I sometimes wonder if I have a doppelgänger in Summer Hill, a he or she who reads and then discards the books I then buy second hand; if so, that person has a taste for Cees Nooteboom, because this is the third of his I have found over the last few years. Roads to Santiago was the first, a travel book about Spain that includes a sustained appreciation of the work of the painter Francisco de Zurbarán, which I must have been reading when I was writing Dark Night: I remember feeling that my prose was coming to resemble his (Nooteboom’s) and, recently, someone asked me if I invented him (Zurbarán) or was he real? The second is a short novel called Lost Paradise which intertwines the story of two Brazilian women travelling in Australia with the meditations of a European critic in an alpine spa . . . and now, The Following Story.
But I don’t get a chance to read much further into the book this morning, reality bites, M wants to do some guerilla filming in Camperdown before we collect Ella from Cremorne and they take the train back to Newcastle. Am always amazed at the way she can, in no time at all, reduce the chaos she fills the flat with to several discreet packages/suitcases/backpacks; we stash the camping gear in my laundry and set off for the RPA in Missenden Road – or Hospital City as I prefer to call it. I drop her off near the main entrance and park the car. When I come back she’s nowhere to be found, so I go in myself and see her disappearing down towards the X Ray Unit. I don’t know how long it is since I’ve been in here, not since last century probably, but whatever the interval was, it collapses, disappears, and once more I’m sitting with JB on a bench in a courtyard out the back in the wan autumn light as he says, compulsively, again and again, with a slight hiss of air from his dying lungs through his ulcerated lips: How not to hate!?
When I catch up with M she says the battery on her camera’s low and she’s not sure if it has in fact captured the images she wanted. Later, in the car, as we wing across the harbour bridge, she discovers that yes, indeed, it has. We’re in a rush: we have to get from Cremorne to Strathfield in an hour if they are to catch the fast train leaving at 12.28; we make it with six minutes to spare and there I am alone again on the platform making faces at Ella through the carriage window as the train pulls away.
More rushing . . . home to shop and eat and get ready for work. I don’t want to go – I never want to go – but I have to; it’s school holidays, always a quiet time for cabs, and a night full of emptiness and boredom stretches before me. At the base the other drivers are bemoaning the dearth of work out there yet I note that each one ends his account with: but I was lucky . . . Bob tells me that he’s already fixed the broken horn on 1821 and shows it to me, curled up like a metallic ear in the back of his falcon. His mate, the black silver service driver, doesn’t come in until five to three, explaining that he’s later than usual because he doesn’t have to pick up his kids from school. His shift, he says, was dreary . . . but I was lucky . . .
And, I have to say, it pans out pretty much like any other Wednesday except there isn’t much work at the big end of town so I end up having to give Bob cash rather than credit card receipts for my pay-in. Luck is a mysterious thing. At some point I’m coming up St James Road too slow and I miss the lights at Macquarie Street; I have to sit there while a hundred empty cabs sweep around the corner before me, thence to scoop up any stragglers and / or to fill the ranks to capacity. Not so. When I get the green arrow, the street is empty of cabs and there’s a couple crossing the road from the Parliament to hail me at the lights halfway along. Kensington. Off we go south down the ED. I’m startled, coming out of the tunnel, to see white sheets of fine rain falling; it was clear when I picked up. She in the back, who seems to be quite a bit older than he, is sitting in profile talking and looking intently at him through her glasses, he seems almost bashful and I wonder if I’m witnessing a seduction. From the way she pays, quick-smart, and from the alacrity with which she hustles him in through the garden gate, probably.
I swing back out onto Anzac Parade to find, in the rain, three girls running across the road in front of me. Two Pacific Islanders and a Pakeha. I drop the ones in the back off just around the corner and take the third down to Rosebery to pick up her son from his uncle’s place. He’s sitting on a seat out the front of the house when pull up, he’s about 11 or 12, and his face lights up when he sees his mum; as does hers. She says they’ll be going out to Bankstown soon, would I be interested? I say yes, if I’m in the area, and give her my mobile phone number. Thanks, Martin, she goes, with that characteristic crisp Polynesian emphasis on the ‘T’. See you later maybe.
Actually, though it’s a good fare, I’m not sure if I want to go to Bankstown tonight . . . but who knows? Anything can happen and it probably will. On Gardener’s Road near Kingsford I accept a radio job from Eastgardens to Dolls Point but on the way down there, on Bunnerong Road, a fellow hails me . . . I ditch the radio job and take him to Maroubra Beach. This might sound callous but I’m almost sure the call to Dolls Point came from the rank at Eastgardens, in which case they will surely have gone already. About half an hour later I’m back in the city, she hasn’t called and, even if she did, I wouldn’t go to Bankstown now . . . I’d rather go home.
The Cees Nooteboom is a very short book, less than a hundred pages long, and yet captures eternity in its luminous prose and in the strange story it tells . . . the first part, set in Amsterdam and /or Lisbon, is followed by a second section which describes a voyage across the Atlantic, from Belém to Belém – that is, Bethlehem to Bethlehem; and it is indeed a circular story, like Finnegans Wake but easier to read. When you get to the end you find that the last words in the book are identical with its title and, truly, there is nothing for it but to begin again . . . in the certain knowledge that, on the second reading, everything you thought it meant on the first will have changed . . . though without in any way abandoning, contradicting or over-writing any of those earlier meanings.