THE WRITING SHED
“A poet is a poet for such a very tiny bit of his life; for the rest
he is a human being…”
It’s exactly at this point that, to my relief, the beer arrives; two amber pints with ample white heads.
“To Dylan” I say, raising my glass, “Happy Birthday!”
“Is it the old boy’s birthday then?” Jarrett says incredulously. “I didn’t know that… Did you know that, Rhys? Dylan Thomas’ birthday today?”
The young barman, who’s now carefully apportioning my money into the till, turns and shakes his head.
“Well, Penblwydd Hapus, Mr Thomas… Iechyd da!” toasts Jarrett and begins a long swallow of the beer. He’s taken about a quarter of it before resting the glass back on the bar. “Beautiful! Just my dap. Puts on weight in the cask here and comes out with plenty of lace.”
As I push open the lych-gate and begin up the path, images of his funeral are with me. The old Pathe news clip and all I’ve read about the scene, now including pieces of Jarrett’s reminiscences, it all combines beneath my footsteps. It’s only a paltry piece of film, not even a minute long, in grainy black and white and silent. The first held image is of the castle, then completely covered with ivy as if it was in its winter coat. I’ve come to imagine the sombre but sterling tones of Bob Danvers-Walker pronouncing over the newsreel:
‘This is Laugharne, the strangest town in Wales as it was described by the poet, Dylan Thomas who lived here. Today Laugharne is in mourning; the townsfolk have come together as one to bury their most famous resident who died while on a reading tour of America…’
A broken procession walks down the middle of Church Street. The black and grey, the priest’s white, the carried hats, the Brylcreamed short back and sided scalps of heavily overcoated men. Here’s the old fashioned hearse, its roof thatched with wreaths, flanked by the soon-to-be pall bearers like they were secret service men guarding a visiting president.
At one time the hardest part of thinking about Ditch was imaging the times in which he lived, a world of smoky bars and serious drinkers, an often boring mostly male realm. But in those days I didn’t understand the pleasure of getting drunk. I’d thought how it had done for him and a few other poets. Maybe I’d been disenchanted as regards drinking, given my father’s predilection but I used to think alcohol a false confederate – certainly no facilitator like dope or emancipator like acid. There were times back then when I did take consolation in uppers or downers but rarely did I drink to excess. In my limited experience at that time, I didn’t think booze and dope were on particularly friendly terms. And I knew which I much preferred.
Maybe those old days of Ditch were simply too close then. Now I think of then with a little affection, as I’ve grown older I can easily imagine myself slipping into one of those overcoats and drinking watery beer infused with woodbine. But when I was growing up in the fifties I know I hated all the grey and burnt brown buildings around me and all the adults who seemed to want only to rest. Me, I wanted to knock everything down and replace it with brash and arrogant concrete with eyes of sheer and shiny glass. In my childish way I must have seen what our town planners were doing and approved. I still wonder sometimes if I secretly organised the whole thing, just by my will. But really I know it was just the victors paying a heavy price for their victory.
I’ve always thought it ironic that the only moving pictures of Ditch are of him being transported in his coffin. Eight pallbearers pulling him on a dolly, brass handles dragging down their arms, following a flowing white haired, white robed priest who’s driving them onward, apparently reading from a thin, little book in his palm at the same time. Ditch’s dear friend, Dan Jones, gently guiding Caitlin onward to the moment of complete disconnection, and the great, grey bobbing column of friends and family, debtors and hangers-on, the showy Fitzrovia players and the provincial Kardomah gang, all those Swansea boys in their best bib and tucker… an unlikely assembly at any time but this day as one; a retreating, beaten army.
I know in the whole world only my eyes are at this moment closed to see the sailors eating lunch off the crate containing the coffin; the bottles of beer, the draped coats, its rash of playing cards doled out by crew of the S.S.United States as they shipped the casket to Southampton. Within this water-tight box is the coffin – one hundred and seventy-five dollars worth – zinc-lined – hermetically-sealed. Within that again, Dylan in his ‘gentleman’s suit and entire clothing’; Cost… twenty-six dollars and seventy-five cents. Within the suit is Ditch, his every orifice sealed up with cotton wool. His flesh is worthless now. The Foreign Office already wants repayment for the cost they have incurred in shipping the body. From the dock in Southampton it will make painful progress to Laugharne.
Up that same path to the church I now slowly climb, until I come to the steps of the stubby, concrete bridge that connects the old and the ‘new’ churchyards. This ugly construction’s required because of a gloomy, sunken, cobbled lane that separates the two bone gardens. On it three elderly women are standing and talking and I have to ask permission to pass, so engrossed are they in conversation. Although still drunk I feel embarrassed; they’ll surely peg me as yet another interloper visiting the poet’s famous grave and I fancy they might compare their own shades of grief to the one I’m affecting. I’m not about to be deterred though.
All the gravestones face up the hill. They’ve turned their backs on Laugharne and all stand bolt upright against the inclination. This is no Pere-Lachaise; I never had to track Ditch down like I did Oscar Wilde, was never irreverently forced toward him by a stream of graffiti as I had been for Jim Morrison. Ditch’s grave is always prominent, among all the grey or black shiny granite it’s indicated by a plain white cross embedded in its own comfy, little mound of moss and grass. No matter what time of year I come, the path to the grave has never been so worn as to be obvious; mourners of the poet can pick many different ways between other inmates until they find themselves, lost for words or, more likely, lost in words before him. From here I can’t see any sign that people have collected at the grave today to celebrate his birth.
As I trudge up the edge of the field, I see the pallbearers’ free arms thrown out to the side to balance their turn up this slope; the wheels of the dolly rotating helplessly in the air as the men lift both coffin and undercarriage off the ground. They really have to fight gravity in order to reach their destination. It’s as if he wants to go straight on down into the town again for another beer but those bearers are coaxing him up the slope and into his pit. He seems heavy, even with his ‘chicken bones’ as Caitlin called them. Maybe it’s the coffin that weighs.
“Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not…”
Dan is helping Caitlin along. Before the piled high innards of the grave, his displacement of earth, she begins to wilt with the grief of it all and falls against Dan’s chest. Seconds later, frames later, they are stumbling away from the hollow dug for him. Ivy Williams is walking over the exact patch of ground she’ll be under ten years later.
Now I’m standing beside his grave, swaying slightly, almost as if I was responding to the breeze.
“Hello, Ditch. Happy Birthday! Happy birthday to us… happy birthday to us…happy birthday dear you and me…happy birthday to us!”
The smooth, simple white cross just stands there. Not defiant.
‘In Memory of Dylan Thomas Died Nov 9 1953 R.I.P’
My eyes trace the upright back into the ground where it’s jostled by a variety of items left by previous visitors. A jam jar of jaded heather, a red plastic dragon in passant position and… most arresting to me now… a stubby bottle of Old Fettercairn whisky, apparently three quarters full. I think about reaching for it but then reflect that its thin, straw colour might equally suggest it’s urine… and besides, it’s obviously a gift, as inappropriate as some might argue that to be. Some copper coins have been placed along the horizontal bar of the cross… token efforts to extract favours from the dead perhaps… a bit late for his boat fare.
I look about me. There’s a solitary house beside the cemetery, a small, landing window its only view directly onto Ditch’s grave. I can’t remember it being there before. The beer is insulating me against the concern of prying eyes but I still look back towards the bridge, to see if the ladies are there and watching me. They’ve gone. I look back down the hill to see if I can catch them making their way from church grounds but there’s no sign of them. Church Street itself is disturbed only by an occasional vehicle. What really takes my eye when I do this are all the graves staring back up at me. Those in the bottom half of the field hadn’t even taken up their places when Ditch was buried here. Now they’re like children in a stilled and expectant classroom. I feel though that I’ve got nothing worthwhile to say to them, nothing I could possibly teach them, in fact completely the opposite.
“God, whose law it is that he who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despite, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”
Bobby Kennedy used that quote from Aeschylus straight after the assassination of Dr. King. Having said it I slump, almost fall, at the foot of the grave, my legs having crumpled underneath me, to leave me rocking on my backside as I try to regain some sort of balance. I’m sat in a shallow bowl of grass, perhaps formed by all those who’ve stood in this position before his grave. I come forward, until I’m kneeling, and place my hands either side of the mound. I think how it’s the presence of Caitlin who’s made his grave the hump it is… it used to be flatter before she was buried on top of him. A hump after death, two skeletons breaking through their respective, decaying caskets to jump on each other’s bones. He wouldn’t have got through his zinc lined coat so easily.
The grass is dry and short enough to tickle my palms as I crush it. The heads of tiny white weeds, whose name I’ll probably never know, have managed to establish far-flung colonies. For some moments I stay like this, on all fours, nodding my head very gently. Then I reach into my pocket and take out the crackling bag of Dolly Mixtures.
“Here… brought you a present. Know they’re your favourite. I was thinking… if Cat…Hello Cat… put them around the rim of the bath for you to enjoy while lying there then they’d be just right for lining up around your earthy tub here.”
Being somewhat pissed, I approach the task of opening the packet with more confidence than perhaps I should. I try to pinch either side of the bag and pull it apart. I’m aware of the terrible static-like sound the plastic inflicts upon my surroundings. When my first efforts fail, I apply a little more strength and the bag suddenly rends in my hands and much of the contents scatter about me.
What else can I tell him? I feel like I’m just making conversion here… that he’s just listening to be polite… or because he’s got nowhere else to go. My hand stops fondling the grass. I put both hands on top of the mound, as if I can draw his spirit up through the soil.
“I didn’t plan on coming here today. But this has become a voyage of discovery for me, along the M4 and its tributaries… a sort of easy ‘Heart of Darkness’. And before you say it, I know… I know… Mistah Kurtz - he dead’”
He who confesses first loses maybe… but you’ve been keeping your own counsel for quite a while so here I go…
“All day I’ve been trying to remember who I was – if the picture I’ve got of myself in my head is at all correct. How handsome I really was and how disfigured I am now due to the cruel disease of nostalgia? D’you know… they used to think you could die from nostalgia…”
And you could back then. In those days they thought it a mortal disorder of the imagination, a virulent infection of the abstract heart. They saw what it could do to soldiers who longed for home… Swiss mercenaries pining away just for the sound of the Alpine horn, how the living spirits within them sapped, hearts having sunk like anchors and, tied to a foreign land, they withered. You have to realise the Present is also a foreign country.
I stifle a hiccup.
“Proust knew… the past exists outside of time, suspended there, he thought you needed some object you possibly might never find to escort you back there.” I can’t help but touch the pocket of my fleece.
And those soldiers, they didn’t really long for home, they longed for the notion of home. When Ulysses and his hungry heart got back to Ithaca he became nostalgic for the wandering again. He missed the adventure. You just can’t win. Tis not too late to seek a newer world, he told himself… or so Tennyson told us he did.
But you can ambush time…
“You can head it off at the past…”
I think that counts as a guffaw.
It’s all to do with what you’re trying to leave behind in the here and now… and how bad do you want to go back. Was it really that good, you ask yourself? I’ve been there for long stretches today and I can say…Yes, yes, it was, it is. But that was the quintessence after all. The grubby, mundane details are also here somewhere but… so what? My past is fluid, deliciously unfathomable, delicately perilous – it exists before my faith went bad. Ah, it all comes flooding back. It’s all water this; water under (and over) the bridge…
“I shall have to be careful thinking like that… I’ll want to piss in a minute.”
What the fuck am I going on about? What am I really after? Nostalgia will never be fashionable – how could it? It would have to prosper like treason otherwise. Blue remembered hills can never be reached no matter how much time you have to make your way back to them… Ah, the sweet bitterness, the perfection inherent in the unfinished. Nostalgia is a sieve – the past with the lumps taken out... It’s not the air that kills, mind you, Jarrett, mind you… it’s the fear. It’s fear that really slays.
A breeze picks up for a few moments, like a sigh it is. It runs across my cheek. Now when I speak it’s into the ground itself.
“I don’t need her letter to remind me of anything.”
The past is with me all the time… probably because I never got the chance to shut it down properly.
“An air from a far yon country… a foreign country alright… probably America.”
How DOES an agoraphobic cope with his wanderlust? How shall I look back before that, what sort of glasses shall I use? The present… well, that’s definitely all through a glass darkly. That’s why I can see the past more clearly. I’ll know as I was known, not as I am. The past is a hall of mirrors and the child in me loves the novelty of that. It was all about love. Not of mankind, you understand, I could never claim that. What I said to Phillips after the Bowie concert about us having lost… I didn’t have to pretend to care anymore because of her. It was her, just her. Then I think of all the promises I made to her… every one abandoned...
I look back at your cross; wanting reassurance and knowing you can’t give it. I’ve left myself nowhere to go – except the past. The future’s lost if I can’t reconcile myself with it.
“A man's past is not simply a dead history, it’s a still quivering part of himself …”
It’s a precursor to every moment. Before, before, before… People said this is how it would go… people I had nothing in common with except for being their patient or their son. I thought it too I suppose… but… I never believed it. We all have a rendezvous with death but before that I’m out to set up one with who I was. What’s a second-hand emotion to me was real life to him. His past is with me all the time. The people of his past are ghosts who haunt me… sometimes in good ways, sometimes bad. Even my wife is a ghost… but only as she was, when the two of them first met. But the most frightening apparition, the ghoul who chills me to the bone… is of course the man himself… as I was… all perfect and wise and beautiful and lucky and carefree and adventurous. Adventurous that is until I got to the airport to actually set out on an adventure… to begin the future. Then did the marvellous boy begin to shrink, to wizen, to dissolve… that was a true dissolution, no sunset to go with that, nothing enlightened, no glow from nostalgia then… it was all now and dead forever…
I’m trying to be too clever, I know it. Gas erupts in my belly at the thought and rushes up through me and out, into the daylight, in the form of a belch. It’s a barely stifled interruption that echoes across the grassy bone yard. Is that shame or tiredness that makes me hang my head?
“I remember why I had to become someone else. How I needed to rest… to hibernate for a while…”
I was trying to cope with all the loss. There I was, still shell-shocked from having abandoned her and then the side I thought I was fighting on went and surrendered. The fact I’d already surrendered because of her didn’t seem to matter. The landscape had changed…
“It became all so fucking real – dreams I possessed, that possessed me, had melted into the ground like so much overnight snow. I felt like Johnny Reb trudging home to Ma and the run down farm with news of our defeat.”
I edge around the mound on my knees, careful to avoid the chain of dolly mixtures. As I move I can hear the beer slopping around somewhere behind one of my lungs. I just want to be nearer the base of the cross because that’s where I imagine your head to be.
I spread my arms along the ridge, gently placing the side of my head on your mound, my eyes fixed upon the cross. When I speak my words are squashed between my cheek and your grave.
“I’m the opposite of you; I was only a poet when I wasn’t writing. But it was still who I was; I knew it. Like you, it was the only thing I ever thought to do. Cat, you said it best… The only thing he could do from the very start – just the one idea – the poems and the booze…”
Except for me it wasn’t booze... not then. In my case, it was only the talent that was missing… that’s all… measly genius… so close and yet …
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