89. Easter Weekend in Cardiff
In the United Kingdom the Great War is remembered. In the flower beds of Gorsedd Gardens, a small city park in front of Cardiff's National Museum, the city had planted great numbers of red poppies with blue forget-me-nots about the base of their stems.
Cardiff was midway through a week that was predicted to be gorgeous weather. It rains on average 180 days out of the year in Cardiff, but this day a bright sun poured warmth on the city, the afternoon temperature reaching 74°F (23.3°C). This is already warmer than an average summer day in Cardiff. Could it be a harbinger of a too hot summer to come because of climate change? The Cardiffians are not yet concerning themselves with the lack of residential air-conditioners or window screens to block the sucking and biting insects that could migrate here. This week the Cardiffians were delighted with the weather - yet all is not well in Cardiff.
The bells of City Hall have gone wrong. They are supposed to play the Westminster Chimes (also known as the Westminster Quarters or the Cambridge Quarters, having originated with the Great Saint Mary Church of Cambridge). Every quarter hour a melody is played that feels incomplete. Each quarter is longer than the previous until you reach the full hour and an entire melody is performed followed by the number of hours counted by the biggest bell. Everybody knows this melody, although quite a few don't realize the scheme of quarters. Our City Hall plays the same tune as emits from Westminster’s Elizabeth Tower, but not for the last two weeks.
Something was terribly wrong with Cardiff's City Hall's chimes. They rang the wrong quarter or missed a quarter altogether. This has been going on for two weeks. Surely it hasn't gone unnoticed - but two weeks! I took myself to City Hall. The receptionist was not aware of anything out of kilter, but she admitted she never paid attention to the bells, which were somewhere overhead. She placed a call to the person responsible to come and speak to me.
Was it my imagination there is something wrong with the automated Westminster Chimes? Would I appear a fool? The fellow responsible for the care and maintenance of the bells said I was not imagining it, there was a problem. He further explained to me there were only two companies in all of Britain with the skill-set and authority to fix these bells, and given how many bells there are throughout Britain, these two companies are kept very busy. Noting that the population of Cardiff is over 360,000, I wondered how many people have reported the trouble. Surely I was not the first? He assured me that I was absolutely not the first. I was the second. I was one of two people who took notice and reported the trouble.
My in-laws invited me to Easter dinner. Much of that afternoon was spent relaxing on backyard loungers discussing the news. About us floated a flock of fairies, the flossy seeds from the neighbor’s goat willow. Above was a sapphire sky, empty for a long time. When the first contrails appeared, I pointed them out. My in-laws didn’t know where to look because they didn’t know what they were looking for. Contrails is an American term, not British. That is how I learned they are called vapour trails in Britain.
Since the perfect weather persisted, I was out and about again, strolling Cardiff, passing through Gorsedd Gardens. And there in Gorsedd Gardens was something beautiful to see. Among the dying red poppies turning maroon, a child in a red dress sat at the base of a statue.
I continued to the other side of City Hall, to Alexandra Gardens, where I could be the old man sitting on a park bench wearing a jacket for its pockets and willing to talk to anyone willing to talk to me. It was Ms Keogh’s sixty-sixth birthday had she lived, my wife, my cherished companion. I carried a picture of Ms Keogh in my pocket, nearly always. The clock at City Hall struck six. There had been no quarter hour chimes. (Was that my fault they shut them off?) With every gust of wind it snowed cherry blossoms. I picked a bench facing the Welsh National War Memorial, a circle of towering columns enclosing a fountain, statuary, and words in Welsh and English carved into stone.
There were photographers photographing and filming a young couple about to be married. The couple were being coached into frivolous acts and displays of love, all for the cameras, not for each other. Who was it they wanted to see these staged memories? What does it tell us about how they really felt? I don’t claim we shouldn’t share ourselves. We can show what we look like and where we are in a given moment of time, but where was the sincerity in that couple’s performance? Were they declaring what they felt or what they wished other people should think they were feeling?
The couple were instructed to laugh, to walk arm-in-arm down tree-lined lanes, to twist about and dance. I wondered how many other couples those photographers had brought to that park and presented with the same instructions. I wanted to tell them about the other end of marriage. I wanted them to know it was my dead wife’s birthday and that was why I was sitting alone on a park bench contemplating the beauty around me and the beauty I have forever lost. I wanted to advise them that friendship is foremost and that everything in a relationship is negotiable. I wanted them to know companionship can be more precious than anything else.
If I had been the photographer, I would have engaged them in conversation, would have waited until they were disregarding the presence of the camera and tried to have caught them when they were being themselves.
Took myself to Asador 44, the best steaks in Cardiff, to celebrate her birthday. I opened my carnet to the photograph of Ms Keogh inside the front cover. I toasted her and she smiled with delight at how much I was enjoying my fillet steak from an eight-year-old ex-dairy cow grilled blue. This is all we wanted, to see each other happy.
Selected Suburban Soliloquies, the best of Mr Bentzman's earlier series of Snakeskin essays, is available as a book or as an ebook, from Amazon and elsewhere.