Walking in Merthyr: Part 1
On September 7th this year (2019) I went down to Merthyr to join the Yes for Wales Independence March. It was an inspiring event. The speakers were good, and some were great. The Undod meeting that followed seemed productive, and the Yes Is More gig at Soar featured a great final band. I loved it.
But (thanks to the massive turnout for the march) hotels and Bed and Breakfasts were booked up solid. I knew that by staying up to the death, and then wandering down the road to see a solo guitarist playing and singing in the most crazy lovely atmosphere possible in a Portugese cafe, I’d be outside for the night until the early bus for Cardiff. I’m fine with this; I’ve travelled and been homeless a bunch of times and ways. Relatively speaking – relative to actually being homeless that is – a night is not a particular hardship. Especially when it’s not raining and it’s only September. Besides, walking alone in a night-time town gives a unique lens for those who want to see differently.
Or, perhaps not a lens, but a snapshot of an entirely different world.
I started my outside night somewhere between one and two, when I wandered out of that cafe, still warm from the atmosphere of the place and the whole day. Headed out of Merthyr past the old synagogue and further down that road to a roundabout where buildings run out and it gets dark suddenly away from the narrow ribbons of road light. Onward through a dog-walking path that has a bench that’s one straight wide strip with a back, that you could lie down on.
Initially, I’d expected to be walking all night – a common strategy for long-term homeless people in cold places. So this was a pleasant surprise.
Photo of Merthyr Synagogue, by Chris Andrews on wikimedia commons, CC BY-SA 2.0
Valleys Underground are involved in doing the place up, incidentally. Sure they’d love to hear from you if you can offer a hand…
They have a host of other things going on too, as well as some good writing on the site.
It seemed like a safe spot to be until daybreak, I could see anybody walking towards here from way off, and it didn’t seem like it’d be on many drunk people’s way home.Sitting down to check out the view from the bench, I realised my error. Maybe the designer and the buyer were trying to make something graffitti proof, but the bench was pure cold metal. To build benches to this design is a clear message that “this bench is not for sleeping on”. Given the discomfort of sitting there with a padded bag underneath me on a fairly mild night – and still being able to feel the cold of late autumn five minutes after getting up – this probably isn’t really a bench for sitting on either.
Still, I’d wished for walking (I told myself) and walking it was to be.
Two-thirty. Three hours and twenty-five minutes until the Cardiff bus. I walked one end of the town centre to the other, double checking at the station that there were really no early Sunday trains from Merthyr to Cardiff. It’s true. There really are no Sunday trains in the town whose trains enabled the Industrial Revolution.
I walked back to the square in front of the Red House balcony.
On the benches there’s two men arguing furiously; with the bitterness of friends insisting on caring for each other even though they have nothing to do it with. The one who is not carrying a sleeping bag is in temporary accomodation, and wants his mate to come back with him so that he’ll be warm. The one with the sleeping bag won’t come back and warm up because his mate isn’t supposed to have guests and could be kicked out. Neither will give in and they’re getting more and more heated. If it wasn’t so fucking bleak it’d be funny like Mrs Doyle fighting to pay in a tea shop.
The argument is settled, quite abruptly, when one of them sees me walking through the square and realises I’ve heard everything they’re saying. I didn’t think I looked dangerous; but if you’re sleeping alone on the street with all your stuff then any stranger knowing you’ll be there all night is an existential threat. They go immediately from thoughtless shouting to mindful and decisive muttering. The sleeping bag and the backpack are mounted and the guys are moving off in seconds.
I sit ten minutes on the bench they just left. I don’t want to bump into them again. The bench where they’re sitting is also designed to be uncomfortable for homeless people – or anyone else who might want to lie on it – although (as I remember now) this is by curves rather than by material. At least, therefore, it’s sittable. It’s three o’ clock. I walk away from the Red House. If I’d harboured a slight hope of a warm spot somewhere outside, seeing someone on the point of bedding down somewhere so open makes me think that there really isn’t one.
They’re kicking out, or have kicked out, at the fun pub on the other side of the river. I thought “fun pubs” stopped being a thing when people started playing guitars again in 1994 or so, but here it is. To be fair, it doesn’t look substantially different to any other late-night alcohol purveyor. The hot dog van down the road is doing a roaring trade, with gangs of lads reprising the Mrs Doyle cafe routine and upping the stakes with extra sausages. I’m well cold now, but this ain’t a van – or a crowd – who are going to tolerate some arse asking what’s vegetarian amidst the miasma of bacon fumes.
Besides, I know the answer.
Thirty years ago, or maybe only fifteen, I’d have queued up for a cuppa and talked to people and told stories and got my guitar out and made a few quid or a party invitation out of it. Now I’m a middle aged onlooker and the only bloke in sight wearing a big coat instead of a clubbing shirt or ironic party drag. I’m invisible and there is no guitar to lean on, and anyway there’s only two hours and fifty-four minutes before my bus goes. If this was for real, and there was only this again to look forward to tomorrow, I’d be scared now.
But I’m not.
A town this size, I’m thinking, must have somewhere you can sit in that opens early.
I walk. Further down the road I see part of the route we walked during the day. A woman walking there waves to me and asks if I can help her. She’s left her phone and her boyfriend in a club somewhere and she’s a bit pissed. She knows her man’s number, but she doesn’t want to talk to him in case they were having an argument. I text him to say she’s safe. She’s staying somewhere in town but doesn’t know what it’s called. Luckily, I’ve had my eyes open all night, and run through the B&B and hotel names I’ve seen. We walk to the one she recognises the name of. Because we both came down for the Yes march we have an excited ten minutes on the way talking about our hopes for an independent Wales. That stuff can really warm you up. I forgot I was cold.
Not for bloody long though.
It’s half three, and I’m freezing again – having pointed out that my comrade’s bloke probably wouldn’t be altogether chuffed at her inviting randoms to kip on the floor. I walk east into terraced streets above the giant Tesco. There’s a chapel building in one that looks familiar from somewhere in a way that gives me shivers, but maybe it’s the cold and the tiredness. I shake my head and walk off. And trip over a hedgehog.
He rolls up tinier and tighter than I’ve ever seen a hedgehog be. I move slowly away a dozen feet and wait. Five minutes after, he shakes himself, sniffs a slug trail in the gutter, and follows it.
I’m watching the hedgehog, simultaneously happy and fascinated at his (or her, to be fair) appearance here now and wishing he (or she) would hide again so I can walk away and get warm. But I’m being watched. Across the road there is – quite literally – a curtain twitching. I’m about to go, quick-sharp, when I remember that I’m only out for tonight. I don’t have to worry about the police keeping an eye on me. Still, I go anyway.
I don’t want a cop car here running over the hedgehog, who is now happily munching slugs.
It’s ten past four. Fuck I’m cold. I walk. Did I mention I’m wearing a big coat and two jerseys and a billion socks? Still though.
So I give in and do the 21st Century late-night thing. I go to Maccy D’s.
I’m not proud of this, by the way.
Oddly, for a pedestrian to get to the door, it’s necessary to walk right around the building. Just like most of our contemporary world, it’s a reversal of the Western architecture of earlier eras, where the parking (and I include stables in parking) was hidden round the back, and the prime entrance was for the walk-in customer. Here the priority of car-based dining in combination with health and safety means that there’s barriers for anyone who isn’t a car. All that notwithstanding, I’m only a moment away from a warm …
Inside a lad is frantically cleaning up the worst cafe devatastion you’re ever likely to see without property damage or puddles of blood. He’s locked the door and he’s stopped responding to the frozen kids in clubbing shirts banging to be let in. Still the outside seats are plastic, so I wait it out. The boys at the door are making a big deal of being outside now. Somebody inside makes a phone calling hand gesture – but it’s not Bollywood and she doesn’t want anyone to call her later.
Twenty-five to five. Fuck it’s cold. The boys at the door ain’t letting up, and the girl with the invisible phone is getting increasingly concerned and angry. I’m wondering how far this is going to escalate, and I don’t want to get stuck with being a witness if it does. I pick up my bag and get ready to move.
Really not what is happening right now…
Then the seagulls rescue us. Two are fighting over an empty takeaway bag in the road (oddly, not a MacDonalds bag, though there’s plenty around). The sky is going from blueblack and chainstoreneon to dull with chainstoreneon and streetlight fading. A lad moves away from the door and starts to imitate the seagull noises.
He does monkeys, parakeets, owls, horses, chimpanzees. After about five minutes, he suddenly gets good at it. Not this good, but pretty good. Until then everybody there’s turning to watch him to work out why he’s being a nutter. But then there’s this moment of sheer delight when he realises that he can actually fucking do this, and it’s a faultless performance from then on, as witnessed by a growing contingent of seagulls looking at him with their heads tilted quizzically.
The front door clicks open, unnoticed by the crowd of lads who’d been banging it. Seagull-boy’s lift turns up over the road. He takes a big bow and jumps over the fence. The girl with the invisible phone has put it back in her pocket and is smiling and waving ta-ra to him. Maybe there is some old Bollywood in the air after all. The whole bunch jump after him and squish themselves into the back seat.
Just before the boy racer sub bass kicks in, we hear a wolf howling.
That’s the story, mostly. In parts 2 and onwards, I’ll explore some meanings and conclusions that might be drawn from it, as well as dropping in a detail or photo or three that I missed.