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A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 75

A young fellow who looks an awful lot like my most recent theatre director assures me that there is no problem at all. He gives me all sorts of reassuring advice. He gives me instructions to which shops to use, which snack bar to patronise and he gives me tickets for the boat. He doesn’t give me a boarding pass and when I see that everybody else seems to be clutching these, I go back and ask him if I will need one.

“Oh yes”, he says. “They won’t let you on the ship without one of those.”

“Then, can I have one please?”

“I already gave you one.” he insists.

I have kept everything he had given me in my wallet. There is no boarding pass. I had a very clear recollection of the transaction and no recollection of having been issued with one. I didn’t feel any great worry but it was an irritant. Not least because I had so much enjoyed the banter over the original purchase.

“Oh, if you have a look through all your things I’m sure you’ll find I gave you one.”

“I have all my things on me and there is no pass.”

“What about your bicycle? You’ve probably put it in your bicycle bags.”

“I haven’t been back to the bicycle since I bought the ticket. I’ve only been here and the coffee bar.”

“Well I don’t think I can issue you with another.”

“And I need it to get on the boat?”

“Well, they might let you on without one.”

“And if they don’t?”

“You could be in a bit of trouble. Look, I’ll issue you with another.” And he did. It was as simple as that. He tapped in the code from my ticket and out came the little piece of card that had been the root of the problem.

“Have a good crossing now. Mind how you go.”

I line up to get on with two other cyclists. They are immaculately kitted and fit the action pictures you see in cycle boutiques. They both began making conversation with me. The talk is of tris (short for triathlons), iron men, personal bests, energy drinks, Shimano or Campag? I fear a very long boat trip bonded by two wheels and separated by a thousand miles. Happily, once we are on the boat (something they were both very nervous of) they pair up and disappear into Action Cyclist heaven. i head straight for the reclining seats and the hope of a couple of hours sleep.

The experienced travellers have the special skill of being asleep before the ship has left its berth. I close my eyes but sleep doesn’t come. I’d like to blame the enthusiastic family playing sensible family games two rows behind but the truth is that I’ve never managed to sleep on a ferry even when I’ve had a cabin. There’s something in the rumble of the engines, the judder of the juddery bits, the thought of being at sea. I doze a little and tiring of I spy with my little eye, I go off to the empty restaurant and have a large coffee with an extra expresso in it.

I ask the man on the information dark if he has a map of Wales I could look at.

“Where are you trying to get to?” he asked in a lilting Welsh tenor.

I suddenly realise that I haven’t the faintest idea. In my mind the idea of going along the south Wales coast seems improbable. I come up with a woolly plan on the spot.

“I was thinking of heading for Aberystwith.”

He laughed a knowing bardic chuckle. “I hope you’ve got plenty of time.”

“I’ve got all day.”

“Oh, believe me, you’re going to need more than a day to get from Fishguard to Aberystwith.”

“I’ll get some of the way then. Is it hilly?”

“It’s Wales man. Of course it’s hilly. Bloody mountainous more like.” He shuffled through a drawer for a map but couldn’t find one. I got the distinct impression he wasn’t trying quite as hard as he might to help.

It’s a calm crossing and the stars are out in a sky so dark you can swim the milky way. I’m the only person on deck and the solitude gives me communion with the thousands who have sailed before me. I may only be crossing the St George’s Channel but we’re out of sight of land and the sea below stretches out to an infinity of inky blackness starlit here and there by the riding lights of boats and yachts.

Sooner than I expect occasional lights on the Welsh coast come into view and the announcements are made for passengers to return to their cars. I stay on deck as long as I can. Another ferry passes us and Fishguard appears. At first glance it is hard to tell if it is an international ferry terminal or a sleepy Welsh railway station. There’s a clanking floodlit section with lorry queues and stacked containers. There’s a sleeping railhead where you can count the daily trains on the fingers of your left hand. It is sleeping now. The town is sleeping and all the houses are as blind as moles.

My fellow cyclists are standing by the bicycles. They are both excited. Their parents are meeting them off the boat and they haven’t seen them for over a week. I wish them well and they wish me luck among the hills of the far west of West Wales.

The cars drive away into the night and their sleepy journeys to a hundred different places called home. The foot passengers are walked through the most relaxed customs I have seen and into a waiting area. They divide into those who are being collected and those who are catching the next train. I alone will sit there to await the dawn.

I find a table in a waiting room and write my notes from my breakfast in Kilkenny. I surround myself with my bounty; I have a bottle of water, a Twix, a cake and some apples. The snack bar is closed and locked and the vending machine is out of order. I write and write, remembering and reliving a day of days. At one thirty the  train pulls in in the form of  a replacement bus service. It will take four hours to get to Cardiff. I feel no envy as I have the station to myself. A Station officer comes in to check I haven’t missed my service and the Stena line ferry pulls away from the quay on its return to Rosslare. It is very quiet and for someone who enjoys his own company, I suddenly feel very alone.