Old Llew could not fit the key into the lock of his front door, though he’d opened it a thousand times over the years. Lately the lock had developed a mind of its own, especially at night, shifting left when Llew moved his key right, then jerking right when he went left.
“Damn you!” Llew shouted. “Diawl! Then he jabbed the key with eyes shut, somehow stabbing through the keyhole.
“People trying to sleep!” a voice shouted from the upstairs apartment. “Please be quiet!”
Llew closed the door as silently as he could. He’d drunk half a jug of Thunderbird after breakfast, a dozen draft beers through the afternoon and evening at Riley’s, and was looking forward to the hefty dram of Powers that helped bring on sleep. He dropped his jacket to the floor. In the kitchen he allowed himself an extra large measure, splattering some across the countertop. “Steady on,” he told himself. “It’s not like it grows on trees.” In the parlor, he turned on the TV, set his whiskey on the Formica side table, mottled with intersecting rings the same circumference as his glass. He eased himself into his old reclining chair.
The main item on the eleven o’clock news was a pre-dawn mortar assault by the Viet Cong against the Bien Hoa air base, twelve miles north of Saigon. A reporter spoke from the scene, quoting the army’s promise to hunt down and kill or capture the attackers. Llew stared at the flickering images of Vietnamese and American soldiers, trying to follow what was being said.
Llew stood in six inches of brackish water, shoulder-to-shoulder in the trench with his comrades, bayonet fixed, awaiting the order. It was raining steadily with dawn diffusing around them – enough light to see a trench rat by his boot, gnawing the edge of an empty ration can. Ahead of Llew was scrubland pocked with muddy craters – and the German barbed wire, sandbags, and trenches.
“Too much bloody light,” Dai Siop muttered on Llew’s left. “What’re the buggers waiting for?”
Ten minutes later, the order was shouted, and Llew and his comrades scrambled over the top of the trench into an eruption of gunfire.
It was difficult to see with the fog settled in, but Llew could make out the shapes of his nearest comrades – Dai Siop, Henry Tonmawr, Dic Cadwalladr, Jacob bach – some with bullet wounds in the head and chest, others with limbs blown off. All dead, or about to die. When a rat climbed onto Dai Siop’s face, Llew tried to crawl to him, but found his legs didn’t work. He looked at his chest, where a bullet had blasted through, soaking his uniform dark red. He hoisted himself to his knees and clasped his shaking hands in front of him, feeling the urge to pray as he’d prayed in Jerusalem Chapel when he was a child in Blaen Cwm, fervently, with unquestioning faith. But though his lips moved, he couldn’t produce words. So he sat down in the cold muck, closed his eyes, and said to himself, now I shall know what it’s like to die.
But he didn’t die. He opened his eyes. An old man emerged from the fog, trudging towards Llew. Llew thought this must be his older self, the one who survived the war and recovered in a hospital, who’d returned to his village then emigrated to America and somehow, through processes he could not remember, became the person he was.
The old man drew closer.
Tada? Llew whispered. Then he shouted with certainty, Tada! He was overwhelmed that his father had found him in the bloody trench among the decimated bodies of his comrades.
“Yes,” his father said. “It’s me.”
“Take me home! Take me back to Blaen Cwm,” Llew called out, raising his arms as if he were still a child who could be lifted and carried away.
“But you are home, my boy,” his father said.
“No!” Llew shouted. “This is not where I belong.”
“Are you sure?” His father shook his head. “This is where you always return. So really, it must be your home.”
“Take me away,” Llew pleaded. “I can’t stay here. I’ll die.”
Llew’s father glanced up at the sky, which could have been dawn or dusk. “You won’t,” he said. “You will lie down in this muck, unconscious. The battle will start up again, but a medic will find his way here. He’ll put fingers on your throat and feel a pulse. He’ll stitch your wound. Then there’s the hospital, the painful healing in that room crowded with wounded men on cots, the bus dropping you off on the high street, the night at the Three Feathers with the men asking to see your scar, and within a year, the ship from Liverpool to New York – all that seasickness. Your months in the basement room in Remsen as you look for work. You were a milkman for two years, weren’t you? Didn’t you write that to me? Then your flat in Corn Hill and a real job as a bricklayer. But you never belonged in this country, did you? In a sense you were never really here. For the years we had remaining, your mother and I missed you terribly – we never recovered from losing you to America. There’s much that you’ll do, but throughout all the changes, one thing will be constant: you’ll always remember your home.”
And Llew’s father turned and trudged back through the muck the way he’d come, disappearing into a vapor that Llew knew would soon be burned off by the sun.
Old Llew blinked into the glare of the TV test pattern. He reached for his whiskey but only touched the bare table. Leaning over, he saw the upturned glass by a dark splotch on the carpet. He’d had a dream, he thought – he was certain he’d had a dream but couldn’t remember what happened, or where. Then a fragment arrived: his arms reaching to his father.
“Dreaming of home,” Old Llew said. “That’s it! Dreaming of Tada and where I belong. The terrace house on Heol y Garth. Blaen Cwm. The hills. Not this bad joke with no punch line. My real home.”
He closed his eyes, murmuring to himself over and over the words “tada” and “home,” hoping that they had the power to return him to the dream-world – the only place where he belonged.
updated by @david-lloyd2: 01/28/16 08:37:12PM