Reading Between the Lines

From Planet 237

by Gee Williams

The sun is out in Saltney, and we can join the Sunday School scrum on the platform. It’s rush hour in Lilliput. One of these undersized, undernourished children is my mother – and she and her fellow travellers come from this north-east Wales village that was actually created by the railway. Once merely a wharf for river traffic, by now – just before the Second World War – Saltney’s marshalling yards, shunting arenas, coke stores and signalling paraphernalia are all-embracing. Their music is a rattling blare to drown out sheep grazing right up to back doors. Almost a complete world (the name means Salt Island), multiple lines along embankments cordon off escape in two directions, including over the English border. Where there is an opening it’s onto tidal estuary or empty marsh crossed by a single route. That very old residents were still calling it the Causeway says much. ‘A bit like Berlin’ my mother would tell in later years, ‘or maybe Alcatraz’… and thanks to her excellent recall I can watch the island’s young piling into hot, frowsy carriages with their eyes fixed on out. Everything is Pleasure today, even the furnace air from the Tornado or Venturer that will be dragging them away from Saltney. Her village has maybe only two thousand inhabitants and these passengers are its charity cases, sponsored by the Primitive Methodist Chapel. For the most it’s an introduction to something unique. Ahead is a train ride, the only one they’ll take this year, and a day on a beach, ditto. Prestatyn, Rhyl, Abergele or Colwyn Bay… miles of sand spread out before them, exotic as Tahiti to toes that have squidged only grey mud so far. One sour note for my mother is Alice, an attached sister already bleating with effort. She steers this nuisance towards the train by use of her plaits – because if any child fails to mind the gap it will be Alice. Those banana legs make for awkward progress, courtesy of rickets. The ‘Hungry Thirties’ have been brutal to the tail-end of the family. She will never walk well.

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