It was an iron hard January Sunday
before dawn when I left Bala – that one street,
Bible town – for the first time and forever,
a white fiver in the lining of my coat.
I shut up the rented, furnished cottage,
putting the key through the letter box.
I heard it rattle on the slate floor,
and walked down the dark track to the high street
with its single gas lamp. I had my father’s
cardboard suitcase for my clothes, my mother’s
worn music satchel for my poems.
My parents died of phthisis a month apart
the year of the Jubilee, when beacons
flickered from hill top to mountain summit.
My tad had led a strike at Blaenau
and never worked in the quarries again.
My mam played the organ in the chapel
and the old tunes on the harp at home.
I took the unlit path to the station.
It curved round the head of the lake,
which lapped unseen on the pebbly shore.
The Dee rises above the lake, flows through it,
down valleys, past meadows to the Irish Sea.
I crossed the black river, fast with winter rains,
by a narrow, clattering wooden bridge.
As the first train from Barmouth arrived
with surges of steam and clanking metal,
snow began to fall, big flakes drifting down
slowly, glinting in the guttering lights.
I had a warm compartment to myself,
the seat cloth smelling, as usual,
of sharp soot and stale tobacco smoke.
I watched the flakes melt on the toes of my boots.
In the softening light of the oil lamps
the sepia photographs glowed: of the line
of bathing machines on Barmouth beach,
and swimmers diving from the flat rocks
in the Dee at Llangollen, and Chirk Castle
on its commanding rise. I would change at Chirk –
no more than twenty miles from Bala
as a crow might fly over Glyn Ceiriog,
and where I had never been – to catch
the Great Western Paddington express.
I thought of the pictures I had seen of London,
imagined myself feeding the pigeons
in Trafalgar Square, walking purposefully
along Fleet Street to buy a typewriter
second hand, browsing on Charing Cross Road.
We stopped at Corwen, snow falling faster.
I heard a compartment door slam shut
and the guard’s whistle trill. The train jerked.
In my head, I counted the poems
in the satchel: twenty nature poems
in Welsh, ten poems in English of
imagined love. When we arrived at Carrog –
named for the estate that occupied the land –
the snow seemed to fall faster, more thickly,
against the yellow of the station’s lamps.
Carrog was a halt and yet the five minutes
became ten, fifteen – and the compartment chilled,
as a grey daylight spread and a porter
extinguished the lamps. I barely noticed,
reciting my poems sotto voce,
until the guard opened the carriage door.
He was English and, as he snuffed out
the oil lamps, told me there was a flock of sheep
blocking the line near Glyndyfrdwy.
In the waiting room, another passenger
and the porter were standing close to the fire,
holding forth in Welsh about snows of the past.
They made room for me, and the porter
began to talk of Owain Glynd?r
and his escape – by way of Glyn Ceiriog –
from his obtuse English pursuers.
The other began punning Glynd?r
with Glyndyfrdwy – valley of water,
valley of the Dee. ‘Dyfrdwy, Dyfrdwy,’
he said over and over and laughed.
‘The very sound of water flowing over stones –
as elusive as the prince himself.’
My Sunday of leaving home and heavy snow
was Bloody Sunday in St Petersburg,
unarmed factory workers massacred
in front of the Romanov’s Winter Palace –
while I was mouthing my poetry
of romance and wilderness.
I wrote no poems after that – only prose.
The halt at Carrog had become for me
an icon of provincial whimsy,
of rural nostalgia, soft as the witless
sheep flocking in snow on the iron rails,
as chords plucked on a harp.