My Dream Of Meeting J.G. Ballard
By Rick McGrath
May 8, 2008
Warren Lodge Hotel
I'm still faintly quivering from my meeting with JGB, and as the jets roar overhead I sit on the patio outside my room, intently watching the slowly flowing Thames and listening for the far-off drone of a light plane, waiting for Blake to appear over the red oaks and submerge gracefully before me...
It had been an easy drive down from Norwich. The deadly accident that killed eight on the M25 the night before appeared to have calmed traffic, and I made the trip in decent time and found Charleton Road without any mishap, although the thought had crossed my mind, like a lane jumper in a roundabout, that arriving in a smashed and steaming sedan might be the most appropriate mode of arrival.
It was just after two on a windy, overcast day as I crept the car down the road. And then there it was, the greatest gestaltbunker of the XXth century, just to the right. I drove to the end of the cul-de-sac and turned around. Creeping back, I was just about to illegally park and take some pictures of the house when the door opened and JG himself tentatively emerged, his long, white combed-over hair dancing in the brisk breeze like the pages of an discarded novel... Aha, I thought, he's off for his afternoon walk. Perhaps he might enjoy a hiking partner.
But then the head dipped down and out of sight behind a wall of overgrown hedge. I parked the car and grabbed my camera. I was halfway down the sidewalk when, much to my surprise, the back of his car moved slowly across the sidewalk and into the road.
Camera on, I walked up behind the car and pretended he may have hit me. A quick worried look over his right shoulder reassured JGB that I was OK, and I yelled, "You missed me!" at his closed window. There was a flash of smile and an indifferent wave of his right hand, and he was off. I snapped off a quick shot and the car moved away towards town.
He going to the medical centre, I thought, the one I passed on my way here.
Happy to have seen him, but unhappy not to meet him, I went back into town for a light lunch and pint of Guinness. My mind was racing. OK, I thought, that was probably close enough, as he had requested no visits in my letter to him prior to the conference, but perhaps the beer on an empty stomach, or the overwhelming desire I felt to meet him after all these years, ultimately took control and the next thing I knew I was driving back down his street.
The car was back in the driveway, its front end jammed into the overgrown hedges beside the house, its bumper crowding the disintegrating front stoop and weather-beaten door. I parked, got out, and walked purposefully to his front door. Not waiting to think, I reached up and rapped once, twice on his odd little chromium door knock.
No response. No sounds. Was he in the back yard, re-arranging lawn ornaments? In his study, handwriting the outline of a new novel? Then I heard faint movement and an inside door opened. There was a slight fumbling behind the front door and it magically opened about a foot, just enough for JG's familiar face to peer suspiciously around the corner, as if expecting a Japanese guard to drag him out for an unscheduled roll call.
"Mr Ballard, a thousand pardons..." I actually stammered. Wait, that's not right. "Sorry, a thousand apologies for bothering you at home and I beg your pardon for this, but I couldn't resist the opportunity to say hello."
Slightly re-assured, his face softened somewhat and he opened the door another inch. "Yes, I'm not feeling that well", he bleakly smiled.
"Yes, I know", I replied. Suddenly I felt guilty for succumbing to my obsessions. "And again, I apologize for disturbing you... we've corresponded in the past... my name is Rick McGrath."
"You were at Norwich", he suddenly volunteered.
I was now scared, guilty, excited and stunned. "Yes, at the conference... it was a smashing success... large attendance... international... 36 paper were given." I was running out of breath.
I had been told his hearing had deteriorated. I upped the decibel count. "No, Thirty-six papers... all fascinating... and Jeannette Baxter says they're planning on publishing two books."
By this time I think I was probably dancing on the step, but JGB still seemed impressed. The door opened another inch and I thought I detected a twinkle in his deep, dark, mischevious eyes. Did a faint smile flicker across his face?
I offered my condolences on his inability to make an appearance, and again JG referred to his health. I told him we were all very concerned for him and wished him a speedy recovery.
It was now apparent the door was not going to be opened any further, and I, the brazen doorstepper, was not going to be invited into this space, inner or other. A pregnant pause was climaxed by the sudden appearance of JG's right hand, thrust out in the small gap between door and jamb like an electric eel striking from its nest. I gratefully grasped it and was pleasantly surprised by a still-strong grip and a forceful one, two shake.
The electricity ran through me later.
"Well, I must go", he softly said, and I again apologized for my rudeness at disturbing his peace. We both said good-bye and the door swung shut, replacing his face with the distressed orange door like one colour slide replacing another.
I turned and went back to the car, feeling as if I had just completed a long and arduous journey. Tomorrow, I visit Brooklands.