Cardiff Docks

Frankie Gauci's journey is similar to the many thousands of dockworkers and sailors who migrated to Tiger Bay during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries: ‘seamen from the Tramp Trade who came to rest and stopped for good', as Dol describes them p. 24. He arrives as a sailor in search of further work: ‘Frankie knew what to do when he came into port: register, find a place to stay, then cut another passage on the sea.' p. 40. Yet, like many others before him, he soon sets up a life in this multicultural district, and becomes a resident. In fact, he has already heard of Tiger Bay as a place where many Maltese have arrived before him:

He hasn't chosen Cardiff by accident: he's heard there's a great clan of Maltese here, with more arriving every day. There is money to be made at sea, he's been told, and this is the place to spend it.
Tiger Bay – the Valletta of Britain! p. 42
Shipyard workers at Cardiff dry docks, May 1965
Shipyard workers at Cardiff dry docks, May 1965. Photo courtesy Wales Online.

Sliema, Malta

Upon his arrival in Cardiff, one of the first things Frankie notices is the cold weather. This physical sensation reminds him of the warmth of his hometown of Sliema in Malta.

Frankie has never been so cold in his life. It's not the feeling you get on board ship, when the squall punches your face, stabs at your teeth, when your whole head is a sharp pain. […] Nor is what he feels anything like home, where winters are short and February not so cruel. Frankie thinks of Sliema, of the sandy lane winding up to his village, with the sky a soft grey and the rain so fine it's hardly felt at all.
This cold is a slow ache; it makes your skin sore, it makes you want to crouch double. p. 39

Seamen's Mission

Frankie's first port of call in Cardiff is the Seamen's Mission to register as a sailor. This is his first contact with Welsh people – though Frankie doesn't seem to understand that he is in fact in Wales, not England:

Your first visit to Wales, is it?
and Frankie, who knew enough of what was being asked, nodded again and said,
Yes, first time in England.
At last the man smiles at him. p. 41

Frankie and Joe's Room

Carlo Cross offers Frankie a cramped room in a basement flat in Butetown. The room is an oppressive space, which appears to match Frankie's sense of physical and emotional discomfort in his latest home:

Frankie sat beneath the window, dabbed at his nose with his handkerchief, studied his new home. The ceiling sloped down steeply in one corner, with a bed wedged in the gap below. The first night, he couldn't sleep for the traipse of feet on the stairs above his head, so close to his ear they seemed to be stumbling over his face. p. 42

Frankie assumes that, given the smallness of the room, he is the only tenant. Yet he soon discovers that he is sharing the space with Joe Medora, a fellow Maltese migrant. It is this relationship that comes to define Frankie's life in Cardiff.

The Hayes and the Market

Frankie and Joe soon strike up a friendship. Two young bachelors in a new city, they stroll around the place, taking in the sights and enjoying their freedom.

Their lives weave quietly together. They have a pattern: a late breakfast at The Hayes, followed by a stroll to the market where Frankie buys food. He handles and sniffs and scowls at the produce until the stall-owner loses patience, or Frankie gives up in disgust. p. 46

Frankie's interaction with these city spaces signal his growing confidence in his new home; no longer oppressed by the slanted ceiling of his room, Frankie now has the freedom of the city, even bartering with local stallholders at the market. Meanwhile Joe is quietly establishing himself as a petty criminal, working small-time jobs:

While Frankie [spends time in the market], Joe goes for a talk with his “Boss” in the pub across the road. They often have an errand after this meeting – to collect a debt, drive a girl to a hotel, deliver a parcel: sometimes, all they have to do is sit on the street and watch. They are paid handsomely for what seems like nothing at all. p. 46

Port of Call Café / Moonlight Club

Having settled in Tiger Bay, Frankie goes into business with his friend Salvatore. They open an establishment on Bute Street, and share ownership. This begins life as a café, but later becomes a seedy, but rather more lucrative, bar. Frankie's connection with this space as the years go by symbolises his wider mistakes and misfortunes in life. Initially, having built a life alongside his friend Joe, he inhabits Bute Street with a sense of swaggering, proprietorial confidence:

Frankie strolls past the Bute Street cafes, nodding now and again at a familiar face, or raising his hatted hand in a greeting. This is Frankie's patch. Most of the restaurants and cafes are owned and run by his friends: seamen from the Tramp Trade who came to rest and stopped for good. p. 24

However, Frankie's confidence proves to be built on shaky ground. He isn't interested in running his café; too busy cultivating his gambling addiction, he lets Salvatore do the real work. This proves to be his downfall. Racked with rising gambling debts, Frankie loses his half-share in the business to Joe. This changes the power dynamic in Frankie's relationship with his old friend: now the relationship has become one between debtor and creditor. The office that Frankie once occupied becomes Joe's. It is now a space to which Frankie is summoned when Joe wishes to make him an offer he cannot refuse. Frankie's powerlessness in this space is performed through his uneasy body language:

Frankie eases his hold on the sweating doorknob, cutting the silence with a shriek of spring. […] Frankie is all eyes, taking in his old den, now transformed into Medora Territory. […] He shifts his weight from one foot to the other. Ilya grins suddenly, amused by the sight of my father's discomfort. They both know that Joe Medora could make him stand there all day. It is a battle which Frankie can't win; he must stay calm. p. 36-42

Eventually, Frankie's misfortunes lead him to further criminal acts. Desperate to leave Tiger Bay, he raids the safe at business he once owned to fund his escape.

On the Athene

The last place we see Frankie is on the Athene, the ship on which he makes his escape. He lies back in his bunk and smokes, seemingly unrepentant.

My father knew what he had done. He sailed out at dawn and left Salvatore behind. Left my mother and all of us. A man can have a hundred motives, or no reason at all, to simply remove himself from the life he has made. p. 234

As the biggest urban conurbation in Wales, Cardiff has, over the years, not only attracted international migration. Many Welsh people have made the move to the city in search of work and a better life. It appears to be this that motivates Mary to move to Cardiff.


Though the precise location is not given, the novel suggests that Mary comes from somewhere near the village of Penderyn in the Cynon Valley. Dol narrates her mother's daily struggle to save money to make the move to Cardiff.

Every morning, that walk through the weather to Penderyn and The Miners' Welfare, to that stinking yard behind the hut – chiselling at the ice on the water-butt, plunging her hands in and out of the frozen water until the skin on them gave up and cracked like chickens' claws: all winter, standing in the yard, peeling those potatoes. And the nights! The men with their yeasty breath and glazed stares, watching her as she slopped the beer into their mugs, watching her and saying nothing. The heat of their coal-crusted eyes on her. p. 70


Mary has saved enough money to move to Cardiff. She walks to the nearby village of Hirwaun, where she had arranged for a friend, Clifford Taylor, to drive her to Cardiff in his van. Mary is filled with anticipation at the possibilities of her move to 'The City'; she confidently 'stamps along', with her route – like her life – 'unfolding like a map' ahead of her.

Listen to Trezza Azzopardi read an excerpt from The Hiding Place.

Even when Clifford fails to show up, Mary, in her youthful confidence, is undeterred: she 'swings the shopping bag over her shoulder' and hitchhikes to Cardiff.

Bute Street

Mary's first job is as a waitress in Luciano's, one of the many bars on Bute Street. Her first experiences of 'The City' are dazzling. The glamour of the capital is symbolised for Mary by the difference between the choice of drinks here and at the Miners' Welfare she worked at home. Here in Cardiff 'they ask for all sorts of things; Gin and Ginger, Pineapple Fizz, Scotch and Threat', whereas back at home 'all they ever drank was Mild or Bitter, depending on how they felt' p. 71. It is here at Luciano's that she meets Frankie, who also works there. 'I loved him,' thinks Mary as she recalls the excitement of their first encounters:

Frankie holds her in his arms. She can't tell if it's the vibration of music from the club below, or Frankie's body, or her body, but they're both trembling now in the little bed.
You're so beautiful – he says, and running his hand along the curve of her hip, under the right elastic of her girdle – Take this off. p. 70-71

The Gauci's Home, Hodges Row

Despite the promise of her arrival in Cardiff, the traumas Mary experiences while trying to raise a family in Tiger Bay begin to take their toll on her sanity. Dol begins to notice her mother's behaviour:

My mother doesn't notice me at first; she's doing her singing thing. She'll hum quietly to herself for a while, but then startle everyone by abruptly breaking into song. At the moment she's making a soft droning noise with her lips, like the sound of the generator on the corner of The Square, and I don't want to interrupt her. […] I don't want to sit in the living room with them, especially with the back door open and my mother standing in the draught. She looks like she might just walk out and never come back. p. 101-102
Hodges Row Today
Hodges Row Today

Railway Tracks

Dol's fears that her mother might run away are soon confirmed. Following a series of crises, a social worker arrives at the house to visit the family. This prompts what appears to be a suicide attempt.

Mary gets up from the table and walks away. They don't stop her. No one stops her. In the street, two women shelter from the rain in the Post Office doorway. They remark on the way she staggers along the pavement, and the fact that she's got no coat on – then they forget her. […] Mary turs off the road, almost at a run now, and scales the greasy embankment which leads to the railway line. She climbs up, clawing at the blackened grass and sliding shale. There's the glinting track, the old timber pond with its skin of algae, the swelling River Taff in the distance. But Mary doesn't think of these: she just thinks that the Gas Oven is not an option, not with those people sitting in the garden. p. 116-117

Salvation Army Hostel

Mary's mental state becomes increasingly fragile. On the day of Celesta's wedding to Pippo Seguna, Mary again attempts to run away. She only gets as far as the Salvation Army Hostel, but it is clear she is trying to run back in time, towards childhood, before the traumas of her adult life in Cardiff.

Two streets away, at the Salvation Army Hostel, another crowd has gathered. Mary sits on the pavement with her back against the wall. She can't remember what she's done with her handbag; she's lost a shoe.
What's your name, love? asks a voice above her. She looks up at the faces: all men, all old men.
Mary Bernadette Jessop, she says, in a voice from childhood. p. 172

Whitchurch Hospital

Eventually, after years of pressure, Mary is committed to a psychiatric hospital. Though she is later released, and returns to the house at Hodges Row, this is the last place Dol sees her mother.

Whitchurch Hospital has big gardens, and a long winding road running up to the front door. We go through the reception and into a summerhouse at the back. My mother is sitting in a deckchair behind the palm plants. Her hair's gone grey. p. 187
Whitchurch Hospital
Whitchurch Hospital. Photo courtesy of Coflein

The Gauci's Home, Hodges Row

Dolores is one of six sisters. During their childhood, Dolores, Marina, Fran, Celesta, Luca and Rose all live in their parents' cramped house on Hodges Row. Listen to Trezza Azzopardi read an excerpt from The Hiding Place that describes the Gauci's family home.

The above passage locates the girls' home close to Loudoun Place (Loudoun Square), an area sometimes referred to as 'the heart of the old Tiger Bay'. It also emphasises the freedom the girls enjoyed. In numerous scenes in the novel we witness the girls roaming the streets of Tiger Bay, suggesting perhaps the safety the girls enjoy in a close-knit community like Butetown.

Loudoun Square today
Loudoun Square today

However, read another way, the girls' desire to roam the streets foreshadows their desire to escape their increasingly dysfunctional home. Indeed, following the traumas of their upbringing, the girls split and scatter at various distances from their hometown. Though we are not told what occurs in the intervening years, their experiences suggest that none of them has truly escaped the traumas they experienced at home.

The Gauci's lived on Hodges Row
The Gauci's lived on Hodges Row

Marina in Malta

Marina is the first of the sisters to leave. Following his latest gambling losses, Frankie does the unthinkable and sells his daughter to Joe Medora to cover his debts. She is taken to Malta.

I think [my mother is afraid that] if she lets me out of her sight, I might never come back. Marina didn't. No one talks about her – it's not allowed – but sometimes, lying in bed and waiting for my mother to come up, I hear her saying her name. p. 80

Celesta in Connaught Place

Celesta is the next of the Gauci daughters to be effectively sold off. She is married to Pippo Seguna, a local businessman with whom Frankie strikes a deal. She moves to 'Connaught Place' – a location we have placed at Connaught Road. The novel presents this as a more affluent area of the city, in contrast to the economically deprived community of Tiger Bay: 'The Segunas live in Connaught Place, not far from us, but far enough to be a better part of town.' p. 102 Celesta's affluence does not appear to provide with her with happiness, however. A scene on the day of her mother's funeral suggests that despite having left her home, the traumas she suffered there are still with her.

In the large double bedroom at Connaught Place, Celesta stands and thinks. Her ears are filled with white noise and the voice inside her head. You don't have to go, it says, taunting her. Celesta slides back the door of the wardrobe […]. Buried among the skirts and dresses is a hanger with a neat row of co-ordinating belts, chiming in the draught. As Celesta reaches further in, one of the belts unwinds itself and slinks to the floor. She glimpses the fall of it, uncurling like a fist. Suddenly she sees another thing: the coil of leather opening, flying through a deeper black, cutting the night in two to find the flesh and cry of a child. p. 216

Luca in Vancouver

Following their mother's breakdown, the youngest four sisters – Luca, Dol, Rose and Fran – are split up into separate foster homes. intervening years, Luca travels the furthest; she ends up in Vancouver, though it is suggested her life is in a state of upheaval:

Luca has travelled – is still travelling – all the way from Vancouver. She has left her girls in the care of the new Korean housekeeper, at their new house in the suburbs. Luca's husband is in Montreal at a razor-blade convention. Last month he became her ex. There are lots of new things in Luca's life. p. 218

Dol in Nottingham

Though she doesn't offer any details of how she arrived there, Dol notes in a moment of panic while trying to catch a taxi that she now lives in Nottingham. The scene suggests that Dol is no longer at home in the city in which she grew up:

But now the city was busy, set and full of purpose. At the front of the taxi queue, a woman pushed me out of the way. I stood on the pavement, waiting for some recognition of what she'd done to me, as if my grown-up self had come unstuck and fled back to Nottingham and safety. p. 200-201

Rose in Pontcanna

We discover that Rose has left Butetown, but still lives in Cardiff, in nearby Pontcanna:

Rose lives in a crescent in Pontcanna estate. All the houses look the same: box-square semis with a rectangular patch of mud at the front. The wide picture windows show the whole world what's inside, which is nothing out of the ordinary. p. 208

Curiously, the novel presents Pontcanna as a working-class housing estate. In reality, Pontcanna is a relatively wealthy district of the city.

Fran in Bute Street

Finally, Dol discovers the fate of perhaps the most troubled of the Gauci sisters, Fran. As she as about to leave Tiger Bay for good, she bumps into her nephew, Louis. Louis has tracked down her most troubled sister on the streets of Butetown.

I was just about to call a cab, I say. And then I recognise her. She's crabbing along the road behind him, pushing a trolley full of bags; she looks like a refugee from a war zone. She's wrapped in too many layers, her hair's all lank and hanging in her face. Mud-brown hair. She sends the trolley skittering in the gutter and walks towards me, her arms held out straight in front of her, as if she expects to be handcuffed. She's showing me something. […]
Her face looks animated, her lips open as if she's about to say something. Her arms are bruised and liverish, but in the tint of the street-light, I see upon the dirty skin a faded blue crucifix, an inky stain spelling FRAN. p. 282

The novel's narrative is set in motion by Dol's return to Cardiff to attend her mother's funeral. She arrives in a city that is in the process of change. Her experiences on her return reveal the difficulty she has in relating to a home that contains so many traumatic memories. In reality, Cardiff's regeneration had begun with the creation of the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation in 1987, which led to the large-scale redevelopment of the Cardiff Bay area. However, the novel highlights the contrast between the redevelopment of the city centre and Cardiff Bay with the still deprived area of Butetown.

St Mary Street

Dol returns to Cardiff after many years away. She attempts to get a taxi from the city centre to Butetown, but the driver informs her that things have changed. Her immediate experience is of a city in the process of renewing itself, a city ‘busy, set and full of purpose'. Her taxi driver explains the new developments. Dol seems a tourist in her own home city.

Where you takin' me? He joked.
I told him where I wanted to go.
Are you sure? It's all been brought down, that bit.
My mother still lives there, I said.
He consulted on his radio.
We'll get as close as we can, he said.
We stop-started through the traffic, edging the length of St Mary Street. Spying a gap, he turned a half-circle into an empty stretch of wide new road. From the window I could see fresh black tar, vivid white markings, a ribbon of traffic cones wending into the distance. Saplings had been planted on the embankment, shivering in the evening light. The driver pointed out the sights through his window.
The Retail Park's over there on the right, look… in a minute you'll see the Bute Dock? It's brilliant what they've done. Exchange building there – really smart now! p. 201


In line with the regeneration of city centre and Cardiff Bay, Dol finds Butetown too has been subject to urban redevelopment, and struggles to find her bearings. Despite these redevelopments, however, she finds the area still in a state of considerable deprivation. For Dol, it is not a welcoming space. Listen to Trezza Azzopardi read an excerpt from The Hiding Place.

Yellow Maisonettes
Yellow Maisonettes

New Bridge over the Bay

Dol visits Butetown, but is reluctant to visit the docks. Knowing what happened to Salvatore here, the power of associations and memories that the area carries repels her. She instead chooses to view the area at a ‘safe distance': from the bridge that crosses the Bay. From here, the area appears as the regeneration scheme has designed it to be viewed: not as a place steeped in a complex industrial history, but as a harmless picture postcard. But Dol is aware that if she ventures too close, she will be reminded of the troubling histories of the place.

The New Bridge is a safe enough distance; from up here, the docks look like a picture in a holiday brochure: the Pierhead building with its clockface glittering like a second sun, the sprinkling of yachts in the bay, the dry dock filled with a wash of blue. Pretty and harmless. But I won't go near. Behind the wide parade and sandblasted stone is another place where brick crumbles, sky falls, people fall. p. 230-231

Bute East Dock

Eventually, after having heard the details of her traumatic upbringing from Martineau, an old acquaintance of her father, Dol visits the docklands with her nephew Louis. Despite her knowledge of what has happened here, Dol seems strangely detached from the location and its disturbing place in her family history; again she seems to view it from the perspective of a tourist:

We look out over the bay. The Bute East Dock is beautiful, a wash of wide sky split in two by a line of yellow stone. In the distance, the harbour lights glow on. They look like a series of suns. A bird swings across the sky. p. 265
Bute East Dock, Cardiff
Bute East Dock, Cardiff. Photo courtesy of Coflein
Bute East Dock, Cardiff and County Hall
Bute East Dock, Cardiff and County Hall. Photo taken on 30 July 2007 by Toby Driver. Courtesy of Coflein