After graduating in law and arts in 1978 Sam Nola came to London on what New Zealanders refer to as their O.E.—their overseas experience. There was a “squat”—young people from New Zealand and Australia in a house in Islington owned by the Council but unoccupied and boarded up. There was a crowbar break-in and a new Yale lock put on the door. The house was rewired for electricity, reconnected for water, and five or six friends moved in—not legally, but the law on squatting was complicated, there were certain rights once you were in, and they were not evicted. Work was not difficult to find if you were young and flexible, passport regulations were not as strict as they had since become, and for more than two years Sam lived and worked in London, and travelled in Europe, as the young from the Commonwealth did then, coming and going across the Channel in a dodgy Bedford campervan bought cheap and shared with friends.
In London there were young women in his life, girlfriends, some memorable and regretted when they left, others forgettable—or forgetful (of Sam). The best remembered and most regretted was Simone Sauze. Simone was French and engaged to a young Parisian, Gustav Robert. She had come to London to improve her English which she needed in her work. She and Sam became friends and then, after a time of confusion and some conflict, they were lovers.
In those pre-A.I.D.S., or pre-A.I.D.S.-consciousness days, Sam assumed that every young woman willing to share his bed was on the pill; or that she would say if she was not, in which case he would take the necessary precautions. Most were. Either Simone was not, or she was erratic and forgetful in taking it. When she raced back to Paris to be with Gustav, Sam didn’t know (and wouldn’t for many years) that she was pregnant. It should have occurred to him but it didn’t. Her departure and their farewells were full of arguments and reconciliations, pain and anger and tears, none of which he understood. She left him feeling bereft, that he’d been too casual, that he hadn’t done enough, or soon enough, to keep her. It was a time he would always remember with regret. Once gone, Simone severed all contact. Twice he went to Paris in search of her, but had no success. She was gone from his life, it seemed for ever.
So his memories of Paris were destined to be as a place of defeat. But memory is selective, and in Sam Nola’s case it tended to be upbeat. Even (and sometimes, he thought, especially) places of sadness were good ones to return to in memory. Because they were sad they were intense; and because they were not the present reality, they could be taken or left according to the mood and need of the moment.
Paris as he recalled it was a city of romance shrouded in a rather distinguished melancholy, with the fine sad tones of accordion music, péniches going by along the Seine, the smell of dust and scent of candles in the holy alcoves of the Sacré Coeur, café tables on pavements and under trees, and the Palais and Jardins de Luxembourg with gravelled tree-lined walks, handsome statuary, and the Medici Fountain. The Paris of his memory was sad because Simone had left him and couldn’t be found; it was beautiful because it was Paris, and because it was alive with the language she had murmured in his ear in those Islington nights.
He went in search of her without an address or telephone number; and seeing on a map the Jardins de Luxembourg a short walk from his hotel in the rue Madame, began his hunt there only because he remembered her saying once that as a young girl that was where she had gone to play tennis. For days he behaved like a tourist, wandering the streets hunting for her face, his eyes and ears absorbing so much more because they were not finding, and would never find, what they were looking for.
Often afterwards he told himself, or friends if they were listening and the moment was right, the story of walking at night in the rain from one café or restaurant to the next, reading the menus and the prix fixes, in the grip of an indecision that could be broken only by a sudden forced (and usually wrong) choice; and in the midst of all this melancholy rambling, somewhere in a warren of dark streets around the area of Saint-Sulpice, a moment when he and a stranger each went to pass between two parked cars and so confronted one another, and when he looked up he recognised the actor Marcello Mastroianni, star of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and 8½. Sam’s instant recognition, and the pleasure it gave him, must have been obvious. He stood back, acknowledging the godlike presence, and gestured for Mastroianni to go first, which was accepted with a smile that unfroze the moment and the night. What made it special was that nothing was said. A tribute had been offered and accepted, and Paris had been for an instant bathed in a Fellini light.
But it was a light that couldn’t be other than fleeting. It was only a day or so later, still wandering, that he met, on the steep narrow Metro stairway to the rue de Rennes, a group of children who danced about him, patting him on the arm, the shoulder, the back, all shouting, demanding money, one holding up a newspaper in front of his face as if there was something they wanted him to read. He gave them some coins and they were gone, leaving him wondering what all that had been about—until it occurred to him to check for his wallet and that was gone too.
In the dingy police station right on the place de Saint-Sulpice he reported his loss. “Les Yugoslavs” was the weary response. These were Gypsy children and this was the way they were set loose to operate from camps on the edge of the city, their parents, or handlers, knowing that French law in those days did not permit police to arrest minors.
By the time Sam had made his statement (necessary, he was told, not for the police, who knew the criminals and could do little to stop them, but for his insurance claim) and come out of the inner office, the waiting room had filled with people there to report the same offence. The little gang of dancing miniature thieves had swept through the quartier snapping up wallets, money, unconsidered trifles, and on into the hinterland of the Boule Miche. Sam’s cash was gone and his driver’s licence. It was more a nuisance than a disaster, because in his luggage he still had passport and traveller’s cheques. But it had the effect of making him stop and ask himself what he was doing; and confront the fact that Simone was gone, that he wouldn’t find her, would not see her again. Summer was ending and suddenly it seemed the “O.E.” was over too: it was time to go home.
During those two years of freedom Sam had tried his hand at writing—in fact had written a whole novel, a thriller which he called Damn Your Eyes. It was, he supposed, an attempt to find something that might take him away from the law which had once seemed an attractive prospect, but which had begun to look restricted and unexciting. There were no “creative writing” courses in those days. People who wanted to write just bought paper and a portable typewriter and set about it. Sam had done that. His portable was a blue Olivetti, and he applied himself to it intermittently in Islington and while on the move in the campervan. He was fond of Damn Your Eyes, not so much because he was sure it was good, but because he had memories of working at it in strange and often lovely settings—in an olive grove in southern France, under umbrella pines beside a rural railway station, in an Italian vineyard on a hillside in sight of the sea. However it might appear to others, to its author its pages evoked scenes and fragrances which had nothing to do with what was happening in the story, but sprang from the circumstances in which they were written.
One last thing during the autumn of those final months in London was to find an agent. He was a somewhat off-beat boozy character, new to the trade, who would, he said, take it on. Two days before Sam flew out from Heathrow for San Francisco en route for Auckland, a contract was drawn up and signed.
Back in New Zealand, half excited to be seeing home as a foreign territory, half horrified by its random rawness, Sam set about doing what you did then if you were young, qualified, and a New Zealander. In summary, he fell in love with a girl called Ngaio, married her, fathered their two sons, worked, saved money, bought a house …
It was all, step by slow step, quite conventional, middle-class, prosperous, proper. It was as things should be. It was right. His parents were pleased with him; his employer (he was in commercial law) favoured and promoted him. His discontents were quiet, his boredom average, or anyway not extreme. He remembered London and the latitudes of his youth as, he supposed, his father’s generation remembered World War Two.
From time to time, with long intervals between, word came from his agent about the progress of Damn Your Eyes through a succession of publishers. One thought he should cut the whole of the Paris section; another thought the Paris section was full of promise and needed to be expanded. A third saw deeper elements that could convert Damn Your Eyes from thriller into literary fiction, but would require a complete rewrite. Some rejected it out of hand but never took less than six months (and prompting from the agent, prompted by Sam) to make the decision known. It was five years after his return to New Zealand that “feedback” (as it was beginning to be called) stopped altogether. Two or three years later again Sam enquired and was told his agent had been stung to death by bees on a visit to Central America. No-one in the agency knew what had become of the typescript. It was supposed to have been posted back to him but had never arrived. By that time Sam was a settled commercial lawyer, prospering in Auckland and thinking about buying a boat.
The ending of that life after two decades, the separation, the divorce, the guilt (yes, there was guilt), the signing over of the family home to Ngaio and the boys, leaving his safe job, coming back to London to look for a new one, sorting out passport formalities—that was a year of his life he would want to forget. Parts of it came back to him in moments of weakness, especially at 3.00 a.m. after too much alcohol. Sometimes, in company with his Oxford friends, Charles and Githa, he joked about it as his blue period—“like Picasso’s, only darker”. He tried to see it, when it had to be seen at all, as his time of liberation. Breaking the bonds couldn’t have been other than painful, and they had to be broken – that’s what he told the darkness of 3.00 a.m. He tried to be Edith Piaf and regret nothing; even sang it to himself in the half-light, waiting for the next car, the next ticking black cab at the curb-side, along Gloucester Terrace.
In all of this—the pain of transition, the separation from family and friends, the shock of finding himself “doing everything” (which meant shopping, cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing as well as going to work), there was a certain thin thread of exhilaration. There was another thread, equally thin, of hope—though for what, he was unsure.
"Stead is challenging, fun, urbane and brilliant . . . Read him."--Spectator
"Stead's deft marshaling of the language . . . only adds to the pleasure of reading [his work]."--Daily Telegraph
C.K. Stead is the renowned author of poetry, literary criticism, short stories, and of novels such as Smith's Dream and My Name Was Judas. He was awarded the C.B.E. for services to New Zealand literature. Stead retired as professor emeritus of English at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, in order to devote himself full-time to his career as a writer of prose fiction.