Middle-aged men in ill-fitting black and blue rugby shirts pour from the doors of Cardiff Central station. They clutch fleeces and flasks as they pick their way past rattling charity buckets and the low bumble of wheeled suitcases coming the other way. Three women in bright summer dresses chatter and clatter heels on their way up the stairs to the platform; loud in every sense above the dulcet Welsh language announcements on the station PA.
As the train pulls in, keen lycra-clad people trundle their bikes toward the front carriage store, bike helmets bobbing on bouncing rucksacks as they go. On board a family of three generations of Bangor City fan have found kindred spirits at a set of tables; they talk football all the way, ruing last night’s missed chances and comparing their fandom.
‘Have you done Llanrwst?’
‘Yeah, you done Cefn Druids?’
‘I was at that one; won 2-0.’
‘It was 2-1.’
In barely a minute the train has moved beyond the smattering of city centre high-rises and through the terraced rooftops of Canton to bring lush green hills looming into view; the country imposing itself on its people. A woman clutches a handbag too tightly. A man sleeps with his headphones in, and a half eaten baguette resting on his chest. Somewhere behind me an elderly lady makes an unhelpful phone call.
‘So, we’ve just left Cardiff a little while back, and we might stop somewhere else yet so… no… no I’m not sure what time we’ll get there.’
Outside, fluffy white clouds move across a sky, which fades from bright blue to grey. The red roof of a jeep rolls around single track country roads. The further west we go the darker the sky becomes. On the fringes of Bridgend grey metal fences surround even greyer industrial unites on a deadening silver sky. Bridgend stations sits within this monochrome world; dead flowers tied to a platform fence. The rain begins to fall and those departing grimace as they run for the cover of the station canopy.
‘Port Talbot will win 3-1 today.’
‘You just bloody told me that Bangor would win 4-1.’
‘Yes, but I’ve had a feeling.’
‘You said that too.’
Four teenage girls stand at the end of the carriage. Each has the same long straight brown hair, and each wears the same leather jacket, and same holed jeans as if they’re waiting outside a casting call for the role of ‘unimpressed teenage daughter’ in a washing powder advert. The tinny repetitive beat of commercial hip-hop comes from the headphones of the lad in front of me. He runs his fingers through his fringe in the train window reflection, takes a moody looking selfie on his phone and then helps himself to another strawberry chewit.
The man who was napping mid-baguette has now awoken and taken a phone call.
‘No, no, of course I do, and yes I am happy, but I can’t say one hundred per cent that I want that with you … I mean I can guarantee ninety, but you know, who’s to know if J-Lo will walk round the next corner.’
Who knows indeed? Perhaps there is something about the crumbs of a half-eaten Upper Crust Ham and Mozzarella that Jenifer Lopez finds irresistible. He’s probably wise to edge his bets.
As the train picks up pace houses beyond the window streak back in the direction from which we came in a beige and charcoal blur, whilst the darkened hills behind loom silent and still, like a theatre curtain on the scene. Slowly the sun begins to hint at a come-back from behind the thick clouds, a dull glow, like a desk lamp through crepe paper. As we rumble beneath the M4, it finally parts the greyness, bringing optimism to the City fans.
‘Always sunny in Port Talbot.’
‘Is there a beach in Port Talbot?’
‘You fancy sunbathing do you?’
‘Always sunny in Port Talbot.’
The sun glints off the tops of rugby posts just visible above the trees, before heavy industry muscles in on the vista. Empty sidings and floodlights, corrugated iron and the silhouettes of chimneys standing out against a huge estuary sky, as steam billows upwards until it merges into the cloudscape high above the steelworks. On the other side of the train the hills edge nearer as the town stumbles into view. Grey pebble-dashed terraces, a row of shuttered shops, the back of a Working Men’s Club and he weathered and weed-strewn façade of the fading art deco Plaza.