable green Welsh staple. It is nothing like bread. It is a thick paste or slimy sludge with claims to nutritional iodine and a taste which might be the famous Japanese fifth one, neither sour, sweet, salt or bitter but savoury. A slice of beetroot goes well with it, as does bacon, because it is on the sweet even sickly side, and needs to be cut with a sharper flavor. It is after half past three by the time we have finished lunch and I take the papers up for a couple of hours kip. Emerging at 6pm, we sit chatting by the west window until 8pm then have roasted vegetables and shoulder of lamb – Y is a wonderful cook - , starting off with avocado and my four cherry tomatoes left over from my picnic on the train, laced with excellent vinaigrette made with balsamic vinegar. We talk on until after midnight about this and that, roaming far and wide, from contemporary politics and the looming financial crisis to language, aviation (Y learned to fly a plane and belongs to a local aero club), old times on the newspapers we both worked for, research for features on hermits , shoes, ships, sealing wax and string. Much laughter and many reminiscences continued on Sunday when two more former colleagues with their wives come round for a long Sunday lunch. Then, impulsively - it is a beautiful warm sunny afternoon - we set off to walk to the headland where Marconi sent his first signals across the Atlantic. Three hours later, exhausted, we flop down for a cup of tea and a slice of Bara Brith fruit loaf and by 8.30pm I am fast asleep.
I was glad to be going to London for a night on my way home, to savour this experience, allow it to mellow in my mind. We were nearly at Paddington when the train stopped. Someone had thrown themselves in front of the train at Southall. The emergency services were called - we saw them walking past our carriage: ambulance, police, a man in a suit (a doctor?). I am thinking: 'This is the way the novel by Boris Pasternak, Dr Zhivago, begins, with a body on the line'. The train stands for two hours, thoughts for the deceased in all our minds, practical calls being made: 'I'm stuck on the train' 'I'm sorry, I'm not going to make the meeting'... Free tea and coffee was dispensed. A middle aged woman said 'Well, that's the end of my jolly' - she had had a full programme in London planned, perhaps a theatre matinee. At Paddington, two hours later, the staff were ready to allow us all through the barriers without showing our tickets.
I had a chance to touch base with my daughter and her husband, heading home to Durham after a busy week in London with agents and bookers for appearances and compering comedy nights round the country, planning a new show - writing starts next month for 2012 - , then supper with the Admiral - of which more in my next.