I met Grieves the year I left Malaysia, before the war. Rather, I was aware of him as a figure for some time before this, as I would often see him browsing the shelves of Number One Best American Used Books!, a small shop which existed in the back-streets of Selangor, before it was razed to the ground by bombs, a shop which chiefly sold English books. As I recall, I had just purchased a tatty copy of Memorata by Utebeck, when Grieves, a rather dowdy, balding man in an old Perdue suit and thin rimmed glasses approached me and demanded that I sell the book on to him. When I refused, he insisted, claiming it had originally been his and held sentimental value, a personal inscription made out to him on the first pages. I opened the book and read aloud; To my darling Adelita, congratulations on your quinceañera, wishing you all my love with your journey into womanhood; love, Mamá. Grieves had the decency to appear embarrassed but nevertheless continued. He handed me his card, saying that if I would meet him at his address tomorrow, he would exchange the copy I held for a brand new one. Somewhat puzzled, I agreed.
That next day I took a rickshaw to the residential address he’d given me; a small, white detached home (as was the local style) in a busy neighbourhood. Grieves was waiting impatiently outside and grew visibly excited when he saw the book in my hands. He thrust the one he was holding at me as I was still paying my fare and snatched at the old copy; seeming puzzled that it did not move with him, as I was still holding on to it tightly. He looked up at me, as if seeing me for the first time that day.
‘Now look here’ I told him, ‘I don’t mind doing this, despite the trouble of travelling here, but you could at least have the decorum to explain what this is about, first.’
‘Yes … well … I suppose. Come in, come in.’ a little put-out, he loosened his grip on the book and walked back towards his home, motioning for me to follow. From the interior of the building, he was evidentially a long-term bachelor, although what sparse décor there was indicated an interest in the aesthetics of Artemis rather than Apollo. The chief feature of the space was books; cases and cases of books behind glass screens to protect them from the humidity of that latitude, however they were arranged in no coherent order that I could discern. Grieves held up a crystal decanter and gave me a questioning look. I nodded.
‘What it is, see’ he began, pouring out twin glasses of scotch ‘is that I’m a collector of books. Inscribed books.’
‘Ah, signed copies, first editions and such?’
‘No no no not that no that won’t do at all. Inscribed books. Not by the authors. By people. Real people, for other people.’ Handing my one of the glasses, he gestured at one large case on the wall ‘See here. Messages from mothers to daughters. This is where I’ll put your Memorata, if you’ll just-‘ he reprieved me of the book and, opening the glass cover with a small key, placed it amongst the others there. ‘Then over here-‘ He hobbled to the far side of the room ‘assorted birthdays and other age or somewhat chronological related celebrations. In the next room, fathers and sons, friends, teachers and students … and in the basement, the jewels of my collection,’ his eyes sparkled ‘lovers. Lovers spurned, yearning, reunited, parted, gifts simply because. But–’ here he looked a little distant ‘it is a little sparse. Yes, yes, all sorts’.
‘Remarkable. Quite remarkable. And you do all this … collecting on your own? Is that not awfully lonely?’
‘Oh, no no no not at all! There are other collectors, we have a … society of sorts, yes that’s what you might call it.’
‘Don’t you end up competing over finds? I picture a society of rivals, if that can be a society at all.’
‘No, no! That’s not it. It’s more … I’ll show you.’ He would explain no further, but we arranged to meet that Saturday, he would pick me up in a carriage and introduce me to his fellow collectors.
Saturday came, as did a carriage, although Grieves was not in it. The driver explained that he had gone on ahead, I was to be brought to the meeting house. We drew up at a rather small, squat building, which seemed somewhat out of place and in a persistent state of being consumed by the forest. Grieves emerged to hurry me inside. I found myself in a dim room populated by murky figures who were circulating somewhat awkwardly, talking little, occasionally stopping to stand by a table laden with some light refreshments. Somewhat reluctantly, Grieves made introductions to a number of them for me, evidentially all foreigners to these parts and servants of The Empire like myself.
As it was quite so long ago, I can hardly recall every one but the few I made better acquaintance of were, in their own eccentric ways, eager to show off and speak at length on their unique collections. For their collections were all unique; Grieves was the only one to collect books, something the others obviously found somehow distasteful, perhaps in how superficially similar it was to traditional signature collecting. Although, book collecting was not quite as heavily looked down upon as the members they referred to as ‘hallmarkers’, seen as rather dirty bin-raiders taking a rather easy route. After all, it is not difficult to find a great number of personalised greeting cards, discarded after a Valentines or Christmas day. Matrissé, was not there that evening, I believe I would remember that.
That evening I struck up a rather short-lived friendship with Cradyke, a close associate of Grieves. A rotund and crotchety chap, he was to initiate me into the hunt, as it were, traipsing around antiquarian dealers and market places, searching for small objects with engravings or other obvious personal value; pocket watches, cigarette cases, lockets and the like. A short-lived friendship as I say, for he was such a quick man to anger as I have ever met–I remember when I suggested that a set of old medallions would be a fine addition to his collection he threw a china statuette of a dachshund at my head (thankfully it missed, shattering on the floor), yelling that couldn’t I see they were obviously mass-produced and all sorts of oaths unbecoming of a gentleman. He stalked off following this display and although I did see him on other occasions, things were always peculiar between us.
The Moreau’s were certainly there; two brothers who perhaps were twins in that they were so alike, even in that they shared an interest in international postcards (I remember one being proudly displayed to me; ‘Darling wife. They pulled my teeth out. I miss you.’) and would wear the same fashionable lounge coats, yet I never saw them speak, nor even stand near to one another. Madame Thevenon, during one of our regular meetings, would tell me that by all accounts they never did. The society meetings were the closest they came to contact; they lived on opposite ends of the city; one a doctor the other a dentist. They would rise at similar times, commute, take tea at similar bistros, work the day then retire home, sometimes taking walks in the country with their gun dogs, both known only by their shared surname living near identical yet separate routines. The why of this was never clear, there was no animosity between them. When asked, they would appear politely confused and be unable to offer an explanation. It seemed they had simply grown apart, together.
Ah yes, Madame Thevenon, the widow. Though withered and stooped with age, she still towered over even the men; she appeared to have been constructed on a different scale to other humans. She took particular interest in me and many of the others; purportedly she was a collector of old, favourite childhood clothes but I often felt that what she really collected was people, and gossip. She would often invite myself and others, those she referred to as ‘the young people’, to visit her on her crumbling estate for tea and cucumber sandwiches, during the consumption of which she would also nourish us with details on the lives of her other recent guests, while inquiring into our own. The poor woman; I think of all the collectors she could have been the least successful and most desperate in these endeavours, due to the often solitary or anti-social nature of the other members giving her little to go on.
These visits would not always be solely myself and the Madame; on occasion there would be others who would join us. Grieves would sometimes join us, and Thursbury was there from time to time, a young man for whom she had a curious warmth. He collected old pet collars; wearing a number of them strapped beneath his over-starched frock coat (an odd garment for such a young man) caused him to jangle when he was forced to move suddenly. And of course it was during one of these luncheons I was to meet the lovely Matrissé, Matrissé of the voices. A charming young woman of perhaps a handful of years older than myself, she collected old, used answering machines and the tapes which play upon them. We formed an immediate bond of sorts, and when the Madame Thevenon excused herself to fetch more tea, scandalously leaving the two of us unchaperoned, we made plans to meet. Despite the ailing nature of the Madame’s estate, she still retained a small staff of native maidservants, who would always keep the teapot filled. The old rumour mill knew very well what she was doing.
The following months, I would rent an auto and collect Matrissé from the overgrown old plantation where she lived, we would drive to the rubbish depots in the Genting Highlands. There we would peg our noses, she would hitch up her bloomers and we would search for hours through the piles of waste material, looking for things to add to her growing collection of tapes and recordings. It was filthy work and unbecoming of a lady, but Matrissé, in her drive and passion was quite wonderful. I can still picture the sun-reddened blush of her smile through a layer of grime upon unearthing a promising find. When the sun became too hot, we would retire to the shade to catalogue what treasures we’d found and dine on pâté, which we smeared on chunks of bread torn roughly from the loaf. While all this sounds like–and I suppose was–indecorous and even licentious behaviour for which you may judge us, all that happened with Matrissé felt simple and natural. In a sweaty and sun-drenched manner, we were, for a time, happy.
I confess I thought this would continue forever; if my posting to Selangor continued, or we might return to Europe together; there was little else I wanted more. I believed that we understood one another. Though I would never ask a lady her age, the Madame Thevenon, clearly aware of our secret through whatever means it is old women seem to know all things, kindly tipped me off as to Matrissé’s upcoming birthday. I had taken it upon myself to arrange, through a series of contacts at home, a delivery of a great number of used tapes. These arrived, and I hired an auto to take them to her myself as a surprise. I left the vehicle outside the plantation and made my way through to the area which served as her garden. As I approached, I noticed something odd; rather than the chirping quietude of nature, I could hear a voice that was distinctly not hers. I could hear many voices, a crowd of people chattering, like a South Bank bistro or a Montmartre café at the busiest time of day. Puzzled, I breached the last patch of overgrowth to find Matrissé serving tea in her garden for nobody; the voices were her tape recordings, many playing at once. Matrissé herself was wearing an expensive white morning dress with shoulder puffs; such feminine clothes I had never expected her to own. As I observed, she appeared to be engaging with invisible companions. The accumulated noise of the recordings meant she had not heard my approach, so she did not notice me right away, until, glancing up, she saw me. She flushed white, red, then covering her mouth without a word she fled into the house. Nothing I could do would entreaty her to open the door, nothing would entice her to speak to me. I left my gifts outside her door, but would never see her again.
The Madame Thevenon did not deny she still saw Matrissé, from time to time and assured me she would and did pass on my messages. No response was forthcoming. Only, perhaps, years later when I had returned home I received an unmarked package containing a tape. It took me some time to find a device old enough on which it could be played back, and when I did the recording on it was faint. It could have been the sound of someone far off sobbing, or of something large, large and burning.
As the year came to a close and the shadow of war spread even to that corner of the globe, duty called and I was ordered to return home. Grieves, now a regular companion of mine, came to see me off at the aeroport. As we were about to part, I handed him a gift: that copy of Utebeck’s Memorata he had first given me in trade. In the initial pages I had written a note. A note addressed to Matrissé, confessing my feelings; adoration, confusion, melancholy and desire to see her again. I did not ask him to give it to her. Grieves read the inscription silently before slowly closing the book. He smiled, perhaps in thanks.