Several months after I had returned from a short holiday in Melbourne where I was visiting and staying in the house of my older brother, I received a phone call which I had, on the fifth day of my holiday, imagined receiving upon my return.
It takes a little over three hours by plane to reach Melbourne from Wellington, where I was then living. I was aware when I wrote just now of travelling by air, that the writer who is the subject of this story has referred to air travel as insulting the earth. The writer made this comment partly in explanation of the fact that he himself has never travelled by air and that he has travelled out of his own native city only on the rarest occasions, making perhaps three or four or five trips in a lifetime of more than fifty years and all of these by road. I heard the writer speak on this and other topics in a documentary film which my brother and I saw together in Melbourne. I am also aware that pinned now to the wall in the room in which I am writing this story is a small poster advertising the film. The writer who is the subject of the film and of this story is pictured in the poster bending down on his haunches in a leafy backyard and staring into a race-track made of sticks, as if there is something buried there. Having seen the film, I understand that this is a photograph of the writer as a man revisiting the site of his boyhood, and although the scene over which he presides is, of course, only a reconstruction of the original one, it occurs to me that perhaps the boyhood racetrack has been reconstructed thus in the actual backyard of the house in which the writer now lives as a man.
I am remembering a boy-actor who played the writer as a boy moving stick-horses around the racetrack, looked over not only by the film camera, the film lights and the film people, but also, perhaps by the writer, standing in his own backyard, as if the boy-actor was the writer's own son playing, quite naturally, in the backyard of the house in which he is growing up. Sometimes I have thought of myself as that boy.page 26
Shortly after I arrived in Melbourne my brother and I were sitting in the backyard of his house, drinking from gold-coloured cans of Castlemaine beer. The woman with whom my brother was living at the time was also sitting and drinking in the backyard, though not quite with us, but rather a little way away from us. Since one may suppose it natural for two brothers normally separated from each other by a stretch of water of some fifteen hundred miles—the Tasman Sea—to have personal things to discuss, it might then be supposed that the woman's distance is a mark of her understanding of fraternal relations. However, the real reason the woman was sitting a little way away, a reason known by myself and the woman, if not by my brother, whose deafness and blindness in this regard have been remarked upon by other members of my family, was our mutual antipathy towards each other.
I have visited Melbourne four times. Once as a very young child with my family when we were returning to Wellington from London. A second time as a university student in the summer holidays of 1984 to 1985, when I attempted to sell imitation leather credit card-holders door-to-door in the suburb of Carlton, where I was staying for two months in the flat occupied by my brother and several other people, including the woman who on my fourth visit sat a little way away from us drinking her own gold-coloured Castlemaine. The third time was a stay of three days in the same flat as my second visit when I was travelling by air to London in early March 1987.
My fourth and most recent visit to Melbourne was the first one on which I had been aware of the writer who is the subject of this story and of the gold coloured books which carry his name.
When I was aged eleven years I auditioned for the part of a boy who was to be the chief character in a film to be shown on television. At that time my dream was to become the chief character in many such films. I dreamed of the boys and girls of my school telling their friends in the years to come of attending the same school as the boy who was now the chief character in a number of films they had seen. In my mind I heard the boys and girls of my school talking in their men's and women's voices about the boy who was now playing the major roles of his generation in films which, it was being said, had become instant classics. I imagined a time in the future when I would be unable to remember any of the names of the boys and girls of my page 27 school, though if I ever met them, I would pretend to remember.
I can recall no details of the first audition, though I imagine it taking place in a hall large enough to hold all the boys of my school, except those few who were either ill on that day, or who had no desire to be the subject of the future adult-talk of all the boys and girls of their school.
The uniform of the school, which I imagine all the boys at the first audition being required to wear even though it is a Saturday morning, is predominantly navy blue. Navy blue jersey, navy blue shirt, navy blue shorts, navy blue socks. The socks, however, are topped with two thin bands of different colours; cornflour blue and lilac.
The second audition was held in Wellington in a small room more than ten floors above street-level. On this occasion I was the only boy present in a room full of adults, one of whom was my mother. I was not wearing my school uniform though it was a Wednesday morning. I was given three pages of script and taken into a second, smaller room. My mother, having wished me luck, remained in the first room where she had been offered a cup of tea but had said no thank you. The second room was the sound-room of a recording studio and it was bare except for a microphone on a stand in the middle of the floor. The floor was crossed in places by cables. The room then became dark for a moment until a single light was turned on over the microphone stand. I remember thinking in the moment that because of the darkness I would never be able to read the three pages of script I had been handed. In that moment I was convinced that the adults had expected me to have read and memorised all the words contained in the three pages of script in the time it had taken to walk from the first small room into the sound-room and that now I would never be the chief character in this or any other film. Standing in the darkness I then knew that I would never be an actor in the films which would be seen by all the boys and girls of my school, but that I might one day be the subject of a film which some boy or some girl from my school might see without being quite able to remember whether the man who is the subject of the film is the same man in whose outline flickers the shape of a boy in navy blue, cornflour blue and lilac.
I can recall none of the words of the script which I read into the microphone under the single light in the sound-room. I remember that while I read I was facing a large rectangular window which was perfectly black. Later, I learned that the man who had written the words I was reading page 28 was standing behind this window, watching and listening to his words forming in the mouth of a boy who might have become the boy in the film the man had scarcely imagined when he dreamed of the boy who is the chief character of the book he had written some twenty years before.
I now believe that the man who stood behind the black window of the sound-room watching and listening to all the boys who came with their mothers to the rooms more than ten floors above the streets of Wellington, had as a young would-be writer imagined himself as the boy who is the chief character of the book which some twenty years later would be a film for television. I also believe that some man or woman who had been a boy or girl from the school of the man who had stood behind the black window, when they saw the film of the man's book, might catch in the outline of the boy-actor who is the chief character of the film, a flicker of the boy whom they cannot quite remember but whom they believe went on to write a book some twenty years ago.
Although I had the address of the writer written on a piece of paper inside my wallet and although I looked at my brother's map of Melbourne in his house in the suburb of Brunswick and found Falcon Street, in the suburb of McLeod, I had no real intention of visiting the writer. Before I had even left Wellington, several weeks before, or perhaps even several months before, dating back to the time when two friends had returned from their honeymoon in Australia and given me the writer's address, I knew I would never find myself walking down Falcon Street, McLeod.
Shortly after my return to Wellington but before I received the phone call mentioned in the first sentence of this story, I learned from a letter the writer had written to my newly-married friends that the writer's house number had been changed by the local council; that what had been the last house number on Falcon Street was now the first and the first last and so on, so that every house had the number which had previously belonged to another house in the street. Setting aside the no-small-matter of the residents' anguish at this change, it occurred to me that if I had chosen to simply go and look at No. 22 Falcon Street and not approached the writer's door but merely made a pass of the house and studied it casually from the pavement so that anyone who happened to be walking down Falcon Street or even looking from the window of a nearby house would not have guessed that this was my objective, I would have been looking at the place where only page 29 some distant neighbour of the writer kept house. I would have been furtively looking at the house numbered 22 which had, until very recently, been numbered 48, or 56, or 74. 1 would not have seen the actual backyard in which I believe some of the boyhood scenes of the writer's life were recreated for film.
While considering my plan of walking down Falcon Street I became aware, firstly, of a feeling of dread which is the familiar accompaniment to my thinking about any interview, appointment, or public engagement, a feeling which communicates itself to my bowels. Secondly, I was aware that of all the houses of writers I have visited, I have never failed to enter those of writers who are dead, that is, I have never simply walked past the house of a dead writer, but that I have on several occasions walked past the house of a living writer without going in. I have often looked in the phone book for the addresses of living writers and planned and carried out exactly the sort of walk-past I was planning on my fourth visit to Melbourne, while studying on my brother's map the streets of the suburb of McLeod.
I then remembered reading an interview with an American writer who was asked whether he had ever met an older, more famous writer who had since died. The American writer replied that he had perhaps seen the other, more famous writer from a distance but that it was his everlasting regret that as a young man who wanted to be a writer, when he had had the opportunity to visit the famous writer in his house, he had not been able to go through with it. He said he had chickened out. He said he had sat in his friend's car outside the famous writer's house, while his friend, a young man with no intention of ever becoming a writer but who was merely studying the books of the famous writer to earn his degree, spent almost an hour inside the house, drinking the famous writer's whisky, the whisky which was finally to kill the man outside whose house the only young man who ever truly loved his books was waiting with everlasting regret in the car of his friend.
Yet I remember thinking that if I was to be stirred by this lesson in everlasting regret and not merely walk past but enter the house of the writer on Falcon Street, I would somehow be suggesting to myself that the writer whose house I had entered was now dead and not living.
I saw myself again as the boy-actor in the film about the writer, bending over the racetrack I have made from twigs and leaves and dirt in the backyard of the house in which I am growing up. The sticks I am moving around the page 30 track have brown-coloured flanks and the finishing-post, which I have painted gold, is the rounded piece of wood from an old ice-block. I am being looked over by the writer, my father, who is instructing me in the meanings of silks.
My father is telling me that his personal silks would be a combination of two colours, lilac for the sleeves and brown for the body; lilac for a special country blue sky, and brown for the soil. His breath smells of the beer and whisky which he drinks for three hours every night before going to bed. Drinking, he says, which will lift him from his own pages, deep into the lilac sky.
I remember thinking, while studying the map of Melbourne in my brother's house in Brunswick, that by acting on this lesson of everlasting regret I, the only young would-be writer who truly loved the books of the writer whom I sometimes imagined as my father looking over my shoulder as I moved the words of my sentences by applying pressure to the brown coloured flanks of letters, would be killing him, or at least wishing him dead. And I also imagined, then, that I would receive the news when I had returned to Wellington that no more books would ever appear which carried the writer's name and that the news would come by telephone.
On my second visit to Melbourne, in the summer months of December 1984 and January 1985, when I was a university student, I spent some of my time reading the books which I was to study in my next university term but most of my time reading books which I would never study, the latter always giving me more pleasure than the former, so that I always felt I was truly studying only those books I would never study at university. I would sit in the lounge of my older brother's flat in the suburb of Carlton or in his bedroom or outside in the sun on the patch of concrete which was the backyard, while he and the woman with whom he was living and the other flatmates were out working. While reading, I would drink from the blue coloured cans of Fosters beer which my brother had left in the fridge. When my brother came home from work in the early evening, I would stop reading and we would turn on the television and watch the news programmes on four or five different channels. My brother and I would exchange a few words with each other about what we had done during the day and sometimes I would pretend that I had been out for several hours in the city looking for work, or seeing places of interest, or doing a variety of things page 31 which the woman with whom my brother lived had often urged me to do instead of sitting inside their house reading books, drinking their beer and wasting my holiday. The woman would often remind me of the debt of several hundred Australian dollars which I owed my brother.
My brother and I would sometimes discuss the book which I had been reading for several hours that day and which I had left in full view on the arm of the chair in which I had been sitting all that time, though we would never discuss the debt I owed him. My brother would then bring into the lounge two tall bottles with the blue-coloured labels of Fosters beer which he had bought on his way home from work and we would drink these until the woman came home. Just before the woman came home I would put the empty beer bottles in a cupboard in the kitchen and I would carefully move the book which I had been reading for the whole day down beside the sofa in the lounge so that she would not immediately guess that the position she found me in when she came home was exactly the position I had been in for most of the hours during which she had been at work.
When my newly-married friends returned from their honeymoon in Australia in the final week of February 1989, in the time between my third and fourth visits to Melbourne, they told me of looking in the phone book for the phone number of the writer who is the subject of this story and then of visiting his house. They told me of the shelves of books which lined the walls of the rooms of the writer's house and that of all the books only a few were paperback books. My newly-married friends told me that the writer had spoken to them of the advantages of a hardback over a paperback book. He spoke to them of often approaching his many shelves of books not for the purpose of reading or re-reading from cover to cover the contents of a book but simply to find or re-find certain sentences which, having been found or re-found, might allow him to return the book to its place on the shelf for another two or ten or twenty years until he could imagine himself again approaching the shelf for those sentences. He spoke to them of sentences while pouring my newly-married friends several glasses not from the gold-coloured cans of Castlemaine beer, nor from the blue-coloured cans of Fosters beer, nor from the tall bottles with the blue-coloured Fosters label, but from the brown-coloured bottles of Coopers beer, dark as soil, as they sat in the backyard of the writer's house, with the writer's wife sitting not a little way away but close to the man she had married some thirty years
before, when he had been a young would-be writer drinking beer alone in his room for whole days while reading books which he sometimes dreamed he had written.
In the year following my appearance in the film for television of the book written by the man who had stood behind the perfectly black window, I wrote an expository essay of several pages for the Principal of my school so that I might become Headboy of my school. I had not been the chief character in the film, just as I had known in the moment of darkness in the sound-room that I would never be such a character, but I had been one of the boy-actors who were the friends of the chief character.
Two or three other boys were also writing expository essays for the Principal on why they, too, wanted to be Headboy of the school. We were all candidates for the position and it was understood that among this field I was favourite. I remember looking up at the Honours Board in the main foyer outside the Principal's office and imagining my name being added to the select list of Headboys and Headgirls which went back to 1954 and which included the names of some boys and girls who were now dead but remained immortal.
I can recall no details of the pages which I wrote when I was aged twelve years, nor can I remember the name or the face of the boy who became Headboy after the Principal had read what we had written. I remember only that the reasons I wrote of for wanting to become Headboy were concerned, in the main part, with revenge.
I took for my exposition the case of my older brother who had left the school three years before I had entered it. I wrote of my brother as a helpless victim of numerous injustices at the hands of school bullies. I wrote of the cruelties he had suffered and of the anguish I had heard my parents express at my brother's future when I had been standing in the passageway of our house late at night with bare feet. I wrote of my desire to see punished any boy who did such things to another boy as to cause that boy's entire future to be put in doubt. I believe that most of the writing of the essay was concerned with my hatred of the boys who had done such things to my brother as to cause me to dislike my brother's weakness.
I remember feeling humiliated when another boy whom I cannot remember was announced as Headboy. Yet, even worse than this, I remember the terror I felt when the pages of my expository essay which page 33 contained my secret plan of revenge were not returned to me by the Principal. I believed that these pages were being held in school files as evidence against me and that, at some point in the future, they would be used to bring me down.
I believe, now, that I decided then that I would never again be the sort of person who would run for any public office, or apply for any position of responsibility or leadership. I also believe, now, that I decided then that I would one day be able to write several pages outlining truthfully the story of my plan of revenge for the weakness I disliked in my older brother but until that day I would only be able to pretend to write such pages.
When I arrived in Melbourne on my fourth visit, my brother showed me the Melbourne Sunday Herald colour supplement in which there was an article about the writer who lived on Falcon Street, McLeod. I have kept the article not for the words but for the photos; the writer holding up his personalised racing silks to the camera; the writer, wearing his favourite hat with the feather in its band, picked out by the camera in a crowd at the racetrack. On my return to Wellington, my newly-married friends wanted the silks photograph from this magazine but I told them I was keeping the lot. I was aware just now when I wrote about the silks photograph that this photograph is on the wall of the room in which I am writing this story. Over the next week while I was in Melbourne more articles appeared. They appeared everywhere. They appeared in newspapers and in entertainment guides. I remember thinking that the editors of all of the city's publications must have been conspiring that week to provide me, and only me, with the pleasure to be had from reading about the writer and looking at photographs of him. And yet, because I was the only one who truly loved the writer's books, I was also saddened to see his name in print in so many places. I felt indignant whenever an article appeared containing a biographical or bibliographical mistake and outraged when the hack journalist and the half-asleep sub-editor failed to allow the writer's extreme care to influence their own work.
On this fourth visit of mine to Melbourne in November 1989, my brother and I, together with some friends of my brother's, though not including the woman who had sat a little way away from us in the backyard of the house in Brunswick, went to Flemington Race Track on Derby Day. Near the back of the racebook which my brother had bought to help us in page 34 our selections of horses was an advertisement for a film about the writer. Why such a film was advertised in the unlikely pages of a racebook could be guessed from sections of the film about the writer's life, in which mention was made of free lectures given by the writer to the jockeys of the Melbourne Jockey Federation on the subject of English Composition.
The woman who had chosen not to come with us to the races had done so because she said it was too good a day to waste watching horses and that her plan of driving to the coast somewhere was infinitely better than ours of wasting the day in a crowd of people all intent on losing their money. I remember thinking that her plan had merit and that if anyone else had proposed it we would have had to consider the plan seriously. I knew, however, that there would never be a time when the woman and myself could drive to the coast on a fine day and enjoy in any measure each other's company. The woman also knew this. She had proposed her plan on an impulse, as it were, to rival our well-established plan of going to the races, although I believed she had had it in her mind to make her impulsive declaration of the senselessness of the Flemington Race Track for several days. The success of her proposal lay not in its adoption by us but in the shadow it would throw over our day at the races. She told us on the morning of the day we had planned to go to the races, as we were preparing the food we would take with us in the kitchen of my brother's house, that it was a stupid idea to go to the races on such a day.
My brother and I looked for the writer on Derby Day in the Members' area, but without any luck. The writer was everywhere except there. We looked through my brother's racing binoculars at the crowd in the Members' area from our position on the other side of the fence, within the public enclosure. We looked for his distinctive hat with the feather in it but saw instead the tanned dome of a prominent New Zealand businessman who had recently married and separated from an Australian socialite, causing the couple to appear in all the pages of newspapers and magazines, rivalling the coverage given even to the writer whom editors, for this one glorious week, had decided was worthy of space in the pages of their publications, and whom we were convinced was present that day, somewhere in the Members' area.
I remember placing my first bet of this Carnival Week, as the week leading up to the running of the most famous race of the Southern Hemisphere, the Fosters Melbourne Cup, is known, on this day beneath a page 35 sky of brilliant, unbroken blue. This was also my first ever bet with a bookie. Five dollars a win on Gin Rhythm. It was only when I was walking away, having paid over my money to the bookie's assistant and having watched my five dollar note go into the leather bag whose brown-colouring reminded me of the colour of horses' flanks, if that was the word for the area just below where the saddle sat, that I realised the bookie had thought I had said five dollars a win Impressionism. He had misheard my flattened vowels, though, in fact, when I'd been placing the bet I had been thinking about Impressionism. I was too humiliated to go back to my first ever bookie and tell him about the mistake. Anyway, I considered that by going to the bookie with thoughts of Impressionism in my mind when I wished to place my first ever bookie-bet on the horse called Gin Rhythm, I had contributed to the misunderstanding.
My sister, who also lives in Melbourne, had been standing behind me in line for the same bookie and had put a dollar each way on Impressionism. My sister had lived in Melbourne for several years and pronounced her words so that Melbourne bookies were able to allot the correct ticket. The race was number three on the programme and it was called the Hilton on the Park Stakes. Gin Rhythm takes it from Impressionism at the post.
I remember being so excited at the close finish of the race and the fact that it included both the horses' names I had been thinking about—Gin Rhythm and Impressionism—that, for several moments, I could separate in my mind neither the horses' names, nor the order in which they had finished—nor could I decipher the name of the horse which the bookie had scribbled on the ticket he had handed me in exchange for my five dollars. Indeed, I still count that as my first and only win of the day, if that Aussie bookie had cleaned out his ears.
In the year before my third visit to Melbourne, I had read in an interview with an American writer, though not the one who had suffered everlasting regret, that revenge had been one of the writer's chief motivations in writing. The American writer had said that getting even had been a guiding principle in the composition of his books. I have often thought about this statement and, though I believed at the time, at the age of twenty-three years, that I was the only young would-be writer who truly loved the books of the American writer, yet I thought that I would only be a writer once I had forgotten the words of the American writer and had truthfully outlined the page 36 story of the pages I had written when I was aged twelve years on the subject of revenge.
I needed to forget these words, since I had to admit to myself that the actual reason for writing those pages was utterly base and totally self-centred; I had wanted to pretend to the Principal that I was anything but as weak as my brother and, for this reason alone, I had wanted to become Headboy of my school.
Between the times of my third and fourth visit to Melbourne, I sent my older brother by airmail a book by the American writer who had spoken of revenge. In this time I also received by airmail from my brother, a book by the writer who is the subject of this story.
The woman who was living with my brother at the times of my second, third and fourth visits to Melbourne, between the years 1984 to 1989, did not read the book I sent my brother. She did not generally read works of fiction and told me she preferred works of non-fiction because of their truthfulness and the fact that nothing in these books had been made up.
On my fourth visit she did not mention the writing I had done but occasionally mentioned its financial success, which was negligible in real terms, in terms of what real work paid, but astounding to the woman who saw the writing I had done as totally worthless and a complete waste of time.
On one of the days of my second visit to Melbourne, which the woman never tired of reminding me were being wasted in reading works of fiction and drinking the beer in my brother's fridge when I should have been outside doing something, as she often said, I had put down my book on the arm of the chair, placed the empty can of Fosters beer in the rubbish tin, and had indeed walked outside.
I remember that this day was like any other day of those summer months of my second visit; it was unbearably hot and humid. The sky was not blue coloured as I had imagined on those days which I had spent inside without so much as looking out a window of my brother's flat, but a hazy washed out grey with a pale tint of blue showing behind. As I looked at the sky on this day, I remember imagining a swimming pool into which has been poured powdered milk.
I can recall no details of how I arrived at the room in a neighbouring suburb in which a three-hour seminar was being held on door-to-door selling of imitation leather credit card-holders. I remember on this day page 37 visiting the Student Job Centre at Melbourne University, as I had often been advised to do by the woman. And I remember, as I was reading the notices of available jobs on small filing cards pinned to a large board on the wall of the Centre, feeling, firstly, the freedom that paid work would bring me from my brother's flat and from the woman's constant reminders of my debt to my brother and the worthlessness of my pursuits—which exhilarated me—and, secondly, terror at the distance I had walked on this hot day and the thought that I was now separated from the work of fiction I had put aside on the arm of the chair in the lounge of my brother's flat—which crushed me—and that instead of reading books which I sometimes dreamed I had written, I was now reading notices about the rates offered in the suburb of Prahran for lawn-mowing services.
The man who was taking the seminar on door-to-door selling was wearing a shirt and tie during the first hour of the seminar. During the second hour he was wearing a shirt, having taken off the tie. In the third and final hour he had taken off his shirt because of the heat and the humidity and underneath he was wearing a white teeshirt. I can recall no details of what the man in the shirt and tie said, though I remember the particular moment of his taking off the shirt and revealing the tattoos he had on the biceps of both arms. In that instant I knew that the man was taking more money in commission from his sellers than he said was the case in the seminar. And I realised that without his shirt and tie, I could now see that the skin on the man's face was badly scarred. His shirt and tie had not been covering up in any way the scarred skin but it was only when he took off the shirt and tie that I could see the scars. Also I imagined that I was hearing his speech deteriorate across the three hours. Just as the man's skin had deteriorated, so his speech had deteriorated, I thought. So that the man who had started the seminar in a shirt and tie, speaking very politely about selling imitation leather credit card-holders door-to-door, was, I thought, by the end of the seminar, only half-dressed, coarsely-spoken, and, I imagined, moving his arms in such a way as to make his tattoos show exaggeratedly large.
During the three hours of the seminar I sometimes felt exhilarated that I would not have to pretend on this day to my brother when he came home with the tall bottles of Fosters beer that I had been outside and that I had not been sitting in the same chair all day wasting my time reading while, in the woman's words, my debt ticked over. I felt pleased and triumphant to page 38 have something of interest to tell the woman when she came home from work to ask me again about the beer in the fridge.
While the man taking the seminar spoke, I was already forming in my mind the sentences which I would say to my brother and to the woman. I remembered thinking, as I watched the man's tattoos, that the woman, after all, had been perfectly right about my laziness, my wastefulness, and my complete inability to move from the chair and pay off the debt of several hundred dollars which I owed my brother. I was, after all, I now recognised, a parasite on my brother's good nature, and that what I had done was simply to move from the chair I had been sitting in in Wellington, fifteen hundred miles to the chair in my brother's flat in Melbourne.
I now realised that until this day I had paid no attention to the actual sky outside the window of my brother's flat but only to the skies which filled the pages of the works of fiction into which I sometimes imagined myself being lifted under the power of my brother's blue-coloured cans of Fosters beer.
During the three hours of the seminar I sometimes thought of the work of fiction I had been reading and had put aside on this day. And I thought of how much I hated the woman who had made me do such a thing and who had made me see myself in this way. And I thought of how much I hated my brother's weakness in living with the woman.
Several months after I received the phone call which is mentioned in the first sentence of this story, I was sitting in the same room as the American writer mentioned in another part of this story who had spoken of getting even through writing. The room was not in the house of the writer, though I had, at an earlier time, looked in the pages of the phone book and walked past the house which is listed as the writer's address.
The writer was giving a lecture in this room on the subject of Philosophical Classics. I can recall none of the details of what the writer said about this subject, except an example he was giving as to the part Reason played in the life of our minds in which he mentioned a visit to the horse races. Say I go to the races, the writer said, and this is unlikely and indeed the Greeks would say I had lost my Reason by going to the races, that it was a waste of time, but I am at the races and how am I to pick my horse?
While the writer was speaking about picking a horse, I was thinking of the names of two horses, Gin Rhythm and Impressionism, and also of my brother who, for two years, had followed a system he had read about in a page 39 book on betting. It was a complicated system which involved entering in long, thin columns many numbers and then calculating mathematically a percentage figure which translated into that horse's chances, with that rider on board, on that track, under those skies, of winning or placing in the race. After more than two years of following the system, my brother calculated that he had come out about even, or slightly worse in terms of money outlaid and money returned. It was not unusual for my brother to win up to a thousand dollars or more on one day and then to lose a corresponding amount the next. And that through these wild swings, he had come out after two years at about even, or slightly down.
I remembered one evening of my second visit to Melbourne when my brother had showed me the log book where all the numbers and calculations he used in his system were written. The instant my eyes had settled on the endless columns of figures which filled pages and pages of my brother's book, I felt restless and anxious in the way that viewing any work of infinite patience always affects me. I remembered thinking in despair of the hundreds of hours which my brother must have wasted in writing these worthless marks on to the pages of his log book. I despaired of his weakness in submitting for more than two years to the endless routine of entering the numbers in their long, thin columns.
Then, as my brother was speaking passionately about the system and its rigorous tracking of every possible variable in the running of a race, of the search for an equation adequate to all factors of environment, skill, past performance, whim, and chance, of the absolute impossibility of finding such an equation but of the endless tinkering and reformulating of existing systems in an effort towards completing exactly this hopeless task, I began to see the figures not as columns which bullied my brother but as the work of a careful, responsive hand which sought in the finest mathematical adjustments a sequence by which something might be finally guessed, and I saw in the arrangement of the numbers themselves, in the shape of their marks on the page, a kind of beauty, as if every evening for more than two years my brother had taken cotton and a needle and painfully stitched the columns of figures through the pages of the log book.
I then remembered what I had completely forgotten, that when my brother was a boy he had been interested in painting and had attended Art Classes and had, through the ages of twelve, thirteen and fourteen, filled many canvases. He had, of course, I now thought, done several passable page 40 imitations of the works of famous painters, propping up books which contained reproductions of these works beside his easel in the bedroom we shared as boys. In addition to these copies, my brother had, of course, produced his own paintings, two of which still hung on the walls of my parents' house. I remembered also that when he was a boy he had wanted to become an architect, before, as a young man he had travelled to Melbourne and finished up where he was now, somehow, in a job which, he said, used no part of his brain.
I had completely forgotten all of this, though whenever I visited my parents' house, I often looked at one painting in particular which my brother did as a boy of fourteen. It is a simple painting with very few things in it, just a tree in a field. But the field is a thickly-applied gold-coloured crop of some sort—wheat or corn—which gleams in the foreground with a light which is almost too bright for the eye to settle on, so that one's sight travels over this luminous field towards the brown-coloured tree which sits in the distance. And often my eye has travelled like this across the expanse of my brother's burning field with joyful anticipation, as if it is very hot under the clear, pale blue sky and that there amongst the far-off dark branches I will find shade. It is seen as though from the wide, clear window of a passing train or vehicle and, indeed, my brother painted it from a photographic slide my father took from just such a travelling vantage point; through the windscreen of our family car while on holiday in Spain several months before our return from London to Wellington and my first visit to Melbourne aged eight years.
I then thought of the phone call I had received several months after I had returned from my fourth visit to Melbourne. On the fifth day of this last visit I had imagined receiving such a phone call upon my return to Wellington. Or rather, I had imagined receiving a different call, with the news that no more books would appear which carried on their gold coloured spines the name of the writer who is the subject of this story. Instead, the call I had received was from my mother who had just learned from a letter written by my sister living in Melbourne that the woman who had been living with my brother for several years had left him for good to travel to a distant part of Western Australia which my brother had no interest in travelling to. My sister had written that as a result of the woman's leaving, my brother had become even more uncommunicative than was his habit and that she was now worried about his future. She had written that all page 41 my brother did now was sit inside his house drinking beer and whisky and that he was leaving the job he had had for almost eight years in the Commonwealth Serum Laboratory to apply for entrance into a course in Design at a local school it was almost impossible to get into.
As my mother told me over the phone what my sister had written, I could hear in my mother's voice the exhilaration and relief which I also shared in listening to the news of the woman leaving my brother for good. I heard and felt the shared exhilaration and relief when she spoke of the sadness of the situation and of her own worries for my older brother's future. She repeated the words my sister had written, saying that it was an almost impossible thing my brother was doing. And as my mother was speaking, I was thinking of the image which the writer who is the subject of this story had used in the film my brother and I had seen together in Melbourne, to describe his own process of composition. The writer, whose feathered hat my brother and I had looked for on Derby Day at Flemington Race Track, had said he wrote sentences by placing each word into position as if he was using tweezers and that this task was almost an impossible one, though it was the only task, he said, he considered worthwhile.
The American writer went on with his lecture by saying that he would have no other method of picking a horse than by settling on a name which appealed to him. No Forgiveness, he said, there's a name I like, so I put my money on No Forgiveness, which method of choosing, as the Greeks will tell you, is a complete waste of time.
And while the writer, whose books I alone had truly loved as a young would-be writer in the years between 1984 and 1989, spoke of the horse in his mind named No Forgiveness, I remember thinking that perhaps I would now be able to leave the room in which I was sitting and return to the house, on whose walls are fixed images of the writer whom I had imagined as my father rising from the brown soil through the lilac of a special country blue sky, and there begin, finally and truthfully, to outline the story which appears on these pages.