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'In my secret life...'


The Boat House is looking inquisitively around the corner of trees for me. The edge of its white face, complete with a portion of balcony is just visible. I can still feel much of the elation of my very first visit when photographs I’d long dwelt over, came to life. But there’s time enough today to get to it, I tell myself. The estuary path is now raised above the mud banks and the water’s edge and I look over to see a curlew stepping delicately across the river’s residue, probing and prodding with its long, daintily curved bill. It pushes its head beneath the water as it forages, sometimes twisting its neck back on itself to reach otherwise inaccessible food. The mud is strewn with small rocks and pock marked with bursts of seaweed. There are mooring chains attached to heavy blocks but they’re exactly the same colour as the mud; they’ve been dressed by it. At its farthest edge the lips of the nearest channel of water seem to gently shimmer at the fringes. The gulls float by like paper boats, turned and blown by the slight breeze. On my side the water appears livelier; it snatches and gulps at the shore.

All the beauty of the estuary and the calls from the river and still my attention is being pulled back over my shoulder, to the sight of Ditch’s writing shed – his ‘shack’, as he called it – perched precariously on the side of the bluff, hoisted upon its steel pillars. The rock here looks scorched and the rainwater that’s still escaping over it and down to the river sounds as if it sizzles as it makes its way back home. The seared colour gradually gives way to the rose red sandstone of the under-cliff and I climb over the blushing rock and up the steep concrete steps.  Innumerable fingers of branches are reaching out of the cliff and around the sides of the shed and in my mind I can see those New York photographs of Ditch ensnared or crucified amongst the tangle of a wisteria vine. The sensation of approaching his ‘house on stilts, high among beaks’, bubbles up through my skin.       

The front of the shed is pale green. I recall it as having been a deeper blue before. I know the original face is in the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea. It was saved by someone from a council rubbish tip, not long before the Boat House opened to the public in ’75. I took my family to Swansea to see the exhibition, ‘Dylan Thomas: Man and Myth’. They asked me what I was doing when I tried to place my hands exactly where Ditch might have put his when going through the small, rounded door. While there, unbeknown to me, my daughter surreptitiously broke off a flake of paint from the curve of this undersized entrance. When we got home she gave it to me, with all the honour for something sacred only a child could muster. I still keep it beside my computer. It’s now in an unused sample bottle the surgery gave me when I was invited in for the prostate tests.

When I first came here myself, before the children were born, there was a plaque at the apex of the roof, I remember its dramatic gothic script.

‘In this building Dylan Thomas wrote many of his famous works – seeking inspiration from the panoramic view of the estuary’.

Now it’s been replaced by an information stand to the right of the structure. ‘This is not the Boathouse…’ it says immediately, as if answering a question already on the lips of the visitor. There’s still a glass panel in the front of this converted garage, though it’s obviously become much larger. Once, I could only peer in between shading hands, my forehead pressed against a small square. Now I can also put both palms and my flabby stomach against glass.

Through it I can see the austere wood and paper life there. Table, chairs, bookcase; all the photographs still hung, curled up at their edges like dried leaves; Whitman, Lawrence, Edward Thomas, Sitwell, Marianne Moore and Auden. There’s a reproduction of Modigliani’s ‘Little Peasant’, some dancing girls by Breughel, a clown by Rouault as well as other paintings that I haven’t yet identified. On the shelf in the top corner, ‘Lives of the Great Poisoners’, a large dummy book there solely to appease those tourists who only know ‘Under Milk Wood’. The solid black coal stove has been filled with balls of old paper and smooth logs. Books loll on the bookcase. The oil lamp, the beer bottles, the sweet wrappers, all fail to escape their fate as dramatic props. Papers, carefully strewn across the table or apparently crumpled and discarded; even the wood of the floor; everything looks so arid and stale. The interior is not so much abandoned in ghost ship fashion as desiccated with boredom.

I know this manufactured scene very well; it’s the desktop background on my computer. It confronts me every time I sit there waiting for the thing to warm up so I can access the emails from the kids. Apart from all the superimposed stamps of shortcut icons down one side and the blue taskbar running across the bottom of the screen the picture is exactly the same.

I’d seen the original mock-up when the desk was merely strewn with open books and papers and not burdened with the lamp and the bottles. There’s even a photograph taken just two years after Ditch’s death when it looked a deserted sanctuary, an almost bare desk and blank walls. They could have kept it like that, there was more sense of death in it.

I look straight through the shed and out of the small window that stands guard over the desk. I know across the water and over the near horizon is the farm of Fern Hill; that Jack Roberts who lived next door in the Ferry House had sometimes carried Ditch on his back across the last few yards of the estuary at low tide so the poet might reach the villages of Llangain and Llanstephan when visiting strands of his family. I’d begged – I’d tried to bribe – the people at the Boat House to let me into the shed so I could just sit there, where he’d sat, look out of the windows as he’d done… but they wouldn’t have any of it. No exceptions, they said. They get asked the same by every foreign visitor that came here, they said.

I can hear the birds busy in the trees all around me, too many songs and squawks, coos and caws for a city boy like me to really comprehend. They either don’t mind me or my presence is provoking them. I want to believe they don’t care, that they’re drunk on the busy sun and their surroundings and are singing their way home without a thought for people like me who are just stumbling through life.

I stand to the side of the shed and watch the sideways strata of sunlight search across the water and the sand bars. Then the clouds open wider and the too bright, blinding clash of sun and sea makes me wince.

Your burnished estuary …’ I scrawl.


Extract from 'DYLAN and DYING' - a novel by Simon Tonkin

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