It is St. David's Day in Ebbw Vale. The feeling of life, though, comes more from the sun -- far rarer on this island than the days of its myriad patron saints.
Along the row of houses opposite the train station there is a church I had thought abandoned. Today a man stands precariously at the end of a ladder, stretching to scrub clean one of its windows.
"What's the best way to Tredegar," a girl asks me.
"Not sure," I say. "I usually walk into town. From there, I guess I'd look for a bus."
"Oh. Close, is it?" she asks.
"About two miles."
She communicates inaudibly that two miles is not close. I point toward a bus stand and let her know a service will be along in about 40 minutes that can take her up the hill. Probably to Tredegar, too.
The sun is shining as I walk along Festival Drive. Behind me the last of the morning fog blends with blinding sunshine so the valley is radiant in soft white, as if a Glamour Shots photo. As I near town, the once-beautiful buildings have a new feel to them. Each defect is clearer. It is hard to say when Ebbw Vale looks most sad: in the rain, when misery soaks into the stone; or in the sunshine, when there is no greater misery to disappear into.
On Church Street I can hear the call of a rag-and-bone man, singing out over a megaphone as he drives along. You might have to look up what a rag-and-bone man is. They are things of the past, but they exist still in this valley where many other jobs don't. Atop one of the buildings a group of men sit on scaffolding, listening to the radio and hammering at something. I suspect they do not really know what they are doing. I suspect it does not really matter. It is one of a whole row of abandoned buildings.
Further up, a county worker, in shining high-vis jacket, swings into a handrail with a large, splintered chunk of wood. A car has run into it and he is trying to put it back into place.
There are more people to be seen as I near the Seven Arches. Phlegmy smoker's coughs echo down the street. All around is the hollow clink of cheap NHS crutches -- fashion accessories of the South Wales Valleys, worn to assist in the pursuit of state benefits. The sun shines as I reach the wide stretches of pavement along Bethcar Street and I am struck by the colour-drained, well-worn nature of the coats and jackets shuffling here and there. Faded brown, weary black and the occasional dirty pink.
"For fuck's sake, mun, no," shouts a girl down a phone. "I don' fuckin' wan' tha' does I? Jus' pu'my fuckin' 'hings whe' I cahn fuckin' fin' 'em an' fuckin' go, like."
No one notices her. An old woman with tree-trunk legs stands at the edge of the road and darts her head around like a bird before crossing.
A wide group of wild-eyed skinny men flank each other and stretch across the whole of the space before me. They walk with that mad drunk-drugged strut. I wonder when they last spent 48 hours sober. Three are walking down the middle of the actual road and as a car pulls up behind them, one looks over his shoulder and seems to taunt the driver before slowly drifting to the pavement. He ends up being right in front of me. In an instant, he sees me then pretends he doesn't -- because these guys are tough only when they don't look you in the eye. I stop walking, stand and let the group part around me. As they do, I breathe in the cider and cigarette smoke so strong I can taste it.
Large women stand in groups chatting, smoking, scolding their children. Simply shouting, "Rhys, fuckin' stop it!" causes four different boys to snap to attention. When there are just two women, they stand face to face, their meaty arms folded across their wide chests. Outside the Wetherspoons, two bent-over old men hold to each others' shoulders and gesture with cigarettes as they talk.
My classroom sits on the second floor of the LAC, or the first floor, depending on which country you're from. From its window I look out past town to the soft, old hills that rise up on either side of the town. Old stone walls divide it up like a children's drawing. Sheep and horses graze. Jackdaws circle and dive and soar across both worlds, seemingly the only connection between the two.
"Sorry I wasn' here las' week, Chris," says one of my students. "But I finally had a chance at gettin' a flat, you see. I been waitin' almos' a year, I have."
My head processes that she has been on a waiting list for a council flat. Some part of me tries to form an opinion about welfare housing. It seems that's the sort of issue on which a person should have an opinion. But I don't really.
"Canolfan means centre, don't it Chris?" she says.
"Yes. Da iawn," I say.
"Yeah, I saw it the other day when I was signin' on," she says. "Always learnin' I am."
Another student shows up with Welsh cakes for the class. They all get lost in a discussion of how awful the English are. Wisps of cloud stretch across the low blue sky. Arrow-straigt contrails seem to stretch the horizon. Two horses chase each other on the hill in the distance. Along Market Street a tall transvestite walks with a dirty, wooly dog strapped to his waist.