‘You know that you should never drink alone when you’re feeling sad or lonely,’ he said.
‘Says who?’ she said, not bothering to look.
‘Ayurveda,’ he said. ‘Mind if I sit down?’
‘Mind if I sit down.’ It wasn’t a question.
He leant on the table between them. ‘Do you want my autograph? Don’t you know who I am? ‘If I scratch my name on your arm with this fountain pen, it will prove that you have really met me,’ said a whiskey-fumed voice. Wisps of white covering a sunburned pate, waistcoat, watch-chain and yesterday’s once-white shirt; the top three buttons undone.
‘Would it? Why would I want to do that?’ Anwen Rhys said, pressing the send button.
‘Because my faith in love is still devout,’ he said, sitting down beside her on the panelled bench. ‘The name’s Gwydion Griffiths. I write. What do you do?’
She knew all the half quotes and misquotes; this skipping between generations, the snarled shock of yesterday and today, twisted together, shapeless, forming indistinct pictures before them… She checked her phone.
‘I write,’ Anwen said.
‘Do you?’ he said, looking in the mirror above her. ‘What do you write?’
‘Words,’ she said.
He flicked a cheroot tip from its gilded holder into the Abertawe night and opened his monogrammed silver case. Two left. He thought of home and his first time away. He had written of Ystalafera here forty years, a lifetime, ago (‘Y Deffroad Rhywiol,’ everyone knew it, they taught it in schools, men of letters had written books about it, once) sitting there by himself, watching the blonde at the bar with the Myra Hindley hair. It was different then, you could smoke inside.
‘We’ve come from Newtown. It’s my mam’s birthday, she’s sixty today, March 15th – the Ides of March,’ Anwen said. ‘She came here when she was twenty, she wanted to come back. It’s my first time.’
Gwydion put down his drink, rubbed his throat, and looked to the bar again, but this time beyond it.
Anwen could hear music, the words faint, flitting between them:
“Well you run from your reasons as you slip on your soul,
Now, you’re keeping a hold of something you’ve never known.”
‘…and I knew Jeffrey Bernard, or rather he knew me,’ he said. ‘He called me a part-time minstrel, prophet-poet, and thief. I told him to fuck off.’ He laughed, looking at her.
‘Did he?’ Anwen said checking her phone again. Where was she? Where is she? She said she would be back in ten.
Anwen saw her at the bar, laddered tights and lipsticked teeth. Viv Nicholson hair and scuffed heels, dangling, almost kissing the polished floor.
Rhianne Griffiths looked about her. Everything in place, just as she had left it. Her stockings laddered, too late to change; she should have worn her other shoes. Butterfly lashes and saffron-ruby lips. Sweet bruised lips. Arthritic knuckles smoothed her skirt beneath her knees. “Time takes control; you might as well accept it,” that’s what her Nana had said. She remembered a time when she hadn’t had to beg for compliments. She looked at her shoes, not long left for those; her feet had never reached the floor. She liked them still. Her fingers, liver spotted and ringless pulled down her skirt again.
‘Hello,’ Rhianne said to a woman with died pink hair, wiping glasses as she passed behind the bar. Her badge said, ‘Gwenllian.’ Rhianne tried to smile. She did that often. She smoothed her skirt and asked Gwenllian. ‘What time is it?’
Hold up your head just like your dead mother said.
‘Twelve-thirty,’ she said and jangled past.
Rhianne saw her, there, on her phone. A man, his prime long since flushed, spewing honeyed words beside her. She was sure that she had met him.
The music again; the words clearer now:
“You’re tying your mind claiming life’s on your side, yeah
You’re dying alone, you should’ve known it be cold yeah, cold yeah, cold yeah.”
‘Life’s a crime passionel,’ Gwydion said to Anwen, seeing her t-shirt
Anwen checked her phone again, and without looking up said, ‘Yeah, I know…designed for direct action,’ she said.
‘The Dogs d’amour, the hounds of love, the dogs of war. People don’t know anything anymore. You see her at the bar? I know you do. You haven’t stopped looking at her.’
‘I think I knew her once, but don’t worry, we weren’t lovers like that and besides it would still be all right…’
‘So many words and none of them your own,’ Anwen said. His eyebrows were black over burdensome blue eyes, like her mother’s once were.
‘What?’ he said.
‘Have you never heard Cemetery Gates? Weird lover Wilde is on mine?’ She pulled her skirt below her knees. This was fun.
He scratched an earlobe and looked to the door. His wave unreturned.
Anwen looked beyond him to the bar. She was there still, drink in hand, unlit cigarette between her lips.
‘Words don’t belong to anyone. You can package and buy them, but they are never yours, they are ours, they belong to everyone and no one,’ he said.
‘And?’ was all she said.
‘Do you want a drink? I do. Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you why,’ Gwydion said, sitting straighter, and then leaning in closer, his lips now moistened.
‘I know why already,’ Anwen said. She looked at her hands; the damson polish echoing the statement walls framing the exposed bricks, endless mirrors, and corporate art. ‘I just need the loo. I haven’t been for hours.’
Back through the door, as she walked the steps from table to bar, her heels echoed behind her. He followed.
She had gone; her drink unfinished. Anwen spoke to the barmaid, her badge said, Gwenllian. Gwenllian told her she’d gone back to the hotel and would meet her in the Cross Keys, on St Mary’s Street. Five minutes away. ‘Daffodils everywhere this time of year,’ she had said.
‘Why didn’t she tell me herself?’ she asked.
The barmaid smirked a half-smile and shifted her gaze. Anwen turned to leave.
‘I know where it is,’ Gwydion said, ‘Dylan Thomas used to drink there. So did Vernon Watkins.’
‘Him with the mobile chippy?’ Anwen said.
‘That’s not funny,’ he said, smile hiding the harshening tone.
‘Nor are you,’ she said.
‘I drink there too. This is my place, but they know me there, too. I’ll walk you there, it won’t take long. I know this city, I’ve written it twice, because it’s never the same,’ he said as he tried the smile again. ‘I can take you anywhere.’
She saw him grinning and bought two whiskeys – Penderyn. ‘Iechyd da.’ They skulled them and left.
He took her arm as they walked through the entrance and turned left. She stopped to take off her shoes. She liked to feel the ground beneath her. He bent down with her.
‘Forty years ago that was a brothel, he pointed above. I took Rhys Ifans there when he was sixteen. I’ve not seen him since,’ Gwydion said.
He’s so full of shit.
They passed the shop where she and her mam had bought skirts that morning. They had talked, for the first time, about why they were there and the last forty years. It wasn’t what she had asked for, her mam had told her. Her mam needed her to know that. Anwen recognised the same Starbucks that they hadn’t gone into earlier and the bookshop beside it. ‘Established 1843.’ But under the dim glare of the streetlamps, everything had changed. Everything was changing. Everything changes.
‘There was a riot in 1843, the people would not pay tolls to travel around their own city; they printed the pamphlets there. I bet they didn’t teach you about the ‘Rebecca Riots’ at school. I bet they didn’t teach you about me. But, you know me don’t you,’ Gwydion said, still looking ahead.
He had quickened his pace, Anwen stumbled to keep up. They stood at traffic lights waiting to cross; a car slowed and split their shadows, then sped off casting reflections about them.
They walked to the street end. The sign said ‘St. Mary’s.’ It wasn’t far. The last two streetlights had gone; Anwen looked about her. She’d not seen the pub. Her foot hurt when she trod on something sharp. The night enclosed them. She looked at her phone. It was half-past-one. Two new messages – she couldn’t read the previews. The streetlights flickered the further they went. Her eyes scanned, unfamiliar but knowing: an empty packet of condoms, an advert for the ‘Dylan Thomas Literary Pub Crawl,’ through this ugly lovely town, the sports section from the Western Mail, flip-top bottles of beer. No one looked at them, heads down, hearts elsewhere. It was Saturday, now.
Anwen wondered if she should turn back. Gwydion said, ‘When I was young, I used to busk on that corner, where that woman is standing, waiting for the sun to come up. The number 151 used to go past to the docks, before they pedestrianized everything. They said it would spoil the view. I like walking. Keep up for fuck’s sake or we’ll miss her.’
‘I’m the one looking for her and don’t swear at me. Is the pub still open?’ Anwen asked.
‘It’s always opening time at The Cross Keys,’ he spat back
He sped up again and crossed the road. Princess Way into Salubrious Place – she laughed at the irony – up an alleyway and as his hand gripped her tighter they took a right at the end and an immediate sharp right into another they had collected the recycling that morning she had heard them from her room seen their fluorescent jackets clashing with the green bags they clearly hadn’t bothered here she dropped a shoe he pulled her onwards. The tour was over.
‘I think I should just go back to the hotel,’ Anwen said. ‘She must be back there by now.’ She tried to turn and free her arm. Gwydion’s grip tensed further.
Another alley almost running now but this one had no end the smell of stale piss mingled with stale perfume – she thought she recognised it the perfume not the piss – no trees, and no end he kept on keeping on driving forward he looked up for the first time since Starbucks above the shadows and Anwen was there her head bowed inside her jacket.
‘You look cold,’ he said, between stertorous breaths. Anwen could see rivers of sweat springing from his wispy hair, streaming down his forehead, converging and cascading, from nose and chin. She hadn’t realised how cold it was.
‘Ffyc off,’ she said, those were her only words, said the Welsh way.
‘Fuck you!’ he said and pushed her in front of him, up against the wall. A dead end. The arse of the bag.
Cold, clammy wall, words written too close to read, she closed her eyes as his hand gripped her throat. They smelled of fags and chips. She couldn’t speak, but he couldn’t take her thoughts. His fingers interlinked around her neck and she gasped as she shuddered into his palms she wanted a drink she looked and saw only the stone wall and its indistinct graffito toadflax and maidenhair spleenwort breaking through, her nose cold and wet like a spaniel’s his hands clasped tighter she knew he wanted to squeeze harder his thumbs on her jugular. The smell of weed and the last notes of Higher States of Consciousness then nothing.
‘Springes to catch woodcocks,’ he had whispered.
Sour, musky, beeriness, halitosis passing over in waves, one hand released, she could hear a zipper, a fumble, then nothing. Fat fingers relaxed their grip and the stale fags and fries gave way, once more, to yesterday’s perfume and last week’s piss.
‘This is what you’ve asked for,’ she whispered between gasps.
‘The Ides of March,’ her mother, Rhianne said, holding the point of Anwen’s discarded shoe against his Adam’s apple, her other hand gripping his balls; chipped-polished-nails dug flesh and squeezed tighter and harder. They almost touched. Gwydion whimpered; he could not speak. No words.
Rhianne did, ‘‘The Ides of March,’ that’s what you said. You remember me, now. Oh yes, I think you do – hair like Hindley, you said, and hands like Hepworth. You’re not about to forget me. You know what’s coming.’
His eyes closed, his face like paper, he held up both hands, as she dug her nails deeper. The ‘Imperfect Enjoyment.’ Anwen’s phone flashed again – a message from Gwenllian.
‘Forty years, forty fucking years, you took from me here, you fucking piece of shit, now Gwydion Griffiths you will know what it feels like…to bleed forever. Why me, you fucker, why fucking me? I was twenty, I’d bought a new dress, I’d had my hair done, and you took me here and you left me here, and you fucking…you…fucking, you fucking know what you fucking did. You fucking left me with nothing, you cunt.’
‘Apart from me, dad,’ Anwen said.