Claus Julius was my lifeline. He didn’t sound like the great emancipator down the phone, and he looked far from it in person, tall and grave on the doorstep; but he was all I had. I could feel the paycheque slipping away as each day passed until I took his call. I had been hired to write a biography of Ki Monroe – poet, visionary, satirist, enigma. Enigma, by God: there were chasmal holes in his story! Dead ends and misted decades the like of which I had not previously encountered. He was a man of whom the myth heavily outweighed the facts. I had always assumed that’s why his estate had hired a journalist to write the book rather than an academic, a poetry professor from deep in the dusty halls. There was legwork to be done. They weren’t to know the legwork would count for little as well.
I was at the edge of reason. Monroe did this, Monroe did that; there was a minor scandal or two, forgotten poetry, times past. He was a Bloomsbury outcast; was in Spain during the war; retired to a fishing village in Portugal when barely into middle age to farm and cast his net; died in a car accident in nineteen fifty. The advance was handsome, the story was not.
Claus Julius caught me in my office on a typically moribund day. I was tired, snappy, preparing to face the reality of my predicament more as every day went by. Our first conversation went something like this:
“You’re an American?”
“Canadian,” I said. “What can I do for you, Mr Julius?”
“I understand,” he said. “I am Austrian. People assume I am a German always.”
“I was just on my way out,” I said.
“Mr Buren used to say that sooner or later you realise everybody is from somewhere else.”
“Is that right?” I said.
“He used to say everybody is looking for adoption. What brings you to London?”
“It was you who called me, Mr Julius; and I don’t have much time.”
I could hear him sucking his teeth.
“You are writing a biography of Ki Monroe, are you not?”
“I am,” I said. “And how can I be of help?”
“Are you finding it a difficult task? Frustrating?”
“It’s all part of the process, Mr Julius.”
This was my fifth biography: two movies stars, an aeronautical pioneer, a race car driver and now a poet.
“As I thought. Then you may be interested to see something that I have. My former employer, Mr Harold Buren, wrote a memoir. He knew Mr Monroe well.”
“That name is not familiar to me,” I said.
I looked across my study at the wall I had papered with little sticky notes; names, dates, events, in tasselled patterns of disjointed yellow shadow – a sight that had come to look more and more like a final curtain.
“It is not a name familiar to many. My former employer was a very private man.”
“This Mr Buren is no longer with us, I take it? No longer able to speak with me personally?”
“Sadly Mr Buren passed away some years ago.”
“And I don’t know anything about this memoir, Mr Julius. I have read everything ever written on Monroe, twice over.”
“Oh, dear; you misunderstand. It has not been published. I have the only manuscript under lock and key.”
I opened the browser on my laptop.
“So how did your employer and Monroe know each other?” I said.
“They first met, so I understand, in the mid-nineteen thirties.”
I typed Harold Buren’s name into the search engine.
“So he was part of the Soho crowd?”
“He knew them,” said Julius.
What came up on the browser was a surprising and suspicious lack of information. But there was a photograph. Harold Buren. A serious face, handsome, clean, long; his eyes were conspicuously blank, unsympathetic, but bold; it seemed to be a close-up from a group photo. Buren was a South African, like Monroe. His father died young and his mother brought the family to London. It seemed as if the cause of his wealth was, essentially, war; some speculative investment or other by his father in American armament firms and they hit the jackpot in nineteen fourteen. Harold Buren inherited these investments, had an astute mind for business and slowly added to his portfolio with gold and more arms. He never married. Never had children. Died in nineteen eighty four and left his money to an educational Trust in Spain. There was nothing else.
“It seems your Mr Buren would be an even more difficult subject to write about than my Mr Monroe,” I said.
“Not if you read the manuscript I have,” said Julius.
I thought for a moment. There is a point in these things when going deeper is the only way on offer.
“Why was this memoir never published?” I said.
“Mr Buren did not write it for publication. He wrote it as testament.”
“Testament to whom?”
“Mr Buren was the last person to see Mr Monroe alive.”
That had my attention: Monroe’s death. His car went over a cliff. He was drunk at the wheel, coming back from a fishing trip.
“What do you mean he was the last person to see Monroe alive?” I said.
There was a pause; Julius sucked his teeth once more.
“It is not for me to say,” said Julius. “You need to read the manuscript.”
It got me to the house. Claypole: an enormous white Georgian building in central London. Julius was a tall man, old but fit, straight, but – and so confident was he around the halls of the house it was not immediately obvious – he was almost completely blind. I knew that his myopia was not absolute as he knew where to put his hand when I held out mine, but he held his head high, tilted back, and his pupils were a wintry grey. He explained his blindness as being only a slight concern at birth, and that it crept over him, through him, as the decades went on. His final blindness, he said, would be at the moment of death. He had been closing down since the day he was born, he said.
He was aging, now perhaps in his mid-seventies. Harold Buren had left him a small fortune (a pinprick into Buren’s actual worth), as well as the house in which we stood, and as he felt it difficult to work for anyone else in the same capacity after Buren had died, he retired on his money and indulged in his hobby of restoring old books. I asked how a man with his particular impairment could carry out such delicate work. He said that he had steady hands and all the time in the world.
His study, on the ground floor, was lined with glowing old spines of forgotten tomes on every subject, from seventeenth century botany, to census documents, novels, journals, science manuals and ornithological sketch books, even Kama Sutras.
Julius had a steadiness to him that suggested he was more than able at his tasks – more able than a seeing man. Every movement was considered, a method that almost amounted to a sixth sense. Within the walls of the house that entombed him was a world of its own rules. There was a professional spirit, I figured, hanging over from his days as a valet, always having to be at hand, a man machine attuned to the atmosphere of the room. He had modified the design for this peacefulness into an artful attention to detail, to restoration – he could never fully appreciate the work he did on these books, and yet he didn’t seem to have anyone else in mind.
He presented me with the Buren manuscript as if it was a sacred text and, at first inspection, inside was an example of delicate penmanship. The script was hand-written, hundreds and hundreds of pages without so much as a single alteration or blemish.
“This is the final draft?” I said.
“It is the only draft,” said Julius. “Mr Buren was painstaking in its composition. It had to be a pure truth, you see.”
“Could I take it?” I said.
“No,” said Julius, softly. “But I will permit you to read it and make hand written notes. Here.”
I’ll admit, as I looked down at it, cast my eyes across several passages, it did not strike me as a breezy read.
“It may take some time,” I said.
“There are plenty of rooms. You are welcome to be my guest.”
A cavernous fatigue prevented me from negotiating the script out of Julius’ possession, and I’m not sure I would have got anywhere even on top form.
I was still looking at Julius with a sideways glance. The whole encounter seemed from another era – he was dressed in a pin-striped three-piece suit with a fob chain, and yet, by his own admission, he spent most of his days alone in his big old house leaning over dilapidated manuscripts, carefully bringing them back from the dead, feeling his way through their scars.
He motioned for me to follow him and led me to a room up several flights of stairs and, placing his hand on the doorknob looked over his shoulder in my direction, his grey eyes like those of a snake, and he said, “This was Mr Buren’s study for much of his later years.”
We entered. Julius moved easily about the room lighting it by switching on the various and many lamps. The room was large, the walls of a deep, regal burgundy; towering columnal curtains hid tall narrow windows – it was like a gallery of a long lost era, an era of empires and ball gowns, but in place of young sharply dressed soldiers and beautiful debutantes were mismatched sofas and armchairs, all piled with loose papers and books and magazines. And in the centre of the room was a desk.
“There is no disputing Mr Buren’s wealth,” said Julius; “though some may have questioned his sanity toward the end. But I was the only one to be with him for those times. I protected him from intrusions. Toward the end, you see, Mr Buren was plagued by ideas of truth and recompense. He wrote his memoir to try and clear his head. He was a good man; but I always thought he carried a great weight. He spoke to me about these things. He felt he failed his brother. He felt he had wronged Mr Monroe. He felt that all his life he misplaced his energies. He was gifted with the most valuable commodity in human existence: time. He outlived everyone who meant anything to him. He was rich beyond reason. And yet he felt he had failed in everything because he had wasted his time.”
It was a well-prepared, if odd, speech which Julius delivered with a round chest and a certain oratorical gravity.
On Buren’s desk was a stack of charcoal drawings – a young woman’s face, over and over again, from slightly different angles, but the same expression.
“Who is this?” I asked.
“I would imagine it is his brother’s wife if you mean the drawings?” said Julius.
I looked through them all. A beautiful woman, she looked relaxed but serious, a labyrinthine glint to her eye, a downturn to the mouth, she was held up in a deeply-dug charcoal background.
Julius’ intentions were grander and more central than he had first let on, I figured. Harold Buren was not just a former employer; Julius lived in his master’s house, and had kept his study as a shrine even fifteen years after the old billionaire had died.
“This all seems a little like another project,” I said.
“You don’t know what that book is going to tell you about Mr Monroe,” said Julius. “I took employment with Mr Buren in nineteen sixty five. I was the only staff member. He spent much of his time in this study. Toward the end I often came in at the sound of him talking, as if to someone, but I knew there was nobody with him. He talked to me often about his brother, and about Mr Monroe.
“One day, he returned home from a business trip – it would turn out to be his last trip, in fact; he stayed very much within these four walls after that – he told me that he was going to write a memoir, and that I must take each page and keep it safe, and safe from him so that he had no way of revising his memories and his thoughts. I always believed that he trusted me entirely, but that it was my blindness that he trusted, rather than my character. He wrote this for the sake of committing it to paper, I believe. It is there to explain and to teach lessons.”
“Lessons? To whom?”
“That I do not know,” said Julius. “He was careful to be vague about such notions.”
“So why do you want me to see it now?”
Julius seemed to soften, his mouth gave up its punctiliousness, and he even allowed his hands to loosen from their dutiful tensions.
“I am old,” he said. “Part of me also would like to know what is in it. Part of me would like to know the truth of the man I dedicated myself to. I suppose we all have these moments of redress late in life.”
We came to an arrangement, Julius and I; and I returned to the house to spend my time examining the manuscript, to spend my time with the careful and strangely fresh hand-written memoirs of Harold Buren.
The words and testament of Harold Buren
FOR THOSE WHO COME AFTER
When I was a child I talked to dragons, and they told me all about the future.
There was a time when they wandered the countryside, graceful and prodigious, but by the time I was around they spent most of the time in the mountains across the veldt, only coming down when they had something to say, or I had something ask.
“You will have to keep an eye on things,” they said.
They circled me. I was dust to them, with a muss of dirty blonde hair and my grey short-trousers.
“Don’t worry about the great battles to come,” said one of them.
“You just worry about the great silences between,” said another.
I didn’t know what they meant. But one does not answer back to dragons; that much my father told me. The creatures of myth are older than us all, he said. Before I was born he hung around my mother’s neck a pendant, known as The Dragon’s Eye, made from the first diamond he ever dug out of the ground. It was to remind us where we were from – from the earth, our wealth and our souls. It was to remind us of the importance of that thing we are all born from: truth.
I am here now at the other end of my life. And I’ll tell you what I know about truth; and what I know about myth also. I will do it because, even though I have never known you, I love you. I want to tell you the things that I know; the things you should know.
I saw my century as something best forgotten. I worked hard to forget. As somebody once wrote, I concentrated on “inviting quicker the inevitable inconspicuousness of yesteryear”. But, it seems, at the point of this welcomed oblivion I had to fight it off in order to remember once again. And the first thing I remembered was the dragons of my distant childhood. And then the pendant. Games and trinkets. Monsters and trinkets. Perhaps as good a title for a memoir as any.
What sparks this? The great occasion. Everybody who is lucky enough to experience one should take the time to document it. My great occasion was long awaited. And now I am here in my home – back from Spain and all those circles squared – I will make my document.
Remembering must involve unlearning what I know to be right. Forgetting, when intended, is the most difficult of tasks. A life of knowing, watching, listening to the birds of every colour sing; and I gave it up for the good of all. But now I need to remember. I need to remember for you. I need to remember for good. You are my redemption and my final punishment. But I bow to the knowledge that I must tell the story for those who come after. You are my centre point, my audience, my apostle-if-you-wish. It is you who are the meaning of it all.
Copyright © Gary Raymond.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, short story writer, critic, and lecturer in English and Creative Writing. As well as a regular voice in Wales Arts Review, Gary has written for The Guardian, Rolling Stone Magazine, is a theatre critic for The Arts Desk, and is a regular commentator on arts and culture for BBC Wales. In 2013, Gary published JRR Tolkien: A Visual Biography of Fantasy’s Most Revered Writer with Ivy Press, and his novel, For Those Who Come After, was published last year (Parthian Books).
Banner & Author Image: Copyright © Dean Lewis.