Thursday, 5 February 2009

It will be fine

As we pull out of the station, my phone rings. It’s my aunt calling to persuade us not to go. I’ve been checking the weather all morning, and for the last few days and it will be fine. She has also been checking the weather and it will be far too dangerous and we should not be travelling. No-one should be travelling. My mother has also been trying to persuade us not to go for the last few days. My sister and I think it will be an adventure. And that it will be fine.

My sister and I alternately shush our mother, who does not quite seem to understand the concept of a quiet carriage, and the fields flash past us, growing slightly whiter. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpse some snow circles. Who has gone to the trouble of making these perfectly geometric shapes? The snow doesn’t seem very deep and I can see gaps of green and drips of water, suggesting a thaw. I text my aunt: it will be fine.

We reach Swansea at four to find a city strangely deserted. The streets are awash with slush, though there is still some ice causing me to slip and slide in my sensible-looking Clarks shoes that somehow do not have any grip. Most of the shops are shut, but it doesn’t look too bad. It will be fine.

The flat-screen TV in our hotel room greets us with reports of a country ground to a halt. Six hundred schools closed. Though how many schools actually are there in Wales? For all I know, there could be 6000. Many people couldn’t get to work; others manned deserted shops before deciding, or being allowed to, close early. Farmers had been clearing some of the rural roads, where the gritters could not reach. The country is now facing a night of freezing temperatures that will turn all the thawed snow into ice. The coverage is all about worst-case scenarios. Of course. That’s what people want to see. It will be fine. 

While my mother has a late siesta, my sister and I explore the quiet streets, casing the area for potential places to eat. We find an open Pound Shop, where I buy junk food and my sister gets an exotic 20s-style hat and a jar of Galaxy hot chocolate. We sit in an American Diner and have milkshakes and fries and listen to 50s music.

Later, after much indecision, grumbling and sighing we go to a lovely Italian restaurant called Il Padrino. I have a creamy tagliatelle with sundried tomatoes, white wine and pesto. My sister has a margherita pizza and a side salad drenched in a delicious dressing. My mother has a huge calzone; she cannot eat it all and, when the waitress comes to clear our plates my mum grabs the remainder of her calzone and hides in her napkin, not at all surreptitiously. We really can’t take her out in public.

During the meal, my uncle calls to say that he cannot get out of his road. The main roads are fine, but his road is completely blocked, so they will be unable to join us the next day. In some ways this is good, because we don’t have to be on our best behaviour. But then, not having to be on our best behaviour could mean we snap and bicker at each other, instead of pulling together. R calls as well to say ‘Goodnight’. She seems very unconcerned about my absence. Good for her.

I want a dessert and the waiter tells me about the two desserts (Italian Panna Cotta or Tiramisu), both of which he has made with his own hands. I choose the Panna Cotta, since I really don’t like Tiramisu, though I would much rather have some profiteroles. It is a beautiful dessert, with a lovely chocolate sauce drizzled to make a smiling sun.

We return to the hotel, where my sister has a long bath and I tap, tap, tap on the computer, very disappointed that the only wireless internet available is the very expensive one offered by the hotel itself. My internet usage is limited to occasional forays onto the BBC weather site using my mobile.

Despite not having to get up to a crying child two or three times during the night, my sleep is still restless. My mother wakes in the middle of the night and wanders round the room, stubbing her toes and turning the wrong light on. She goes back to sleep, but has woken my sister who, sharing the double bed with me, tosses and turns for some time before falling back to sleep. When I do wake up properly, I am pleasantly surprised to find that it is 8.15; more than an hour’s lie-in! And almost all the snow has gone and there is no ice. There are cars and buses on the roads.

Much bickering and grumbling on the part of my mother follows, while she tries to get herself together enough to go outside and have a cigarette. Meanwhile, my sister and I use a teaspoon to transfer some of my father’s ashes into a freezer bag, which we then place in a pretty tin, to give to my Gran.

We manage to miss two buses: the first because we just leave the hotel and then look to see what time it is; the second because the timetable I printed out from the internet is wrong and the bus goes ten minutes earlier than we had thought. This gives my sister the opportunity to go and look at lots of shoe sales. She is strong and manages not to buy any, though does persuade herself that The Body Shop is still a good place, despite being owned by Loreal, thus enabling her to buy a new (and thoroughly gorgeous) lipstick. I get five minutes to tap, tap, tap on the netbook and my mother gets the chance to smoke a few more cigarettes.

The bus journey is beautiful, even though most of the snow has disappeared. I love bus journeys, especially in areas I don’t know. If you drive, you have the tendency to go directly from A to B. You might look in a guide book and pick a scenic route, but that is not the same as being on a proper country bus, which winds its way through villages, taking detours down cul-de-sacs and showing the real world.

We are dropped off at a lovely pub, where they very kindly draw us a map and allow us to leave some of our bags. We set off down the road, doubling back on some of the journey we had just made on the bus. We pass five bus stops then turn off at a post office, after my sister buys some postcards of the bay.

The road starts off as a small, but car-friendly bendy road, but gradually thins out until it is just a mud track. There may not be any ice or snow now, but the mud is enough to make me wish I had popped into Shoe Zone and bought some cheap shoes with actual grips on them while we were waiting for buses.

We do not walk together. My sister rushes ahead, taking on my dad’s place (he always walked about 100 yards ahead of us, wherever we went). I follow, slipping and sliding and grateful that my sister has taken the rucksack with the incredibly heavy urn in and my mother struggles on behind.

My mother and I veto my sister’s idea of going down what looks like a very steep and treacherous path and we continue on the main route instead. But then we come across a river with no visible crossing, so we have to turn around and take my sister’s way. And it’s not really treacherous, just a little bit challenging.

We reach the bay and sit down on the pebbles. The sea is rough and grey and beautiful. The salty wind stings our faces and nobody wants to say anything. My mother had some music that she wanted to play, but the sea and the wind is too loud for us to be able to hear it, so we don’t try. My mother grabs a handful of ashes and puts them in the bottom of her camera bag to take home. If she had asked in advance, she could have had them in a nice receptacle like Gran. As I said, though, you can’t take her anywhere.

My mother goes first and takes a handful of ashes and throws them into the sea. While she is gone, my sister cries and I hug her. I don’t cry, though I am relieved that my sister is crying and I can comfort her and therefore have more purpose than just being the very inept organiser of this strange, strange trip.

It’s my turn and I shake about half the ashes out of the urn. Some of them land in the sea and briefly form a grey sludge; many of them blow back onto my coat and I wipe them off. I feel nothing. There is no connection to my dad. I can see why he liked the bay and it pleases me that we are finally here, though it would have been better to have come with him. But really, I feel nothing.

My mother throws another handful and then my sister finishes off. I watch her hopping about at the water’s edge, shaking the plastic bag and the urn, trying to get all the ashes out and it makes me think of a trip to Weston with R and my dad; my sister hopping back and forth among the waves while she videoed me; my dad taking over the videoing, so we could all be in it. One of my sister’s feet gets wet and we all laugh a bit. Which is nice.

That’s it. It’s all done. I’ve been putting this off for over a year, finding excuse after excuse not to do it. But the actual act is so much of an anticlimax that I wonder why I was avoiding it. My gran is right. There was nothing of my dad in those ashes. My gran believes he is up above. When I speak to her I concur, though I don’t think so. To me he is here all the time, in our memories and our tears and laughter when we think or talk about something he did or things he used to say.

It’s not until I’m going to bed, after the uneventful journey home, after the big hug R gives me, after reading her her stories and listening to her fall asleep, after eating the lovely warming stew that C has made, that I look at the picture of Papa on the mantelpiece and remember that it is his birthday. I kiss my finger and touch it to his lips and say ‘Happy Birthday, Papa. Rest in peace.’

It will be fine.


  1. Quite an odyssey. Thanks for sharing the story with us.

  2. A fascinating brother and I did the same for our father last year...but didn't have to battle the snow to get to our destination. Memories are so important.

  3. Iota: You're welcome. Wasn't sure whether to or not, but it was quite cathartic, so glad I wrote it at least.

    NB: Thank you. It's a difficult thing to do, but a relief to have it done, I think. Memories are very important, yes. I can be a bit funny about people talking about their own memories - I love my gran talking about his childhood, but get a bit tetchy when my mum talks about her memories, for some reason. And I feel guilty if I remember something unhappy, like only the happy memories count. It does get a bit easier with time, though. Hope you've found the same.

  4. Hi Tash. Your site is working fine from work (shhh, don't tell the bosses), so it must be a glitch with my computer at home. I'll try again in a few days. Anyway, as per my e-mail; a beautiful post and I feel honoured to have shared part of your journey. (((()))))