Read The Back of His Head Online

Authors: Patrick Evans

The Back of His Head

VICTORIA UNIVERSITY PRESS

Victoria University of Wellington

PO Box 600 Wellington

vup.victoria.ac.nz

Copyright © Patrick Evans 2015

First published 2015

This book is copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study, research, criticism or review, as permitted under the Copyright Act, no part may be reproduced by any process without the permission of the publishers

National Library of New Zealand Cataloguing-in-Publication Data

Evans, Patrick, 1944-

The back of his head / Patrick Evans.

ISBN 978-1-77656-046-2

I. Title.

NZ823.2—dc 23

Published with the asistance of a grant from

ISBN 978-1-77656-046-2 (print)

ISBN 978-1-77656-024-0 (EPUB)

ISBN 978-1-77656-025-7 (Kindle)

Ebook conversion 2015 by
meBooks

In memory of

Howard Douglas McNaughton

1945–2014

and for

Ferdinand Evans Ortiz

El Terremoto

A novelist is someone who confuses his own life with that of his characters.

Alain Robbe-Grillet

… what we remember is probably fiction anyway.

Beryl Bainbridge

THE BACK OF HIS HEAD

July. No green left. The pines, the pistachio trees, the palmettos and the cork-oaks black against the rust of the earth, among the dying oleanders dried riverbeds that wounded the landscape and exposed the bones of rock beneath. Ahead, harvested fields, tinting the hills to a lion colour. Above, the colourless sky, slowly killing, killing.

He'd pulled a stick from a wild olive tree and now he held it bowed behind his neck as he walked. He could feel the press of it, and his chest thrust forward, and the heat of the stones on the track.

Somewhere across the bare plains was the dark spot where the bordj stood. He couldn't see it, but he knew it was there in its setting of eucalyptus trees. Something was there, something would be there when he came to it.

The land, burning under his feet. The stick, against his neck. To suck, a stone in his mouth.

Hamilton had been reluctant when the young sous-lieutenant first suggested it to him. Follow the little shit and get it back! the man said. Kabyles always travel on foot, you'll always be catching him up. Find him and slit his throat. At least we've taught you how to do that!

He was a Huguenot farm boy, Gost, from the Cévennes highlands, but the 25th Dragoons had taken all that out of him. The dragoons, and being here in the war. They were beginning to call it that now, the locals. Yes, they'd say when you went to the town or the market. Yes, it was a war now, all right. Not good, not good.

‘You aren't meant to be here with us, anyway, Thomas,' the Frenchman told him. He said his name the usual way, the end melting into nothing. ‘So just—fuck off and find him.'

Allez! Foutre le camp!

There was a train, which creaked all night as if it was falling apart around him. Early in the morning it stopped, and boys came aboard selling oranges. Hamilton watched them carefully, but they were younger than the Amazigh who'd taken his wallet. The Amazigh wasn't one of them. These were children.

He knew already how crazy it was to come out here, through the mountains and out to the Hodna, and all of it just for a wallet. Its cheap gilt-and-niello work was worth more than the money in it. Watching the little orange-sellers, though, before the train jerked to a start again and they hopped back into the darkness, he began to know something of what it was the wallet had come to mean to him since he'd found it gone. He had to get it back.

Tangerines, of course it'd been tangerines the boys were selling, not oranges. He'd bought one but hadn't eaten it. There it was, in his pocket, moving when he moved. A couple of times he found himself touching the thing, as if he was afraid that it, too, would be taken.

As the train came into the early morning the faint mist that still hung above the dark cedar ravines disappeared and the countryside came nearer. Huge, soft, serene, something more nearly imagined than ever. He was entering it.

In the square of the little town white forms stretched on the earth against walls, men escaping the overnight heat indoors and the scorpions. This was M'sila. Above its low roofs the silhouettes of young palm trees were just showing now against the greenish blue of the sky. In the sparkling, clear dawn Hamilton waited for the harki with the mule.

Not soon, a tall sunburned Arab came for him. Hamilton looked into his sombre eyes and knew that, to this man, he would always be the askari, the soldier. He knew that by coming here he was a kind of traitor, someone who'd left a self behind him. The truth was that he'd left two. How did you say
journalist
for a man like this? And how did you talk about a petty theft in a land of petty thefts? He showed the man the commission Gost had lent him, but to this Bedouin it obviously meant nothing. He tried to say something about the missing wallet, but the man's Arabic seemed even worse than his own. There was no way of telling whether he was really a harki, either, or of knowing what it meant if he wasn't, where the man might take him now and what might be done to him there when he did.

The Bedouin had a mule for him. Once up, he struggled to hold his seat. The man watched him without expression from astride a small, shaggy horse whose coat was pale, almost white. When Hamilton was steady he turned the mule's head away and set it off after the little pony and its playful, innocent jog. The Arab didn't look back at them as they moved away and out of M'sila and onto the flatland.

When they got to the countryside the smell of the air became sweet, delicious, and a vague, fresh scent began out of the ground like springwater. There were adobe houses, and, far apart, the saints' tombs with their strange, unexpected shapes. As the two men passed them the new light seemed to give the buildings form, to give them colour and even existence.

Hamilton knew it was wrong to think like this. He knew he was thinking like a white man.
Remember where you come from
, he told himself. Ahead, there was a deep-cut river he knew they had to cross. The mule would get him wet, and that would help. A baptism, he would have said once, before he came to this country. Already he was beginning to know better than that.

At Guerfala, though, the palm gardens really did astonish him. The animals drank in the vast artificial lake, carefully and at length, their ears cocked forward, their nostrils held above the water. Hamilton watched them and the way their steady lapping trembled the inverted image of the trees and buildings and the pale, golden reflection of the sky. He was sitting exactly between two worlds.

Eventually the man pulled his little horse away from the lake and turned it about. He looked back to Hamilton. ‘This plain is called the Hodna,' he said, not clearly. He pointed ahead. ‘And over there by those hills is Bou Saada.'

The plain, stretching before them, pink, empty, infinite. Far to the south, the mountains of the Ouled Naïl, pale blue, diaphanous, barely visible to him. The mountains and all that was around them, floating in air.

I

One of the Master's ashtrays is missing.

I've texted the other Trust members and told them to be early for tonight's meeting: they should be here at the Residence any minute now.

I can't tell you how angry I am. All thought of other problems falls away. It's not that the ashtray was worth anything in itself—it's just a paua shell Raymond picked up from the beach and stubbed his cigars in for twenty years and more, each day he wrote.

No, it's the
principle
involved. We go to the trouble of keeping his house exactly as it was when he was alive and writing in it, we open it for the public good, and what's our reward? Constant pilfering—
constant
pilfering. This week alone, a teaspoon, four books and a toilet roll—can you believe that? Someone would actually steal a
toilet roll?
Given the circumstances, it's hardly likely to have been used by the great man himself, is it?—but apparently that doesn't matter, that doesn't stop them: off it goes to the black market that seems to have developed for his memorabilia, along with much of the other
bric-a-brac
that helps us represent the life and work of Raymond Thomas Lawrence, our greatest living author: now, of course, lamentably and officially, deceased.

We'll start our search for today's culprit with the most recent names from the Visitor Book, of course, as we always do when a theft occurs. For small parties such as today's, one of the Trust members is usually enough to take them through and keep an eye on things, though when we get a large tour bus we all turn up to the Residence, and when a planeload of over-excited Danes booked in a couple of years ago we had to bring some of our gardening ladies inside to help restrain the visitors' Viking hands. Not that there was any sign of actual pilfering, as it happened, but their scrub-faced enthusiasm was almost as bad as they milled about, bumping into furniture, and one of them
actually lay full-length on Raymond's bed
, if you please, on the very spot where, the Visitors' Brochure assures us, the Master breathed his last.

Let me take you through the Raymond Lawrence Residence now, as I begin to close down and lock up before our monthly Trust meeting. The usual guided tour, but in reverse: for here I stand at its far point, in the Blue Room, an elegantly long addition to the south-eastern corner of the original hillside villa, the Pluto of the little solar system of which Raymond of course was the Sun.

Naturally, I can't render here the feeling this room always has for me, its sense of the past caught in the best of ways, not as in a museum or mausoleum but as if in a place of genuine transition, a place where time itself is annihilated or suspended—rendered irrelevant in whatever way: it hardly matters to explore or explain. I confess that sometimes when the day gets a little taxing I sustain myself through its desolations with the promise of an hour of solitude here in this timeless room, with a very dry sherry to help me remove the sour taste of the quotidian, and the familiar sound of one of the Master's vinyl records from fifty years ago—my favourite is a Geminiani Concerto Grosso that has a little Vivaldi piece for castrato on the far side of the third disc as a
bonne bouche
.

It is the colour of the walls here, though, that would truly take your breath away if you could but see them (which you may, of course, during the advertised visiting hours: donations always appreciated since the place doesn't maintain itself, as I'm sure you will understand).

We four Trustees simply wore ourselves out finding the right tone for the paint, and I imagine the city's paint-shops were glad to see the back of us the day we realised we'd done it at last, we'd finally persuaded them to mix us
exactly
the right blueness of blue!

And when we got back to the Residence it was as if each brushstroke we began to make was reviving the entire house—as if all the scuffs and abrasions of time were being cancelled out, and we were back there thirty years before and more, all of us, when Raymond arrived at this house a handsome young man and the entire the world was young. When we were done, none of us needed to say a thing. We simply stood there. We'd travelled through time together: it was as simple as that.

I'll tell you a little later about the trouble we had with the curtain material and how Semple got caught out when he had the fabric replaced on the rather lovely belvedere
fauteuil
over by the piano—we hadn't taken the work of the sun into account, and you can imagine what happened next!

Pause, now, instead, before the
pièces de résistance
, the
termini ad quem
of our tour: the Medal itself, and, below it, framed, the Citation from the Committee. Of course, they're not the
actual
medal or the
actual
citation, which are both in a bank vault, as you'd expect: but they're such perfect replicas that even I, who have seen and held the originals—who travelled with Raymond to Stockholm, in fact, and witnessed his investiture—even
I
find myself catching my breath now for the sheer
meaning
of them, for the sheer achievement they represent.

For Raymond was the first in our little country to win the greatest prize of all, in a time of overwhelming excitement each of us remembers and remembers and remembers, and in which we all seemed suddenly to loom a little larger in the world, each of us, all of us—yes, yes, I know, people say I've let it come to mean too much to me, and Robert Semple reminds me from time to time—unnecessarily—that I didn't actually win the prize myself. He also tells me to remember that, in a sense, the original medal and citation are themselves both replicas, too: all fashionable nonsense, of course, and really and typically irritating. Why he refuses to see the transformative, the
redemptive
nature of what Raymond achieved, the true, inner
meaning
of it, I simply cannot understand.

No matter: come away with me now, instead, through the little hallway and past the door of Raymond's bedroom, with its sea view through the arch of the trees beyond its window to the sea and peaks beyond—elderberry, native honeysuckle and, much further down the hill, a big burly rata, each helping to form an exquisite frame for the view. Then, past the kitchen door—not because the kitchen isn't interesting but precisely because it
is
, distractingly so, and would require a chapter to itself for justice to be done. Kitchens of all rooms in any house have the most potential for something that lies beyond nostalgia, Raymond used to teach us, and are places where one is most likely to find not just
the pastness of the past
at its most fully preserved, but that pastness at its most nearly available. I mean somewhere so close
we might actually enter it
. A portal, if you like. I'm talking Raymond-talk here, of course, as you'll know if you've read his books.

Now: the dining room. Here, the eye is first drawn to the Henri II buffet against the eastern wall, with the remarkable Italianate walnut panel carving on its doors—birds, fruit, landscape, even the effect of clouds: authentic, I'm all but certain, and—like the Louis Quatorze sofa in the Blue Room—one of many such pieces from the Lawrence family estate as distinct from the various items Raymond picked up in his travels overseas. There's the hand-painted lacquer Shoji screen we've just left behind in the Blue Room, for example (which we were told by a recent Japanese visitor in fact represents a brothel scene rather than just four artless
geisha
).

For all its magnificence, however—its wood like molten toffee—the buffet is not what I seek in the dining room. I seek Raymond. Not the actual Master in the flesh, alas, since not even art can bring him fully back, not yet: I seek Raymond in the flesh of paint.

And here he is, framed over the extinct old front room fireplace at 56 inches by 64, courtesy of Phyllis Button at her best, before the visionary period that signalled the onset of her dementia. The painting hangs here and not on the long walls of the Blue Room as something to confront the public: they enter, pause, look at the buffet and (always) ask whether it is real or not (meaning, of course, whether it is authentic), then how much it is worth (I've no idea but I conjure up imaginary figures to make them gasp), and then turn right and—well, here he is, here he is in glorious Technicolor.

In truth, though, in far better: in Phyllis's sparkling, even shocking end-times style, with its splatters and scrapes of oil straight from the tube, oranges and reds and (of course) bright blue, his defining colour, smeared on the canvas as if she were trying to get straight from the medium or through it or even around it, to the man himself, to Raymond Thomas Lawrence—Nobel Laureate, Master, genius: martyr. It's an extraordinary work, full of life and all the evidence you need of the way a work of art can show its artifice while at the same time transcending the strokes and smears of which it is made, and (even if only for a moment, even if only to particular eyes) make that impossible leap into life itself, hot, quivering and
now
.

And the oddity is (I am reminded yet again as I stand here before him) that the more she flung the paint on the canvas, and scraped and smeared at it with her knife and hands (brushes all discarded at this late urgent hectic potty stage of her life), the more nearly she seemed to make that leap: so that here we have a work of art which, at first glance, looks very nearly abstract expressionist in its mode, yet at second or third becomes very nearly representational, its chaos almost capturing the very man himself. And from behind—from
behind!

For that is what is so mad, and so utterly inspired, about this portrait: it shows no more than the back of Raymond's head, his veriest
occiput
, a smear
left
and a smear
right
giving a sense of the shoulders below, a wild plump dab of paint giving the nape, and then three or four greyish upward scrapes his back hair to the thinning crown, of which she takes care with a bluish flick of
green
, somehow: and, on either side of the big, gestural bonce thus confected, with cadmiums yellow-orange-red, a vegetal ear. Beyond and behind the right, the tiniest line of paint indicates something of his steel-framed spectacles. And it is
he
, Raymond, the Master, forever caught!

Like Michelangelo's David, I said to him when it was exhibited: turning away, I meant, always turning away from the viewer.
Michelangelo's David
? he said.
It's a bugger's-eye view!

Vulgar, this last, alas, yes, yes, regrettably so: but it must be recorded because so very much
Raymond
, and Raymond it is whom I'm after in this account. My uncle, and in due course my adoptive father, too. I seek the very man himself.

Ah, Raymond, Raymond, Raymond—
where are you
? No idle question, this: it comes up every time I find myself alone at the Residence—which happens more and more often lately, I've found, given that the other Trust members increasingly make this or that last-minute excuse to avoid turning up for touring parties and for the board meetings we're supposed to have here on the first Tuesday of each month, not to mention the occasional working-bee that I call. More often than not it turns out I'm the only one prepared to attend the former, and end up spending a solitary evening at home after all. Sometimes there are no apologies whatever and I find myself coming down to the Residence to find it looming above me closed and dark, and with absolutely no idea whether the others will eventually turn up or not.

Whenever that happens, there is the eerie business of feeling my way up the steps, and to the front door and, after the work of finding the lock with the nose of the key, pushing inside, lighting the place room by room and then turning back through the bright house and sitting and waiting at the oak dining table—
Patience on a monument smiling at Grief
, as Raymond would have said—until it becomes obvious that no one has remembered: or that indeed they've remembered all right but simply can't be bothered.

Or worse, in the case of the appalling phrase Semple used when I made an acid phone call to him on one of these occasions and discovered him involved yet again with some silly little tart in his bed. Urgent Business Elsewhere, he said, with the woman's giggles in the background. Well, I told him what I thought of indulging in
that
kind of business when he ought to have been at the Trust meeting, and that's when he said the phrase in question. For
Raymond's
sake, I said to him—
come on!
Can't be arsed, he told me back. You can't be
what
—? I said, unable to believe my very ears.

Now, here I am yet again with a deserted building to confront and the prospect of yet another wasted evening to be spent inside it. And, always on these occasions, that question—
where are you, Raymond
?—and the strange sense, whenever I'm standing at the top of the front steps with the wind blowing in my hair and my key tapping blindly against the plate of the lock in the darkness, that Raymond is inside the house, that when the door finally opens and I click the stiff brass light switch just inside and to the right—lo!—he'll be sitting there like Jeremy Bentham in his stall at University College, staring back at me, waxen of head and
tissue preserved!

Sometimes when this fancy takes me Raymond is as I first met him, barely forty and ruddy with health, his look sardonic, his purpose, as always, impossible to pin down. At other times, it's as if he's in his last months and crouched atop the elevator platform in his
fauteuil roulant
, as he used to call his wheelchair, his head and his hand going
tick-tick-tick
as was often the case in the final days. Once, as I fumbled the key at the front door lock, I was sure I could hear the buzz of the wheelchair elevator inside as it made its climb to the main floor, ready to greet me. With what?—would he be there at last on its platform, when I got the door open, would he be crouched there and waiting in his wheelchair?

Other books

Sexual Persuasion by Sinclair, Maryn
Demon Within by Nicholls, Julie
Sky People by Ardy Sixkiller Clarke
Rain In My Heart by Kara Karnatzki
Alien Sex 102 by Allie Ritch
All Together in One Place by Jane Kirkpatrick
Dark Tendrils by Claude Lalumiere