The day I went to talk to Raymond Carver

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS the summer of 1987, and I'd been sitting around for a few days reading Raymond Carver stories in the garden. The stories were about poor people, men and women with names like Vern and Doreen and Phyllis and Carl, who drank and couldn't talk to each other about their awful lives; they went to barbecues and argued over bicycles and tried to give up smoking, drifting inarticulately into low-key failure and misery. Was this like life? I loved the stories. Carver had himself had a rackety, unhappy life, being the son of an alcoholic drifter who became an alcoholic himself. Then I heard that he was in England; I called him and asked for an interview.

'Yes, I'd like to do that.' He sounded calm and cheerful. We fixed a time and date.

There was a debate about these stories. Were they just neat exercises in understatement? There's one about a couple going out for the evening, and the mood is one of nameless dread, and at the end, she comes back from the lavatory and says: 'It's spotting.' Another is about these two friends, Bill and Jerry, who grow up together and get married, and hang around with each other and each other's wives, and one day go for a ride in Jerry's car, and kill a couple of young girls really casually, in the last paragraph. You've been nagged all along, all through the story, that something is wrong, something huge and frightening under the surface, but you don't know the extent of it until right at the end, when Jerry picks up a rock and batters the girls to death. Until then, it's just been Bill saying: 'Anything wrong, man? I mean, you know', and Jerry replying: 'You know.'

The day of the interview was hot and humid. I was in Sussex; I paid for my train ticket and tried to walk along the platform slowly. I reckoned on leaving myself an hour and a half to get across London, which was nervous overkill. Also, I was early for the train. I walked up the platform so I could get off the train at the top; then, with 10 minutes to kill, I walked all the way back to the buffet to get a cup of coffee, which I put on the wall abutting the platform. Then I got on the train, leaving the coffee on the wall. The train stopped at Wivelsfield and Haywards Heath, and moved off towards Gatwick airport. I read a Raymond Carver story, which I had read before, about a couple who feed another couple's cat when they are on holiday, and nothing much happens - by the end, the disaster which, you feel certain, awaits them, is still pending. The last line is: 'They leaned into the door as if against a wind, and braced themselves.' The train slowed down, stopped. So did the breeze caused by the train's movement.

We weren't at a station. We were in the middle of nowhere, with a field on one side, an industrial estate in the distance. On the other side was some kind of gritting plant and more fields.

The train still didn't move. Five minutes went by. I read the beginning of another Carver story: 'Carl got off work at three. He left the station and drove to a shoe store near his apartment.' But I was getting edgy; I couldn't concentrate. After quarter of an hour, the guard came through my compartment. There were two of us in the whole carriage. I said: 'So what's the problem?'

'Cow on the line.'

'What?'

'Cow on the line.'

'Well . . . how long, do you . . ?'

'No way of telling at this stage, sir.'

The guard wasn't sure what was going on. Either it was a dead cow, in which case it would have to be moved by someone official, as opposed to himself, or it was an escaped cow. He walked into the next compartment to have the same conversation.

I got to London an hour late, because the train was out of sync with its usual schedule and had to keep on stopping. During the journey, sweating, edgy, I read the beginnings of maybe 15 Raymond Carver stories. 'The telephone rang while he was running the vaccuum cleaner', and 'I was out of work', and 'My marriage had just fallen apart', and 'It had been two days since Evan Hamilton had stopped smoking.'

I still had enough time. My taxi-driver recognised the address immediately, and moved into the heavy summer traffic. I looked out of the window. I kept asking the time. When we got to the address, I got out and paid him. But it was the wrong address. He had been confused about the street names, and had dropped me more than a mile from where I wanted to be. I should have been with Raymond Carver five minutes ago, I thought. He will be waiting. We only have an hour.

Ten minutes later, I was standing by the side of the road, waiting for another taxi to come past. Twelve minutes later, a taxi came by. If everything went well, I thought, I might still have half an hour with Raymond Carver.

I wanted to ask him if he thought life was

really tragic, if his main life experience was

that underneath it all lay something tragic, unspeakable. At least I'd have the time to

ask him that.

I was 37 minutes late. I rang the doorbell. When he opened the door, I felt a cool breeze; the flat was air-conditioned. Raymond Carver shook my hand. He had a big, kind, plain face and short grey hair.

He said: 'Look, I have to go sooner than I thought.'

'Well, I'm sorry I'm late. I . . .'

'No. That's all right. A car's picking me up.'

'When?'

'2.45.' It was 2.38. We had seven minutes.

He said: 'Well, we might as well just chat.' So we did. We talked about: the hot weather, the coolness of the flat. I was working up to my question. The car arrived early, at 2.43. So I just gave up.

He shook my hand and said: 'Talk to me next time I'm over, maybe next year.' I said that I would, and watched as he got in the car and was driven away. He was dying of cancer, though. So I never really got to talk to him.

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