As this new year bids us welcome, my thoughts have turned to journeys old and new. Memories of my late parents are inseparable from the trips we shared. If dad had a single motto depicting his approach to family life it would have been “if I’m up, everyone’s up“. This rule was applied consistently throughout my childhood. It was quite exciting, endearing even, when we were kids and about to embark on a journey to west Wales; less so as a teenager, when we would argue noisily about my pressing need to stay in bed. Dad would settle the argument by whipping off the blankets and more or less tipping me bodily, blinking, into the early morning light.
Younger readers are probably wondering what ‘blankets’ were? They were an instrument of torture. They had to be fitted to the bed precisely, else they would tumble off, leaving one shivering beneath a thin cotton sheet. And each morning they would demand an application of geometric precision as one practised the art of ‘making the bed’ and rehearsed (and failed) once again to get the ‘hospital corners’ just so. Not for us baby-boomers the comfort and ease of duvets.
Which reminds me. Back when I was a teenager mam decided we ought to use man-made materials, such as polyester, whenever possible (for pyjamas, shirts, sheets, and suits), the idea being that they could be bunged into the washing machine and then hung up to drip-dry, saving on ironing and dry-cleaning. This experiment didn’t last too long. First of all, the whole family could have powered the National Grid given the static electricity we produced. Secondly, not to put too fine a point on it, there was an Elf ‘N Safety angle she’d overlooked; one night, wearing her polyester or nylon PJs and jumping into her nylon or polyester sheets, mam, crestfallen, slid straight out the other side. (Not a word of a lie!) Thirdly, dad’s suits looked like bin-bags after a few washes and drip-dries – not even an engineer could look dignified in them. And finally, there was Jaco. Our farm cat, Jaco would jump on dad’s shoulders when dad came downstairs of a morning. It was like a bonding ritual or a party-piece they shared. Then he would sit there looking pleased with himself. (The cat looked equally happy, heh!) Having a trip toCardiff planned, dad padded downstairs much earlier than usual. He was wearing slippers and polyester PJs. As was his wont, Jaco jumped onto dad’s shoulders but found that the man-made fibres gave him no purchase. So he dug his claws in whilst sliding all the way down dad’s back. The scream of agony ensured that even I got up to find out what was its source. Dad had those scars for many months – which was a lot longer-than mam’s experiment with non-cotton bed-wear, which ended that very morning.
Eventually, all packed, we’d set off on our journey. Most frequently, every Sunday, we’d leave Lakeside for Trelewis to see Nanna and Dicko. (I used to think that every child had a Nanna and a Dicko. I was a tad slow in realising that ‘Dicko’ was not a synonym for ‘Bampy’ but actually my grand-father’s name. I earned quite a few worried looks after asking friends what their dicko’s name was.) These were relatively short trips made memorable by Nanna’s apple tarts and Welsh cakes, and maybe by the presence there of our cousins. Sometimes, instead of returning home via Ystrad Mynach we would go ‘over the top’ up from Nelson across Eglwysilan where, on a clear day, it felt as if you could see the whole world. A less frequent but nonetheless regular journey would take place on Summer and Autumn weekends. We’d wend our way along the old A48 west, eventually landing at Saundersfoot, where we had a caravan, or St. David’s, where we had family. It didn’t matter whether we followed the Heads of the Valleys road or our more regular long-haul traipse through Cowbridge, Port Talbot, Pontarddulais, Carmarthen, St. Clears and all points west. Our little green Mini would be packed to the rafters and the journey would take us from five to seven hours. There was rejoicing in our motor when the Port Talbot by-pass opened and we could travel at 50mph for all of four or five miles! The rejoicing would end when my sister or I required an emergency stop so as to be sick or to find a bush to pee behind. No motorway or motorway services back then; just garages selling petrol, stale sarnies, and Green Shield stamps.
These trips would usually be preceded by trips to Albany and Wellfield Roads. When mam was in charge, we’d walk leisurely down, buy some T-shirts and shorts from Woolworths, and stop off at the Thayers shop (sawdust on the floor) for the finest cones of vanilla ice-cream I’d ever tasted. Mam would comment on the lovely houses on Ty Draw Road, in one of which I now live, with The Boss and The Girl. I am actually living mam’s dream but 20-odd years too late for mam to share in it. When dad was in charge we’d usually rush down in the Mini and park hurriedly, after which he’d drag me into a barber’s for either a ‘pudding-bowl’ cut or a short-back and sides. One year, I was about 8, he took me into a clothes shop and bought me transparent trousers. That was it. Never again did I let dad buy me clothes! (Those trousers were never worn.) But I did let him buy me a six-inch sheath knife. Do you remember those far-off holidays where every boy older than about 7 had their own sheath knife on their belt? We’d use them for whittling, cutting twigs for little camp-fires, or prising out shell-fish.
Sometimes we’d travel by train. Today, long-and short-haul flights mean that many (most?) kids have flown somewhere. Back in the 1960s this was not the case. A rail journey was a treat. Dad took me on my first ever train. We went up to London and spent the day in the British Museum and Hamley’s toy store on Tottenham Court Road. I vividly remember dad and I running along the platform at Paddington to catch the last train home just as all the doors were closing; me clutching proudly to my chest the stringed Mickey Mouse marionette dad had bought me for being a good boy. I was so proud when he later told mam how pleased he was that, having given me carte blanche to get anything I wanted from Hamley’s, instead of getting ‘some silly game’, I’d chosen something I’d have to work at.
Then there were journeys shared as adults. Dad taking me to or from university. We’d share a comfortable silence broken by conversation about what if anything survives us after death; about why he thought I should take certain jobs but not others (his words proving prescient and staying with me to this day). And, not long before his death, the last time I took dad to Velindre Hospital followed by a trip around his, our, old haunts in the ‘Diff. Remembering now his amazement at how little of what was still remained, the city reflecting, I thought, how little of dad remained – his tired mind and body resting in my passenger seat. Which still didn’t stop him from criticising my driving.
And now here I am, with my wife Nikki (The Boss) and our wonderful daughter Angharad (The Girl, who happens to have Down Syndrome), journeying into this new year together. I’m 57 now. Not old, not by a long-chalk; but no longer unaware of Time’s Winged Chariot drawing nearer. Much of my time with The Girl is spent travelling: to and from school; to her multitude of activities; to appointments. We’ve also travelled as a family to holiday locations, The Girl and I even going camping together.
But she has yet to go on a train, or use public transport; has never flown. So much to do! So much history to be created in our future, for our future. So much love and fun to share with The Girl for her to lay down as memories – of her parents and of her secure, much-loved childhood. Here’s hoping you all lay down good memories – and lots of them – with your loved ones: Happy 2016 from us three to all our readers.