He’d wound up pretty well and delivered a hell of a punch. It hurt a lot and I banged my head hard on the ground when I went down. I was seeing racing shapes in the darkness and tasting blood swirling around my gums. I could hear feet scuffing on the ground beside me and opened my eyes to see Katherine holding John back. He was ready to kick me to death.
I was aware that this injury could be a good thing, an opportunity to stick around for a while, but I didn’t need to pretend that I was in pain. I could move around a little and make a few noises but I couldn’t get up. I needed to know what was going on. Someone had gone somewhere and come back.
“John. What are you going to do with that?” said Katherine.
“Wake him up.”
He threw a bucket of cold water over me. It hurt as much as the punch and I shrieked like a child, but it did the job.
“Christ Almighty.” I sat up and then got onto my knees. Then I was sick.
“Get him some water John.”
He brought a big glass of water. I swilled out my mouth a few times, drank some and finally stood up. John was looking the other way but Katherine watched me, serious but not quite sympathetic.
“You’d better come in.”
We drank lemonade. The house was a lot more comfortable-looking inside than out, pretty much like an apartment in a city would look. I hadn’t noticed any outhouses or machinery, no chickens or slavering dogs running round. There was no sense of it being a working farm at all. The two homesteaders, the tall angular man and the soulful woman, said nothing as I drank. It was homemade lemonade and I didn’t like it much.
“Thanks for this,” I said, raising my glass a little.
“How are you feeling?” said Katherine.
“Dizzy. It’s okay, I don’t think I’ll be sick again.”
“You can rest a while and then you’ll go,” said John.
I waited but Katherine didn’t contradict him.
“What about the interview?”
“There is no interview!” He was angry again, really wild all of a sudden with no build-up. “You will go.”
“It’s a serious piece I want to do. I’m not looking for anything scandalous.”
“You keep saying that,” said Katherine. “But John isn’t doing an interview, not of any kind. He has his right to privacy.”
“There’s a public interest. You publish books and that’s what happens. That’s what you want even.”
“But no-one has a right to know about our life,” she said.
I didn’t know where the argument was leading me. I’d had it a thousand times before and it never made a difference. If I got a good story then I was going to publish it whatever, that had always been the way and it was everyone else’s way too.
I realised that Katherine was still talking but I hadn’t heard what she said. I felt like I was terribly drunk; for a second I imagined that they’d drugged the lemonade which had made it taste so strange. I passed out.
I spent the afternoon on the long sofa, sleeping or passing out again , I didn’t know which.
“Should we get a doctor?”
It was John’s voice. It still sounded angry and reluctant. He was worried; I held onto that.
“It’s alright.” I raised my head a little. “I don’t need a doctor, I’ve just got a thick head.
I’ve been punched before, I know what it feels like.”
“I’m sure you have.” John’s voice again, just before I went back into the dark.
By the time I had managed to raise myself from the sofa it was getting on for what they probably called sundown. I stood up and went to the door and looked out at the dull acres and the dry trees. It was still warm and John and Katherine were standing together, holding hands, looking like they were waiting for me.
“Been out ploughing?” I said.
They didn’t smile.
“Are you sure you don’t need a doctor?” said Katherine.
“No I don’t. But thanks, it’s kind of you.”
“It’s your own fault,” said John.
“John.” Katherine stroked his arm. She wasn’t on my side, but they weren’t speaking as one.
“I could do with something to eat though.”
“We were going to give you something anyway,” said John. “You can eat, then go.”
“We’re eating outside. We’ll cook on the fire,” said Katherine.
So there we were in the great outdoors, but it was all pretty classy as far as I could see. The meat had been cut into strips and been marinated in something and the fire was a brick barbecue with two grilling levels. There was wine as well and home-baked bread. They looked convincing as rural folk, John with his hard-wearing clothes and Katherine with her blouse and wide skirt, but I knew too much about them. John whose books sold in all the city bookstores and who got reviewed in the big papers. Katherine who had been photographed on the arms of a few of America’s most eligible and walked down carpets at premieres looking unreal and fabulous.
But the food was terrific. The meat was tender and full of juice and I ate more slowly than I’d ever done. Everything else, the potato salad, the green beans, things I never usually bothered with, was a treat. If it had been Sonia and me, we would have been eating Italian and drinking beer as quickly as we could and then watching a film. This was a much slower affair and there wasn’t going to be any TV afterwards, though there was at least one in the house. I wondered if there was one in their bedroom as well and if I’d be able to get a look.
“It’s a Bordeaux.”
“So you’ve got supermarkets around here?”
Katherine just nodded and John sat there, eating his meat with stern efficiency. With the darkening fields behind him and then the vague shapes of the hills, he looked like he could be part of the landscape, like an outcrop of hard stone.
There was no suggestion of me having to leave yet, so over the next hour I drank more wine. Then Katherine rolled a joint. I was half-surprised, but they both took long drags and passed it to me without a word. It was good and strong and it went well with the wine.
“So what’s out here?” I asked and as soon as I had, I realised I was lying back and the sky was clearer than I’d ever seen it. The stars were everywhere and the moon was a sharp perfect crescent. I breathed in the cooling air and looked out at the approaching night world. It was inevitable and huge; it felt beautiful for at least a minute.
“What’s the matter?” said John. It was the first time he’d not sounded angry.
“It’s incredible out here.”
“It is. You see why we came?”
“Yeah. Oh yeah.” I drank.
I sat back again and Katherine got up and took the wine bottle.
“You want more?”
When I nodded she smiled at me and then she walked back to the house, in her loose blouse and with her long hair swaying. It could have been a movie if I hadn’t been there.
John looked at her and he looked at me and I tried to close off my thoughts. His famous novel, his first, seemed to be too simple to be a great book but years after reading it I could still remember the characters and the voices. It was the kind of novel I had always thought I could write if he hadn’t got there first. He was a writer who understood enough about people to know what I was thinking about his wife and about him.
“Is the baby asleep?”
“How old is he?”
John just looked at me. He didn’t need to please me or pretend to be polite.
We drank more but I felt like I was sobering up a little. We went inside.
“You can sleep down here.”
Katherine made up a bed with cushions on the floor but I stayed awake for hours. My head was alright now and I’d had enough sleep. I thought of exploring some of the house but I’d probably seen all I needed to. I dozed off finally and dreamed about farming.
We had breakfast early and I made it clear that I’d be going so that I might get some conversation out of them. We ate ham and eggs and more of John’s home-baked bread.
“It’s a nice life you have here.”
“Nice?” said John.
“Well, nice, why not? Pleasant, tranquil.”
“It’s an honest life.”
He said it like he meant it and I didn’t believe him. Sitting there in his workingman’s jeans and checked shirt.
“It’s not too much of a struggle though is it?” I felt a lot more sarcastic than I must have sounded.
“We do our work and we get by.”
What work? Collecting royalties from a book he wrote when he was barely into his twenties. Had he ever struggled like Sonia and me, watching the money come and go for years on end?
So they sat there in a saintly kind of way and they talked a little about their life, about the vegetables and the fruit trees and bringing up the baby who was hanging off Katherine now. His integrity, her deep soul and this sense of bullshit combined to confuse me. I had the material but it needed sorting out.
I said goodbye but we didn’t shake hands. I walked up the driveway and when I was far enough away to run I took out my little camera and zoomed in on them, walking round the garden. They didn’t see me, though I wouldn’t have cared too much if they had. I got a dozen rapid shots and went back to the car.
When I was out of the wilderness I thought about going back to the diner and seeing if the waitress was there. I could make her think again about me — “actually, I had dinner with him” — but then she might see my article in a month or two, so there was no point. I decide to drive straight through without a break. I wasn’t in the mood for thinking, so I put a cassette recorder on the passenger seat and started talking. John and Katherine Duberry—just the facts.