Farewell to the Western World (part two)
Publication date: 21 March 2022
"Mark me down for style, I'd say to the critics. But don't do it for efficiency. I've managed to cram ?14.99's worth of book into a 152-page hardback."
Of the three planned quips within the author's speech at the launch of his first book, Momentary Hues, this was the one received most generously by the thirty-strong audience. Even his wife tilted her head upwards from her glass of Merlot to share a smile from their table. And, while etiquette generally disfavoured jokes made at the expense of the terminally ill, a spontaneous extension elicited further laughter in the private room above the Cheltenham bar where the event was taking place. This appended remark, which led him into a rehearsed sequence of thank yous, was: "The book's so thin that British Rail are investigating its potential as a sandwich filling." It was 1996, and the state-owned body that controlled the country's railway network was in the death throes of privatization.
Once sat back down, with his small figure rendered even less noticeable by a crouching posture, the author was happy to see the function splinter into various private discussions. The room was cosy, and its shabby patterned carpet and dark-blue walls seemed fitting for a literary occasion. Someone nearby lit a cigarette, and a female member of staff arrived, unbeckoned but promptly, with an ashtray.
"He'll have a glass of the house red," said the author's wife assertively to the lady from across their table.
"I was just going to have an orange juice," he whispered uneasily, recalling an argument a week earlier that had started in a similar vein.
"You're going to make me look bad," his wife continued, with no discernible adjustment of volume or tone.
The staff member, sensing some confusion, moved towards the couple's table. On it lay a copy of Momentary Hues. The book's cover comprised a psychedelic swirl of colours behind the bold white letters of the title and the author's name, Olf Lowen.
"So you're Olf then?" she asked with a warm local diction.
"Yes. Well, sort of."
"I can't say I've ever met a writer before, although we did have a ventriloquist up here one year. He was very funny… Anyway, is it going to be a glass of red wine for you then, love, or maybe a gottle o' geer?"
With this, the lady eased into a chuckle.
"In fact," came the timorous reply, "I just wanted an oran-…"
"What he's trying to say," his wife cut in, "is that he wants a glass of the Merlot. It's okay to drink once in a while, you know. It might help you be a bit more sociable."
For the author, the escape of this minor dispute from its private containment was distressing. He wished that he could stop time's passage for just long enough to resolve the disagreement with his spouse, and only then continue the more public conversation involving the staff member, or that he could just stand up and walk out of the room. The former option was, of course, impossible; and the latter, as he had found out numerous times in childhood, was equivalent to taking out an emotional loan with a short repayment window and exorbitant rates. The next move was his, and the stress that he was experiencing escalated further as a small party of guests, whose minds were elsewhere, drifted in and hovered behind him. Withstanding an urge to bellow out his tension, he instead clenched his fists, digging his trimmed nails into his palms until the climax of the angst passed.
"I'll come back in a bit, love," said the employee gently as she glided away.
The author moved to a seat on the opposite side of the table, next to his wife and with his back against the protective guarantees of a wall. The wife caressed her husband's hand, and he took several deep breaths. Slowly, a calm began to return to him.
"It was just the stress of having to give that talk," his wife suggested sensitively.
"No doubt," said the author. Yet, he knew that this was not the case. He had addressed larger audiences in less relaxed settings and felt no real strain. Public speaking was a social interaction governed by a procedural etiquette in which the orator maintained control. A three-way conversation with an intimate and a stranger, in contrast, was an interface charged with chaotic potential.
He had once tried to explain to his wife the inordinate emotional stress that could arise in him from inter-human events that other people would consider trifling. However, she had not been convinced. He did not raise his self-diagnosed anxiety disorder again. And the periodic entreaties for him to be more like other people were suffered in silence.
One of the guests strode towards their table, and the author's wife abruptly pulled her hand away from his. The visitor came with a compliment and a question, and the author was happy to let his wife handle both. For want of a better place to set his eyes, he focused them on the book in front of him.
"Momentary Hues," a pre-publication reviewer had opined, "darts around like a dragonfly defending territory at the height of summer. But what should I say is its subject matter?" This, the author had to agree, was a good question. If the book was about something, he was still unsure what that might be. Furthermore, he had rejected as nonsensical the publisher's enthusiastic suggestion to bill it as a book about everything. This left the possibility, through what was a rather disconcerting process of elimination, that it was actually a book about nothing.
The guest, satisfied with the exchange, stepped away, and the author directed a soft smile at his wife. If not overwhelmingly loving, the expression was at least diplomatic and well-intentioned. His wife's chestnut eyes shone back at him, and she drew a loose strand of toasted-almond hair behind her right ear. Then her lips began to move.
"My brother's family are coming to stay next weekend. He called last night, but I didn't want to bother you with it before you got this out of the way. I know how you don't always see eye to eye with him and Jill."
"You know I don't mind them, deep down."
"I think the phrase you're meant to use us 'I love them'," she replied teasingly.
"Just remind Mark that we do have a dressing gown for him. Seeing him parade around with the towel round his waist and his torso on show puts me off my breakfast."
"I can't make any promises."
"And I suppose he'll do that thing again where he lets us know he's on a contract at GCHQ by doing everything but explicitly state it?"
"And if he's got another new car to decorate his gravel with and tries to force me into a passenger-seat test drive again… well, I'm just not going to do it."
"Sorry, but there I've got to take his side. That's only happened once, right? And didn't you need a lift to pick something up in Painswick?"
The wife's thoughts turned to the run-down runabout in their own driveway, and from there onto another topic that she intended to raise with her husband, now that the launch was out of the way. He had quit his job to write the book, but there had been no advance and the publisher had shown barely less parsimony in setting the percentage for royalties. Perhaps not tonight, she thought prudently. I've still got to mention the anniversary.
"On a more positive note," she continued, "Alisha's really excited about seeing you. I don't know you how did it, but you must have made a great impression with her last time."
"I only took her to the playground… Well, we might have had an ice cream afterwards."
"Apparently you're in her good books, and that's more than can be said for most of the adults around her, from what Mark tells me."
He caught an unkind retort before it escaped from his mouth, but he could not prevent a wry chuckle. The reaction, his wife guessed, had been triggered by a reflection on the standard of the competition not being especially high. Instead of issuing a speculative reproof, though, she reciprocated the lip-biting. Then, after relieving her wine glass of a large gulp, she plunged into a more delicate subject: "Next week, you know that it's one year since Michael's death."
His thoughts drifted back to the tragedy of that day, as they had done so many times during the months that had passed since, and, in attending to a request from another visitor to the table, he mindlessly signed his real name inside the book's front cover.
Cover was what Emerson Mayhut sought more than anything else at the present moment. Cover to enable him to repay a large oxygen debt, for he had not run like he just had in thirty years. Cover to allow him to relieve the pressure on his bladder, as the forty-nine-year-old organ was becoming ever-fuller with the kidney's output of recently consumed beer. Cover because he was a man in retreat.
While a relative newcomer to London, Emerson was not so na?ve as to expect Covent Garden to have retained any of the greenery for which it was named. On leaving the pub, he had thus headed in the opposite direction, towards the River Thames. After sprinting across the Strand, where he bisected the rapidly closing gap between a west-bound number-139 bus and a black cab that had its nose towards the East End, he had cut through an arcade and descended the fourteen steps to Buckingham Street in four handrail-aided leaps. Only on passing through the gateway in the railings that bounded the southern end of this cul-de-sac had he turned to check for the pursuer. The hasty look back up the street had been inconclusive, and he had thus found himself, with aching lungs and a hammering heart, in search of a hiding place in the narrow wedge of green space known as Victoria Embankment Gardens.
Emerson found the cover that he desired in some lush shrubbery beside a high wall of pale Portland stone, which formed a part of the gardens' perimeter. The stonework doubled up as the rear of a monument built to express the gratitude of Belgians for British support during the First World War, not least through the sheltering of an estimated quarter of a million refugees. The centenary of the outbreak of that nightmarish conflict was only a few weeks away: it was late afternoon on a bright day in the summer of 2014. Across the road, on the embankment proper, there stood an ancient obelisk colloquially known as 'Cleopatra's needle'. The long thin shadow of the column pointed to the murky surface of London's wet artery.
Sitting down underneath the huge waxy hand-shaped leaves of a Fatsia japonica, and behind the screen of tall bushes to which he had just offered a liquid gift, Emerson felt safe enough to rest. He once had a friend who could have named all the plants that surrounded him, but he did not himself know any of their names. Even so, he valued their company no less for the lack of something to call them.
Thus placed, Emerson proceeded to review the events that had led to him being there. Not for the first time in his life, a couple of beers at lunch had preceded an afternoon of unexpected adventure. The pints of most recent concern, which were of a brand that bore the word pride in its name, had been consumed during a trip to the pub with several of his work colleagues. Operating, as he was, within the limits defined by chronic apprehensiveness, Emerson led a life in which, for the most part, he managed to suppress any confrontational instincts. This rule broke down, however, when moderate alcohol consumption combined with major contemptibility. Emerson's line manager—a person who offered the latter quality—had dominated the lunchtime conversation with details of an imminent two-night trip to do some shopping in New York with his girlfriend. Competing for repugnance, in Emerson's eyes, were the boasts masquerading as self-deprecation and the pretence of ecological virtue. Meanwhile, Emerson tried to suppress a distaste for his boss's silver-spoon elocution and a resentment of his good looks, neither of which were things over which that person had much control.
The two more reproachable infringements were illustrated by the following brief and unabridged passage: "I know it's such a cliché, but I suppose we'll pop into Tiffany's. We're not like those ultra-wealthy types who have to come back from every little holiday with diamonds, but a little gold something for Bella would be rather nice. And, of course, we've already bought our carbon offsets, because we've all got to do our bit to help the planet."
Despite the beer's loosening of his lips, Emerson had managed to restrain himself during the lunch hour, as he had done at several other social gatherings during his five months with the company. Then, as the group stood up to leave, Emerson's line manager started to explain how he would be going to the airport straight from work that afternoon on his Vespa. Something about what he had said—quite possibly the gratuitous reference to a luxury brand—unlocked Emerson's jaw.
"You know," he exclaimed, "you're such a fucking wanker."
Emerson instantly regretted the outburst: it would surely cost him his job, yet it had been generic and lacking in originality.
"You better clear your desk," said his boss. "HR will be in touch, no doubt."
The coolness of this response only served to stoke Emerson's anger, as did the seeming disregard shown for the twenty-two years by which he was his boss's senior. And he was still muttering words of discontent when he arrived back at his workplace. Here, after skulking across the office floor to collect his rucksack, he pushed his way through the door that led towards the back exit.
In the rear car park, attached to a metal stand, was Emerson's bicycle. It was old and all but worthless, and it had a rear puncture that he had been intending to fix for the past week. He twiddled a combination and removed the unnecessary protection of a thick chain. This he transferred to the wheel of a royal-blue Italian moped, and he then walked out of the shelter of the car park into a sour summer breeze. Soon, he was breathing the marginally sweeter air inside a double-decker bus heading for London's centre; he rode this as far as the Strand.
On disembarking, Emerson entered a pub, ordered a pint at the bar, and sat down at a table in a corner recess. He had sobered up, by this time, and his spirit was being run through a mangle. Immobilizing the Vespa, he reflected, had been a cruel thing to do, and his annoyance slowly bloomed into a stifling regret and then full-blooded self-loathing. The lashing-out, he well knew, had been caused more by a cumulative irritation with modern life than by the specific character flaws of his line manager.
The previous few days had been especially trying for Emerson. In the line at the local market for a coffee-bean vendor, he had failed to prevent himself from calling out the queue-jumping of a fellow customer, and the accused party proceeded to unload a lungful of vicious obscenities. On his walk home from the market, a lady, who was watching something on her phone, had stepped out of a shop, clattered into him, and—with what seemed to Emerson like well-drilled outrage—made herself out to be the victim. The following day, a car driver had nearly run him over while he traversed a busy road using the promised safety of a zebra crossing. And on the evening just gone, during his first visit to the cinema in years, Emerson had not been able to get a seat in his preferred back row and ended up needing to leave during the film's opening scene.
As the camera panned across a bleak landscape, and discordant notes from a piano began to build ominously, he was distracted by the noise from a phone that was being played with behind him. Turning his head to flash a disapproving glare, he saw not one but two gawping faces illuminated by the cold light of a device. Furthermore, the countenances were so similar, he thought, that they had to belong to identical twins. Emerson moved an index finger towards his pursed lips, but, in trying to select the target for the admonishment, he experienced the same kind of lateral uncertainty that he did when talking to someone with a squint. His oscillating gesture was met with the double-barrelled rebuttal of two right middle fingers unveiled in perfect synchrony. "Thanks for being such wonderful human beings," Emerson whispered bitterly as he headed for the gangway.
In one of his more recent breakthroughs of self-analysis—and of these there had been many—he had visualized a funnel in an unbounded space populated by slowly descending cuboids. The falling objects symbolized sources of annoyance or stress, and the funnel was his soul. Knowing this item's mouth to be broad and its throughput slow—for vexation lingered in him like a deep bruise—Emerson saw that he had to be vigilant in preventing too many blocks from entering. He strove to keep his life simple, to live within his means, and to look after his body. But he could not control everything, and as he sat in the corner recess of the pub on the Strand, hastily restoring his state of inebriation, another cuboid toppled in.
A pair of businessmen had chosen the table by his for a meeting. Over whiskies-and-coke, they spoke loudly of engine sizes, entertainment systems, and lucrative investments. Emerson wondered why they didn't save the exertion that was needed to string together such a conversation by instead just trading deeper and deeper grunts of masculinity. Then they started sharing racist jokes, and Emerson snapped.
One of the businessmen responded: "Why's it any of your fucking business?" The other boosted the situation's intensity, if not its linguistic diversity, with: "Fuck you, we'll fucking settle this outside." Emerson was quick to his feet, and, as he crashed through the exit, a glance back informed him that the latter businessman's threatening suggestion was entirely serious.
Emerson hid for over an hour in the greenery of Victoria Embankment Gardens. At first, his thoughts had centred on his past, and in particular the life that he had once led with his wife. From the very first months of their marriage, her mood had fluctuated in a manner that had seemed inexplicable, or at least unpredictable, to him. And just as a large rock can be broken down by the repeated alternation between hot and cold, so Emerson's spirit was eroded. What he remained unaware of, to this day, was that his partner's oscillations, more often than not, were just responses to variations in his own mental state. The pair's moods were like overlaid sine waves, with peaks in one curve coinciding with troughs in the other.
Then, his focus shifted towards the future. And, quite unexpectedly, he found in the seclusion afforded by the park's plant life a sense of peace and clarity. Emerson came to a resolution to leave London. He would concede defeat in his attempt to achieve isolation in the anonymity of a city—a project that, following his divorce, had seem him move from rural Gloucestershire via the stepping stone of Bristol to the capital. He would relinquish his hope to be able to lead a life that was normal (even if normality meant nothing more than an affliction of the majority). He would get some casual work or, better still, find a way to survive off his modest savings. He would find somewhere to exist away from people. He would head—with no better idea as to a destination—for the uplands.
Far beyond Hadrian's Wall, there was a valley that he knew well from walking trips during the summers of his early adulthood. This was a place where he felt confident that he could be a nobody.
"Nobody has time to use a hammock," Su remarked to herself as she re-read Martin Ballcock's interview on her laptop. "This guy is so full of it."
Then she remembered that she was in a café and pressed her lips together. For while, in such a setting, it was deemed okay to speak to a voice-command algorithm on a phone, conversing with oneself—a habit that blossomed in many people who lived alone—still lay outside the sphere of society's acceptance. Most tables in this clean, brightly lit, and modern establishment housed people working on portable computers.
Like the good journalist that she was, Su had arrived half an hour early for her meeting, and she was already thinking about ordering a second mug of green tea. Then Martin appeared in the door. He was smartly dressed and glowing with health, and time had left untouched both the cartoon topography of his face and his penchant for a central parting.
After coming across his interview of the cult writer Olf Lowen, Su had contacted Martin for the first time since they had graduated. Then, in the time between his response and the present meeting, she had shown a moderate level of professional diligence by obtaining a first edition of Lowen's only book and not only examining the author's details on the inside back flap but also skimming the preliminary pages. A pleasant surprise came from finding that the book was signed, although Su could not discern either an 'Olf' or a 'Lowen' in the scrawl.
"Martin!" Su called across the café.
"Oh, hi Su. How are you? Or how have you been, I should say? You know, for the past fifteen years."
"Please, sit down… Do you want a coffee, or a tea, or something stronger?"
"What are you drinking, Su?"
"Ah, nice, I'll have the same. But I'll get these. You'll have a top-up, right?"
"Thank you. Not just for the tea. For coming to meet me."
"God, it's been so long."
Su found herself studying Martin's hands, and noting, in particular, the lack of a ring on any finger. Her desire to meet up with him was, she had to admit to herself, about more than just fact-finding. She was happy that she had worn her favourite dress: its neckline, while not overly revealing, would have failed to meet her mother's standards.
They proceeded to politely quiz one another for a few minutes on career progress. When the teas arrived, Su steered the conversation towards Olf Lowen.
"So this guy really lives away from it all, then?" she asked.
"Yep, that's what he said."
"And do you think it's all genuine. You know, no electricity, no mains water, and all that?"
"Why would he make it up?"
"Even using the hammock every afternoon? You think that's real too?"
"Well, he might, I suppose, have exaggerated a little bit there."
"And the ceremony where he speaks to the rocks each year? You know, where he says that his friend was buried?"
"You must have something against him," Martin said, in a tone that was rather more defensive than he had intended.
"No. I'm sorry. It's just… Oh, I don't know."
"Sorry, I didn't mean to sound rude. It's just not what I was expecting."
"So did you visit him at his cabin?" asked Su.
"No. Actually, I've never met him. We spoke on the phone."
"And how did the thing get set up?"
"Well, it just happened by chance."
"Okay, you don't need to tell me. It's fine."
"No really. The thing is, he's the uncle of my fiancée." (Su's heart dipped a little.) "I'd got interested in doing an interview with him around the time of Momentary Hues' twentieth anniversary. That was in 2016, and there was that piece in The Grauniad—I don't know if you saw it—where they got ten different people from various walks of life to write a couple of hundred words on what the book meant to them. But I didn't have any way of contacting him. You see, Alisha—that's my partner—she hadn't heard from him since he upped sticks in 2013, or 2014, or whenever it was."
"I think she's one of the few people he ever really got on with. Then, last year on her thirtieth birthday, he called our landline out of the blue. She was out getting her hair done, but, as I said, I'd been wanting to interview him, and although I didn't have anything prepared, he agreed and I just winged it. I couldn't believe how open he was. He sounded a bit drunk, but he reassured me that it would be okay to publish it, in whatever form I wanted."
"So where is this mystery cabin of his?" Su inquired. Martin's story had amplified her curiosity.
"We're not actually sure. That's one of the crazy aspects of the whole thing."
"Honestly? Your fiancée—Alisha, right?—you're telling me she really doesn't know?"
"Seriously. He just disappeared. There was…"
Martin stopped mid-sentence, and Su sensed that what he had kept from saying was something worth prizing out.
"What were you going to say?" asked Su sweetly. "You were going to tell me something. Look, I'll come clean. I'd really like to get an interview with this guy for a project I'm working on."
"Oh, I know I shouldn't say anything more," Martin responded meekly.
"I didn't want it to have to come to this," Su continued in a playful tone. "Extortion's not my style. But it would be a shame for Alisha to have to find out about that night when you ended up naked in your corridor… You know, that was the first member I saw at university."
God, she's changed a bit, mused Martin. Lacking an idea for something to say next, he replied with a nervous laugh.
"Please, Martin, I'm only kidding. But I really want to know what you were going to say."
"Okay…" said Martin before exhaling deeply. "Okay. He mentioned the name of a hotel where he drank every Thursday afternoon. It's part of his weekly routine. He walks into town, buys some food, and then has a beer while he waits for his laundry to be done. He asked me not to mention the name of the hotel—I think he let it slip, you know, by accident. Anyway, I didn't put any of that stuff in the interview."
"So, have you worked out where the hotel is?"
"Yep, there's only of them one. It's up in Scotland. I'll write its name down here, and the little town where it is too… There you go…"
"Thank you. This is amazing, really. Don't you think that he wants to be found? By his niece, I mean?"
"Maybe. I don't know."
"Does she not want to go up there and track him down?"
"Alisha's a bit stubborn. I think she's still upset that he dropped out of contact for a few years. He must have been going through a tough time. It's not really my business, I suppose."
"She must have been pissed off that she missed the call and you got to speak to him instead?"
"She pretended she didn't care, but then I could see how happy she was when he called back the next day."
"Changing the subject a bit then," said Su, "have you got a date for your wedding? And more importantly, Mr Ballcock, are you going to be taking her surname? Or maybe's she's something worse, like a Miss Upper-Thigh or a Miss Cleavage." This latter suggestion made Su feel suddenly self-conscious of her choice of outfit, and she brought her right hand across to her left shoulder with the pretence of an itch.
"That's funny, Su. But I'm sorry to say that you're not the first one to go there."
"Or is she a Lowen?"
"No. They're not blood relatives. The link is through his ex-wife. And Lowen's only a pen name in any case. I forgot to ask him why he chose it. It sounds sort of Scandinavian, but from what Alisha has said, he's one hundred per cent British."
"So what's he really called, then?"
"Emerson Mayhut. I worked out that it's an anagram of the title of his book, although it's the other way round, I suppose. His first name was chosen by his mum, who was an Emma. She liked that it sounded like Emma's son. Her husband never even noticed, or so an old family story goes. They're both dead now."
"You know, that explains the signature in my copy. I was pretty sure it wasn't Olf Lowen. Look, I'll show you. I've got a copy in my bag…"
"Yep, I suppose that could be an Emerson and a Mayhut."
"It's pretty scruffy, isn't it? And why did he sign the thing with his actual name?"