I disembarked onto the platform at Didcot Parkway in a buoyant mood. I swung shut two carriage doors, and skipped down the stairwell. I was on the way to pick up my boy and retrieve the hire car I’d left in Abingdon since buying a Mazda to replace the Golf someone had shunted into oblivion a few weeks back.
I bought a lighter in the station cafe, a woman with Downs Syndrome returned to collect the change she’d forgotten with gentle, shared laughter with the woman behind the counter. I was to meet my ex-wife at the swimming pool in three quarters of an hour. This gave me a precious moment to myself to wander through the town, forming impressions, finding coffee.
I headed out of the station, round the back of the car lot opposite and down the next alleyway. Sprayed on the wall in front of me was a large cock with suck this beneath, not an auspicious sign, but not exactly unexpected. I followed the path which led me to the back of the high street. I have a distant relation who owns a sweet shop here. When I saw her last, she had spoken excitedly of a new shopping development coming to town.
The new Orchard Centre squats at the lower end of the high street and already looks outmoded: a narrow ravine of shops mostly cast in shadow, retail space downstairs, dubious office/storage space above.
The new-ish Orchard Centre, Didcot.
The shops are a dreary collection of opticians, pound-stretch lands, cheap pharmacies and sportswear outlets capped at either end by Prezzo and PC World. Not exactly the reinvigorating investment anticipated.
The anticlimax was only heightened by the slow recognition that I was walking through a happiness sink-hole. On all sides, there seemed to be a near continuous sense of despair and incomprehension. Like my own town of Keynsham, Didcot seems to have a larger than average quotient of people in care, people being ushered into shops with their carers, people with Downs, elderly folk with dementia. People who might well appreciate being somewhere other than this miserable consumer-trap. A park, perhaps. Somewhere that isn’t shops.
There were lots of children crying. I stood and watched a woman shout at her screaming child for over five minutes. I nearly stepped in. There was a fruitier casually slipping swear words into his banter,
How about some of these fucking apples? Got to get rid of the sods somehow…
I am well aware that I drifted through the town with that sense of perception afforded the outsider, that it was a particularly dull Thursday. That said, I know what I saw, and it was not good.
I found an escape, eventually.
The Salinas cafe was neither nouveau nor dated, depressed or hostile. Despite being next door to Subway, it was thriving. I got a good coffee from friendly staff. For this, I was truly grateful.
Sadly, the Salinas Cafe is mostly blocked by a bus on google maps
As soon as I left, I found my path again. Directly opposite, there was a proud row of ex-council semi-detached houses. Most of them seemed to have glorious front gardens. Google maps gives a reasonable impression
A wide grass verge beneath elegant cherry trees was the perfect place to sit. I felt like I vanished from the passing traffic. Given the options, this was as close to an ideal place to eat the food J had made me for the journey. I savoured my lunch and floated back to the start of my journey below the bridge of Stapleton Road station in Bristol.
I remember not being able to end the embrace, despite my train’s imminent arrival. Burying my face into her hair, drawing her scent in, the sensation of her skin. Running up the incline to the platform, casting laughing glances back, throwing kisses to the wind. This was me, the morning of the 13th August last year, another moment ebbing in time that remains utterly precious.