Gower is that thumb of land that sticks out westward, into the sunset, beyond Swansea. It has a mysterious interior, full of heaths and pools and ancient stones. Its coast must be the finest in all Wales. I've been visiting it on and off since the 1980s, but I never could spend more than a few hours there - except for one year, 1996, when M--- and I booked a holiday chalet for a week at Oxwich, in glorious sunny weather. We also went caravanning in 2009, and stayed a few days at a farm at Scurlage, but it was not a happy holiday.
Nevertheless, that fretful, dysfunctional 2009 visit hadn't spoilt Gower for me.
It was now late in 2015. I resolved to have lunch in Swansea, and then, if it were still sunny, drive onwards into Gower. It would have to be another flying visit, because the days were becoming short.
My first stop was Oxwich. Oxwich gives its name to one of the largest sandy bays on Gower. It isn't by any means the very best, but most people would say it's a lovely place. I went there for the first time in 1993, with my parents - we were enjoying a late-season hotel holiday. At that time, Mum and Dad liked me to go with them for two or three days in early November, Dad paying for everything. In 1991, 1992 and 1993 these were the only holidays I had. Mum and Dad were then in their early seventies, and still in good health. Here they are on the wet beach at Oxwich on 5 November 1993:
I do wonder what they would say to me now. I thought of them as I parked Fiona. I wished that I might see them together, waiting on the beach for my arrival, out on the same wet sand, and that I could walk over to them. There would be a mutual appraisal. What would they say? What would I say? Was there any chance that it would be a happy meeting?
We were never a family to embrace and kiss. Nowadays I am very used to hugs and kisses - lots of them; but with other people. My parents and I did not communicate with any kind of emotional gestures. Certainly not in 1993. Nor did emotional expression come easily in 1995, when my brother was killed. Nothing was unlocked. This hiding of strong affection persisted even to 2009, when both my parents died one after the other. We always avoided physical contact, and relied solely on words - and not embraces, nor tender physical gestures.
So I would have had to introduce myself with words alone, and hope for the best. And in reply, would I have had the smile of welcome, or the frown of rejection? Or even worse, the polite puzzlement of total non-recognition?
They were not there on the beach. Not even in spirit. I had the place to myself.
The sand was very wet. I wasn't wearing quite the right kind of shoes for it, so I walked towards the headland and onto drier sand, and eventually to the path that led to a secluded and ancient church in the wood that overlooked the bay.
It was dedicated to St Illtyd, a 6th century saint. The church wasn't open. The churchyard was damp and cold. It was difficult to imagine how it might ever be dry, even on a summer's day.
M--- and I had walked past in 1996, at the start of a long tramp along the coast to Port Eynon and back. M--- was very keen on walking, and often insisted on venturing into lonely areas where I didn't care to go, not then, and certainly not now. The coast between Oxwich and Port Eynon was not especially remote or desolate, but there was no possible escape from an attacker. Here are two pictures of how it was:
It was just sufficiently lonely and out of the way to make you wary (and possibly fearful) of anyone coming into view, if you were inclined to be nervous. We passed one or two young girls out on their own, and thought they were taking a big risk.
M--- was very eager to explore such places, often unreasonably so I thought, and would head off alone if I wouldn't come with her. She had plenty of self-confidence, something I was rather short of back in 1996.
One sunny afternoon, we were driving back from a visit to Threecliff Bay on the south coast of Gower. It had been strenuous, and I was ready for an afternoon nap. She wasn't. She wanted to follow a path down through the Nicholaston Woods, over a river bridge, and then back along the beach to the chalet at Oxwich. It was hot and she was wearing only a short skirt, a bikini top, a hat, and sandals. She insisted that she would be all right walking on her own in such a skimpy get-up. I disagreed. I thought she was underestimating the problems she might encounter. But my objections were brushed aside. M--- was wilful, and generally did as she pleased, and was impatient of any objection-raising.
I dropped her off, and drove back to the chalet, trying not to feel concerned.
I was tired, quickly fell asleep, and was out for more than an hour. But she wasn't there when I awoke. Yet she ought to have returned well within an hour. Vaguely concerned, I locked up the chalet and went off to look for her, expecting to meet her somewhere on the beach. But she was nowhere in sight. Now more than a little worried for her - she might have slipped and hurt an ankle, who knows what - I walked far out on the beach in the direction of the river bridge. She seemed to have vanished. I walked back, thinking that I might have to raise the alarm.
Well, we did finally meet up, close to the chalet. She had returned to it after I'd locked it up and gone off searching for her. And not having a bag with her, and therefore no key, she was stuck outside and had got rather angry with me for - as she first thought - being fast asleep, and deaf to her cries to be let in. It finally dawned on her that I wasn't inside the chalet at all. Eventually, she headed back to the beach where we met up. I got a ticking-off before I could properly explain.
Mind you, she'd had a scary time. Very soon after I'd dropped her off, she started to regret walking through the woods. They were creepy. But worse was to come. As she began to descend into the dunes, she realised that she was surrounded by men - mostly nude men. One or two sun-worshippers (of both sexes) might be expected in any stretch of dunes, but there were a dozen or more of these nude men, enough to make her feel threatened. So she backtracked, and tried to find another way down to the beach. This of course delayed her getting back to the chalet. It was just pure bad luck that we hadn't met when I went out to find her. By the time we did find each other again, her half-fright had turned into seething exasperation.
It was just one of those things. It didn't ruin the holiday. But I've never forgotten this incident, and M--- herself never learned anything lasting from it. Again and again she stepped out ahead on her own in later walks, exposing herself to possible danger, and leaving me lagging out of sight behind, because I couldn't keep up with her. I sometimes felt quite abandoned. But she was restless and couldn't be held to a slower pace. I often pondered on this and other differences between us, and wondered whether one day they would undo our friendship. I'll never know now.
Once back in Fiona, I zig-zagged north across Gower towards the M4 motorway. The sun was setting as I came to that big, haunted stretch of water called Broad Pool. Despite the passing cars, it seemed serene and magical.
A cold sea mist was following me. Wisps of it were rapidly creeping over the ridge and down towards where I'd left Fiona. Time to go.
I didn't make it much past Cardiff before I ran into thick fog, bad enough to provoke a weather warning on the radio. The traffic had to slow to a crawl. It was quite scary. I speculated on what I would do, if any gearbox problems arose while creeping along. I was fortunate. Nothing happened.