He was in deep recoil. Someone at Malcolm’s party said, “We’re only interested in novels by the under twenties.” And Neil turned to her and said, “You mean the under twenties who can write?” And she shrugged back and said, “We mean the ones who look good on the flap.”
He could have lost it then; I mean, things could have gotten ugly. But we dragged him outside, saying it wasn’t worth it, take it easy, take a toke on this. Together on the back-step, we sat smoking, looking out over the long green garden. With the house lights on behind us, filtered dim by drapes.
Malcolm’s crowd were all inside, networking the agents. The people Neil should have been pleasing. But he was outside, bad-mouthing the way things worked. The smart move was to let the writing speak. But he was way past that. He swore that he no longer cared about the book trade. He wanted to get “out of literature and into life.”
“I’ve been thinking about Africa,” he said. “I saw an offer in the press. I want to do something that counts, not spend my whole life pleasing industry. I’m done with fabricating literary doughnuts.”
So now it’s ten years later, we’re together, watching Forest lose to Derby on a green field rimed in frost. Drinking coffee out of plastic, complaining of an aftertaste, however faint, of puke. The stink of meat pies rising through the concrete vents. The Trent End with their arms raised like a field of grass. The slow snow sliding off the terrace roofs. We’re back together for a Christmas fixture, a Boxing Day mud-slog.
But he’s a codger in a tweed coat, bleached by Africa into the shape of an old man at thirty-five.
Shortly after Malcolm’s party, he shipped out to Tanganyika. Some ten months later, left the Mission School under a blanket, on a bier. And it was not only yellow fever, but dysentery, malaria. He’d been so far from the main road when the medicine ran out, he’d had to make his peace with God. He knew that when the waiting grew too long.
A jeep from Medicines Sin Frontières arrived to take him to the hospital in Kalemie. The doctor there, a Frenchwoman, was made of genius material – she saved his life.
I asked him, “Are you writing?” He said. “No. but I’m learning guitar. Do you want to come back? We’ll have some dinner. I’ll give you a recital.”
His favourite pieces were the Bach sonatas. Though he could do some jazz standards. He played the instrument with lots of bum notes and rephrasings. Clumsy catch up notes and blurrings. But he was good; I asked – had he had classes? No. During the six months spent in Dar Es Salaam recuperating, he’d taught children English. In that short time, he’d learned to play.
His new flat was still empty, the walls bare, with only wooden crucifixes, one per room. The toilet smelt of incense. His book collection on the shelves was incomplete, but all the Beckett was still there. The spines were yet more broken than before, the annotations spilling over every page. And a big bowl of yellow rice. A vegan meal. A monk-like living space.
Five summers later he was teaching English down in Box. We met in a pub out on the Chippenham bypass. When I went in, he was alone, reading the Telegraph, drinking a pint of Old Peculiar Ale. He was still teaching English, overseas executives, groups and one-to-one. He said, “I do a talk about the History of England, a kind of skit, you know, a spin for Johnny Foreigner. Mock the old England thing, make it ridiculous, 1066 and all that. Henry the Eighth and Wolsey. Cromwell’s Ireland. Cook’s Australia. Hitler. Churchill. Gandhi’s India, the Kenyan Mau-Mau. Holding back the Fenian hordes. They love it, you know Lap it up like babies.”
Though neither of us was still young, we put down a few jars. We took a taxi back to his place, left my car in the pub car park. His house was near to Peter Gabriel’s studio, a tiny two farm hamlet called Old Shockerwick. He shared the house with Jill, a tabby cat, but she was out – too many strangers put poor Jill on edge.
We got dead drunk. Got ugly drunk. Then Neil was crying, saying stuff like: “Welcome to hell’s gate. I’m hidden here under a stone. A twenty-five-year fugue. A man with a stopped mouth.”
There were no crucifixes anywhere.
Over Alka Seltzer the next day, I mentioned Malcolm’s book. “He has a stipend, so I hear. He’s writing a historical piece about the Stasi, in the Cold War East Germany. It’s called The Dark State Criminals. It sounds quite criminally bad.”
He laughed, but I could feel the darkness lurking under that good cheer.
“I show you mine, you show me yours.” he said, the first time that we met “That is the only principle.”
I wandered, spaced out, through the campus bookshop. I came out on the steps and found him waiting for me there.
His voice shook me awake. He smiled, in sunshades, moving like his feet had wheels. “Have you got this?”
His debut book. I nodded, “Yes.”
“What did you think?”
Three years later, finally it ends. A football match again. A stodgy case of bad head tennis, chest and punt. The sky over the Trent is grey, the tint of used bathwater. We’re all there with the reedy river smell, the wintry concrete steaming – a message pings on Tegsy’s phone, and then the headline:
Irish Novelist Found Dead.
A layer of snow rests on the roof, under the white winter sun. It’s melting, sliding, heaping at the lip. The pitch is lush green, bright with surface water. Forest leave the tunnel to applause, rolling out a dozen balls – arms swinging, short-sprinting, star-jumping – they’re looking good for the first half.