I was in need of some inspiration, so I asked the inimitable Rich McAuliffe for a word, a theme for a short story. The word he suggested was hiraeth. I said “of course!”… then looked it up. It turns out hiraeth is:
a Welsh word that has no direct English translation. However, the University of Wales, Lampeter attempts to define it as homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed. It is a mix of longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness, and the earnest desire for the Wales of the past.
(Quote and references at the Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hiraeth)
So, here it comes, a somewhat sad tale called Hiraeth.
Hiraeth by Lizzie Boyle
“You know what, Frank? I’ve had enough of this place. I’m going home.”
It was when Mal nicked the paper from the stand outside the station that he realised he’d been away for nineteen years. Nineteen years and seven days, if you wanted to be exact about these things. It was strange to have that extra week tacked on, like a leap year or all the hours the clocks had changed or an error rounding up or down.
He didn’t plan to steal the paper. He’d looked at all the headlines, flicked through the pages. He was ready with his 20p, but the crouched old man in the blue hat was busy blowing on his tea. The whistle through his teeth, the clatter of the train, the bass echo of the station tannoy, a suitcase wheeled past on broken pavement: suddenly Mal was on the platform, pushing the button for the sliding door, stepping into the stale warmth of the 15.53, a paper under his arm and a 20p sticking in the sweat of his palm.
Nineteen years and seven days. Mal sat up straight in his seat as the train rattled across points and bridges. Closed his eyes. He’d always been able to sleep like this, sitting up; it had helped to pass the time, keep him going when the work was heavy or the noise of the place threatened to keep him up all night. He dipped in and out of sleep, like chips in ketchup. Nineteen years and seven days, the rattling wheels whispered.
He hadn’t come by train. He’d come by road. Felt like a line from that James Bond film, that one with the tarot cards and whatsherface and those funerals with jazz bands in New Orleans or New York. “He comes over water,” that was what she’d said. I came by road, Mal thought. I come back by train. He dozed.
Some instinct woke him up just shy of Swindon. He remembered that he hadn’t bought a ticket. Felt the 20p still in his palm. That might have got him a bus ride to the Arms Park once, he thought. Wouldn’t buy you much right now: a paper, a cigarette, half a stamp. At Swindon, he waited until the last second then jumped out through the doors as they slid shut. Thought of Star Trek. Remembered watching old, old shows with Dylan and the girl when they were little, covering their eyes when the monsters came. Dylan wanted to be Kirk, the captain, the hero; pretended to have a radio and a phaser gun, squeaked orders in his tiny voice. The girl liked Sulu best of all, thought his face was funny-strange, that was what she said. She’d never seen anyone with a face like that, not until the Chinese takeaway opened up the street and she started telling stories about how Sulu’s family were the ones who made the rice. Mal had let her say it until the girl’s mother had said it wasn’t right. No-one could take a joke back then, not about things like that.
He hid himself in the toilets at Swindon station until the platforms quietened down, then scrambled over a fence into the car park and out onto the street. No point drawing attention to himself by going through the gate. He had meant to buy a ticket, like he’d meant to pay for the paper but somehow it had slipped his mind. He’d put the 20p in his pocket as he climbed the fence, and he brought it back out into his palm now. It was comforting somehow. He swore as he realised he’d left the paper on the train. Barely halfway back to Cardiff and he’d lost the one thing he’d gained along the way.
Out on the dual carriageway, it took a while to get a lift. He was the only one hitching and it was only as the sun dipped and the streetlights started to glow that a van pulled up. He jumped up onto the passenger seat, eager like a dog. Asked for Cardiff. The driver smiled and said he’d get him as far as Bristol, pulled out into traffic, pushed the volume on the radio up.
It was a radio station full of talking, which Mal didn’t mind but didn’t enjoy. He didn’t hear the first time the van driver spoke to him.
“Cardiff, eh? Heading home?”
The driver slammed the brakes, hit the horn, raised half a fist at a car cutting in front.
“Sorry ‘bout that. Cardiff then?”
“Is that home then?”
The silence that followed lasted to the edge of Bristol. It wasn’t that Mal didn’t want to talk; he was just too busy thinking about what it meant to go home. It was a strange thing, home. He’d been away so long that “home” should have shifted with him, but he’d never thought of the new place that way. Still thought of it as the new place even after all this time. Home was with Dylan and the girl and her mother, even though the mother had been most of the way out of the door when Mal had left. It hadn’t been perfect, he knew, but it was like being a family; things weren’t always perfect but you got on as best you could and tried not to fight at Christmas.
From Bristol, he jumped another train to Cardiff. The gates were open and no-one asked for a ticket so it was simple enough. If someone had asked, he reasoned, he would have paid, but if they left him to it…
The station was bigger than he remembered. Cleaner. It still had the big arched hall with the lights hanging down like planets. When he came out and looked back, he saw it still said Great Western Railway up on the wall, though the writing was clearer now without the dirt, like when they put the right glasses on you in an eye test. He was sure you used to be able to drive up to the front of the station, but now it was a big square of concrete in the dark. The square expanded out into the city streets; the cars were gone. He remembered stealing bikes when he was fourteen, fifteen maybe, charging up and down the streets, weaving in and out of the buses, the delivery vans, the honking cars. Now it was so quiet and so smooth you could probably ice skate on it in the winter. Great coloured blocks shot up into the sky around him – flats, he supposed, though they looked like the toy blocks the girl had played with. He’d slipped on one of those one day, twisted his knee, rolled down the stairs, cracked his head against the table by the front door. The phone on the table had made a dinging sound, like a joke or the right answer on a quiz show. He’d ripped the phone out of the wall and chucked it down the hallway, enjoying the smash of plastic against the kitchen lino. He’d kicked at the table too, breaking one of its legs. They’d sent him out to Woolworths to buy a new phone the next day. He’d fixed the table himself with some borrowed glue, and turned it round so the weak side leant against the wall. Better that he’d hit the table though and thrown the phone, rather than seen the girl standing at the top of the stairs, the building block in her hand, a smile on her face, ready to play.
As he turned south towards Butetown, towards home, he realised he wasn’t ready. He’d take his time, build himself up a bit, figure out what he was going to say when he knocked on the door. You couldn’t just show up after nineteen years and seven days and expect a welcome mat and a cup of tea. He’d have to explain where he’d been, why he hadn’t come back before, and to do that he’d have to think a bit more.
He followed the straight long road down to the bay. Lights flickered and played in the distance, more lights than he remembered and he thought about Star Trek again. There was an orange glow about the place that he didn’t remember from before, like it would never get dark, like there was always someone keeping an eye on things. Every so often a car would drift by, smooth and quiet on the tarmac. He wondered if the railway still sent people back and forth to the city centre, crossed the road to look, saw the neat parallel lines of the rails. Dylan and the girl used to love the trains. They’d run to the end of the road to wave them by at weekends. The girl was so excited that she cried the first time Mal took her on the train. Everyone in the carriage had looked at him like he’d hit her so he’d fed her chocolate until she quietened down again. They caught the bus home.
At the waterfront, he sat on a bench, looked out over the bay. He knew that if he looked around him, he’d see these buildings that he didn’t know, with their slanting roofs and their balconies and their big tall windows and he’d come crashing into a wall that said “you don’t know this place, you don’t belong.” But this was Cardiff, this was his city, this was where he’d been born and grown up and lived until he was twenty-seven. This was where his children were born and his mam and dad were buried. This was home. To look around now and to know that he was home but to see something that he didn’t recognise, didn’t understand, that would probably break his heart, he thought. It’d make him want to go back to the place he’d not long left, to the shit that he’d had enough of, to Frank and the others who would laugh at him for ever thinking that things would stay the same.
It was time. Time to go home.
He worked his way back up past the solid Victorian warehouses, the hotel, some pubs he thought he knew. He thought about the girl’s mother and how they’d drunk themselves asleep the first night they’d met, woken up on the grass by where the English folk parked their yachts, gone back to hers in their hangovers, eaten breakfast cooked by her mam, slept all day in her pink painted room, woken up for Countdown, had sex in silence while Richard Whiteley chatted and her mam hoovered upstairs. She was a good woman, for all that they’d argued and the sex had stopped after the girl came along. She’d looked after Dylan like he was her own. Looked after Mal like he was her husband. Done alright with the girl.
He was glad he was coming home.
The house was on a street that looked like the letter Q. He’d never seen it from above but he’d seen it on an A to Z. He’d shown it to Dylan who could say that he lived on the letter Q before he could spell the name of the street itself. The house was still painted a kind of dirty white colour, somewhere between the top of the milk and a sandy beach. The garden out front was tarmac now and empty; a wheelie bin stood guard. It was funny to look up at the big front window and think that that was his bedroom, his and hers, and to see the window one along and imagine Dylan sleeping in there. Dylan’s room was a jumble of Star Trek, trains, City flags, model cars, teddy bears he wouldn’t seem to grow out of. The girl slept in the little room at the back, more like a cupboard than a bedroom. The front door led into a hall with a mirror and a clock. You could never see yourself or tell the time because there were so many coats hanging off the hooks. The living room had a gas fire that his cousin had put in, as well as radiators; his mam had always said that it was good to be warm.
He stood at the end of the pathway, breathed deeply, waited. Around him, the city swelled, the lights glowed orange and blue, the sounds of traffic passed like waves, sirens called. A flickering came into the corners of his eyes and he wondered if he was going to cry or maybe to faint. He’d never fainted before but Dylan had once, on the way home from school on a hot day in June. Mal had panicked and picked the boy up and run with him to the doctor’s and burst into the office in the middle of someone else’s appointment and said “make my boy better, please, make my boy better”. And the doctor had been kind and figured out what was wrong, and Mal had felt stupid and they had known about it at the pub by the time he got there that night. But it was better to be a caring father than one who didn’t give a shit. It was better to look after your son than to leave him unconscious on the street to die.
The flickering in his eyes got stronger. Blue, white, amongst the orange. The sirens called louder, echoes twisting in and out. It was strange to be amongst so much brightness, so much noise, so much air when he’d got used to living somewhere so quiet and so dark. He thought about the last time he was here, at the house, at his home. The lights had been here then too, and the sirens, and the strong hands grasping his arms and the cold metal clamping his wrists and the push on his head as he ducked down to get into the car, and he had taken them, the lights and the sirens, away from the house and the house had been left in peace.
And in the house, Dylan was sleeping. And the girl. And the girl’s mother.
It was good that they were sleeping. It was better to be sleeping than to be fainting or crying or leaving. It was better to be sleeping than to be worried and shouting. It was better to be sleeping than to be packing all your things and calling for a taxi and bundling Dylan and the girl in their pyjamas and their coats and saying this wasn’t a home, this wasn’t a family, this wasn’t a way to live. It was better to be sleeping so he’d laid them nice and neat on the bed, tucked in each others’ arms, and the blood had crept gently into the sheets like a tide coming in across the sand, and their skin had gone pale like the sky goes white just before it snows. It was better to be sleeping and, to keep them safe, he’d watched them in their redness and their whiteness and it was only when the taxi driver came and rang the bell, then pushed the door, then came upstairs, then rang on the phone and brought the sirens and the lights: it was only then that Mal had wondered if he’d be allowed to stay at home.
Frank was waiting for him when he came back to the place.
“Did you get home?” he asked.
“What’s it like?”
Mal didn’t know how to answer. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a 20p coin, handed it over.
“It doesn’t go far, but it’ll get you a paper,” he said.