Cardiff crouches low beneath a damp mist, a lie-in before a big day. There are puddles on the platform at Cardiff Central; the remnants of the working week’s weather hanging on for the weekend. A puddle on the train too; ‘You’ve a leak coming down on the MR, that’s all’ says the departing driver to his groaning, unconvinced replacement.
The train sets off and screams round the long bend to Cardiff Queen Street above a city preparing for the big match; outside the station men in luminous jackets shuffle metal barriers, pubs are decked in Guinness promotions, inflatable goalposts twist in the breeze. On a rooftop car-park two men in red replica jerseys emerge from a tiny car and stretch their legs.
At Queen Street a man gets on, talking loudly into his phone about car insurance; three people already aboard instinctively put earphones in ears and headphones on heads. Beyond the shops and offices, between the stone houses and yellow leaves of Cathays, a ferris wheel turns half-heartedly. The brutalist concrete of Cardiff University is flanked by Meccano new builds of flats and student halls. Gaps in the trees offer Zoetrope glimpses of a hockey match.
On into mist cloaked suburbs; wellies tread on damp allotments, conservatories are covered in leaves, a junior football match ebbs and flows beneath power lines. At Raydr we wait an extra half-minute so the driver and conductor can exchange busman’s banter with compatriots on the train on the adjacent platform. ‘Aye, aye, what you doing here?’ ‘Not like you to be on time’.
The landscape rises; mist skirts round bright orange tree tops on the slopes of the valley as we roll on along its base to Taff’s Well. Rust coloured leaves merge into the grooves of a rust roofed warehouse. An old woman carrying a lifetime’s supply of wrapping paper leaves the train and picks her way over the footbridge.
Out of season back gardens are unkempt and overgrown, pubs with weatherproof banners urging people to ‘Watch rugby here’. Ancient rugby posts lean away from each other at opposite ends of a field as if they’ve had a falling out. The river rumbles beneath us once again.
Trefforest Est hides between the branches and a narrow platform that overhangs industrial yards, where the trees open out to a valley of corrugated roofs and quickly built warehouses. A man gets off, lights a cigarette, and disappears down the hillside. Treforest itself awaits up the line, its signs lumbered with the English spelling, station posters in Mandarin, it’s a multi-lingual trolley dash. Here a group of teenage girls get on and go the length of the journey to Pontypridd without ever looking up from their phone screens.
At the valley bottom a church spire pokes through the trees; white-faced buildings cling to the hillside, rising above Pontypridd so steeply they look like tower blocks. Blackened trackside walls give way to the town’s huge Victorian station; green paint on wooden boards trim red-brick buildings. Here an old man joins the train and takes a seat across the aisle; he possesses huge great ears and cheeks that hang down the side of his face like ham joints above a tapas restaurant bar. He eyes the scenery with a wistful glare throughout the journey, breaking his gaze only to swallow.
Rows of terraced houses merge each town and village into the next one. Fauna grows from cracks in disused buildings. A tractor rolls through the centre of Abercynon, a man works precariously on a roof, the houses give way to trees as you cross the Taff once again, and between them heather topped hills drop beneath the mist.
Green moss clings to every surface, an unescapable damp that must cling to the soul. A loose branch clatters against the windows. A hazy sunshine breaks through the trees at Quakers Yard and only now do you realise just how overwhelmingly green the train is; walls, chairs, cushions, seat-backs, signs, everything green, like laundry day in Sherwood Forest. Two young boys join the train and chat loudly, switching between English and Welsh, before choosing instead to pass the time by spitting at each other from opposite sides of the carriage.
A gap in the cloud allows the blue sky to silhouette a pair of pylons on the hill-top before the train screeches round another long bend and descends back beneath the mist to Merthyr Vale where the driver idles to get back on schedule. A man walking down the embankment for the Cardiff train eats a banana in just four bites; sleeping ducks drift down the river.
Beyond Merthyr Vale, a cemetery on a hillside; the bright white headstones of Aberfan stand out above the valley like keys on a grand piano striking a sombre chord. Unmistakable, unavoidable, they hang over the town below; a generation lost but omnipresent all the same.
The old man with the ham joint face has nodded off, his bottom lip tucked over his grey moustache. He lifts his heavy eyelids to acknowledge the platform sign of Troed-y-Rhiw and returns to his slumber. One of the boys stops spitting at his cohort to help a woman with a pram onto the train. Somewhere down the carriage a woman is saying ‘Well, just book a Premier Inn then, I don’t care’. The sun has broken through, reflecting off the windows of trackside houses and highlighting the purple hills above.
Arriving in Merthyr Tydfil; the mist has gone, but the grey remains on whitewashed terraced houses that last saw a paintbrush when the pit wheels were still turning. A Welsh flag hangs loosely from wooden decking on a hill-side terrace. A Tesco Extra where a grand terminus once stood, a juddering halt to all that’s gone before. End of the line.