A sample from the novel ‘The Damnation of Peter Pan’ by Simon Petherick
Chapter 34, Peter
When I said earlier that I never went back to Laugharne, that’s not true. I went back once. I tend not to think about it, but I suppose tonight we are talking about everything.
It was triggered by that evening in my flat when Mother came on the TV talking about the book. It was early summer in 1966, and there was a party going on in my flat in Cornwall Gardens that, even by my standards then, was pretty wild. We’d all been to see Bob Dylan at the Royal Albert Hall, and I’d produced the programme for the show – by that stage, I was publishing most of the material surrounding the new music in London – so after the show I was backstage drinking and sharing drugs when Dylan’s manager said they had to move; various uptight Albert Hall officials were trying to shut the place up for the night. I only lived round the corner, so I suggested we all carried on there. We piled into black cabs and the party just carried on in the huge top floor apartment I was renting.
There was noise everywhere: music from the stereo, talking, shouting, singing. The Albert Hall show was the last gig in that world tour when he first turned electric, and he and his band, The Hawks, had produced this monstrous sound, finishing off with Like A Rolling Stone, which was like nothing we’d ever heard in London. I was fizzing with my usual combination of alcohol and poppers, showing off as usual, when I noticed on the TV in the corner of my enormous living room a familiar face. It was Mother, absurdly on a late night interview with David Frost, talking about her book. I hunched up in front of the TV to listen to her. I didn’t notice Dylan standing behind me.
‘I read that book,’ he said. I turned around. I hadn’t spoken to him up to that point, but he seemed genuinely interested in the interview Mother was giving.
‘I read it in Germany last month. Some journalist left it in my room and I picked it up. It’s cool.’
‘She’s my mother,’ I said.
He looked at me, his sunglasses still on. ‘She’s your mother? She’s a serious artist, man. I like what she does. She’s a subversive.’
Imagine it: I have Bob Dylan telling me my mother is a subversive.
‘I wouldn’t know,’ I said. That seemed to interest him too.
‘She reminds me of my wife,’ he said. He was probably a couple of years younger than me, but he’d got married the previous year to a woman called Sara. One of my magazines had done a piece on it. ‘She’s connected,’ he said. ‘Like Sara. I can see it. She’s connected.’ He was staring at Mother as she rabbited on about Shakespeare.
Then he turned to me again. ‘Can I meet her?’
‘She lives in Wales. It’s miles away. It’s a little town in the west of Wales called Laugharne. Where Dylan Thomas lived.’ I did my usual party trick of reciting some poetry for him, but he interrupted me.
‘I don’t listen to him any more,’ he said. ‘I want to talk to your mother. Let’s go see her.’
And within an hour, I was driving my Jensen down the Brompton Road past Harrods heading out west. It was about three in the morning. Dylan was curled up in the back seat, already asleep, and next to me in the front was his piano player, a Canadian called Richard Manuel, who was as hyper as I was. He’d said they all had to get a flight back to America the following day, and he said he could share the driving with me. I liked him. We were sharing a bottle of rum and a bag of benzedrine, and we kept each other going for the six hours or so it took to get there down the new motorway that had just opened that year. We were doing over a hundred until we got to Wales, when the motorway petered out and we were swerving down Welsh roads as the early summer sun came up behind us.
Dylan didn’t talk much during the journey, and slept for a lot of it. Manuel was funny and a bit crazy, and he kept my mind off Mother and what on earth I thought I was doing. I remember as we drove out of Carmarthen and I was looking for the signs for St Clears and Laugharne, I started to tell him a little about how I hadn’t seen her for eight years, and he was tapping his fingers on the leather dashboard and saying ‘Yes, yes, yes’ as I told him about Mother and Peter Pan and I knew that he wasn’t really listening to what I was saying. Then after being silent for hours, Dylan said from the back,
‘I told you she was connected.’
It was about ten in the morning when I pulled in beside the church at the edge of Laugharne. We got out of the car and I offered to show them Dylan Thomas’s grave in the sloping cemetery beside the church. What did we look like? Manuel was tall with long hair and a beard and was wearing the same black suit he’d worn at the show the previous evening at the Albert Hall. Dylan had changed after the show and was wearing a tight green suit and brown leather boots, his sunglasses reflecting the sunlight off his face. I had a moustache then and thick fur coat, and the three of us traipsed up the hill and sat beside the simple white cross where the poet was buried.
Manuel and I were still drinking and smoking and I was telling them stories about how Dusty and Dylan Thomas had chased girls in Soho during the war. Bob was quiet, looking around the cemetery and watching the women down below on the road walking to the shops. After a while, he said,
‘OK, let’s go see your mother.’
‘I’ll show you where she lives,’ I said. ‘Just go and knock on her door. Don’t tell her I’m here, or that you know me. I’ll take Richard to Browns for a drink.’
So I drove the Jensen up the hill from the church, down past Browns and left down that familiar lane towards the wall surrounding her cottage. I’d like to tell you that I felt trepidation, or excitement, or something; this was the first time I’d seen the cottage in eight years. Everything looked exactly the same: the bakery was still pumping out yeast smells next to the Three Mariners, the rooks were calling out from the castle walls, the sun was already casting shadows in the lane outside her house.
But the reality is, I was on such a high from what Manuel and I had been consuming for the previous ten hours or so that I didn’t really register any emotion. I pulled the car over, pointed out her front gate to Bob, and reminded him not to mention me. Then I drove back up to Browns, and me and Manuel fell into the bar and started ordering beer.
There was a piano in the bar, and so we just carried on partying, Manuel playing honky tonk and singing, to the amusement of the farmers who’d come in for their first pint of the day. No-one recognised me, with my long hair and fur coat, and they just tolerated these two hippies the way Laugharne always tolerated badly behaved guests. I sat at the bar drinking beer and whisky and talking gibberish to the farmers while Manuel sang, pint and whisky glasses lined up on top of the piano.
It was early afternoon before Bob Dylan appeared in the bar. In his beautiful green suit, with his corkscrew hair, he looked like a film star, but none of the farmers had any idea who he was. Manuel was snoring, his head on the piano keys, and I was sitting in the bay window. I’d drunk myself sober, and for the first time I was wondering whether I should go and see her. Dylan walked in and sat down beside me. He looked at me.
‘How did you get on?’ I asked.
‘She’s special,’ he said. ‘She’s a prophet angel. That’s what she is.’
‘Shall I go and see her?’ Why was I asking him? I have no idea.
‘I asked her a lot of things,’ Dylan said. He was looking out of the window. ‘I asked her if she had kids. You know what she said?’
I shook my head.
‘She said she had a son, but that he died.’
The farmers at the bar were laughing about something, and Manuel’s snore was rising and falling like a broken instrument, and I felt cold and numb and lonely. We both sat there for a while, looking out onto the street. I knew he had a newborn son back in America, we’d reported on it in one of our magazines. He had a son and wife waiting for him. He was twenty-five, and I was twenty-seven, and I sat there in silence for a while with one of the most famous men in the world, and the farmers kept laughing and Manuel kept snoring, and eventually I said,
‘Let’s get you both back to London. You’ve got a plane to catch.’ We manhandled Richard out of the bar and into the Jensen, and I drove back out of Laugharne.