Portrait

Ice cream for breakfast with Michel Faber. By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Author and poet Michel Faber

The way he walks is distinctly baby giraffe. Stumbling, yet wide-eyed. With an awkward, surprising grace. He emerges through the airport arrival gates: occasion offset by worn calf-high ugg boots; pilled black travelling pants swimming around his lean legs.

“Is that him, do you think?” asks the writers’ festival guide, squinting, holding up the A4 rectangle of paper scrawled with Michel Faber’s name and mine.

Faber’s tight-lipped smile is tired-friendly-genuine. His coarse grey-blond fringe falls low over wizened blue eyes. The writer’s sole piece of luggage,
a misshapen black duffel bag, sags with half-emptiness.

“These festivals, you know…” Faber says, after introductions have been made, as we mini-van to the hotel. “I live in the Scottish Highlands. The middle of nowhere. I don’t see many people, don’t attend many of these… ” Scottish Highlands and middle of nowhere sing with fondness, as if the author’s heart is already flushed with longing, and he’s still not quite sure he should have left home.

“I’ll need access to some kind of… device. I haven’t brought anything with me. Do you think the hotel might have something I could use to check my emails?” The festival host assures Faber this will definitely be possible.

Extravagant glass chandeliers adorn the lobby. Hotel staff in crisp uniforms bustle about. Faber shifts uncomfortably. “I might have to find a motel or something,” he says quietly under his breath, as if only he can hear. Half an hour later, after I’ve checked into my room and am on my way to find dinner, I encounter him on another floor, still wandering the corridors. “I can’t find my room,” he says, frustrated. “The lift keeps taking me to the wrong place. I’m going to find some stairs.”

“Are you eating alone?” I ask, several days later when he passes me in the dining room. Faber fetches his bag and wanders slowly over to my table. Pulls out the chair opposite. His loose black jacket and dark T-shirt look one wash away from disintegration, but his breakfast plate is a Mondrian: shiny white porcelain cut by delicate slivers of brightly coloured triangled fruit. The precision-sliced harvest is laid out flat, each piece isolated from the next. A scalene of crimson watermelon. An isosceles of saffron-hued pineapple. Equilateral fern-green honeydew melon. I sip a lukewarm latte as Faber slices into the abstraction with the side of his fork. He finishes eating, pushes the plate away a little.

“Is it too early for some poetry?” At first I think he wants me to read to him, from the copy of Tusiata Avia’s collection sitting next to my coffee cup. But Faber reaches beneath the table, places a thick stack of A4 pages directly in front of him. He vowed he wouldn’t write another novel, the Dutch-born, Melbourne-raised author of Some Rain Must Fall, Under the Skin and The Crimson Petal and the White. That was after his last haunting offering: The Book of Strange New Things. Or so I read. That was prose though. This is poetry. Handwritten notes and corrections spider-crawl across the printed pages. Faber shuffles the stack, bows his head to the first stanza, eyelids lowered.

It is a slow-dance of grief and beauty – both exquisite and excruciating. Faber’s late wife, Eva, is conjured in her sickness. In one scene, toes curled under, she totters precariously, the poison in her bone marrow affecting her balance and gait. Faber has titled this poem “Cute”. Hers is a regression, and yet there is a dignity. In a soft, steady lilt Faber reads. He reads, and reads, and reads. Calmly, as if he does not realise the soul-ache of his words – though he must, he surely must. I am shallow-breathing: eyes closed to the bustle of the hotel breakfast staff. I am inside the hospital, for the first specialist examination; can see Eva’s doctor’s age-spotted hands, shaking.

All I can do, in what remains of my brief time,

is mention, to whoever cares to listen,

that a woman once existed, who was kind

and beautiful and brave, and I will not forget

how the world was altered, beyond recognition,

when we met.

It feels indecent, almost, to be privy to this. And when he stops – when Michel Faber finally stops reading – what is there to do but open my eyes, blink away the shock of fluorescent lighting, and say the one word there is: “Beautiful”.

“I like the way you close your eyes when you listen,” says Faber earnestly. Then: “You can tell you’re a poet. Because you just said beautiful.”

The last call for the breakfast buffet is shouted across the dining room. Faber rises, walking differently now, a little easier. The writer returns holding a miniature waffle cone, topped with pea-green pistachio gelato. “Ice-cream for breakfast,” he says, as if there isn’t a more absurdly wonderful idea in this world. There’s an expression on his lined face that always seems to be there: brow furrowed, lips set tight and straight, slight elevation at the ends of his mouth. As if he’s not quite sure whether to laugh or cry, but is definitely on the verge of one or the other.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 3, 2016 as "Poet's breakfast". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.