Sunday, July 11, 2021

'Meeting a Character': a short story by Janet Frame

Meeting a Character

A short story by Janet Frame

First published in JANET FRAME IN HER OWN WORDS (Penguin Books, 2011)

I was drinking coffee in a place in downtown Whanganui when I was approached by a middle-aged man who insisted that we knew each other. He sat opposite me without even a polite, May I sit here? and when I denied knowing him he smiled,
‘Of course you do. Remember Maniototo?’
He was referring to a novel I’d written. I wondered if perhaps he had written to me about the book and perhaps I had mislaid the letter and not answered it.
‘I’m not very good at answering letters, I’m afraid.’
‘You don’t remember, then?’
He said his name.
I repeated it. Certainly it was familiar. Then I remembered,
‘You mean you’re . . .’
‘Of course. I don’t know why novelists imagine that as soon as they finish with a character and the book is written and published, that character vanishes or dies. It was fashionable, once, to quote “In dreams begin responsibilities”.’
‘Oh yes,’ I said. ‘Everyone quoted that vogue phrase. But what do you expect me to do now you’re in Whanganui?’
‘Nothing at all. It was by chance I saw you. But aren’t you curious to find out what I’ve been doing since you last thought and wrote about me?’
‘Of course I’m curious.’
‘Then let me satisfy your curiosity,’ he said, ‘in a way that I know would suit you.’
I looked questioningly at him.
‘Yes. I observed and knew you, also, and I’ve known that you’ve been longing to write one of those stories where the author meets a narrator who then takes over, and day by day (in a long train journey, or over a season of several days as guest in a house — I admit that in the modern age there are fewer opportunities for prolonged narration — perhaps even during a walk of the Milford Track or a Christmas holiday by the beach — O well, however it may arise), the story is told, the mystery solved, whereupon the author and the narrator part company and most likely neither sees the other again until, just by chance, a similar incident of meeting is repeated, where once again the author, curious to know of events since the last meeting, conducive to storytelling, listens once again — in a train, around a fire, on the sundeck of an evening overlooking the beach — perhaps that is the setting you would choose? There’s no escaping a story, you know . . .’
I agreed. The time was between Christmas and New Year, with Victoria Street a waste of tinsel and unbought Christmas gifts gathering dust and insect spray in the shop windows. I had no train journey in mind, nor had I planned to walk the Milford Track, nor was I cut off by storms, nor had I a bach by the sea where I could sit on the sundeck of an evening, looking out over the bay, and listening to the narrator.
‘Perhaps you’d like to come to my place for the weekend?’ I suggested. ‘I’ve a spare room. And perhaps one evening we can go to the pavilion on the beach at Castlecliff and sit watching the sea while you continue the story? It’s the nearest I have to that train journey across the Steppes or even across the Central Australian Desert or even the fourteen-hour journey between Auckland and Wellington.’
He accepted my invitation. He did know as well as I did, how I had dreamed of writing the kind of story he described, the story with the classic treatment and theme, the set piece, like a dance or movement of music.
There was one difficulty, however. Although I did recall his name, I had no idea of his character and actions. I therefore gave him my address, suggesting that he arrive about half-past five that evening (Friday), and everything would be ready for his stay. I then finished my coffee and hurried to the bus-stop in Ridgway Street just in time to catch a Castlecliff bus on the Alma Road or A route, and half an hour later I was home where my first action was to find a copy of Maniototo and look it up — so that later when he knocked on the door I at least knew something about him.

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