Angels in the woodwork
I cried, oh how I cried! Right there, at the edge of the pavement, outside the red telephone box where I had just come out from minutes before. Grief had seized me all of a sudden. The magnitude of the realization of what I had left behind overwhelmed me. I cried out of despair, not caring what others thought or where I was - right in the middle of Cardiff’s busiest pedestrianized shopping area.
An alumni newsletter from Cardiff University probed memories from times past. “What do you remember from your first arriving at university as a student” asked the title of its front-page article and I sat there in front of my laptop recalling my desperate crying of that memorable day.
Oh, how I cried, unashamed of the looks I was attracting, remembering strangely in all this the image of a deer coming down the garden of my Scottish home one winter night and me staring at it mesmerised. ‘Oh’, I thought full of grief, ‘I left that for this?’ and so I kept weeping missing like hell the only place that had ever felt like home.
Someone passing by stopped to ask me kindly if I needed help. I nodded no and pulling myself together I stood up and made the decision to return to the rental agency at Park Place that only a couple of hours ago had told me they had nothing to offer. I had arrived too late for the start of the academic year, all decent rooms and shared houses were taken, even the most horrible ones that only first year undergrad students put up with.
I had delayed my departure from Scotland until the last minute, not wanting to go and now I was paying for it. I had just come back from viewing a moldy shared apartment with a long corridor and an empty kitchen that made me feel like an inmate. Nothing could compare to what I had left behind, an old, high ceilinged house with big fire places, up on a hill, a room with elegant rosewood furniture and big bay windows, overlooking a small picturesque town with a castle down the valley – a postcard and I was living in it.
I returned to the rental agency in hope that perhaps something new had come up in the few hours I was desperately looking around, calling several numbers only to hear that the room was already taken. The agency was full with similarly desperate students and young professionals.
The lady who gave me no hope in the morning shook her head repeating her earlier verdict of ‘sorry, nothing for you dear’, only to pose while leafing through her files to then look up again, this time to offer me another option that it seemed to have skipped her attention earlier on.
‘Nothing really, unless you are happy to share a house with the landlords. Well, the same entrance at least. Mind you, the landlady wants a mature person, preferably a PhD student, who can be trusted. Not a party goer or bringing in too many visitors.’
I knew when salvation was on offer and I grasped it with both hands. ‘I am your person. I am a PhD student and that’s exactly what I am looking for’, I replied very eagerly. My red puffy eyes might have given away my desperation but the woman, already distracted with other requests, had decided to give me the landlady’s number. Perhaps I looked mature enough at second glance.
I run outside on the street to find a telephone box. The woman answering had a soft Welsh accent which reminded me of Anthony Hopkins. It turned out her surname was Hopkins. I was in Wales after all, if it’s not a Hopkins, it will be a Davies or a Jones or an Evans. We made arrangements to view the rooms on Richmond Rd at her lunch break from her work at the Welsh Assembly.
I had an hour to kill but I could not wait. On the way there, I stopped at the Capitol Shopping Center on Queen Street and bought a scratch card, something I had never done before. I won 10 pounds! The only win I ever had until then - or ever since now that I think about it - which I took as a good sign.
I arrived early and paced up and down the pavement. I liked instantly the tall brown bricked terraced house on the leafy street and by the time the middle-aged woman, dressed in a matched, navy blue cotton skirt and top, opened the door I knew I was going to live there or wished fervently I would.
Sue welcomed me into her home while eating salt and vinegar crisps - I still remember the smell - apologizing for doing so but she had to return to work soon and had not time for proper lunch. She took me up to the second and third floors where an independent apartment was with three rooms, two of which I came to occupy under the gable roof. An Irish young woman was the other occupant who one day would take me up a Welsh mountain – but that’s another story.
I felt instantly safe, a sense of relief that I had found my place. That very first feeling was right, for this place became home, away from my Scottish home, away from my island home of birth, for all the years I lived in Cardiff and beyond. A safe harbor to finish my long-suffering PhD thesis that had trailed for too long and a place I returned to twice in moments of need of a temporary home, not so much as a lodger but a friend. A place where my dozens of boxes full of books were kept safe under the stairs for me to return from my overseas job. For Sue and her husband Jeff became my Welsh surrogate family and came to represent the kindness of the Welsh people in so many ways.
I remember that day when Jeff asked me to help him painting the garden rails, knowing this was an act of kindness, something to distract me from the thesis blues that were driving me to depression. As a builder, Jeff knew the value of physical work. He wanted me to feel I had accomplished a task, however small and I was grateful for it. Years later they hosted me and my family for the much anticipated by all graduation. That day, Jeff’s sister was admitted to the hospital gravely ill but he insisted Sue came to my graduation ceremony because it was my special day, he had said. How not to love them then?
The last time I saw Sue was a few months before she died of lung cancer. I made a long trip back to Wales to say goodbye. As we parted for the last time, I told her how much she meant to me and her reply in Welsh was of love. I cried all the way to the train station.
My decision, made in desperation, to return to the rental agency that day had such an impact on my life. Perhaps there were angels in the woodwork calling out for me, tipping me off. For I am convinced both Sue and Jeff were meant to come my way as guardians to help me at a rather challenging period in my life.
Cardiff University - the main building
* Angel image at top: 'Blessings', Acrylic on board by Dorothy Stirling