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. I was fine on the M4, and quite efficient, with the help of the gizmos, at finding the correct roundabout near Bracknell, but the mobile home park was a sweet fairy-tale confection, a bit like the Gugelhupfs, and I was soon circling the park with my mobile phone to my ear. ‘Go west, young man,’ she said, ‘and you’ll find me next to a nice garden and blue trash can.’ Most of the gardens looked the same, and the general ambience was of somewhere at the end of nowhere, a place that closed the rest of the world out with white fencing from the DIY store. Residents had made what seemed like competitive little grottoes of plaster gnomes and woodland creatures, and some were fairy dells, but I ignored them and the barking of dogs in my search for Carolyn. Where was Denver in all of this, or the wide open road to Mexico, or the woman, hip to the souls of sensitive men, who was played on-screen by Sissy Spacek and later by Kirsten Dunst?
‘You made it,’ she said. She stood at the door in a dressing gown and her face was shaded by the conifer trees above her cabin. Inside, she had packed a lot of the stuff I remembered from her old flat in Belsize Park. On the table, there were trinkets from Sausalito and a bowl of turquoise from Santa Fe. She told me the mobile home had seemed the best option after a life of different houses and flats. She was interested in the properties of my car’s GPS and whether it could be relied on. ‘Well, we had maps,’ she said, ‘but they didn’t use them. The boys didn’t know where they were going. Not really. They just knew that they wanted to go.’ She was in dispute with historians of her own life, and she wasn’t feeling well, but she took up her More cigarettes and her Zippo and fancied herself free for an afternoon of reminiscing and setting the record straight. She was upset, she said, by female memoirists and novelists who made out she was some sort of drudge, or somehow a ‘deficient keeper of the flame’. It disturbed her that so much of the criticism came from women who wanted to claim a greater closeness to the men, and who went about it, oftentimes, by denigrating the wives. She told me she’d put up with it for years. ‘They don’t know what it was like, most of them, these squeezes or passing heroines.’ We went to her dining table and she had a few bites of the bagel and a corner of a cake. ‘I’m not much of an eater,’ she said, ‘but I used to love preparing food for the kids and whoever came by.’
Carolyn was amazed by the fame surrounding that part of her life, the interest in Kerouac and her husband and their trips. She said it was a stressful time for her, being young, far from the Zen fantasy that later fuelled the hopes of a billion backpackers, and she told me it was all part of the great big fiction that engulfed her. She’d told her own story in a book, Off the Road, about the trials of being a beat woman, and not beat enough, with diapers to wash and a home to keep going. She liked discussing books. She’d read one of mine and wanted to talk about holy fools. She wanted then to talk about secondary characters, the people in fiction who illuminate the main people by sidelight, and who are themselves often overlooked along the way. At one point I took out my phone. ‘They always want pictures,’ she said, and when I asked who ‘they’ were, she said, ‘the fans’. She pushed the clasps in her hair and said it was hard to look nice when you were eighty-nine.
The bed was covered with an Indian bedspread. A cold light was passing through the blinds and she sat on the edge, fixing a spool onto an old reel-to-reel recorder that was plugged in beneath her bookshelves. When she pressed play, there were a few crackles and then the voices of drunk men talking on a home-made recording. She told me it was made in her house in San Jose during one long night of excess in 1952. Kerouac and her husband were reading from Remembrance of Things Past, imitating Proust, imitating great actors, and then Kerouac’s voice began to sing ‘A Foggy Day in London Town’. He didn’t know the words but he knew the feeling and gave it all he had.
‘They were just boys,’ she said. ‘Just boys. But they had seen the sun together and that is everything.’
And just like that, Carolyn slipped away again. Her emails would still arrive and we made another date for lunch but she wasn’t well enough when the day came. She found the summer very trying, and, thankfully, her son John came from America, and was with her when she died that September. I didn’t even know about it, having disappeared again into that world where you don’t see the people you want to see. I’ve never crossed her name out of the old address book, and I wake sometimes and imagine it must be time to drive out west and see Carolyn under the conifer trees.
Image: Carolyn Cassady at Mills College in Oakland, California, where she was training in occupational therapy, 1945, courtesy of Neal Cassady Estate
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