Carolyn’s past was preserved in amber. She’d had a decently long life – children, lovers, hairbrushes and old mirrors – and she trapped the paraphernalia, stacking it on shelves and into bureaus at her tiny attic flat in Belsize Park. I never asked her how she ended up in London, she was a Denver girl, by way of Michigan and Nashville, Vermont and California, although she told me she’d always been a fan of ‘the miles between’ and ‘the long and winding road’. She wore old-fashioned perfume, which turned out to be Chantilly. I imagined it was like a scent from the 1950s, her best years of being pretty, though she was always pretty, and when she opened the door to me she beamed in her old-lady specs and said today was as good a day as any.
Her blonde hair was up in clasps. She wore white slacks and a plaid shirt, with a knitted lilac vest over the top. She asked me if I wanted a ‘drink-drink’, but it was too early for that so she boiled the kettle and we sat by the window. I tried not to think of her as a woman surrounded by the male ghosts in her life, but I’d come to speak to her about Jack Kerouac and her husband, Neal Cassady – who inspired On the Road – and the air was thick with those men and their inexhaustible legacy. I was young at the time and she told me I reminded her of the democratic souls with whom she’d misspent her youth. ‘Any level of society, Neal was comfortable with,’ she said. ‘Both of them were the most compassionate men I’ve ever run across.’ She showed me some letters and looked towards the window. One of the letters was from Kerouac to her, talking about Allen Ginsberg (whom she didn’t like very much) and the other was a letter typed by her husband to Jack, dated 17 December 1950. I think she’d retyped the opening. She didn’t mind me copying out a few sentences. ‘I earned but 180 bucks in the last 5 weeks,’ it said. ‘The fixing of the car for east trip is proving well nigh impossible. If I must travel by train, transportation of tape recorder big problem, but on the soul of death I vow to have you and this fragile instrument wedded within the month. I must tomorrow find job here in SF to get money for trip. Carolyn is about to starve, as is Diana. Poverty looms big.’
She turned to me. ‘Jack finally began to realise he would never be a husband and father, although he talked about homes with me all the time.’ She spoke for an hour or so about Neal’s imprisonment and Jack’s decline, the way it all fell apart. ‘At the end of his life, Jack would make these late-night phone calls to me,’ she said. ‘He said horrible things. Things you shouldn’t say to a woman. He was only forty-seven and it was too sad. I tried to make a home. But is any home the right one, and do they ever last the way we would want them to?’
You Can’t Go Home Again. I thought of the title of Thomas Wolfe’s great novel, a sweeping account of a writer’s life in America. It was a favourite of Jack Kerouac’s when he was young and it influenced his own journey out. That afternoon with Carolyn felt like the beginning of a good friendship, but I disappeared, we both did, into our families and our trials and the various tasks that seemed so important at the time. I would often see her from my office window on Haverstock Hill as she shuffled past Budgens, and one time I ran down in a T-shirt with a pencil still lodged behind my ear, but she was gone. After a few years I stopped seeing her at all and wondered where she was. Ten years passed, then another five, during which a lot of people disappeared and I began to hover over my address book, wondering whether crossing out their names was an act of violence against them.
One day in January 2013, I woke up feeling I wanted to see Carolyn. I had no idea where she was and there was no answer at her old number. I went through a television producer and eventually discovered that she was living in a mobile home park near Bracknell, not far from Windsor, and I wrote to her. I wasn’t sure she would remember me or that she’d be in the mood for visitors, but she wrote back pretty fast to say she hardly saw anyone and hadn’t been well but was up for a visit. It took a few days to organise. We were soon in contact by email, which she used like carrier pigeon. She had the gasman coming (‘The Gasman Cometh!’) and gave me details about how her mobile home was heated and how it broke down all the time. She said she might send another email tomorrow. Eventually it arrived, speaking of Walt Whitman and how the sun was out.
Carolyn felt uncertain about the ability of my car to reach Bracknell. ‘Do you know how to find me in this maze of a Mobile Home Park?’ she wrote. ‘I can give you hints if needed. The little gizmos on your dash won’t tell you enough. Looking forward. (Sun today!!) Carolyn.’ In London that morning, I parked my car at the National Theatre and went to a meeting. Having promised Carolyn lunch, I then walked over to the deli counter at the Delaunay to pick something up. She said she liked pickles so I got two bagels with salmon, cream cheese and pickles, and, while I was at it, had them box up two German cakes featuring pineapple.
She was right about my getting lost.