Sunday, December 21, 2008

Lovely dark and deep

Today was the shortest day. It was a bleak, wet and miserable day; the kind of day that this island of Britain is so adept at producing. If miserable days were a commodity to be bought and sold, soggy Albion would be surviving the global economic downturn with aplomb.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, this place is also quite capable of manufacturing days of perfection; days that fill you with life and hope. And most strangely, these days -- the glorious and the miserable -- can often run consecutively. One day, the meteorological stage is set for you to finally win over your One True Love. The next day, the cold, wet and dark hang unrepentant as she dies tragically in your arms.

My arms remained corpse-free, but it was a miserable day nonetheless. The sun never shone. The weak grey mist of morning failed to become anything more. The novelty of sunrise and sunset running so close together was made irrelevant by the absence of sun. It was a day to fit my mood.

As the grey was starting to bleed to dark purple and then black, I decided to go for a walk. Or, Rachel decided for me.

I have been sick all this last week, I think as penance for my failing to stand up for Wales at the Jones wedding last weekend. Amid a 786-hour stretch of wedding speeches, I had decided to sneak out of the room and into the bar of the hotel where the wedding was held. Therein, I came across a member of the Skerries crew, who looked at me wearily and, waving a hand in the direction of the Room Of Perpetual Wedding Speeches, said: "I haven't been to Wales before. Please tell me this isn't representative of a nation."

"Well, actually, it kind of is."

"Make that a double," she said to the bartender.

OK, yes, they have an obsession with reality television and a tendency to never rise above seaside humour (a), but that doesn't mean the Welsh are in any way a less wonderful people to be around. But in the face of the coolness that I have, for some reason, allocated to Irishness I couldn't live up to my affiliation. So, the next day, assisted by the several gallons of Guinness, Carling and Gordon's consumed the night before, the Welsh gods made me deathly ill.

I have been relegated to sleeping on the couch because my all-night coughing fits were preventing Rachel from getting any rest, and she herself recovering from a kind of cold. Indeed, one might suggest the blame for my illness rests on her shoulders and not on the duwiau Cymru. But for the fact that whatever I have is so much worse. This is always the way, isn't it? Women will get sick and then show no sympathy when their partner does the same -- not realising that the man has received some sort of terrible mutated killer version of their paltry cold.

So, my past several days have been spent lying on the couch, wrapped in a duvet, trying to come to terms with the fact that I have contracted incurable tuberculosis. Or lupus. Or luperculosis. The house has become my sickbed.

"If you are waiting for me to listen to your diatribe against American automakers, you are going to be waiting for a very long time," Rachel said today, shortly after I had mentioned my displeasure with the bailout plan and looked at her with that sort of expectant pause that says: "Ask me why!"

When did we become this? When did Rachel and I become a modern version of the mother and father off "A Christmas Story"? Me pontificating into the air and she not paying attention. Or, when she is recovering from a cold, not having any of it.

"Have you got out of the house today?" she asked, eyebrow raising slightly from her romance novel. "Maybe you should go for a walk."

Down Llantrisant Road from the roundabout that leads to our house, the roundabout that, on the misting grey death of a Sunday afternoon, somehow feels like the last roundabout of the civilised world -- I imagine one of those old white mile markers on the northern edge of the roundabout stating: "UNKNOWN 1/8" -- and left onto Greenwood Road. Past the houses that are average by American standard but so large in Britain that I cannot realistically imagine what it would be like to live in one. Down the Highfields Steps and to the River Taff.

I have been so tired lately. Physically, emotionally, mentally. Endings and beginnings and place and belonging. All these things are swirling around in me and I can't figure any of it out. I don't have the energy.

Just beyond the playing fields of Ysgol Glantaf, on a bench, looking out across the weir toward Llandaff Rowing Club, sat a man with the hood of his coat up -- drinking cider and looking very much the physical representation of my mood.

If (and there is great emphasis on "if") I can turn in all my essays and pass my exams in January I will have one semester left of university, a semester that will inevitably speed past. And then? I will have a degree but what will have actually been achieved in these three years? What will have been built? And what next? And why?

Passing by the antiquated "NO FISHING" sign that I am always amazed has yet to be stolen, I suddenly thought of Astrid and when she came to visit last Christmas. On that Christmas morning, after we had opened all our presents, she and I took a walk along the Taff. She in her woefully inappropriate shoes. And it was the first time, I realised, that I had ever really gotten to talk to Astrid. A strange thing, perhaps, for a woman who was staying at my house. But that appears to be the modern way. Things work in reverse. I stay at the home of Chris and Jenny, or Donal and Is, and then I get to know them.

When Astrid stayed at our house she ran around in scandalously sexy underpants, but even without that particular happy memory, the thought of her, the thought of my having a friend on this island, served as a sort of "dust of snow" (b). I felt lightened. Warmed.

But Britain can at times feel a snowless place. Wales especially. And Welsh speakers? Oh, sure, we're all friends, aren't we? But in a way that perhaps an outsider might notice? I won't put a number on it, but less than I would have anticipated after three years. And in terms of friends that I feel are close? Friends that I feel I could really talk to about any of this, if I could be arsed to talk about it? None. One?

Under the Western Avenue bridge and looking at my watch, seeing that total darkness would come before completing my intended route up through Llandaff Fields and past the crossroads where characters sold their souls in the Llwyd Owen novel, turning and walking up to street level. Over the Taff and then back over Western Avenue on the rickety UWIC footbridge. Past Llandaff RFC's clubhouse and along the dark, narrow footpath that leads to Llandaff Cathedral.

There is something immensely lovely about the cathedral. It is hidden there, sitting at the bottom of the hill for hundreds and hundreds of years, with its uneven overgrown cemetery of cracked and eroded headstones and tombs. That doesn't sound all that cheery or welcoming, but it is.

Our friends the Germans blew out a number of the cathedral's windows (and a wall) as part of their elaborate scheme to force Britain to build a load of really ugly buildings. The scheme was successful in Portsmouth and Swansea but in Llandaff, at least, aesthetics prevailed and the new part of the building looks more or less like the old part, save the absence of old stained-glass windows. Through the new windows flow a light that is so incredibly warm and welcoming, especially in the dark wet cold misery of the shortest day, it is as if this one place has turned against the Church of Wales' apparent insistence on making Christianity as lifeless, boring and unappealing as possible.

I walked across the churchyard and stood at the cathedral door, considering walking in. The door is seemingly always open, light streaming out. Sometimes I step in and I feel a strange something that I suppose might be connection or perhaps just a respect for whatever it is that has served to console and fortify and rebuild people who have sought and found those things there. Atheists always annoy me in failing to identify that simple fact. Even if it's not true, why do you care? It gives someone purpose and hope and centre. Without it, "X-Factor" becomes their moral core.

I didn't step in. I am always afraid that someone will tell me I don't belong there, which would tarnish the affection I hold for the place. I walked up the Cathedral Steps and along Bridge Street, past the houses I always wish I lived in and then past The Heathcock.

Warm light streamed from the pub and looking in I saw it decorated for the season. A man talking to a woman. Two men playing pool. These quintessential miserable days are in themselves an explanation of Britain's pub culture. Almost every time I pass that pub I want to go in, but rarely do because it is that kind of small that a person cannot walk into without being noticed by everyone else. I don't really like the massive pubs but tend to go there because I don't have any friends in the small pubs I wish I could frequent.

Up Llantrisant Road, past the BBC, the large houses, the petrol station and back into my little neighbourhood with its cats and reasonably priced automobiles and its people who always seem to back away when they see me coming. To my house, with its drapes shut -- looking empty and alone.

(a) FTYPAH: Seaside humour is hard to properly explain. It's a bit like blue-collar comedy in its intellectualism or lack thereof.

(b) The only two poems that I really know are both by Robert Frost, both take place in the snow and both deal with the same subject (by my interpretation). As such, I tend to run them both together -- hence my use of a different poem as this post's title.