March 25, 2012
“I think there’s someone in there,” Twiz says, pressing her one good eye against the beveled-glass door of The Windsor Castle Hotel, which is neither a castle nor a hotel, but a run-down pub in Newport, a run-down city in South Wales. Twiz has a patch over her left eye. She is a third of the young woman, girl actually, whom I met 40 years ago. She was tall, slender, dark and stunning. Her lithe body moved like an acrobatic Olive Oyl. Now she’s half-blind and bent over with a curved spine, and moves like a sack of coal. She continues banging on the door, shouting, “Let us in! Let us in!”
A Sikh man steps out of the convenience store across the street. “It’s closed!” he yells in a tinny voice, “for good.”
“Do you know when it closed?” Twiz asks. He shakes his head and returns to his conveniences.
“Thanks anyway, Twiz,” I say. “We knew it was a long shot.” A young couple walks by, hand in hand. They’re beautiful. The way they look at each other, you can tell they’re in love.
Twiz steps in front of them, rises up to her full six feet and roars, “Do you live around here?”
The young man pulls his young woman behind him. “We live on Stow Hill,” he points, “across from the church.” That church two streets away is St. Mary’s… where my parents were married and I was baptized.
“Tell me when this pub closed,” Twiz demands.
“It’s not closed,” he says, backing away. “It was open last night.”
“What?” I ask, entering the conversation.
“It’s not closed,” he says as he hustles his sweetie down Skinner Street towards the River Usk.
“Pete,” Twiz says, as she continues pounding on the door, “we’re going to get you in there.” Twiz is not the sort who gives up easily. In the years since we met she’s been an activist, mostly for fair housing in Cardiff and Swansea, but she never saw a cause she didn’t like. She can organize a protest, get herself arrested, make bail and be home in time for tea.
“Someone’s coming,” she observes. The door cracks open and a head appears, an ugly head. The ugliest head in the world. Its hair is barbed wire and its complexion one big, pockmarked rash. It looks like someone dropped tiny bombs on it.
“There’s nobody here,” the head squawks.
“You’re here,” Twiz says.
“No I’m not,” the head squeals. Now I feel like I’m in a Monty Python movie. “I’m just the cleaning lady.”
“He’s come all the way from America,” Twiz says, waving one arm around her own head like a fiddler crab and pointing at me with the other. “He wants to have a look upstairs.”
“I can’t let you in,” the head says again. “Come back later. It’ll be open tonight.”
“He’s going back to America tonight,” Twiz lies.
“I’m sorry,” the head says. “I can’t let you in, and even if I could, I don’t have the keys for upstairs.”
The head hesitates before closing the door, suddenly becoming a human head, a woman’s head. “Why don’t you go over to The Greyhound on High Street,” she says, “and ask for Mr. Pisani. He’s the owner.”
“I thought the Brewery owns it,” I reply.
“No, they shut it down, didn’t they?” she says, closing the door, “like everything else in Newport. Mr. Pisani bought it. Now it’s his problem.”
“Let’s go, Pete,” Twiz says, taking off for High Street. “We’re going to get you in there.”
It has already been a long day. Twiz picked me up at my hotel in Cardiff this morning and drove me down Castle Street past a real castle. We got out in front of a terraced house on Wyeverne Road, number 109. The trim around the door and windows had a new coat of white paint, and the stone wall was a fresh forest green. A sign taped to the door said, “Christian Centre—Open House Tonight at 7.” In 1972 it was the opposite of a Christian Centre. It was a quasi commune… not the sort of commune where everybody works together to save the world and make candles. No, it was more of a flop house where people like me who had nowhere else to go wound up. More than a dozen of us crashed there: Brian, Carol, Gypsy Blood, Charlie, Laura, Canadian Steve, Crazy Steve, Joe, Trevor, two 15-year-old girls, Irene, fleeing the Troubles in Belfast, and Yasmine from Tiger Bay, where Shirley Bassey’s from, fleeing from an arranged marriage to her Moroccan uncle three times her age. I had been hitchhiking around Wales when I showed up. I wasn’t sure where I was going, but knew that I couldn’t go home to New York. I burnt that bridge. Hell, I blew it up when I left months earlier. Twiz took everybody in, thank God, even me.
When we weren’t getting high in the living room we slept in shifts, two or three crowding a bed. There was loud music day and night and a stream of people who stopped in to score. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll… until then I thought it was just a cliché. The neighbors nagged the police to do something until they finally busted the house and arrested everybody in it. I had been visiting friends in Bristol so they missed me.
When Twiz was busted again the following year, she said that one of the policemen in the station recognized her. “Hold on,” he said, rifling through a drawer and pulling out a book. “This is yours, isn’t it?” He handed her a dogeared copy of De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. “Sorry,” he said. “I should’ve returned it last time, but it looked interesting and some of us wanted to have a read. Not bad.”
I look down Wyeverne Road toward The Woodville Pub where, 40 years ago on this day, I had my last drink. I look down at this gutter and try to see myself lying in it, wet from rain and piss, but it’s a blur. My life was a blur. Blur.
“Happy Anniversary, Pete,” Twiz said. “You’ve come a long way.” Twiz then drove us to Malpas where my father, a GI, had been stationed during WW II (that’s how he met my mother), then headed north through Cwmbran where she grew up. On the other side of Blaenavon she turned onto an unpaved dirt path—she called it a road—over a sheep-covered mountaintop and crossed into the Sirhowy Valley. We arrived at Nantybwch on the outskirts of Tredegar and looked for the farm where my mother was born. But instead there was a development of houses that all looked pretty much the same. I walked down to the Mountain Air Inn, founded by my great, great grandmother, “Granny the Mount,” in 1870. It seems that drinking has always been a family business. And then we drove to Newport, to The Windsor Castle Hotel where my parents met and fell in love, and where I lived the first few years of my life. From the photographs I‘ve seen, my mother looked happy. What went wrong? I wonder. What went terribly wrong?
Of course, Mr. Pisani isn’t at The Greyhound, a dim, dismal pub that makes The Windsor Castle look like, well, a castle. A friendly barmaid named Bronwyn says, “Write down your number, and I’ll make sure he gets it.” I scribble my mobile on the back of a business card and hand it over.
“Murphy Writing Seminars,” she observes. “What’s that?”
“I lead writing courses,” I say, “here in Britain and in the States.”
“Writing!” she says, holding the card away from her as if it were on fire. “Why would anyone want to do that?”
I never thought I’d see Twiz again when I left Cardiff, but I found her. Where else? On Facebook. Last year I invited her to be my guest at Caer Llan, a manor house near Tintern Abbey where I was running a writing workshop. Now she’s helping me track down my past. “You’re a saint for driving me around, Twiz,” I say, “but you’re tired and you’re hurting. Why don’t you go home and rest up? I’ll take the train back to Cardiff and catch you tomorrow.” She doesn’t argue.
I walk along the Usk until I reach the Transporter Bridge, about the only thing worth seeing in Newport. It’s not a traditional bridge that you drive or walk across. Instead, you step on a shaky platform attached to two towers by cables that tow you from one bank of the river to the other. I’d have felt a lot safer if there were only pedestrians, but there are two cars on board. I decide not to look down at the murky Usk, a hundred feet below, fearing that I might be splashing in it soon enough. I move on. I walk back to the center of town and eat fish and chips slathered with vinegar and salt. Not bad. But when I remember that I had two stents implanted in my heart a year ago, I think Okay, maybe it is bad. I walk back to Dock Street to The Windsor Castle Hotel. No need to bang on the door this time. I turn the knob and walk in. I am surprised to see Bronwyn from The Greyhound behind the bar.
“Did you give Mr. Pisani my number?” I ask.
“You’re the writer. Mr. Pisani got a kick out of that, didn’t he?”
“Yeah, well, he never called me.”
“Mr. Pisani is a busy man.”
“Will he be here tonight?”
“Like I said, Love. He’s a busy man. I can’t keep track, can I?”
“Okay if I wait for him?”
“You can do whatever you like, Love. What can I get you?”
As I wait for the elusive Mr. Pisani to show up, I sip a lemonade, which, unlike American lemonade, is carbonated. My glass is half-empty. Then I think about my life, how far it’s taken me, how good it has become and decide that my glass is half-full. Either way, the gods don’t like to be messed with, so I shouldn’t be hanging out in a pub. Even though I’ve been sober for decades, I think about drinking more than I ought to. I remember with too much fondness the smells and tastes and how good it made me feel before speeding over that cliff into the void. I’m pretty sure that had I not stopped drinking I’d be dead, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss it.
The only other patrons are two old men sipping beer at a table. I finish my lemonade and walk back to The Greyhound, where two different old men are drinking beer at a different table. I ask the barmaid, a new one, if Mr. Pisani is in.
“Oh, you’re the American, are you?” she asks, hearing my accent.
“Yes, I am.”
“This way, Hon.” She leads me down a hall to an office where a balding man sits at a computer.
“John,” she calls. “He’s back.” I feel like I’m the plague and this poor man’s just been told he’s got it.
“Oh, yes,” the man says, standing up. He puts out his hand to shake. “What is it you want?”
“My family ran The Windsor Castle Hotel back in the ‘40s and ‘50s,” I say, “and I lived there when I was a kid. I’m writing a book and would love to see what it’s like upstairs.”
“It’s pretty ugly up there,” he says. “I haven’t had a chance to do anything with it.” “That’s okay,” I say. “I just want to walk around, maybe look out the windows.” Sometimes I ask students to write about their earliest memory. Every now and then one says, “I don’t remember my earliest memory.” When I ask, “What do you remember?”, he… it’s always a he… tells me and I break it to him. I say, “That’s your earliest memory.”
Mine? I was about 3 years old standing on a piano bench looking down from an upstairs window at men unloading beer barrels from the back of a truck. They were huge men, huge barrels. I didn’t hear the woman who came up behind me, smacked me on the bottom and yelled at me for standing on the piano bench. Who was she? She wasn’t my mother. Why do I remember this? It must mean something. Three strands have braided through my early life: Trouble with alcohol. Trouble with women. Trouble with violence. It’s a stretch, I know, but maybe that’s why I remember it. Anyway, I want to look out that window again. I want to walk through the rooms my mother walked through. I want to touch the walls that she touched. I want to breathe the air that she breathed. I want my mother to be happy, but it’s too late. I want to save her, but it’s too late.
“All right,” he says, grabbing his windbreaker, “Let’s go.”
I can’t believe it… it’s really going to happen. And so we go, but the five-minute walk between the two pubs takes 20 minutes. Turns out Mr. Pisani really is a busy man, and everyone in Newport stops him to have a word. He introduces me as his American friend. When we finally arrive at The Windsor Castle, he says, “Bronwyn, Love, give us the keys to the upstairs, will you?”
We walk past the table where I sat earlier and stop at a door I hadn’t noticed by the toilets. Mr. Pisani fiddles with the keys, finds the one he wants, sticks it in, turns it, and says as he pulls the door open, “So tell me again, mate, what is it you’re looking for?”
“In memory of Twiz Evans, 1953–2019”
Peter E. Murphy, author of “Storming the Castle,” was born in Wales and grew up in New York City, where he operated heavy equipment, managed a nightclub and drove a taxi. He is the author of 11 books, and chapbooks of poetry and prose including Looking for Thelma, winner of the Wilt Prize for Creative Nonfiction. He is the founder of Murphy Writing of Stockton University, which offers the annual Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway, and other programs for writers and teachers in the United States and abroad.