Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Into the wind

Her mother is Irish; an Irishwoman of the American mythology. We see the world in caricature sometimes and in those peoples that we love we impose those traits that we most like to see in ourselves, so in the Irishwoman we see a tenderness wrapped in the indefatigably of sharp wit and fighting spirit. Her mother had sworn off talking to me early on because I'm "too intellectual," but in the early hours of morning, sitting in the cold rain, protected only by a scarf, wearing a nicotine patch, lighting one cigarette off the other and drinking straight whisky, she leaned forward and confided in me.

"She's a bitch," nodding her head toward her daughter. "But, I love her more than anything."

This is the Irishwoman, I thought; the kind who will give her daughter all kinds of hell, but woe upon the idiot soul who should cross that daughter.

The daughter herself, Annie, is harder to stereotype. Although her Welsh loops perfectly in the northern tones, her English is international, with little hints of the places she's been. Asking where Annie's from is an irrelevant question; for the answer you would get it is better to ask: "Can you give me a summary of your life in about 30 seconds?"

But my storyteller brain insists that it is that Irish heritage that comes out most in her. There is the red hair, of course. But there is also her steady swagger of a walk, that way of holding her head as if always into the wind. Something about her physical movement that says: "I know exactly where I'm going. If you're smart, you'll follow. If you don't, I won't care."

She can knock back toxic/sweet cocktails all night and never misstep. Her dancing is not graceful but strangely of that kind that draws you in and makes you want to join. A sway on one foot and then stomp-thud with the heel of her boot. She sings with the full of her. It is a sound that comes not just from the lungs but from the gut, the heart, her toes and her fingertips. A feminine, unbreaking, bellow of the Big Mama Thornton school that could knock most girls (and a fair number of boys) flat on their asses.

Annie was the reason Chris and Pumpkins and I drove up to Dolwyddelan this past weekend. Pumpkins, aka Dan, aka Sud, is Chris' flatmate. His family crest is tattooed on his right bicep and the nickname comes from a drunken girl's misreading of his body art.

"Does that say 'Pumpkins'?" she asked.

"Yes," he said. "My family motto is, 'Always ready for pumpkins.'"

None of us had ever met Annie in the flesh. Chris and I have known her for several years, though, through our respective blogging and Twittering and Google Talking and Facebooking. With her soon to ship off to Ghent, this weekend of celebrating her and her mother's birthdays seemed like the best opportunity to finally meet her face to face.

The trip started on Friday night, with Chris and Pumpkins and I driving out to stay with Chris' family in a village near Llandeilo.

"Just one thing," Chris said as we neared his village. "No talk of my blog or my girlfriend. My parents don't know about either and I don't want them to."

"Your poor parents," Pumpkins said. "They probably think you're gay."

"Taking home two fellas isn't going to help," I said.

After being heartily fed by Chris' parents -- his dad frequently asking if I had had enough to eat and then at one point deciding that he didn't care if I thought I was full, I needed another serving of stew -- the three of us headed down the road to this pub, and got to work laying the foundations for the next morning's hangovers. We were drinking a beer called Cwrw, which is a horrible name because it simply means "beer" in Welsh.

"Uh-oh," I said. "A really hoppy beer. This stuff is dangerous. Usually gives me a pretty bad hangover."

And then I had another sip. And then another. And then another. And then another. And so on. A little past 1:30 a.m. we trudged back up the road and slipped all into instant beery sleep.

In the morning Chris fried up bacon and eggs and slipped them between thick slices of homemade bread, all to be washed down with mugs of hot tea. Pumpkins, not bothering to wear trousers, was the last to wander into the kitchen. We and the family sat around the table chatting.

In my hungover contemplation, I found myself admiring Chris' family. When his younger sister came down, sleepy-eyed and shuffling through the kitchen in pyjamas and robe and slippers, her first action was to walk over and give her big brother a hug. How do you build that kind of thing? So many families are trainwrecks; what did Chris' parents do right? Building a family is one of those things that it is terrifying to me. I get sick thinking about what an utterly awful father I could turn out to be. What's the trick to having children who will walk up and give each other hugs?

The three of us set out in mid-morning. Up the B4302 and then off through a winding fit of country lane that runs past Llyn Brianne. For those of you playing along at home, any road in the UK starting with "B" is usually so small that Americans would think they were one-way; we would assume country lanes are bike paths -- not to be driven on with anything larger than a golf cart.

Within a few minutes of setting on this route I was hating Chris for having chosen it. Through the country lane there was not one point -- not one fucking point -- where the road was straight for more than 25 yards. Slow, fast, slow, turn, turn, turn for mile after mile after mile. The truth of my bad hangover prediction became painfully undeniable. My head spun and I started bargaining with God:

"Lord, I know I brought this on myself, so I'm not asking you to make it go away. But if you could just ease things up a bit. Turn it down from 11. I'm not really sure what I could do or say in return. Maybe if I were to recycle more or..."

"Isn't this amazing!" Chris boomed as the car sailed over a hill, the mountain and green of Wales stretching out as far as the eye can see. "I love this country!"

"Mmmm" I muttered, my brain seeping from my eyes.

We hit Aberystwyth for lunch, which allowed me a chance to grab a quick pint with Rhodri. There is a phrase in Welsh, "rhoi'r byd yn ei le," which means, "to put the world in its place," that is used to describe a friendly, directionless, and long conversation. This is what Rhodri and I did, working out How To Save The Welsh Language and What's Wrong With Plaid Cymru and Why Wales Needs More Trains while Chris and Pumpkins just stared at us.

We eventually got back on the road. The sun set against a postcard mountain backdrop, and we shot through darkness toward Dolwyddelan, stopping only once -- to allow Pumpkins to make a cocktail.

When we arrived at Annie's house she was sitting in her garden, an almost iconic version of herself: wearing the fur-lined coat she bought in Austin, playing guitar and sipping a Moscow Mule.

There is always a slight window of discomfort when meeting face-to-face for the first time someone you've known for several years. The majority of my friends these days are people I know from blogging or other various Web 2.0-type activity, and I never really know how to handle that first actual meeting. Do you greet them as the old friend they are, or as someone you've never met? How to act? How to hold yourself? When we got out of the car, Annie was strutting toward us with arms half open and it was suddenly obvious that the only way to greet Annie was with an enormous pick-her-up-into-the-air bear hug. Who would do less? This was Annie.

Chris and I set up tents in the garden. Pumpkins' course of action was simply to drink so much that he wouldn't really care where he eventually slept. And within an hour or so he and pretty much the whole of Dolyweddelan were taking to the task in earnest. There was food and there was booze and there was music and people spilled out of the house into the starry night. I quietly decided that I would not drink through the evening. Not for any high-and-mighty reason but simply because: 1) I didn't want to have to suffer another terrible hangover on the drive back to Cardiff; 2) I wanted to remember things.

There are some things that people would perhaps prefer were not remembered: Pumpkin's interaction with Pablo, the woman who was coming on to Chris and suggesting that he would be too cold in his tent all alone, and on.

Annie flowed through the party, rarely staying in one place. I imagined her to have a kind of magic awareness of when a lull in conversation was near; she would leave just before it. So you found yourself always wishing that Annie were around, sometimes wandering through the house to find her, to find where the fun was.

Pumpkins fell into a slightly similar pattern, but instead managing to show up right in the middle of a conversation and derail it with a drunken comment.

"These two are gay lovers," he shouted into the ear of a guy talking to me and Chris.

"Are you?" the guy asked uncomfortably.

We shook our heads, "no."

"Don't listen to them," Pumpkins blared. "They're gay. Why don't you kiss? Come on, it's OK. You're among friends. Stop denying it. You're so gay -- just kiss."

The night dragged on. It got colder, a light rain moved in. News filtered through that Annie's blog had won an award; I felt slightly jealous that my blog never wins awards. Chris and I sat outside in our rain coats. Slowly the house and garden drained of people. Pumpkins threw his socks at an annoying English guy who was passed out on the couch. Out of nowhere, Annie grabbed me by the arm and led me upstairs and into her bedroom.

"Come on," she said. "On the bed."

I am being deliberately misleading there. I would love for anyone to believe, even for the tiniest of moments, that she was keen to have her way with me. I would love for you to think that we made wild, crazy artist love like characters from a beat novel -- that I journeyed to her mountaintop, that I am adulterous cad. Unfortunately for my reputation, that's not at all the case. Over the previous few months I had consistently expressed a wish that she would take a picture of me which I could use on the back of one of my books. Annie had simply remembered. She was keen to get a picture of me looking relaxed, like someone who wasn't getting his picture taken, and chose to shoot me lying down.

After a few minutes of Annie trying to take my picture but me screwing things up by making her laugh, there was a light knock on the door from Chris.

"Uhm, Cope? Annie?" he said tentatively.

"Oh, I really hope he thinks we're shagging," I thought.

I tried to read his face when he walked into the room -- me and Annie on the bed. But, nothing. Damn; he's met the child bride and he knows that I'm crazy for her. People who know me know that she is integral to me. So, me next to any other woman is simply not convincing.

Annie called Chris in and took pictures of the two of us. Then, when Ursula -- a friend of Annie's -- came in, pictures of the three of us. In the picture on the left, note again how unconvincing I am next to another woman. Ursula is supposed to be cuddled up with me but see how I'm keeping my hands to myself? One hand behind my head, the other in my pocket. Of course, the presence of Chris makes it a little less sexy, anyway. For me, at least. A popular thing in porn is the two-guys-one-girl combo, but I've never understood that -- why would I want to see two guys? I've got a penis; I don't want to see more penises. I can't get behind that.

In short succession came Pumpkins and then another of Annie's friends, Ann. We all sat on the bed and Annie took pictures until the batteries on her camera went dead. Then she brought in a bottle of champagne and her guitar. She taught me an "A" chord, the first in Johnny Cash's version of "Hurt," which she over-ambitiously thought she could teach me. But we never got past the first chord. My heart sank upon discovering that I was not instantly awesome.

My love for Julia Nunes has inspired me to learn how to play guitar so I can make YouTube videos of me singing quirky songs like Beyonce's "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)" and be loved by people around the world. I had asked the child bride to get me a guitar for my birthday (20 March, mark your calendars), but -- perhaps thinking that this was just another of my sudden whims -- she suggested that I should instead wait until my trip to the United States and just pick up the guitar I had bought for her several years ago when she had off-handedly stated a similar interest in learning.

The anticipation of getting said guitar has been driving me nuts lately. Every day I listen to Jason Mraz or Glen Hansard or Jack Johnson or whatever guitar-playing fella comes to my head and I air-strum along to all the songs. I concentrate on how I will move with the guitar, the face I will need to show that I am really into what I'm playing, the witty repartee that I will use between songs when performing for friends, etcetera.

Now, in North Wales, Annie was going to teach me my first chord.

"I'll be sure to thank her on my first album," I thought.

"Just put your fingers here, here and here," she said, guiding my hand. "No, a little closer to the frets. OK..."


It was an awful, stupid sound. I readjusted my fingers and asked her to show me again and tried holding my hand a different way but each time got only that sound -- never the singing chord that she was able to produce. My soft writer's fingers stung from the strings. I felt stupid and dumb. No wonder my lying on a bed with Annie isn't convincing -- there's no way she would get it on with some muckety-muck who can't manage an "A" chord.

The guitar was handed over to Chris, who started strumming away like one of those guys you see sitting on a beach with all his pals in an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. I know you can't actually hear that guy playing -- odds are he can't actually play a damn thing because all he ever does is keep his body in shape so that people can take pictures of him with guitars -- but I can hear it in my imagination. He's playing something awesome and his friends are all thinking, "Whoa. Chad's pretty awesome with that guitar, dude," and the girls are hoping that no one can sense how totally turned on they are.

Chris doesn't look like one of those guys, but he's got his deep voice and affable laugh and friendly demeanour and he can pick up a guitar and play the damn thing, which would be more than enough for any number of girls I've known. Bastard.

Chris doesn't know any songs, though. So we started making some up -- he and I alternating verses, or me just rambling in surreal streams of consciousness that didn't rhyme. At one point, we produced a beautiful ballad entitled "Disabilities Aren't Funny" that lasted some 20 minutes. Unfortunately for you, we didn't record that one.

However, we did record a considerably shorter song called "A is for Annie." If you don't love it, you will make the baby Jesus cry.

I am actually thoroughly delighted with this song. If Eric is reading this he should send me an MP3 of "Julie Loves a Blender" -- the only other song I've ever written -- so I can post it to allow people to do a sort of side-by-side comparison, but I think this song is better in a number of ways. It is certainly more lyrically complex. Any song that works in the word "emasculated" can't be all that bad, and Annie was so taken with it that she insisted we start a band. We decided to call ourselves B.A.N.D., with the meaning of the acronym to be determined at a later date.

With this happy thought in our heads we all went to bed. Chris and I in our tents in the garden, Pumpkins on the living room floor. It was 5:20 a.m.

About six hours later, Chris and I were up and wandering a nearby cwm (also known as a cirque). After two hours of walking we found our way back into the village and spotted Annie and Pumpkins sitting outside the pub. It was lunch and then back to the house to collect our stuff and say goodbyes.

There was a kind of sadness in the air. Annie stood quiet and looked at the mountain that extends up from her back garden. We took pictures. We gave big hugs. I can't even guess when I will see her again. Then the three of us into the car and shooting down to Cardiff in just over three hours. As we rolled past Brecon the clouds slipped away, and sunset glowed on Pen-y-Fan.

All photos by Annie