“Are you ready yet? They stop serving soon.”
There she goes again, he thought. Just like a child whining ‘Are we there yet? Are we there yet?’ in the back of a car. Can’t she leave me alone? I’m thinking, thinking, thinking. And I can’t think when I’m being interrupted. I’m a writer, and I have to think. I used to be quite good at it – I’ve always had an ear for language, a flair for rhythm, rhyme, and cadence. But right now I’m stuck, stifled, blocked. Can’t think of a bloody thing. Tired too – hardly any sleep last night. The booze hadn't helped, but my mind kept churning, churning. I couldn’t stop thinking, but it was all over the place – no sense, no beauty. I need quiet, I need peace… peace… piece… peas… Peas! Of course! It’s a metaphor! It wasn’t a pea planted under the mattress that stopped the princess from sleeping, it was an idea planted in her mind…
He winced as he felt the sharp blade slice into his upper lip. He looked in the mirror, and saw his bite-red, bright, red, blight-red, drip-drip-drip dripping blood trickle down the corner of his mouth. Bugger, he thought. Bugger it all! Mirror…. Bugger it all… mmm…
“What have you done to your face?” she asked as he emerged from the bathroom.
“Cut myself shaving. You know I can’t do two things at once. I can’t shave and think at the same time. I’ve promised the BBC to deliver the script next week, so I’m thinking about it. Thinking all the time. So while I’m shaving, and thinking, I certainly can’t respond to your whining.”
“I’m not whining,” she responded, almost petulantly. (There goes the child again, he thought.) “Just reminding you that they stop serving here very soon. The review said the pizza is really good, and it would be a pity to miss it. If we’d have left London sooner, we’d have arrived here earlier… Anyway, it was your idea to get away into the country for the weekend to help you think, so here we are. Let’s not row, let’s enjoy it.” He noticed her more conciliatory tone, acknowledging it with an almost imperceptible nod.
Dylan Thomas, 1914 - 1953
They went downstairs, and caught the view through the pub door - the green, the stately trees, the stone cottages beyond. Charming, very charming. But maybe too pretty? Yes, too pretty for me, he thought; not like the earthiness back home.
As they entered the bar, he noticed an advertisement for sloe gin, something he hadn’t tasted for quite a while.
“What would you like to drink?” he asked.
“Mmm… tonight, I think I'd like a Black Russian, please. Yes, a Black Russian.”
“One Black Russian, and one sloe gin please. And can we see the pizza menu too? Thanks.” Black Russian, sloe gin… black… sloe… sloe… black… yes, I like that…
The pizzas were indeed good: fresh mozzarella, succulent asparagus, tender prosciutto, not-too-doughy base. Not that he noticed, of course, for throughout the meal, he had been staring into space, alone in his own world of thinking, thinking, thinking. It’s not that he was avoiding eye-contact deliberately, she thought, for she had been with him for many years and knew his moods. And she was hardly a role-model of the social graces herself: her demon was not introspection but anger, anger which was often mingled with self-pity to erupt in a singularly violent, explosive outburst. She could feel the pressure building, and she started to fidget with the cutlery, her eyes darting around the room.
“Why are you blocking me out?”
“I said ‘why are you blocking me out?’. We’ve been sitting here for an hour, and you haven’t said a word. And since words are your life, that’s not good.”
“Sorry,” he replied, and this time he meant it. He was bearing no grudges against her; not right now, anyway. He knew too that he enjoyed talking to her, appreciated her mind, and benefited from the creative spark that always resulted from what they called ‘conversation’, but which others might refer to as ‘sparring’.
“Sorry. I don’t mean to cut you out. It’s just that my brain is a torrent of thoughts, but they're all incoherent. I just can’t seem to get it right.”
“Why not try to stop thinking for a while, and just let things be? Isn’t that one of the reasons for getting out of town? It’s very quiet here – but not so quiet there’s nothing to do. The local church is quite unusual as being in a field, rather than being at the centre of the village, and it looks like there are some wonderful effigies there. And close by there are some good gardens – designed by one of the TV gardeners, I think. Shall we go there tomorrow? I’m sure that a stroll around some gardens would be wonderful for your inspiration – after all, Hardy would hardly have come up with Under the Greenwood Tree by sitting in a cellar all day, would he?”
“Under the Greenwood Tree? In a cellar? Well, he might have done…”
“Are you arguing with me again?”
“No, not arguing. But as it happens, Hardy could well have ‘come up with’ Under the Greenwood Tree sitting in a cellar. Especially if he was reading As You like It.”
“As You Like It? As in Shakespeare?”
“Yes. Hardy stole Under the Greenwood Tree from Shakespeare. It’s the first line of a song. Act II Scene 5 to be precise.”
“Smart arse. But isn’t all creativity like that? Didn’t Picasso say ‘Bad artists copy, good artists steal’?”
“I’ve no idea. Did he?”
“Yes, he did. Stealing. Pinching stuff. Nicking other people’s ideas. Here’s an essay title for you: The essence of creativity - plagiarism.”
“Do you really think it is?”
“Maybe. At least in a sense. What, fundamentally, is creativity? Think about music. Take Bach, Beethoven, the Beatles. They didn’t invent any of the notes. The notes were already there, for everyone to use, for everyone to copy.”
“I see what you mean. Yes, all composers do use the same notes. But that’s not what’s important. The important thing is that they use the same notes in different patterns, different sequences in time.”
“And authors do the same thing. You all use the same words, but in different patterns.”
“Mmm. I’m not sure about that… some authors – Lewis Carroll, Lear, Shakespeare especially, invented new words.”
“Yes they did. But go a level deeper. Aren’t all words just different patterns of the same letters? When Lewis Carroll invents ‘frumious’, and Lear invents ‘runcible’, and Shakespeare invents ‘gloomy’, they’re all using the same letters, but in new patterns.”
“Did Shakespeare really invent ‘gloomy’? I didn’t know that.”
“He did. Titus Andronicus. Act IV, Scene 1. Titus speaks of ‘ruthless, vast and gloomy woods’.”
“Who’s the smart arse now?” he teased, leaning forward with a smile. Yes, he liked these conversations. Sparring they might be; stimulating they certainly are. Patterns. It’s all about patterns. That makes a lot of sense… But how do you discover the patterns? Not just any-old patterns – a random jumble of words makes no sense at all. Surely the art is to create patterns that not only make sense, but have beauty too?
Their sparring was interrupted by the waitress, who came to clear the now-empty pizza plates.
“Would you like some desert? Ice cream perhaps? Or some apple pie?” the waitress enquired.
“Not for me,” she replied.
“Nor me,” he said. “But some coffee would be good.”
“Coffee. That’s fine. We do cappuccino, latte, or filter.”
“Filter coffee for two, please,” she responded, “with milk, not cream.”
“Sure. That’s fine. Filter coffee with milk. Would you like me to bring it now, or in a while?”
“About ten minutes would be good,” she replied. “Thank you.”
Something triggered in his brain. Patterns. Milk. Would. Milk. Wood. Under the Greenwood Tree. Under the Milkwood Tree? No. No. Under Milk Wood. Oh yes. Under Milk Wood…
“So, what shall we do tomorrow?” she asked.
“Don’t know. You mentioned the church and the gardens. Is there anything else? I don’t want to spend the whole day running around – I still need time to think. But things are maybe getting clearer…”
“Well, the brochure says there’s a lake, with boats, cycling, walks, and a bird sanctuary. The pictures show an osprey nest, and lots of happy ducks bobbing about on the water. Birds must be big around here – there’s an owl centre too.”
“I don’t like birds. Crows. They’re evil. And ducks are so noisy. A walk is OK, but I just hate all that quack-quacking.”
Again, his brain noticed something. Rhyme. Quack, black. Crow, slow. Patterns. What did I notice before? Oh yes. Black and sloe. And rhythm. Sloeblack. Slow. Black. Crowblack. Quack. Quack.
Sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, quack-quack-duck-bobbing lake…
No… that’s still not quite right…
With apologies for the anachronisms, and thanks to Tom Stoppard,
and, of course, to Caitlin and Dylan.