I was always considered an intellect.' At college I was in the select group at the top and when I graduated with a B.A. I was offered a junior lectureship in the English Department (which I turned down to go overseas). However I'm basically a modest man and I'd forgotten my youthful achievements until the other day when my past mental ability was thrust upon me with unusual clarity.
I was sitting in a coffee bar having my lunch and reading a book that I carried around in my jacket pocket. I usually only buy a cup of coffee at this place because I carry some sandwiches in my other jacket pocket. It's rather difficult eating your own food in an establishment like that but I have got the process of palming a sandwich down to a fine art - it's a surprising long way from one's pocket to one's mouth. Anyway I was absorbed in my book when a voice said,
"Excuse me but is there anybody sitting here?"
I was aware of an immaculate gentleman in an expensive looking suit standing over the empty chair on the other side of the small table. I didn't look at his face - I felt that he would be regarding my lumpy jacket, crumpled tie and worn trousers with contempt so I raised my eyes to his waistcoat and mumbled
"No. No not at all. Take it."
He sat down. It must have been the only one left in the joint for him to have sat down by me. I went back to my book and it didn't take long for me to forget him.
I remember I had one sandwich left and I did an extra good job of getting it out of the pocket and half of it into my mouth. I mentally congratulated myself on the effort. But it didn't seem to be sufficiently refined for my friend across the table. Perhaps the crumpled old bag was hanging out of my pocket or there was some egg left on my chin. He cleared his throat and I was conscious of him moving forward in his seat. I cursed to myself.
"Excuse me again but haven't I seen you somewhere before?"
This was the last thing I expected him to say. I was startled and glanced up at the beautifully knotted tie and the heavy fleshy face above it. It was vaguely familiar but who ? I racked my brain desperately then I remembered. I opened my mouth to voice my recognition but forgot that it was still full of sandwich. I spluttered, choked and felt a bloody fool.
I made motions towards my mouth and he smiled in a strained, over-tolerant manner.
"Take your time."
He seemed to be more embarrassed than I was. At least that showed some sensitivity. After swallowing my food and generally recovering I said,
"Sorry - forgetting my manners. But yes you went to Auckland University about eight years ago didn't you? Err ... um ... Rowlings - Henry Rowlings isn't it?"
"Yes that's right and you are Allan Digby?" I nodded. "You spent three years there then came down and finished your degree at Victoria didn't you?"
"What are you doing now then?"page 37
"Working in the Internal Affairs."
"Good job? I mean do you hold quite a good position? What's erh ... umm ..."
He wanted to know my salary but was too polite to ask directly.
"I'm on nine hundred a year." I said.
"Nine hundred! Oh yes I see. You've obviously got very good prospects. I mean to say it won't be long before you're well into the four figures."
"No I don't think so - not as far as I can see. I'm happy, can support a wife fairly easily so what the hell is a lot of money?"
"Well it ... um ... it helps I suppose ..."
"Anyway what about yourself? Do you live in Wellington?"
"No no. I'm down here at a management conference. I live in Auckland where I manage a reasonably large firm."
He couldn't keep the tone of pride out of his voice. I recognised his type immediately. He was one of these guys who measure success by the two cars in the garage, a bloody great salary, the correct expensive wife and the right circle of shallow, empty-headed friends the majority of whom are neurotic because it's fashionable. No doubt he had all these qualifications. He kept on pestering me about my job.
"You did very well at 'Varsity - didn't you get first class honours in something?"
"Yes in English. After I came back from overseas."
"And didn't you get offered - I mean couldn't you get a better job? Surely there ..."
"Look" I cut in. "I'm happy in the job I've got. I work with chaps whom I like. I eat three meals a day, can buy the books I want and am in love with my wife. What more could a man want?"
"But think of the money you could make with your qualifications. You could be so much better off. Where's your ambition?"
I laughed in his face.
"I've got intellectual ambition."
He looked at me incredulously. His mouth had dropped open slightly but he shut it quickly - a prosperous businessman isn't seen in public with his mouth hanging open. I changed the subject as I could see the discussion was pointless.
"Where are you staying?"
"Well I just arrived this morning actually and I haven't booked in at a hotel yet. I'll do so this afternoon."
"Well look what about having some dinner with us tonight then you can come back in and settle into your hotel."
(Afterwards I wasn't sure what made me say that. Perhaps I felt he would provide me with some amusement.)
"Thanks very much, that'll be very nice. I'd like to meet your wife."
I mentally visualised the meeting and grinned. He smiled uncertainly thinking that he had said something wrong.page 38
"Good, good it'll be interesting."
We made arrangements about a meeting place for five o'clock and I left him.
Rowlings was already there at five o'clock. I stumbled up and greeted him.
"You haven't got a car or anything here?"
"No. One is in the garage at the moment and my wife needed the other one so I had to fly down."
(My first assumption was correct - more mental congratulations.)
"Too bad. Anyway the bus won't take us long."
The bus was crowded and we had to stand. Rowlings was very uncomfortable. At a few stops further on we were pushed in even more tightly - the driver must have filled the bus to capacity. My elbow was forced into Rowlings' stomach by the press of people. I pushed it in further. Rowlings turned pale. I wondered how long it was since he had ridden in a bus.
We got off at our usual stop, walked a block then turned into our street. Our house from a distance is the all-New Zealand-house. Boring, secure and monotonous. The street was equally colourless - a typical, lower-middle class, suburban street. But I said our house looked that from a distance. When one reached the front gate the difference was striking. All the other houses were neat, strict and correctly painted while ours was the opposite. It was about forty years old and was still wearing the remains of its original coat of paint. It was difficult to know what colour this had been . I had never got round to painting the damn place because there were better things to do. Anyway, what's a coat of paint? - it's only skin deep. I suppose the house didn't look too bad. There was a loose length of spouting straggling over a corner and sometimes a sheet of corrugated iron on the roof would flap noticeably in a southerly. There were a few vigorous clumps of gorse on the front "lawn" and I looked forward to the spectacular blaze of yellow in the spring which I hoped would put the surrounding gardens to shame.
However, Rowlings didn't speak at all, which was surprising. We walked through the gate and around to the back door. The night before I was taking a pile of books out to the washhouse as there was no room in the house left - all available space being taken up by other books. However, I had got as far as the kitchen door when I noticed a volume of short stories by Henry James on top of the pile so I put the others on the floor by the door and sat down to read James. As a result I read most of his book and forgot about the rest. Judith (my wife) had obviously ignored them during the day so when I motioned Rowlings to go into the kitchen, while I held the door open, the first thing he did was to fall over this pile of books. Judith was by the sink and when Rowlings threw himself all over her kitchen floor she gave a great shout of laughter. I rescued a Dostoevski from under the stove while Rowlings picked himself and some of the other books up. For the first time that day I saw him really flustered. He acted like a man in a bad dream.
I introduced him to Judith.
My wife is a shortish woman who wears her hair long - very long in fact. It is jet black and she always has it undone. As a result she looks as if she had been dug up from the bowels of the Left Bank. She was wearing an old flannel shirt of mine, a pair of rather shabby slacks and a pair of my socks. Obviously Rowlings had never struck anything like her before. Indeed there was a contrast between his beautiful, correct clothing and carriage and our sloppy dress and habits.page 39
However, Rowlings was more at ease during dinner. The dining room was more civilised to him although he couldn't get used to Judith. The room was full of more books which startled him. The conversation during the meal was trivial and material and he did most of the talking. When we had finished up Rowlings asked rather stupidly and unnecessarily
"Do you read a lot?"
"I can't stop myself reading - neither can Judith." (She was sitting quietly smoking.)
"Do you have any recreation? - play anything, members of a golf club etc."
"Reading and talking is our recreation."
"But I mean exercise."
"When we want exercise we walk over the hill to friends, do a whole lot more talking, then walk back again."
Rowlings was mystified. He tried another angle.
"Do you see anything of or correspond with the chaps that we went through Varsity with - I mean any old mutual acquaintances that you are close friends with?"
"No. I meet them in the street sometimes and I can't talk to them.
I can derive nothing of value from their opinions - what opinions they have - so what good are they to me?"
I asked him a few questions about his life since I had last known him. He gave me the story of a typical, successful, executive type. Ruthless and hard. He was immensely proud of his achievement and I gathered that he was on an income of nearly £2,500 a year. He was prematurely aged and had already an unhealthy colour as well as the beginnings of an oversized businessman's paunch.
It was then that I realised how stupidly blind I had been. Of course he was just another in the street whom I couldn't talk to. The evening was useless. Perhaps I had invited him because I thought he might have been entertaining. He wasn't. His ideas and attitudes were material and depressing. I couldn't laugh secretly at his foolish theories on living any longer. They were narrow and pointless and the novelty of hearing them had worn thin. The words that dribbled from his mouth were selfish and pretentious like his bank balance and the circle of society that he moved in. We could never agree on anything - he would regard me as a blind idealist and I would dismiss him as a grasping realist.
During a lapse in the conversation he picked up the nearest book and looked at it idly. He read the title out.
"The Age of Reason."
"Have you read any of Sartre?" I asked.
"I can't say I know of him actually."
Then suddenly he did something which surprised me - and Judith too. He stood up abruptly and said,
"I think I'll go."page 40
We were caught completely off balance. The hidden streak of sensitivity which I had seen in the coffee bar had come to the surface again. He realised the total lack of common ground between us and had finally accepted it. It was then that he came the closest to understanding my life and perhaps his too. I managed to push aside my astonishment and say,
"I'll walk with you to the bus stop."
"No don't worry," he replied.
I didn't protest.
He thanked Judith for the dinner and shook hands with me at the gate. I didn't despise him quite so much when he walked briskly off down the street.
N.W. Bilbrough. 1961