The message I’m thinking of putting in a bottle and launching from the pier on the ebb tide will go on to explain, somewhat hysterically, that I’m trapped – like a large person in a tight jumper whose arms have got inside-out, and can’t seem to find the way through to the neck-hole.
It’s a well-known phenomenon. No-one ever gets away from Aberystwyth. Not even light can escape the crushing force of her faded seaside charms. It’s like you’re a lone figure in a painting of some long-ago, half-remembered place, hung in a dusty gallery.
I know loads of people – I expect you do too – who came for the day thirty years ago, to shop or maybe to study a while, turned up for a conference or were just passing through on the coast road, imagining they would soon be back home in Coseley or Cracow, Delft or Delhi, and here they still are, wondering why, how, but just – well, visiting.
And others who left, but have for some reason least known to themselves come pinging back, as if on a bungee line.
You thought The Prisoner was set in Portmeirion?
It’s like I woke up one morning having gone to sleep in South Kensington, and here I am, living in Aberystwyth, a name most people in the rest of the world can’t spell, have never heard of, or think is a joke place that appears only once a year, like Brigadoon.
Which, given that the river that flows right through the town is called the Rheidol and the Ystwyth is another river in the next valley over, but the town isn’t called Aber-rheidol, it sort-of is. (The truth being that the course of the Ystwyth was diverted in the 1850s to drain the saltmarsh, so that it just makes contact with the town at the point where it enters the sea, at the entrance to the harbour.)
But there you are, sometimes, you see the word ‘Aberystwyth’ pop up, and think, yes, there it really is, it really exists, I exist, on the weather map for the evening forecast, perched on the edge of the world between Birmingham and the Atlantic. (Weather forecasters are all in denial about the existence of the Irish Republic. Northern Ireland, sure that has weather right enough, usually awful. But the South? Not even tygers be there. Besides, they think Cardiff is in Wales!)
So how did I GET here?
The owners had come to hate me. I’d made them close the mansion, and they could never forgive me. I was only trying to keep them from going to gaol. They’re not the kind of people who can acquire an asset and not hope to make money out of it, even their own home, even if it’s falling down. They are accountants, after all.
So when they changed my job title through the simple expedient of firing the manager and rehiring the caretaker, my little cogs whirred over the problem for seven seconds before spitting out the obvious conclusion: you can easily make a caretaker redundant, but a manager is more difficult. You usually need to hire another one, and that’s illegal.
And so I bought the house. To be more specific, Granny June bought me the house. She’s been dead 35 years, but somehow she’s always there with a ghostly Birthday card and a helpful cheque when things go belly-up, as they do.
Now here she was again. Just at the point when I was booking my cardboard box under the pier, I inherited from my father a minorly beneficial interest in a one-third share of the Trust fund her father created in 1929, to keep my grandfather from getting his sticky mitts on her money.
And there was just enough under the Trust rules on homelessness in the family to buy the cheapest house on the market.
I told myself I was buying it for the lad, who needed to finish his A-levels. Secretly, I knew it was for me. It was where I should live, and be obliged to retire, there being no meaningful work now for children of the analog era; where I would gesticulate angrily at speeding motorists, wear a woolly hat and sweater in bed, and turn by degrees, one white hair at a time, into a little old man, to be discovered by police and social workers, mummified in my armchair, gnawed by cats.
Resistance is useless. Sell? Move? Travel? Do more interesting and useful things? Pah! Would you believe, not a single prospective housebuyer has even been to look at my little house in more than a year?
I can understand visitors recoiling in horror at my floral wallpaper compromise, turning their noses up at my lazy penchant for beige, hating the road, the parking, itching to demolish my shed and grow cabbages rich in diesel particulates. But they don’t even come to look anymore.
My inviting kitchen space, well equipped, with slide-out corner unit, has been viewed over four thousand times on the interweb thing, and not a peep of excitement from anyone. Who are they all? What are they doing on-line, this virtual army of non-buyers, gazing bleakly at houses in Aberystwyth they are never going to buy?
A kind of force-field surrounds my little house. Keep away! Prisoner under house arrest! As the Chancellor and the Governor of the Bank of England quake at the thought of another boom-and-bust housing bubble, the property market has begun to sag again like old knicker-elastic under the weight of their collective disapproval. How many spare bedrooms do they have, one wonders in passing?
No-one ever gets out of Aberystwyth. And why would they want to? Sure, don’t we have everything here we could possibly wish for: no crime, no fear and sadness, no hunger and homelessness, no need for loneliness or guilt or humiliation…. McDonalds… Starbucks (x2)… Morrison’s… The gently churning sea, softly rolling green hills, choirs of angels, the…
Ohmigod, I’m dead already and nobody’s told me!