Llandaff, November 2000
This time last year, we were still waiting to move into our new house.
A couple of days before Christmas we took possession of a bare-walled
building stacked to the ceiling with packing cases, and freezing because
the previous owner had gone off with the ladder which was our only means
of access to the loft where the boiler is. We decided this was the estate
agent’s responsibility, as he had sold us the house in the first place,
so we phoned him, and he must have seen it our way, because he immediately
came round with a ladder of his own, which we kept for six months until we
finally bought one ourselves. They believe in personal service in Wales -
the builder we got to do up the house was the ex-husband of the estate agent’s
partner, who said to us, ‘Would I have stayed married to him for 35 years if
he hadn’t been reliable?’ And I suppose he was, though like all builders he
and his Irish assistant would disappear from time to time. We were without a
kitchen for a month in the dead of winter, living on curries microwaved in
the bedroom or steaks in the pub down the road. The work went on noisily,
month after month: a new back door, two new windows, new panels on the
internal doors, new floors, bookshelves - it was like living inside a
tooth while the dentist is drilling it. The house was full of the smell of
bitumen and paint and the bickering of Tony and Danny:
‘Come here! What did I tell you to do?’ ‘Some people are never wrong.’
‘Hyah hyah hyah!’ (Tony’s bitter laugh.) Finally they went, leaving the
house more or less finished, and us several thousand pounds in debt.
We hired a skip and cleared the pile of rubble from the back garden
ourselves, including the used teabags they’d thrown out of the kitchen
window and quite a few slugs.
The debt would have been worse but for my win in the
TLS Poetry Competition in January. At the same time my collection of poems,
Dragons, was accepted by Faber’s new editor, so my writing career looks
fairly secure. The book comes out next February, and I hope to have a launch
While the builders were still in residence, Creina started to feel
ill, and developed a temperature. After a few days of this, she went to the
bathroom and found herself covered in spots. The doctor came and diagnosed chickenpox.
It was quite all right for her to go out, he said, as everybody got it sooner
or later, but for several weeks she only went out in an improvised yashmak.
Apparently you can get the spots inside as well, which explains why she felt
sick and had a persistent dry cough.
Meanwhile I am enjoying my job. I had to organize a one-day
creative writing conference (Writing Year Zero) in May, which was a great
success. I also took part in a British Council conference in Oxford in the
spring, and my contribution was used in a BBC World Service programme called
Creative Ways. Next week I’m going to a conference in Dublin to read
a paper on W.S. Graham, but my conference-going is likely to end after this
as my department has run out of money. Creina has gone back to writing her
family history, and has discovered that her seagoing ancestors were always
passing through Cardiff on their way round the world.
We had our first overnight guest and dinner party to
coincide with Writing Year Zero, though we still didn’t have a staircarpet
and the hall was full of packing cases. Since then, we have been gradually
introducing family and friends (including some from Zimbabwe and
California) to the house, and have taken the opportunity to get to know the
local attractions, Cardiff and Caerphilly castles, the Museum of Welsh Life,
the National Museum and Art Gallery in Cardiff etc, as well as the
beautiful but extremely soggy Welsh countryside.
We are slowly getting to
know Wales. I had a week in the Llyn Peninsula in July, helping to run a
creative writing summer school, and we took a week’s holiday in
Pembrokeshire in September. We were staying in a cottage on a farm, under a
large rocky hill called Garn Fawr, which is Welsh for Large Rocky Hill.
(The Welsh have as many different words for types of hill as the Eskimos
are said to have for snow.) It was convenient being right on the coast path
as it was the week of the petrol crisis, so no petrol was available after the
first couple of days. We were perfectly happy walking over the cliffs and
watching the seals on the beaches. The cottage was called Swn y Morlo,
Sound of the Seals, and we could actually hear them barking in the night,
an uncanny sound.