The secret pages: Penrhyndeudraith

Turn off the main road and drive between
the railway, the rocks and the grey rock walls
masking what was Cooke’s explosives works,
then Nobel Limited, then ICI Nobel Division,
now an industrial estate and bird sanctuary.
Let the single track lights green. Slow at the toll house
and show the return ticket, saved against the day.
Take the timber bridge over the slit of sea.

He’s there, waiting for us on the salt sand,
in one hand a cauliflower plug of brains and blood,
in the other the twice-piercing tamping rod.
He turns to speak.
‘I don’t recall exactly, or at all,
what thoughts and words I once stored in this mash.’
He taps his temple with the bar.
‘You ever blow an egg?’

Why come to Penrhyndeudraith, Mr Gage?
Why bother us with your black powder wounds?
Why ask again what song the sirens sang,
what name Achilles took among the women?
‘Good questions those: I’ve answers here at hand.’
He lobs the plug towards the bridge.
‘Well caught.

Now, gulp it down.’
Small charges tinsel the bruised folds.
It has the chewy resistance of a fresh macaron
and is Sunday-evening milk in a china tea-cup,
brown bread and butter, meat or salmon paste,
peach slices coasting in evaporated milk.
Gage waves and turns back to the sand. Drive on.


Mr Gage: an American railroad worker. The accidental ignition of a black powder charge drove an iron rod through his head. Despite the loss of much of his brain’s left frontal lobe he lived a further twelve years. Alfred Nobel invented dynamite as a safer alternative to black powder. My father started work at ICI Nobel Division in Scotland. What song the sirens sang: in Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia two questions about the past that were ‘puzzling … but not beyond all conjecture’.