Memoir writing that rings a bell

One of the most striking things about the Ty Newydd writing centre is the silence and darkness at night. Light pollution is minimal and the whitewashed stone walls are so think that even a lively breeze rustling the surrounding trees is inaudible once I’m tucked up in my room in Hafoty, the old stable block. So after a demanding but satisfying day of workshops, walking, eating, socialising, reading and possibly even a little writing, nothing keeps me from sleep. Until the rude awaking of the fire alarm.

Taking into account deterioration of various joints, it’s rare nowadays for me to apply to myself the clich√© “leaping out of bed”, but this is literally what I do. Instinct kicks in and the combined ear-splitting wail and flashing light bombardment has me out of the door in seconds, slipping into a pair of handy shoes and grabbing my jacket from the hook on the door in one fluid movement.

Others emerge in varying states of nightwear and by mutual consent we gather in the space between main house and annex, although nobody can recall where the official assembly point is. Nor have we made a note of resident chef Tony’s emergency number. “Sod’s law,” we mutter to each other, ¬†that this should happen when he’s off-site for the night, after our wisecracks about calling him back when we run out of wine or can’t find the kitchen roll.

We’ve now established that it’s 12.30am. There’s little light apart from the intrusive unnatural red glow throbbing round and round on the edge of the buildings, but between us we peer into faces for identification and take a mental roll-call. I fear for Robyn’s safety as he’s remained inside trying (without success, as it turns out) to reach Tony on the payphone, and would Rosemary be oblivious without her hearing aids in? But the racket does its job and we’re all eventually accounted for. What’s more, there’s no apparent evidence of danger to life and limb.

After some initial bleary-eyed jocularity – “Is this a special exercise to check who’s disciplined enough to keep their writer’s notebook on them at all times?” – I begin to feel a little anxious. Did we switch everything off in the kitchen after our volunteering duty? Would we be able to get hold of Tony? Would the problem be identified and dealt with efficiently? How quickly might we travel back to the landscape of our dreams? Malachy, after chivalrously depositing his jacket around Rosemary’s shoulders, wanders away from the rest of us evacuees in search of a phone signal and soon returns with welcome news. Tony’s on his way and has given instructions on how to turn off the alarm, as long as we’re sure the buildings are safe. This Malachy does.

The abrupt silence is far from absolute. It’s tempered by a residual thrumming in my head and I know I’m unlikely to fall asleep again quickly. So I sit up a while, seize the chance to make a few notes while the experience is fresh in my now wide-awake mind, and discover confirmation within the information pack that we had indeed gathered in the designated place. I like to think David Lloyd George would have been proud of us, not to mention his relief that Clough Williams-Ellis’s masterstrokes of design hadn’t gone up in smoke in this little patch of Paradise.

I hear the reassuring crunch of car tyres on the gravel and deduce that Tony’s back. I summon sleep by dipping into the next few pages of my book; it has the subtitle ‘A Journey Round the Shipping Forecast’ and in the circumstances the irony of the suggested undercurrent of emergency isn’t lost on me. Before too long, satisfied that I’m suitably relaxed again, I switch off the bedside lamp, only to have my eyes drawn up by an irresistible force to an intermittent red light on the ceiling. Impossible to ignore. Is it an indication there’s still some sort of lurking danger?

Hoping that Tony hasn’t gone straight to bed, I venture out in my pyjamas again to seek his advice. Thankfully his place is next door to mine. He’s standing in his living room, cuddling Jess the cat who, startled by my tap on the glass, leaps out of his arms. I briefly think how fitting it is for a rescue mission that Tony happens to be wearing a Superman t-shirt, although on closer inspection it actually proclaims ‘Supervegan’. He reassures me that the flashing light on the sensor isn’t anything to worry about and is actually very useful because it enables him to identify and therefore rectify the cause of the alarm. “We call this time of year the spider season and they play havoc,” he says, peering up at the offending fixture, “I’ll come in tomorrow with the vacuum and give it a good clean and that should sort it out.”

My last thought before finally regaining sleep: I wonder whether Tony’s wardrobe boasts a Spiderman outfit too.

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