Friday, October 06, 2006


12.30pm, at Shotton Station waiting for the train to Llandudno. We have just arrived from the tiny train station at my village, Hawarden.

My mother was raised in Shotton, my grandparents lived here all their lives, as well as my Great uncles and aunties and other relatives. This tiny steelworks town, grey and rainy, is infused with memories.

I used to love coming here as a child. Only a few miles from my Hawarden home, I would come to stay with Grandma at weekends. We would walk up the high street, she and I, and I would stare at my reflection in the shiny Tesco's wall, when I was younger, holding her hand, and when I was older, trailing behind her playing with my hair, pretending I was cool. We would go to the pick n' mix section at Woolworths and I would always get strawberry creams and a small packet of After Eights for 20p. Sometimes she would pop a toffee from the pick n mix into her mouth, giving me a naughty knowing smile as we walked up and down the aisle.

If she didn't have a pan of scouse waiting for us in the pressure cooker when we got in, or braising steak with thick gravy, we would get fish and chips from the chippy at the end of Shotton high street, with Angel Delight for pudding if I was lucky. Apart from my Grandma's jam turnovers, Angel Delight had to be my favourite ever pudding, especially when it was served in her cut glass bowls and kept in the fridge overnight. I could clean my bowl in seconds, and would lick the last streaks of pink mousse off the spoon like it was precious gold dust.

When Fridays at school were still half days, my Mum would drive me and a friend to Shotton, to the 'icey'. There I would watch packets of crisps drop from metal pincers in the crisp machine, slurp my Slush Puppie that turned my lips blue, eat Monster Munch and whirl around the ice rink to the sound of echoing music. I cherished those Friday afternoons, the smell of ice and children and the way it felt when I had finally laced my ice skates up, and was padding across the black rubber flooring to the entrance of the freezing rink.

It's raining. It's been raining on and off for days now. It has gone straight from Summer to the heart of a British Winter in four days, it feels. We are on the train to Blaenau Ffestiniog now, from there, we will catch the steam train and chug our way deeper into the heart of North Wales. A young girl on the train is teasing her mother in Welsh. I don't know what she is saying.

Everything is so cheap here in Wales, so unpretentious. It makes me realise what a blag so much of Brighton is. Yesterday, in Mold, I bought a pair of boots for £3.50, and shoes for a pound! Bone china cups for two pounds each.

My sister and I ate lunch in the kind of café I used to come to a lot when I was a teenager, with my first boyfriend. The entire place was heaving with fat old ladies with chronic health problems sitting on orange plastic chairs, smoking fags at the tables. We got a proper cup of tea, and a 'milky coffee', (instant coffee and hot milk kept warm in a huge pot on top of a stove.) It tasted fantastic. The owners were collecting money for one of their washer uppers, who has recently found out they have cancer. A fat lady in a wheelchair commiserated:

"I was in hospital recently, and they cut the wrong vein. Terrible it was. They don't care, you know, you're just a number to them. But then, as I was lying there, I had to think, when I was younger I was a matron in hospital, and I'd go and see all those men who had lost their arms and legs who were in the Paraplegic Ward, all there, back from the army, and I'd think 'there's always someone worse off than you.' Yes, there's always someone worse off than you. Anyway, I'd better be going, I'm on a hunt for Shredded Wheat, reduced sugar.."

With that, her son span her out of the café in her wheelchair, a somnambulistic look across his face. Somehow I feel like there is a woman like this in every cafe or bar across the Western world, telling such a tale, with a cigarette in her hand, and glasses, dyed hair and a son with an impenetrable sadness in his soul.

Wales, I always feel so much more at home here, and always such an alien.

The land is rising up. From the coast train past Rhyl and Prestatyn and Colwyn Bay, now we are deep into country where the hills are starting to rise, fir trees pointing upwards from their peaks. The grass is verdant, almost luminous in the rain. Slate walls, slate paving, slate rooves under the cloudy slate coloured sky. The Welsh landscape. Moving, primal. It's time to get my raincoat out.

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