Worn corduroy, doting Welsh, train wrecks, dolmen stones, imagined blackberries, dead sheep, burning greens, sable-maned witches & the sea.
I. The Corduroy Chair
Wales is a little country of stony hills and rain, sea-hemmed on three sides and stitched at its eastern seam to the southwest corner of England. My first visits there were strictly imaginary. I took them sitting in a honey-colored corduroy chair given to me by my mother-in-law. I was trying to move to Wales to write a book and I seized a portion of every evening to sit down and read from The Oxford Book of Welsh Verse in English. Just before their bedtime, my two children would wedge themselves in on either side of me and I would put down Taliesin, Y Gododdin and Dafydd ap Gwilym and take up the storybook they had brought along with them, invariably the same one: Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allan Ahlberg.
I never knew for certain where the Ahlbergs’ book was set, but we decided it must be Wales, mostly because that’s where we imagined ourselves on those nights. In the story’s illustrations a countryside gently rolls, punctuated by happy sheep of the white, cottony variety that stand off from a mysterious wood that we agreed to be full of owls. Nearby, a cottage sits on a hill by a stream, its thatch golden, its chimney made of river stone, peat smoke curling from its aperture into the bright afternoon sky. In the corduroy chair it was easy to believe that we inhabited the cottage by the stream. We cared for those sheep. We tended the lambs in green March. By the river, we picked the imagined blackberries of our dreams. We explored the owled forest by moonlight and strode lightly home across the pleasant fields to the lit hearth of that cottage and were happy in the pure happiness that such illusions invariably afford us.
II. King’s Cross
On the telephone, the woman from the hotel was kind and polite. Yes, they had a room that could accommodate the parents and the two children. Yes, it was only a short walk from the train. Local restaurants could offer a simple evening meal. I decided to trust her, primarily because I had no alternative.
We arrived at King’s Cross in the heart of London on a Friday evening. Groups of young men were standing on street corners, slugging beer from aluminum cans. Heavily made-up women stood at provocative angles in taut clothing that split and plunged. The air that night was charged with a restless energy that surprised us. It was gusty and night descended as we dragged our heavy luggage through loose laughter and ragged conversation. We veered around a stout man on unsteady legs with a pub glass lifted upright so that he guzzled its honey-froth like a circus bear staggering at the center of an imaginary ring. The local chip shops were doing brisk business with the drinkers and the ladies. A fistfight erupted between two lanky, unshaven young men as we crossed the final street to our hotel. One of the men had a bloodied nose, his fists cocked above his rage-red ears.
The evening people of King’s Cross seemed to know each other with a simultaneous anticipation and paranoia. They approached one another with the same dangerous edge with which a criminal regards his criminal friends, with an intimacy of suspicion and eye contact of the darkling sort . The men on the streets were almost all young except for a few of middle age dressed in rumpled suits who stood apart looking lost and excited at the same time. The women wearing black-netted stockings, their smooth bellies lightly dewed with the mist now giving way to rain, kept eyeing the businessmen, cutting them professionally with their eyes.
They bustled aboard speaking Welsh, a strange kind of song-talk at once delicate and commanding, doting and tough, forever modulating its tones. It fell both thick and crisply curled on our stunned ears.
The hotel, when we found it, was simple and clean. The woman who showed us to our rooms wore a black servant-dress from a bygone age, frilled at the shoulders, with a white apron and a tiny white hat. She was polite, even apologetic. She showed us to our room, where we slept in a muffled silence not entirely cut off from the sounds of nocturnal carousing outside.
We left King’s Cross early the next morning, trekking the deserted streets in the gloom, not a soul on the move but ourselves amongst the litter of ceased revelry. The streets were wet and smelled of beer and vomit. In the pale light, the rain began. I noticed a dark silk tie patterned with yellow shields lying mucked at a curb, its knot pulled to a tiny fist, its empty loop flaccid as a hangman’s noose.
III. Border Crossing
From the train, the English countryside unfolded as we left it behind. It lay flat and serene in the morning mist, the neatly tended fields punctuated by a series of unobtrusive brick towns, modest and respectable, redolent of tidy labor and reaped rewards. Then, crossing some invisible border into Wales, the winds ramped up to gale force and rocked our little green train, which sailed down steepening hills in breakneck nonchalance, then labored and wheezed up rocky inclines like the little engine that might not.
The pale English on the train were all very understated and sat upright in carefully crafted seclusions, gripping coats and bags and avoiding the eyes of strangers. Most of them were reading, carrying on life with no sign of life behind their newspapers and books. Occasionally one leaned over and whispered for a moment into the bloodless neck of his traveling compatriot. Before the landscape entirely changed, most of these English passengers had quietly disembarked and others had taken up the vacancies.
They bustled aboard speaking Welsh, a strange kind of song-talk at once delicate and commanding, doting and tough, forever modulating its tones. It fell both thick and crisply curled on our stunned ears. There was something high-humoring, almost winking, in its cadence, but it seemed to run too with an undercurrent of some vague, impending grief. The Welsh talked to one another for long stretches, as if they were painting a picture in broad strokes, but also meticulously, and with no apparent deadline.
As the flat fields and urban brickscapes of England gave way to green rises and turnings, the Welsh voices emerged, arguing and laughing with ease and then abandon. They talked into each other’s talking. If they did pause, it was because they suddenly discovered others whom they knew a mere aisle or car away, and they took up shouting and arguing with these resurrected friends in a kind of jubilant reunion. Indeed they all seemed to know each other with this brusque familiarity, with a wink and a handshake, as if they belonged to the same rugby club and had memories of some private joke or a common suffering that bound them in ties of blood.
The men were ginger or dark, many of them mustached with huge freckled paws for hands. The paws got waved about as the men talked and smoked, sprinkling hot ash about the car like burning manna.
There were loners on the train too. An inebriated old Welshman in a tweed bowler, his eyes sunken like feverish coals deep in his lined face, scratched his whiskery chin and drooled and teetered slowly along the aisle looking each man, woman and child in the eye. His torn coat sleeve brushed the shoulders of the seated passengers. The children, who were not afraid of him, ran in a feral pack from car to car, scolded roughly by passengers who may or may not have been their parents, who slapped their heads and bellowed and then seemed to forget them again. The women were modest with large, restrained breasts and pinned hair, their beauty piercing and formidable. The men were ginger or dark, many of them mustached with huge freckled paws for hands. The paws got waved about as the men talked and smoked, sprinkling hot ash about the car like burning manna. The children scrapped over candy, which each seemed to possess in quantities that made one wonder whether a store attendant somewhere along the border with England sat roped to a chair amongst his emptied shelves, his forehead stuck with a wad of his own pilfered gum.
At some point in our journey, the children opened all the windows in the car so that the winds whipped through and mussed violently the hair of the passengers and made the few English with wind-rattled newspapers very quietly uncomfortable, though it appeared the Welsh never noticed a change in the weather at all, except that conversation rose to a compensatory pitch until it seemed we might be riding a raging tornado rather than a train over the damp green hills.
It was clear we were no longer seated in the calm safety of the corduroy chair. There was nothing about any of this in Janet and Allen Ahlberg’s book. We had entered a reality significantly more complicated than our bucolic dream. My wife and children sat silent and wide-eyed with fright or relish or maybe some bewildering admixture of the two. And then the train crashed.
IV. Train Wreck
Not an end-over-end crash. Not a head-on collision. We slowed suddenly and then sped up and then braked hard and lurched and shook and whined and blew smoke and finally stopped altogether. I say crashed because I remember a man bellowing in a deep, operatic bass, “Ah, we’ve crashed again, we have,” as if this were a common occurrence in these parts.
I looked out of the window, up and down the line. The train stood panting on a low ledge of grey scree opposite a sloped wood. A wide estuary at high tide lay just ahead, its mud flats flecked with thin-legged birds. There was no station in sight. The few remaining English looked at one another as if this stop might be the ambush they’d known would come, the one about which they’d been amply warned.
The Welsh went on shouting and arguing and laughing in their inscrutable language and occasionally words in English showed up dressed in the exotic costume of its song. The river of their layered talk ebbed only once and for a moment when a pack of children attempted to depart the crashed train and a fat man in a blue rail uniform with his cap pushed back shouted for them to halt, to stay on board, as if the earth here was prone to swallowing children whole. Then the passengers yelled at the man to not yell at the children and then they yelled at the children themselves, admonishing them to stay on the train and hadn’t they heard the railman telling them so.
Leaning out of the car, I could see where the tracks disappeared underwater and subsequently re-emerged five hundred yards farther on around a watery bend. Three railmen in identical uniforms with sagged red epaulets gathered outside the car in what appeared to be grave conference, examining with great seriousness the disappearance of the necessary tracks and shaking their heads for doom like ancient mine ponies under the low ceiling of the sky, pointing vaguely to where the rails vanished, and then to where they re-emerged, as if there were some strange magic at work, very dangerous to comprehend. They were speaking in Welsh but I guessed the basic controversy to be whether to proceed very slowly and wade through the standing water—a course recommended by the fat railman with the pushed-back hat—or to reverse progress and set up to hurtle forward, to take the flood at a sprint and thereby push aside the standing water and arrive dramatically, heroically even, upon the opposite shore, as it were. This latter argument was supported by the younger railman, impossibly skinny with a shock of curls and no coat, the white sleeves of his shirt pulled taut by the wind against his spindling bones as he made a picture with his arms of the water shearing away on both sides as it was met by the train head-on at top speed. His grey eyes glittered as he extended his sinewy neck like a bird and spread his thin arms wide with the slow-motion spray created by our imaginary crossing. He was mesmerized by his own ingenious plan, his brilliance that must be recognized now by his elder, fatter colleagues.
I imagined the thin, defeated railman seated at the throttle, gazing forward at his fat colleague laboring in hog-stride, calling with bitter glee for more speed, his eyes cut to slits as he leaned forward his skin-covered bones, his nut head bobbing under the heavy curls.
In the end, following unsolicited interventions by the Welsh passengers who were simultaneously listening and giving loudly through the opened windows of the car their own expert advice as travelers and would-be rail engineers, age and wisdom prevailed. The skin-and-bones railman threw up his arms and slunk away from the other two with an air of superior disgust, muttering darkly.
We crept forward through the overflowed estuary as everyone began to smoke again, an activity expressly forbidden according to a sign writ large in English and in Welsh. The railmen shouted back and forth to each other, the one leaning from the train and the other in tall Wellington boots wading alongside, slipping occasionally in the fallen scree under the water on that side of the track. We passed a dead sheep on its back, its four legs sprawled skyward, its filmed eyes popped, the dirty fleece marked with blue paint. Red kites and carrion crows, their beaks bloodied, tore at its entrails from behind.
No one seemed the least alarmed by the dead sheep doing its part in the food chain. The English averted their eyes. The booming voices of the Welsh, all of them speaking at once, were wreathed in tobacco smoke. It was raining again, pouring through the opened windows on one side of the car. The children seemed delighted.
Eventually we got clear of the flooded estuary and the train began to pick up speed again so that the fat railman had to jog alongside the moving cars in a precarious attempt to board, his facial color revolving through shades from pink to mauve as he huffed and huffed and finally reached out his fat hand and with a last Herculean effort drew himself like an exhausted bison onto the metal stair at the back of the car. I imagined the thin, defeated railman seated at the throttle, gazing forward at his fat colleague laboring in hog-stride, calling with bitter glee for more speed, his eyes cut to slits as he leaned forward his skin-covered bones, his nut head bobbing under the heavy curls.
V. Valley of the Witch
The conversations and enjoyment rioted on about us like the bright, unruly rivers we crossed as we flew in and out of rain showers through a ferned countryside that was here pristine as Eden, there shockingly pillaged for slate or timber. Second-growth conifer grew weed-like where once may have stood the sacred groves of oak and mistletoe. It was becoming a stony landscape, increasingly precipitous, and there were cottages in it that were not the cottages we had imagined from the comfort and safety of the corduroy chair. These were thick-walled and mold-blacked. They slumped sunless in the dank shadows of wet hills, their tumbled chimneys smokeless and cold. Gaunt farmers, unshaven, stood in their fields and did not look up as we passed, or did and stared at us with vacant expressions, their hard hands blood red below their rolled sleeves, their heads cowed under the weight of a leaden sky, rain-brimmed. Underfed dogs threatened the passing train like an unwelcome intruder.
Then, as we passed a secluded farm encased in a pocket of rough rock, one of the men on the train paused in the stream of his talk, withdrew his moist pipe stem from the opening below his enormous moustache and pointed with the cupped and smoking bowl in the direction of a filthy outbuilding. The others seemed to have paused as well.
“There she is, then,” he pronounced almost reverently.
“The witch,” stated another.
“Black as the night sky,” said a woman among them.
Together they peered out the window of the moving train at a woman in a torn dress, deeply mucked at the hem. She was standing barefoot at the edge of the field, holding a horse’s white head by a frayed rope. Her long hair was a tangled nest the color of coal that shone even darker against the horse’s yellow mane. Her expression was that of the shameless mad, a contorted inquiry that was simultaneously ancient and childlike in its threat, her pursed lips gathered into a mocking pout. Her eyes were the palest shade of blue I have ever seen, set like stones in a lined face that must have been beautiful once. For a moment the eyes gazed unabashedly into mine with a self-belief and mastery so complete I was forced to look away. As I did, the woman moved her filthy left hand in a circular motion over the pouch of her belly. Her clotted fingers shone sinewy and long as a man’s. And then, just as suddenly, she was gone.
The rain slowed and we passed out of the valley of the witch and up a hill into stone-walled fields where light spilled down through the shifting clouds. Hedgerows bristled into brilliant greens. Gorse flamed in the new light. Foxglove nodded in the scrabbly folds of an iron land.
The sea never appeared in the storybook visions we permitted ourselves in the corduroy chair. It had always loomed invisibly from somewhere beyond the edge of the page. Now it took up its place as the sea always does: vast, silent and cold. We were travelling high up in a lush, cool country of hills and cliffs and the Viking sea lay below us, apple green and beaten gold, spreading away toward Ireland. We raced down a steep hillside into a long wooded valley, the trunks of trees blurring our vision like spokes in a spun wheel. Inside the wood everything was leaf and dappled light, fern and stream, rock-strewn. A black bull, long-haired and horned, stood tetherless in a little glade.
The passengers were restless. They walked about the cluttered car collecting their bags and their children, although we sailed along as before with no station in sight. It seemed they were preparing to disembark at the next rock ledge, as if at a near turn in the stream loved ones would be waiting patiently for the late train and they might all walk off together, talking, arguing, smoking into the green forest. We joined in the popular gathering activity, in the middle of which the train lurched so violently that the standing passengers all fell into one another’s arms and we were embraced by strangers, then set up again like wooden dolls amidst loud laughter.
The whistle blew then—a haunted double note with, behind it, the hushed thunder of the wheels. It was a sound that in the years ahead I would listen for late at night from our tiny bedroom beside the walled garden where I often sat writing in the sun. It’s a sound I often hear in dreams in which a green train labors out of the last valley in darkness and approaches a crumbling station by the sea.
The station had two platforms only, unpainted except for flourishes of graffiti. Its sides stood open to the weather. It smelled of diesel, urine and salt. Worn wooden benches that may have been retired chapel pews lined the tracks on both sides. I glimpsed the ticket booth tended by an old man, clean shaven and neatly dressed, with trembling hands attending slowly to the line of customers, a few of whom blew air out vigorously through their cheeks and turned red-faced with impatience.
“Come on, then!” cried a round man toward the back of the line. His neck and his voice were like those of a small bull, but he was lightly freckled over his eggshell head. “I won’t be making the change in Machynlleth if you go on like a bloody snail about it,” he bull-bellowed. “Christ will be coming soon,” he added.
The ticket man’s sea-blue eyes looked momentarily and without any discernable change of expression over the silver rims of his glasses and down the restive line as very gently he slid two quivering tickets under the opening at the bottom of the glass to a teenaged girl with a baby straddling her thin hip. The girl’s ears and nose and eyebrows were pierced with silver studs and the back of her neck was tattooed with the likeness of a coiled snake that appeared to be making its way up her skull until its head vanished into the burn of her luxuriant hair.
She was smiling now, her hard face suddenly radiant so that for a moment the two women were linked to each other as if they might be mother and daughter, having forgotten for a moment the scripted alienation of age and youth, respectability and rebellion, or some bitter quarrel that once divided them.
“Sod off, ya pervert!” the girl erupted in the direction of the angry man. She made a vigorous gesture with two fingers in the direction of the little bald bull.
There were a surprising number of teenaged girls with babies at the station. They sat at little tables arranged near a stout woman selling fish and chips and assorted candies from a dirty aluminum cart. Most of the girls smoked hand-rolled cigarettes while eating chips with vinegar from newspaper wraps. Homeless vagrants, men and women, panhandled or slept in the few sheltered areas of the station, each with a nondescript dog, lean as themselves, on a leash. A red-faced woman wearing a scarlet beret sat cross-legged on a striped blanket and played on a pennywhistle for loose change.
What strange and broken place was this? I gazed out on the foul-mouthed teenaged mothers, on the ruffian boyfriends pressing their oversexed tongues to the studded tongues of their child lovers, and on the well-to-do English in summer tweed who seemed not to notice. An elegant woman in a linen shawl pinned with a silver brooch paused with her husband to adore the child on the hip of its mother.
“He’s such a beauty, now, he is,” the elder woman husked in English, tickling the fox-haired baby under his milky chin. “What’s his name, then?”
“He’s called Rhyddian,” the young mother replied. “He’s my boy, he is.” She was smiling now, her hard face suddenly radiant so that for a moment the two women were linked to each other as if they might be mother and daughter, having forgotten for a moment the scripted alienation of age and youth, respectability and rebellion, or some bitter quarrel that once divided them.
VII. Corduroy Chair: Reprise
And so it was that we arrived in Wales. We knew no one. As we stepped woozily from the train onto the platform that day, we left behind our dreams of a cottage beside a blue river and barley blowing in a sunny field. Imagined things were quickly displaced by the real. Wales became Cymru—not just a storybook geography, but an actual place, a complex maelstrom of culture and beauty and swirling, contradictory valences.
The country we discovered that first day together shocked us with painted sheep, fevered railmen, the slanting rain and wood-light. The burning green fields surprised us and the crumbling farms and a sable-maned witches. Later it would include brawly pubs and chapels booming “Bread of Heaven,” tea houses of refuge against the grey rain, the butchery on Glyndwr Street, its hooks slung with gutted hogs, and donkey rides by the frigid summer sea. And it was full of the Welsh, of course—a people singularly big-hearted, quick-witted, stubborn, passionate, poetic, sad. And not only the Welsh, either. Wales, it turned out, was rich with the far-flung cultures of Malaysia, Pakistan, India. For eight months we lived in a caravan park high above the Irish Sea, and our earliest and deepest friendships involved these very people—women dressed in silk, their babies smelling of curry, boys who played cricket afternoons in the littered streets, their fathers who lectured and studied all day in rooms at the university.
Later we moved to a house named Godre’r Glais on Ffordd Caradog, in a neighborhood of the town where we could stand in our tiny front garden on still nights and listen for the sound of the sea that lay over the hill. Godre’r Glais became the base for explorations near and far. We hiked to where the silver ribbon of the River Ystwyth emptied itself through a big stone beach into the sea and red kites rode the sea drafts above Pen Dinas. We investigated the haunted beauty of the Aberdyfi estuary with its white sands and birds, its endless dunes run with fox and rabbit, views across the river and up the cragged coast north to Pen Llŷn.
Farther afield we sought out the lost bones of Dewi Sant and the crumbling hill forts of Llewellyn and the Normans guarding the plundered north from high up at Harlech Castle. We discovered the megalithic dolmen stones at Pentre Ifan still standing in a farmer’s field six thousand years later above the village of Nevern with its carved stone cross, its bleeding yew. And not once did we stand upon the summit of Cader Idris, forever driven down by the weather, once from as high as the lake of its single blue eye.
After the journey of those years in Wales, we discovered we had outgrown the corduroy chair. When we saw it again, it looked much smaller than we remembered, an artifact rescued from another time. We set it upright in the corner and regarded it through older eyes and with a wary love, as one might look at a lost friend who has returned after we’ve changed. Its honeyed ridges were faded, its sleeves worn smooth. There was a small puncture in its seat that no one could remember. One of its wooden arms had come unglued. We must have seemed like that too, vaguely familiar after the wear and tear of time, parts of us lost, burnished or broken. Having come so many miles, having crossed and re-crossed the borders of gift and loss and punctured illusions, we found we had outgrown the skins of our former selves. After so many arrivals, how could we ever be the same? How could we not be marred more beautiful by time? How could we not be more ourselves than we had ever been before? That’s what border crossing does if you let it.
Chris Morgan’s writing has been featured in a variety of publications in the United States and abroad, including Welsh Writing in English, North Carolina Literary Review, Red Wheelbarrow and White Horses. His book, R.S. Thomas: Identity, Environment, and Deity, explores the modernist poet’s life and work. Chris recently finished work on a collection of stories titled Everywhere the Water. He lives in Annapolis, Maryland, and can be contacted through his website at jchristophermorgan.com.
Lead image: Barry Lewis