How Shall I Know You?
One summer at the fag-end of the 1990s, I had to go out of London to talk to a literary society, of the sort that must have been old-fashioned when the previous century closed. When the day came, I wondered why I’d agreed to it; but yes is easier than no, and of course when you make a promise you think the time will never arrive: that there will be a nuclear holocaust, or some other diversion. Besides, I had a sentimental yearning for the days of self-improvement: they were founded, these reading clubs, by master drapers and their shop-girl wives; by poetasting engineers, and uxorious physicians with long winter evenings to pass. Who keeps them going these days?
I was leading at the time an itinerant life, struggling with the biography of a subject I’d come to dislike. For two or three years I’d been trapped in a thankless cycle of picking up after myself, gathering in what I’d already gathered, feeding it onto computer disks which periodically erased themselves in the night. And I was forever on the move with my card indexes and my paper-clips, and the shilling exercise-books in which I took notes. It was easy to lose these books, and I left them in black cabs or in the overhead racks of trains, or swept them away with bundles of unread newspapers from the weekends. I felt constantly compelled to retrace my own steps, between Euston Road and the newspaper collections at Colindale, between the rain-soaked Dublin suburb where my subject had first seen the light and the northern manufacturing town where – ten years after he ceased to be of use or ornament – he cut his throat in a bathroom of a railway hotel. ‘Accident’, the coroner said, but there’s a strong suspicion of a cover-up; for a man with a full beard, he must have been shaving very energetically.
I was lost and drifting that year, I don’t deny it. And as my bag was always packed, there was no reason to turn down the literary society. They would ask me, they said, to give their members a snappy summary of my researches, to refer briefly to my three short early novels, and then to answer questions from the floor: after which, they said, there would be a Vote of Thanks. (I found the capitals unsettling.) They would offer a modest fee – they said it – and lodge me for bed and breakfast at Rosemount, which was quietly situated, and of which, they said enticingly, I would find a photograph enclosed.
This photograph came in the secretary’s first letter, double-spaced on small blue paper, produced by a typewriter with a jumping ‘h’. I took Rosemount to the light and looked at it. There was a suspicion of a Tudor gable, a bay window, a Virginia creeper – but the overall impression was of blurring, a running of pigment and a greasiness at the edges, as if Rosemount might be one of those ghost houses which sometimes appear at a bend in the road, only to melt away as the traveller limps up the path.
So I was not surprised when, a week before I was to give my talk, another blue letter came, hiccuping in the same way, to say that Rosemount was closing for refurbishments and they would be obliged to use Eccles House, convenient for the venue and they understood quite reputable. Again, they enclosed a photograph: Eccles House was part of a long white terrace, four storeys high, with two surprised attic windows. I was touched that they felt they ought to illustrate the accommodation in this way. I never cared where I stayed as long as it was clean and warm. I had often, of course, stayed in places that were neither. The winter before there had been a guesthouse in a suburb of Leicester, with a smell so repellent that when I woke at dawn I was unable to stay in my room for longer than it took me to dress, and I found myself, long before anyone else was awake, setting my booted feet on the slick wet pavements, tramping mile after mile down rows of semi-detached houses of blackening pebbledash, where the dustbins had wheels but the cars were stacked on bricks; where I turned at the end of each street, and crossed, and retrod my tracks, while behind thin curtains East Midlanders turned and muttered in their sleep, a hundred and a hundred then a hundred couples more.
In Madrid, by contrast, my publishers had put me in a hotel suite, which consisted of four small dark panelled rooms. They had sent me an opulent, unwieldy, scented bouquet, great wheels of flowers with woody stems. The concierge brought me heavy vases of a greyish glass, slippery in my hands, and I edged them freighted with blooms onto every polished surface: I stumbled from room to room, coffined against the brown panelling, forlorn, strange, under a pall of pollen, like a person trying to break out from her own funeral. And in Berlin, the desk clerk had handed me a key with the words, ‘I hope your nerves are strong.’
The week before the engagement, my health was not good. There was a continuous airy shimmer in my field of vision, just to the left of my head, as if an angel were trying to appear. My appetite failed, and my dreams took me to alien waterfronts and ship’s bridges, on queasy currents and strange washes of the tide. As a biographer I was more than usually inefficient: in untangling my subject’s accursed genealogy I mixed up Aunt Virginie with the one who married the Mexican, and spent a whole hour with a churning stomach, thinking that all my dates were wrong and believing that my whole Chapter 2 would have to be reworked. The day before I was due to travel east I simply gave up on the whole enterprise, and lay on my bed with my eyes shut tight. I felt – not so much a melancholy, as a kind of general insufficiency. I seemed to be pining for those three short early novels, and their brittle personnel. I felt a wish to be fictionalised.
My journey was uneventful. Mr Simister, the secretary, met me at the station. ‘How shall I know you?’ he had said on the telephone. ‘Do you look like your book jackets? Authors, I find, seldom do.’ He giggled after saying this, as if it were edgy wit of a high order. I had considered; a short pause on the line had made him ask: ‘Still there?’
‘I am the same,’ I said. ‘They are not a bad likeness, only I am older now, of course, thinner in the face, my hair is much shorter and a different colour, and I seldom smile in quite that way.’
‘I see,’ he said.
‘Mr Simister,’ I asked, ‘how shall I know you?’
I knew him by his harassed frown, and the copy of my first novel, A Spoiler at Noonday, which he held across his heart. He was buttoned into an overcoat: we were in June, and it had turned wintery. I had expected him to hiccup, like his typewriter. ‘I think we shall have a wet one of it,’ he said, as he led me to his car. It took me a little time to work my way through this syntactical oddity. Meanwhile he creaked and ratcheted car-seats, tossed an evening newspaper onto the dog blanket in the back, and vaguely flapped his hand over the passenger seat as if to remove lint and dog-hairs by a magic pass. ‘Don’t your members go out in the rain?’ I said, grasping his meaning at last.
‘Never know, never know,’ he replied, slamming the door and shutting me in. My head turned back, automatically, the way I had come. As, these days, my head tends to do.
We drove for a mile or so, towards the city centre. It was five thirty, rush-hour. My impression was of an arterial road, lined by sick saplings, and lorries and tankers rumbling towards the docks. There was a huge, green roundabout, of which Mr Simister took the fifth exit, and reassured me: ‘Not far now.’
‘Oh, good,’ I said. I had to say something.
‘Are you not a good traveller?’ Mr Simister said anxiously.
‘I’ve been ill,’ I said. ‘This last week.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
He did look sorry; perhaps he thought I would be sick on his dog blanket.
I turned away deliberately and watched the city. On this wide, straight, busy stretch, there were no real shops, just the steel-shuttered windows of small businesses. On their upper floors at smeary windows were pasted day-glo posters that said TAXI TAXI TAXI. It struck me as an area of free enterprise: freelance debt collectors, massage parlours, body shops and money launderers, dealers in seedy accommodation let twice and thrice, bucket shops for flights to Miami or Bangkok, and netted yards where in-bred terriers snarl and cars are given a swift respray before finding a happy new owner. ‘Here we are.’ Mr Simister pulled up. ‘Like me to come in?’