Feeling extra-Welsh today so this seemed appropriate. Marty is heading back home…
I didn’t have the stomach for the drive, so I booked a cab to Paddington. It’s around three hours from there to Swansea. Then you change for Haverfordwest. After that, you’re on your own.
Getting off the train a blond, maybe Swedish, bloke came up.
‘I think perhaps I know you?’
There was nowhere to run. What the hell.
‘I sing with a band called The Rain.’
‘Yes! I was right. A Welsh friend of mine took me to see you at Brixton Academy.’ He reached for my hand and I shook it, praying this wasn’t going to happen right across west Wales.
‘I thought you were great, the whole set, it was truly inspiring…’
As he clearly knew what he was talking about, I stayed and chatted with him till the lift to his B&B turned up, then carried on as they gave me a ride as far as Fishguard. As I got out of the car I wanted to ask how long the feeling had lasted, if it had lasted, after the show. But. Well.
After twenty minutes slog along a wind-blasted B-road I spent another ten minutes trying to light a roll-up in the shelter of a hawthorn, horizontal from years of fighting the wind off the sea. I’d forgotten that you couldn’t win against the elements down here. I wished to god I’d left the cowboy boots in London.
At last I dropped down into my grandfather’s village, a handful of houses huddled in the lap of the landscape just before the screaming cliffs. The entrance to the farm was down a hidden lane. When we were kids in the back of the car the game was to see who could spot it first.
‘I win,’ I muttered, pushing open the gate and wrestling the rusting chain back on after me.
The unmade track to the farm was filled with icy puddles and pitch dark under heavy, overhanging branches even in the middle of the afternoon. I stopped before it opened into the farmyard, trying to make sure my old memories of the place didn’t get overwritten by the present.
I’d forgotten my father had been renovating the barn as a holiday let. It was a bit of a shock. He’d worked at it till it would’ve been at home on a lunar landing station, glowing with lime wash in the thin light. I closed my eyes, hanging on tight to the childhood pictures in my head.
Down in the dell my grandfather’s farmhouse stood belligerently grey, slate-roofed with teeth missing, unidentifiable pieces of things, maybe furniture, maybe boats, littering the yard. The sheep stared me out as I walked up to the barn on the brow, its double-glazed windows looking thoughtfully down on Fishguard Harbour, skimming over the broken cliffs a field away.
There was hammering in the barn. Before he saw me, I watched my father struggle with a door that wouldn’t fit into a frame. What looked like a peregrine falcon dipped overhead and as I followed its path I turned to see my grandfather watching me, standing in the middle of his yard among the debris, oilskins flapping off him like a sail in a storm.
We stood there, the three of us, in a strung-out line.
My grandfather’s stick figure that could have been one of the trees behind him. He was already part of the landscape.
My father, tools in hand, still with work to do, his face showing his tiredness.
And me, part of a world so far from this, where spotlights scorched down on my head.
The falcon checked all of us out and for a moment the wind dropped and you could hear the sea roaring below. The bird seemed to stall, like it wasn’t sure which of us it had come for.
Down the field Fishguard gave shape to the dusk, the harbour flinging its amber-lit arms open, safe haven for holidaymakers from Ireland and the Celts shuttling between the two coastlines. I wasn’t sure I could be here now and not afraid, without its artificial light.
As I turned back from the sea my father was behind me, reaching out his hand to touch my shoulder. We looked to the spot where my grandfather had stood. He had gone. I felt relief that I didn’t have to say goodbye. He’d already been spirited into the hills.
‘You’re honoured,’ my father said. “He’s gone to put the kettle on for you.’
As he took his hand from my shoulder I realised I was half a head taller. I must have grown in London. Didn’t realise bourbon was fertiliser. We walked together down the mud path studded with stones unmoved by farmer or sheep for centuries. A ghost of smoke came from the farmhouse chimney. My father indicated it with a nod and a wink. ‘He thinks you’ve gone all soft, living in London.’
The door was open. The creases in the first flagstone smiled a welcome and I saw again the faces and the giants and the clouds and the spirits in the rest of the floor that had terrified and mesmerised me as a kid, wrapped in a blanket in the rocker by the fire.
‘Will you have tea?’ It was graciously put, though you knew it wasn’t really a question.
The farmhouse kitchen was immaculate, austere, strong-shaped chairs, scrubbed table, wood-burner glowing in my honour.
And dark… I had forgotten how the light disappeared down to the sea by late afternoon, slipping through the valley like it had run out of visiting rights. There was silence, a clock ticking in the bedroom, the scrawny old cat rasping against a chair-leg.
My grandfather made tea meticulously, warming the pot with water, measuring out fresh leaves from a battered caddy, letting it settle. The cups had the same cracks I remembered. As I looked into the one he poured for me I saw my grandmother’s face. I made some sort of noise and the scene reanimated, the wind blew, a log fell in the burner. Several sheep rushed past the door.
‘So. You come to see if I’m dead yet?’
And he became an irritating, tyrannical git again, however old, however frail.
‘That’s right. Marty’s come to check on the inheritance.’
Not the wisest words, perhaps. But my father never seemed to know what to say to his. He swallowed the tea in a mouthful. I resented being cast as mediator, having just walked what felt like fifty miles for the privilege.
‘Dad’s doing a great job on the barn. You’ll be fleecing the English for a fortune next summer.’
With hindsight, also the wrong thing to say in so, so many ways.
‘Looks like a tart’s dressing room in there, all white, flouncy curtains. I’ll be dead before a bunch of lily-livered ponces comes tiptoeing over my land.’
‘Good you’re so appreciative.’ My father was rubbing a cut on his hand. He turned to me. ‘You know what gets to him most?’ And he smiled, and licked his lips, like he knew the next word would be the winner. But he savoured the moment a second too long and my grandfather robbed him of it yet again.
‘Bloody central heating!’ he spat, getting up to fling open a window. Outside the cold pink sun ignited the slice of sky above the harbour, casting a last shaft of rosy light onto the whitewashed barn.
Something about the colour softened the mood.
‘I’m glad to see you, boy,’ my grandfather said to me, quiet as if he was talking to the cat.
My father took the hint. ‘Just going to pack up the toolbox.’
We sat opposite each other in the gloom. And then came the moment that comes every night, after the sun has set, the moment of light that comes from nowhere, so swift most of us miss it, a little promise the daylight hasn’t gone forever.
‘I want you to do something for me.’
Christ. He wants me to kill him. In the same minute I knew that was crap. He was perfectly capable of walking off a cliff by himself if he wanted to.
‘I want to take you up to Pentre Ifan tomorrow. Important. Alright, boy?’ His words banged in my head like hooves on sand. And as I left for the barn where Dad and I would sit up and drink whisky and fall asleep in our chairs, my grandfather put a hand on my shoulder as imperceptibly as an owl picking a mouse from its hiding place and croaked out a word that might have been ‘honest’ and another that might have been ‘proud’.