There are places that remain in our memories, the details may become slightly blurred, nostalgia may colour our thoughts, but they don’t fade. And how those places made us feel at the time is the one thing that remains.
Today I’m really pleased to welcome Jane Fraser to Places in our Memories. Jane is a a Honno author like myself, I’ve known her quite a while, and know how much she loves Wales. Here she tells us how, although enjoying a wonderful holiday in… she missed her homeland… and how it brought other thoughts.
Home Thoughts From Abroad
I am in the elevator going up to the condo on the 6th floor. It feels moist: a stale smell of sweat and coconut sun-oil cloying the cramped space I’m sharing with my husband and another couple. We’ve all rushed off the beach because of the squall. The sign with the palm tree on the wall tells me to have a nice day.
“Where you guys from?” asks the man with the baseball cap.
“Wales,” I say.
“Oh, part of England – we passed through it on our way to Ireland when we did Europe a couple of years ago, didn’t we Jo? he says to his wife who says: We sure did. It’s where Princess Diana was from.
I don’t bother to even try and explain but say, Bye, enjoy your day as we make our way back to our little rental overlooking the Atlantic which is now stewing, a nasty grey, with white spume peaks whipped by the wind as far out as the eye can see. I sit on our balcony, my mind’s eye can see far across this ocean, as far as the wet west coast of the home I’ve escaped this Christmas.
“You homesick?” my husband asks.
“A bit,” I say. “The weather, probably.”
“Least it’s hot rain. Won’t last. They’re not there anyway.”
He’s right. My daughter and the kids are in Australia to see the in-laws; my son is happy with his girl-friend in the north of England. My parents are sorted going to my brother’s for Christmas lunch in Cardiff and I know they’re OK as I see them all year, living just a couple of miles away. I’m guilt free. I haven’t left or abandoned anyone. No person I love. It’s just my house I see empty and forlorn; standing unlit and unloved, in the place that tugs at my insides.
“Don’t you miss our house? Our beach?” I ask my husband.
“It’s just a place, “he says. “C’mon. We’ve worked all year for this.”
I continue looking at the ocean, listen to its constant churning. It sounds the same as home. And it’s beautiful. But at 27 degrees north 80 degrees west Hutchinson Island is not 51 degrees north and 4 degrees west in Llangennith. The tide hardly budges here between high and low water, no vast expanse of sand exposed on the ebb. When my wind blows from the south west it is mild and wet, it cakes my windows with salt and browns and bends everything I try to grow in my garden. Everything here is back to front: the north-easterly brings the rain, steamy and sticky; and when the wind blows from the south-west, it’s off the land, hot, dry on the skin, giving respite from the humidity. When my sun rises it is behind me, comes up over Llanmadoc Down and when it is done at the end of the day it falls into the sea just to the left of Burry Holms. I just cannot come to terms with the sun coming up over the ocean and going down over the land.
“You’ve got no sense of home, have you?” I snipe at my husband.
“What Merthyr Tydfil? London? Gower?”
“You don’t belong anywhere, do you?”
“No. Happy in a camper van, me. Don’t need that stuff.”
“Running away all the time, you are.”
“Nothing to run from.”
“No place you see yourself dying? Spending your last days?”
“Jesus. We’re supposed to be on holiday.”
I see myself in my own bed at home. I am lying propped up on pillows, looking out through the sash windows at the expanse of ocean. The window is pulled up slightly at the bottom and fresh air rushes through the gap, making the silk curtains billow, and cooling my face which is warmed with the sun in my south-facing house. If I had a choice about the last thing I’d like to see in life it would be the view through this window: the bronzed burrows, the conical dunes, the limestone island of Burry Holms which when the tide is high rises like a turtle out of the sea.
But it is beautiful here in its own way. Now. The scale of the views astounds: big skies; big seas; but too much sea if there is such a thing. Sea that is not broken up or interrupted with headlands or coves or churches or castles that run down to the water’s edge. There is but one long, straight continuous ocean’s edge strung out along the rim of the pan-handle. I long for things to shrink, for the familiar littleness and quirkiness of my peculiar patch of earth.
I’m in the tropics in a flat right in the dunes and I am happy and grateful for what life has dealt me. But they are not my dunes. My dunes are golden and soft-sanded, carpeted with marram grass, sea holly and thrift and all manner of orchids and blackberries when autumn comes. Here the sand is greyer and grittier, a flat colour pitted with holes where ghost crabs burrow. Where blue and pink-bubbled Portuguese men of war with foot long tentacles lurk ready to sting at the tide’s drop line. Here everything grows quickly, too quickly; it is hard to keep things under control, to hold back the mangrove to prevent the railroad vine choking. Here the dunes sometimes cannot hold back the hurricanes. Here there are signs that say evacuation route.
My husband goes back inside the condo to the chill of the air-con, sliding the door behind him. Even though it is raining, I am covered by the popcorn roof of the balcony and shielded from the wet by the sliding concertina-folded shutters. The heat is sapping the life out of me. I consider life’s evacuation route. When and how my end will come. There have been a few near-misses to date and again, I am grateful that I’ve still got a few lives left. My mind wanders and I hope I will have what my grandmother used to call a ‘good death’. A death that is in old age, that is relatively pain-free. One where there is time to say goodbyes.
I open the sliders and go inside. The air-con confronts me like a fridge.
“Do you want to be buried or cremated?” I ask my husband. But he cannot hear as his earphones are on and he’s on the iPad catching up with latest episodes of ‘London Spy’.
“What?” he shouts, taking out one of his ear-pieces.
“When you die. Buried or cremated? We need to make our wills.”
“You need to see someone. Seriously.”
“I want to be buried. In the church. Near the wall. Gets the sun all day. And I can keep an eye on what’s happening in the pub opposite!”
“Just feed me to the birds. Or drop me overboard near Burry Holms.”
“I was thinking Burry Holms to start with too: though sprinkled like your mother. Then I changed my mind and fancied the crem. But thought, no. Production line. So it’s to be burial. But not in Llanrhidian with my mother’s lot. Too dark. Damp.”
“Long as I know.”
“Don’t you want to be buried with me, then?”
“Don’t believe in all that tosh.”
“Is it ‘cos we’ve got different names? Shall I change my name to Griffiths?”
“You do what you like. I just want to go back to nature. No fuss.”
“That’s great. Buried alone. That’ll give them something to talk about.”
“Well, you won’t hear them, will you?”
On Christmas Eve the sun has decided to shine again. It is in the high eighties. The checkout girl in Publix tells us the weather here is Bipolar. My husband tells me he thinks I am too.
We hit the beach again with our striped canvas chairs, turning away from the sea to follow the sun as the day progresses. We watch fisherman landing croakers and pompanos, their rods bent like arcs over the sparkling ocean along the water’s edge as far as the eyes can see. One man is sweating with the effort of reeling in a big fella that’s been taking line for over an hour as far south as Miami. Must be a shark or a stingray his friend says who stands at the ready with a rope to help him when the time comes. But the line snaps and it was the one that got away.
The sun is high even in mid-winter, searing the crown of my broad black-rimmed hat which I notice is fading so fast. I look at my watch. 3pm. Eight o’clock back home. It’ll be dark and raining and the teles will be blaring and the pubs heaving. At this precise moment I’m not missing it at all.
But at six o’clock, when the light goes yet the heat remains locked in, I’m out of kilter again. The condo looks bare even though we’ve tried out best with potted red tulips and white lilies and red and gold baubles which are too glitzy for my liking. The Christmas cards we’ve bought each other in Barnes and Noble are too schmaltzy and shmucky: like the apples and the vegetables in the supermarkets, too big and shiny and perfect that look lovely but don’t actually taste of anything.
The tele goes on but it’s all American Football and medical adverts every few seconds with lists of alarming side effects of certain medications. It’s Fixer Upper then, nothing but edition after edition of Fixer Upper and houses that are transformed in Wacko Texas for under $80,000 including land. Next is Chopped which I tell my husband is a poor imitation of Bake Off and even worse than Australian MasterChef.
I turn to my iPad for comfort and start googling Llangennith. I get the Gower Webcam from The Worms’s Head Hotel looking across Rhossili Bay. But it’s dark there, the sea hardly visible just an eerie rippling. It will restart live at sunrise tomorrow morning the message promises. Apparently it’s been a great day for surf. Overhead and light winds from the south west. I go to Wikipedia: pictures emerge of a village on the Gower peninsula near Swansea in Wales. It has an 11th century church dedicated to St Cenydd. It is the largest Church in Gower and the only one with a lych gate. I know. We were married there. I am suddenly in its nave, in its chancel, standing among the choir stalls with a bouquet of lily of the valley, taking our vows. It’s where I’ve recently told my husband I’ll be buried. I can see the unkempt grass, though not onscreen, see the weathered tombstones, tottering at all angles, see the names of generations of Taylors and Groves and Bevans and Beynons. I think I’ve made the right decision about being buried there, I say to my husband but he’s engrossed in Dallas Cowboys v Pittsburgh Steelers. I can smell home through the ether, pine and Christmas pudding.
“You umbelicalled to that thing?” he shouts from the sofa.
I’m on Google Earth now, I’ve keyed in my postcode SA3 1JE and I’m being taken from the beginning of Cock Street following a white arrow like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs, past Gill and Paul’s at Bullen’s Well – I can see the spout from the well, taste the spring water I always taste in cupped hands when I’m finishing up my daily walk. The camera takes me on along the single track lane – there’s Cock Street Farm with the gate with the two horses’ heads and the Land Rover parked in the yard. Must have been taken a few years ago as Joe Grove has changed it now for an Isuzu Trouper. And it must have been early summer too as the gorse is out, a blaze of yellow and the ferns at the lane’s edge are hip-high. I press the arrow with a compulsion, I’m at Long Offing now, and then the old barn in the field next to mine – Steve Taylor’s Fiesta is parked outside the gate – probably watering the plants in his polytunnel. And then there’s my gate. From 5,000 miles away right in front of me is my five barred farm gate and my drive with the car parked in it. CF13 MFU – all my personal things there for me to see, but not to touch. I can hardly bear it. I zoom on to the front of the house. It’s white and lime washed and perfectly symmetrical. Surrounded by newly ploughed brown-earthed fields it looks like it’s growing there, like it belongs there, like it’s been there for all time.
It looks sad without us there. The windows at the front look as though they are crying. The wooden loungers are in place on the patio, perfectly positioned to take in the views of the ocean and the full sun. But they are empty. The stone pots of lavender are in full bloom but there is no one to smell them or water them. The seeds I must have planted back then are sprouting in the raised beds and the olive trees standing tall in the terracotta pots on the plum stoned driveway. They say all roads lead home at Christmas, I tell my husband. But he doesn’t reply.
Jane Fraser is an award-winning fiction writer, based in the Gower peninsula, south Wales. Her debut novel, Advent, was published by Honno, the UK’s longest-standing, independent women’s press, in January 2021. It was Book of the Month at Books Council of Wales in February 2021 and in June 2022 was announced as winner of the Society of Authors’ Awards – The Paul Torday Memorial Prize for a debut novel in English. Her first collection of short fiction, The South Westerlies, was published by Salt, the UK’s foremost independent publisher of literary fiction, in 2019 and her second short fiction collection, Connective Tissue, in October 2022, and also published by Salt.
She has been widely published in anthologies and reviews including New Welsh Review, The Lonely Crowd, Fish Publishing, TSS and The London Magazine. Her fiction has figured highly in major international competitions: in 2017 she was a finalist in the Manchester Fiction Prize (and has also been highly commended eight times), and in 2018 was a prize winner in the Fish Memoir Prize. She has also long and shortlisted in the Cambridge Short Story Prize, the ABR Elizabeth Jolley Prize, the Rhys Davies Short Story Competition and Retreat West Short Story Competition. She is winner of both the British Haiku Society and Genjuan International Prize for haibun. Her work has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 as part of its ‘Short Works’ series.
She is a Hay Festival Writer at Work, a prestigious creative development award for emerging writers. She has a B.Ed as a first degree, and an MA (distinction 2013) and PhD in Creative Writing from Swansea University.
Jane Fraser is proud to be represented by Gaia Banks, Literary Agent at Sheil Land Associates Ltd. http://www.sheilland.com
When she is not writing, Jane Fraser is Co-Director of NB:Design a brand and digital agency along with her husband Philip Griffiths, a designer and photographer. When she is not working or writing, she walks her home patch of Gower and tries to be a good grandmother to Megan (13), Florence (11) and Alice (8).
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