At the Coalface: My Life with the Poet David Mitchell
The first time I saw David Mitchell he was standing on a table wearing a bowler hat and reciting poetry. The place was The Northern Star in Finchley Road, a smoke-filled dank and hopsy pub crowded with people from all corners of the British Empire. It was the spring of 1963 and I was eighteen years old. I was in London working as an au pair and on this night I had escaped from the Danish YWCA next door to the pub along with a couple of renegade girlfriends. We were sure we could learn the English language better there. We sat like hens in a row along one wall, waiting for someone to talk to us. When a dark and handsome stranger jumped onto a table nearby and started an impromptu performance I watched mesmerised. Suddenly he sought me out with a piercing stare.
I thought this was very clever. He kept up a steady stream of banter all evening and was charming in an unusual and irreverent way as well as paying me lots of attention. But when he asked me at the end of the night to come home with him and see his etchings I was cautious.
It was early May, the apple and cherry trees were in full bloom and the whole intoxicating evening had left me open to acts of daring and seduction. I knew it was utter madness; nevertheless I went. Along the way David jumped a garden fence and stole a rose. He handed it ceremoniously to me and inside his small bare room we placed it in an empty wine bottle next to his portable typewriter. Then we made love and stayed awake getting to know one another until early dawn when the first bird started calling.David shared a large old house in Broadhurst Gardens with a bunch of bohemians and eccentrics, all artists or students. My kind of people I thought, and told David so that first morning. After meeting a run-away French au pair girl I decided I too would stay on at the house. Dave was dubious at first but a few days later he and I went to pick up my belongings and let my employers know that I would not be returning. I informed my parents of my decision and Dave put in a word with Abdul the Lebanese who gave me some part-time work as a waitress in his falafel house. And so I embarked on my new bohemian lifestyle.
Back then Finchley Road was already a multicultural place with the pungent smells of Indian curry houses and cheesy odours of Italian spaghetti bars wafting from windows and doorways. Here Jewish cake shops coexisted peacefully with Lebanese falafel houses. The best coffee was at Abdul’s and that’s where Dave used to go in the late afternoon after he had finished teaching in the East End. He’d sit and watch the world go by, smoking French cigarettes and drinking black Turkish coffee from a small thick cup.
When I was not serving falafels or spending time with David, I would read everything I could in English. There were plenty of good books in this roomy house and David made up lists of recommended reading for me: Steinbeck, Hemingway, Sartre, Lawrence, writers I had already read a bit of, translated into Danish, and many others I hadn’t heard of. He introduced me to the writings of Katherine Mansfield (to this day my favourite short story writer), Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, and in this way helped shape how I developed in my new-chosen language.
When I wasn’t reading I was listening to music from the vast collection of another tenant, Lord William Humbersley, whose only other interest in life was drinking strong spirits. On one such afternoon, as I was sitting on the wide windowsill of William’s upstairs room listening to a record of Spanish guitar, watching for Dave to round the corner of Broadhurst Gardens and feeling gloriously happy, I saw a couple of London Bobbies heading our way. It was methey were after. Apparently I was now an illegal immigrant with no work permit and must leave the country. The only way I could stay was to get married.
It was true. I was pregnant. It must have happened on that first night. Dave and I had already decided we would have the baby and now with the immigration police threatening to deport me, we decided to get married as well.
The ceremony took place at the Hampstead registry office on the 24th of August at midday. Although we had been sleeping in the same bed for months, we did, on David’s insistence, adhere to the old custom of bride-to-be and groom spending the night before the wedding apart. This was no doubt motivated by Dave’s wish for a wild night out. I spent the evening with my girlfriends doing my hair and preparing my clothes for the big day. David turned up late at the registry office with a swollen ear from a fight the previous night. Then he drank too much at the reception and insulted my Danish guests for being bourgeois. The party split in two, with the groom’s men trying to stop him from fighting and the bride crying hysterically, surrounded by her indignant girlfriends.
The honeymoon was in Denmark. David was a great success with my many old aunts who were charmed by his wit and winning ways. But in Copenhagen and away from the in-laws he spent our meagre savings shouting everybody drinks for a whole day in a small neighbourhood café. The money was a wedding present from my parents and he punched me when I complained about spending it in this way. This was a side of David I’d only glimpsed before, and then his bad behaviour had been directed at other people. Now he had turned on me. Confused and hurt I sported a black eye as we travelled back from our honeymoon through northern Europe to England.
The landlady, an attractive thirty-something Jewish woman, came to collect the rent on Saturday mornings. One Saturday when we had nothing to give her, David concocted a plan. I was to go to the pub and borrow five quid from his mate Brian O’Reilly and hewould stay and keep the landlady happy. I found the Irishman and got the money but when I returned there was no sign of our landlady. David had kept her enthralled with the poetry of Baudelaire and she had almost forgotten about the train she was catching to Paris. She had rushed off, forgetting to ask for the rent. We breathed a sigh of relief and splurged the five pounds on a meal in a good restaurant. That was the thing with David Mitchell. Life was never dull.
Now David announced it was daylight robbery to charge so much for such a dump and we would be perfectly justified in skipping out on the rent altogether. As usual I trusted his judgement. We left in the dark of night before the next lot of rent was due, with David hauling my Danish wicker trunk on his back and me following anxiously behind with the rest of our bundles. Holing up once again at Broadhurst Gardens, we saved enough money for a deposit on a one bedroomer in Mill Hill Road. Although we had hardly any furniture and slept on the floor, the flat had a the luxury of a small separate kitchen. We could hold dinner parties for each other of the dried pea and porridge variety and set the table with candles and flowers, the latter still mostly stolen, then make up the characters we would become for the night or read aloud for each other before going to sleep.
Late autumn had descended with fogs and driving rain. The city changed from being crowned in vivid golden hues to dull grey almost overnight. Christmas came and went and it started to snow. The gas bill got out of control again. I still recall the sickly sour scent of lingering gas on those winter mornings.
David had kept me intrigued with stories of New Zealand from the moment we met. Now he suggested we should try to get back there and avoid the rest of the European winter. As it happened, I had an uncle in Copenhagen who was the manager of a large shipping company with cargo boats going around the globe. Now I wrote to him and asked if we could work our passage to New Zealand on one of his boats. He wrote back saying there was no question of giving me passage as I was highly pregnant by this time but that there was a boat leaving Barcelona in ten days and if David could make it in time, my uncle would be delighted to have him on board for a one-way passage to Sydney.
It was a difficult choice and it meant we would be parted when the baby came, but we decided to accept the offer. David would hitchhike to Spain to catch the boat and when he was back in New Zealand try to save the money for me to follow. I moved back to Broadhurst Gardens once again, this time alone and we said goodbye, neither of us knowing when we would meet again. A few days later I got a telegram from Ross, David’s elder brother, offering to pay my airfare to New Zealand. I should come at once. And that’s how I arrived in Wellington six weeks before David to live with his stout Scottish mother Rossetta and give birth to our daughter Sara four weeks before David arrived.
As a special guest of my uncle’s, my husband was naturally invited to eat at the captain’s table. Whether he was still hungover from his escapades on land or already drunk from the free aquavit served in liberal quantities at the table is hard to say, but what is certain is that Dave managed to alienate the captain on the first night at sea and consequently was sent to eat with the rest of the crew on the second night. He got into a fight with some of the sailors after which he was locked in his cabin. The captain sent my uncle an urgent telegram: ‘Your guest became unruly and we have locked him up.’ My uncle’s reply? ‘Keep it that way until arrival in Sydney and above all don’t let him out in any ports along the way.’
* * *
As I emerged at Wellington airport from a 36-hour flight, eight months pregnant and so sore I could hardly stand up, I was met by a small group of people cheering and waving New Zealand flags and cardboard placards with ‘WELCOME TO NZ’ written in large lettering. I looked around thinking someone famous had arrived on the same plane but when I saw the small smiling woman at the centre of the group cheering louder than anyone else, I recognised her at once from a photo and realised this bizarre welcome committee was intended for me. The woman could be none other than David’s mum Rossetta; the people surrounding her were her neighbours and their children, in all about a dozen people. It was so moving that I fell crying and exhausted into Rossetta’s ample embrace.
Once in her own domain Rossetta set about looking after me as if I were royalty. She was an old Plunket nurse, had had five children of her own and helped many others with their first babes including her other daughter-in-law Winnie, oldest brother Ross’s wife. Without Rossetta’s help and later Winnie’s too, I would have been utterly lost when the baby came. ‘Mum’ as I learned to call her was a hoarder and in her flat she had managed to keep and store every piece of wrapping paper, pretty ribbon and women’s magazine she had ever possessed. The kitchen table was piled high with newspapers, bills and knitting patterns she was never likely to use again and her small bedroom was so full of stuff that she could only make her way from the door to her bed via a narrow passage left clear for the purpose.
I had been warned by David and I soon saw that he had not been exaggerating when he called his mum ‘a highly excitable woman.’ That, I learned, was how she was most of the time and especially in public, when she would draw attention to us, either by declaring to all and sundry in the baby shops we visited or wherever else she had the chance, that I was her new daughter-in-law all the way from Europe and that I was expecting the baby any day now. If there was anything I didn’t want to do it was to draw attention to myself, so when I went into labour during a performance of Show Boat in the middle of a narrow row in the balconies at the theatre, I decided rather than tell Etta I would sit through the performance until the end. After all, I would have to go through the early stages of labour somewhere so why not at the theatre, I reasoned. When I finally told my mother-in-law the baby was coming and I did not want a late night hot chocolate in a nearby coffee shop, she switched into emergency mode and got us loudly to the front of the taxi queue by showing and shouting that a baby was on its way. And this time I was grateful for Rossetta’s indomitable nature.
* * *
Everything suddenly changed. David’s return to Wellington was like that of a hero’s and all his old friends wanted to see him and many new ones too. Paddy and Paul Gray, whom I had already met and who had been diligent in making me feel welcome; and Barry Lett, who had slipped a five pound note in my duffel coat pocket at our first meeting when he realised I could not buy myself a drink. And the Vogts, Alison and Roland, at whose place in Lowry Bay the weekend parties now began in earnest. Here we would swim in the bay and sit arguing and drinking late into the night. Too shy to contribute much to the conversations, I soaked up all I heard from these young and eloquent writers and artists and as I sat listening intensely I began to find my new tongue.
Although I was breast feeding I tried to keep up with the partying as best I could but there was one place I couldn’t go and that was The Duke, David’s favourite pub and a place where he liked to spend a great deal of his time. The Wellington Push gathered there. When I objected to what I saw as senseless segregation of the sexes and a culture where men drank and women stayed at home and were expected to keep the dinner waiting in a warm oven, David went out even more, coming home late at night and demanding attention. What was happening? It seemed that the man I had met and married in London, my romantic hero, was disappearing. A stranger was taking his place and taking up his old Kiwi ways with astonishing relish.
David was offered a job teaching at a primary school at Titahi Bay. We were also given a small fibro house to rent in a state housing area on top of a bald brown hill where the wind howled day and night. Now, I thought, I could have David to myself but the place was a long way from the intellectual hub of downtown Wellington and I couldn’t blame him for going off to town for stimulation. If I could have I would have gone too but I had a baby to look after and mostly stayed at home, isolated on my windblown hill with the pretty name of Herewini Street. Nigel Roberts, another friend of David’s from teachers’ training college, came to visit. He had a girlfriend, Kathy Marks, a young beatnik who came from Sydney and dressed like a Goth before her time with jet black hair and exaggerated black eye make-up. When she learned that I was doing all of our washing by hand, including sheets and nappies, she started coming out to visit on her own to help me and keep Sara and I company when David went off to town.
He would now stay away for whole weekends at a time and on returning home his mood could be black and belligerent. I started lying awake at night willing him not to come and listening with dread for the sound of the taxi making its way slowly up the steep hill. When it pulled up outside our house I would pretend to be asleep to avoid Dave’s ranting.
When Sara was about six months old I got some modelling work at the Wellington Art College and took her along for the sittings. But I was deemed too skinny, better suited for fashion, and when the work dried up I inherited a part-time job from Merlene Young, Mark’s wife, working in a gift shop down from Harry Seresin’s coffee shop and gallery in the Downstairs Café. This got me out of the matchbox house and I liked meeting people.
Many of our friends were now starting to leave for Sydney. First Roland and Alison went. Kathy and the Gray family followed. In spring David joined the local cricket club and I would go along with Sara to watch him play. That led to an invitation to take part in the Catholic Women’s Christmas pantomime, a parody of Alice in Wonderland. I played Alice and Dave was the Mad Hatter. When the priest congratulated me on my acting after the performance, I modestly answered that in my opinion it had been ‘a proper balls up’ thinking it was a cricket term for failure. David whisked me away from the aghast priest and explained the real meaning of the phrase.
I had long known about David’s infidelities and like many women in such a situation I had decided to turn a blind eye to his womanising. I also knew that he had a fascination with the bizarre and darker side of human nature and indulged in the seedy side of life if it was on offer. I didn’t ask too many questions and didn’t want to know what he got up to, but now he started urging me to have lovers too. At first it seemed incomprehensible that I could enjoy being with other men but when I had my first lover, a young and sexy poet who lived in half a room, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the experience and stayed with him for over a week.
Now Kathy wrote of how great Sydney was and that I should consider coming over. ‘Come for a working holiday,’ she wrote. ‘You can stay with me.’ For the next six weeks I saved every penny I could and had enough for the fare and a bit left over.
* * *
As I walked across the old Pyrmont Bridge on my first day in Sydney, carrying my baby on one hip and all the money I owned (£30) in my pocket, I was struck by the incredible light of the city towering ahead of me, light reflected off the glass buildings and refracting onto the clear blue waters of the harbour. I was seized by a feeling of hope and optimism that we could be happy here in this city of light, my little daughter and I.
I immediately found a job selling china at the David Jones department store. Kathy helped with picking up Sara from the day nursery for single mothers where I’d found a place. On Saturdays we would go to Paddy’s Market and Chinatown, buying cheap groceries and Chinese crockery and baskets for our little room in a terrace house at Pyrmont. But Kathy’s room was too small to house all of us and when David followed me a few months later, the Grays generously asked us to stay with them at Kirribilli, and their little daughter Samantha and Sara were again reared together.
Later David found us a small flat at Orwell Street, Kings Cross, just up from the nursery. We procured from second-hand shops and friends what we needed and moved in. Of course that included only the barest essentials, like a mattress on the floor, and for a table we still ate from my wicker trunk. At first I was unaware that the block of flats also functioned as a brothel but it didn’t take long to work out what was going on. Downstairs lived the pimp. He had a bell system by which he paged the girls. When the system was down he’d usually yell from his open kitchen window, the sound carrying upwards through the stairwell: ‘Are ya there Rosie? Are ya free yet?’ And the answer travelling back through the night would be either ‘Sure, send ’im up luv,’ or ‘Give us a minute more darl.’ The girls seemed to especially love Dave and were forever giving him presents to take home for Sara, including their own favourite stuffed toy animals. They were friendly to me as well and offered to babysit any time. Those working girls were very generous and had big hearts.
I was lucky to meet the top fashion photographer of the day, Laurie Le Gaye, who offered to train me as a photographic fashion model. It sounded too good to be true said David, but within three months I was at the top of Sydney’s fashion world and needed not worry about money any more. This had a profound effect on our relationship. It meant that I never had to ask Dave for money again or blame him for not having any. Instead I could afford to shout us all dinner out whenever we felt like it instead of being limited to the mock variety.
David had met a young kid called Albert at the ABC studios in Kings Cross where they both worked in the packing room. Dave wanted to break into the ABC as a writer and Albert as a photographer. Albert started spending week-ends with us. He would follow with his camera while we clowned around and acted out different parts. Later I helped him get a job as an apprentice photographer with Laurie Le Gaye.
* * *
Paul and Paddy had gone back to New Zealand and wrote of what a great scene Auckland had. ‘We could check it out,’ David said. I was reluctant now I was doing so well as a fashion model. ‘There’s a strong poetry scene,’ he said. ‘I want to be part of that! You could do modelling there too.’ I wanted him to be happy so I agreed. He was to go first and set up a place to live, then I would follow after I’d worked in Sydney a while longer. A few months later I went and Auckland claimed me as Sydney had done. It had the same light and similar beaches only on a smaller scale. And there was enough of an advertising industry to keep me fully booked.
Barry had opened the Barry Lett Galleries which had a coffee shop next door called The Crazy Horse. These places plus the Victoria pub became the hub and meeting places of many of Auckland’s art community. At first we lived near Grafton Gully, renting a flat in a group house, then when Paul and Pads went to live in London Street we took over their flat at College Hill. When they moved on from London Street we went there to live. And when Barry Lett discovered Herne Bay, we all followed him there.
The Grays had a propensity for gambling and when they lived at College Hill they would hold marathon poker parties. One Sunday night Paddy greeted me happily when we came to visit and told me that she had spent all weekend playing poker and had come out winning a trip for the family to New Caledonia. Genuinely pleased for my dear friend, I enquired when they were leaving. ‘Well that’s the problem,’ she frowned. ‘Paul has to save the money first because I won it from him!’ David hated gambling and would pace around frustrated, unable to engage anyone in an argument or a good debate.
However, at London Street he would sometimes join in a game of five hundred played at the St. Johns’ upstairs flat around a large oval table and overlooking the harbour. But here we only played for matchsticks.
David was spending long periods in the attic at College Hill and writing prolifically. Many good people were starting to encourage him to think about bringing out a collection of poems. Now Pipe Dreams began its long and difficult gestation. The intensity of this work made David highly strung and he headed for the pubs and more parties to unwind. I became a nervous wreck again, lying in the dark disturbed and listless, dreading his return. I didn’t respond to him with much erotic enthusiasm and more and more I gave him the cold shoulder when he wanted intimacy.
We both had affairs. I fell in love and was rejected and things got worse with David. I thought of going home to Denmark.When I told Dave one evening on the way home from the pub he shook me hard and begged me not to leave him. Frightened I pulled myself free and outran him all the way up Victoria Street West to College Hill. He caught me halfway down St. Marys Bay Road where he landed me with a rugby tackle outside the nunnery. I screamed for help, the nuns came streaming out, a car stopped. David was soon on the ground alternately begging for mercy and cursing the nuns as ‘whores of Christ.’
A week later I was on my way to Copenhagen where I spent the next eighteen months. But Sara missed her dad and having weathered one Danish winter and with another looming, the bright images of the Antipodean sunshine and azure coastlines fringed with yellow sandy beaches started welling in my mind with disturbing frequency. A letter arrived from David: ‘Now I know it was so wrong for you to leave,’ he wrote. ‘I simply must have you back!’ I replied straightaway: ‘Is it really true, do you love me that much? Could I really hope?’
But before I agreed to come I wrote David a letter, stating my terms:
* * *
I arrived back in Auckland to discover David was having an affair. It’s one thing to sleep around, a good friend told me. Everyone is doing it. But to have ‘serious’ affairs is a different matter. I was in no doubt about the importance of this relationship when I heard the name my husband had given his new lover. Spicy. I was resentful and started treating David with disdain for asking me to come back under these circumstances. As I had long since realised the dissatisfaction of casual sex, I resolved instead to pursue the lover I had fallen for when I was last in Auckland, an intriguing man who lived on a boat in the harbour. The affair didn’t last and after a week of island hopping following a night in a storm and nearly drowning, we went our separate ways.
David loved dressing up to go out, putting costumes together as his moods demanded. In summer he often wore white suits simulating a southern writer at a picnic. But his favourite look was faded blue jeans with a striped French sailor’s t-shirt and a pair of running shoes for agility. Sometimes he went all the way with a red bandana tied loosely around the neck and a French beret worn at an angle.
Around this time many people started experimenting with LSD. The dilapidated mansion at 10 London Street overlooking the Auckland harbour was an ideal place for group acid trips, with its three floors of winding corridors and stately stairways, its wrought-iron balconies overlooking the wide lawns and gardens below where children and adults alike played. Many people got their first taste of the new psychedelic drug in this roomy house. David and I were also involved. These times were peaceful and without drama and I started nurturing hopes that the wonder-drug would cure David’s excessive bouts of drinking.
‘They are burning the children! They are burning the children,’ I screamed as I lay recovering from a bad case of alcohol poisoning. I’d only taken one sip from the bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag at the party but that sip of homemade spirits had been enough to put me in a near-coma for the next two days. A smell of leaves mixed with burning rubber reached me in my distressed state on the third afternoon as I was starting to become aware of my surroundings again. I was convinced that I was in the middle of a war zone and witnessing the burning of innocent children. Very little around me made sense and it took Barry a good deal of talking to convince me that the smell came from next door where the neighbours were burning rubbish.
The small enclosed veranda at the front of the cottage was David’s study. He went through a period of prolific writing here, punching words into the typewriter day and night, chain smoking and emerging only for meals, coffee and more cigarettes. I liked it when we were at home and all three together in our little cottage; I wanted it to last forever.
I knew the poet Jim Baxter by sight and David spoke highly of him, so when I saw him sitting like a dishevelled St Francis in the director’s chair at the gallery, I felt suddenly safe and burst into tears in front of him. He closed the gallery and took me home to the house he shared with heroin addicts. Here I slept by his side on a mattress on the floor while he cared for me and talked to me about life and its sufferings. He urged me to visit India to gain a new perspective, which I did a couple of years later. And he talked to me about his dream of building a community at Jerusalem. At the graveyard where he liked to pray he called me ‘a young tree’ bending in the storms of life and gave me his beads to hold while he was praying. Later he wrote about this in his second Jerusalem Sonnet. I stayed with him for a week and went back home when I felt stronger
There’s another party. This time I go because it’s on a beach and we can bring Sara along. I’m not drinking, hoping someone might have brought a joint instead. David says I’m boring and heads for the beach. As he gets to the water’s edge he continues to walk fully clothed into the sea. Soon he’s out of sight and submerged by water. I catch myself wishing he would never come back.
* * *
I’d been in Sydney nine months and had gone to the top of the modelling scene again, when Kathy came to stay with her baby daughter Bathsheba on her way back to New Zealand. ‘Come back with me,’ she said. ‘We could bring up our girls together.’ David had written to me that he’d stopped drinking and I felt I owed it to us to try again. Back in Auckland Barry, the procurer of good flats, invited us to share his new find, this time in Mount Eden.
There’s a poetry reading at the gallery featuring poets Mark Young and David Mitchell. The latter, who is not expecting me, is drunk when I arrive late. He is on stage and swaying precariously. I’m sure he’ll fall but he manages to stay upright while he fumbles with the mic. He drops his book of poems and loose pages wing their way to the floor.
Dave brings a note on a serviette scrawled in pencil. It’s from Jim and simply says ‘be happy,’ and now I know what I must do. Silently Dave watches me pack and plays with Sara for the last time. I leave for Sydney when he is away teaching.
Forty five years later
When I see David in the nursing home it’s been twenty years since our last meeting and I never dreamed we would sit together holding hands like this again. When I sob he holds me close as if I am the one who’s been struck with an awful illness, and he won’t let me go. When he finally does, it’s to look intensely into my eyes as in the days of old. We sit like an old couple and I marvel at how odd it is that I’ve forgotten how beautiful his hands are. I hand him the rose I bought on the way and he smells it ceremoniously.
His voice has gone. The nurses ask him questions and he writes his answers diligently, still the teacher. One of them says: ‘He’s really cool,’ and of course I have to agree. ‘Always was,’ I say and rest my head on his shoulder.A photograph is taken. I’m still teary. And although it’s near forty degrees in the shade Dave insists on keeping on the woollen gloves our daughter Sara brought him from New Zealand. A pretty young nurse wearing her dreadlocks in a ponytail enters and blows him a kiss. He tries hard to flash her ‘the old charmer’s smile’ then settles down to watch the cricket with Nigel. ‘He seems content,’ I say to Sara when we leave.
Tonight I read ‘bone’ afresh and also ‘tongue on ice’ and shed another tear. When I see David next I’ll tell him that of course I remember the cold kiss at the end of the cycle but also the time when I said I heard the sea in the cave of his mouth. And I’ll tell him that he was wrong when he thought I might have forgotten, because I never did. We were in bed in Broadhurst Gardens and I lay naked and sprawled across his body. Because I was slightly deaf I kept my ear close to his mouth and that’s when his breath sounded like the ocean. And outside a fine rain began to fall.