Sport 41: 2013
Patrick Evans — from The Back of His Head
And now, at last, the monthly meeting of the Raymond Lawrence Memorial Trust, quorate and properly notified: Hon. Chairman Mr P. Orr, Hon. Secretary Ms M. Swindells, Hon. Treasurer Mr J. Yuile, Order please—
Oh, shit, is there a meeting tonight? Marjorie says when she sees the papers set out before each chair at the dining table. You just said it was an emergency. That’s the emergency, the fact we’re having a meeting! Semple says. Once a month, Marge, thought you’d remember once a month: and for twenty seconds there follows the usual rattle of ill-tempered gunfire. Order, order—
We get through the prefatory nonsense—is it your wish—those for—AYE (Semple always very loud at this point, sometimes sustaining the note like a choirboy) those against, CARRIED. There are no matters arising but under chairman’s business I am able to report the ongoing sale of unauthorised Raymond Thomas Lawrence memorabilia online—cheap bric-à-brac, more a hangover from the time of the award of the Prize than a real and ongoing threat, but crass and irritating all the same: for example, a line in garden gnomes made to look like the Master—the Master sitting fishing, the Master as Rodin’s Thinker, even (most outrageously of all) the Master as the Mannequin Pis. Appalling, upsetting, infuriating: but, according to our legal advisors, untouchable, since we’d lose more if we sued than if we didn’t. And, as I said, this particular phenomenon seems to be fading out—
You’ve told us all this before, Semple says, slumped forward with his arms along the tabletop. True, says Marjorie, as she works a moist refreshing tissue at a reddened septum. Next business please. We haven’t got to the business proper yet, I tell her. I’m still doing chairman’s business. All right, do that, she tells me. Come on, chop-chop. Roof repairs, I tell them. Isn’t that Item 2 Upkeep, Julian asks, page 188 and I remind him I’m still reporting from the last meeting. The handyman’s had a look at the roof, I tell them, and he gives it a year. There is a pause. And then what? Marjorie demands. It all falls in on us? Then it all needs repairing, Julian says. Then it all needs replacing, I tell them. Oh, shit, says Marjorie. Let’s forget about that, then, what’s next?
We move on to the agenda proper.
Proposed from the chair: That in light of today’s theft, Item 3 Security be moved to Item 1: CARRIED nem. con.
Once it gets there, though, the perennial impasse returns. I can’t believe we’re discussing a fucking paua shell ashtray, Semple groans. Who cares if some prick’s nicked a paua shell ashtray? It’s not just a paua shell ashtray, I tell him, and Marjorie says, we’ve discussed this before, aren’t we thrashing it to death rather, next business please. But the next business is Financial, and there, the same issue threatens to come up again, melting—order, order—into Item 3 (as it is now), Upkeep. Whichever item we deal with, of course, it’s about the same thing, even I have to recognise that: the need to find money, for some kind of revenue, against the perennially-rising cost of running the Residence and the fundamental, ineluctable fact that, even without our having spent a dollar of it, the Trust’s endowment has become smaller and smaller in size as each year has gone past. And against all this, the need to keep the authenticity, the integrity—the purity, even—of the venture alive.
Whenever we discuss these things, Julian and I are always for the latter, and Semple and Marjorie are always for the former. Effectively, that means that they want to start selling some of Raymond’s objets to pay for upkeep, and Julian and I don’t want to sell anything at all. They want to represent his life with bits and pieces from second-hand shops, imitation antiques or even rough approximations, used books by the carton-load from Bevan’s Books, knives forks and spoons from Bargain City out by the airport, and so on. Julian and I have always held the line against these proposed atrocities, and for authenticity. And here the perennial impasse is, presenting itself yet again, with Semple starting the show:
‘Every single problem on this—’ he taps his agenda ‘—would be solved if we cashed the place up.’page 189
‘There’s no motion on the table.’
‘If we cashed up, it wouldn’t matter what they nicked because they’d be nicking crap anyway, we’d just replace the crap with more crap. If they gouge it we’d, you know, use wood-filler, if they keep on gouging it we’d replace the whole item from a junkshop. It’d all be crap.’
‘I have only one thing to say about this.’ A pause, as I look around the table. ‘Mabel Carpenter.’
‘Oh, fucking Mabel Carpenter,’ says Semple. ‘Not her again.’
‘The Mabel Carpenter Memorial Residence is a disaster. We all know that.’
And it’s true, both that the Residence of the late Mabel Carpenter—she whose fiction brought Dargaville to the world—is a joke, and that we all know it is a joke. When it was first opened we took a look at the place, Julian and I, driving north after a conference in Auckland at which we represented the Master late in his life, when he was too ill to travel. Naturally, given his condition then, we had thoughts of what might soon—and now, alas, has—come to pass, I mean how a writer’s home might most properly be turned into a memorial residence once he has (as Raymond used to put it) passed on to the great whisky decanter in the sky. Not like that! the pair of us chortled happily as we drove away afterwards: it was Mabel’s house all right, but for years after her death it had been rented by civilians (as Raymond used to call those who are not artists), and there was not a stick she’d actually owned in the house once her memorial trust decided to commemorate her, nor anything very much to guide them in their sad little reconstruction. ‘A desk very similar to one Mabel might have written on,’ is a line I remember with laughter, tacked to the wall above a very ordinary table that had been sanded down to nothing, no past in it, no life. ‘A bed typical of beds of the period,’ was another. The pièce de résistance—the nearest they could manage to the real thing, the nearest to achieving, for the literary tourist, the true and authentic moment—was a clothes-wringer in the outside laundry, certified to be authentic on a nearby placard, though described as a mangle all the same. Mabel’s mangle, we used to call it, and we were quite clear that, when the time came, the Raymond Lawrence Memorial Residence would do better than that.page 190
Naturally, I remind the meeting of all this: We must remember Mabel’s mangle is my concluding line—rather a good one, I can’t help thinking.
There is a pause, and then Marjorie continues as if I’d never even spoken. ‘It’d have to be good-looking crap,’ she says to Semple. ‘It’d have to look the same as the antiques we might sell.’
‘We’re not selling anything,’ I remind her. ‘There’s no motion on the table.’
‘You mean if there was, you’d discuss it—?’
‘If it had a seconder.’ I look across confidently at Julian. ‘Then I’d have no choice.’
‘All right.’ Semple. ‘I move we sell the Steinway.’
‘Oh, not the baby grand,’ Marjorie says.
‘I think—’ this is me, feeling my way towards a deferral ‘—I think it’d be better if we addressed the principle first rather than the particulars.’
‘My motion’s on the table, fuck it—’
‘No, it’s not, there’s no seconder.’
Semple looks at Marjorie. ‘Come on, Marge,’ he says.
‘Ask somebody else. I don’t want to sell the Steinway. And don’t call me Marge.’
‘It’s worth more than all the rest. It’s worth more than the entire house and garden. It’s worth hundreds of thousands. It’s a fucking baby Steinway, for God’s sake, with art casing, I don’t know how it got here in the first place—’
All they’re saying is true, there are items in the Residence that are worth a great deal of money, and more in storage elsewhere: and it is also true that some of them are in fact worth quite large amounts of money, though not necessarily as much as Semple and Marjorie would like to think. Though they don’t realise it, I’ve had the Steinway valued, and find that it would bring in about fifty thousand local dollars according to when and where it was sold and by whom. Overseas, of course, it would be a different matter, if it were sold overseas it would fetch much more. But then you would have to get it overseas to sell it, which would cost all we might realistically sell it for once it was there. Checkmate.
Marjorie, meanwhile, is casting around for alternatives. ‘That page 191 thing.’ She’s pointing at the Henri II buffet behind me. ‘The what-you-m’call-it. Let’s sell that.’
‘The buffet?’ Julian asks. ‘You’d have a job replacing that, you’d have a job getting something cheap that looked like that.’
‘You’d have a job getting it out of the house.’
Mr Semple’s motion lapses for want of a seconder.
Ms Swindells’ motion to sell the what-you-m’call-it lapses for want of a seconder.
Ms Swindells observes that the answer is to increase visitor numbers. Mr Semple expresses reservations.
‘You must be fucking dreaming,’ he says. ‘How are we going to get more of the silly weak pricks in?’
‘How many did we used to get?’ Marjorie asks me. ‘You know, at high tide? The good old days?’
‘Two hundred a month. Admittedly a while ago—’
‘Admittedly ten years ago,’ Semple says. ‘More. When he was famous. Christ, when he was still alive—’
‘Yes, but—’ (Julian.)
‘They used to come here to get a sight of him drooling in his fucking bath chair. Raymond. That’s the only reason they came, to be sprayed with his spittle. That’s why we got so many people through, because the old boy was still around to gob in front of them.’
‘Yes, but even so, show me the literary residence in the country that ever got—’
‘How many literary homes are there—?’ (Marjorie.)
‘Show me the literary residence anywhere—’
‘Yes, but—’ (Julian.)
‘—that has consistently made a profit—I mean a meaningful profit, not just pocket money.’ I sit back.
Marjorie squirms her mouth. ‘Yes,’ she creaks at me. ‘That’s all very well, Peter, but you’re telling us yourself. You’ve brought it up, you’re telling us we’ve got a crisis. Item 2, Financial crisis.’
‘A problem. A challenge.’
‘Yes, but—’ at last Julian breaks through ‘—it’s not just visitors, they don’t bring in that much, for God’s sake, they never have, we didn’t ask for anything at one stage and what do we ask for now? A voluntary page 192 contribution hardly anyone actually makes.’
A pause. ‘True,’ says Marjorie. ‘We’ll have to start charging them to get in—’
‘Then nobody will come,’ says Semple. ‘End of story.’
‘But we’d have to charge a hundred dollars a visit to get anywhere near what we need.’ Julian turns to me. ‘What needs doing?’
I look at my list. ‘We pay quarterly rating, the phone, electricity—’
‘Well, fuck the phone for a start.’ Semple, rocking from cheek to tender cheek. ‘Who needs a fucking phone when there’s no one here most of the time?’
‘Robert, darls, don’t tilt back like that,’ Marjorie says. ‘These chairs just won’t take it anymore.’ Then (to me): ‘Maybe they need replacing, too—?’
It is proposed by Mr Semple that the telephone be disconnected forthwith, seconded by Mr J. Yuile: carried nem con., Mr Orr to action.
‘The guttering needs replacing—’
‘It needs placing, there isn’t any at all round the back—’
I stick to my script. ‘The garden. We’re down to one gardening lady now. Val—’
‘How many did we used to have—gardening ladies—?’
‘Ten years ago? Seven, but we didn’t pay them then. Deciding to pay them was a mad idea. We were paying four at one stage—when they made that documentary we had four on the payroll—’
‘Yes, but doesn’t it look spiffing, in the doco, I mean—the house and the garden—doesn’t it look spiffing—? Summertime, and all that—’
And we all sit for a moment and think how spiffing the Raymond Lawrence Memorial page 193 Residence really looked in the high summer of 2001–2, when an Austrian crew of astonishing seriousness came over and filmed Raymond and his minder pottering about among the clivia the lacecaps and the agapanthus. Raymond refused to wear his partial upper denture for the actual interview, and consequently looks like Klaus Kinski in Nosferatu or even Old Nick himself, with just the two eyeteeth poking down on either side of his mouth. A section of this documentary opens the standard tour of the Raymond Lawrence Residence, which begins downstairs in the garden room with a closed-circuit showing, and then proceeds upstairs via the elevator: when the elevator is working, that is.
‘Oh, and the elevator,’ I remind them. ‘Still not working.’
‘It needs replacing,’ Julian says. ‘To tell the truth—doesn’t it? Isn’t that what’s wrong? The whole bloody shooting-box? It’s Apollo 11 technology, it’s another age, it doesn’t work anymore—’
There is a pause. They look at each other, Marjorie at Semple, Semple at Julian, Julian at Marjorie.
Suddenly Semple slams forward in his seat.
‘Fuck it,’ he says. ‘Let’s just close the place down.’
He holds the pose, looking around at us one by one, then pushes back truculently and waits with his arms folded. Julian looks at me, and I look at Marjorie. Marjorie looks at Semple.
‘We can’t close it down,’ Marjorie says. ‘Can we—?’
‘Got a better suggestion—?’
‘Well, we just can’t—’
‘For Christ’s sake!’ Semple slumps forward again, his elbows on the tabletop. ‘It’s like what Jules just said, it’s another age—it’s not now we need to think of, it’s ten years’ time, it’s twenty years’ time. Or even just five—now, it is now, the future is always now.’ He looks around. ‘Kids don’t read books anymore, they can’t even read at all—what’s Raymond fucking Lawrence mean to them? The youngest people that come through the Residence are fifty-something. Readers are dying and illiterate cretins are being born—’
There is an awful silence in the room.
‘I mean, let’s stop kidding ourselves.’ He looks around, but not at any one of us in particular. ‘Let’s stop trying so hard. It’s the old, old story and it’s caught up with us, so let’s just face it.’
A slight pause: Marjorie looks at Julian, then at Semple. ‘I’m afraid I’m not quite sure what exactly you’re talking about, Robert, dear,’ she creaks at him. She looks at me. ‘Any idea?’
‘He means we’re past our use-by date.’ Julian. ‘That’s what you mean, isn’t it—?’
‘We’re irrelevant.’ Semple’s voice is so quiet it’s disconcerting: I don’t think I can handle him being sincere. ‘We’ve got the population of, I dunno, Boston?—a city, I mean, we’re the size of a city—’page 194
‘We’re a city-state—’
‘No we’re not a city-state, we’re not even good enough for that—Athens was a city-state, Singapore’s a city-state, we’re not anything. For Christ’s sake, listen to me, I’m trying to say something important—’
‘Listen to you!—we’ve been doing nothing but listen to you all evening, for God’s sake—’
‘Oh, order yourself, Peter—’
‘We’re so fucking small, we’re smeared across the country like Vegemite, we just haven’t got the resources, we never have, and we tell ourselves it’s not like that anymore, we tell ourselves Ray took us out into the world and we’ve come of age—and it’s not true, it’s all bullshit, it’s just pretending. This place is just pretending—’ He taps the tabletop with a fingernail. ‘If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be talking about closing it down—’
‘You’re the one talking about closing it down—’
‘We wouldn’t have to grovel for support all the time, we wouldn’t be talking about money all the time, we’d be lying around talking about art and—I don’t know—fucking. We’d be endowed by some big corporation, we could have guttering with goldleaf on it and a helicopter pad out the back—we could have writers in residence the way we’re actually supposed to but we don’t because, guess what, we’ve got no money to pay them—’
‘Robert!’ This is Marjorie: she’s sitting back in her chair with her eyes fixed on him and a tiny smile. ‘You’re being sincere!—I quite like you like this, I can almost see what all those teenage trollops must have seen in you over the years—’
Suddenly, Julian leans into the discussion. He shifts about and begins to speak to the surface of the dining table.
‘With great reluctance—’
‘Here we go,’ Semple says.
Marjorie says, ‘Shut up, Robert.’ She’s looking at Julian.
‘—I’m moving towards your position, Marjorie.’
‘It was my position first—’
‘Shut up, Robert—’
Julian flicks a look at me. ‘Sorry, Peter,’ he says. ‘I’ve given it a lot of thought. We know some of the furniture’s worth thousands, and page 195 the books—well, there’s a reason we lock them away—’
‘Shit, it’s money that counts, not people!’ Semple, of course.
‘I move that the Trust affirm the principle of selling property items to fund upkeep.’ He sits back with his arms folded.
A stunned pause. I stare at him. It’s only me that’s stunned, to tell the truth, and not the others. They, in fact, are looking around at each other quite brightly. But I couldn’t be more shocked, I really couldn’t.
‘Seconded.’ Semple. ‘Well done, Jules.’ He slaps his palms together a couple of times.
‘Come on, Peter, you have to hold a vote now—’
‘Wait on.’ My mind is racing. ‘I don’t think it’s proper to the item.’
‘Bullshit. You’re making that up.’
‘What item are we discussing, anyway?’
‘Ah—one. Security. I don’t think it relates to security.’
‘No, we’re on Item two, aren’t we? Upkeep?’
‘That’s no longer item two, it’s item three, I think.’
‘Then we’re on item two, money—?’
‘We’re on item one, security.’
‘I’d like us to discuss this,’ Julian says solemnly. He’s not looking at me. ‘It’s where we’ve been heading for years, well, at least five years. We should sort it out.’ Now he looks at me. ‘I’m not particularly in favour of it, Peter, don’t worry, I just think we ought to thrash it out.’
A pause. We all sit there, breathing hard at one other. I stare at him. How could he? How could he do this to me? Brutus. Brutus—
In due course, the latest meeting of the Raymond Lawrence Memorial Trust comes to its end, with its customary sense of dissipation, its bickering and repetition, its sheer inartistic ennui. They wear me out every time, these meetings, each one leaving me with the sense of having been the only adult in the room. Of course, the worst of this particular meeting is that by its end I’ve agreed to the very thing I’ve held out against for so long—the debauching of the Raymond Lawrence Memorial Residence. Although I was trying to buy time by seeming to cave in as I did, I can hardly believe I’ve done so as I watch the others descend the concrete steps and go off to their cars. They page 196 feel so far from me, so little a part of Raymond and what he stood for: yet again I wonder, just what was he playing at when he appointed them? And now I’ve agreed to the business of selling him up, in effect: to wrapping up everything he was and giving it away. Oh, don’t be so melodramatic, Marjorie told me when I said this towards the end of the meeting. It’s the only way to keep the old place going! So it is, I told her: but will it still be the old place once we’ve done it? And where will he be then, what will we have made of him? That, of course, is the point. But do they understand that?
Outside, I wait at the foot of the ten concrete steps that reach down from the front door and listen to the others disperse to their cars down by the garage. A car door slams: Semple, first in, last out. Come on, I can hear him calling. Shake it up. Then: What’s that? I’m spellbound, trying to catch what they’re saying. Are they talking about me? There’s a slight wind, from the sea, enough to stir the leaves. It’s hard to tell. Once, standing here in the dark, listening to them leave after a meeting, I heard Marjorie say, No, he sleeps here, and the quack-rattle-and-bark of their laughter. Now, here it is again—has he said it again? No: Semple instead: Well done, he’s saying, followed by Julian’s voice: Thanks! Then: bang, from another car door, and a moment later an engine starts up. I creep forward, the smell of eucalyptus gum in my nostrils, to look through the foliage as they reverse down the drive en convoi, the paired sweep of headlights creating movement in the bushes and the trees. I can see Julian down there in Marjorie’s car as they wait for the silly red MG or whatever kind of sportscar it is: there is a pause as Semple works the wheel this way and that, and then off he goes, blaring down Cannon Rise. Now Marjorie’s more modest saloon limps away behind it.
Well done—it stays with me, up the steps and in the doorway and as I close the door and draw its bolt across. Was the meeting worked out amongst them before they got here, was Julian already on their side as they came in the door, have I been set up as well as betrayed? The thought nags at me and nags at me as I check the house and turn out lights. That line I overheard about my staying the night here has its own unconscious irony, by the way, since I intend to do just that, since, unknown to them, to anyone, I frequently stay the night at the Residence. Never on Raymond’s bed, naturally, but—almost as great page 197 a desecration—on the long couch in the Blue Room. Since it’s Louis XV rococo (though the fabric is more recent) I’m taking a liberty, but I do it just for that moment when I wake into the room each morning as it slowly illuminates. Especially at dawn in midsummer, the slow flush of daylight turns it into a sanctum sanctorum and an annunciation of his presence, a confirmation that he is still here, still with us: and there is a moment, just once a year, when the first light strikes exactly on the Medal itself, and holds it, and seems to linger: but, then, of course, it slowly moves away, having made its statement. And, of course, holds me as well, utterly holds me. I’m glad no one else is with me. It is just the two of us, Raymond and me. There is the meaning of him, of Raymond, the man, his life.
Now, I teeter on my right leg and then the left to remove my left shoe and my right, and pad from the dining-room with one in each hand like pistols. I turn the last light off: I know the house blindfold, I move through the little hall—there, the tight floorboard creak that is always two steps into the little hallway: I tread it and stand in the doorway of the Room, looking for the familiar shapes in the dark, smelling the familiar blue smell. Inviting him: is he there? Raymond—?
Raymond, I call to him, out loud. Usually it scares me when I do that, as if I’m listening to someone else who’s inside me, someone I don’t know and don’t particularly like the sound of. Raymond? There have been moments when I’ve called out like that and I’ve really felt scared, but also known that he was there, somewhere, turning away from me, always turning away: once, I called his name in the dark and a moment later heard the floorboard creak behind me as he moved away, crept away. Raymond—
Tonight, though, there’s nothing there, I know there’s nothing there. The Residence sits around me, inert, harmless, unthreatening.
Oh, yes—I nearly forgot: Semple’s latest poem:
The Shroud of Turin.
Two sheets, the one I print/and
The other on your queen-sized bed.
page 198 Time and need press them together, the second
To lie on, the first
Dedicated to a different kind of lying.
This is the way you might say
The business we’re in
How are we to do it, then: capture the moment, the
That is the
Ongoing business of Living?
How do we make our own /shrouds?
How stamp ourselves, I mean, our
Into the fabric of living
So that a hundred years hence or even a thousand
We are known to have lived
At least this moment?
How do we
Stamp ourselves like print/print
Life on our
Lie on ourselves?
How do we lie?
What is our shelf
It’s in the new Listener, next to a photo of a bicycle. I thought you’d like to see it. Love to know what you think.
And suddenly it’s tomorrow morning, and the wonder of surfacing once more into the early light of the Blue Room as I wake from my night on Louis XV’s canapé-lit and into the sense that, for a moment, a few moments, I could really be back there in time, waking in the Residence as I used to, Raymond in the front bedroom and still with us and the world full of youth and beauty again. And so forth: kitchen-maid sentimentalism, he used to call this yearning of mine whenever he caught me expressing it. No, it doesn’t work like that, he’d say, it’s not about cheap nostalgia. Read my bloody books again, you little pimple, and this time concentrate.
But now, the real world: which, alas, serves me Geneva Tennis. I didn’t tell them when I saw them last night, the others in the Trust, I didn’t tell them about her latest intrusion into our collective life. She has long been our bête noir, and all I have to do is bring her name up to get incoherence, outrage and reasonably foul language. Naturally, I’m not going to spill the beans straight away with details of her unpleasant phonecall a couple of days ago: make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, make ’em wait. But since it’s a rather serious matter that she’s raised, I’ll have to spill some of the beans sometime. And then the Raymond Lawrence Literary Trust will be in full cry. This is why:
Dr Geneva Tennis is a lecturer in English at one of the local universities who has spent her professional career pursuing the only writer she seems to know or care about in the whole wide world and for all I know the only writer she has ever read in her life: Raymond Thomas Lawrence. Like it or not, Raymond’s story is incomplete without her—maddeningly but truly so, as even I have had to admit, since, over the years, painstakingly, doggedly, she has written herself into the narrative of his life. How many years is it since she first burst in on our little world with Raymond Lawrence: Years of Lightning (1983), her literary-critical biography published somewhere overseas? Completely unauthorised, it was, a bolt from the blue, or into it: and riddled with the hundred tiny errors (plus a few real howlers) that came from its attempt to get around our collective gate, so to say, without the common courtesy of a rattle or a knock.
Let me count the ways. For a start, she got Raymond’s birthdate wrong, only by a day but a full twenty-four hours nonetheless, a slip that spoke volumes about the efficiency of long-distance guesswork, page 200 evidently her primary scholarly modus operandum as far as we were able to judge. Then she dated several of his publications wrongly, and wrote his novels The Outer Circle Transport Service (1967) as The Outer Service Transport Circle and The Back of My Head (1999) as The Back of His Head. Thomas Hamilton, the protagonist of both those novels, became John Hamilton in a couple of places, and, once—delightfully—John Thomas: other names slipped and slid throughout, both those of characters and those of actual people. I was referred to throughout as Peter Or—well, I was mentioned a couple of times in her book and that is how she had me in each, as if I were nothing more, as far as she was concerned, than a prepositional conjunction. I was livid, of course—I mean, the cheek of it. The cheek of the whole thing, come to that—
But her biggest howler of all was to have Raymond brought up in a place in which, to our knowledge, he had never even set foot! A wrong turn here and another there as (I presume: if she can make things up, so can I) she drove about North Canterbury in her (again I’m guessing) Trabant, her ordinance map on her lap and the dazzle of the sun in her eyes. And in the end she settled (it seemed) on a dreadful little property up a long driveway off the even longer desolation of Cornwallis Road, too nondescript itself even to have a name—nothing much else to be seen, so this (she presumably presumed in her lumpen, oafish way) must be it. She must have got up the drive far enough to catch a look at the farmhouse and buildings, because her description is vivid in the way a townie couldn’t make up, with details beyond her invention that she could have seen only first-hand: and it is amongst these that she placed young Raymond in her rich subjunctive account of his early years, wandering him over hills he never trod in his life, putting him out to milk cows never farmed in the area at that time, forcing him to shiver through chilly nights that whistled through parted weatherboards far different from the sturdy brick clad of Hamilton Downs, the two- (and in places three-) storey pile in which he was actually raised.
Hamilton Downs was—is still—about twenty miles due north of the Tobacco Road nightmare she had him in, on 2500 acres of rolling pastureland. It ran Corriedales for the dry conditions, and when things got wetter in the 1970s it switched to Highlanders, page 201 which (Raymond’s brother tells me) is what it still runs today. Not a cow in sight, there or anywhere else. Raymond, of course, claimed to have lost his innocence amongst the farm animals and would provide details unasked, not least in a notorious interview with a bewildered Norwegian journalist at the time of the Nobel Prize award ceremony, which you can still find on YouTube (Raymond Lawrence + Nobel Prize + gumboots). This was after the publication of Raymond Lawrence: Years of Lightning, so Geneva was not able to fold it into her meticulously improvised long-distance Freudian psychoanalysis, which made much of the various ties, walking sticks, telephone poles and tall trees in Raymond’s oeuvre, not to mention the occasional cupboard or cave—the scene in Flatland (1966) where Louise and Harry shelter in a grotto while she holds his walking stick seemed almost to drive her into a frenzy of hermeneutic retrieval.
On the other hand, it has to be admitted that she got some things right, disturbingly so, and there were details in Raymond Lawrence that she couldn’t possibly have known unaided, and which made the hair on the back of my neck stand up when I read them. Where had she got them from—which member of the inner circle had let them slip, who in the Trust, which of the gardeners, which of the accountants, who else in the support team, smaller though it admittedly was in those days? Which of you took the forty pieces of silver, I asked each of them in turn: and it seemed, at the end of it, that the answer was: none of them. But what other than a betrayal—a series of betrayals, dozens of betrayals—could explain her extraordinary, dangerous moments of knowledge, never stated but always there, somehow, between certain of her lines? No need to say anything further at this point, or indeed anything at all: and, of course, those of you unfortunate enough to know Geneva’s sad little book may have some idea of what I’m talking about. We still seek the culprit. Or culprits.
But now, audiotapes! Twenty-six of them in mint condition, she told me on the phone, her voice as adenoidal as ever. I’ve never met the lady but I’ve seen the author’s photograph on her book and looked her up on Google Images, as one does. If I had the loose ways she’s shown with Raymond’s personal privacy over the years I’d have found her address and trampled her shrubbery for her as Tom Hamilton does in Natural Light (1975) when he peers in the windows of his girlfriend’s page 202 house and finds her being pleasured by her pa—my, wasn’t there was a fuss when that book came out? But fat chance of any rutting going on as far as Geneva is concerned, to judge by her Google Images, at any rate, each of which expresses varying and carefully planned camera angles (the high shot is always a giveaway where a heavy jaw is concerned) and various coquettish poses; always, a neckscarf conceals the crepe at the throat. And, occasionally, a bow in her hair: I rest my case. Oh fat white woman whom nobody loves—
And yet, disturbingly, it seems she has some audiotapes. Twenty-five-year-old audiotapes? I asked her when she rang and told me. Have you played them, d’you know what’s on them, do they still work? I’ve arranged the technology, she told me, and listened to some of them. The vendor assures me he’s heard them all. The vendor, I said back. And who might that be? Oh, I’m not at liberty to give details at this point in time, she said. And there are certain details. For example? I asked, and there was a pause. Oh, you want an example, she said. She sounded hesitant, so I pressed her. Are you sure you’re not being sold a pup, I asked her, a pig in a poke? Oh, no, just the reverse, she said, your own role in his earlier life comes up, the proposed vendor did mention that. I went cold when she said that, my hands went quite cold, but I held myself together, she’d never have known she’d rattled me. And your purpose in telling me this—? I asked. What, she said back to me: about your role in his earlier life? No, I told her, your purpose in informing me of the existence of these tapes. I’d like to know why you’ve rung me about them. Well, she said, and I thought of the cocquettish images on Google. I’m sure you understand I’d like to write another book on Raymond. On Mr Lawrence, I said. On Mr Lawrence, she said. I understand the official biographer hasn’t been appointed yet—
Well. I almost hung up on her. Geneva Tennis angling to write the official biography of Raymond Lawrence!—after what she’s put me through over the years, all of us, everyone on the Trust and all of Raymond’s friends, but above all—above all by far—me? I almost hung up on her: but I couldn’t, because, as anyone can see, she had me caught. I had to go on talking to her and listening to that ill-favoured voice, while all the time my mind was racing. And when I finally hung up on her, I truly didn’t know what to do next apart from finding her and wringing her fat neck.