CREATIVE Jeremy Hughes

NWR Issue 100

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There is a print by Eric Ravilious called ‘Train Landscape’, which shows the type of train one sees in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. It reminds me of the deeply sprung benches and high-backed seats in the trains I took from Newport to Bangor in the mid-1980s. South to north, north to south. Eighteen stations along the way. The announcements delivered by a real person in a real office rather than the digitised and dislocated male voice in Welsh and female voice in English of today. At Newport I came to recognise the man’s voice which enumerated the stations: ‘Calling at Pontypool and New Inn, Abergavenny, Hereford, Leominster, Ludlow…’, the latter described by Betjeman as ‘the loveliest town in England’, where every other building is listed, and so on up the Marches to Crewe, then along the top of Wales through Flint and Prestatyn (the significance of which changed forever when I discovered Larkin’s poem and I always looked for the poster on the platform illustrating the girl astride ‘a tuberous cock and balls’), to Conwy and, eventually, emerging from a tunnel to Bangor. Except the announcer’s accent always undid him as soon as the train reached English stations: Hereford was ’ereford.

But to begin: a tired diesel dragged the train out of the Cardiff tunnels and pulled it to Platform 3 where it seemed relieved to stop for a few minutes. No doubt the train spotters at the end of the platform would know it as a particular type of diesel. I appreciated, after spending my formative years bird watching around Risca, that diesel was like saying seagull to an ornithologist. Would that be black-headed, herring, common, lesser or greater black-backed? I’d board, swing my bag of clothes freshly laundered by my mother onto the high rack, and settle down with a book or paper to help pass the five and a half hours ahead. The train rumbled over Newport’s railway bridge and the River Usk’s slatey mud below, then beneath Gwent College of Higher Education at Caerleon (now the city’s University), to Pontypool and New Inn, a halt now rather than the hub of former years, then what was left of the industry of south Wales fell away and the hills built like full green clouds ahead. By the time we reached Abergavenny, I was in another world.

When the refreshments trolley came through I’d get a couple of cans of beer and a couple more when it came through again later. It was such a luxury to have a compartment all to myself. On separate journeys I shared the compartment with a piano tuner, a man writing music onto a stave with one hand and conducting with the other, and a man similar in age to me who’d been to visit his father in Belfast and confided that he couldn’t square his vociferous support for the IRA.

But the most memorable journey occurred in Spain. I was travelling from Vigo, Galicia – where Laurie Lee had landed when he arrived in the country at the start of As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning – to Gijón in Asturias. All I remember of Vigo is the tramp dressed in layers of denim with a thick paddle of hair down his back like a beaver’s tail. It was to be overnight. We pulled out on a warm April afternoon and followed a wide slow-moving river, the hills rising steeply and reflecting their greenness deep into the water. There were pontoons and bathing huts. Passengers all down the carriage stood in the corridor and rested their arms on the rail at shoulder height and watched the scenery pass, and when the train curved around a bend I could see that people were doing it the whole length of the train in a collective nod to beauty.

There were three of us in our compartment, L, with whom I was travelling, and a girl from San Sebastian whose first language was Euskera. She had a booking for the sleeper car and at about nine she bade us farewell. L and I pulled down the blinds against the lights in the corridor and lay down on the bench seats. L could sleep on a sixpence: when we’d been in Leon we’d gone from one pension to another looking for a bed and received the same answer. Full. It was Easter. So we thought we’d get a train out of there and at least be able to sleep as we travelled through the night. But by the time we reached the station the last train had gone and the next scheduled at 3:00am wasn’t going in our direction. The decision to sleep in the station was made for us.

A dishevelled man out of step with the world made strange noises and settled on the bench the other side of the concourse. L and I wound our bag straps around our ankles and got down to sleep. L was out in an instant. I stretched out my legs and pulled my hat down over my face like so many cowboys in so many films, leaving a space for me to see the whole concourse. I watched the feet of the dishevelled man as he left his bench and wandered around the station’s space, stopping every now and again for a few minutes, until he came to a stop between my legs. I waited. And waited. And waited. I was as stiff as a blade. The feet turned and he went back to his bench.

I wasn’t expecting to experience anything like that on the train back to Gijón. Yet as much as I tried to sleep, I couldn’t, so I looked out of the window as the vineyards fanned out from the tracks into the darkness. The first interruption was the guard, who studied our tickets before he clipped them. The second interruption occurred in the early hours. The door opened quietly and a woman entered, closed the door behind her and sat near me in the darkness without saying a word. L didn’t stir. looked out of the window and clocked the lights of a vineyard far off. Occasionally there was a light close enough to the train to light us all dimly. After five minutes the woman got up and left as quietly as she had arrived. The third interruption was much noisier. The door slid open and banged against the frame, the blinds sprung up against their fixings and the lights flicked on: ‘I’ve lost my bag!’ Another woman. It was clear that her bag wasn’t on the netted shelves above the seats but she made a big thing of standing on the bench seats and looking around the shelf, then crossed from L’s side to mine where she repeated the process, exaggerating her stretch next to me.

‘They are our bags,’ L said. ‘There are no other bags.’

She looked at us both for some inordinate time then left.

L flopped back down on the bench and I pulled down the blinds, turned off the lights and resumed looking into the darkness.

The train came to a stop in the middle of the night. Coffee. There was no platform and it felt as if I was dismounting a huge beast because the drop to the rails was so great. We entered the large well-lit café and, as we stood apart from the other insomniacs, a couple approached us.

‘You English?’ the man said.

I always hated that opening. I wanted to say Welsh. ‘Yes,’ I said.

‘Did the prostitutes come into your compartment?’

The peseta dropped.

‘The guard identifies punters and takes a cut,’ he said.

‘Yes,’ I said, as if it had been obvious.

I was relieved to arrive in Gijón for breakfast, walk the dog-shit slithered streets, past the port where you could eat sardines straight off the boat, past the puti-club where a Peter Lorre-eyed chihuahua yapped from the first floor balcony and the sea breeze billowed the net curtain behind it to reveal a dim bulb dangling, past the butchers and bars and cafés and apartment blocks and plazas to the other side of the city to my fifth floor rooms overlooking Playa San Pedro, and the sight of the man on the promenade who gave me the eye in Gregorio’s one night and waved at me through the window when he left. ‘He’s going to work,’ Gregorio said, by way of explanation. Later, on my way home, I saw him standing opposite the beach in high heels, a short orange skirt and a blonde wig. A car stopped for him.

The next trains I took, when I returned to the UK and Wales, were the 125s between London and Swansea. I boarded at Newport and alighted at Cardiff Central, then walked to Her Majesty’s Prison, Cardiff, where I taught Young Offenders (aged fifteen to twenty-one), Rule 43s – those segregated for their own safety and the safety of the prison as a whole, including sex offenders, paedophiles, rapists, the paranoid, grasses and ex-policemen – as well as inmates being cared for in the hospital wing, and adult prisoners. The high stone walls were topped with razor wire from which items of prison uniform dangled, as well as feral pigeons and herring gulls. There were no bird men of Alcatraz – the inmates were more likely to tempt birds through the bars to kill them – but the birds were a constant presence, attracted by the stuff inmates tossed out of their windows, including the potty contents they’d rather not have in their cells all night.

I stood at central control on my first day, having been through the unlocking and locking of several gates, just as the inmates were going to their industries, all of them looking down on me as they moved along their landings. A few days in and I thought I could make a difference. I met the best and the worst of men. But as I went through the tunnels at Newport station and sped along the moors to Cardiff, the tunnels came to symbolise a dark tube to a place I could do nothing to change. It wasn’t that I was idealistic, that I could change the world, but I did feel that I might be able to help in some small way. After six months or so I realised I couldn’t; after twelve months I resigned and heard the gates clunk behind me for good. Then I came through the tunnels to Newport station’s Platform 3 and my lungs filled just that little bit more than they had that morning.

Jeremy Hughes is a contributor to NWR and author of the novel Dovetail (Alcemi), set in northern Spain and south-east Wales. His next novel, Wingspan is expected to be published in October by Cillian Press.

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