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Conversations with

Mr. Prain joan taylor

MELVILLEHOUSE BROOKLYN, NEW YORK


prologue

I first met him at Camden Lock Market, in my secondhand book stall. I was sitting at the counter, behind the archaic cash register, pricing. It was spring. I had woken early and was feeling bright and refreshed from a walk up Primrose Hill before breakfast. Camden had succumbed yet again to vernal rejuvenation. Light green leaves rustled above the street litter. The canal bustled with boats on the move. Friends began talking of summer outings and new clothes, and even—for those who had been frugal over the winter—holidays in Greece or North Africa. For reasons that can never be satisfactorily explained, the Market was not very busy that day. Most of the people that ambled through my stall kept slipping away without even catching my eye. Despite there being only a few paltry notes in my till, I did not feel dejected. I rather enjoyed the opportunity to day-dream of unattainable holidays, compose rudimentary short stories, and spectate. I eavesdropped on snatches of conversation. I re-arranged the table displays outside, and watched the sun gently illuminate


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swathes of eastern drapery, amber jewellery from Poland, glass vials and brass hangings, the way Rembrandt would highlight such objects in his paintings. I looked at the diversity of passers-by, and inhaled spicy aromas from great bubbling vats of ethnic food. I remember him coming in. I took note of him as an attractive, dark-haired man. I remember his clothes, not because they were startlingly strange, but because they were of high quality and rather conservative, which seemed out of place in the circumstances. He wore a light-blue jacket, cream trousers and a pin-striped shirt, all meticulously pressed and new, with tan-coloured slip-on shoes. This well-kept man was not at all like most of the visitors to the Market, and somewhat older than the average age, being— I guessed—in his mid forties. He had with him two teenagers, a boy and a girl, though I did not get the impression they were his own children, unless he did not know his own children very well. Moreover, I detected something foreign in their accent, while he spoke with that particular brand of sardonic, vowel-rounded English that advertises wealth and good breeding. The three of them arrived at my stall and, without noticing me, made an arrangement. The teenagers strained to wander on their own. I imagine they felt embarrassed to be associated with someone middle-aged and staid in this avant-garde environment. He quickly agreed to their plan, and they sauntered off with restrained glee.


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He seemed relieved to be rid of his charges. He glanced at his gold watch and began to peruse the shelves. Then he pulled down a few paperbacks and skimmed through them, soon moving on to weightier tomes of reproductions. I returned to my pricing, glancing at him now and then. It always amused me to see someone so conservative in this environment. Camden Lock, of course, is far more upmarket now than it used to be, with stalls displaying elegant craftwork and imports, but it sits like a treasure chest in a junkyard, surrounded by Goth shops, tattoo and piercing centres, garish painted buildings, magic mushroom sellers and the greatest range of seedy tat in England. He had obviously come here for the benefit of the teenagers, but he did not belong in Camden Market at all, rather in the British Museum. I suppose it must have been a few minutes before I glanced up again, and found him staring at me. He held open a volume on the early work of Cézanne, with one hand under the spine, and the other about to turn the page. He was gaping at me as if I were a television showing some absolutely astonishing news: Tony Blair joins a Buddhist monastery; an alien spacecraft lands in Vladivostok. I thought I had better say something, so I told him that the book was £30 as it was in perfect condition. It had been left over from months before when its companion volumes had all been sold. It appeared that few people wanted reproductions of Cézanne’s youthful depictions of rapes and murders and all the gloomy outpourings of his obsessive mind:


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this was not the Cézanne they knew. Nevertheless, I kept the price up, convinced that someone equally gloomy and obsessive would eventually pay a fair sum. “Thirty pounds?” he repeated automatically. Then he came over to the counter, looking at me hard, and asked if I had managed to see the exhibition at the Royal Academy some years back, in which many of these works were shown. I admitted I had missed that one, and he commented, “It was very good. Quite a revelation.” “Of what?” I asked. “Of the secret, dark side of a man,” he said, and scrutinised me, apparently trying to think of something else to say that would permit him to gaze longer than was socially acceptable. But I was used to oddballs at the Market. People sometimes looked at me curiously, because I like to wear quirky vintage clothes and environmentalist badges; because I wear my curly blonde hair in unusual styles, and sometimes because they hear me speak and register foreignness. Often they ask me, “Are you Australian?” “New Zealand,” I answer. Then they usually tell me of a holiday, or about a relative who has emigrated, carefully mispronouncing a Maori place-name, to which I say, “Oh it’s great there. Very beautiful,” and smile. And I smiled at this man with the menacing Cézanne. “Would you hold it on the counter for me then,” he said, finally, as if waiting, as if I had been the one detaining him by refusing to take the proffered book from his hand.


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“Of course,” I said, in my New Zealand accent, which most strongly comes upon me when faced with someone very British and in authority. I took the book. He backed off and I ignored him, almost, when others came in to browse. I noted that he hovered around the foreign classics section, where he peeked up from the pages of Voltaire’s Letters on England. When the browsers had departed and the stall was again clear, he stood before me once more and put some notes on the counter. “Quite a bargain for what it is,” he said. It always irritated me when people thought they had found a bargain on my shelves. Since he clearly had the money to have bought it for more and I could have done with the extra cash, it was especially irritating. “Did I say thirty? I meant fifty!” I joked, ringing up the amount on the cash register. He smiled a little tightly and now seemed to be avoiding looking at me at all. “You have a few other rarities here, I see,” he said. “I’m rather pleased to have found you.” “Then I hope you’ll come back.” He said he certainly would return on some future occasion, though he was not often in Camden. It was simply that he was guardian for the day of his niece and nephew, who grew up in Argentina, and now wished to see the sights of London on their English holiday. He went out. I was left with the invaded feeling you get after you have been examined by a doctor.


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He returned the next week, and then regularly every two weeks. Our conversations became steadily longer. Sometimes he stayed a good half hour, positioned in a moderately inconspicuous corner near the counter but still incongruous. We talked about art. “I hope I’m not in the way,” he said, after a time, with a tone that indicated I should create more space for visitors of importance. Before his next visit, I excavated an appeasing selection of old editions for his first refusal, and this seemed to make him content. Now and then I told him something about myself, though not that I was a writer. I had no intention of giving him a resumé of my life, and detoured into other things. He didn’t say he’d been to New Zealand, or had relatives there. We talked about the arts. He seemed to possess a vast knowledge of culture, past and present, and I rather liked demonstrating to him that I was urbane, despite growing up barefoot and wild in the land of green pastures, with no access to the Royal Opera House or the National Gallery. I had made it my business to know about literature, this being my trade. I had absorbed a fair amount about the visual arts from sharing flats with artists and reading their book collections, as well as going to exhibitions. I knew about theatre from attending plays as often as I could set aside the cost of a ticket, and from helping actor friends with their lines. I was always out and about in London visiting galleries, going to films, concerts, anything. I was not one for pubs and


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clubs; I wanted substance, nothing shallow. I’d trek off to lectures at the Hayward, readings at the Poetry Café, films at Ciné Lumière, you name it. A culture vulture. He, on the other hand, had the knowledge of a connoisseur. He had been nurtured on European culture from the cradle. He did not have to scavenge. He and his friends owned art works. He did not view them only in galleries. From what I gathered, my perspectives on the latest exhibitions were, to him, off-beat, but I didn’t feel patronised. This was my domain, after all. He was the outsider. I talked off the top of my head, letting my feelings and ideas fly free without much concern about how he perceived them. One day, when I was shelving some new stock, and he was browsing, I shared my eager excitement about the autumn’s up-coming Henri Rousseau show at the Tate Modern. “I can’t wait for that,” I enthused. “I love Rousseau’s jungles. I always want to walk into one of his paintings and smell the leaves. If you put a Rousseau picture in a cold room, you’d feel warmer instantly.” “You do have a very unusual way of putting things,” he said, with curiosity. “Have you been exhibited yourself?” “Me? I’m not an artist,” I said. How had he formed that impression? “Really? I assumed you were. I suppose . . . you look like an artist.” There was something testing in his manner then, an intensity.


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That made me pull a face. “Does an artist look a certain way?” I was wearing a 1970s geometric print dress and sandals and had my hair in plaits. “You’re interested in art, but you’re not an artist,” he said, classifying me. “I’m interested in anything. Don’t you know that we Kiwis come here to gorge ourselves on European culture?” “And when you’re sufficiently fattened on the feast, you’ll return?” he asked, continuing the image. “That’s what we generally do, if we only have New Zealand passports, but I had a Welsh paternal grandfather, so I have a British passport and permission to be a resident. I don’t know when I’ll go back home. I have too much of a craving for all the tasty dishes you have in your theatres, museums and art galleries.” “Well, I’m glad the diet here doesn’t make you sick. It’s not always palatable, at least not to my taste.” “I know, but then there’s always the next thing. It’s never boring.” That struck him as somehow significant and surprising. “You’re never bored?” “No, no. How can you be bored, here? Whoever’s tired of London is tired of life—didn’t Samuel Johnson say that?” “For there is in London all that life can afford,” added my visitor, slowly, knowing the next line of the quotation. And then he looked at me, hard, as if I were in some way a bothersome conundrum he had to solve, though how or why this should be so was, to me, a complete enigma.


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Our discussions were usually pot-holed with interruptions, with customers asking to purchase books, and stallkeepers on breaks intruding to chat. Such latter guests started me telling him stories about the Market. I discovered these amused him. He was a cool fish, and causing a smile to come to his face became a challenge. And I liked to tease him, trying to show that I did not care about his social status or his wealth. I goaded him about his apparent lack of concern for environmental issues, which made him hesitate, unsure of how to take my jibes. He retaliated by speaking rather disparagingly of my “Antipodean candour.” I don’t believe he was used to people mocking him, even in jest. But I never felt he was offended. He seemed to be cheered by the glimpse of another—Bohemian—world. I thought of him as a charming, handsome, upper class toff who was bored enough to venture into this maze for the sake of a few words with an intriguing bookstall owner. I recognised that he thought me attractive, in some way (even though he commented at times on how my attempts at interesting hair-styles were not always flattering). I was not wholly naive about this. It was simply that I did not feel this was the key reason for his frequent return. He made no advances or innuendoes. And he was not my type or I his. I was an amusement to him. His visits, I thought, were not prompted by lack of female company or any particular personal desire for mine, but by a yen for interesting conversation.


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He did not seem to want to tell me anything about his present circumstances, personal or professional, as if they were too dull, and I did not press him for information. I never asked him his name. I would refer to him humorously as “Mr. E.” The mystery. He was, at any rate, very much a “Mr.” to me, in a way that English men can be, and Australasian or North American men generally cannot. It was to do with an innate reserve, confidence and bearing. Despite my teasing, and wish to demonstrate otherwise, his formal manner, age and wealth seemed to demand some recognition of my inferiority and social distance. I did not ask him what he did for a living. In my circles, you rarely asked what acquaintances worked at to earn money. You waited for them to provide information about their chosen artistic medium, after which you defined them vocationally as “Jack the dancer” or “Kishti the painter,” à la the Middle Ages. Paid work was never considered a vocation. Had I known at the outset that he was a prestigious and well-known publisher I would never have let myself compose a poem in front of his very eyes. It was late July, and tourists greatly outnumbered locals. The suffocating day pressed upon us. People were sweating odiously as they shuffled through the stall. I was too torpid to think straight, and spent most of my spare time fiddling with a poem that never seemed to improve no matter what I did to it. It was nevertheless a counterblast against the reeking sauna of my present conditions, since it recalled an icy morning in October,


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when once I waited in a small Scottish railway station and witnessed a natural phenomenon. “The blustering air seems glutinous; heavy with tiny parachutes. Fairies of the wish embedded in the wind. Hope spins into the vanishing glare of the sky. Seeds fly, with thin white arms protective of the core. Seeds twirl, churned by unseen glue-churners, caught by circumstances, whirling over the fir-trees, under the railway bridge, spiralling into corners, curling away from the grasp like dreams.” “Hello,” he said, cocking his head to read the page. By this time we had reached a stage of some geniality. “Mr. E” had become a “regular” with whom I felt quite familiar. “Are you writing a poem?” There was surprise in his intonation. “Yes,” I admitted. “I’m not sure if it’s working though. It’s probably a bit trite.” “So, are you a poet?” “I write poems,” I said, without much enthusiasm, looking askance at a group of rowdy Italian schoolchildren. “I’m not sure if I’m entitled to call myself a poet. I prefer to write fiction. I’ve had some short stories and poems published in New Zealand, and I’ve written a novel, set here with English characters, but it’s really hard to get a novel published in London if you’re an unknown writer.”


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“Yes,” he said, and then stopped as if thinking what next to say. “Well, I do know how hard it can be. I’m in publishing, actually.” “What sort of publishing?” I asked, suspicious. “Books of all kinds. I’m chairman and managing director of Coymans. My grandfather began the company.” He said this rather flatly, not at all sounding grand, and did not look at my face. This was a considerate gesture on his part, because my face would have shown a surge of horror, indignation and wonder. I did not feel immediately thrilled to have met such an influential person. I felt betrayed, as if he had acted under false pretences by not admitting this before. But then, I had not told him that I wrote. Suddenly, we were both exposed, and everything was awry. I did not know quite how to behave. “So you’re Mr. Coyman? Coy about your true identity, at least,” I said, trying to grab a mental fig-leaf and turn the furore of reactions into a tease. I wanted to remain outwardly casual, to look as if I did not particularly care. “Prain. Edward Prain. Coyman is an old family name.” In His great and abiding mercy to agnostic sinners, God commanded the Italian schoolchildren to knock over a pyramid of books on the display table, which provided me with an avenue of release. Commotion ensued in which some of the children left in a hurry, others attempted to restore the books to their previous positions, and I was able to appear furious and storm around tidying.


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When I returned to the counter, Mr. Prain was holding the draft of the poem. Something fizzy welled up in my abdomen. “Can I read more of your work sometime? That novel, for example?” His manner was courteous and, now, calculating. I looked at him saying this as if I were lip-reading from a distance. “What?” I said. “A selection of your work,” he repeated. “May I read it?” “Yes.” “I’ll be back in two weeks, if you could have something ready.” “All right.” “Good. Well. Bye then.” I don’t remember him leaving. I stood as motionless as a statue, as the cliché goes. I moved only when someone asked to buy a book, and broke the spell. A selection. I spent thirteen days reading and sorting to find a truly representative sample of my best material. I printed out stories again so everything looked tidy, with no pages curled or torn, as if it were a competition in which you scored points for neatness. I bought pink ribbon to tie around different categories: poems, short stories, the novel. I covered an A4-sized box with black paper to make it look solid and impressive, and stuck labels with my name at a corner of the top and on two sides, so it would not get lost. The designated day began with fine weather, but by lunch-time there were intermittent squally showers and a


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north wind. Some stallkeepers closed up. Some were fighting not to have their wares blown away and soaked. Nevertheless, crowds of people animated by the power of positive thinking had decided to stay on in Camden in case it ceased raining and turned back into a bright, shiny day. This was not to be, and they sought comfort inside the proper buildings and covered areas of the Market, watching things fly past, waiting for the worst of it to pass. I counted twenty-three people in my stall. Their dripping clothing and bags were speckling the books with water. They had despondent, guilty faces as they looked over the shelves, knowing that they were only inside to keep dry. They were even buying cheap books from the bargain bin in a hope of convincing me that their intentions were genuine. The rain lashed in and seeped through on to the stock, while I anxiously covered it with sheets of plastic. Then I sat guarding my black box amid the kerfuffle, telling the paper cup of tepid tea upon my counter, “he won’t come.” But he did, at 4.30 p.m., when the people had gone and I was thinking of shutting up my lot and going home. “Hello,” he said, rather brightly. “Sorry I’m a bit on the late side. Ghastly weather, isn’t it?” “Awful,” I agreed. He was wearing a tailored raincoat and a brown hat and somehow managed to appear unnaturally dry and glossy, as if he had just stepped out of a magazine feature on businessmen of the year.


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I was nervous. No longer was he the gentleman whose hankering for different conversation forced him into the chaos of Camden Market; he was a publisher. My reactions had now been transformed into awe. He was God’s mercy incarnate, which had dropped—as the ungentle rain from heaven—into my humble bookstall. He had descended from his modern, multistorey West End offices to offer hope. He, who was Coymans Publishing Company, had asked to read my work. He had perceived a spark of talent in that one poem. He was giving me a chance to prove that I was worthy, that I really could write, that my novel could be published to widespread critical acclaim. All those years of writing in the night could suddenly come to something. I felt speechless. I, who ordinarily chattered freely, had nothing to say. I smiled that false smile one offers to cameras. “Is this your selection?” he asked, in good spirits. “Yes.” “My word, you have been industrious. I thought I would get a Manilla folder.” He spoke as if I were a child who had done a very large school project. I felt a little like a child who had done a very large school project. I busied myself finding a plastic bag in which the box of typescripts could be protected from the elements. He said he had managed to park his car very nearby, and so a bag was unnecessary. I deemed that it was. I felt him looking down upon me as I rummaged through packing materials and paper bags under the counter in an effort to find something suitable.


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Someone came to stand beside him: a punctured Punk with a pound coin in one hand and a book in the other. Distractedly, I took the money and let him go away without checking the price inside, and put the coin in my pocket to ring up later. I was flustered and determined not to show it. Mr. Prain seemed buoyant and in a mood completely at odds with the weather. “It’s very good of you to have a look at this,” I said, trying not to sound as meekly crawling and overcome by modesty as I felt. “Not at all. It’s my job.” “I hope you won’t be . . . too bored or. . . disappointed.” I trailed off into a shy woolliness, completely unlike me. “Well, we’ll see.” After putting the box in a decent enough plastic bag, I handed it to him as if it were a parcel of crystal. Robustly, he flung it under his arm. “I wondered,” he said, halting. This time it was he who seemed tentative. “Why don’t you come to tea one day next month? We can talk better.” I gathered he meant we could talk about my work better, undisturbed by customers and other visitors. This certainly seemed a good idea. I could not imagine him going through it in these circumstances, with all sorts of people peering at the pages. “Oh yes,” I said. “That would be good. But Monday’s my only real day off.” “Come on a Monday then, a Monday afternoon.”


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This was very kind of him, I thought, to be so accommodating. And it was very respectable too. He might have offered dinner, but then I may have become suspicious that he was out to wine and dine me for other purposes. No, he was clearly doing all this in order that we could discuss what I had given him in a civilised fashion. We decided on the date and time, and he gave me instructions on how to catch a certain train to Banbury. “Banbury?” I asked. “Isn’t that miles away, near Oxford?” “Yes. That’s where I have my house—well, near there, in the countryside really. An hour and a bit by train. Get the one-fifty from Marylebone Station and I’ll meet you.” He smiled. His eyes were as determined as an athlete’s. “Right,” I said. “So I’ll see you then.” And so I took the train from Marylebone Station on that Monday in late August, a day full of promise, sun and warmth. I went to meet Mr. Edward Prain, to talk about my work, over tea.


PRAIN FINAL*

3/10/06

3:35 PM

Page 4

Š2006 joan taylor

book design: david konopka melville house publishing 145 plymouth street brooklyn, new york, 11201

www.mhpbooks.com

isbn: 978-1-935554-72-1

a catalog record for this book is available from the library of congress.

Profile for Melville House

Conversations with Mr. Prain by Joan Taylor  

Back by popular demand - from booksellers: A sexy, suspenseful novel in which a young writer's encounters with a jaded publisher prove that...

Conversations with Mr. Prain by Joan Taylor  

Back by popular demand - from booksellers: A sexy, suspenseful novel in which a young writer's encounters with a jaded publisher prove that...

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