December 2011 – January 2012

Arts & Letters

No one comes to see me now

By Debra Adelaide
Nigel Thomson, 'Manoly Lascaris', 1994 (detail). Oil on linen. Private collection. Image courtesy of the Manly Art Gallery and Museum.
Manoly Lascaris and Patrick White’s ghost

Three days a week, in the winter of 1993, I would drive the children to day care and continue to 20 Martin Road, Centennial Park. The house was dark most of the time, with the trees surrounding it tall and dense. One morning I arrived to see a team of plumbers digging up the long front garden that sloped to the street. Roots from the enormous eucalypts had blocked the sewer pipes.

For a house situated so high up from the street it was exceptionally dark, apart from the terrace out the back where the owner would usually take his lunch in the sun, under the last red leaves of the grape vine. On some days he would be joined by the gardener, a handsome young man of about 20.

The owner was really only minding the place. Patrick White had died in 1990 and his partner Manoly Lascaris would live there along with their possessions until his death in 2003, after which the house and contents were sold. The books had been bequeathed to the Mitchell Library, but they too were to remain in the house for as long as Mr Lascaris did.

One of my part-time jobs that winter involved work on a bibliography of Patrick White’s books. As his personal collection contained some of the only accessible foreign-language editions of his novels, permission needed to be sought to visit the house and record the necessary details. One condition was specified – that I work only while the housekeeper was present, and leave each day when she did – but another was implied: I was to be as invisible as possible.

The housekeeper was professional – aloof, yet pleasant – while Mr Lascaris barely acknowledged my existence. He hardly ever spoke to me and rarely to her but when he did speak I was aware of his voice, which was very beautiful – cool and musical, like a mountain stream. The only time I heard it liven up was when he ate lunch with the young gardener.

He was not unfriendly to me, but his indifference suggested a resentment of my presence. I had to have the run of the house as the books were kept in several different rooms. Mr Lascaris was smaller and quieter than me, than anyone in the house. I stepped softly around and spoke to no one unless I had to, but despite all my efforts I persisted in feeling too tall, too noisy, too female, for that house.

As the days passed he also seemed to be unsure of why I was there, gazing at me blankly through his tinted spectacles, the sort that are called transition lenses but which are always dark. “Good morning, Mr Lascaris,” I would say, “how are you?” He would respond politely, his unusual voice clear and melodious, but he never used my name and I do not think he cared to remember it. But once or twice he surprised me by instructing the housekeeper to offer me lunch, which she cooked and served for him at 1 pm. “He is concerned that you are not eating,” she told me. My explanation that I didn’t eat lunch – conveyed via her – mystified him. So I began to bring a sandwich each day, which apparently made him feel better. It was a strange, almost aristocratic kind of hospitality, remote and old fashioned. Perhaps this was how things were done in Alexandria, a generation or two ago.

I honestly do not know what he did, day after day, for they were days of perpetual silence. He spent time gazing out the front windows towards the park, where for years he and White had walked their dogs. The pair had always kept dogs, but now Mr Lascaris had none. The housekeeper also told me he could be extremely difficult at times, though in a contrary and stubborn way, rather than hostile. For example, every week he insisted on driving out to fetch the shopping with a list she would write. But he was a terrible driver, she said. She feared he would have an accident. That did seem likely. One day I glanced out the window to see his little blue car screeching and jerking around up the street, as if being driven by a novice. He would return with stories of car park scrapes and collisions, always someone else’s fault. And he would buy the wrong thing. Frozen lasagne when she had meant lasagne sheets. Tinned tomatoes instead of tomato paste. However, shopping gave him a reason to get out, she said, and there was no way she could take that activity from him.

I worked at Patrick White’s house for six weeks. In all that time the phone rang twice. There was a visitor just once, and he had been one of the phone callers. After setting up a day and time, White’s biographer David Marr arrived a week later to take Mr Lascaris out to lunch. For the hour before, Mr Lascaris stood in the living room near the front door, peering out the window. He was hovering a few feet from the bookshelf where I was selecting volumes and taking them over to my laptop on the dining table, yet he never once glanced in my direction nor spoke to me. When David Marr arrived, the door opened and I heard him say, “Hello Mr Lascaris, how are you?”, but in seconds the man was out, the door was shut, and they had left.

But I understood Mr Lascaris’ eagerness to be off. It was lonely in that house. At the same time, the ghost of Patrick White was everywhere. In his study the armchair was as if he had just risen from it. I could swear that there was still a depression of the famous author’s backside in its striped cushion. On a side table were a pen on a string and a thick wooden cross, both of which he wore around his neck and which are seen in photographs of him in his later years.

Upstairs in his bedroom, all was neat and clean, the bed made up, his personal possessions still laid out, as if he were just away for a few days and would be home to pick up the comb or the clothes brush lined up in perfect symmetry on the chest of drawers. I had to pass through this room to get to a shelf of books but I always did so as quickly as I could, trying not even to look around. The presence of White was so strong that I felt like a burglar. He would appear in the doorway at any second and demand to know what I was doing here, violating his famous privacy. Once, having replaced some volumes in the bookshelves, I turned to find myself facing the back of White’s bedroom door. There on a hook were a scarf and the famous black beret, captured in many photographs.

Each day at midmorning the housekeeper would ask me if I wanted a coffee and although I didn’t like the way she made it I usually said yes. It was a chance to get up and go into the kitchen, apart from anything. The kitchen struck me as being old-fashioned as well as impractical for one who had loved cooking as much as White. The stove was an old but good quality gas Chef, 800 millimetres wide, but the bench space was inadequate, the cupboards basic, appliances like the toaster ancient. Or perhaps I entertained fanciful notions of what the kitchen of a Nobel Prize–winning author should be. The fridge, however, was new: the old one had packed it in and, without the penny-pinching influence of White, Mr Lascaris had bought the first new one in decades.

Outside, past the kitchen, was the terrace atop the garage where I imagined many memorable literary and artistic lunches had taken place, but overall the house was cheerless, almost forlorn, despite the furnishings, the artworks, the books, the reminders of past presences: White’s armchair in the study, the black lounge seat that Brett Whiteley apparently passed out on after long boozy dinners, including on the night the Whitlam government was sacked. But no remnant of simple human joy or any real friendship or comfort lingered. There was the housekeeper, attending to the laundry and making the meals; the cleaner, working twice a week; the gardener outside; and me, typing my notes at the dining table. Mr Lascaris was the silent centre of all this discreet activity, but it only ostensibly had him as the focus. For we were all, in one way or another, maintaining a shrine to Patrick White, him included. What he did after we had all left, in his solitary afternoons and evenings, I didn’t like to think.

What strikes me now is the way that house in Martin Road so effectively shut out the world. When White won the Nobel Prize he refused to let reporters inside, but sat on the porch to be interviewed in front of the blue-shuttered French windows of his study. The steep front garden must have proven tricky for camera crews and their equipment. But situated in the quietest street of Centennial Park, the house could hardly have been more private. And, aside from the Nobel Prize announcement, the prospect of hordes of gawking tourists or literary groupies hanging around the front gates to annoy the great author would have been unlikely.

It was a descriptive bibliography, meaning I had to measure the volumes, transcribe the contents of the imprint pages, list the extent of the pages, describe the dust jackets, and examine them for any other noteworthy features. It was plodding work, requiring little initiative and no imagination, but I enjoyed it immensely. And there were all sorts of surprises buried in the volumes. For instance, while the White editions were mostly well ordered – and of course untouched since his death – there was a pleasing randomness to some of the shelves. It was interesting to see what other books he had read and valued. And among his books were those by younger Australian authors who had sent copies of their early publications to him, with notes or inscriptions to convey their admiration via some kind of literary tribute. I wondered if he ever acknowledged these gifts, read their books and wrote back.

The hours passed quickly enough until it was time for me to pack away my laptop and leave when the housekeeper left. And at the end of those weeks I was almost sorry the work was over. Despite the discomfort of the house, there was something soothing in the ritualistic nature of this work, and the absolute continuity of the household exerted its own strange charm. I knew if I returned in six months or five years that White’s bedroom would still display its military tidiness, the brushes and combs lying to order, the bedcover stretched taut, the beret still on the hook. Lunch would be served on the stroke of one. And Mr Lascaris would still be gazing out the front window past the tree-cluttered view towards the park where they once walked the dogs and where White’s ashes had been scattered.

A while after I finished the bibliography, my friend Nigel Thomson asked me about the house and its occupant. He had wanted to paint Manoly Lascaris, and wondered if the interior of the house would be a suitable setting. He had been struck by the prospect of White’s partner left completely alone after the death of his oldest and closest companion, his friend, his lover, his everything. Nigel envisaged a portrait that would capture the man amid a clutter of emptiness, living a hollowed-out existence.

When the portrait was completed Nigel invited me over. After he uncovered it I felt a prickly sense of the uncanny. He had chosen to paint Mr Lascaris standing at the front window of White’s study. Although the figure was not staring out but facing inwards, it was a re-creation of all I had witnessed. The painting was dominated by dark shadows and the figure of Mr Lascaris was covered in them, and yet he was also very clearly defined by the light. Standing with one hand on a bookcase containing White’s books, facing the empty armchair, he was exactly the person I encountered: lonely, frail and elusive, propped up by the possessions of the dead author. In the background the trees loomed ghostly and fantastical. Mr Lascaris had told Nigel, “No one comes to see me now, now that Patrick’s gone. No one bothers any more.”

Martin Road, being on the way to nowhere, is not the sort of street you drive down by accident. It was 18 years since I’d been there but one day on a whim I took a detour. I thought that maybe I wouldn’t recognise the house, but it was unmistakable, perhaps because of a heritage order, a compromise after the state government refused to purchase it for a public museum. And yet it was different in some ways. The shutters were painted another colour, and there was a set of child’s play equipment in the garden, a trampoline on the porch. A more modern, open house, a house of youth and activity. The trees were less dense, letting in the light – even parked in the street I could see that. And as I pulled away from the kerb a dog rose up from the front porch and barked.

Debra Adelaide
Debra Adelaide is currently teaching creative writing at the University of Technology, Sydney. Her books include The Hotel Albatross, Serpent Dust and The Household Guide to Dying.

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