by Elizabeth O'Connor (United Kingdom (Great Britain))

Making a local connection United Kingdom


The man with the whale tattoo tips seaweed into the pan, and the room fills with the smell of the sea. ‘Did your Nain ever make you this? Laverbread?’ He asks me. I shake my head. He turns back to the stove in disbelief, tipping cockles, butter, and bacon lard-ons into a large pot. He pulls the seaweed into a patty and presses it down, sending the oil and saltwater hissing. The man with the whale tattoo tells me his name is Cadwaladr, the name of an ancient Welsh king. I’m here to give him a letter and a Welsh pocket Bible my grandmother left him in her will. In the coming days my family will scatter her ashes at the Dulas riverhead she called home. It is my first time in Wales, having been brought up in the centre of England, and it takes me a while to tune in to his dialect: Nain, grandmother, Dim Byd, no problem, tegell, kettle. Cadwaladr lives in a one-room cottage at the edge of a sand dune, in a fishing village in the North of Wales where my grandmother was born. Llandulas. The village is untouched by the coastal tourism of the South: Cadwaladr says because the wind blows too hard here, the sea spray too icy, which he is not wrong about. My first day brings my cheeks up in a rash that turns to dark scab, sets the cold so deep into my bones that the roaring fire of Cadwaladr’s hearth can’t warm me. He serves the laverbread on a chipped plate, with a mug of black tea. He foraged the seaweed and cockles himself along the shore, bought the bacon from a farm two miles away. It tastes overwhelmingly of saltwater and fat. I tell him this and he laughs. ‘Of course it does’, he says, ‘it‘s supposed to taste of home.’ * The Welsh have a word for homesickness that doesn’t exist in my own language. They call it Hiraeth: the longing to return to a home that does not exist anymore, or never did. I think of my grandmother, moving to England in her twenties for a new life, the stories she told me about Llandulas and people like Cadwaladr, the way she bulk-bought laverbread when she saw it in a cornershop. Once she brought back a seashell from Llandulas, one she found on the beach, and pressed it against my ear. She asked if I could hear the sea. ‘It sounds like home’, she said, before I could answer. ‘It sounds like my home’. * After lunch I walk back to my B&B, a small farmhouse in a neighbouring village. I walk through thick sea thrift on the cliffs, pass the limestone hill Tan-yr-Ogof and the road leading down to inland Wales. Llandulas is somewhere between Old Conwy and Abergele, too small to appear on most maps. On one side of me the Irish Sea stretches out like a polished floor, seagulls rising and falling on the wind, and at the other miles of field grow in varying shades of green and yellow, white sheep dotting the steep hillsides. ‘Follow the river’, Cadwaladr said to me when I asked for directions. ‘Follow it and don’t stop until you get there.’ The instruction struck fear into me, someone usually glued to Google Maps when going to a new place, but sure enough the river Dulas winds next to me, thin and deep and babbling. A grass-snake rustles through the leaves ahead of me. I lose sight of the Dulas but then it appears again, suddenly crashing downwards over a series of rocks and widening out into high banks. The sunlight scatters the water with light, illuminating dragonflies and the movements of voles in the banks. My breath catches in my throat with an impossible feeling of déja-vu. I remember a photograph of my grandmother taken here, her hair pulled into a dark beehive, wearing a swimming costume, her arms proudly stretched towards the water. I realise she would have been my age. I pass two hikers who ask me the way to Rhyd-y-Foel, their English accents crisp, their noses sunburnt. ‘Follow the river’, I tell them.